The Bike Helmet Battle: Some Things never Change

August 29th, 2016 by Tom Lynch

It’s been ten years since the Insider wrote a word about motorcycle and bicycle helmets. Shame on us. This Post provides a ten-year update and connects helmet use to workers’ compensation.

To review the bidding:

We “tackled” motorcycle helmets after Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers (who, at the time, were reigning Super Bowl champions), had been seriously injured when, sans helmet, he drove head on into the side of a Chrysler New Yorker making a left turn in front of him in downtown Pittsburgh. Big Ben suffered serious facial and head injuries. He could easily have been killed. We ended that Post with this:

As a diehard New England Patriot fan, I really want to see Ben Roethlisberger on the field challenging my team for all he’s worth. So, I hope he makes a miraculously speedy recovery and is his old self by the start of training camp. But what would be really great, better than any football game, is if Big Ben, as soon as he’s sitting up and able to mouth coherent speech, were to make a big-time television public service announcement. A TV spot in which he would tell every kid and every football fan in America that he was wrong, that he was stupid, that he is not immortal and that he will never, ever again ride a motorcycle without wearing the best helmet made in the universe.

That didn’t happen. Quite the opposite, actually. For when media asked Mr. Super Bowl Superman if he would continue riding his bike (well, make that his new bike) and, if so, would he wear a helmet, he said “Yes” to the first and “No” to the second. It was at that moment that I knew we had lost the motorcycle helmet game in America.

With respect to bicycle helmets we reported on a New York City study (unfortunately no longer available) analyzing the 225 bicycle accident deaths that occurred over the most recent ten year period in the City. The study provided compelling evidence of life-saving properties of bicycle helmets. This from that Post:

  • 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.
  • 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, where are we now?

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety:

Currently, 19 states and the District of Columbia have laws requiring all motorcyclists to wear a helmet, known as universal helmet laws (Insider Note: in 2006, it was 20 states and the District of Columbia). Laws requiring only some motorcyclists to wear a helmet are in place in 28 states. There is no motorcycle helmet use law in three states (Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire).

Regarding bicycles helmets, no state requires an adult to wear one, although 21 states and the District of Columbia require young riders to wear them.

Now, into this cranial hodgepodge of helmet laws ride researchers from the University of Arizona. Writing in the American Journal of Surgery, they report on their study, the largest ever done regarding the efficacy of bicycle helmets. This from the study’s Abstract:


We performed analysis of the 2012 NTDB abstracted information of all patients with an intracranial hemorrhage after bicycle related accidents. Regression analysis was performed.


A total of 6,267 patients were included. 25.1%(n=1,573) of bicycle riders were helmeted. Overall 52.4%(n=3,284) patients had severe TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury), and the mortality rate was 2.8%(n=176). Helmeted bicycle riders had 51% reduced odds of severe TBI (0.49 [0.43-0.55]; p<0.001) and 44% reduced odds of mortality (0.56; 95% CI, 0.34-0.78; p=0.010). Helmet use also reduced the odds of facial fractures by 31%(0.69; 95% CI, 0.58-0.81; p<0.001).


Bicycle helmet use provides protection against severe TBI, reduces facial fractures, and saves lives even after sustaining an intracranial hemorrhage.

The good news from this study? In a bicycle accident you are more than 50% less likely to sustain a TBI, 44% less likely to die and 31% less likely sustain a facial fracture if you are wearing a helmet (Insider Note: Ask Ben Roethlisberger to describe the pain of a facial fracture).

The bad news? Despite the good news only 25% of bicyclists wear helmets. In ten years nothing has changed.

Does this have anything to do with workers’ compensation? According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, if you’re one of the more than 73,000 bicycle messengers and couriers in the U.S. it might. And if you’re one of the more than 12,000 that navigate streets in southern California or one of the more than 5,000 that zip through Midtown Manhattan, or one of the 1,400 dodging traffic in Chicago’s Loop it might. Because, while all states require employers to provide helmets to their bicyclist employees, and while most states require employers to provide training that includes the benefits of helmets, no state requires the bicyclist to wear them. However, both New York City and Chicago have enacted local laws requiring employers to provide working cyclists helmets meeting either A.N.S.I. or Snell standards and further require the cyclists to wear them.  Although in the case of NYC, someone might want to pass the requirement on to the messenger and courier companies, the largest of which told me wearing a helmet is “totally up to the rider’s discretion.”

For now, we’re left with a mish-mash. Things are pretty much as they were back in 2006, along with the helmetless rider’s continuing mantra: “It’s all about the freedom of personal choice.” That may be true, but society, that’s you, I and everyone else, doesn’t have a choice about sending EMT Rescue Units to the scenes of cycle accidents and caring for those who sustain serious injury or death in the “Live Free Or Die” game.