Tuesday, August 7, 2012

On bicycle helmets, and why I choose not to wear one

Welcome back, waxy readers! Thank you for forgiving my hiatus; my vacation was every bit as relaxing and refreshing as I had hoped and anticipated it would be.

Those of you who read my vacation announcement probably recall I promised an especially stirring and controversial post upon my return.

And yes, you read the title correctly.

As an avid cyclist (a daily bicycle commuter who participates in about twelve to twenty-five miles of vehicular traffic each day without feeling any sort of temptation to dress myself in spandex and be uncomfortable), I am often asked by other cyclists why I forgo helmet use.

Not wearing a helmet is commonly perceived as the mark of an amateur cyclist who does not take their safety seriously.

Trust me, I take my safety on the road very seriously, and am quite conscious of the danger involved with cycling on the street for long distances in high-traffic areas.

I am very passionate about cyclists being safe in the road. And still I choose not to wear a helmet when I ride.

Why would I make this seemingly irrational choice? Isn't a helmet a practical, essential and potentially life-saving piece of equipment that every cyclist should always wear?

Well, perhaps not. And I say that as someone who actually owns two bicycle helmets. I used to wear them (one at a time) on every single ride, whether I was traveling fifty miles or fifty yards.

Let me clarify something upfront: I am not anti-helmet. I do not advocate for non-helmet use. I do believe a helmet offers you some protection and increases your safety in the event of a crash. I do not deny these various benefits of wearing a helmet.

There are many cyclists who I feel do not control their bicycles very well at all; they swerve all about with no regard to traffic laws or other road users as they barrel down one-way streets the wrong way while simultaneously fielding a phone call and smoking a cigarette in the dark of night with no lights and obviously no self-awareness or common sense.

For these people, yes: I think they should wear a helmet, because the chance of them losing control of their bicycle and crashing is very high, and the chance of them handling the crash well is very low.

In fact, in some cases I think it would be appropriate for the cyclist to be wearing full body armor for each ride, or at least football pads, and the greatest possible thing they could do for their general safety on a bicycle would be to put it away in the basement and walk.

If you observe cyclists regularly like I do, you will probably agree with my observation that most of these cyclists do not wear helmets anyway.

But wait--so what exactly is so bad about helmets?

Well, for starters I think every helmet user should be aware that helmets are not all they are cracked up to be (optional pun joke may be inserted here).

Helmets are ostensibly designed to prevent brain damage in the event of some sort of trauma to the head, but there have been studies that reveal this is not something they are actually capable of.

I am not saying that head injuries do not occur during cyclist crashes.

However, by far the majority of head injuries sustained from cycling accidents (excluding alcohol-related accidents, where the cause of the accident is sometimes more circumstantial) are not serious or life-threatening.

In the case of minor accidents like these, for sure I would say that the damage done is made less severe by using a helmet.

It would be like if you were wearing a helmet while you banged your head on that cabinet door while you were standing up from a kneel; of course a helmet would have been a convenient and certainly comfort-improving thing to be wearing.

Could an injury like this be life-threatening? I suppose it could, but I'm talking bumps to the head here--not concussive force.

In impacts where the head is hit hard enough for the head-owner to suffer a concussion (or worse), the impact and resulting injury will likely be just as severe whether the person is wearing a helmet or not.

This is because bicycle helmets are not that protective. They do undergo mandatory testing for their effectiveness, but the literal test subject is a crash dummy falling from a standing position and landing on the crown of his (or her...?) head.

If you are liable to falling forward onto your head, then you will find wearing a helmet quite effective in reducing your head pain. Probably more effective than even two Excedrin.

However, an impact that is strong enough to seriously damage your head will still seriously damage your head if you are using a helmet. The general conception is that helmets will reduce your injury like some sort of hefty injury tax, but this is not actually the case. Serious impacts are easily transferred though your stylish plastic hat and onto your skull.

The basic idea behind a helmet is that the Styrofoam shell will compress in a collision, absorbing some of the impact of your fall in the compression.

Unfortunately, the powers of absorption these mere inches of plastic are capable of is actually pretty small and easily exceeded during events where you are counting on them to save you.

I really started to think about why we wear helmets as cyclists last December when I saw my first dead cyclist lying in the road.

There he was in the street, with that eery appearance that only a dead person can inspire. The truck driver who hit him stood nearby, obviously uncomfortable with the mortality that he had brought to realization, waiting for help to arrive.

The cyclist's body advertised the eternal peace that it had been forced into where it was before the tires of the truck, crumpled like his bicycle.

His bicycle helmet was still firmly strapped to his head.

I did hear sirens in the background, but learned later that he had unfortunately died immediately after impact with the truck. Why didn't his helmet save him?

Well, for one thing, if you get hit by a car your head isn't the only part of your body that will be affected. You are liable to break any of the other one hundred seventy-eight bones in your body, and you could even be forced to die from painful internal bleeding from a ruptured organ.

Also, if you fall and your head crashes into the pavement with tremendous force, you could still die from a traumatic impact to the head, regardless of whether or not you are wearing a helmet.

Again, I would like to emphasize that I am not anti-helmet.

I am, however, opposed to mandatory helmet use laws. The reason is simple: mandatory helmet use laws have been proven to reduce ridership in places where it has been implemented as a safety measure.

Decreased ridership has a far more dramatic effect on my own safety than a bicycle helmet. With plentiful numbers of cyclists on the road, motorists become more aware of their presence. They are everywhere; seeing a cyclist is not a surprise because they have to share the road with them constantly.

A lot of potential cyclists are not willing to ride when a helmet is mandated. In some cases, they just don't like to wear them--perhaps they are concerned about sullying up their hair, or they find them hot and bulky, or generally uncomfortable.

However, the main reason is the message that is sent to people who haven't started riding a bike but were thinking about it. Once they learn that they must wear a helmet, they are left with the notion that cycling is dangerous.

I will not deny that cycling is dangerous, but it is much less dangerous than piloting a two-ton chariot of steel at three times the speed. In fact, some theorists believe that even reckless cycling is considerably less dangerous than being a pedestrian crossing the roadway between crosswalks (jaywalking).

You rarely see jaywalkers wearing a helmet, or really anyone for the purposes of just walking around. There is this one old guy who pushes around a shopping cart in Somerville collecting bottles and cans from people's recycling bins who does wear a bicycle helmet at all times, but I hardly think people should base their helmet use on whatever philosophy he is subscribing to.

Back to a decrease in ridership: what it means for other cyclists (like myself, or you) is a decreased element of safety on the road, and this makes it the paramount detractor from the success of mandated safety measures for cyclists.

In many cases, mandated helmet use has resulted in a decrease in ridership by over fifty percent. It is somewhat ironic that something prescribed as a safety measure could have such a negative effect on cyclists and their safety.

On top of all of this, in my opinion the worst drawback helmet use provides is an unfortunate phenomenon known as "risk compensation."

In a nutshell, risk compensation and what it has to do with cycling is this: you unconsciously take greater risks while you ride because you are wearing a helmet.

It is a real phenomenon that has been studied at length and has been proven to affect cyclist behavior, and is still being studied further as you read these waxy words.

Cyclists who wear helmets subconsciously subscribe to an unfortunate misunderstanding regarding the protection they are being inferred.

Helmet-wearing riders are less reluctant to take risks they might not ordinarily consider while riding without one, falsely believing that their Styrofoam hat will render them impervious to harm.

This is not a conscious decision cyclists make as they strap the buckle of their stylish headpiece. It happens on an unconscious level, and is rooted in the sense of security that wearing a piece of armor naturally imparts on a person.

Riders who do choose to wear a helmet are quick to dismiss the theory behind compensatory cycling, claiming that they would ride the same way whether they were wearing a helmet or not. I also belonged to this category when I wore a helmet.

However, my experience with compensatory cycling has been telling and firsthand. When I started researching bicycle helmets and was learning about how worthless they are, I one day decided I would no longer wear one anymore.

The first thing that happens to your riding style when you take out your bicycle after deciding to forgo a helmet is you ride much, much more cautiously. All of a sudden, you feel more exposed and vulnerable.

I do not consider this sensation to be a drawback: you should feel exposed and vulnerable on a bicycle because you are exposed and vulnerable on a bicycle, whether you wear a helmet or not.

Not having that thick Styrofoam shell firmly strapped to my head inspired me to be more wary of other road users, and made me a generally more suspicious rider.

I immediately stopped my bad and impatient habit of sneaking through red lights as soon as the coast was clear.

[I don't mind waiting, because everyone (cyclist or not) is expected to wait anyway and I'm not typically in a rush. Your risk is severely minimized if you simply wait at red lights.]

I suddenly became very conscious of the rules of the road and my role in participating appropriately. I started constantly supervising the other road users around me, trying to anticipate their behavior and decide how it could affect me.

Signaling and making my intentions on the road extremely obvious to everyone else became abundantly important.

I now look at drivers and try to connect with them visually, all but begging them not to kill me with their car because now I am not wearing that stupid plastic hat that wasn't even going to save me anyway.

If you are not a safe cyclist and you choose to forgo traffic laws by gliding down one-way streets the wrong way or coasting right through solid reds at traffic signals, it is nice if you wear a helmet. At the very least, it helps water down the perception other road users have of you as a completely senseless maniac who has no regard for their own safety or the safety of others.

Ultimately, the deciding factor for me in choosing to stop wearing a helmet while cycling was my realization that it was a telling statement about a philosophy that I don't believe in.

Wearing a helmet tells other road users that I believe what I am doing is inherently dangerous and I need protection for my safety.

This is not what I believe; I consider responsible cycling very safe.

Cycling can be a fun, low-risk, heart-healthy and practical way of getting around. It is by far the safest possible way to use the roads. It is good for your body (as long as your saddle is high enough) and it is less detrimental to the environment than using a car or bus.

[Tangential to this, I find it rather annoying when cyclists tote the "greenness" of their bicycle riding and think riding a bike around is somehow making the air cleaner.

Most bicycles and components are made in Taiwan or China, and some nicer stuff in Japan. Even domestically produced components need to be shipped somewhere, unless you are TIG welding your own frames in the basement from iron ore you harvested sustainably from you own back yard in Alaska . I shouldn't need to explain the environmental impact of shipping heavy metal stuff around on a truck or boat.

Also, unless you are pretentious and eager to divest yourself of any free time you might have by lubricating your chain with wax, you have to put oil on it every now and then. And isn't oil what cyclists like to pretend they never use, because they don't drive a car?]

Speaking of sending the wrong message to motorists, I did read of a study which revealed that motorists will afford less road space to cyclists wearing helmets than cyclists without them.

The study also discovered that motorists will drive closer to unhelmeted males on the road than unhelmeted females. In my opinion, this is not telling of female cyclists' ability astride a bicycle so much as it is telling of a common motorist perception of female cyclists.

Cyclists wearing helmets are perceived as less fragile, regardless of their sex, and motorists generally drive closer to them. They are less reluctant to take risks on the road with the cyclist nearby, or put the cyclist into a dangerous situation with their behavior.

I have seen firsthand evidence of this phenomenon, as a person who rides a bicycle both with a helmet and without one.

In fact, I find it amusing when I wear my Tilley hat on bike rides; many motorists give me quite a wide berth!

This is most likely because I look somewhat insane, and they don't know what to expect from me on the road (perhaps I will lash them with my handlebar-mounted authentic Indiana Jones whip that I have installed on all of my Tilley-worthy bicycles).

"But my helmet saved my life!" you hear people say. Many riders claim a broken helmet serves as undeniable proof that their helmet was effective and did offer them protection during their crash. Well, actually that is probably not true either.

Several studies (including those published by the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation) suggest that helmets are quite capable of breaking without effectively absorbing any impact to the skull.

This means that the damage to your head remains pretty much unaffected, despite your broken helmet.

Don't exaggerate the significance of a cracked piece of Styrofoam; it is one of the softest, least durable and most malleable plastics available.

As for me, I still have my two helmets, and I still like them. Here are some conditions where I believe wearing a helmet is appropriate:
  • If it is snowing, or has recently snowed.
  • During any kind of a storm, even a heavy rain shower or wind speeds over thirty miles per hour or so.
  • If you are not yet a skilled cyclist, or are liable to crash in response to an unanticipated traffic event. Included in this category are cyclists who are wielding a burden that renders their bicycle less controllable (shopping bags or unwieldy bike locks hanging precariously from the handlebars, for example), or surpasses the reasonable constraints of their bicycle's design and ability to carry a heavy load.
  • At night time. Let's face it: cycling at night is more dangerous. Lights are an absolute must so motorists can see you and hopefully put forth some effort as far as not killing you goes, but unless your lights provide good illumination of the road it's also much harder to see road hazards that could compromise your control of the bicycle.
If you have a helmet for nighttime rides, it's a good idea to plaster it with reflective tape. Anything that increases your visibility is a plus, and it's dark out so it doesn't really matter how dorky you look.

As a side note, you should strap one of those reflective ankle-strap things around your mittens at night in the winter to offer a visual aid for motorists who you would like to see your hand signals, if your mittens don't already include reflective features (some do).

Why would I say that wearing a helmet during any of those conditions above is somewhat justified, but a skilled and aware cyclist out for a nice summer day ride doesn't need one?

Simple: during the aforementioned conditions, losing control of your bicycle and crashing becomes a realistic possibility. On a normal, dry day it is not (unless you are a bad cyclist, which I have certainly seen my fair share of--helmeted or otherwise. Styrofoam can't fix everything).

Remember: it is highly unlikely a helmet will save you if you are hit by a car.

During low-impact crashes where the cyclist falls (like if you crash your own bike into something, a car door perhaps), it certainly can't hurt to have one on.

In any ride where you can imagine that happening despite your best efforts, a little extra protection is at least as practical as bringing along some tools and a spare tube, or some water, or anything else that it turns out you might need.

Am I anti-helmet? Again: no, I am not. If you feel that wearing a helmet is a practical choice for you, I encourage you to strap one on.

Just try (if it's even possible), to ride as if you were not wearing a helmet at all.

Pretend that you haven't got that plastic armor buckled to your chin, and realize that as a cyclist you are automatically exposed and vulnerable to all kinds of catastrophes, including death, despite your excellent-looking plastic hat.

If you have found this post to be offensive to your personal belief system regarding cyclists and their helmet use, I apologize voluntarily.

However, you should know my intent is not inflammatory, but rather to instigate an open-minded discussion regarding cyclists on the road versus cyclists and their perceived safety on the road.

I would ask only that you do try to take, if nothing more, at least the following from my commentary:
  • Bicycle helmets are not effective in preventing concussive or fatal impact to the head during a crash. Cyclists do die from head injuries, despite wearing one.
  • In the event that a motorist hits you, wearing a bicycle helmet is somewhat like wearing shin guards in a boxing match; true, it can't really hurt to wear them, but the danger you are exposed to is largely targeted at other areas of your body that your choice of armor does not protect.
  • Wearing a bicycle helmet does not make you a safer cyclist. Being a safer cyclist makes you a safer cyclist. Responsible road use and cautious cycling habits will always be more effective in preventing crashes and traffic fatalities than wearing a helmet will ever be.
I think anyone who is cautious enough to wear a helmet should know that they are making a safe choice.

However, we should all try to be ever aware that the bicycle helmet offers very little protection, and it's main function (preventing brain damage) is not something the helmet is actually capable of.

Remember, keeping your head safe with your smarts will be far more effective than trying to protect it with an ineffectual plastic shell of shame forced onto your head by motorists and marketing campaigns that boast of the essential nature of their helmets as an aid in protecting you from the awesome, unmitigated power of their fast and furious cars.

Thanks for tuning in after so long, my wise and waxy readers. Keep that noggin safe, and be sure to check back in next Tuesday for another rambling outburst of waxy goodness.


  1. Another awesome article. (See what I did there?) Laugh out loud at moments.

  2. I've heard that one of the benefits of helmets, particularly motorcycle-style helmets is that the rounded smooth plastic is more difficult for the pavement to grip. This means that instead of all of the momentum acting on a struck cyclist causing traumatic impact upon contact with the ground (due to the sudden stop caused by friction), the victim will continue sliding, allowing all of that force to more gradually be expended. This reduces the end result from fatal to possibly harmless (which is also why, I've heard, bikers typically wear leather).

    Granted most bicycle helmets are not smooth and round, but appropriate helmets can be found if you look.

    1. Thanks for the good point, Raymond. In any situation where your head is being scraped across the pavement, I think a helmet is certainly a very beneficial thing to have on your head. I would like to reiterate that I feel helmets provide a great deal more safety in any road accident than a naked skull.

      My decision to not wear a helmet stems more from the fact that I feel it sends the wrong message to people; it tells other road users that I need to wear armor to be safe on the roads, and that I feel my Styrofoam hat will protect me from harm if it gets hairy out there. I don't believe either of those things to be true, so I am compelled to disregard a garment that suggests otherwise.