Cyclists Without Helmets Deserve to Die

bike breakHelmet, check. (Photo by Simply Bike on Flickr.)

Read about a bike wreck, especially a bloody one, and the first thing you want to know is whether the cyclist was wearing a helmet. Call it curiosity, call it a tool to reassure ourselves that the same thing won’t happen to us, but we should really call it what it is: victim blaming.

Take the latest study about helmet usage in Boston. According to the findings, which were published yesterday in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, one in five users of bike sharing programs — like our vastly popular Hubway — don’t wear helmets! Add then there’s the commentary:

“Head injury accounts for about a third of all bicycle injuries and about three-quarters of bicycle related deaths, so these are some pretty shocking numbers,” says lead author and emergency medicine physician Christopher Fischer, MD.

Yes, doc, that is shocking. But what are we supposed to take away from this? Either 1) bicycling is so dangerous that we all ought to avoid it — health and societal benefits be damned — or 2) all those Hubway cyclists are asking for it — they’re bike-fatality statistics waiting to be compiled.

Both outcomes provoke a strong reaction in those who read them. I’m talking about fear. When we allow some tut-tutting doctors to scare us into changing our behavior, that’s exactly what happens. Instead of a higher helmet-usage rate though — especially on Hubway, which, despite their efforts, continues to lack a good, cheap, and convenient way to get a helmet — we’ll see a lower usage rate. There’s a precedent for this in Copenhagen, basically the bike-as-transportation capital of the world, wherein a fear-driven helmet awareness campaign caused a reduction in cycling activity when bikes were booming all across the rest of Europe. Add that to rather dubious claims of helmet efficacy and this whole thing starts to stink.

Would these doctors at Beth-Israel Deaconess prefer people to get off their bikes and back into the cars — what with these rising gas prices and looming cuts on the T, and nevermind that more people die in cars than on bikes? Massachusetts already has the lowest seat belt use rate in the country. Maybe we’re just cavalier about safety on all our wheeled transport.

Look, I know that the “was he wearing a helmet?” question is more a query about safe riding in general — the assumption being that someone who is safety conscious enough to wear a helmet probably doesn’t ride like a maniac — but biking around the city isn’t something that should be discouraged by careless studies, especially when they have no injury statistics to support them.

I’ve been hit by cars before while cycling, twice actually, and I always wear a helmet, use hand signals and resist running red lights. But my protective gear or road wherewithal didn’t matter either time. The driver was distracted, turning right on red against the posted sign, or not signalling. It’s amazing we let people drive like this without requiring them to wear helmets.

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  • amy

    My son just did a paper for school, which was supposed to be a persuasive piece about why you should wear a helmet – but we were a little surprised and very intrigued by the lack of clear cut research showing helmet use preventing death and/or injury.
    I encourage everyone to do some reading on the subject!

  • Frederick

    A modest and profitable campaign to ticket aggressive and dangerous drivers would do more to save bicyclist’s lives than any helmet guilt propaganda.

  • Vinniex

    How about drivers be the focus? Don’t hit me give some room, pay attention, don’t hit me. Assume i’m a baby catrriage. Pay attention don’t hit me.

    Simple.

    • Casey Lyons

      We should probably get some jerseys made up that say, “Don’t hit me!”

      • Vinniex

        They’d see it as “betcha can’t hit me!”

  • The Jones Guy

    Why are the folks at the Medical Center focusing on cyclists? They don’t seem to be concerned about the much more serious problem of head trauma to car passengers. The figure for them is over 25 times greater. Perhaps this is their opportunity to call for helmet use inside cars.

  • Wallace Feldman

    Cyclists who refuse to wear helmets are as blameworthy as motorists who refuse to wear seat belts. Neither actions are guaranteed to work all the time, but they certainly increase the odds of survival.. Your headline is a real stretch; nobody claims any of these careless people “deserve to die”. But it’s certainly true that the odds increase without these safeguards.

    • Barnie

      Cycle helmets and seat belts are not the same issue at all. Seat belts have clear evidence that their benefits outweigh their negatives. About the most notable thing that you can say about cycle helmets is that the evidence is surprisingly inconclusive. While it will provide some protection under some circumstances, you’re also more likely to have an accident ( non-head injuries increase ), and there is some evidence that you might actually be more likely to hit your head ( as it’s bigger ), and you’re also likely to be more prone to rotational acceleration injuries ( due to the bigger size and the helmet gripping the road surface ). How on earth do people think it’s OK so try to force people to wear something that has been shown to increase their chances of an accident is beyond me!

      • mikey2gorgeous

        Actually, Barnie, studies of KSI stats in ALL countries that have passed seat belt laws have shown no corresponding drop in death and injury. The reason is simple, serious accidents involve dramatic, violent decelleration to the body. It doesnt matter if that decelleration comes from hitting the dashboard or your body being stopped by the seat belt – your internal organs will still tear including aortas from hearts etc.
        Decellerating the head (or subjecting it to violent twists) is no different, nerve and blood connections are severed.
        Neither seat belts or bike helmets absorb significant enough amounts of energy to to any real good when you’re talking about high speed (over 20mph) crashes.

  • http://www.cycledog.blogspot.com Ed Wagner

    Oddly enough, we never ask if plane crash victims were wearing their seatbelts when they plummet into the ground from 30,000 feet, yet helmet use is always mentioned even if a cyclist is hit by a motor vehicle at high speed. A helmet is of little use when you’re under the wheels of a semi trailer. But we’re Americans, and choosing new gadgets is always the first choice over choosing to change behavior.

  • Karl Audenaerde

    Helmets are good, though if you wear them the way many people do, they will do one of two things if you crash: (1) fall off and hit the ground before you do, or (2) break your neck. You should be able to do a handstand or a cartwheel without a chin strap, and the helmet should stay in place. I do anything between 3000 and 6000 miles a year on a racing bike, and started biking to school at age 6 – in a major city. So far I’ve never been in an accident. The secret: defensive riding. I’m constantly figuring out what everything and everybody else on the road may do next, including the real stupid stuff. A helmet has very little to do with traffic safety. With luck, it will protect your head if you go down sideways. I’m not sure if it will do anything if you flip over the handlebars, but it probably wouldn’t hurt you.
    I’m turning seventy next month, and I’m signed up for the Flattest Century in the East. Happy trails!

  • Ben

    I don’t know about statistics, but I can think of three personal incidents where wearing a helmet almost certainly saved me from serious injury: getting doored and helicoptering into the street on my back, a precipitous wipe out on a patch of road sand piled up after winter (kind of my fault-but it was June), and launching myself over my handlebars to avoid a pedestrian who jaywalked out in front of me. Hit my head hard on pavement each time. Zero concussions. Having concussed myself on ice twice in my life as a child in non-biking incidents, I feel like I have a sense of the speed required. Maybe helmets could use some re-design and easier mechanisms to create the right fit, but do you really need social research to demonstrate that a helmet protects your head? The physics are pretty basic. How about a crash test dummy? That’s not to say that you should absolutely avoid riding if you have no momentary access to a helmet.

    • DS

      I can tell Ben doesn’t know much about statistics. Here’s my little tale: I decided to take up wearing styrofoam protective shoes, because you can’t be too careful! Sure, they’re a little big, and they may make me a little clumsy, but I know they’re worth it! That’s because since wearing them all the time, I tripped twice walking down stairs and once when I hit a rock on a narrow hiking trail. Each time I stumbled and fell. Each time my styrofoam shoes got dented. That _proves_ that they saved me from having my leg amputated each time!

      Do you really need physics to prove that my shoes protected me from life as an invalid?

      And more seriously: Traveling as a pedestrian in the U.S. is way more dangerous than riding a bike in the U.S. Look up the numbers for fatalities per mile. You’ll see riding a bike isn’t very dangerous at all.

  • The Jones Guy

    Before people adopt the bicycle helmet as a panacea, I suggest they do a little research. Start at the website of The Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation at http://www.cyclehelmets.org

    There is plenty of peer reviewed research that throws doubt on the value of bicycle helmet use.

    Regardless of helmet use, the greatest variable in reducing cyclist risk is road skills. If you are an inexperienced cyclist you can reduce the risk of an accident by 80% (John Forester – Effective Cycling). A helmet cannot prevent a single accident and it could never match the 80% reduction in risk of injury that reducing accidents does.

  • Wimmert

    I am from the netherlands we gasp a litle about this helmet discusion. The bigest problem is that drivers are not use to bicyclist. Make bike lanes. Helmets and helm laws are not the right path to choose!

    I can drive 16km on my bike to work on bicycle paths!

    Happy cycling!

  • dan

    Yeah, you tell ‘em! Wearing helmets is stupid! We wouldn’t need ‘em at all if not for the REAL evil, which of course as we all know is people who drive cars, all of whom are stupid and hate bikes.

  • Mtn High

    The author cites the BICYCLE HELMET RESEARCH FOUNDATION on helmet efficacy. Readers may also wish to consult a different website, the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute. This page — http://www.bhsi.org/shouldi.htm — provides a different set of arguments on helmet efficacy.