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End of Discussion?

November 16, 2010

Is there anything more predictable in the biking world than the response to yet another study proving the efficacy of helmets to prevent serious injury?  Read any message board or blog post on the subject, and inevitably someone will make the following claim:

If you’re hit by a truck, a helmet isn’t going to help you at all.

Well, there’s really nothing to argue with here, right?  If a cyclist falls under a steamroller, no piece of plastic and styrofoam will save him.  Got it.  But why is that presented as if it’s the end of the discussion?  Saying that catastrophic accidents are an argument against helmet use is like saying that the existence of hurricanes in the world means you shouldn’t close your house’s windows when it rains.  Life is full of uncertainties, many of which may kill you, but that doesn’t mean you don’t take reasonable precautions when appropriate.

The best analogy to helmets, one that’s commonly used in their defense, is seat belt use.  Most people comply with seat belt laws, even though no one reasonably believes they’re a good defense against being hit by a freight train or driving off of a bridge.  Although it’s the spectacular car crashes that make the news, it’s the more mundane fender benders that make up the majority of automobile accidents where seat belts can mean the difference between a bruise across the chest or a head that slams into a windshield.

Many of the inconveniences of wearing seat belts–they’re uncomfortable, they can wrinkle your clothes–apply to helmets–they’re uncomfortable, they mess up your hair–yet most drivers wear them religiously.  A wrinkled business suit is a tiny price to pay for some extra safety.  And don’t be fooled into thinking that seat belt laws come from the kind, good heart of a government that cares about the health of its citizens.  The insurance industry has a lot of sway here: if you and I are in a car accident that’s my fault, my insurance company does not want to pay out millions of dollars for your care when a cheap canvas strap could have lessened the severity of your injuries.  You better believe that Geico and AllState really want to keep seat belt laws on the books.

Another common dismissal of bike helmets meant to shut down any discussion is that we don’t require or even encourage their use among drivers, even though they might prevent far more injuries.  But what does that have to do with anything?  What people wear while they drive has no bearing on my safety as a cyclist.  All road conditions being equal, how would helmet-wearing motorists in Jell-O filled cars protect me when I bike?

Yes, I know there is a lot of fear mongering on the pro-helmet side, which may alone be the cause for the reflexive anti-helmet hysteria one can find online. In sex ed, anyone who claims that condom use is a 100% guarantee against unwanted pregnancies and STDs just isn’t being truthful, but the right-winger who argues against contraception entirely because condoms fail 2.3% of the time is living in a dangerous fantasy world.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, the choices we make as riders should depend on where we ride, not on what bloggers or government agencies tell us to do.  Taking a leisurely ride through Copenhagen?  Who cares if you wear a helmet.  Commuting to work from Williamsburg to downtown Manhattan?  I say wear one.  Where and how you cycle should dictate what gear you use when you cycle.  I’ll repeat my mantra: work towards the type of city you want to ride in, but ride in the city you live in today.

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2 Comments
  1. November 16, 2010 10:04 pm

    Much of the passion stems from the fact that here in Australia we don’t have the choice you discuss. We have to wear helmets. 97% of my cycling is done in the company of a seven year old on designated bike paths, bike lanes and bike routes. We are rarely in the company fo cars and when we are it is in quiet suburaban streets. I don’t need to wear a helmet but I don’t get to exercise the choice you describe.

    Seat belts are not a good comparison. They prevent injuries all over the body, very common injuries that can be caused in even minor accidents. Helmets reduce one type of injury that occurs in the minority of accidents and they can contribute to some of these injuries.

  2. November 17, 2010 11:19 am

    I’m not comparing the protection seat belts offer with that of helmets. Rather, my point is that we don’t argue away seat belt use because there are some circumstances in which they won’t protect us. Yet read any blog on the subject of helmets and inevitably you’ll find someone who says that we shouldn’t ever wear helmets because if you’re hit by a truck at 60 mph it won’t help. So what?

    Even though I’m in favor of helmet use here in NYC, I’m against helmet laws. I think it deflects the responsibility for safety onto individuals alone and lets the city, state, or national government off the hook when it comes to making things safer in the first place.

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