This is an eternal subject that comes up again and again and mostly it seems without much consideration of the facts.  I for one almost all of the time wear a helmet, but why?

There is no doubt that a helmet adds a layer of protection to the head which could in the event of an impact to the head during an accident save your life.  That one fact for most people (including me) is enough.

However there is lot’s more to this than just that.  Do they actually work to reduce serious injury? There is very little actual evidence other than anecdotal, that directly attributes the number of non-fatal accidents to the wearing of a helmet.  It usually boils down to if they hadn’t been wearing a helmet they would probably have died.  It’s all too “probably” and “likely”.  Equally, most people who have had an accident and were wearing a helmet at the time usually say something along the lines of “I’m glad I had a helmet on because if I hadn’t I would probably have died!” yet when people have a bike accident and they survive without wearing a helmet, little is said and it’s more a case of “oh it wasn’t that bad” or “I was lucky,  I should wear a helmet in future”.

I find a lot of pressure to wear a helmet because of the above.  My partner would be extremely agitated and worry like hell if I left the house on my bike without a helmet.  Group rides almost always (mostly for litigation avoidance) stipulate helmet wearing.  And the media are all over it if some image of a cyclist is seen not with helmet.  On one ride a I did with a group of friends one person was not wearing a helmet.  Another rider (who had joined the ride as a friend of one of the group) was offended by this, he left the ride and took his friend with him.  But why?  Is cycling so dangerous? more dangerous than it should be?  Why is not wearing a helmet such a taboo?  Is it really that dangerous?  Or is this all a perception of danger because of Media and the general movement towards a paranoid society and less self-responsibility?

Cycling is a safe and healthy pastime.

Statistics don’t prove very much either especially when they are based upon helmet sales against fatalities.  There  is so much going on in terms of other safety measure (cycle lanes for one) that mean you can’t align one activity as being the reason for a trend (association against causality).  Also, I would say that well over half of the people on bikes I see with a helmet are either not wearing it correctly or not wearing it at all.  So just because people have helmets doesn’t mean they are getting any protection from it.

It seems to me that, what should be a safe and simple activity, is being made extreme.  I have been cycling all my life, I have had accidents when I was young and since.  I didn’t start wearing a helmet until I got involved in cycling events in the last 15 years (I’m over 40).  I didn’t die before so what has changed?  Cars are faster and there is more of them?… perhaps.  In which case, why is that my problem?  Why do I have to buy and maintain protective apparel to stop other people from killing me?  I would expect someone riding in competition or the sporty end of the activity to choose to wear one as they are more on the extreme (like racing car drivers), but just a simple cycle to the shops shouldn’t be that risky.  Car drivers have the government pushing to make cars more safe, why is the same not true for cyclists?  Why are we being pushed to take our own protective action because of other people’s inabilities or insufficient safety measures?  People have accidents in all walks of life;  in cars, walking on the street, cooking at home, going upstairs.  No one is telling them to wear a helmet.  I was looking at some stats recently for New York and in the particular year it refered to (2013 I think) there had been about 10 cycling fatalities from traffic accidents.  Discussion on the item focussed on whether the 10 people had been wearing helmets or not.  Never did anyone comment on the 140 or so pedestrian deaths listed and ask whether they were wearing helmets.  No-one ever suggests that pedestrians should wear a helmet.  Why?  It is a ‘fact’ that if those pedestrians had an impact to the head then a helmet could save their life!  Same for car drivers, many lives could be saved if the drivers (or passengers) wear a helmet.

If you are walking down some stairs, or hiking on a steep mountain, have you ever considered that you may fall and hurt your head and that if you had a helmet on that risk would be reduced? I doubt it.  And yet in the realm of cycling the expectation is just that.  “Ah…” you say the speed of cycling means it’s much higher risk.  Did you know that the standard test for safety and effectiveness for all helmets retailed to the general public is a stationary drop from 2 meters?  That doesn’t really test for a cyclist traveling at 15-20 miles per hour (or more) taking a tumble from a similar height.

Also the helmet only protects one part of the body, albeit a very important and exposed part.  What about the rest?  It could be argued that if I wear body armour (as many serious mountain bikers do) I would be protected from more injury.  So why isn’t everyone raising that as an issue and making us wear that?

This is all about risk and the perception of it.  Risk is about likelihood and severity.  How likely is it that a thing will happen and if it does happen how bad will it be?  Yes, a helmet offers protection (I don’t dispute that) but will I have an accident and will that accident involve an impact to the head area within the tolerance of the helmet?  I don’t know… it would be an unplanned accident and no-one knows.  I would like to think that my skill and my years of experience (using all forms of transportation and different cycling genres) would provide me with some defence.  Avoidance is better than protection anyway. Or is it arrogant for me to say I am good enough to not hit something?  I do stay aware of what’s happening around me and so far I haven’t had an accident where I thought the helmet came between me and something else.

[now I’ve done it, I’ll be eating my words tomorrow]

People sometimes fail to see that there is a potential benefit in not taking certain ‘protective’ action.  You see this in other areas, children are prevented from doing the unmonitored activities that we did as children because of fear of what might happen.  I don’t believe that the world has changed that much.  I have seen things from the era that I was a child to tell me that nothing has changed in terms of what people can do to children. What has changed is that now we hear about it.  The media tells us every day to be afraid and to keep our children safe.  “Safe”  what does that mean?  I could lock my child in a basement and feed her food through a slot; she would be ‘safe’.  Better though, is to equip her with the skills to keep herself safe.  Give her the tools and experience to know risk, to read situations and make the right choices.  Trust her to have the intelligence and foresight to live her life and not assume she’s not capable.  Before I go further (and stray too far from the subject matter) I do say the children, learning to ride and until they have enough experience should be made to wear a helmet without a doubt; their risk is high on both sides of the equation.

I think that, too much, society is considering risk more heavily weighted on the severity and less about the likelihood.  And as well as reducing severity they should also look at reducing likelihood.  A helmet reduces the impact of me getting hit but we should be pushing for safety from being hit in the first place.  Part of this is the blame culture and you can say that; if someone doesn’t wear a helmet they haven’t taken appropriate precautions and so it’s there own fault (or “if I wear a helmet I am protected and can behave like an idiot on my bike).  Some countries have built a society around cycling and the infrastructure supports that, making it more safe and so reducing the likelihood of a fatal accident.  It is difficult to retrofit that kind of infrastructure into a society built around cars and so I am not suggesting segregated cycle lanes be deployed across every city; it’s not necessarily practical or economically sensible.  But we should be considering those sorts of things when we are developing or building new things.  We should be looking at our laws and policies; making them support a society where the cycling is considered a form of transport as important as car driving.

Not much is said (other than the people like Chris Boardman in the UK) about the detrimental aspects of the helmet culture and the positives of not having the “you must wear a helmet” attitude.  Cycling is an activity that benefits society by reducing car use and improving health and fitness as well as exposing people to the countryside and world around them that car driving cannot.  The fear that surrounds the helmet argument puts many people off cycling, thinking it a dangerous sport.  This, it can be argued, means society is less healthy as a consequence and potentially has a bigger health cost, through obesity for example, than the potential increase in injuries that may occur would if less people wore them.  There is some evidence that provides argument that drivers upon seeing a cyclist with a helmet take less care when passing and so increases risk of them being struck.  Similarly people wearing a helmet can subconsciously feel more invincible and ride in a manner exposing them to more risk.

It’s a complicated subject and I am not sure whether I have contributed anything here to it.  I am not against helmet wearing, as I stated at the beginning; I wear one virtually every time I ride.  I am also not against car driving; I have owned ‘nice cars’ and I drive every day.  What I am against, is people telling me I have to wear one because of unsubstantiated claims that they haven’t really investigated.  I don’t recommend that anyone not wear a helmet because of anything I have said above; make you own decision based upon your own knowledge and abilities.

In an ideal world we wouldn’t need to think about helmets and safety would be guaranteed – we don’t live in that world.

So, should I wear a helmet?… Maybe.

Will I die if I don’t?… Probably not.

Will I wear a helmet on my ride tonight?  Yes, of course I will – it might be damp, it will be dark, some roads will probably be unlit and I will be doing  speeds in excess of 20 miles per hour.  Because I can evaluate the conditions and I know my abilities I can assess the risk and I believe the risk is a little higher and so can decide to wear a helmet…. just in case