Bicycle Helmets: Are They a Total Sham?

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Brooke was prepping for a bike ride with my parents just yesterday, and she committed a serious mistake. Are you sitting down? She asked my dad if he had a bike helmet.  This is grave because she didn't understand that she was peeling back the lid of a smelly can of worms when she asked.

She thought she was making conversation.

Oh . . . no no no, no. No. No.

This was my dad.  I don't even know what to say other than that.  My. Dad.

My innocent wife waltzed into a lion's den with that question.

My dad cackled the only way I know 66-year-old men do and said, "Bicycle helmets are one of the great frauds against humanity."

I can't make this stuff up. He really said that right before he pedaled off down the road. It echoed with me.  Frauds against humanity. His comment made me pause and think about my bike-riding childhood.

I received an awesome blue Haro freestyle bike when I was 11 or 12. I recall outfitting that sucker with sweet foot pegs in the rear and the front; a rotor on the neck; and sweet tires for fancy tricks that I never learned how to do.  I'll be damned if I didn't make my mom buy me the stylish shoes and shorts, though.  And the guy who owned the bike shop on Scottsdale Road, Del, gave me a pair of dice valve caps so I wouldn't stick out like a sore thumb among my buds -- oh! and how I so wanted a set of "rad" 1988 style mag wheels for my prized Haro.

My dad cackled the only way I know 66-year-old men do and said, "Bicycle helmets are one of the great frauds against humanity."The Haro remained my mode of transportation until I moved up to a mountain bike and ultimately a Fiat Spyder 124 with a convertible top and a really unnerving personality for breaking down with such frequency that my crotch never did soften up from lack of bike riding. Thanks to the Fiat, I stayed callused until I finally went away to college and left that Fiat behind.  The bike, thanks to my experience as a Fiat owner, went with me to Virginia. (Own a Fiat!  You'll become a great bike rider!)

I hate to sound like one of those bozos who says, "My great aunt smoked cigarettes since she was nine years old, lived to 107, and never got cancer" but I never owned a bike helmet until I got married in 2003.  Don't mistake that for a comment about marriage.... Brooke and I bought bikes right after our honeymoon and we got helmets and gloves to go with them.  We use the gloves and helmets.  Yet my dad's comment has me reeling today. Absolutely reeling.

I'm currently reading "Free-Range Kids" by Lenore Skenazy (affiliate link), so I'm all ears about this issue of bike helmets and whether or not they actually do any good -- because, what the heck, someone might be just playing to our fears about bicycle head injuries rather than the realities of such injuries.  It's a worthwhile question, if only to answer it for myself and understand the facts.

True or False: Wearing a helmet will do nothing to prevent you from getting hit by a car

This notion makes far more sense to concentrate on than the merits of using a helmet. Ride smart, learn the scenarios in which cyclists have been injured or killed by a collision with a car and learn how to avoid said collisions. There are some really good scenarios on this page about how to ride defensively and avoid getting hit by a car.

Is there a chance that the only folks who are telling us that helmets are "a must-have" are

  1. helmet sellers and
  2. people who fall for the lies perpetrated by helmet sellers

Another question: are they really lying?  Do helmets do little or no good?

Twenty-six percent of bicyclists killed in 2008 had blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) at or above 0.08 percent.So I'm setting out to locate statistics.  Stats are funny little things because, as it turns out, they all conflict.  Or tell stories you're not quite looking for.  For example, the Journal of Pediatrics looked at the death rate of cyclists under the age 18 before and after a helmet law went into place in Ontario, Canada.  They conclude that since the death rate dropped 52% that helmets must be doing their job.  However, that stat is far too loose. Really?  A helmet law?  Does that really indicate that helmet use increased? What if cycling in general decreased?  What if parents became so spooked at such a law that they steered their kids to other pursuits?

Wouldn't a more accurate statistic tell us a few different things?

  1. The number of cycling deaths (or just head injuries if you want....) total
  2. Number of deaths, and percentages, which report wearing a helmet
  3. Number of deaths, and percentages, which report not wearing a helmet
  4. How are deaths by head injuries and helmet use trending from year to year?

Plot it out on a chart for easy interpretation.

There are such statistics.  Ironically enough from and the statistics there favor helmet use (what a surprise).  In 2008, 91% of bicycle deaths report that the victim failed to wear a helmet.

Once again, there's more at play: "Twenty-six percent of bicyclists killed in 2008 had blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) at or above 0.08 percent."

Hellooooo . . .

And there's yet more.  How about this guy: Why I Am Opposed to Mandatory Helmet Laws. He's got a full page hammering out all the anomalies in gathering cycling injury statistics. "Cyclists who are not afraid of a bump on the head are much less likely to wear helmets and much less likely to show up with a minor injury [at the hospital or doctor]."  Furthermore, "...helmet-wearers, as a group, had higher incomes, and thus were more likely to have medical insurance. A cyclist with a low income and very likely no health insurance is unlikely to seek help for a bang on the head."

Sheez.  Does it ever end?  No.  Probably not.  I'm saying, "Forget it. I'll wear my helmet."  Most importantly, I think one of the best things is to avoid wrecks, especially with motor vehicles, altogether.

Which brings me to this: if you're driving in a car, share the road.


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# D.B. 2010-07-07 13:58
a lot of accidents can be avoided if bikers learn how to ride so drivers can see them. Helmets are still a good idea tho.
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