Bicycle Helmets: To Wear or not to Wear, That is the Question

December 13th, 2006 by

You might think that the utility of wearing bicycle helmets has been so well established, that there is no serious questioning of laws requiring their use. Well, as with everything else, there are two sides to the issue. While the Insider always leans toward the disciplined use of personal protective equipment such as helmets, it’s important to keep an open mind.
Let’s begin with helmet advocacy. I cannot imagine a more challenging environment for cyclists than New York City. One study of the city’s fatal bicycle incidents (225 fatalities over a 10 year period) found that helmets probably reduce the risk of death. The data is pretty compelling:
: Almost three-quarters of fatal crashes (74%) involved a head injury.
: Nearly all bicyclists who died (97%) were not wearing a helmet.
: Helmet use among those bicyclists with serious injuries was low (13%), but it was even lower among bicyclists killed (3%).
: Only one fatal crash with a motor vehicle occurred when a bicyclist was in a marked bike lane.
: Nearly all bicyclist deaths (92%) occurred as a result of crashes with motor vehicles.
: Large vehicles (trucks, buses) were involved in almost one-third (32%) of fatal crashes, but they make up approximately 15% of vehicles on NYC roadways.
: Most fatal crashes (89%) occurred at or near intersections.
: Nearly all (94%) fatalities involved human error. The study notes that “all New Yorkers, whether pedestrians, bicyclists or motorists, can help prevent crashes by following traffic signs and signals and respecting other road users.” [To which we add, “Yeah, right.”]
: Most bicyclists who died were males (91%), and men aged 45–54 had the highest death rate (8.1 per million) of any age group.
So, if you are a 45 year old male cyclist riding in Manhattan without a helmut, be extra careful when approaching an intersection. To which the cyclists respond, “Yeah, right!”
The Contrary View
Two contrarian views have popped up in the news. In the first, a New Zealand advocacy group rails against the mandatory use of helmets. Cycling Health Inc spokesperson Graeme Trass says, “Well-meaning people believe the helmet law keeps cyclists safe. However, the evidence in New Zealand and overseas shows it discourages cycling and harms the overall health of the population.” In other words, some people who might normally ride a bike avoid doing so because they dislike the helmets. Why? According to a study by Massey University researcher Kane Hopkins, women and young people in particular said they avoided cycling because of the effect on their hair-styles. (Not an issue for men, apparently, even though the New York study indicates that men might be less likely to wear a helmet – and more likely to die in an accident. Hmm.)
The New York Times Sunday Magazine (registration required) ends the year with a number of brief profiles of provocative and cutting edge issues. The recent issue included another possible argument against bicycle helmets. Ian Walker, a psychologist at the University of Bath, was intrigued by an urban myth involving cyclists: For years, cyclists who ride on city streets have sensed that if they wear helmets, they are more likely to get hit by a car.
Walker decided to put the myth to a scientific test. He rigged his bicycle with an ultasonic sensor that could detect how close cars came to him when they passed. He spent a couple of months on the road, with and without a helmet, until 2,500 cars had passed him. (Let’s hear it for the scientific method!) Examining the data, he found that when he wore a helmet, motorists passed by 3.35 inches closer than when his head was bare. So riding with a helmet appears to be a little more dangerous than riding without.
Walker theorizes that helmets change the behavior of drivers. Motorists regard a helmet as a signal that the cyclist is prudent and experienced and thus can be approached with less caution. “They see a helmet and think, Oh, there’s a serious rider,” Walker says. “And you get hit.” By contrast, drivers apparently view helmetless riders as less reliable and more at risk, so drivers are more cautious when passing them.
Walker’s study will be published next year in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention. When Walker circulated his preliminary findings, he got a lot of angry emails. Helmet advocates accused him of opening the door to mayhem and carnage on the roads. Walker takes a different view. He thinks that by responding to a helmet, drivers are making unconscious judgments about cyclists. He thinks the answer is not necessarily in foregoing the use of helmets, but in educating drivers that passing helmeted cyclists is no different from passing those without helmets.
Walker personally has little use for helmet laws or, for that matter, helmets. He rarely wears one. During his study, he was struck twice, once by a bus and once by a truck (larger vehicles, it’s worth noting, just as was found in the New York study). Both times he was hit, he was wearing a helmet. So Walker seems to believe he’s safer without the helmet. It would be interesting for him to present his findings to an audience of the families and friends of the 225 deceased riders in New York City. That would be one scientific symposium worth the price of admission.