A More Nuanced View of Bike Helmets?

A recent flap over the idea of making bike helmets mandatory for adults appears to have died down, so I’m hoping it’s not too soon for a little calm reflection.

The flap ensued when State Senator Floyd Prozanski (a bicycle advocate) floated the idea of a mandatory helmet law. That prompted more than 250 comments on BikePortland.org, most negative.

The Senator quickly backed off, triggering counter claims of a “knee-jerk” reaction.

Can we look at this a little more dispassionately, in the context of how Portland is developing its bicycle system?

Arguments in favor of helmet use:

  • We want bike riders to be safe
  • Crashes, particularly at speed, can lead to serious head injury
  • Helmets can help reduce head injuries in crashes
  • more…?

Arguments against requiring helmet use (for adults – let’s not get sidetracked on kids here):

  • Pick your favorite civil-liberties argument
  • Requiring helmets portrays cycling as an unsafe activity, creating unnecessary fear about an activity with substantial personal and societal benefits
  • We want to remove obstacles to cycling, not add to the steps necessary to bike
  • In cycling-centric European cities, helmets are not part of the culture, and head-injury rates are not higher than ours

I blogged on that last point after returning from a visit to Amsterdam.

So what’s different now than three years ago, that might further inform my perspective?

We’ve shifted our strategy for building out our bicycle system. We have consciously adopted a strategy of expanding the system on low-speed, low-traffic bike boulevards with well-regulated crossings of arterial streets, rather than expanding the bike lane network on heavily-trafficked streets.

While we may not have a bicycle network that is as safe as Amsterdam’s we’re headed in that direction (in Amsterdam, the network is relatively slow by design – it’s engineered for an average speed of about 9 miles-per-hour, a speed at which the risks of head injury are lower).

Could we develop a policy (advice, if not regulation) around bike helmets that reflected both the current state of safety (or lack thereof) on our system AND the aspiration for a very safe system? Something along the lines of:

“If you limit your travel the bike boulevards and off-street facilities at relatively low speeds, by all means use a helmet if you want, but don’t feel like you have to. But if you’re going to travel on bike lanes on arterial streets, or on busy streets with no bike lanes, you really should be wearing a helmet.”

Perhaps we need to think of helmets not as a requirement, but as mitigation for safety conditions that are not yet what we want them to be?

Can we develop statistical data to support such a position (how many bike crashes with head injuries have occurred on the Esplanade, how many on the Springwater Trail)?

Would it be good policy?

Would it be understandable?

Would it help encourage more of the “interested but concerned” demographic to get on a bike?

No comments

0 Responses to A More Nuanced View of Bike Helmets?

  1. M. Lasley
    August 25, 2008 at 3:26 pm Link

    I wonder if there is data that would link occurrence of injury to use of bike helmets. I would be opposed to any rule that would require adult riders to wear a helmet on the basis of civil-libertarian view points. However, if there is such data showing a link between lower occurrence of injury with higher rates of bike helmet usage, I wonder if the city could offer incentives to bike programs like Safe Routes to School or to the Community Cycling Center, or other like organizations. And that linkage and incentive could be where any new policy is centered.

  2. hank
    August 25, 2008 at 4:49 pm Link

    “there is such data showing a link between lower occurrence of injury with higher rates of bike helmet usage,”

    That’s not the statistic involved here. All that data proves is that people who wear helmets are also inclined to take less risks. Forcing the helmetless “rick takers” to suddenly wear helmets wouldn’t necessarily change that risk-taking behavior.

    The data proponents need in order to make their case is to prove that the number of injuries caused specifically because the person wasn’t wearing a helmet is causing an undue burden on the rest of society.

    Short of that, it’s a solution in search of a problem.

    Even if it is “safer” to ride with a helmet, it doesn’t mean that riding without one is dangerous.

  3. brett
    August 25, 2008 at 5:03 pm Link

    Still not sure where I stand on mandatory helmet laws for adults but I will note that I’ve had two friends who sustained serious head injuries in falls from bikes … and neither involved a car or a high speed corridor. One fell on Austin’s bike-only veloway, and another fell here in Portland last month while slowly cruising down his neighborhood street with a couple of friends. Both were experienced riders and neither wore helmets. The friend in Austin suffered the personality and emotional changes common to closed-head injuries and eventually committed suicide. The Portland friend was rushed to the emergency room, had a couple of tough weeks (his partner, who was out of town when he fell, got one of those terrible phone calls from the ER that night and had to fly back to PDX that night not knowing what she’d find), but appears to be almost fully recovered.

    I’ve ridden (helmetless) in Holland along the separated paths and if we had those here, as we should, I’d probably be against a mandatory law. But my friends’ experience shows that even separating bikes from cars can still leave you at risk of terrible injury if you don’t wear a helmet while biking. That doesn’t necessarily mean that a mandatory law is a good idea, for the reasons Chris outlines above. But it does mean I wear a helmet when I ride.

  4. Preface: I pretty much always wear a helmet while riding a bicycle, and am pretty firmly convinced that doing so has saved my noggin on at least one occasion — and, really, that’s all it takes.

    Back to the topic at hand, namely, helmet use between Portland and Amsterdam:

    What about the technology differences? Like 90% or so of the bicycles in Amsterdam are Dutch bikes, and look pretty much all the same: Upright riding position, usually with the ability to stand nearly flat-footed while stopped. Heavy bicycle, sturdily-built. High handlebars, good center of gravity for stability.

    American bikes, on the other hand, are known only for not being known for anything in particular — they come in all shapes and sizes.

    In Amsterdam, the bicycles travel slowly, the bikes themselves are perhaps easier to not fall off of, and the entire road system is built to higher safety standards with regards to bicycles. I can’t remember if I used a helmet when I rode bicycles there or not, though — it was in 1996. That was a long time ago.

    So… My point is, there are many situations where it’s probably perfectly safe to not wear a helmet, and some of this depends on the bicycle that you’re riding, some of it depends on where you’re riding the bicycle, and some of it depends on how you’re riding the bicycle.

    I don’t really feel that helmet use should be legislated, however. Shouldn’t we give natural selection a better chance to operate? (ducking)

  5. fbear
    August 25, 2008 at 9:11 pm Link

    First question:

    Does the government have the right to legislate safety measures on public roads?

    Yes, of course. Perhaps the law most closely analogous to helmet laws is the law against jay-walking. It’s there largely for the protection of the offender. Yes, it’s largely ignored (though such was not always the case in Portland–it used to be that a few times a year someone would spend a night in jail for jaywalking, so jaywalking wasn’t very common here).

    Furthermore, the government has a legitimate interest in making the roadways it owns as safe as possible–it expends considerable resources in dealing accidents and their aftermath. It makes sense for them to reduce the negative impact of accidents on public roads.

    So the question is, is it a big enough problem, and is helmet use an effective enough solution, to warrant the big stick of enacting a law requiring helmet use. That’s less clear, but is worth looking into.

  6. Chris Smith
    August 25, 2008 at 9:27 pm Link

    I’d REALLY like to NOT make this discussion about requiring helmets, instead I’d like to think of it as what advice would you give your best friend if you were trying to trade off safety versus the likelihood of your friend not cycling as a result?

    Would that advice vary depending on the type of facility or the general state of the facilities here in Portland?

  7. Dave
    August 25, 2008 at 9:42 pm Link

    Okay, to get into detail to answer your question Chris, I won’t ride without a helmet anymore, because I still have some gravel in my chin, scars on my arms, and some dental damage from riding without one (or any other safety equipment, just shorts, a t-shirt and Chuck Taylors to be specific). Not to mention I dislocated my left elbow and broke my right hand. Not fun.

    I used to ride BMX bikes a bit. I put on a helmet if I was hitting some dirt jumps because I’m not stupid. I always thought on streets they were unneeded, along with gloves et al. I rode on side streets avoiding vehicles whenever possible.

    Then I got hit by a car. The guy drove off. It was over 10 years ago and across the country, so I’m not looking at Oregon’s laws on it. But I don’t ever want to see someone ride a bike without taking some reasonable precautions on a public road.

    I don’t ride so much anymore (chronic back problems from that and a pretty bad car accident), so I usually mention to my friends to wear some gloves and a helmet every time they ride. I don’t care if they drive or take a bus instead, I don’t want them going through what I did because it makes biking inconvenient. I won’t stop them, but it’s a stupid choice to make.

  8. fbear
    August 26, 2008 at 2:40 am Link

    Chris, I think your question is a bit of a silly one. The equivalent of asking the advice you’d give someone about driving/riding in a car, and whether they’d give up driving as a result of being told they should wear a safety belt.

    Helmets take a little getting used to, but not that much, really, and the ones available today are lighter than the old Bell Biker. My understanding is that there are resources for acquiring a helmet for a nominal fee, so the cost shouldn’t be a big concern (and a helmet is far cheaper than a broken head).

  9. Doug
    August 26, 2008 at 8:46 am Link

    I’m with fbear. I wouldn’t tell a friend that it’s ok to drive w/o a seat belt if he’s only driving 2 miles, and I wouldn’t tell a friend it’s ok to cycle without a helmet if it really makes them uncomfortable. I’m not for legislating helmet use, but I sure as hell wouldn’t tell a friend he didn’t have to wear a helmet in order to get him on a bike, if something happened to him I’d feel awful.

  10. EngineerScotty
    August 26, 2008 at 9:07 am Link

    Here’s the question from a different perspective.

    I have a seven-year-old boy, who loves to ride bicycles. Right now, it’s just racing around our cul-de-sac–no riding on busy streets, no racing, no BMX (organized), no stunt riding.

    Naturally, he resists the helmet–and has absorbed the notion from friends and classmates that helmets are for “sissies” or whatnot.

    He also is known for (for whatever reason) for wanting to ride barefoot. His mom and I, of course, insist that he wear both helmet and shoes; and we do point out that for children, this is the law.

    The question here is not what is appropriate for small children–a neighbor child has a cracked helmet (which would no doubt have been a cracked skull had she not been wearing it at the time). The question here is–the “helmets are for sissies” attitude seems to be prevalent in many parts of our culture–and numerous foreign cultures as well.

    What–if anything–can or should be done?

    A fruitful analogy might–again–be seatbelts. Twenty years ago, when the question of mandating seatbelt use came up, “seatbelts are for sissies” was a much more commonly-expressed attitude than it is today. Perhaps the argument for regulation is that forcing people to use safety equipment is the only known way to dismantle macho attitudes that safety equipment is “for sissies”–those who choose to wear them can rebut any harassment over the matter with the excuse “just obeying the law”. Or perhaps not–a far stonger regulatory regime from the Coast Guard and the like hasn’t gotten rid of the “lifevests are for sissies” mentality found in many professional (and amateur) mariners up and down the coast.

  11. Terry Parker
    August 26, 2008 at 10:20 am Link

    So bicyclists do not want to be required to where helmets. In addition they do mot want to stop at STOP signs, they ignore many other rules of the road, want more bicycle specialized infrastructure as long as somebody else pays for it including no charge accommodations on transit for bicycles – in other words, bicyclists want to be free to do as they please. However, these same bicyclists want to force taxpaying drivers out of their cars, tell motorists and motor freight carriers what kind of vehicles they should be using, expect other road users to follow the traffic laws they arrogantly ignore, selfishly demand the taking away of roadway vehicle capacity for bicycle infrastructure, super-sized sidewalks, streetcars, etc. The more clamor that bicyclists make about not being told what to do including wearing helmets while informing others how they should live and move about only demonstrates the brewing of hypocrisy from the bicycling community.

  12. Terry Parker
    August 26, 2008 at 10:22 am Link

    edit correction “wear helmets”

  13. Lenny Anderson
    August 26, 2008 at 2:36 pm Link

    I first wore a helmet when I started downhill ski racing in the 60’s…not for GS or Slalom, only Downhill where speeds approached 60 mph and there were rocks, trees, etc. No big deal, but it never occurred to me to wear a helmet on long bike rides to California and Canada in those same years. But I learned to belay on rock and snow climbs… some folks don’t.
    Risk is a personal matter and changes with age, personality, and just how one feels. Today, I ride a bike everyday with a helmet; my German wife refuses to.
    Something to consider is that at slow speeds or even standing, gravity puts all your body weight to some degree on your head…trying dropping 150 pounds on your head; well don’t. At higher speeds one meets the ground at an angle and the weight is dispersed, unless you hit a stationary object or motor vehicle. The rule with motorcycles is to “ride them down.”
    So I would advise friends to where a helmet, but can’t favor state intervention. What few traffic cops we have should be out protecting the public from speeding and red light abusing motor vehicles, not protecting us bikers from ourselves. The public role should be to make biking safer, slow motor vehicle speeds, design better facilities, etc.

  14. Unit
    August 26, 2008 at 5:01 pm Link

    Is anyone aware of injury data with and without helmets? I agree that without this, it’s a solution in search of a problem.

  15. fbear
    August 26, 2008 at 5:15 pm Link

    People think they’re safe when they’re riding on bike paths, or at slow speed, but as Lenny pointed out, sometimes it’s the slow crashes that cause the most damage.

    I also recommend eye protection. In the early 80s I was on a month-long bike trip, and decided one morning to skip the eye protection. A few miles into the ride a rock was kicked up by my tire and hit my in the nose less than an inch from my eye. Needless to say, the eye protection went on immediately.

    As far as the “sissy” factor, I just don’t get it. Unless, of course, valuing one’s head is not something that “he-men” do. Which may be the case. Me, I want to protect mine.

  16. fbear
    August 26, 2008 at 5:45 pm Link

    I found this fairly easily:

    http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/abstract/320/21/1361

  17. Erik Halstead
    August 26, 2008 at 9:16 pm Link

    My last bike ride on the Springwater Trail – from Milwaukie to Gresham and back – I was involved in three near-misses with OTHER BICYCLISTS who were not paying attention to the path and other traffic.

    Number of near misses with motor vehicles? Zero.

    The idea of crashing into a bike and landing on the other bike – protruding handlebars, footpedals, deraileurs, whathavenot – does not sound appetizing for me. Fortunately, I was wearing a helmet and had my head and taillights operating – even though I was on a “safe” bike path. And fortunately, I was able to avoid each of these incidents, with barely an “I’m sorry” from the other bicyclist.

    As far as I’m concerned, the more laws the better – including licensing of bicyclists – because I don’t trust other bicyclists to watch out for me. Since getting back on my bike in March, I’ve counted TWO near-misses with motor vehicles (one of which had several bikes in the back of the vehicle!), and at least a dozen near-misses with other bikes.

  18. M. Lasley
    August 26, 2008 at 10:14 pm Link

    If we’re looking for one answer, a panacea to the ubiquitous, “How to get people to wear helmets” question, I believe we’re going to run into trouble finding one argument in which we can all agree. In order to encourage the use of helmets, we should approach the subject from different angles. For example, the 7-year old boy view, as EngineerScotty pointed out; the cyclists who ought to pay more attention; and those who would ride but think it’s just not safe enough, etc.

    I would propose a series of strategies including, but not limited to:
    *using statistics to point out the pitfalls of not wearing a helmet for those who need that type of encouragement
    *small-focus group meetings for kids or inexperienced riders teaching them in small group settings how to ride, and how to ride safely
    *posters and/or billboards around the area, especially if there is a spot with known accidents
    *30-second video spots on OPB
    *other cooperation from community centers, church groups, and schools
    *BTA sponsored kits handed out during the Bike Commute Challenge

    Raising awareness and education, I believe, usually gives people better standing to make better, more informed decisions without the need for excess laws. Wearing helmets is no exception.

  19. Matthew
    August 26, 2008 at 10:17 pm Link

    Part of the problem with a law is the “first day” problem. The first time you ride a bicycle to work or the store or whatever, you don’t know if it will work, if you’ll be horribly late, or if you won’t like it, or whatever. And while I’d certainly recommend a helmet for those riders, I also have to point out that even a cheap helmet can be $20-$30 (and I paid $150 for mine, but they tested that one by running over it with a semi-truck: The rest of me may be flat, but my brain will be fine… I’ve heard good recommendations for hockey goalie equipment, but it looks complicated to put on.) And so while you can start bicycling with a free bicycle, there are a lot of people that don’t have $20 to try on a 5 minute experiment, so that is a barrier to cycling. And while I do have a couple extra thousand dollars laying around, (there was a picture of my house in the paper a few weeks ago if you want to know where that got spent,) I don’t know if I ever would have tried bicycling if I’d had to invest in a good bicycle, good lighting, and rain gear before my first ride…

    The first time I drove a car, it was my parent’s car, and the first time I drove to work or the store or whatever, it was my parent’s car. So when I bought my first car, (OK: I actually never have bought a car, my parents gave me that car and told me to fix the clutch in it because I’d worn it out,) I was fairly sure it would work for what I was using it for… Where as, before a couple year ago, the last time I’d ridden a bicycle I was probably 10. (I blame moving to the west hills, where I couldn’t even ride around the block because it was so steep…)

  20. Richard Keatinge
    August 27, 2008 at 4:56 am Link

    The main trouble with helmets is that they don’t seem to work. They do break easily – they’re a lot more fragile than heads – but helmet laws have not made any obvious difference to head injuries among cyclists, see for example http://www.cyclehelmets.org/papers/c2022.pdf.

    The Wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicycle_helmet has reasons why this might be so, and a lot of good discussion with references, but basically that’s it. I used to ride with a helmet, but since I became aware of the relevant facts the thing has been hanging in the shed. I’ve worked hard to my street survival skills, though. Helmets are at best a useless distraction, at worst they have hanged children, and they put people off riding.

  21. MRB
    August 27, 2008 at 6:49 am Link

    I frequently (almost never) wear a helmet, but I agree, there is no reason not to. I don’t think there is a very good reason to not wear a helmet. As a rider, a helmet protects me from a certain class of life-altering (or ending) injury at essentially zero cost. I don’t look “cooler” by not wearing a helmet, it doesn’t slow me down, whatever.

    I should also add, (hand) brakes on bicycles should be mandated as well. We don’t need fashion accessories putting anyone in danger.

  22. MachineShedFred
    August 27, 2008 at 7:56 am Link

    “The main trouble with helmets is that they don’t seem to work. They do break easily – they’re a lot more fragile than heads”

    This is because they are designed to break apart with impacts to absorb the force of said impact – hardly unique among safety equipment meant for impact damage: see car crumple zones.

    Think of the modern bicycle helment as a crumple zone for your brain, which you can then unclip and discard.

  23. Jeff F
    August 27, 2008 at 8:13 am Link

    Purely anecdotal: My son had a bicycle/auto accident two years ago which injured his back and cracked his helmet wide open. He and the medical staff that treated him are convinced that the helmet protected his skull from much more serious injuries.

    Frankly, it baffles me that anyone would fail to wear a helmet, regardless of where they’re riding. I’m encouraged to see more and more people wearing those skater-looking helmets that offer considerably more protection than the racing-style. They do look a little dopey, but I’d always rather look dopey than be brain-damaged.

  24. m
    August 27, 2008 at 1:44 pm Link

    http://www.helmets.org/stats.htm

  25. mrb
    August 28, 2008 at 4:12 am Link

    How’s this for a more nuanced view:

    There is no right to ride a bicycle, except perhaps on your own private property. But if you want to ride your bike on the street, or sidewalk, or any other public right of way, your safety becomes a public concern rather than a private one, therefore, the expectation that one wear a helmet (and bare the costs) is completely reasonable. Given the cost of alternatives (namely, automobiles, which cost in the multi-thousands of dollars and have an expensive, frustrating, and time-consuming licensing process) the act of buying a helmet is NO BARRIER to riding to any sane person. Certainly, it is easier than buying a bicycle.

    There it is; if politicians (or the people themselves) think they should mandate helmets, they are well within their rights to do so, IMO.

  26. Richard Keatinge
    August 28, 2008 at 5:28 am Link

    Actually broken helmets are failed helmets. “cracks developing partly or fully through the thickness of the foam-slab renders it useless in crushing and absorbing impact forces”, from http://www.atsb.gov.au/publications/2001/pdf/helmet_liner.pdf. And helmet laws have shown no useful effect. That does rather imply that the frequent “helmet saved…” stories are probably wrong. Safe riding, and a well-working bike, are important, helmets aren’t.

  27. Jeff F
    August 28, 2008 at 6:33 am Link

    Safe riding, and a well-working bike, are important, helmets aren’t.

    This an old study, but a definite result:

    http://tinyurl.com/3qb7mr

    In regression analyses to control for age, sex, income, education, cycling experience, and the severity of the accident, we found that riders with helmets had an 85 percent reduction in their risk of head injury (odds ratio, 0.15; 95 percent confidence interval, 0.07 to 0.29) and an 88 percent reduction in their risk of brain injury (odds ratio, 0.12; 95 percent confidence interval, 0.04 to 0.40). We conclude that bicycle safety helmets are highly effective in preventing head injury. Helmets are particularly important for children, since they suffer the majority of serious head injuries from bicycling accidents.

    New England Journal of Medicine

  28. EngineerScotty
    August 28, 2008 at 8:53 am Link

    If a helmet breaks (in an accident, or otherwise), then it obviously needs replacing. But a helmet that breaks in an accident is like a fuse that blows during an overload–it’s served its purpose and protected something more valuable.

    An interesting question: We have all heard stories (I alluded to one above) of the rider who crashes while wearing a helmet–and the helmet breaks. It’s often assumed that had the rider not been wearing the helmet, he would have suffered a serious head injury (a concussion, or worse). Is *this* true? Or are helmets designed to break apart on impacts far less intense than needed to significantly injure the head or brain?

  29. Matthew
    August 28, 2008 at 12:42 pm Link

    “It’s often assumed that had the rider not been wearing the helmet, he would have suffered a serious head injury (a concussion, or worse). Is *this* true? Or are helmets designed to break apart on impacts far less intense than needed to significantly injure the head or brain?”

    Well, I’ve broken a helmet by stepping on it. And while I haven’t stood on my head in a while, (not since I was a kid and required to wear a helmet actually,) I’m assuming that my weight on my head probably won’t cause brain damage, (or put another way: that someone stepping on my head is not [normally] life threatening.)

    So yes, it seems likely that helmets break in cases less serious than it would actually take to cause actual injury. I suspect that they have to design them in that way: If they designed them so they broke only when truly needed, then a minor manufacturing defect that made the helmet a little stiffer would mean that the helmet would only break after your brain was already damaged, (which would be entirely useless.) Not to mention variability in skulls/brain/etc, I’d have to imagine that helmets are designed to break at significantly less impact than it would take to do damage to the average person from the average collision…

  30. fbear
    August 28, 2008 at 5:07 pm Link

    Matthew,

    You do realize, don’t you, that there’s a HUGE difference between steady, distributed pressure and sudden, focused impact.

    Here’s a little experiment for you. First, place your hand on a hard, solid surface–the floor or a sturdy table. Put as much pressure as you possibly can on it.

    Next, hit the same surface with your hand, not even as hard as you can.

    Which hurts more?

    The impacts in cycling crashes are not steady pressure.

    If helmets don’t do any good, why do people in collision sports, like football, hockey, auto-racing, and cycling, to name a few, all wear helmets?

  31. fbear
    August 28, 2008 at 5:48 pm Link

    Actually, about four years ago I performed an impromptu version of the experiment I described in the previous post. Well, the second test case.

    My feet slipped out from under me while I was hiking. My hands went out behind me to break my fall. Did, too. And also broke my right wrist.

  32. Matthew
    August 28, 2008 at 6:27 pm Link

    fbear, you seem rather argumentative. The point of my last comment was that helmets are easier to break then your head, and so cracking a helmet doesn’t automatically mean you would have caused brain damage if you weren’t wearing one, (especially when it was under my chair at a restaurant when I put my foot through it by accident.) But if you really want to argue that point, try to hit your helmet against a watermelon and see which one breaks first. I know that it is possible to open a watermelon with your skull without obvious brain damage, (I’ve seen it on Youtube,) but I highly doubt you’ll find a bicycle helmet that can handle that stress.

    The reason people in collision sports ALL wear helmets is because the rules of the sport require it. If the rules were changed, some people would not wear helmets, and claim it “helped” them because they weren’t encumbered by the helmet. (The other 99% would continue because they want to play for more than one game without brain damage.)

    Also, auto racing and cycling are not collision sports. Collisions sometimes happen in those sports, but they aren’t considered a normal part of the sport… This is a lot of the reason that football and hockey helmets are very different than bicycle helmets, they can handle repeated impacts where as auto racing and cycling helmets are one time “use” items, and designed to be replaced after a collision has occurred. The other side to that is that auto racing and cycling helmets tend to be able to handle much larger impacts (and still protect your brain) than football and hockey helmets can…

  33. Dave in KY
    August 28, 2008 at 9:41 pm Link

    Chris, your assuption that more bicycle crashes occur on busy arterials than on low-traffic streets with bike lanes needs documentation. Remember, based on ER admissions, bike crashes break down like this:

    50% cyclist hurts self
    16% cyclist meets other cyclist
    16% cyclist meets motor vehicle
    8% cyclist meets dog
    8% other

    So if bike/car is only 1/6th of the problem, will choosing to ride on arterials really make a difference in the injury rate?

  34. fbear
    August 28, 2008 at 9:58 pm Link

    Matthew,

    It’s all about distributing impact. It doesn’t really matter whether the helmet survives the impact, what’s important is that it attenuates the impact.

    Brains really don’t like too much shaking and jarring. Yes, you can do certain things that will leave your skull intact, but it can still cause serious injury to your brain.

    I’ll admit that I’m leery of your stories of helmets breaking so easily, though I won’t test it on my helmet–I just bought a bike today, and I don’t want to shell out a bunch of money on a new helmet, so I won’t risk the one that I have.

  35. Chris Smith
    August 28, 2008 at 10:03 pm Link

    Chris, your assuption that more bicycle crashes occur on busy arterials than on low-traffic streets with bike lanes needs documentation.

    Fair point. My counter-example is Amsterdam (or maybe Utrecht is more comparable to Portland). I think the question is what else do we need to do to improve safety to such an extent that helmets become a less relevant factor in safety outcomes?

    A friend of mine who works on traffic safety reminded me that Portland’s bike boulevards are still a long way from the engineered infrastructure in places like Utrecht. Just one example is that our bike boulevards still have LOTS of driveways, each one a potential conflict point. European bikeways generally enjoy very few curb cuts to create conflict points.

  36. Richard Keatinge
    August 29, 2008 at 12:09 am Link

    Chris, the point is indeed how to make cycling safer and more popular. The facts say that helmets simply aren’t relevant. (I realize that a lot of people will continue to believe that helmets work whatever the facts are – that’s fine so long as they’re not hassling me to wear one.) We have a lot of things to do, and major road engineering is just one of them. There is comfort in the fact that more cyclists make cycling safer, but getting to a culture where bikes and cars find a good balance will take a long time. What would be your idea for a first practical step?

  37. John Reinhold
    August 29, 2008 at 7:06 pm Link

    I still have some gravel in my chin, scars on my arms, and some dental damage from riding without one (or any other safety equipment, just shorts, a t-shirt and Chuck Taylors to be specific). Not to mention I dislocated my left elbow and broke my right hand.

    How would a helmet have protected your chin, arms, teeth, elbow, or hand?

  38. al m
    August 31, 2008 at 12:06 am Link

    I’VE GOT THE ANSWER!

    Give tax rebates to every bicyclist who wears a helmet!

    And you absolutely, positively CANNOT compare Amsterdam to Portland!

    And take it one step further, you absolutely, positively CANNOT COMPARE EUROPE TO AMERICA.

    The two cultures have very little in common other than racial genetics.

  39. TomTrottier
    September 2, 2008 at 1:18 am Link

    The horizontal speed doesn’t matter so much for the helmet – it’s designed for the fall to the pavement.

    tOM

  40. TomTrottier
    September 2, 2008 at 1:42 am Link

    Helmets are meant to work when they have a head inside them. You can easily crack them by stepping on them, but if there were a head (or a head form) strapped inside, they wouldn’t crack. They are meant to crush, to lessen the forces that would otherwise cause your brain to slosh around inside your skull, damaging your brain stem, and to prevent your skull from cracking.

    My take: utilitarian cycling is very, very safe. Safer than walking. Racing, adventure cycling, BMX, and such are not. Kids don’t ride safely either – they are still learning and still developing.

    So I support requiring helmets for kids, and in races and contests, but not as a general rule for all.

    That said, I always wear a helmet. It’s also a very visible place to put lights and fluorescent/reflective stickers.

    And some helmets catch enough wind and direct it around your head that a helmet at speed is actually cooler than no helmet!

    tOM

  41. John Reinhold
    September 3, 2008 at 8:46 pm Link

    And you absolutely, positively CANNOT compare Amsterdam to Portland!

    And take it one step further, you absolutely, positively CANNOT COMPARE EUROPE TO AMERICA.

    Actually, we can compare any place we want to any other place we want…

    The comparison might show the differences as much as the similarities.

    However there is no reason whatsoever that any two places on the planet can’t be compared…

    Unless of course you are afraid of what the results of a comparison might be…

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