Stupid Helmet Talk

The New York Times Business section weighed in heavy on the helmet wars in today’s print edition in a story titled in a way leaves no room for confusion: “Grown-Ups Need Helmets Too.

Citing crash and fatality statistics, Lesley Alderman begins and ends with impatient insistence that cyclists ride be-helmeted:

Whether you ride on hectic city streets or bucolic back roads, helmets are essential armor. Bicycle helmets have been shown to reduce the risk of head injuries by up to 88 percent and facial injuries by 65 percent, according to a Cochrane Database Systemic Review published in 2000. Bike riders who play against those odds do not fare well in accidents. More than 90 percent of the 714 bicyclists killed in 2008 were not wearing helmets, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety…. Even a light blow to the head can be serious.

While the statistics are compelling, Alderman takes only one side of a story that should be reported within the zone of legitimate controversy – in other words, there is disagreement and a range of debate about the whether or not a helmet makes you safer. Worse, the article implies that a spattering of local helmet laws should rise to the level of state law across the U.S.
This is a very troubling line of argument, and certainly many of us will find an electronic or printed copy of this article on our inboxes, social networking pages, and workplace mailboxes.

There are many studies and arguments against helmet laws and the notion that a helmet necessarily makes you safer. Without diving into the tired “helmet wars,” the two most compelling in my mind are: (1) the 2006 study at the University of Bath by traffic psychologist Dr. Ian Walker, that found that cars drove more carefully around un-helmeted cyclists than those wearing a helmet; (2) the Chris Carpenter and Mark Stehr study that showed how states that have implemented youth helmet laws have also seen decreased ridership (smart comment on that study here). A simple search of the Internet provides many, many more reasons why helmets do not necessarily make for safer cycling (like this lucid one from Bicycle Austin).

I usually wear a helmet, but not always. It depends on speed, interaction with motorized traffic, time of day, etc. For a lot of my riding, I’m as vulnerable to head injury as a pedestrian, runner, or someone skipping.

Before people start slamming me for creaking open the door to riding like a regular person, let me suggest two important ways to reframe the safety debate, and resurrect it from the sticky normative framework (vehicular freaks vs. facilitative separatists; helmet nazis vs. goin’commando). These debates are unproductive. So, let’s reframe:

First, if we are going to talk about helmets, then motorists are the most vulnerable and threatened group. 33,963 people were killed in motor traffic fatalities in 2009 (a comparatively low figure), most in cars, and most with head injuries. If we are going to talk about helmets (which I think we shouldn’t), then we should start with discussions about making helmets mandatory for those moving by motor vehicle.

Second, journalists need to report a whole range of perspectives in stories about cycling. It seems that news organizations still see cycling as for kids or racers – if they’re not writing about some form of cycle chic, which never discusses safety.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, cycling safety should be about getting more riders on the road and fewer people in cars. Motor vehicles pose the most danger to children and adults alike who walk and cycle. Let’s work on getting cars off the road and changing the way our space works. That, to me, is the most simple and effective strategy, and it will in turn make living more sustainable, healthy, and humane.

Win all around… unless you want to barrel quickly through inhabited space in your V8 while sucking barrels of oil. That kind of choice, unfortunately, is the logic of our current system – thus necessitating “helmet wars.”

Imagine a different world where cars are marginalized (like the Netherlands – It *can* happen here):

Then helmet wars become a truly silly endeavor.



  1. dukiebiddle

    The statistics are intentionally misleading. The study they sited had its origins in the Thomson, Rivara and Thomson study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1989. 88% referred only to babies and toddlers between the ages 0 and 4. With every 2 year age group that percentage dropped almost 20 percent. For children between the 12 and 14 that number dropped to 26%, and even less so for adults. Furthermore, the publishers of the study have admitted a profound flaw to their methodology, which probably explains why independent analysis of the same federally compiled data indicates an overall statistical effectiveness of on about 19%. Approximately 81% of the time, statistically, helmets don’t do much of anything.

    • dukiebiddle

      I should probably add the caveat that I have nothing against helmets, and chose to wear one during higher risk oriented types of cycling, such as any situation involving my go-fast bike. I feel the additional 19% is worth the trouble to me in those situations. But I use one informed correctly as to exactly how effective they are, and not under the false perception that bicycle helmets are a magic hat that will save me in most situations involving a head trauma. More often than not a head trauma will be of virtually equal severity whether you are wearing one or not.

      • Esteban

        Thanks for the insight on that data.

        And I’m the same – I have nothing against helmets. The problem I have is the assumption that its required for safe cycling… and all the problematic ideas that those assumptions are connected to. Cycling is risky because we’ve turned over space to motor vehicles… at great cost in terms of pollution, violence, health, efficiency, happiness, and sate and federal budgets.

  2. Chris

    Great blog first off!

    While I support the rights of adults to wear or not wear a helmet, I think we need a universal law that requires children to wear helmets (most states/cities do)… Even more than the law (since it’s never enforced) is the culture where parents actually put a helmet on their child and put it on properly… As a former EMT, current Corpsman and CPR instructor, children don’t die from too many cheeseburgers… they die from trauma or respiratory issues caused by trauma… this includes head injuries…

    I always wear my helmet and know you wear yours quite a bit as well… when you look at the audience this article was aimed at (casual cyclists for the most part, I’d say), helmets make LOTS of sense… the casual cyclist doesn’t have the sharpened skills to avoid a near miss or really know how to ride in traffic or even take a roll offroad if they fall…

    Anyway, I agree that, as adults, most of us are smart enough to make an informed choice, but I see nothing wrong with the article for its intended audience.

    BTW- should be getting that Hilsen this summer! 😀

  3. Richard

    Hi, love the blog. Not to enter the helmet war fray, but one thing that I can’t pass on commenting about here. The Walker study is one that people cite all the time, but it’s flawed in so many ways: it involved only one investigator who knew what he was researching at the time he was cycling. A better way to conduct the study: randomize a large group of cyclists into helmeted and non-helmeted groups, put them all on the same types of bicycle as was used in the original study, and tell them that you’re studying anything but how closely cars pass (heart rate, rotations per minute, anything). That way, the riders themselves are less likely to influence the study.

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