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Dumbo's Magic Feather - The case against bicycle helmets


The case against bicycle helmets.

A bicycle helmet is last thing you need. Yes, a bit of polystyrene foam between your head and the pavement at the moment of impact might be nice in the unlikely event of a crash, but that’s exactly the point – it’s your last hope. And it’s not nearly the fail-safe protection you’d like to believe it is.

Rather than listing a helmet as the first thing you need to keep, it should be considered for what it is – the last line of defense.  It plays no active role in keeping you safe. It should come in around tenth on that list after all the many things you can do to actively improve your safety. A helmet is your last hope when all else has failed. And wearing a helmet may even put you at greater risk than not wearing one at all. Far better not to fall in the first place.

In Europe, where cycling is common and helmets are rare, millions of people ride their bikes every day without helmets.  Yet, most Americans seem to believe that “a helmet keeps you safe” and that failure to wear one angers the gods and tempts fate. “Was he wearing a helmet?” is the first question you invariably hear at the news of any bicycle accident, as if not wearing one is a reprehensible act of irresponsibility. “No?  Well, then it serves him right!”, as if pain and suffering are the justifiable penalty for not wearing a polystyrene hat. Why does no one ever ask, “Was he wearing ear buds?”

Do you ride with a helmet and ear buds? Think about it. Your standard of safety is so high you’d never consider riding a bike anywhere without first strapping on a helmet, yet you plug-in ear buds because you like to listen to Juicy Lucy when you ride. Ear buds block-out ambient noise. People use them on airplanes and subways to create a personal cocoon that insulates them from the cacophony of public transit, which is exactly why it’s so dangerous to wear ear buds when you ride. However much you may enjoy listening to Juicy Lucy when you’re deep in the pain cave, you’re deluding yourself if you think you’re not actively compromising your safety by doing so. Wearing ear buds while you ride is stupidity beyond reckoning. A helmet is a last-chance passive defense against the risk of an accident; wearing ear buds actively multiplies that risk.

Wearing a helmet does not “keep you safe”. It’s comforting to believe it does, but maybe it makes you less safe. If you ride more aggressively when you’re wearing a helmet because you believe the helmet “keeps you safe”, your faith in that helmet is misplaced and, because of it, wearing a helmet may actually make you less safe. This is called “risk compensation”. Why does nobody ever ask, “Was he descending at the limit of control?”

Einstein on a bicycle without a helmetIn the Colorado Rocky Mountains near Boulder, there’s a winding descent called Left-hand Canyon. In September 2013, Dale Stetina, a former U.S. national road champion, sustained life-threatening injuries on this descent when, in the company of other riders who managed to avoid crashing as they rounded a turn and came upon a car in their lane, Dale lost control, hit the pavement, and was injured so badly he had to be air-lifted to the hospital. He spent weeks in the ICU and didn’t leave the hospital for 3 months. And, in answer to the inevitable question… yes, he was wearing a helmet. 

But Dale’s helmet didn’t keep him safe. He hit his face. All the riders were wearing helmets. Were they descending judiciously or, because they were wearing helmets, did they feel empowered to make it a testosterone-charged descent at the limit of control?

The question of whether Dale was wearing a helmet or not pales in the face of the much larger question - were all the riders putting themselves at great risk because they felt they were protected by their helmets?

Try this. Go for a ride wearing a helmet. Then, do the same ride without a helmet. Did you ride more cautiously without the helmet? Is your faith in a helmet so strong that you ride with less caution when you’re wearing one? You might as well be clutching Dumbo’s feather.

The Dale Stetina incident begs the question - how much safety does a bicycle helmet truly afford? Risk compensation notwithstanding, how much protection does an 8-ounce piece of polystyrene provide? Sure, a helmet will diminish trauma within a low-velocity range of incidents (although they do a surprisingly poor job of mitigating concussions), but beyond that, people start whistling past the graveyard. Example: you crash head-first at 20 mph into an on-coming truck that’s travelling at 40 mph. Your closing speed is 60 mph. Will a bit of sculpted foam make any difference? Sadly, no. But, you reason, accidents like that are rare and, if you ride, it’s a risk you accept. The question is, does risk compensation cause you to ride less cautiously when wearing a helmet and, if so, does that reduced caution outweigh any additional safety a helmet might otherwise afford? Does wearing helmets actually increase the frequency of accidents?

In America, you’re more likely to die from a bullet than from a bicycling-related head injury. Do you put on a bullet-proof vest every morning? If not, why not? Similarly, you’re more likely to sustain a fatal head injury by falling from a ladder than from a cycling-related head injury. Do you wear a helmet when you climb a ladder? No, because you’re careful when you climb a ladder and you assume that the risk of falling from the ladder is sufficiently low that specific head protection is unnecessarily over-cautious. Why don’t we make the same consideration with cycling?

If you torture statistics long enough, you can get them to say anything. Certainly the bullet-proof vest argument can be parsed. Likewise the force of any helmet safety argument gets diminished once you eliminate night-time riding without lights, inexperienced riders, traffic signal violators, the inebriated, and Strava record attempts with ear buds. But my object isn’t to use statistics to prove a point. Rather, I want to challenge the pervasive American belief that every rider should ride with a helmet, on every ride because…“helmets keep you safe”.

A recent article in Bicycling magazine entitled “Senseless” (with no apparent irony) reviewed the state of bicycle helmet art with the conclusion that current bicycle helmets do almost nothing to prevent concussions. Huh? Bicycling has tirelessly promoted helmets for the past 30 years to the ceaseless drumbeat of “Always wear a helmet. Helmets keep you safe.” Now, suddenly, they discover that’s not exactly the case. 

But surely, you say, wearing a helmet is a small price to pay, even if the protection it offers is limited. Maybe. But “it’s a small price to pay” is a knee-jerk justification too often used without nuance or consideration and unanticipated consequences often result. What if that “small price” is bigger than it seems?

What if helmet use actually makes cycling more dangerous? What if, by promising “safety”, helmeted cyclists ride more aggressively and with less caution than they would if they weren’t wearing helmets? It’s an interesting and, I believe, a valid question.

As much as we might like to believe otherwise, Americans live in a culture of fear. And fear is lucrative. If you can make people afraid of something (e.g., gluten, cholesterol, body odor, terrorists) you can sell them a “solution”. And they’ll stand in line, ready to pay because, whatever the price, “it’s a small price to pay” for the promised security. It doesn’t matter if there’s no rational basis for the product or if the problem is wildly inflated or if the “solution” is ineffective or worse than the problem. Once people are afraid, they are easily led and ready to buy anything that supposedly makes them safe. Fear sells massive SUVs to soccer moms. It sells insurance. It sells magazines. It sells cosmetics. It sells wars. And it sells bicycle helmets.

Dutch commute cyclists without helmetsU.S. bicycle shops sell about two million helmets every year. Mass market retailers sell another five million or so more. This market barely existed 30 years ago. Somehow Americans managed to live without bicycle helmets or even think about them until the early 1980’s. Then, bicycling began to be marketed as “dangerous” and helmets were the solution.

Although solid numbers are hard to come by, the total U.S. bicycle helmet market is something on the order of $500 million per year. It’s a nice business, driven by fear. A helmet is an easy add-on sale made with the sale of any new bike. And it’s doubly attractive if it generates goodwill while upping the bottom-line. After all, $100 is “a small price to pay” for the security of knowing that you’ll be “safe” on your new bike.

But helmets don’t “keep you safe”. However, there’s little money to be made in the promotion of safe cycling and there’s big money in a fear-driven market for bicycle helmets. Helmet advertising supports editorial reviews and helmet tests that presuppose everyone needs a helmet. Advertising and editorial coverage create a need that’s filled by bicycle retailers who love the additional revenue stream helmets bring. Millions and millions of helmets pour into the United States each year, even though, if you’re riding responsibly, the actual risk of head injury is quite low and evidence of helmet efficacy is weak.

Helmets are a religion that feeds on itself. The message “helmets keep you safe” has been has been told so many times that many Americans accept it as gospel truth. The dogma, in a nutshell, is this: They make helmets for bicycling because bicycling is dangerous. Since it’s dangerous, you should never ride without a helmet.  As with any religion, people don’t like to have their beliefs challenged. But I will. While it’s comforting to believe that wrapping your head in foam will keep you safe, maybe (forgive me) you’re burying your head in the sand.

I’m not suggesting a vast conspiracy exists to defraud American cyclists by selling helmets they don’t need. I’m sure most bicycle retailers, writers, and manufacturers truly believe they are making bicycling safer, even if they are coincidentally creating a climate of fear around bicycling and profiting by it. But, what if there’s a better alternative to flooding the market every year with millions of imported polystyrene magic hats? What if that annual $500 million went to making cycling safer? What if cycling were so safe that the risk of crashing was negligible?Dutch with flowers

In the Netherlands, millions of people commute everyday by bicycle without helmets. Less than 1% of Dutch cyclists wear helmets, yet the Netherlands is the safest country in the world for cycling! How is that possible? If bicycling is so dangerous, how do all these millions of Dutch people manage to ride safely every day without helmets?

Hovenring floating suspension deck for cyclists

Dutch municipal and national governments rightly recognize cycling as a congestion-relieving transportation mode that offers the additional attractive merits of being environmentally benign and healthy to boot. And they support it accordingly, pouring millions into infrastructure to encourage cycling and make it both easier and safer to travel by bike. Example: the Hovenring in Eindhoven, Netherlands is a floating suspension deck that allows cyclists to cross over a busy highway. This €20 million cycling infrastructure show piece is only one of the numerous projects the Dutch have taken to enhance cycling safety.

But it’s not just Dutch cycling infrastructure that makes it so safe. The primary reason it’s so safe to ride a bike is numbers – everyone rides and there is strength in numbers. In the Netherlands, there are more bikes than people, and most Dutch ride their bike every day. As numerous studies have shown, cycling safety increases as the number of cyclists on the road increases. As more people ride, bicycling becomes a safer option, so more people ride. And then it becomes even safer, so even more people ride. It’s a virtuous circle in which every additional cyclist makes the community safer for cycling.

Defenders of helmets will immediately object that the Netherlands is different from the U.S., that they have a culture of cycling, that motorists are more aware of the rights of cyclists, etc., etc., but in the end, I think it's a weak defense of the status quo. Saying “we can’t do what they do” ensures that we won’t. We will never achieve the level of comfort and security that exists in the Netherlands as long as we continue to focus our attention and spend our money on helmets rather than working actively to make cycling safer in our communities. The best and fastest way to make cycling safer in America is to get more cyclists on the road. We need to follow the Dutch model - it’s not dangerous, come out and ride!

Dutch family on a bike without helmetsInstead of focusing so myopically on a safety product of limited value, the goal should be doing things that’ll make cycling safer. Rather than spend $500 million dollars a year on millions of foam helmets, and then repeating it year after year, imagine if that money were spent each year on cycling infrastructure, on bike to work programs, on advertising, or on cycling instruction. Half a billion dollars every year would go a long way toward making cycling safer, which would mean more people would ride, which would make it safer, so more people would ride, which would make it safer, etc.

The biggest problem with helmets is they discourage cycling. The message it sends to potential cyclists is that cycling is so dangerous nobody should ever ride without a helmet. Is this really the message we want to send? If you’re not already a cyclist, why would you ever want to take up something so dangerous?  Why take the risk? Why not drive instead? What responsible mother would ever allow her child to ride a bike to school when it’s such a dangerous activity?

LeMond in flightBut cycling is not dangerous. And, before 1980, almost nobody even considered wearing a helmet. For decades, millions of American kids rode their bikes to school every day without helmets. And millions of adult Americans rode without helmets. And thousands of amateur and professional racers rode without helmets. Yet there was never any cycling-related head injury crisis. Zero. It wasn’t even an issue. It didn’t become an issue until there was money to be made selling safety”.

Rather than focus on the supposed “danger” of cycling and the “need” to protect your head (however low the risk and however limited that protection may be) why not proactively encourage cycling?

Ride like you’d ride without a helmet. Maybe even dare to do it. The best and fastest way to make cycling safer in America is to get more people riding bikes and riding them responsibly. Wrapping yourself in body armor provides less protection than you’d like to believe, especially if your belief is so strong that you take risks you wouldn’t otherwise take. Making cycling seem more dangerous than it really is supresses growth. And that’s why I’m real iffy about the conventional wisdom. Maybe it’s not a small price to pay. Maybe it’s the reverse.

Think twice about that helmet, and definitely lose the ear buds.

Tom PetrieTom Petrie

Tom Petrie is a lifetime cyclist, a daily bicycle commuter, and owner of  a bicycle parts e-commerce company..

Tel: 1.800.422.2104



Date 9/4/2014
Tom Petrie
Hi Gary Turney, Thanks for your considered and articulate reply. I’m not making a blanket case against helmets. Rather, I believe it is far more important to make cycling safer and to focus on things that actively improve cycling safety than it is to focus on body armor. The object should be to make cycling in America as safe as it is in Amsterdam rather than imagining ever more highly-sculpted polystyrene hats somehow “make us safe.” I’ve ridden in Amsterdam and I’ve ridden in Tuscany. Agreed, those places aren’t like the U.S. and the points you make are valid. But please consider that cycling in Amsterdam is so safe because there are so many riders. As you rightly note, there’s safety in numbers. So, is it better to invest in polystyrene or to increase the number of cyclists? If half a billion dollars was spent every year in improving municipal infrastructure to make cycling safer and encouraging responsible cycling, would the net result be fewer head injuries than an equivalent amount spent each on helmets? I believe it would be, and that's why I object so strongly to the Helmet Religion. Cycling in Tuscany is so safe that cyclists can ride in the middle of the road and depend that motorists will proceed safely. I believe their helmets are as much a matter of fashion rather than anything else. I’m not against helmets per se. I’m against helmets to the extent that they dilute the effort to make cyclists and the cycling environment safer.
Date 9/4/2014
Tom Petrie
Hi Dave Bohm, Thanks for sending your comment. I’m not surprised to find disagreement. You assume that a helmet provides protection. I don’t disagree. What I DO disagree with is the assumption that it provides significant protection and that the limited protection it does provide justifies the imperative to ALWAYS wear a helmet. I don’t know how old you are or how long you’ve been cycling, but up until about 1983 or so, almost nobody wore a helmet and anyone who did was likely a dangerous beginner. Yes, people occasionally fell off their bikes. Sometimes they even hit their heads. But there was no cycling-related head injury crisis. Bicycling didn’t become so dangerous until there was money to be made providing protection. I assume you ride with a helmet. Do you also ride with ear buds? Many cyclists do, and I consider it laughable that they actively multiply any risk they may have by cutting off their ability to hear what’s going on around them while preaching the gospel of helmets. In fact. I think helmeted earbud users actually demonstrate how safe cycling is – they can ride in traffic while insulating their ability to hear what’s going on around them, and STILL not get hurt. I’m not saying you shouldn’t wear a helmet. What I am saying is that wearing a helmet should be about #10 on the list of things you can do to improve your safety. Riding responsibly and making yourself aware of what’s going on around you is way more important that riding with a helmet. Ditto good lighting at night. Where you ride, how you ride, how you dress, the condition of your equipment, etc., etc. Is all so much more important than simply strapping on a helmet. I do think risk compensation is an issue. It’s complex, but I think it exists and that it is many times the cause of accidents that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. For all these reasons I’m challenging the simplistic “always wear a helmet” mantra. And, yes, I suppose I may alienate some of our customers who believe in helmets. People don’t like to have their beliefs challenged. I understand that, but I also think it will make cycling more safe if we can shake things up. Maybe hear a little of that popping noise as helmeted cyclists begin to pull those ear buds from their ears!
Date 9/4/2014
David Bohm
I am surprised you would comment at all on this given that it may alienate a portion of your client base that buys from your website. I have heard these arguments before. The assumption that we ride differently with a helmet as opposed to riding the same but just lessening the risk of traumatic brain injury. You know as well as I that even one serious incident can have life long percussion's. I don't necessarily believe your 500 mil number. The entire cycling industry sales per annum are about 6 billion. 500 mill just for helmets seems high but even if that was the case, considering the poor bike handling skills of the average cyclist in the U.S. and poor infrastructure what are the costs of dealing with the resultant injuries? I don't know but I assume it offsets the number to a large degree. Lastly, its just a hat man. It keeps the sun off your dome, weighs almost nothing and without any doubt will negate some of the impact energy in some accidents (not all). Would you give the same advice for motorcyclists? Why not?
Date 9/4/2014
Gary Turney
Interesting article, with some valid points. I especially agree with the overall concept that accident avoidance is more important than accident protection. Improved riding skills and facilities should certainly be a priority. But I don't think there is a blanket case against helmets. Let's take Europe for example. Having recently spent some time in Amsterdam I agree that their culture of biking is ideal. These people were born on a bike, they are all expert commuter bike riders, and bike traffic rules Amsterdam. Not only is there strength in numbers, but Amsterdam bike traffic is so heavy that high speeds are impossible, and bikes don't interact much with cars so a serious crash would be unlikely (especially on a rider-per-mile basis). And given that the country is generally flat as a board, excessive downhill speeds are just don't occur. So it is not surprising that helmets are rarely used, the risk is much less, which is exactly your point. (Though I'd guess more than 1% were wearing helmets - they were not non-existent.) The problem with the Netherlands model is that I just don't see it gaining any serious traction in the US, even in the most bike-friendly of cities. Until we run out of fossil fuels, anyway. I also just spent some time in Italy, driving the back roads of Tuscany which are very winding, hilly, and have no shoulders. I found many bike riders on these roads, often in the middle of the lane when I was rounding a blind turn. As best I can recall, every one of these riders was wearing a helmet. Different culture, different circumstances, different risk, therefore the helmets. My point is, I don't think there is a blanket case for or against helmets - it's situational. Myself, I'm a recreational road rider, find myself often sharing the road with cars, and 17 mph is a good cruising speed for me. I don't ride enough to consider myself an expert, especially on the Dutch standard. Which probably describes and awful lot of American bike riders. I'll take my chances with a helmet.
Date 9/5/2014
David Bohm
Hi Tom, I have been riding for 35+ years. I am in the industry as a framebuilder and instructor. Ear buds are a HUGE pet peeve of mine! There are many dangerous behaviors on a bike but I am unsure that the logic that wearing one thing pre-disposes one to other dangerous behaviors. Its what you cannot anticipate that will get you. I.e. the last serious incident I had was with a faulty chain (you sell them BTW) 50 miles on it and upon inspection was cracked in 12 places it broke and dumped me directly on top of my head as I was climbing a hill. I could have never seen that coming. This most certainly would have been a medivac incident without a helmet. I am also a motorcycle rider and before 83 few people wore helmets. The same argument is made that when wearing a helmet a rider will take risks that they would not when not wearing a helmet. The data though is pretty conclusive that this generally is not the case. Motorcycle helmets save lives and reduce the severity of head injury even in those single vehicle incidents (i.e. we crashed without the help of anyone else:) I do not disagree with any of your comments concerning general safety, those are all excellent points. I just don't know how de-emphasizing helmet use is supposed to translate to better rider education about safety. All the best to you.
Date 9/6/2014
Tom Petrie
Hi Dave Bohm, Thanks for your note. Shortly, I believe the emphasis on helmets comes at the expense of more important information that can’t be reduced to a 3-word mantra. I’m scrambling now to get ready for Interbike, so I can’t give this reply the attention it deserves but I nevertheless didn’t want to leave without some reply. P.S. I’m sorry you had a problem with a Connex chain. If you’ll contact me directly by email I’ll arrange to get you a replacement.
Date 1/26/2015
My response can be summarized thusly: You don't know that you need a helmet until after you needed it. Who cares about the extremely rare cases of descending like banshees? Consider the opposite extreme...the person who falls at sub 10mph and could be brain dead simply because they reasoned that helmets make them more willing to take a risk. Don't think this can happen? What if your cleat/pedal interface binds unexpectedly? What if that car that we thought was stopping actually didn't see us? Wearing a helmet doesn't protect from EVERYTHING, but it does protect and that's the point.