The Kid (Mason) got a very sweet new road bike this week; partially a graduation gift. He picked it up Wednesday (it was raining) and rode it for the first time yesterday morning. And not very far. A bit of rider error on his part, and he ended up off the road and into the roadside ditch. Fortunately, he wasn’t badly injured – save for a bit of road rash on arm and knee – but his helmet tells a story.
There seems to be a debate, which can often get quite heated, among cyclists – to wear or to not wear a helmet. I’m a helmet true-believer. And I think this picture speaks volumes.
The non-helmet wearing crowd presents a number of arguments, including the perception(?) that vehicles will give more passing room to a cyclist without a helmet. I read of one study in Cambridge, England, where someone electronically measured data from passing cars. They claim cars gave several more inches of clearance when passing a non-helmet wearing cyclist. For a couple of extra inches, I’ll wear a helmet, thanks.
Anti-helmet folks also point to the great cycling Meccas such as Amsterdam, where huge numbers of people rely on bikes for daily transportation, yet virtually no one wears a helmet. Does this make our own country’s helmet-wearing trend just a plot by American equipment manufacturers to sell helmets? Personally, I don’t buy this argument. Infrastructure differences, political will, and decades of cultural adjustment to the bike as real transportation in cities like Amsterdam make the bigger difference.
Another argument I have read more than once (and always seems counter-intuitive somehow) is mentioned in Jeff Mapes book, Pedalling Revolution:
(Peter Jacobsen, Sacramento public health consultant) has argued against helmet laws on the grounds that they discourage cycling by building the impression that it is a risky activity (and in fact, mandatory helmet laws in parts of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada did seem to reduce cycling). And he has argued, as have many others, that risk compensation comes into play: just as drivers in cars with seatbelts and airbags may feel it is safer to go faster, people wearing helmets may be less cautious.
Mapes goes on to cite some interesting statistics, and a very valid criticism of one of the significant differences in attitude toward cycling deaths in the US (versus places like Amsterdam, Copenhagen…)
From 1994 to 2005, the percentage of fatalities involving cyclists who didn’t use a helmet ranged from a high of 97 percent in 1994 to a low of 83 percent in 2004. New York City’s 2006 study looked at 122 fatalities where helmet use had been recorded. Only four of those killed had been wearing a helmet. But that New York study also noted that more than a fourth of those who died did not have head injuries. So the lack of helmet use could also be associated with other dangerous riding.
Still, all too often in this country, news coverage of cyclist deaths has tended to focus only on whether the rider wore a helmet and not other problems that may have caused the crash. And it’s clear from the experience of the Netherlands, Denmark, and other European cities with high cycling rates that helmet use is far from being the last word in safety.
But even putting all things automobile or traffic-related aside, the simple fact is this: rider error happens. It doesn’t take much – a little bit of silt or fine gravel on the pavement, a momentary distraction, a chasing dog, some bad pavement… I have talked with a number of seasoned and experienced cyclists who have had the unexpected accident – and who are also helmet true-believers. I can’t say for certain that his helmet saved Mason’s noodle, but looking at it afterward, I can only feel grateful that it came between him and the pavement.
Personal choice or mandatory helmet laws, maybe it’s a tough call for some? But I know what I’ll be wearing….