Are Helmets Bad for Biking?

by Karan Chhabra

No, no error in the title. A recent, hotly discussed piece in the New York Times suggests:

In the United States the notion that bike helmets promote health and safety by preventing head injuries is taken as pretty near God’s truth. Un-helmeted cyclists are regarded as irresponsible, like people who smoke…

But many European health experts have taken a very different view: Yes, there are studies that show that if you fall off a bicycle at a certain speed and hit your head, a helmet can reduce your risk of serious head injury. But such falls off bikes are rare — exceedingly so in mature urban cycling systems.

On the other hand, many researchers say, if you force or pressure people to wear helmets, you discourage them from riding bicycles. That means more obesity, heart disease and diabetes. And — Catch-22 — a result is fewer ordinary cyclists on the road, which makes it harder to develop a safe bicycling network.

According to the article, the European cities with the most bikers don’t require helmets, and those riders do just fine. In fact, they suggest that cities requiring helmets tend to have fewer bikers than cities that don’t require helmets worldwide. (This has been demonstrated more rigorously in a study of US youth ridership before and after instituting helmet laws.) How can that be?

Many believe it’s because helmets make biking look dangerous–why would people need helmets for something that’s safe? That’s the rationale of Minneapolis’s bike coordinator for not wearing a helmet: “I just want it to be seen as something that a normal person can do,” he says, according to the NYT article. Perhaps a more realistic reason is that helmets are cumbersome, often costly, and—let’s be honest—they look dorky and mess with our hair.

There’s actually some disagreement over the idea that helmets are even protective at all, and some suggest that they may even cause more harm than good. Helmet skeptics note that helmets were designed for linear collisions at a maximum of 12.5 mph, and that a dinky Styrofoam shell is useless at higher speeds (which cyclists, not to mention cars, often reach). They add that “torsional” injuries, in which the head and neck twist wider and faster than they should, are more common and more damaging than linear injuries and may even be made worse by helmets. Basic physics: if you increase the head’s radius (by adding a helmet), when the helmet and head hit the ground, they’ll twist the neck harder than you would with a smaller radius. Think about how much tighter you can screw in a nut with a long wrench–same principle. There’s also evidence that drivers give more space to riders without helmets, and that bike riders take more risks when they’re wearing helmets (a psychological phenomenon called “risk compensation”).

All those things considered, including helmet hair, I’m keeping my helmet on. The science against helmets is interesting, but to me (as a frequent bike commuter) it doesn’t trump the fact that helmets reduce injury rates by at least 63%. I’m not sure that helmets should be mandatory everywhere, but I think it’s decidedly bad policy to discourage helmet use as a route to increasing bike ridership. Yes, more bike ridership may decrease obesity, congestion, and greenhouse gas emissions (all things I don’t like), but the public health connection is just too squishy. Can we really prove that relaxing helmet laws will stop one death from obesity or diabetes? I doubt it. But we can prove that requiring helmets decreases fatalities from accidents–even if it’s partly due to the unintended consequence of decreasing bike ridership.

I also think the comparison to European cities puts the cart before the horse. The NYT article seems to suggest that bikers in Europe are safer because their cities don’t require helmets, but I think it’s quite the opposite—that they can ride without helmets because their cities are safer. I commuted on bike for a full year in Washington, DC (considered one of our most bike-friendly cities) and even though I’m not the most risk-averse person, I’d have felt naked if I rode anywhere without my helmet. Even with bike lanes, even with those glorious protected bike lanes, every biker has to interact with cars at some point, and if those cars don’t know how to deal with bikers, madness (and danger) ensues.

I’ve biked in Montreal and wandered around Amsterdam, two exemplars of bike-friendliness, and they make me think this is more of an issue of sociology than anything else. What cities like Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Paris have, and what we’re still seeking, is a culture in which biking to work is a mainstream activity. In the US, bike commuters tend to be male (by a ratio of 2:1), speed-loving adrenaline junkies. Check and check, for myself at least: I chose to bike because it was the fastest way to get to work, and because the thrill of DC traffic helped wake me up in the morning. In the most bike-friendly cities in the world, by contrast, bike commuters are at least half female, a demographic that tends to be more risk-averse and attentive to comfort (no stereotypes here, just data, I promise). I doubt they have the same demographics as those guys on racing bikes trying to PR each trip to work. In Copenhagen, bike highway streetlights are timed for a 12 mph pace—hardly that of the Spandex speed demons.

Hair hindrances notwithstanding, helmets are at best a red herring in this debate. If we want more of those risk-averse riders, letting them ride without helmets in roads that are still unsafe is not going to make them more likely to bike. And it might even get them hurt. One thing we do know about biker safety is that it increases when there are more bikers on the road, likely because it helps motorists learn how to deal with them (and, arguably, makes bikers play more nicely with drivers too). Obviously there’s another Catch-22 here: if we need to make biking safer to get more bikers on the roads, but we need more bikers on the roads to make biking safer—you get the point. So now what?

It’s a complex issue, and I don’t mean to downplay its intricacies. But I think we need to start by thinking big: engaging a broad cross-section of the population (including those who aren’t yet bikers) rather than toying with the behaviors of the brave few who’ve already decided to push pedals. Some ideas from Scientific American:

A few municipalities are beginning to implement a “second wave” of strategies aimed at broadening the cycling demographic. In Portland, a city already renowned for its urban cycling, a Women on Bikes program targets such concerns as fixing a flat tire. The city is also building its first cycle track—a European-style bike lane that is separated from cars and pedestrians. Across the country state and federally funded Safe Routes to Schools programs are creating practical bike routes for kids so they don’t have to be driven by their parents.

Trust me, I know these ideas aren’t earth-shaking, but they’re fundamentally different from the (I think) distracting debate on whether bike helmets decrease ridership. The ideas I’m interested in are about creating a culture in which your everyday commuter knows what it’s like to bike through their city, and may even do it every now and then. They’re about showing kids that biking to school can be fun and easy, and showing their parents that it can be safe. I really think bike ridership and bike safety will follow, hand-in-hand. But at least for the time being, let’s not discourage those conscientious enough to wear helmets.

photo credit

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Karan is a first-year student at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School who previously worked in strategic research for hospital executives and graduated from Duke University.

Follow him on Twitter @KRChhabra.

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3 thoughts on “Are Helmets Bad for Biking?

  1. Brandon Imp says:

    Excellent post Karan. The benefits of riding a bike, in some areas of the US, truly outweigh the benefits of driving a car to work, school, or another local destination. As an example, there are possibly 75 first year RWJ medical students living within reasonable biking distance of school, yet I currently know of only three that take advantage of the proximity. How many times do we joke that the bikers get to school faster than car commuters when there’s traffic? This must change.

    Many have a story about the importance of helmets. Here’s mine. My family biked a lot when I was younger. On one biking excursion, my wheel hit a curb and I flew off the bike. My mom was immediately behind me and couldn’t stop in time. Between her running into me, the bike on top of me, and my body skidding across the pavement and sharp curb, my face was pretty mangled. My helmet broke (as it should), relieving the impact. My brain was spared but my faced remained scarred for months. I became an example in my elementary school and neighborhood about the importance of helmets. I would not be where I am today without that helmet.

    My last point: helmets make biking look dangerous. Sure, they do. But anyone who uses that has a weak argument. A bike is a relatively weak frame that offers no protection. The person’s clothes, body, and wit is the only protection, save the helmet, from injury. Cars are protective steel framed boxes with cushions, airbags, and designs to maximize the driver/passengers’ safety. Someone who argues that helmets make biking look unsafe should take a closer look at their automobile.

  2. Tommy P says:

    Brandon, I 100% agree. If you think helmets don’t help go talk to someone with a TBI. They might still be alive and even if they are “healthier” from riding their bike but they sure are not the same person that they were before they decided to not wear the helmet.

  3. I agree that the city makes a bigger difference. Having lived in the Netherlands, riding a bike is as easy as the old saying. College cities in the US are the closest thing due to the large amount of people without cars (students). The majority of US cities treat bicyclists as a novelty and the infrastructure is solely based around cars.

    Helmets aside, riding around Anytown, USA is pretty unsafe. When laws were passed requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets in certain states, those states didn’t see a dramatic decrease. That’s a little apples to oranges, but the conditions that increase or decrease people’s butts on bikes are more closely related to the environment which surrounds them than protective gear.

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