That 6-Letter Word

OMG!!! I’m going to use that 6-letter word!

H E L M E T

Stop reading. Go directly to comments. Rant.

Did you catch Elisabeth Rosenthal’s op-ed in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times today?

I have a great deal of sympathy for the argument that helmet wearing makes bicycling look dangerous. Sympathy does not equal agreement. It’s more like the foundation of agreement. I need more evidence before I get to agreement.

Be that as it may, my own helmet issue has evolved over the years (something of a summary here) to the point where I do not wear one very often, although there are some circumstances in which I do want a helmet on my head. Here’s the latest iteration:

  • Poor road conditions
  • Darkness
  • Bad weather
  • After happy hour

In the (more than) eight years I’ve been driving a bicycle as basic transportation — i.e. nearly every one of those 3,000+ days — I have fallen from a bicycle exactly once, and one of the conditions listed above played a key role.

Care to guess? ;-)

I’ve heard many how-a-helmet-saved-me stories since I began this blog. All but one of the plots involved crashes that were entirely preventable, i.e. the riders were doing things they should not have been doing. Two examples: One story involved riding through dark puddles on curves on a multi-purpose trail, and the other involved targeting what appeared to be a foam cup but turned out to be an aerosol can. Well, duh. Don’t ride through dark puddles. Could be slick mud there. And why would you intentionally run over anything with your front tire?

Now, if you have a bona-fide helmet-saved-me story, that’s cool. Feel free to leave a comment and tell me about it. And I’m happy you’re OK.

As I have said/written many times before: Adults ought to make the helmet-wearing decision for themselves and allow other adults to do the same. All I’m asking: Let’s not kid ourselves about the dangers of bicycling. It happens to be a very safe activity compared to a lot of other things we do everyday without agonizing over helmets. Like taking a shower, ferinstance.

Now, about the premise of the article: To encourage bicycling, cities must relax on the whole helmet thing. Well, OK. I can get down with that. My own daughter declared at age 14 that she would no longer use a helmet. You know — teen-aged girls and their hair. I allowed it because, frankly, I’m not that worried about her riding in Springfield, and I know her life will be better for understanding and using a bicycle as a normal vehicle for transportation.

Today? She’s 18. No driver’s license. Has no interest in driving a car. And she’s actively thinking about the the kinds of places she’d like to live where she’ll be able to avoid ever having to use a car.

Yo! Springfield! Did you catch that? She’s looking for a place to live where she can avoid having to own/drive a car. She’s actually fairly typical for her generation.

Oh, and she has no need for bicycle lanes. She’s quite comfortable driving her bicycle in traffic. So more painted lines are not the answer. Some stabs at answers may be found in the Our Urban Challenge series (now linked on the sidebar!), but they can be boiled down to three concepts:  density, diversity, and jobs. And, no. Not the funky, low-skill minimum-wage jobs Springfield seems to fond of attracting (e.g. this list).

Here’s what we need to see more of in Springfield: Girls on bicycles with no need for helmets or lanes. Figure out how to make this scene normal and you’ve figured out one way to attract and retain young people.

I’ve published this picture before. I took it a couple of years ago in the early fall on Pickwick near the intersection with Grand.

OK, so I’m rambling now and wondering what the point of all this is. How about this: I want to find a way to make that picture (and all it represents) utterly normal. I care, dagummit! Just people riding bicycles. Nothing fancy. Nothing special. Just people riding bicycles. Especially girls riding bicycles :-)

Apparently that’s the oddest thing in the world.

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Comments 27

  1. Brian wrote:

    Agreed — my list of helmet conditions is pretty close to yours, with one addition: when I’ve just done some mechanical work on the bike and I’m not totally sure that I did it right. ;)

    However, I will say that all that’s true when I’m riding in the central city and residential streets of my town ( a mid-size college town, pretty similar to yours). When I have to go out to the high-speed arterial box-store sprawl zone, I do like the helmet for purely semiotic reasons: it says to other drivers that I’m serious and I know what I’m doing. I only want to send that message in places where I wouldn’t actually advocate for more people to bike. In most of the city, I’d rather send the message that people belong on the streets.

    Posted 30 Sep 2012 at 9:54 am
  2. Steve A wrote:

    I’ve fallen an average of at least a couple times per year. Mostly a helmet would make no difference at all and certainly made no difference in whether the falls occurred – meaning it was mitigation at most. Still, the half dozen times I fell one morning in February 2011 suggests there are times when wearing a helmet is wise.

    As policy, I wear a helmet on my commute. Who knows when, other than on black ice days, it might mitigate an event? As per my post at http://dfwptp.blogspot.com/2012/09/mirrored-reflections-on-safety.html it is a “secondary safety” measure.

    Posted 30 Sep 2012 at 10:12 am
  3. Ian Brett Cooper wrote:

    I haven’t fallen off my bike in 28 years. Before that, I fell off twice – both times due to me doing stupid things. The only accident I’ve had on the road was when I was 8 (I don’t count it, because I was 8 – everyone falls off their bike when they’re 8). A helmet wouldn’t have helped me in either of the accidents I’ve had, because I didn’t hit my head either time.

    I started wearing a helmet when my wife insisted on it about 15 years ago. As time went by, it got to be a habit. It’s an easy habit to pick up – it takes a second to put on and once it’s on I forget I’m wearing it. It also holds my mirror, and in my opinion a helmet mirror is better than any other kind of mirror. I also think my bike helmet looks cool – it’s a skate-style helmet and I think it looks like one of those old WW2 British paratrooper helmets. I think they look cool and anyway I’m way too old to care what people think of my headgear.

    But I’m not a helmet advocate. To be honest, I don’t really care that much about the issue. But I have noticed one thing that doesn’t often get recognized by those who favor riding bareheaded – when cyclists are involved in accidents on the road, police and reporters are quick to report when a cyclist was not wearing his/her helmet. Cyclists who don’t wear one are considered guilty of negligence by the police, by the press and in the court of public opinion, and that supposition of guilt can transmit to a court of law, even though it shouldn’t.

    Sadly, that’s the main reason I always wear a helmet. It has little to do with safety, and everything to do with PR. If I ever get killed on my bike, I do not want the newspapers to suggest that my death sentence was appropriate.

    So cyclists who wear helmets have a better chance of getting fair treatment after an accident. They also have a better mount for a mirror. And in the very unlikely event of a crash in which they hit their head, a helmet might prove useful.

    I don’t think it’s stupid not to wear a helmet, and I’ve been quick to criticize reporters who mention the fact that a cyclist who was killed was not wearing one. But I don’t think it’s particularly smart for a cyclist not to wear one either. It’s just a choice.

    Having said I’m not a helmet advocate, would I vote for a mandatory helmet law for all cyclists? Yeah, probably. Even though I don’t really care whether cyclists wear helmets, I think they might prevent injuries in some cases, and since I’ve never been an advocate for increasing the amount of cycling on the roads, I don’t care that mandatory helmet laws might reduce the numbers of people taking up cycling. To be honest, they can all stay in their cars or in their trains and buses as far as I’m concerned.

    Posted 30 Sep 2012 at 11:39 am
  4. Tom Armstrong wrote:

    I used to be gung-ho about helmet wearing. Then I started reading about things like five layers of safety (which, despite its use by LAB, has some merit as a teaching device), and thought about my own falls and how a helmet would not have made an iota of difference.

    My motorcycle crash? Different matter. I’m still alive because I was wearing that helmet.

    That doesn’t mean that a helmet will keep me from falling.

    I find a helmet a convenient place to keep a good mirror (and an extra taillight), and the helmets I buy tend to have something of a visor for sun/water redirection. They might mitigate some temperature gain from sunlight, due to their light colors, but I haven’t done testing to see whether that is offset or augmented by airflow changes.

    As an LCI, I feel compelled to teach the value of a helmet, but I try to not overstate that value. I mention that they are required by insurers when doing group rides or events, that they are part of the passive protection safety level (and that if you really do need one, you don’t have time to go fetch it and don it), but that otherwise, it’s personal choice.

    Posted 30 Sep 2012 at 12:19 pm
  5. Angelo wrote:

    I’ll take the helmet bait.
    I actually find (found?) a helmet very useful in the winter. When riding in temperatures from about 10-35 degrees F, the helmet is much warmer than just woolen hats.

    That said, I fell earlier this year and injured my leg severely; the helmet didn’t help at all.

    I will confirm Ian’s comments about police and public opinion. A teenager hit me in a parking lot around Christmas 5-6 years ago. The policeman noted my helmet (not legally required) as safety equipment in his report but not my lights (legally required), leading to a number of questions from the driver’s insurance company. (The officer did not cite the driver for leaving the scene of the accident, and wondered why I was riding in December.)

    I would oppose extending mandatory helmet laws to adults – I think it gives police and insurance companies one more reason to fault bicyclists otherwise riding legally. In states like MD with contributory negligence laws, the effect would reduce what little enforceable rights cyclists still have even more than elsewhere.

    Posted 30 Sep 2012 at 12:46 pm
  6. Khal Spencer wrote:

    I have a hard time with arguments that say helmets make cycling look dangerous. Do helmets make Little League baseball look dangerous? Are parents pulling their kids out of competitive sports due to football and baseball and hockey helmets?

    The last time I crashed in a normal commute was on a rainy day in Honolulu in the late ’90s, when I hit some oil on water making a right turn in the rain. I hurt my elbow and it bothered me for a few months. No helmet contact with Mr. Pavement. Man, I keep wondering why I haven’t crashed in what seems like forever, but I think Ian sort of nails it–everyone falls off at first and if you keep riding, you stop falling off or you figure out what your problem is. Its the Forester Principle of Keep Riding and You Get Better At It.

    As far as helmets? They can work when you need them. I have used up a couple, always sport riding and pushing the envelope. As far as non-sport riding? I had a bad head injury in 1979, the first year I was commuting by bike regularly. Chalk it up to inexperience, but I was caught flat-footed by a guy in a VW who turned into me and was on my 5th layer of safety immediately and of course, it wasn’t there. I had the indignity of being scraped up off the road by the EMTs while semiconscious and bleeding–nine months later I was back to work. Not nice.

    The kind of riding I do where I definitely argue for wearing a helmet is gonzo mountainbiking and sport riding, where I know I am pushing the envelope (I can reach 40-50 mph on a mountain descent on the road bike) and one would be an idiot to not wear proper protective gear, just as in any other sport (baseball, horseback riding, football, etc.).

    But for everyday non-sport bicycle riding, and I think that is what we are talking about, lack of a helmet is not a show stopper. Its a matter like seat belts–its nice to have them when once in a decade or more you need them, but its not the most critical piece of safety.

    I wear a helmet even while commuting because I think it is a minor to nonresistant inconvenience for that one very minor chance that I (or someone else) might have a brain fart and Layers 1-4 won’t be enough. Besides, I commute with vigor. I fail to see how that helmet makes something “look dangerous” unless one is being really illogical about the whole thing and have already decided it is dangerous and are looking for evidence to prove it–begging the question. I am sure my choice to wear a helmet is in part due to having experienced a bad head injury and knowing how bad that can make one’s life.

    But no, spare me the religion. I suspect more people fall while running or jogging or just being home at the house. I think helmets are a good idea in the sense that the 5 layers of safety are a good idea, but remember it is Layer 5. If someone was going to be scared off of a bike by a helmet I would wonder a couple things: one, do they have an intelligent sense of risk analysis and two, are they a good enough rider that they are not going to be on that steep part of the learning curve when F-D-G-B is a normal part of the process.

    As far as kids, as others have said, its not if they will crash but when. Even then, I wonder if the emphasis on helmets comes at a cost.

    Posted 30 Sep 2012 at 3:41 pm
  7. Khal Spencer wrote:

    By the way, the best argument for 5 Layers, and PPE, come out of human performance analysis:

    “Under normal conditions, humans make an average of 5-7 errors per hour

    Under stressful/emergency/unusual conditions, humans make an average of 11-15 errors per hour”

    This link says secure, but I was able to download it from home just now. I hope the reason for that is not one of those 5-7 errors per hour.

    https://secure.inl.gov/isrcs2009/docs/Tutorials/Session_4b_Richards_Farris.pdf

    Posted 30 Sep 2012 at 3:59 pm
  8. Steve A wrote:

    I guess I’m simply inferior to y’all because I fall often – the last time any motorist had something to do with any fall was over 50 years ago.

    Posted 30 Sep 2012 at 5:11 pm
  9. Keri wrote:

    Andy, thanks for writing a post about this. You saved me the trouble. Now I can just point people here ;-)

    I agree about promoting helmet use. What bugged me about the article was the same tired push for infrastructure. If telling people to wear a helmet makes people think cycling is unsafe, then what does telling them they need “safer bike lanes” make them think?

    Posted 30 Sep 2012 at 5:38 pm
  10. Khal Spencer wrote:

    Steve, I fall at least once a year. But its on the mountain bike. Riding offroad helps a lot with balance and control, as long as one doesn’t mind a regular biff or two. Lately I worry more about going bounce, given that old bones approaching sixty take longer to heal. I took a hard bounce last winter when I was riding a technical trail while physically and mentally tired, and thought I broke my arm, but it just hurt like hell from a nasty bone bruise. Bit of a reality check. Like most cyclists, my injuries have been largely self inflicted rather than due to Mr.Automobile. A lot of cyclists just don’t understand that their fate is largely in their own hands.

    Posted 30 Sep 2012 at 8:56 pm
  11. Andy Cline wrote:

    Thanks for the thoughtful (as usual) discussion on this.

    One nuance (among many) that I did not cover: use of helmets in sport cycling, which I heartily endorse because, well, e.g. in racing you lead with your :-)

    And, yes, the PR thing re: police.

    Posted 01 Oct 2012 at 9:21 am
  12. Khal Spencer wrote:

    John Allan has written about contributory negligence law, i.e., that you need to make sure that a state doesn’t have negligence laws such that you could be blamed for not wearing a helmet.

    Posted 01 Oct 2012 at 10:00 am
  13. Michael wrote:

    I live in a place with many steep hills which I enjoy riding down every quickly and while I’ve never crashed whiled doing this I figure if I did crash I’d need all the help I could get, so I wear a helmet.

    If I was riding short distances for transportation and rarely toping about 12MPH, I wouldn’t bother with a helmet.

    As for getting girls and others riding, I’ve decided it’s mostly a case of traffic calming. Using Google Earth it looks like Springfield’s only about 7 miles across east-west and 9 miles across north-south. There’s no need to go 30MPH when covering those short of distances. However, in my own town I can’t get the city to extend it’s 20MPH zone, in what passes for down town, by 200 yards, so good luck with that.

    Posted 01 Oct 2012 at 10:39 am
  14. Andy Cline wrote:

    Michael… I like the idea of traffic calming. SGF has 25 limit in neighborhoods and 20 downtown. But our suburban strips vary and run upwards of 40 and 45.

    Posted 01 Oct 2012 at 11:35 am
  15. Khal Spencer wrote:

    Regarding the idea that you only need a helmet if you are going to crash at high speed. Interesting tidbit of information from a source here in Weirdsville:

    TENTATIVE CRITERIA FOR INDIRECT (TERTIARY) BLAST EFFECTS INVOLVING
    IMPACT

    Skull Fracture vs. direct impact velocity with a hard object (such as a wall, etc):
    Mostly “safe” 7 mph
    Threshold 9 mph
    50 percent 12 mph
    Near 100 percent 16 mph

    Source: The Effect of Nuclear Weapons, subsection “Blast Injuries”, pg. 557. (1977, open literature).

    Posted 01 Oct 2012 at 11:58 am
  16. Michael wrote:

    I look at it like this: a high speed crash is a low probability thing (never been in one), but the probability of it having serious consequences is high. The probability of a low speed crash is high (I’ve got a shiner on one of my shins from one right now), but the consequences of those crashes are generally fairly minor.

    Posted 01 Oct 2012 at 2:27 pm
  17. Kevin Love wrote:

    While out walking one day, my father-in-law fell, hit his head on a curb and died. If only all pedestrians were legally required to wear helmets, he would be alive today.

    When it comes to cyclists, helmet laws from Australia to Nova Scotia have consistently had the effect of discouraging cycling. This, of course, makes it substantially more dangerous for those few remaining cyclists due to the loss of the safety in numbers effect. See, for example:

    http://www.cmaj.ca/content/166/5/602.full

    I personally would only wear a helmet in the same sorts of situations that car drivers typically wear helmets: while racing or stunt jumping. Since I have zero intention of ever doing these activities, I will probably go to my grave never having worn a bicycle helmet.

    Somehow I don’t think that I will have missed anything.

    Posted 01 Oct 2012 at 6:32 pm
  18. Khal Spencer wrote:

    There are so many examples of muddled thinking in the helmet argument that it is simply astounding.

    First, the notion that whether or not people wear helmets defines the safety of cycling is bizarre. Cycling crashes can be measured in crashes per vehicle mile or exposure hour. Helmet wearing may or may not correlate depending on whether helmet wearers are more saavy cyclists.

    That people assume the mere presence of a helmet indicates cycling is less safe is about as logical as saying that tying a black ribbon around a 38 Special will make a game of Russian Roulette less safe. The probability of a negative outcome in Russian roulette has far more to do with the ratio of empty to full chambers. Or, that Mitt Romney or Barack Obama will be a better president based on his makeup artist.

    Its sad that muddled thinking trumps actual analysis, but that is the state of humanity. Sure, Kevin’s father in law might be alive today had he been wearing a helmet. So might my retired lab tech, Crail, who slipped on black ice while walking his dog and died of a brain injury. Such is the nature of these fatalities–they are the occasional confluence of rare accident and rare worst outcome. Do the math.

    So risk analysis, in a nutshell, should be the basis of the argument for bicycle helmets. Logically, they protect against the confluence of a mishap and its worst possible outcome. They do not predict the mishap or influence its probability. If you fall and hit your head hard, you will have a brain injury that could have been prevented by a little bit of styrofoam.

    Do helmets prevent crashes? No. Do they prevent broken collarbones? No. Do they instill wisdom? No. Can they mitigate a head injury in that very rare instance when you fall down (whether on a bike, on foot, or on a ladder) and hit your head hard? Yep. Do they stop a beanball in Little League practice? Yep. Do they protect against all types of head injuries? No.

    Likewise, safety in numbers doesn’t inoculate someone from stupidity. Numbers may mean that a motorist is more likely to see and understand cycling, but mere numbers don’t keep a clueless cyclist from riding headlong out in front of a truck. The bottom line is we need to take charge of our safety and not hold helmets hostage to our superstitions.

    Posted 01 Oct 2012 at 9:22 pm
  19. Andy Cline wrote:

    Khal… Hence, my criteria for wearing a helmet involve my (subjective) assessments of risk. I assume I’m at more at risk of a fall at night, in bad weather, on terrible pavement, and after drinking. I do have confirmation of one of those ;-) And I heartily agree re: we need to take charge of our safety.

    Posted 02 Oct 2012 at 1:35 pm
  20. T. R. wrote:

    One spring, my (then) 14-year-old daughter and I were biking on a paved road on a nice, dry day. The next thing we knew, she had fallen. I saw and heard her helmet-protected head hitting the road. She said that she had been shifting gears, and perhaps that had something to do with falling, but I’ll never know for sure what happened. (The chain was in place, she was wearing knee-length pants, shoelaces were tied, I didn’t see anything on the road, etc.) There were no risky circumstances, just a sudden, unplanned stop. She got scraped and bruised, and her helmet was cracked. I strongly believe that, at the very least, the helmet prevented similar scrapes and bruises on her head. I don’t think helmets should be a legal requirement, but I do think they are a very wise choice. And, I am very glad my daughter was wearing one when she fell.

    Posted 02 Oct 2012 at 4:13 pm
  21. Khal Spencer wrote:

    That’s spot on, Andy (i.e., #18). All four of those situations heighten risk. As does riding on a glorious winter day (black ice in shady places).

    I’ve occasionally done a good job of looking like the absent minded professor, such as the day I walked into a light pole and broke my glasses while reading a reprint. I tend to wear a helmet because I know myself.

    (Ok, I’ll bite on your earlier challenge–did you fall after the departmental TGIF?)

    Posted 02 Oct 2012 at 4:21 pm
  22. John Corrigan wrote:

    •Poor road conditions
    •Darkness
    •Bad weather
    •After happy hour

    One of the reasons I always wear a helmet is that this pretty much describes universal conditions in New England. If people didn’t make mistakes, there would obviously be fewer crashes. This is why they put erasers on pencils, the “delete” key on computer keyboards, and seat belts in motor vehicles.I drive and bicycle defensively, and I always buckle up a seatbelt or helmet. The helmet has saved me twice, once in bad weather and the other time on a trail.

    Posted 02 Oct 2012 at 7:39 pm
  23. John Brooking wrote:

    Reasons I sometimes don’t wear a helmet:

    (1) I’m only going to the store and I don’t always like to feel that I MUST wear a helmet when I’m only going to the store. Helmets are fine for sports, but going to the store is not (at least for me) a sport, especially when I’m going at a leisurely pace on my upright cruiser.

    (2) It’s hot, and the tiny possibility that I’ll actually need it is outweighed by the certainty that wearing it will make me even hotter.

    A frequent reason I explicitly decide to wear it, related to your darkness reason, is that I have a taillight mounted on the back of it, and I like having the extra taillight. Sometimes I have a headlight on it too.

    Posted 02 Oct 2012 at 7:43 pm
  24. John S. Allen wrote:

    An extended discussion of my opinion on helmets is here:

    http://sheldonbrown.com/helmets.html

    Quick synopsis of a major point: the dispute about whether on the one hand, to recommend helmet use or on the second hand, whether to disparage it OR on the third hand, enact mandatory helmet laws is, in microcosm, the dispute over whether to allow individuals to make their own decisions, based on accurate and unbiased information, or to impose decisions on them.

    I’ll admit that I have a hand (and a head) in this game, having had to replace three helmets over the past 37 years. Two of the three incidents did not involve a motor vehicle and one occured at 8 mph. Details here:

    http://www.bikexprt.com/bicycle/helmtrd1.htm

    and here:

    http://www.bikexprt.com/massfacil/waltham/pothole.htm

    Posted 02 Oct 2012 at 7:46 pm
  25. Andy Cline wrote:

    Khal… My one fall in the past 8 years did involve happy hour. I really should not have been on a bicycle. And the lesson I learned that evening was: Stick to the same limit I use when driving a vehicle.

    Anyway, I got on my bicycle and started down the street. I had forgotten to turn on my lights — given my less-than-sober condition — so I focused on that task and ran directly into the curb and fell over.

    So, yeah, I felt like a total idiot.

    John … Thanks for the links!

    T.R. — Thanks for sharing your story!

    Posted 03 Oct 2012 at 7:41 am
  26. Khal Spencer wrote:

    One of my worst injuries was an A/C separation in 1996 (I can recall the date by the fact that I was sitting in the ER watching the aftermath of the Atlanta Olympic bombing). We worked all day on a research proposal that we had to send out by the end of the day. Our brains were mush by the time we got the last signatures from the Dean’s office.

    I had driven to work that day and threw the race bike in the car because I wanted to do a training ride after work (I was still intermittently racing in those days) on the sport bike after the dust settled. We worked too late, so I threw my backpack (containing bike clothing and of course my helmet) on my back and rode SLOWLY (emphasis for present discussion) to the parking structure.

    The university had changed the parking arrangement recently and on the way to the car, what used to be a lane was now blocked by curb-like parking delimiters. Time for a brain fart. I rode right into one and did an endo. Realizing mid flight that my helmet was in my pack, I protected my head as well as I could with my arms and shoulders and bang, landed on the point of my shoulder. I could hear as well as feel the pop and man, that hurt.

    The parking garage guard came over and of course, added insult to injury: “hey, buddy, didn’t you read the sign? No bicycling in the parking garage!”.

    Um, yeah, sure. Thanks, man. Now, call for help.

    So that helmetless flight ended my intramural softball career. Maybe I should have been wearing a helmet…..

    Posted 03 Oct 2012 at 9:33 am
  27. Steve wrote:

    Hey Andy,

    I happened to catch that Rosenthal article on slashdot today and the first thing it made me think of was you so I surfed over here to your blog and it seems you already were aware of it. I think it supports my judgment in not wearing a helmet those years I commuted the 1.8 miles on the less trafficked roads of the Meadowmere neighborhood to Missouri State.

    Posted 24 Oct 2012 at 8:25 pm