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What's wrong with bicycle helmets?

by Michael Bluejay • Last update: June 2013

Many readers are surprised that I don't make a big deal on this site of insisting that cyclists wear helmets, especially since wearing helmets is what most people equate with bike safety.
There are three reasons I don't stress helmets here:
  1. Focusing on helmets distracts people from what's more likely to actually save their lives:  Safe-riding skills.  I'm not against helmets, I'm against all the attention placed on helmets at the expense of learning how to not get hit by cars.  Helmets are not the most important aspect of bike safety.  Not by a long shot.

  2. Research has failed to show any net protective value of bike helmets.  That's because while helmets help in some ways, they hurt in other ways.  The problems cancel out the benefits, and so there's no overall safety effect.  Probably the main negative impact of helmets is that drivers pass helmeted cyclists more closely than unhelmeted cyclists (because unhelmeted cyclists seem more vulnerable), and so helmeted cyclists are more likely to get hit. (Univ. of Bath)

  3. The importance placed on helmets has negative social effects.
    1. It paints cycling as a horribly dangerous activity, and is it any wonder why few Americans choose to ride bikes in that kind of climate?
    2. Cyclists who choose not to wear helmets get demonized as "stupid", even though the research shows that they're not at any greater overall risk than helmeted cyclists.
    3. Governments get motivated to pass mandatory helmet laws, which always have the effect of decreasing the number of cyclists.  This is ironic, since the thing that's most correlated with cycling safety is the number of cyclists on the road, but helmet laws result in fewer cyclists, making it more dangerous for those who remain.

Helmets distract from what's really important:  safe-riding skills

Unfortunately, helmets have become a panacea:  Many parents and city & state governments think they can slap a flimsy piece of styrofoam on a kid's head and they've done their part to make sure that kids are safe.  But it's actually the opposite.  That approach is akin to outfitting somebody with a flak jacket and then having them run through a firing range.  If you had to choose between giving a child a helmet or the education about how to ride safely, you should choose the education and ditch the helmet every time.

Of course you don't have to choose between one or the other, but the point is that most people are choosing, and they're choosing the helmet only.  For example, helmet laws are popping up all over the country, but how many of those same jurisdictions are mandating classes in how to ride safely?  Almost none.  In Adam Sandler's movie Click, his character sends his kids out biking at night, dutifully decked out with helmets—but no lights!  Choosing helmets over lights means that the kids are much more likely to actually die on the road.  And that's what the problem is: A misguided focus, a belief that bike safety begins and ends with putting a helmet on your head.


Helmet benefits canceled out by helmet risks

While helmets obviously decrease some injuries, they actually promote other kinds of injuries.  The net result is that the protective value is erased by the added risks.  The net result is no overall protection, and possibly even an overall negative effect.  Because surprisingly, as helmet use goes up, so do head injuries among cyclists.  In the 1990s when helmet use in the U.S. went up, head injuries among cyclists skyrocketed by a whopping 51%. (NY Times)  If helmets were so amazingly effective, we'd expect head injuries to go down, not up.

How helmets HELP
  • Absorb some of the impact of collisions
  • Protect against scrapes and scratches
How helmets HURT
  • Drivers pass more closely, since helmeted cyclists seem less vulnerable
  • Head size is increased, making potential impacts with pavement more likely
  • Cyclists are encouraged to take more risks, since they feel protected

Most of us have heard that "bicycle helmets can prevent up to 85% of head injuries".  But in the study that figure came from, not a single helmeted cyclist had a collision with a motor vehicle!  The study was roundly criticized in the Helmet FAQ by Vehicular Cyclist and by CycleHelmets.org, which states:

This paper is by far the most frequently cited research paper in support of the promotion of cycle helmets. It is referred to by most other papers on helmets, to the extent that some other papers, and most helmet promotion policies, rely fundamentally upon the validity of its conclusions.

The claims that helmets reduce head injuries by 85% and brain injuries by 88% come only from this source, yet are quoted widely as gospel by people who know nothing more about cycle helmets. The prospect of achieving such massive reductions in injuries to cyclists lies at the root of helmet promotion and mandatory helmet laws around the world.

Those who have taken the trouble to analyse the paper in detail, however, have found it to be seriously flawed and its conclusions untenable. (more...)

CycleHelmets has other good information, such as the chart at right showing that countries with the most helmet use also have the most head injuries (PDF).  This is important enough that it bears repeating: countries with the most helmeted cyclists also have the highest rate of cycling head injuries.  And of course the converse is true: cycling head injuries are much lower in countries where cyclists don't wear helmets very much.

Here's one way helmets can hurt:  A study at the University of Bath showed that motorists gave less room when passing helmeted cyclists vs. unhelmeted ones.  The researcher was actually struck twice on his bicycle when conducting the study, both times while wearing a helmet.

Another theory is that helmets effectively make the cyclist's "head" much larger, so with a bigger head a falling cyclist is much more likely to slam it against the road or a car (causing traumatic brain injury because the brain is still slammed against the skull), or possibly even breaking the cyclist's neck.

Patrick Goetz points out another possible problem with helmets:

With some trepidations, I've actually been wearing a bicycle helmet for recreational road biking, However, [a recent car-bike] accident points clearly to one of the problems with helmet usage: I can no longer hear cars coming up behind me since I've started wearing a helmet.  It's quite unsettling to be biking down a quiet rural road and suddenly have a giant, noisy pickup blast by completely unanticipated.  There's something about how the wind passes through the air vents that greatly attenuates sounds from the rear (and perhaps otherwise).

These things could explain why we don't see any reduction in cyclist fatalities when helmet use goes up: helmets could be saving some cyclists but killing others.

 

Putting things in perspective

It's funny how dramatically perceptions have changed in recent times.  As recently as the 80's virtually nobody wore helmets, and no one thought anything of it.  But today cyclists are considered stupid and irresponsible if they don't do something that nobody did the first 80 years that cycling was around.  Today some motorists feel it's their obligation to scowl and yell "Get a helmet!" at unhelmeted cyclists.

And this brings up another point: The motorists who are so insistent that cyclists wear helmets aren't wearing helmets themselves.  This isn't silly: crash helmets could potentially save more lives for motorists than cyclists.  About 38,000 motorists die on U.S. roads every year compared to fewer than 700 cyclists.  If helmets are good for cyclists, they ought to be great for drivers and passengers.  Why is nobody banging the drum about this?  After all, helmets save lives, right?

 

Helmet laws

Another problem with the focus on helmets is that they encourage state and local governments to enact helmet laws.  But while something might be a good idea, that doesn't mean that not doing it should be a criminal offense.  It's a good idea to brush your teeth. Should you have to risk arrest if you don't?

The main problem with a helmet law is that it ignores the unintended consequences.  If a city passed a helmet law and the only thing that changed was that more cyclists started wearing helmets, then there might be a public safety benefit and no downside.  But that's not the only thing that happens when a helmet law gets passed.  The most significant result of a helmet law is to discourage cycling.  That's because many would rather quit biking than have to wear a helmet, and because a law promotes the idea that cycling is an incredibly dangerous activity. Reductions in cycling by 33% to 50% are typical in places where helmet laws have been passed. (CycleHelmets.org, Cycle-Helmets.com)

Ironically, helmet laws thus make cycling more dangerous, because fewer cyclists on the road means that motorists are less used to seeing cyclists.  It's no surprise that the countries with the most cyclists have the lowest rate of injuries per cyclist.  Helmet laws ensure that the rate of injury per cyclist goes up.  In fact, helmet laws make driving and walking more dangerous, because when people stop biking, they start driving, and it's cars & SUV's that kill other motorists and pedestrians, not bicyclists.

There are yet other problems with helmet laws. In some communities police have used helmet laws as an excuse to target minority kids. In Austin the last time anyone checked, over 90% of the no-helmet tickets given to kids went to black and Hispanic kids.

Once something normal suddenly becomes against the law these kinds of excesses can occur.  In Palm Beach County, Florida a sheriff's deputy handcuffed a nine-year-old boy for not wearing the obligatory helmet.

But one of the biggest problems with helmet laws is that the shift the blame onto the cyclist in car-bike collisions, even if the motorist was clearly at fault.  The idea is that if a cyclist gets hit by an at-fault motorist, it was the stupid cyclist's fault for not wearing a helmet.  This is no exaggeration; this exact opinion has been promulgated by the defense in countless court cases, effectively denying cyclists and their families justice against at-fault motorists.  When Ben Clough was killed while bicycling in Austin both the police press release and the article in the local paper made sure to point out that Ben hadn't been wearing a helmet. What they didn't point out at all was that the driver who killed him ran a red light to do so.

Wait, it gets richer.  The driver in question was not arrested, paid no fine, served no jail time, and did not even receive a traffic ticket for running the red light.  This prompted one local cyclist to comment that the best way to avoid a ticket for running a red light is to run over a bicyclist while you do so. (more on cycling justice issues)

BicycleAustin has a whole laundry list of arguments against mandatory helmet laws.

 

Summary

  • Bicycle helmets may have some protective value, but not nearly as much as has been claimed, or most people seem to think.
  • Wearing a helmet does nothing to prevent you from being hit by a car.
  • Real bicycle safety involves learning how to ride properly.
  • Crash helmets could easily save more lives for motorists than bicyclists.
  • Helmet laws can result in the targeting of minorities, discourage cycling, make cycling more dangerous for those who remain, and shift the blame in car-bike collisions to helmetless cyclists even if it was the motorist who was at fault.

 

Pages referenced in this article, and other resources

Book:
The Art of Urban Cycling

The Urban Cycling Manual dismantles the urban cycling experience and slides it under the microscope, piece by piece. Author Robert Hurst discusses how, in America, bicyclists were an afterthought at best when our cities were planned and built, and today are left to navigate through a hard and unsympathetic world that was not made for them--like rats in a sewer. Yet, with the proper attitude and a bit of knowledge, urban cyclists will thrive in this hostile environment. The primary concern is safety, but this book goes well beyond the usual tips and how-to, diving in to the realms of history, psychology, sociology, and economics. It empowers readers with the Big Picture of urban cycling--and gives urban cyclists many useful insights to consider while pedaling the next commute or grocery run. Riding a bike in the city will never be the same. -- by the publisher

$14.95 - Buy Now

How to Not Get Hit by Cars

Read our guide about how to bicycle safely.

 

Fan Mail

Splendid! I have been commuting to work year round for several years, and have come to many of the same conclusions you have. You put things very clearly, and there are a few points I hadn't thought of--thank you! I'm going to pass this info around. --Ron Grosslein, Amherst, MA

I would like to say that your site is absolutely terrific. From the title to the last word, it is logical, sensible, and utterly devoted to what should be every cyclist's number-one priority: avoiding death and injury. Way to go! -- Phil Hickey, Boulder, CO

I'm saved! I have got to tell all my friends about this site! (Both biking and non-biking.) Seriously, great advice and great graphics. I am going to try to get our club webmaster to link to you. -- Gerry Maron Carolina Cyclers; Palmetto Cycling Coalition

See more fan mail.


Reprint & Link Permission

I'm happy to share the information on this site with others at no cost. Permission to reprint How to Not Get Hit by Cars is given freely, subject to the following provisions:

  • Linking. Feel free to link to us. The direct url is http://BicycleSafe.com. Here's a list of sites which link to us. If you'd like to link with a banner, feel free to use the How to Not Get Hit banner at the top right of this page.
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The contents of BicycleSafe.com are Copyright 1998-05 by Michael Bluejay and may not be sold for profit.


Safe Road Riding Game/Quiz

The Pennsylvania Dept. of Transportation has an excellent Safe Road Riding Game/Quiz. Most bike safety stuff I see tells you little more than to wear your helmet and follow the law -- as though it were that easy to be safe. But PennDOT's quiz presents real-world scenarios: How do you avoid that car door opening in front of you? What do you do when you're approaching a sewer grate? Good stuff.


Links

See the other sites which link to us.


Note to "Effective Cycling" fans

If you're about to send me an email telling me how stupid the advice on this site is, please save yourself the trouble. Trust me, I've heard all the arguments before (ad nauseum) and I simply disagree. I never write to EC websites to complain that I don't like their advice, so there's no need for you to complain about mine. (Here's more about the the difference of opinion for those wondering what the fuss is about.)


Disclaimer

I have developed this site to provide what I believe is very good advice to help you avoid getting hit by cars. But of course, bicycling will never be 100% safe, and I can't guarantee you won't get hit by a car, even if you follow all the advice on this page. (Naturally, I believe if you follow this advice you will be much less likely to suffer a collision than if you ignore it.) Ultimately, you are responsible for your own safety.

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