Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

A coherent argument against wearing bicycle helmets

with 8 comments

Very interesting piece by Elisabeth Rosenthal in the NY Times:

ONE spectacular Sunday in Paris last month, I decided to skip museums and shopping to partake of something even more captivating for an environment reporter: Vélib, arguably the most successful bike-sharing program in the world. In their short lives, Europe’s bike-sharing systems have delivered myriad benefits, notably reducing traffic and its carbon emissions. A number of American cities — including New York, where a bike-sharing program is to open next year — want to replicate that success.

So I bought a day pass online for about $2, entered my login information at one of the hundreds of docking stations that are scattered every few blocks around the city and selected one of Vélib’s nearly 20,000 stodgy gray bikes, with their basic gears, upright handlebars and practical baskets.

Then I did something extraordinary, something I’ve not done in a quarter-century of regular bike riding in the United States: I rode off without a helmet.

I rode all day at a modest clip, on both sides of the Seine, in the Latin Quarter, past the Louvre and along the Champs-Élysées, feeling exhilarated, not fearful. And I had tons of bareheaded bicycling company amid the Parisian traffic. One common denominator of successful bike programs around the world — from Paris to Barcelona to Guangzhou — is that almost no one wears a helmet, and there is no pressure to do so.

In the United States the notion that bike helmets promote health and safety by preventing head injuries is taken as pretty near God’s truth. Un-helmeted cyclists are regarded as irresponsible, like people who smoke. Cities are aggressive in helmet promotion.

But many European health experts have taken a very different view: Yes, there are studies that show that if you fall off a bicycle at a certain speed and hit your head, a helmet can reduce your risk of serious head injury. But such falls off bikes are rare — exceedingly so in mature urban cycling systems.

On the other hand, many researchers say, if you force or pressure people to wear helmets, you discourage them from riding bicycles. That means more obesity, heart disease and diabetes. And — Catch-22 — a result is fewer ordinary cyclists on the road, which makes it harder to develop a safe bicycling network. The safest biking cities are places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where middle-aged commuters are mainstay riders and the fraction of adults in helmets is minuscule. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

30 September 2012 at 7:20 am

Posted in Daily life, Health

8 Responses

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  1. Don’t know about the stats, and as the old saying goes, “Statistics don’t lie, but, liars use statistics”, but I’ve had three major accidents in my cycling career, any one of which would have been either fatal or seriously debilitating without a helmet. And by way of qualification, I’m a very seasoned rider, having ridden the Olympic velodrome in the 80’s, completed centuries (100 mile rides) in the mountains of Vermont, and having never been without at least one good bike in the last 53 years!

    I once hid a speed-bump that had been installed but not yet painted yellow, in a quiet residential area, at about 20 kph. Went flying and landed on my head. Helmet cracked open. Head didn’t. Body black and blue everywhere, for weeks.

    Second time, I hit a tree that had fallen in a wind-storm right across the bike path. I came whipping around a corner, eyes on the trail, and BAM!, before I knew it I was flat on my back, the tree having hit me right across the forehead. Helmet split open. Head didn’t.

    The third time, I lost my brakes on a steep downhill that ended at a red light. Taxi stopped at red light. I purposely slid the bike so that I wouldn’t hit the cab, my head cracking on the asphalt. Helmet split open. Head didn’t.

    So it’s hard for me to take the article seriously, although of course, my view is colored by personal experience, which ultimately is far more useful than statistics (to me). I cringe when I see cyclists without helmets. There are so many crazy drivers out there, hell, even driving behind the wheel of a 4000 lb. car isn’t much protection.



    30 September 2012 at 1:52 pm

  2. The Eldest recounted similar stories, including two youngsters in terrible condition in the emergency room. Note that the article at least suggests several caveats: separated bike lanes, traffic designed for bicycles, and rather sedate speeds.

    I recall when bicycle helmets first appeared. The initial ones were repurposed rock-climbing helmets, some with additional holes cut for ventilation. I in fact looked around for a rock-climbing helmet for bicycling, but very soon bicycling helmets appeared.

    It’s a tough call on the cycling programs. Skiing helmets are, I’m told, now common, including rental helmets.



    30 September 2012 at 2:29 pm

  3. My wife was the physiotherapist in charge of head injuries for the provincial automobile insurance program. It covered both drivers/passengers and the victims of car accidents. When you’ve seen the sequelae of no helmets, it becomes a moot point.

    There’s really no excuse for not wearing one; they are now extremely comfortable and well-ventilated.

    As for the “Dutch” model: Dedicated and secured bike lanes, sure….let’s build those first and then talk about no helmets. In the meantime, our roads are shared by: Cars, bicycles, wheelchairs, skateboarders, pedestrians, in-line skaters, among others. It’s a witches’ brew of risk. WE have a couple of cyclists getting killed in bike lanes almost every month!



    30 September 2012 at 3:22 pm

  4. Good point on the actual bicycling conditions in the US and Canada, which suggests that if a city offers free shared bicycles without requiring helmets, those injured are going to sue the socks off the city unless the city gets a signed waiver, and getting that will kill the program as much as (if not more than) requiring helmets.



    30 September 2012 at 3:55 pm

  5. In fact the City of Montreal speaks out of both sides already. They have the enormously successful Bixi bike rental program and don’t require helmets, while promoting helmet laws for everyone else. What hypocrisy. Of course, providing helmets would be completely impractical and fraught with hygiene issues. Perhaps someone will invent a disposable helmet???



    30 September 2012 at 5:27 pm

  6. Hmm. On the one hand, I risk traumatic brain injury or death, and on the other hand, I could get lice. Lice pls. Thx.


    The Eldest

    2 October 2012 at 2:07 pm

  7. It really puts cities in a bind: if they have ordinances/laws requiring cyclists to wear a helmet for safety reasons, and then offer a bike-sharing service where helmets are not required, the lawsuits are inevitable since the city clearly recognizes the dangers of unhelmeted riding (via the law requiring helmets) at the same time it promotes unhelmeted riding (via the bike-share program). I believe they will have to rethink this.



    2 October 2012 at 2:21 pm

  8. A helmet made of thick egg-carton material. Hmmm…..maybe there’s a business idea there.



    5 October 2012 at 11:40 am

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