DUMBO’S MAGIC FEATHER
The case against bicycle helmets.
A bicycle helmet is last thing you need. Yes, a bit of polystyrene foam between your head and the pavement at the moment of impact might be nice in the unlikely event of a crash, but that’s exactly the point – it’s your last hope. And it’s not nearly the fail-safe protection you’d like to believe it is.
Rather than listing a helmet as the first thing you need to keep, it should be considered for what it is – the last line of defense. It plays no active role in keeping you safe. It should come in around tenth on that list after all the many things you can do to actively improve your safety. A helmet is your last hope when all else has failed. And wearing a helmet may even put you at greater risk than not wearing one at all. Far better not to fall in the first place.
In Europe, where cycling is common and helmets are rare, millions of people ride their bikes every day without helmets. Yet, most Americans seem to believe that “a helmet keeps you safe” and that failure to wear one angers the gods and tempts fate. “Was he wearing a helmet?” is the first question you invariably hear at the news of any bicycle accident, as if not wearing one is a reprehensible act of irresponsibility. “No? Well, then it serves him right!”, as if pain and suffering are the justifiable penalty for not wearing a polystyrene hat. Why does no one ever ask, “Was he wearing ear buds?”
Do you ride with a helmet and ear buds? Think about it. Your standard of safety is so high you’d never consider riding a bike anywhere without first strapping on a helmet, yet you plug-in ear buds because you like to listen to Juicy Lucy when you ride. Ear buds block-out ambient noise. People use them on airplanes and subways to create a personal cocoon that insulates them from the cacophony of public transit, which is exactly why it’s so dangerous to wear ear buds when you ride. However much you may enjoy listening to Juicy Lucy when you’re deep in the pain cave, you’re deluding yourself if you think you’re not actively compromising your safety by doing so. Wearing ear buds while you ride is stupidity beyond reckoning. A helmet is a last-chance passive defense against the risk of an accident; wearing ear buds actively multiplies that risk.
Wearing a helmet does not “keep you safe”. It’s comforting to believe it does, but maybe it makes you less safe. If you ride more aggressively when you’re wearing a helmet because you believe the helmet “keeps you safe”, your faith in that helmet is misplaced and, because of it, wearing a helmet may actually make you less safe. This is called “risk compensation”. Why does nobody ever ask, “Was he descending at the limit of control?”
In the Colorado Rocky Mountains near Boulder, there’s a winding descent called Left-hand Canyon. In September 2013, Dale Stetina, a former U.S. national road champion, sustained life-threatening injuries on this descent when, in the company of other riders who managed to avoid crashing as they rounded a turn and came upon a car in their lane, Dale lost control, hit the pavement, and was injured so badly he had to be air-lifted to the hospital. He spent weeks in the ICU and didn’t leave the hospital for 3 months. And, in answer to the inevitable question… yes, he was wearing a helmet.
But Dale’s helmet didn’t keep him safe. He hit his face. All the riders were wearing helmets. Were they descending judiciously or, because they were wearing helmets, did they feel empowered to make it a testosterone-charged descent at the limit of control?
The question of whether Dale was wearing a helmet or not pales in the face of the much larger question - were all the riders putting themselves at great risk because they felt they were protected by their helmets?
Try this. Go for a ride wearing a helmet. Then, do the same ride without a helmet. Did you ride more cautiously without the helmet? Is your faith in a helmet so strong that you ride with less caution when you’re wearing one? You might as well be clutching Dumbo’s feather.
In America, you’re more likely to die from a bullet than from a bicycling-related head injury. Do you put on a bullet-proof vest every morning? If not, why not? Similarly, you’re more likely to sustain a fatal head injury by falling from a ladder than from a cycling-related head injury. Do you wear a helmet when you climb a ladder? No, because you’re careful when you climb a ladder and you assume that the risk of falling from the ladder is sufficiently low that specific head protection is unnecessarily over-cautious. Why don’t we make the same consideration with cycling?
If you torture statistics long enough, you can get them to say anything. Certainly the bullet-proof vest argument can be parsed. Likewise the force of any helmet safety argument gets diminished once you eliminate night-time riding without lights, inexperienced riders, traffic signal violators, the inebriated, and Strava record attempts with ear buds. But my object isn’t to use statistics to prove a point. Rather, I want to challenge the pervasive American belief that every rider should ride with a helmet, on every ride because…“helmets keep you safe”.
magazine entitled “Senseless” (with no apparent irony) reviewed the state of bicycle helmet art with the conclusion that current bicycle helmets do almost nothing to prevent concussions. Huh? Bicycling has tirelessly promoted helmets for the past 30 years to the ceaseless drumbeat of “Always wear a helmet. Helmets keep you safe.” Now, suddenly, they discover that’s not exactly the case.
But surely, you say, wearing a helmet is a small price to pay, even if the protection it offers is limited. Maybe. But “it’s a small price to pay” is a knee-jerk justification too often used without nuance or consideration and unanticipated consequences often result. What if that “small price” is bigger than it seems?
What if helmet use actually makes cycling more dangerous? What if, by promising “safety”, helmeted cyclists ride more aggressively and with less caution than they would if they weren’t wearing helmets? It’s an interesting and, I believe, a valid question.
As much as we might like to believe otherwise, Americans live in a culture of fear. And fear is lucrative. If you can make people afraid of something (e.g., gluten, cholesterol, body odor, terrorists) you can sell them a “solution”. And they’ll stand in line, ready to pay because, whatever the price, “it’s a small price to pay” for the promised security. It doesn’t matter if there’s no rational basis for the product or if the problem is wildly inflated or if the “solution” is ineffective or worse than the problem. Once people are afraid, they are easily led and ready to buy anything that supposedly makes them safe. Fear sells massive SUVs to soccer moms. It sells insurance. It sells magazines. It sells cosmetics. It sells wars. And it sells bicycle helmets.
Although solid numbers are hard to come by, the total U.S. bicycle helmet market is something on the order of $500 million per year. It’s a nice business, driven by fear. A helmet is an easy add-on sale made with the sale of any new bike. And it’s doubly attractive if it generates goodwill while upping the bottom-line. After all, $100 is “a small price to pay” for the security of knowing that you’ll be “safe” on your new bike.
But helmets don’t “keep you safe”. However, there’s little money to be made in the promotion of safe cycling and there’s big money in a fear-driven market for bicycle helmets. Helmet advertising supports editorial reviews and helmet tests that presuppose everyone needs a helmet. Advertising and editorial coverage create a need that’s filled by bicycle retailers who love the additional revenue stream helmets bring. Millions and millions of helmets pour into the United States each year, even though, if you’re riding responsibly, the actual risk of head injury is quite low and evidence of helmet efficacy is weak.
Helmets are a religion that feeds on itself. The message “helmets keep you safe” has been has been told so many times that many Americans accept it as gospel truth. The dogma, in a nutshell, is this: They make helmets for bicycling because bicycling is dangerous. Since it’s dangerous, you should never ride without a helmet. As with any religion, people don’t like to have their beliefs challenged. But I will. While it’s comforting to believe that wrapping your head in foam will keep you safe, maybe (forgive me) you’re burying your head in the sand.
In the Netherlands, millions of people commute everyday by bicycle without helmets. Less than 1% of Dutch cyclists wear helmets, yet the Netherlands is the safest country in the world for cycling! How is that possible? If bicycling is so dangerous, how do all these millions of Dutch people manage to ride safely every day without helmets?
Dutch municipal and national governments rightly recognize cycling as a congestion-relieving transportation mode that offers the additional attractive merits of being environmentally benign and healthy to boot. And they support it accordingly, pouring millions into infrastructure to encourage cycling and make it both easier and safer to travel by bike. Example: the Hovenring in Eindhoven, Netherlands is a floating suspension deck that allows cyclists to cross over a busy highway. This €20 million cycling infrastructure show piece is only one of the numerous projects the Dutch have taken to enhance cycling safety.
But it’s not just Dutch cycling infrastructure that makes it so safe. The primary reason it’s so safe to ride a bike is numbers – everyone rides and there is strength in numbers. In the Netherlands, there are more bikes than people, and most Dutch ride their bike every day. As numerous studies have shown, cycling safety increases as the number of cyclists on the road increases. As more people ride, bicycling becomes a safer option, so more people ride. And then it becomes even safer, so even more people ride. It’s a virtuous circle in which every additional cyclist makes the community safer for cycling.
Defenders of helmets will immediately object that the Netherlands is different from the U.S., that they have a culture of cycling, that motorists are more aware of the rights of cyclists, etc., etc., but in the end, I think it's a weak defense of the status quo. Saying “we can’t do what they do” ensures that we won’t. We will never achieve the level of comfort and security that exists in the Netherlands as long as we continue to focus our attention and spend our money on helmets rather than working actively to make cycling safer in our communities. The best and fastest way to make cycling safer in America is to get more cyclists on the road. We need to follow the Dutch model - it’s not dangerous, come out and ride!
The biggest problem with helmets is they discourage cycling. The message it sends to potential cyclists is that cycling is so dangerous nobody should ever ride without a helmet. Is this really the message we want to send? If you’re not already a cyclist, why would you ever want to take up something so dangerous? Why take the risk? Why not drive instead? What responsible mother would ever allow her child to ride a bike to school when it’s such a dangerous activity?
But cycling is not dangerous. And, before 1980, almost
nobody even considered wearing a helmet. For decades, millions of American kids
rode their bikes to school every day without helmets. And millions of adult Americans
rode without helmets. And thousands of amateur and professional racers rode
without helmets. Yet
Rather than focus on the supposed “danger” of cycling and the “need” to protect your head (however low the risk and however limited that protection may be) why not proactively encourage cycling?
Ride like you’d ride without a helmet. Maybe even dare to do it. The best and fastest way to make cycling safer in America is to get more people riding bikes and riding them responsibly. Wrapping yourself in body armor provides less protection than you’d like to believe, especially if your belief is so strong that you take risks you wouldn’t otherwise take. Making cycling seem more dangerous than it really is supresses growth. And that’s why I’m real iffy about the conventional wisdom. Maybe it’s not a small price to pay. Maybe it’s the reverse.
Think twice about that helmet, and definitely lose the ear buds.