I’ve been wearing a bicycle helmet since 1979. Back then, only bike racers wore padded leather helmets. Pleasure cyclists and the few brave bike commuters let their freak flags fly. So why did I decide to become a cutting-edge mushroom-headed cyclist? I can only say that I made the decision to buy a helmet in a moment of adult responsibility when my daughter was born.
Now, I can’t get on my bike without putting on a helmet. Even when I ride around the block road testing some simple brake adjustments, I strap on my trusty LAS helmet. I see lots of cyclists riding without helmets. They all have their own reason. Cyclists love to debate the pros and cons of everything from 26/27/700C/29” wheels to rim versus disc brakes to helmets. Everyone has an opinion about wearing a helmet … or not, and what type of helmet is best. In Amsterdam or Copenhagen, most cyclists ride without a helmet. Locally, when I ride on the UCSB campus with a helmet, I feel like a Martian invader. Bike culture on campus is to ride your cruiser to class without a helmet. UCSB and some European cities feature separated or protected bikeways so that cyclists are not sharing the road with trucks, cars, and motorcycles. On the other hand, several weeks ago, when I rode in a large group ride through the streets of Goleta, everyone wore a helmet.
Here are some statistics from the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute. Less than 2 percent of motor vehicle crash deaths are bicyclists. The most serious injuries among a majority of those killed are to the head, highlighting the importance of wearing a bicycle helmet. Eighty-nine percent of bicycle deaths are persons 16 and older, so helmet laws should include adults. Ninety-one percent of bicyclists killed in 2009 reportedly weren’t wearing helmets.
The Bicycle Helmet institute believes that all cyclists should wear a helmet. Do its members have a bias? Yes, off course they do, and it’s stated in their name. They are advocates who also have a lot of hard data to back up their beliefs.
Leaving aside the arguments about ruining hairstyles or not looking cool, Howie Chong, in the blog posting “Why It Makes Sense to Bike Without a Helmet,” presented three reasons why cyclists may choose to ride without a bike helmet.
First, wearing a helmet changes how drivers perceive the cyclist. A 2006 study by Dr. Ian Walker, a traffic psychologist from the University of Bath, showed that motorists, when passing cyclists, gave helmeted cyclists less space than they gave cyclists who don’t wear head protection. Not only does this increase the chance of being clipped by a vehicle, it leaves cyclists with far less maneuvering room to avoid other potentially injurious road hazards like potholes and icy patches.
Second, several studies have shown that wearing a helmet may increase the chance of some types of neck injuries when accidents happen.
Finally, wearing a helmet may create a false sense of security and induce risk-taking that cyclists without head protection might not make. In other words, those wearing helmets may take risks that they wouldn’t otherwise take without head protection.
Chong also points out that according to an Australian helmet study, usage may discourage cycling. If potential cyclists feel that bike riding is an unsafe activity requiring safety gear, they may choose to drive to the grocery store or for ice cream with the kids.
I’m willing to debate with fellow cyclists the logic of those arguments, but when I get on my bike, I’m going to buckle up. I still believe that wearing a helmet will probably save your life. According to a 1989 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, riders with helmets had an 85 percent reduction in their risk of head injury and an 88 percent reduction in their risk of brain injury. In almost all studies of hospital admission rates, helmeted cyclists are far less likely to receive serious head and brain injuries.
Wearing a helmet is only one part of smart biking. It is critical also to learn how to properly and safely ride on all types of roadways. Knowing your rights and responsibilities, how to ride confidently and share the road are all basic driver education skills that every cyclist should know. If you are not a confident rider, take the time to complete a class like SBBIKE’s Street Skills program.
Ready to buy a helmet? Here’s what you need to know. If the label says “Bicycle Helmet,” it meets the standards of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). This means that the low-cost helmet meets the same safety standards as a pricey, high-end helmets. Look for a CPSC sticker inside the helmet if you’re not sure.
Lower-priced helmets are often one size fits all; you simply adjust an internal strap to get the helmet snug. Higher-priced helmets are available in a range of sizes and styles. If you’re going to wear a helmet, do it right. A helmet should fit low, level, and snug. Here’s a three-step process to do it right.
1. Look in a mirror. Your helmet should sit level on your head, and the front of the helmet should cover most of your forehead. If the helmet tilts back and exposes your forehead, it’s not going to protect you.
2. Buckle up the chin strap, and tighten it so that it’s snug beneath your chin. You should barely be able to fit a finger between the strap and your chin. Adjust the side straps so that the point of the V sits just below your ears.
3. Push the helmet back on your head. Can you move the helmet more than an inch? Tighten the straps. In the end, you shouldn’t be able to move the helmet more than an inch in any direction.
Finally, check it before you wear it. Helmet straps tend to loosen, so give your helmet a quick wiggle-check before every outing. Then enjoy the ride.
I wear a helmet because about 20 years ago I was riding on a quiet traffic-free Pittsburgh road early one Sunday morning when my front tire was stopped by an expansion joint in the roadway. I remember nothing about the accident but was told by pedestrians that came to my assistance that I went headfirst like an arrow into the ground. The emergency room doctors were clear … without the helmet I wouldn’t be typing this column. Wear a helmet, and pedal on!