What's wrong with bicycle helmets?
by Michael Bluejay • Last
update: March 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 two reasons I don't stress helmets here. First, 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 placedon 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.
Everyone has already heard the admonition to wear a helmet ad nauseum from other sources, so instead I focus on what people haven't heard elsewhere: How to ride safely.
Unfortuntely, 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.
The second reason I'm not a helmet cheerleader is that there's no good evidence that they actually reduce overall injuries in the first place. Helmets obviously decrease some injuries, but they actually promote other kinds of injuries. The net result is that the protective value is erased by the added risks. We'll cover that in a minute.
Here are four reasons we should stop focusing on helmets as the first and last word in bike safety:
Helmet benefits are canceled
by helmet risks
While helmets help in some cases, they hurt in other cases. The net result is no overall protection, and possibly even an overall negative effect. That's why head injuries among cyclists go up as helmet use goes up. In the 1990s as helmet use became much more common in the U.S., 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.Here are the pros and cons of helmets. As you can see, it's not black-and-white:
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.
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?
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.
How to Not Get Hit by Cars
Read our guide about how to bicycle safely.
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
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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.
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.)
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.