In a recent survey, 92% of respondents reported that they are in favor of mandatory bicycle helmet laws for children, and 83% are in favor of helmet laws for all cyclists. Groups as disparate as the American Pediatric Association and various State Departments of Transportation recommend the usage of helmets for cyclists. And, on and on. Yet, they might all be wrong. Bicycle helmets might not protect cyclists much at all. And, in fact, in some cases, they might actually be more dangerous than going lidless.
To begin, I would just like to point out some of the ridiculous nature of the whole concept. I doubt that this avenue of argument will convince many, but I hope you will at least think about it before continuing on to the more statistically focused ones. The idea that a 4000 pound steel box moving at 35 miles per hour would have limited effect against a plastic and Styrofoam bowl, that weighs less than a pound, is an ignorant one, at best. (Or, one that delights in sci-fi physics.) And yet, many people seem to have the idea that if you are a cyclist who wears a helmet, you are safe. (At this point, please reread the H. L. Mencken quote at the beginning of this piece.) Let’s look at the evidence, shall we.
In a 2001 New York Times article
, Julian Barnes noted that while rates of cycling had decreased between 1991 and 2001, head injuries had increased even though the use of helmets had skyrocketed throughout the 1990s. The risk of injury per cyclist had gone up by 51%. Several causes were postulated: antilock brakes, the risk-taking behavior that people do when wearing
safety gear, etc. I hope that you will take a moment to read the article. Some of the quotes are precious. “We don’t know what’s going on,” said one political appointee who should know. Well, I’ll offer my idea. People accepted the idea that helmets work, and then created studies to “prove” that they do. But, let’s keep going.
For my evidence on these matters, I could use many sources, but I will focus on the work of W. J. Curnow
, who is a leading researcher in the field. He states that the most common form of testing done on helmets is of the linear impact variety. That is, imagine putting on a helmet, running at a wall, and measuring the decrease in impact. Modern bicycle helmets generally perform well at these tests, as they are designed to pass them. Curnow points out that these tests generally max out at 12.5 mph. This means, that up to this speed, in a linear impact situation, the helmet should have some increase in protection for the wearer. His own evidence backs this up. However, many accidents involving cyclists do not fall into this highly specific category.
Most healthy cyclists, especially adults, regularly cycle faster than 12.5 mph. And, of course, cars go a lot faster than this, even in school zones. Also, Curnow points out that the most dangerous type of injury to the heads of cyclists are of the “rotational” or “torsional” variety. This takes place when the head and neck twist rapidly. These injuries can cause the brain to become detached from the connective tissue and the brain stem can be torn. It is these injuries that bicycle helmets make worse, and make happen when they normally wouldn’t. The thickness of the helmet causes the head to come into contact with surfaces that it would not in a person not wearing a helmet. Because of this, and the movement and sliding of a crashing cyclist, the helmet will “grab” the ground and cause the head to twist, leading to these extremely dangerous injuries to the brain.
So, what we have done is create a society that is absolutely certain that helmets work. However, the requirement to wear helmets has led people to stop cycling. This has contributed to the obesity problem that industrialized countries are facing. And, the people who are cycling with helmets are perhaps more at risk than they were before all of this started. Well done, everyone!
...At the end, it must be pointed out that cycling has a similar risk of death as being a pedestrian.