Helmets and the “They Can’t Hurt” theory

I’ve said it many many times, I’m neither pro- nor anti- helmet.  My statements on the subject have been very accurately described by others as ambivalent.

I may, however, be changing my mind.  And you, dear reader, get to come along for the ride.

So to stop skirting the issue, I’ll state my opinion, as it exists today:

I don’t really mind wearing a helmet, but I really don’t think they do squat to protect me.  The risks the helmet protect me from are the same risks I experience when walking down the street.  I’m just as comfortable riding my bike without a helmet as I am walking across my living room without a helmet.

And that is when the “Say what” and “this guy’s nuts” comments come on.  “Clearly you’re safer with a helmet on.   It’s obvious.  Anyone who thinks otherwise is a moron,” is another possible retort to my sentiment.

In truth, bicycle helmets are designed for low speed impacts only. Bob Mionske also talked about this in his recent article for Bicycling:

The fact is, many cyclists wear helmets because they perceive that any potential for increased discomfort is outweighed by the safety benefits gained. But if safety standards only require that helmets withstand a low-speed impact, are there really safety benefits to wearing a helmet? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is a qualified yes. In a low-speed fall from your bike, a bicycle helmet may protect you from sustaining a head injury, and considering the fact that the majority of bicycle accidents are solo crashes, helmet impact standards do address the types of impacts associated with the majority of bicycle accidents. From that perspective, there is some safety benefit to be derived from wearing a bicycle helmet.

The problem, however, is that nobody straps on a helmet because they’re afraid that they might have a low-speed solo fall from their bike. Nobody driving by a cyclist who is riding sans headgear yells “wear a helmet” because they’re afraid that cyclist might have a low-speed solo crash. Nobody passes mandatory helmet laws because they want to protect cyclists from themselves. No, the reason helmet use is considered de rigeur is because people believe that a helmet will protect the cyclist from the head injuries associated with the high-speed impact of a collision with an automobile.

In other words, there is a disconnect between what helmets actually can do, and what most people think helmets should do.

And then we come to where a great many helmet discussions end.  The inevitable stalemate of “Well, we can argue about how much they help.  But in the end they can’t hurt anything, so we’re better safe than sorry.”

Not so fast…

There actually is the potential for harm from all of this pro-helmet advocacy, and the particular harm I want to discuss here is one of PR more than anything.  Encouraging folks to wear helmets on their bikes has an underlying implication – and that message is that bikes are inherently dangerous. I’m still working on the research to discuss this particular implication intelligently and rationally.  I’d like to really understand how, statistically, the risks of riding a bike compare to driving a car or walking.  But this idea of the inherent danger of cycling can do us no good in encouraging folks to get out and ride. Mikael Colville-Andersen talked about this very subject at length recently.

The other problem is that this overwhelming public opinion provides an impression of fault should a rider not wearing a helmet get into an accident and injured or killed.  I’m sure you’ve all seen the stories online or in newspapers that read like:

Cyclist killed in collision at dangerous intersection when a motorist, traveling at 55 mph in a 35 mph zone, failed to stop at a stop sign.  The cyclist was transported to a near by hospital where he later died of head trauma.  The cyclist was not wearing a helmet at the time.

That last statement almost implies that the fact that the motorist was speeding or blew a stop sign is irrelevant compared to the “reckless behavior” of the non-helmet wearing cyclist.  The fact that a helmet is not even designed to provide protection in a situation such as this is, apparently, lost on many a reporter and reader.  That one little sentence has shifted at least part of the blame from the reckless driver and landed it squarely “on the head” of our cyclist.

Unfortunately, the “We should all wear helmets” camp has it really easy.  Wearing a helmet while you ride just seems so obvious to so many folks.  Statements like “Riding a bike without a helmet significantly increases the risk of brain injury if you get into an accident” just seem right for a lot of people, and thus data isn’t necessary in their minds.  It makes it very difficult to have rational, sane and controlled dialog if you particular view happens to lean to the contrary of popular opinion.

And I must say that my opinion is starting to lean that way.

This time around