Yet Another Bike Helmet Post

I guess I’m just one of those guys who likes to jump on a bandwagon. I’d probably make a great political leader - see which way my people are headed, and then rush after them so that I can lead ‘em.

Anyway. This thing about bike helmets.

Everyone else is posting about it (like here, here, here, here, here, and waddya know, another one today), so in the spirit of having been the geeky kid at school who always wanted to join the cool gang, I thought I’d better pitch in.

To begin with - my personal cycling history. In the past 35 years that I’ve been cycling, I’ve had five falls / collisions that have resulted in a bang on the head:

  • Aged 8, I rode at speed into the back of a parked car (please - just don’t ask how) & got myself a superb concussion. The whole family got to spend a Friday evening in casualty (the ER), and while I was getting X-rayed, my three year-old sister got to hold my watch. Apparently, she asked, “If Karl dies, can I keep his watch?” That remark still colours our relationship.
  • Aged 15, I saw that the road off to the left was flooded, and as it was winter, that it had frozen. “Cool!” I thought, and turned off to get a closer look - so I took a fast bend over black ice.
  • Aged 20, I was following too close behind a car in slow-moving traffic, and the schmuck of a driver thought it would be fun to ‘brake test’ me. Even though we were only doing slightly more than a walking pace, I failed that test.
  • Aged 36, it started raining while I was in the pool for a triathlon. I took the first (now wet) bend far too fast, and went for a slide across the road. Thankfully a race marshall ran out to stop the three lanes of traffic.
  • Aged 36, I took a roundabout too fast, in the wet, riding a bike that was carrying more luggage than is normal. Oh, it was next to a garage too, and usually has a thin film of diesel on the road surface.

I’ve worn a helmet since I was in my mid-20s. Wife insisted on it, and not being one for an arguement, I went along. Besides, as I’ve already said, I’m a bit of a geek, so the helmet also made my cycling look more dangerous, rad’ and cool.

So much for personal history. Reading it, you could think that cycling IS dangerous - that’s one head injury every seven years.

But cool your boots, man!

Look at my list up there. Five bangs on the head, yet for only two of them was I wearing a helmet. The first two, I’ll put down to naïveté - learning all about riding on the road (the first one was actually before I’d done my Cycling Proficiency Test). That middle one was an eejit driver. True, I should have been far enough back to stop . . . but we’ve all been too close to cars.

The last two are the most worrying to me, as they both happened in heavy traffic. In both cases, the helmet took a good smack (though nowhere near as bad as my shoulders & hips did). But in both cases, that wasn’t the biggest worry - it was the traffic. In the race (where helmets are mandatory) I consider myself lucky that the Stratford Triathlon is so well marshalled, as I’d gone down & slid across three lanes of traffic. If that hadn’t [been] stopped, no helmet ever made would have saved me.

My last fall was even scarier. I’d fallen just as I’d finished passing an entrance to the roundabout, and the driver waiting there was looking at the traffic coming her way - not at the traffic which had already passed. She’d already started moving when she happened to see me sprawled on the road in front of her, and only just stopped in time. Again, a helmet designed to protect against a stationary fall would have done nothing to protect me.

Over the last year or so, I’ve started to think more about this whole issue. Prompted initially by Ian Walker’s excellent and well reported research, I started to think more about the actual rather than perceived risks. I’ve also become more of a cycling zealot, and really want to convert others to this great way of getting around town.

I work as a [sort of] management consultant, yet unlike the stuffed shirts that my profession tends to attract, I dress comfortably, and ride my bike to most clients (certainly those within 10 miles of home, and usually within 15 miles). When I go to networking events, I ride, and then invariably end up talking to people about why they can’t ride their bikes to work. The top reason’s usually the lack of showers, but hot on its heels comes the issue of safety.

Currently in my part of the UK, fewer than 2% of people ride their bikes to work. Yet almost 70% live within 10km (6 miles) of work. I’m all for personal hygeine, but I have to say that with a ride of just 6 miles, you shouldn’t need to take a shower (take it easy, take your time, and take the time to stop and sniff the flowers).

So it must be safety then.

The problem is that my reading of the facts says that cycling is in fact pretty safe. And as I’ve said in comments elsewhere, it’s more of a matter of cost to society for me.

On the one hand, we have the Thou Shalt Wear A Helmet folks, who correctly point out that you might fall off your bike TODAY. So that makes wearing a helmet an urgent thing to do. Right?

But then again, we’re faced with an epidemic of obesity in the UK, which is reported to cost the NHS £1bn a year by 2010. At the same time, there’s this whole global warming thing. When the vast majority of a car trips are only a few miles, surely we should be using our zero-carbon-per-mile bikes more. The thing is, both of these issues, while important, are vague threats for the FUTURE.

The crunch for me is that although there’s a small risk to society as a whole from bike-related head injuries that a helmet might prevent (though this isn’t actually proven), there is a far bigger risk in not cycling. With 30% of the adult population struggling to see the bathroom scales when they stand on them, and 100% of the population facing the problems of viable crops for a hotter world, we need to change society. To get people cycling, we must provide for them, while at the same time, removing the Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt.

So this is why over the last few months I’ve worn my helmet less and less. Don’t get me wrong - I’m actually pro-helmet (100% for cycle sport events & training). But if the choice is between <2% of the population riding and all wearing helmets, or 30% of the populationall riding without helmets, I’ll take the latter. And if a small part of that is achieved through leading by example, while incurring a marginal increase in my personal risk injury, I’ll do it.

Filed under: Assassination Attempts, Bike Culture, Bike to Work, Climate Change, Cycling, Environment, Family, Global Warming, No More Excuses, Politics, Ranting, Road Safety, Triathlon

23 Responses to “ Yet Another Bike Helmet Post ”

  1. David Hembrow on October 3, 2008 at 2:40 pm

    What stops your colleagues riding isn’t actual safety (few people ever read tomes of statistics), but subjective safety. The two do go together, and the Netherlands has more of both than elsewhere, which go along with the high cycling rate.

    As for the roundabout / diesel combination. I’ve been there, and was amazed I didn’t get run over by the car behind me. Subjective safety at an all time low.

    There’s no diesel on the segregated cycle paths over here. No ice either, as they’re de-iced every day in the winter, and of course there aren’t cars on them. That takes care of four of your five crashes.

    As for the one when racing ? That’s your problem. I do sympathize, though. I went around the hairpin at the old Eastway circuit much too quickly in the wet a few years back. It hurt and cost me a pair of dorky lycra shorts…

  2. bigdave_nv on October 3, 2008 at 4:15 pm

    is it a false dichotomy you present? if you eliminate helmet laws will people really start riding bikes instead of driving (much less to the tune of 1% vs 30%)?

    the policy reason to have a helmet law is because brain injuries are really really expensive. do helmets really reinforce an image of cycling as ultra-hazardous? it’s a brain-bucket: there if you need it.

  3. Algernond Crupe on October 3, 2008 at 4:56 pm

    Ha ha. You hero! Not sure I believe the reason you sometimes don’t wear a helmet is to set a good example though..

  4. tje210 on October 3, 2008 at 6:00 pm

    better than my reason . . . i never wear a helmet when i ride roads. i like to force cars to be more careful when they pass me. i haven’t been hit by a car yet. who knows if i will be hit? i know i’m crazy. but i think that if i were gonna be hit, it would have happened by now. if you only knew me, you’d agree with me.

  5. Karl On Sea on October 3, 2008 at 6:32 pm

    Dave - yep, spot on. It’s subjective safety that takes a dive every time a non-cyclist sees someone day-glo’d up with a helmet on. Of course, being seen by motorists is a huge benefit to real safety too, but probably not as effective as having safety in numbers so that drivers are actually looking out for cyclists in the first place.

    Big Dave - No, it’s not an either / or situation, but one that’s all about perception. We want more people riding as that would do far more for society than protecting the noggins of the few that do. Getting from where we are will take time & commitment from the public sector to build the infrastructure to support it. It also neede Joe Public to see riding a bike as something they can do as part of everyday life. A helmet creates a false perception of the risk & when you’re trying to change people’s behaviour they’ll use any excuse to stay how they are.

    Algernond - believe / don’t believe. What do I care? ;-) You gonna do the Dunwich Dynamo next year?

    Tje210 - well according to the Excellent Dr Walker’s research, it is an excellent way to keep safe. Drivers give more room to lidless riders. So there you go - you’re as sane as the next guy & not at all crazy. Probably.

  6. bigdave_nv on October 3, 2008 at 7:00 pm

    some informative links about the costs of brain injuries:

    I’m not really a helmet nazi, but I do wear one whenever I cycle because I have invested a lot of time and money in my brain. the libertarian in me says “do what you want” but that same libertarian would also not be interested in paying for your treatment through increased insurance costs or higher taxes.

    as far as no-helmets incenting people to make healthful choices, I have to admit I actually think it’s counter to the goal because of the potential gravity of the harm.

  7. acline on October 3, 2008 at 7:28 pm

    Interesting and instructive stories about your wrecks. I’m a few months behind you on a similar intellectual journey.

  8. Karl On Sea on October 3, 2008 at 10:04 pm

    Hey Big Fellah - But this is precisely the point - we can all trade statistics and research (like this one about the increased risk of rotational injury to the brain through wearing a helmet, or all this stuff, or even this.)

    Yes, you’re completely right - the cost of dealing with someone who’s had a brain injury is enormous, and yes, it is possible to get these through cycling without a helmet (my friend Colum spent several weeks in a coma a few years back in just such circumstances.) But it also costs a fortune to deal with someone who’s got type II diabetes, or is staring at their second stroke, or is having a heart bypass operation. 30% of the UK population is heading that way. 30% ! While we’re fretting about a risk of 0.25 fatalities per billion kilometers cycled for less than 2% of the population, there’s a whole bigger picture to consider.

    If you feel safer wearing a helmet for every ride, that’s fine with me. Really. But seeing as walking down the street carries a higher risk per hour than cycling, perhaps you’d better keep it on when you’re off the bike too. :-p

  9. Brad Hefta-Gaub on October 3, 2008 at 11:28 pm

    Karl - Way to poke bigdave_nv in the eye with a sharp stick!

    But seriously… this is a real debate… worth having… I’m still scared to death to ride my bike without a helmet…

    However, I agree that in the US bike riding is intimidating… and part of that intimidation is the “way we look” when we ride our bike. However, I’m not convinced that the “helmet= that must be dangerous” is the biggest factor… I think the “spandex=my butt will look fat” is a bigger factor.

    As for the research that says that drivers give lidless riders more clearance… although I think that may be true… I think that any rider who’s expecting drivers to give them clearance is destined for a serious injury… Sad… but true… most drivers are idiots most of the time… so the only way to stay safe is to be super aware and ride extremely proactively (defensively).

  10. Karl On Sea on October 4, 2008 at 12:02 am

    Just so that I know - how big is Big Dave? And there’s no way he can find out where I live, right? I ask as one who used to be the weedy kid from school.

    Joking aside - I’d like to apologise if the tone came across a bit too close to the kind of eejit geek trading insults and stats in a flame war that no one can possibly win that you see on some other blogging sites.

    Yeah, so here’s the thing. I’m not completely lidless either - it is a lot to do with the perceived risk. If everyone around you drives military grade SUVs that routinely roll right over bikes, then maybe a lid isn’t such a bad idea. For my own part, whenever I ride to Gateshead’s Team Valley, I’m going to wear a helmet. There’s a big, fast, suburban hill (with lots of side roads for cars to pull out from) down to the ‘Valley, which is in itself a grid of straight line roads that people drive too fast on. Oh, and I’ve hardly ever seen another bike down there either. Those that I have seen have been obvious experienced riders, with a distinctly assertive edge to their road positioning, coupled with 6th, 7th & 8th sense levels of traffic awareness.

    But that’s really the exception, and the thing with most trips is that they’re short rides into town, or along prom’ above the the beach, or to the pool. The speed limit on all these roads is 30mph, and surprisingly most drivers stick to it, so it’s actually pretty safe. It’s this that we need to get over to people:

    Riding a bike is something you can do right here, right now. No special safety equipment needed, and no need to squeeze those [soon to be no longer] bodacious hips into any Lycra. And we even have comfy gel saddles for ya!

  11. bigdave_nv on October 4, 2008 at 12:56 am

    hah - naw; its good. thick skin.

    I can see you are convicted; hope you ride on the safe roads bc I like your posts & would hate for you to have to type them with a straw or something. ;)

  12. Bill Anders on October 4, 2008 at 6:21 am

    Karl, as one that’s a huge fan of personal choice, I’m surprised at this sudden “explosion” of blogs where people are touting (and using stats to justify) their decision to not where a helmet.

    Wear one or don’t. No skin off my back. As far as laws requiring use, that’s going a bit overboard. At what point did the government decide that its their right to protect us from ourselves?

  13. msteechur on October 6, 2008 at 7:08 pm

    I don’t know. With the fact that many drivers are completely clueless as to how to behave around bikes, and the fact that traffic is getting heavier, my own personal opinion is that you have to be a special kinda stupid to not wear a helmet. To suggest to someone else that they shouldn’t wear one, even moreso…there’s liability for you! But I read on Sweat365 that all the cool kids aren’t wearing helmets!

    Law or no law, I don’t want to have to pay for your long term care when you’re in a hospital from here to eternity because you decided to take a risk with your life. And no, I don’t want to pay for long term care of someone with obesity either, but just because one exists, doesn’t make the other okay.

    I’ve taken many a tumble off my bike, some my fault, some not. In almost every one I’ve hit my head to some extent. Not sure of how hard (although a few did rattle teeth) but each time I was damned glad I had a helmet on. I also wear gloves to avoid road rash on my hands, and a seatbelt in the car. It’s just common sense to me…but then maybe common sense isn’t so common.

    And the guy who doesn’t wear a helmet to force cars to pay more attention, ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Do you HONESTLY believe that someone sees you on a bike and thinks, “Oh, a cyclist…BUT WAIT! HE’S NOT WEARING A HELMET! I’D BETTER BE ON MY BEST BEHAVIOR!”


    I see that and I think “Wow, I wonder if the brain damage occurred at birth, or during a bike accident, or maybe he was just born stupid.”

  14. Karl On Sea on October 6, 2008 at 7:28 pm

    Troy -
    Thank you for your comment. All input on this issue is appreciated.

  15. Amsterdamize on October 6, 2008 at 8:46 pm

    Karl, you got a bigger heart than I do :)

  16. Brad Hefta-Gaub on October 7, 2008 at 6:07 pm

    Karl, Maybe you should republish that article on that researcher who did the study on what makes cars avoid cyclists…. maybe he’d even be willing to share more insights with your readers if you emailed him.

    Personally, I’m still gonna wear my helmet… not because it’s cool or not… but because I’m a chicken!

    But I am trying to wear a lot less spandex and more normal clothes ESPECIALLY when I am using my bike for commuting. I think that’s more important for showing people that cyclists are just normal.

    I also read some stuff making the case against Critical Mass with the same logic… don’t stand out… try to look more like a driver so they will feel more welcome.

  17. Karl On Sea on October 7, 2008 at 7:52 pm

    I’ve dropped That Nice Dr Walker a line to ask him.

    I totally agree with you on the whole critical mass thing. Tom Vanderbilt’s “Traffic” is on my reading list, so this is only uninformed, personal opinion at the moment. But I believe that part of the reason that people drive like complete schmucks is that other people in cars are de-humanised. We see the metal boxes, rather than the poeple. I think Critical Mass has much the same effect - we see a crowd (mob to the un-trained eye?), who we then just perceive as a threat. The end result is that it becomes every justification that any motorist needs to view cyclists as a bunch of law-breaking, good-for-nothing, pain-in-the-rear, trouble-making, etc, etc.

  18. chapman5410 on October 8, 2008 at 2:02 am

    I live in Hawaii where it is still legal to ride your motorcycle down the road without a helmet and ride in the back of trucks. The island of Oahu, which I live, is only 44 X 33 miles. Over 300,000 people out of 781,345 drive to work everyday. about 70,000 people ride the bus and 40,000 people carpool. I don’t really think that safety is the reason that people don’t ride work. I think it is just plain laziness. I work with people that literally live less than a mile from our work and they still drive to work everyday. They just don’t want to give up the convenience of driving. I wear a helmet every time I get on my bike. I have never had a problem with any saying they don’t ride to work because of the helmet, if anything it’s because they don’t own a bike. Anyway, it only takes one stupid little mistake to mess up the rest of your life, and a helmet just adds a little bit cushion between my head and the road. There will always be the argument that, “Well he was wearing a helmet and he still got a concussion or his head still go smashed by a car.” Some people don’t believe in seatbelts and airbags and they all give the same argument. It is the risk you take. I won’t ride with anyone who doesn’t wear a helmet, not because I’m so pro helmet, I don’t care if I’m the one who does wear one, its because I don’t want to be the one that has to deal with it when they crack their head open.

  19. CJ on October 9, 2008 at 4:33 pm

    For me wearing a helmet is simple risk management. The probability of me getting a serious brain injury are low while cycling, however the consequences are HIGH if it does happen. However, the cost to mitigate that risk and wear a helmet is low.

    Maybe it is just the Project Manager in me but if I can avoid a high consequence risk, with low cost… I’ll take it every time.

  20. [...] Donna D’Alessandro, M.D. posted a very interesting post. Here’s a quick pieceI’d probably make a great political leader - see which way my people are headed, and then rush after them so that I can lead ‘em. Anyway. This thing about bike helmets. Everyone else is posting about it (like here, here, here, [...] [...]

  21. Karl On Sea on October 9, 2008 at 10:31 pm

    Hi CJ - That’s an interesting way of looking at things, and as I seem to spend a fair amount of my time managing projects too, it’s one I need to think about. Can I get back to you on it?

    Chapman - but there are people who say that seatbelt laws haven’t improved road safety! Following on from your comment, I did a trawl of web data (so I don’t know that it’s real science), and found several reports along these lines, and nothing with similar data to say that they have improved road safety. Does this mean that I’m going to stop wearing my seatbelt? No, far from it. This may be a learned behaviour issue (my parents always had me strapped in), or just that the extensive UK advertising on it has got under my skin.

    So on the one hand, there seems to be data saying that seatbelt wearing doesn’t improve road safety, yet I’m gonna keep wearing mine (it’s also the law here). Yet on the other, there’s data that says wearing a helmet may put me at greater risk of an impact, and other data saying that laws mandating helmets seem to reduce numbers of cyclists, so I’m wearing my helmet less.

    Doesn’t sound entirely logical (or consistent), does it? And perhaps that’s an insight into the emotive nature of this subject.

  22. [...] that there was much in the way of punishment after the last post. There was only one comment that had a special kind of insulting included, and I left that one in. [...]

  23. Richard Keatinge on October 15, 2008 at 1:17 pm

    The trouble with bike helmets is that they don’t seem to work - laws elsewhere have stopped a lot of people cycling and have done nothing for head injury rates, see the link you posted above at It appears that helmets break easily, but don’t absorb the impact, see the engineers quoted at A broken helmet has simply failed. Helmets have also strangled some young children who were wearing helmets while playing off their bicycles.

    I don’t wear a helmet and neither do my children. We do take good care when we travel and would like the roads to be a lot safer, but that’s another matter.