What is UP with Helmets? “Should” you wear one? Are they any good? Are they Magic Blocks of Styrofoam that Prevent Death?
I can remember wearing my first helmet in the 80’s… and being mocked by little kids while riding down the street… Today, every story about every crash involving a cyclist has the stock line about whether… or not [Gasp!] the cyclist was wearing a helmet.
My position has long been – wear one or not, it’s YOUR decision. The STATE should NOT be in the business of telling you what kind of HAT to wear when you ride your bike.
Legislators and non-cyclists are often surprised that many cyclists are against Helmet Laws for adults. In 2006, when we were presenting our “Better Bicycling Bill” to the Ohio legislature a committee member tried to tack on a Helmet Law at the last minute and was surprised, I think, at the ferocity of our opposition.
Wearing a helmet – or not – should be 100% personal choice. Helmets are not Magic – they do what they are designed to do pretty well but they are NOT designed to protect against death if you are struck by a 4,000 pound bowling ball at 40 mph!
CRASH NUMBERS & RISK
As regular readers know all too well, I study crash statistics as part of my “Bike Law” practice. I’ve represented some 400 cyclists, or families of deceased cyclists, in civil claims arising out of crashes. I can say with certainty both that Crashes Are Rare – but – if you ARE in a crash then the risk of some level of injury is high.
In Ohio, for example, we don’t have definite ridership numbers but we know from bike sales and other data that we have millions of cyclists who ride tens or hundreds of millions of miles in Ohio each year. Statistically, we know that there are going to be around 1500 crash reports written this year year in which cars/bikes tangle. In over 80% of those the cyclist reports some level of injury, from minor to major. In about 1% of those the cyclist is killed – we average around 15-16 cyclist deaths per year.
This chart reflects 22 years of bicycle crash statistics taken from Ohio’s “Crash Facts” – a chart-filled document published each year by the Ohio Department of Public Safety. Please note that while our “average” number of crashes for 22 years is 2,302 that average is pushed upward very high numbers back in the 1990s. We averaged around 3,000 crashes per year from 1994-2000, then 2500 or so through 2004, then around 2,000 through 2010 and more recently around 1,500 crashes.
We don’t have hard data on ridership, but I think everyone would agree that we are enjoying a Bike Boom in Ohio – bike sales are up, ridership is up on all levels… yet, crash figures have dropped by almost HALF since the wild and crazy 1990s! More riders – Fewer Crashes – so your RISK of actually being involved in a crash is lower today than it was in 1994.
[As a footnote – there was a definitional change in the law that took place a few years ago as far as the reporting of crashes which clearly had an impact on “bike crash” statistics. Police now report a lower level “bike” crash when there is property damage in excess of $1,000.oo. Prior to that the baseline for reporting crashes was property damage in excess of $400.00. I suspect that this law change had the impact of immediately dropping the number of “bike” crashes. The number of fatal crashes and crashes involving serious injuries has not changed but the number of “property damage” crashes has gone down. Exactly how a street cop investigating a bike crash was supposed to figure out if damage to a bike was in excess of $1,000.00 is left unknown and I suspect there are some cops who just ignore bike crashes for this reason.]
If you look at all of the crashes over a 22 year period – some 50,000+ bike crashes – you see that IF you are in a crash your odds of getting hurt are pretty high – around 83% of those crashes involved some suspected injury from mild to wild. Even that figure is somewhat inflated because I used figures for “Possible Injury” as well as the figures for Incapacitating Injury and Non-Incapacitating Injury.”
2015 was the worst year for cycling deaths in the past 22 years. 25 cyclists were killed, some 10 above our average. Yet, the total number of reported crashes in2015 was the lowest in 22 years.
How does this data impact your view of helmets – whether you should wear one – whether Helmet Laws should be implemented?
Here’s a very good piece on this issue called “What’s Wrong With Helmets.” The authors point out several key points that I have made for many years:
- Focusing on “Safe Crashing” instead of “Safe Cycling” is not the best approach
- Research into the effectiveness of helmets is mixed
- Demanding Helmet Usage paints a very safe activity as “UNSAFE”
Teaching a kid to ride safely is far more important than teaching a kid how to buckle a helmet. Riding skills, traffic skills are critical. I often look at my MOTORCYCLE safety training as a pivotal moment in my “traffic” life. The MSF class provides incredible training for operating ANY vehicle safely in traffic. Motorcyclists face many of the same issues as bicyclists as far as being “seen” and dealing with unforgiving traffic conditions.
I use the lessons I learned in the MSF class every day. Many bicycling education courses have been created using the same ideas – look ahead, THINK ahead, analyze, prepare, protect yourself, be seen, be predictable… I would HIGHLY recommend a bicycle [or motorcycle] safety class from an LCI or “Savvy Cyclist” to anyone who rides regularly on the roads… you WILL learn a lot no matter how many miles you have logged.
“Should” you wear a helmet? I’m not going to preach on this topic. I wear one…usually… I have a collection of broken helmets from cases I have handled – in those crashes the cyclist lived and, judging from the helmet damage in the ones I kept, the helmet MAY have prevented a more serious head/brain injury – Those cases generally involve lower speed collisions.
The helmet below was worn by a fellow who was knocked off the road by debris hanging off the side of a trailer towed by a passing vehicle at a low to moderate speed. He suffered serious injuries, including a fractured scapula. While he had a concussion I suspect the head injuries would have been far worse without a helmet.
Serious/fatal injuries typically occur in higher speed crashes – a bike helmet is not likely to prevent death in higher speed crashes – it’s not DESIGNED to prevent death in higher speed crashes –
In lower speed crashes, which are the MAJORITY of bike/car crashes, a helmet MAY help prevent more serious head injuries… I have one case in which a cyclist was rear-ended. He had his helmet cam recording, and it showed him being knocked down – his head hit the pavement pretty hard – it kept recording the next 30 minutes or so. Later, when he reviewed the video, the cyclist told me he had NO recollection whatsoever of walking around, talking to people at the scene etc as depicted on the video. He still suffered a concussion/Head Injury – memory loss, etc – Now would his injuries have been worse without the helmet… I suspect so – his head hit the ground pretty hard and the helmet clearly did what it was supposed to do in a low speed crash…absorb some energy and keep the skin/skull away from the pavement
Should we pass a Helmet LAW? Absolutely not. Helmets are not magic – mandating helmets on adult bicyclists is a ridiculous waste of energy and money – Encourage helmet use through education – Spend money teaching kids how to ride safely – Deal with the pesky problem of those 500,000 people who are unwilling participants in CAR crashes in Ohio each year – crashes which kill 1,000+ people here in Ohio. When the legislature requires motorists to be decked out in helmets and Kevlar suits THEN we can talk about helmets on cyclists…
So wear a helmet, or not? I [usually] do… but it’s 100% up to you. Millions of cyclists ride 100’s of millions of miles in the U.S. each year… a few are involved in crashes… the risk of a car/bike crash is petty slim – but – if you ARE in one, the risk of an injury is significant…so you have to do your own risk assessment and make your decision… do you get a motorcycle helmet, Kevlar jacket & gloves, knee/elbow pads, boots and go riding?… or choose a lesser set of protective gear… or none at all…