Wednesday, October 6, 2010

On helmets (or off)

Many people (riders or not) in the US have a zero-sum kind of attitude towards bike helmets - helmet good, no helmet stupid. I think the reality for slow, urban riding is far more complex and frankly there's a fine case for going without.

In case you missed it (as I did), here's an articulate post on the topic by James Schwartz over on The Urban Country.

To which I would only add:  yeah, what he said. I personally don't wear a helmet, and James does a great job explaining the rationale. If you wear a helmet, that's great if that suits you, power on.


  1. I walked away from a wipeout (thanks to an expansion-joint-created mini-pothole on 9th St. NW alongside the Convention Center) that broke my helmet and would've put me in the ICU if I hadn't been wearing one. I'm pretty sold on the whole helmet thing now, but hey, to each his or her own.

  2. Geez, glad you're ok! (and thanks, you're officially the first commenter on this blog) Appreciate your balanced attitude, all things considered.

    Mind if I ask - how fast were you going? in traffic or bike lane (or other)? what sort of bike do you ride, or more to the point, what is your riding position (i.e. upright, slightly bent with straight arms, hunched over)?

    Believe me, I'm not trying to blame the victim! But I'm trying to get at some of the causes of spills that sometimes DO have to do with how people typically ride in the US. Meaning hunched over, fast, next to/in/keeping up with traffic, for example. Not a wrong way to ride per se, though I think it is an unfortunate result of the whole Vehicular Cycling philosophy.

    In that scenario, I'd wear a helmet too. Or I probably just wouldn't be biking.

  3. I've crashed twice while racing in college and got stitches both times but no serious damage because I was wearing a helmet. I got doored while riding up 37th Street this summer and, again, no injuries because of a helmet.

    The pavement is awfully hard and given how important a healthy, functioning brain is to any kind of normal, successful life, I couldn't imagine not wearing a helmet. Even if your a regular, competent cyclist, there are plenty things that can cause a rider to crash (bad pavement, squirrels running in front of bikes, equipment failure, bad drivers, etc...). When you're cycling, you're probably 5 feet off the ground. Even at that height, hitting the ground with your head can cause serious, permanent injuries. I can't understand why people wouldn't want to take all reasonable steps to protect themselves.

  4. Bill,

    I think the article you linked to has the main point - if you ride in slow, light traffic, bike laned places - a helmet isn't always necessary.

    Personally, I commute daily in a high speed area - Mass ave and after being t-boned last year after driver failed to yield; i don't feel safe without wearing one.

    I ride chic as your earlier post mentioned and while the helmet certainly does reduce the aesthetics of the suits/colorful bike combo - i wouldn't feel good without it.

  5. how fast were you going?
    in traffic or bike lane (or other)?
    what sort of bike do you ride, or more to the point, what is your riding position (i.e. upright, slightly bent with straight arms, hunched over)? HUNCHED OVER

    I would definitely agree that these are contributing factors.

  6. Yes, that's a completely different animal. I suspect most people's horror stories would have those common components.

    Slow, bike lane (or away from traffic), the more upright the better... that's the Dutch/Danish/etc way, which seems much safer. Yes, those places have better-separated lanes etc. But that's not the only reason it's incredibly safe to bike in Copenhagen or Amsterdam. It's how they ride too.

  7. Some of the stats in the article are not 100% comparable. Given that we (US and Canada) do not have the cycling infrastructure of the Netherlands, we cannot really ride as safely as they can without helmets. Although I agree with the suggested policy changes, we are not there yet. Cars do some really stupid, dangerous things. People get doored even in bike lanes. Even if you are riding slow and in control, others may not be. I'm not advocating helmet laws, but I think it is a damn good idea to where a helmet in almost all circumstances. I've read about WAY too many cases where people would still be alive is they had been wearing a helmet. Yes, the risk may not be super high, but the cost/inconvenience of wearing a helmet is arguably lower. There is a reason why people buy home insurance even in areas with low crime/natural disasters. Think of wearing a helmet as an insurance policy against the unknown on the road.

  8. Well, I do find it strange that in our country, which everyone would agree is unevenly bike-friendly at best, riders tend to ride fast, hunched over, and in traffic. Which, surprise, leads to accidents.

  9. I completely understand where you are coming from on this, but I think its better for everyone to stay away from advocating against helmet use.

    "I think the reality for slow, urban riding is far more complex and frankly there's a fine case for going without."

    Most helmets are designed to protect from impacts of about 12 mph, which is about the speed of your head hitting the ground from a stand. I agree that we need to stop vilifying those who don't wear helmets, but at the same time as far as I can tell the only "case" for not wearing one is convenience.

  10. BTH, the stats from the article were from Canada. Here is the full study:$file/canada-helmet-assessment.pdf

    You are statistically as likely to get a head injury from an automobile accident (in Canada) as you are from riding a bicycle. But we don't vilify people for driving cars without helmets. Similarly with pedestrians, we don't wear helmets while walking on the sidewalk, even though pedestrians are likely as vulnerable (or more vulnerable) than bicyclists (there isn't much data on pedestrians, but here in Toronto we have 30-40 pedestrian deaths every year, and only 1 or 2 bicyclist deaths. I've had a lot more close calls on feet than on a bike. Choosing safe bike routes helps too).

    The point is that people aren't very good at risk assessment. People avoid bicycling because it's "too dangerous", but then we become obese and die from heart disease.

    There are plenty of things we can do to *prevent* collisions in the first place. Using lights at night, riding slowly, avoiding dangerous roads, riding upright bikes instead of racing bikes, etc.

    There is certainly nothing wrong with choosing to wear a helmet, but before you vilify someone for choosing not to wear a helmet, it's good to understand the risk that the person is taking and know that it isn't much different than a jogger not wearing a helmet, or a motorist not wearing a helmet.

  11. The post you link to is making the point that scare-mongering about helmets may discourage people from biking at all. I don't know whether I agree with that or not, but it is NOT an argument AGAINST wearing helmets.

    Especially given that most biking in the US is done near traffic, and that you could hit a bump and fall off even without traffic, why would you not wear a helmet? I refused to wear one when I was a teenager because I thought it didn't look cool, but let me assure you, that is not a good reason.

  12. @Anonymous 2:54PM

    You're exactly right, you can get a flat tire or other mechanical issue, hit an debris in the road, etc... There are all sorts of things that can cause a cyclist to crash other than cars, no matter how experienced the rider is. The comparison to jogging that James makes is completely false. A jogger isn't running on the road, doesn't have to worry about mechanical failures, and can stop or slow down easier than a cyclist. The part about helmets not being effective above speeds of 12 mph may/may not be true (I've seen some nasty spills in the Tour de France where the riders survive because they wear helmets) but most city riding because of traffic, stop signs, and intersections, is at or below this speed. As the previous commenter said, the only excuses for not wearing a helmet are that it might mess up your hair or they don't look cool. I rather get my hair messed up than my brain scrambled.

  13. Anon 3:10, no one is saying don't wear a helmet. At least I'm not. Please do wear one if you like. Just let everyone make their own risk assessment. I don't see that the stats back up the level of fear we tend to have about this. If you're riding slowly, upright, and away from traffic as much as possible, it's much less likely. I think adopting that degree of 'what-if' could be applied to a whole range of activities. You'd never leave the house!

  14. Sorry, meant that for Anonymous 2:54...

  15. There are all sorts of things that can cause a jogger to fall, or a pedestrian to slip on ice, or a driver to crash on the highway - but joggers, pedestrians and helmets don't wear helmets (normally). You could even slip in the shower and hit your head, but we don't wear helmets in the shower.

    As a pedestrian I have slipped and fallen several times. But in 10+ years of urban bicycle commuting, I've *never* fallen completely off my bike. I've had several flats, I've seen plenty of squirrels, I've avoided plenty of potholes, and I've ridden over plenty of streetcar tracks, and I've had lots of drivers open their doors on me. But not once have I come close to falling on my head.

    Do I have some sort of magic solution? No, I just ride cautiously, avoid dangerous streets, use lights at night, follow most traffic rules, and ride on dedicated infrastructure when possible.

    The point is that there is plenty you can do to avoid falling off your bike. It's not guaranteed that you won't fall off your bike, but you can choose how dangerous your ride will be. No mode of transportation is 100% safe, but I find it interesting that we focus so much on bicycles for helmets, when statistically you are as likely in an automobile to have a head injury, but nobody says drivers should wear helmets.

    I should note that I'm *not* talking about high speed racing cyclists, I'm talking about cautious, slow-riding utilitarian bicyclists.

  16. @Bill
    re:"Well, I do find it strange that in our country, which everyone would agree is unevenly bike-friendly at best, riders tend to ride fast, hunched over, and in traffic. Which, surprise, leads to accidents."

    - Respectfully, how else is one to ride to work? I feel as though, if you're not keeping up with the flow of traffic, one is putting themselves at risk. While I dream of buying a beautiful sitting up commuter bike; i just don't think it's feasible in DC yet. Do you disagree?


  17. PS: I'm with Bill - I'm not saying people shouldn't wear helmets either. If people feel more comfortable with a helmet, great.

  18. Dan, how far from work do you live? Could you describe your commute, like is it mainly suburb to city, or inner neighborhood to downtown? Hyattsville to Rosslyn is a lot different than Petworth to Woodley Park (which I ride on a Dutch bike almost daily).

  19. Ditto James' last comment, well said. How we ride makes a huge difference. Sitting upright, for example.

  20. It's actually a pretty short commute - Logan to Union Station area. P - 7th - Mass.

    Could I choose a safer, longer way to work. Definitely.

  21. @Bill: I wasn't going very fast (I never really do), but it's a flat stretch, so I was going maybe 15mph or so. Riding in the road in very light traffic (no bike lanes on that stretch). I've got an aluminum Liotto that was built as a touring bike (to use an old school term) and gradually converted into a city bike (added fenders, lights, bell, and a pair of collapsible metal baskets), with granny-style handle bars that put you into a pretty upright riding position.

    The problem with this particular crash was that there was no warning...I was just tooling along one second and slamming hard into the ground the next...I'm pretty sure it was a very small but very deep pothole at the intersection of two expansion joints, but I may well have caught my front tire in one of the expansion joint tracks itself (it's like a narrow streetcar track).

    The guy that came out of the local cafe to make sure I was okay mentioned that I was the third person to wipe out there recently, and that the previous guy wound up in the hospital (he was wearing a helmet, but apparently smashed the front of his face into the ground).

    My helmet took the impact right around my left temple (it broke to absorb the shock, as it was supposed to). I "saw stars" for a few seconds, but my head cleared pretty quickly and other than some scrapes and bruises, I was fine (no symptoms of concussion or lingering problems after the fact).

    That said, last night I rode bikeshare bikes from 14th and R to Dupont and back, and didn't bother with a helmet (I hadn't been planning to ride). So hey, even though I swear by my helmet, I'm not past riding without one at times.

  22. If you want to wear a helmet go ahead. Just don't run around like Chicken Little braying about how we're all going to die unless we do likewise. There are some folks who won't ride because your doomsaying makes them feel it's dangerous--when it isn't. Case in point, the PoP story that brought me here:

    Commenter 1:

    "These people are all riding without helmets!! Is style really worth your life (or at least the quality of your life after an accident)?"

    Reply from Commenter 2:

    "Agreed, and this is the biggest reason I don’t bike. I can’t show up at work with helmet hair, nor do I want to risk having my brains splattered onto the street."

    You say the only reason not to wear a helmet is "convenience" or "style" as though these things are easily dismissed. But there's more to life than maximizing your safety. They sell helmets for toddlers now, did you know that? After all, toddlers fall down. A lot. And their heads are soft. Got a helmet for your toddler yet? You must want his brains splattered on the pavement. Do you wear a helmet when you get up on a ladder to change a lightbulb? 100 times more dangerous than riding in traffic.

    Helmets are great if you're riding in a paceline at speed. There're nice to have if you're mountain-biking. If you're riding 10 blocks to work, or riding to the store to pick up some milk. Feel free to leave it at home--youR behavior is as safe as anything else you could be doing.

  23. Oboe: Does your front tire detach from your bike? Because if it does, then biking 10 blocks is not safer than walking ten blocks. (unless of course one of your leg detaches).

  24. Dan, for that distance and scenario, I think you'd be really happy with some kind of upright bike. I'm sure you could find a route you could 'master' in terms of looking out for problems, using bike lanes or safe streets. That's what I do, same route every day (very little of which is on the street proper). I know some say that breeds inattention, but I don't agree. I feel very confident because I know it inside and out.

  25. Man, EdTheRed, that sucks.

    Still, 14th and R to Dupont and back on a CaBi without a helmet seems reasonable to me. BUT THAT'S JUST ME, folks... (and EdTheRd, apparently).

  26. Sigh. The helmet debate.

    I commute to work and race competitively. On the latter point, it is absolutely not true that helmets are only designed for 12 mph crashes. I've seen some horrific crashes during races, and the helmet legitimately saved the person's life (or at least their short-term memory).

    As for commuting, the problem isn't how fast you go while riding, but rather how fast cars go while driving. You could amble along at 7 mph and still get t-boned by a car. No helmet? It's a guarantee that your chance of a head injury is higher. The reason folks in certain European countries can ride so slowly without a helmet is because they often ride on separate bike paths, not bike lanes incorporated into functioning roadways. If your commute involves riding down the Capital Crescent Trial into Georgetown, by all means, ride slowly and without a helmet because you won't be running into any cars.

    At the end of the day, I agree that we can't guilt people into wearing helmets. At the same time, we don't laugh off our friends that don't wear seatbelts, do we? There has to be a balance for sure, but the balance needs to lean towards encouraging people to wear helmets. None of the reasons cited here make me think that helmets are a bad idea, period. And I've seen enough accidents -- in races and while commuting -- to know that most of the time, it's not the fault of the person riding the bike. But that doesn't matter if your head hits the ground. It won't make that distinction.

  27. Apologies if I wasn't clear, but I've obviously been misread. From what I've read, most helmets are designed to protect best against 12mph impacts. It's not that they don't work for faster speeds, they are just less effective. And that's also the speed of impact, not the speed of the bike.

  28. anyone who thinks it's okay to go w/o a helmet is kidding themselves. I've seen road debris thrown into a rider's spokes and he went from a casual ride to 0 MPH resulting in a fractured jaw. Put simple, you never plan for an accident!

  29. Well, I'm pretty sure there is road debris, potholes, tram tracks, and other random dangers etc in various European countries that have advanced bike cultures. Hundreds of thousands of cyclists bike everyday in Copenhagen alone, without helmets, and the incidence of injury is quite small.

    Yes, of course things are different here. But you're not arguing about lack of bike lanes etc here. You're saying any little problem could spell disaster for even a slow casual rider. That's true anywhere.

  30. @Bill:

    "Yes, of course things are different here. But you're not arguing about lack of bike lanes etc here. You're saying any little problem could spell disaster for even a slow casual rider. That's true anywhere."

    And that is exactly why you should where a helmet. It is too easy for something to cause even an experienced rider to crash.

  31. I'm not telling anyone NOT to wear a helmet. But traffic and infrastructure differences between US and Europe aside, I'm saying millions of helmet-less (and generally injury-free) European riders seem to be doing their own risk assessment and it's working out ok.

  32. I mean, a helmet-less Dutch rider isn't deciding, 'well, road debris could get thrown into my spokes when I'm toodling along at 7mph, better get the helmet'. They have decided they're separate enough from traffic and ride slow and controlled enough not to bother. And it seems to pan out over time. Statistically being on a bike in Denmark even without a helmet is one of the safest places to be. Safer than the couch, see previous post.

  33. Comparing risk of injury from riding a bike w/o a helmet to driving or walking is interesting. But once you've made the decision to ride, which I do every day, you have to look at safety within that decision.

    From this NYC DOT study, 95% of cyclists who died were not wearing a helmet, of that, 76% was due to head trauma.

    Page 16:

    That was really the only statistic I ever needed to read to convince me to wear a helmet every time.