The Need for Bicycle Helmets

Bicyclists are arguing that mandatory helmets laws inhibit the growth of bicycling, which can be a key element of successful urbanism and a healthy lifestyle.

I occasionally check in on the world of bicycling. The increasing use of bicycles for everyday tasks can be a key element of successful urbanism. A recent coincidence led me to check in this week.

A reader of this blog recently commented that bicycle helmet laws may inhibit bicycling by making it seem more dangerous than it really is. It was the first time I’d heard the argument and I was slow to respond. Which was a good thing because all of a sudden a pair of articles appeared that made the same argument.

Elisabeth Rosenthal, writing in the Sunday New York Times, compares Europe where helmets are required only for children, few adults don helmets, and bicycling is common to North American where helmets are often required for all and bicycling is far less common.

Her key observation is "… 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 is harder to develop a safe bicycling network." Rosenthal goes on to quote an Australian researcher who estimates that the benefits of not requiring helmets may outweigh the costs by 20-to-1.

Chris Bruntlett, writing in Hush, makes the same argument and provides further data, including the estimate that annual medical expenses in Australia are increased by $301 million because helmet laws inhibit the health benefits that would result from bike riding. He contends that helmet laws have been shown to be failures pretty much everywhere.

I’m not a bicyclist and haven’t been one for years. (Let’s put it this way.  I’ve never worn a bike helmet.) But I’d like to hear from bicyclists with thoughts on this issue.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. He has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and four dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com. He can also be followed on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Dan Lyke October 04, 2012 at 05:16 PM
My parents made me wear a helmet for bicycling when I was young, long before this was common. Over the years I've had a few accidents, cracked a few helmets, gotten one or two concussions when I've wiped out in a way where the helmet didn't catch the impact. I find it very uncomfortable to get on a bike without a helmet. It's like going outside naked, but more so. However, I think that for most urban "cruising", advocating for helmet use is counter-productive. It's already enough of a pain in the butt to have to navigate antagonistic traffic, find a place to lock a bike to something, worry about vandalism and theft (bikes get stolen and damaged far more often than parked cars), figure out how to carry your purchases on the bike... to have to then carry a helmet around is just that much more of an annoyance. Furthermore, most of the urban hazards to low speed bicycling are also hazards to pedestrians, and we should do our best to mitigate all of those. Admittedly, some of those hazards are bicyclists (I was recently narrowly missed by a bicyclist on a cruiser style bicycle blasting through the intersection at 4th and B without stopping, said bicyclist was riding on the north sidewalk coming the wrong way down Kentucky St... Never a cop when you need one), but if the hazards are primarily from automobile traffic, we should do our best to fix that problem.
Amy B Jolly ECO2school Program Manager October 04, 2012 at 06:42 PM
Currently we have no law requiring adults to wear a helmet. The law assumes adults are able to make good and conscientious decisions about the risks and benefits regarding helmets and safety. While I agree that norms of behavior are different in the US and Europe I don't think not wearing a helmet is the answer, particularly given the antagonistic attitudes between cyclists and motorists. Further more I think our culture of greed, instant gratification and consumption have a lot more to do with American obesity than wearing or not wearing a helmet. The only helmet laws we have now relate to young people. In CA you are required to wear a helmet if you are under 18. I work with young people and one of their favorite things is to tell crash stories. Almost all the stories end with "I was wearing a helmet and I didn't injure my head." This has led me to multiple conclusions: 1. Most young people crash at some point. 2.Helmets do make a difference particularly for young riders who are inexperienced and may be less aware of risk. 3. Parents, protective of their children's well being are more likely, not less, to let their child use a bike for transportation if they believe that child is safe. A helmet law is a benefit in that regard. The habits around exercise we establish as young people have a significant impact on what we do as an adult. This will do as much if not more to reduce obesity and heart disease as changing helmet law.
Active Thinker October 04, 2012 at 08:19 PM
I agree...people need to get out more and use the walking etc. Just think if you had to use a bike or walk home from the grocery store...how much stuff would you buy? We need more bike paths that really connect our town...and it starts with kids being able to ride their bikes safe to and from school....
Dan Lyke October 04, 2012 at 08:44 PM
I don't have any data, and a self-observed sample of 1 is definitely not statistically significant, but a secondary factor: I strongly suspect that wearing a helmet leads kids to engage in riskier behavior. I don't think it's as bad as in football, where it's been very solidly shown that improvements in helmet technology have led to a rise in concussions because players now think they're protected, but I remember suiting up specifically for some really dumb things, back when I was a wee lad. Having said that, I'm still a fan of parents making their kids wear helmets. But I also think Dave's discussion isn't just about law, but also about advocacy and the impact that even just saying that people should wear helmets has on bicycle use. To Active Thinker's statements: this is where I break out my broken record: Multi-use paths aren't bike paths, let's not confuse them. But also that I believe that building separate facilities leads to more of a feeling of entitlement by drivers, which leads to less safe roads.
John.Maher October 04, 2012 at 08:54 PM
The only day I did not wear a helmet, I crashed. Was running late for work and couldn't find it. Wet railroad tracks out in front of the animal shelter slid the wheels right out from under me and my head broke the fall. Stitches, headaches and scars. Duhh on me and double duhh on anyone who rides a bike without a helmet after reading this.
Active Thinker October 04, 2012 at 09:12 PM
To Dan, I agree about the driver's general feeling for bikers. As someone who grew up in Marin and people ride bikes everywhere but there are combined paths for both uses which enables people to travel from one area to another in a somewhat safe mannor...not like Petaluma. That's all I was saying. ever go to Davis? Awesome...ride your bike everywere and see how they feel...driving jack up trucks when you don't need one just to look cool is pretty lame and then getting pissed off at a biker becuase you have to wait for them for a few seconds...
Dan Lyke October 04, 2012 at 11:26 PM
Yeah, I've got mixed feelings on multi-use paths. On the one hand, I think that mixing 20-25MPH road bike traffic with pedestrians is a bad idea. On the other hand, I'm riding my mountain bike (because I don't trust the bus system with my road bike) along Santa Rosa's Joe Rodota trail several times a week for my commute. I still have to dodge a lot of stoners, alcoholics and pedestrians ("multi-use" encompasses a lot, apparently), but at the 12MPH or so of the big knobby tired bike it's not too bad. I just get concerned because in various Marin places drivers got testy about road cyclists on the road rather than on adjoining MUPs, where the MUP would have had the bikers traveling at fast walk speeds for pedestrian safety. And my experiences bike commuting on the path under BART in the East Bay taught me that unless you're actively patrolling and ticketing pedestrians, two adjacent paths, one marked "Pedestrian" and one marked "Bikes Only", doesn't help. I do need to check out Davis, and I also realized that my vision of Petaluma is very skewed: I live on the west side, ride downtown via 6th St, and generally the furthest east I ride is Whole Foods. There's no room for MUPs there, we'd do way better with some re-striping and better signalling (and we're all familiar with the struggles surrounding traffic circles and East D St.).
oblio October 05, 2012 at 04:20 PM
Really interesting point of view, and not something I had thought of before. Personally, like Dan mentioned, I am so conditioned to wearing my helmet that I feel weird and naked without it. It's really not a big deal to pop it on. If grown-ups don't want to wear one, that's fine for them. But if my kids ask why they're not wearing a helmet, I will have to tell them it's because they just don't know any better.
Ken M October 05, 2012 at 08:50 PM
I've been in the bike business and the cycling community for 20+ years, and I've never heard anyone advocating for LESS helmet use. Quite the contrary, even with no mandatory helmet laws for adults, anyone showing up to a group ride without a helmet nowadays would surely be unwelcome. Wearing a helmet is just an accepted part of the activity, and it prevents deaths and injuries each and every day - we see the smashed helmets in our shops, carried in by the cyclists who are alive and well because of those very helmets! The suggestion that helmets are bad for cycling is just idiotic - no better than suggesting that seatbelts or airbags are holding back car use - and anyone actually promoting that theory should have their head examined before they do real harm to someone else's.
Dan Lyke October 05, 2012 at 09:53 PM
I don't think the argument is for less helmet use, I think all of us think helmets are a good idea. I think the argument is that the net effect of strong helmet advocacy is a greater health risk because it deters people from bicycling. If you can get people wearing helmets without turning them off from riding, that's a net win. On the cracked helmets, however... The two times I've cracked a helmet, I would not have been engaging in that activity had I not had the helmet. So there's the microeconomic effect of "yeah, helmets keep heads intact", there's also the macroeconomic effect of "helmets let over-testosteroned guys think they're invincible". Gotta balance those...
AyurvedicMama October 06, 2012 at 02:17 PM
To me it's seems absolutely absurd not to wear a helmet. Sure bicycle riding may help reduce obesity, but standards for safety need to be in place. The uninsured cyclist who gets hit, still has to be treated medically, in most cases. Someone very close in my life was hit while riding their bicycle (not too long ago). Amazingly fortunate that this person was wearing a helmet. Had they not been, the situation could have been devastating as the evidence showed on the helmet. Perhaps a law that helmets are to be sold with the purchase of each bike, say a package deal? Cars aren't sold without seat belts. At that point whether someone chooses to use it or not, is solely their decision.
Dave Alden October 07, 2012 at 10:03 PM
To all, thanks for the spirited response. I've chosen to not to respond to each comment because I'm not a bicyclist today. But I appreciate that passion and convication that all of you have shown. I have a couple of thoughts to offer, but will fold those into a follow-up blog post. I'll probably submit it to the Patch on Wednesday, so it'll likely run near the end of the week. I hope to hear from all of you again at that time. - Dave
Scott Warner October 08, 2012 at 12:32 AM
Advocating for less helmet use while bicycling is nonsensical. I find the title of your article also senseless and is more harmful then helpful. Look, you can make statistics mean anything you want - by trying to say that helmet laws reduce interest in cycling, and that wearing them promotes riskier riding is, truthfully, absurd. Wear your helmets, ride safely, follow traffic laws, and be aware when on the road. Dave, I suggest you get out on a bike as well - it does seem strange fo you to write this article with less than specific experience to draw on.
Dan Lyke October 11, 2012 at 07:12 PM
So I'm about to go take a loop around Petaluma on a bicycle, with a helmet, but putting down my beret and finding my helmet reminded me to ask: It's difficult to get meaningful pedestrian or bicycle statistics. The only thing I could find easily was The National Highway and Transportation Aministration FARS (Fatality Analysis Reporting System) data, which suggests that in 2010 there were 4,280 pedestrian fatalities, and 618 bicycle fatalities. Given that there are almost seven times as many pedestrian fatalities as bicycle ones, why don't we advocate for pedestrian helmet use? If that answer assumes anything about miles travelled in each transport mode: how can we collect data to support that decision? If that answer assumes something about relative dangers of each activity, what's the "per" unit, and how can we gather data to support that argument? Note that any argument on this matter needs to include some notion of behavior: We should not class over-testosteroned 20-somethings descending the rocky section of Eldridge Grade above the 15 MPH speed limit, or illiterate undocumented immigrants riding against traffic in twilight hours, in the same statistical bucket as suburban errand riding on big tires, any more than we group automobile commuters with drivers at Sears Point (whom we expect will wear helmets). Bonus question: How might advocating for pedestrian helmet use change pedestrian behavior?
Dan Lyke October 11, 2012 at 07:17 PM
(I'd also note that in suggesting that we shouldn't group those riders together, I've made exactly that error many times in discussing automobile users: We group daytime-only drivers and after midnight drivers who've been drinking together in statistics all the time...)
JR October 14, 2012 at 12:35 AM
People in other parts of the world have different views about public safety. Many feel that where they live is basically safe, and they don't need to take measures, whether it is wearing a bike helmet or carrying a gun, to provide for their own safety. For this reason, you can't necessarily take a study from another country and apply its conclusions to the US. What cyclists in Sonoma and Napa need is for cars to stop hitting them. Failing that, and we seem to be, we need some separated facilities, especially in the Sonoma and Napa valleys. Both a choked with cars and full of visitors who would happily take to bikes instead. Many already do, at their peril. Napa has the Vine trail in the works, although I don't expect it to be completed in my lifetime. Sonoma Valley has nothing and seems not to care.
Jamie Clemons October 14, 2012 at 02:27 AM
Ok so I am 21 and I wear a helmet one my friends gave me a good warning she is one who when she says something it sticks. I am glad I wear my helmet while riding in this town I've personally have already had my bad experience with some drivers because well they wanted to be "All tough" aka owner's of the road almost pushing me into a storm drain.. I've ridden without a helmet to and well I do see how much more safer I see myself with it on. Sure like few people have told me about how they have fallen off, haven't we all? or haven't we all had a bicycle crash( in a pole or into a tree or over the handle bars into the street) I've sometimes on short rides I've found myself saying short ride dont need a helmet.. I find myself in the end always putting it on. No matter age I feel a helmet is the right thing to wear while riding a bike because it would be saving one more chance of a person being killed or a persons brains being put out onto the street.. Even though in the long run, it is up to each bike rider..
Dave Alden October 14, 2012 at 10:10 PM
Once again, thanks for all the comments. I've delayed my follow-up blog post while doing additional research, but certainly haven't forgotten about it. A couple of clarifications regarding my original posts and some of the comments: + I didn't advocate any change in current helmet laws. I noted that credible observers have suggested that current laws and attitudes may be impeding the growth of bicycling and asked for thoughts. + I agree that pedestrian safety is also a major concern. However, I don't think a pedestrian helmet law would make much of a difference. I suspect that most pedestrian deaths are the result of impact to the body. + Even if a change in helmet laws would improve bicycling acceptance, it wouldn't be a panacea. There are numerous other factors that come into use, including our land use patterns, how we accommodate bikes on transit, parental attitudes toward bicycling, etc.


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