To helmet or not to helmet?

October 16, 2016 § 70 Comments

Friend, icon, writer, advocate for clean sport, and all-around great guy Steve Tilford had a brutal fall this past Friday on a training ride and suffered severe head injuries. Steve was riding without a helmet. The obvious conclusion for many people is, “Wear a helmet.”

I didn’t wear one outside of races until 2005, and that was simply from peer pressure. I had shown up on some First Colony rides outside of Houston without a helmet and people cursed me. This encouraged me to ride with a helmet even less, but each ride I was showered with insults. In part this was because the First Colony riders were jerks, in part it was because they hated getting schooled by an old helmetless dude on a steel bike, and in part it was because of the brutal conformity enforced by road cyclists.

Zero of it had to do with any personal concern for my well being, as the same chumps who derided me for riding without a helmet were the same ones who chopped my wheel, rode erratically, refused to learn basic courtesy or bike handling, and created a road hazard every time they pushed their bike out of the garage.

Eventually, though, I caved, and then it became habit, and the one or two times since then I’ve ridden helmetless it has felt weird and risky and vaguely unsafe.

That’s odd because the data doesn’t clearly show that helmets make cycling any safer or that they reduce injury. I won’t try to engage in the debate (much), but what seems clear is that any safety benefit from wearing helmets is offset by the fact that it discourages riding, which is then associated with a whole host of risks resulting from a sedentary, cager-based lifestyle. I’ll also add that after ten days in Vienna, I saw thousands and thousands of cyclists and hardly any helmets except on the heads of the one or two sport riders I saw buzzing through the city’s streets.

Which brings me to my point, and it’s one I reached while sitting on a bench overlooking the bike path in Redondo Beach one day. While looking at the surfers fall off their boards and, in between sets, the cyclists pedal by, I noticed something. Most cyclists go really slowly. They go so slowly that with few exceptions their heads are going to be plenty fine if they whack the pavement. They’re also going so slowly that the chance of falling is greatly, greatly reduced. And of course there’s good research that shows most helmets do nothing to protect against slow, twisting falls that aren’t strong enough to break your skull but will give you a concussion or closed head injury.

But then there is a much smaller group of riders who are really hauling ass. The speed differentials between the slow riders and the fast ones, when observed from above and several hundred feet away, was amazing. The faster riders, people going over 20 mph, were clearly going to get badly fucked up if their heads came to an immediate stop against the concrete.

Moreover, I thought about how the improvements in equipment have generated a few extra miles per hour for virtually every sport/fitness cyclist, regardless of ability. Standard steel bike speeds of 17-18 mph are now easily eclipsed such that people commonly ride in the low to mid 20’s, and much faster when traveling with a group. This doesn’t even get into the issue of e-bikes, which make it possible to go at speeds that were unthinkable for all but the most elite.

Of course those few extra miles per hour create exponentially greater force on impact, and the low skill sets of the average wanker blasting along the bike path at 24 make collisions inevitable.

While watching the speed differentials of the cyclists I thought about group riding, where the speeds are often so fast, and I have never second-guessed riding with a helmet since. In Steve’s case, he absolutely knew what he was doing. He’s one of the best racers in U.S. history, is experienced, old, and has fallen down more than enough times to know the risks. For whatever reason, he chose to ride without a helmet, as he’s done a billion times before, and this time he got badly, badly hurt.

Heal up, Steve.



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§ 70 Responses to To helmet or not to helmet?

  • bonnev659 says:

    I just hope for Steve and Bill to heal quickly. And I agree with your comment about feeling naked when not using a helmet. Even if it only a loop around the parking lot

  • dankroboth says:

    I thought you biked across Germany without a helmet last summer?

    The Toulouse break down is as follows:

    Inside the city, maybe 1 in 30 (removing sport bikes) mostly children. Zero for anyone on a share bike.
    On the canal paths (our beach path equivalent), commuters probably 1 in 4 has a helmet. Commuters are less likely than people out for a ride.
    In the countryside, 3 in 4 are wearing a helmet.
    We could have a whole other conversation about stop sign (the lack of).

    At any rate, best wishes to Steve and Bill.

  • dangerstu says:

    My recent collar bone breaking, ass cracking, helmet smashing exploits were done sub 20 miles an hour, I had just crested a rise and was free wheeling, having just replaced a water bottle, when in the distracted state I hit a baseball sized rock and went down. For what ever reason I didn’t slide as evidenced by virtually no road rash and broke things instead. What I’m saying in the most rambling way possible, is that obviously the potential for injury increases as speed increases, but it’s still possible to get pretty hurt at lower speeds. That all being said I think it should be personal choice as to whether you were a helmet or not and heal up quickly, Steve.

  • bart says:

    During a recent long trip to Italia I noted very similar scenes of folks commuting on bicycles. Not a helmet to be found among this category of riders with some going at good speeds.

    For the sport and racing type riders I saw about a 50-50 mix of bare heads and helmets when riding alone or 2-3 in the group. Most groups larger than this all were wearing helmets…

  • shano92107 says:

    Thoughtful post as always Seth. Was shocked and saddened to hear this yesterday. Tilford sounds like one tough walnut to crack, he’ll be up and riding much sooner than he should be- that’s for certain. As for the helmets, yeah they are a totallly useless expensive nuisance- except when shit goes sideways and your head augers into a static surface. And it always happens so suddenly and unexpectedly. Be safe out there people.

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  • Brian in VA says:

    I think good bike handling skills are far more important in keeping one safe. That said, it can be difficult to handle one’s way out of a crash caused by stupidity on the part of someone else. For that reason, I always wear a helmet. That and my bride won’t let me ride without one. She says I’m vegetable enough without helping.
    Safe riding in any case!

  • Joe C says:

    Never know when a loose dog will run out.

  • JEFF says:

    “While looking at the surfers fall off their boards and…” they don’t wear helmets? Well then, hydro cycling is in my future.
    But the real reason I donate these few seconds is to protest your claim that steel bikes are significantly slower than the new technology. . It’s my carbon-free wheel-set that prevents me from riding at those unsafe speeds. My bike is scary fast

  • Naftali says:

    I shudder to think what would happen to those who suffered concussions while wearing a helmet if they were not wearing one. I had 2 crashes in the past two years, one rear-ended by a car, the other hitting a patch of gravel at high speed. Both times my helmet cracked from the impact, but not my head.

    I find it fascinating the way the ski/snowboard industry dealt with the helmet issue. We all know that many of those shredders are rebellious as it is. So, somehow it became to be cool to wear a helmet as it was perceived that you are a fast and very capable skier/snowboarder, and in fact, so fast. that you HAD to wear a helmet. Now, all the kids want to wear helmets, even if they are on the bunny hills.

    You could be the most careful and safest cyclist out there, and someone will door you or hit you, or you’ll hit a water bottle jettisoned by someone. Wear a helmet.

    • fsethd says:

      There’s solid research showing that helmets make concussions worse unless they have a MIPS-type system. No research has been done on small children and helmets but there’s no way that helmets designed for adult heads and physics (small head, big body), work for little kids (huge head, tiny body). Also, when people talk about helmets and cycling they’re almost always talking about sport cyclists. Slow speed riders have much less need of helmets because helmets are designed to protect from high speed, direct impact blows, not from low speed injuries which are almost always concussions.

      Anyway, there’s the bigger issue of how helmets reduce bike usage, which causes much more injury than unhelmeted falls. Etc.

      Point is that if you’re going anything more than slow and you’re an adult, wear a helmet.

      • Waldo says:

        Your last point is the reason Steve should have been wearing a helmet. If you’re out there alone, doing helmetless time trial training, fine. Doing 30 without a helmet in an elbow-to-elbow crit-like training ride is simply irresponsible. Do enough rides like that and a major head injury becomes a matter of when, not whether.

      • Kimball says:

        Would love to read “solid research showing that helmets make concussions worse unless they have a MIPS-type system.” Sounds like good reading. Can you provide a link?

        • fsethd says:

          I’ve blogged about it. You can also Google it. This is one of the main reason MIPS was invented. The other issue is the actual crashworthiness of the helmets themselves, which is a joke. Better standards have been opposed by industry for 40 years. Specialized, Bell …

  • Serge Issakov says:

    It’s not just higher speeds that makes a helmet more important for sport cyclists in groups, it’s also the (much?) higher likelihood of crashing…

    • fsethd says:

      Otherwise known as the wanker factor.

      • Spinner says:

        As an old bald guy wearing a helmet keeps my head from getting sunburned. Didn’t wear one for the first twenty years of my cycling “life” and perhaps that’s why I’ve had 6 skin cancer episodes from those no helmet days. Oh yeah, I did hit my noddle, HARD, one night at Northbrook and actually broke my “egg head” lid. That was the first year for hard shell helmets so I “lucked” out? Gave all my leather hair nets to my enemies…..Collector items now….

  • Waldo says:

    Random personal observations:

    1. Two friends broke hips in slow-speed falls.
    2. Collisions on busy bike paths between erratically and slow-moving cyclists or pedestrians and fast cyclists present danger of greater injury to slow moving parties than if they fell due to own clumsiness simply due to being struck/piled upon by a ~200lb object moving at 20mph.
    3. All of us who’ve ridden long enough have scratched and cracked helmets during falls. If helmet use due to cost, discomfort, heat, etc. reduces cycling, so be it. Motorcyclists are required to wear helmets in CA, we should be too.

  • Fausto says:

    Hate wearing a helmet. Spent years only putting on a hairnet on weekend mornings. Still love the feeling of no lid when I make a slow coffee run. I also know that I am an idiot. I wear it for my family, since they are the ones who would have to take care of me in an accident. Just like driving, it is not me but the distracted morons that you share the road with that will kill you. Bon Courage to Bill and Steve.

  • Midland says:

    Also a point few ever mention. A helmet is not made of magic and good intentions. It has to fit correctly, be worn right and strapped very tightly to work as intended.

  • Spinner says:

    As an old bald guy wearing a helmet keeps my head from getting sunburned. Didn’t wear one for the first twenty years of my cycling “life” and perhaps that’s why I’ve had 6 skin cancer episodes from those no helmet days. Oh yeah, I did hit my noddle, HARD, one night at Northbrook and actually broke my “egg head” lid. That was the first year for hard shell helmets so I “lucked” out? Gave all my leather hair nets to my enemies…..Collector items now….

  • TomH says:

    “after ten days in Vienna, I saw thousands and thousands of cyclists and hardly any helmets ”
    But weren’t they mostly low speed cyclists?
    But even “low speed” can kill you.

    Former Laker announcer Chick Hearn died, when he reportedly fell backwards from a kneeling or squatting position. Brain hemorage , if not diagnosed quickly, can rapidly lead to death.

    Actress Natasha Richardson died a couple days after a low-speed crash on a beginner ski slope. No symptoms at first, wasn’t taken seriously, but internal bain bleeding was cause of death.

    i wouldn’t go around the block without a helmet !

    • fsethd says:

      Yes, low speed.

    • Bob says:

      Tom, if you really believed that you would keep your helmet next to the bed and put it on to go pee at night. You never know when you’re going to fall. And you’d CERTAINLY wear it in the car.

      In 40+ years as a cyclist I have never once done a race or a group ride like Tilford was doing without a helmet. But typically I don’t wear one. One of the things I have learned from that over the years is that people aren’t very good at assessing risk.

      • fsethd says:

        There’s another aspect. The single most important thing you can do to avoid a collision is to be visible. It’s proactive and preventive. How many people are adamant about helmets but don’t ride with daytime front/back lights?

        I’m for helmets, but there are serious problems with them that industry obstructs and that most cyclists are unaware of.

  • LesB says:

    In this study they found that cagers are less careful in the vicinity of cyclists if they are wearing helmets.

    What we need is a helmet with a picture of the back of one’s head on the back of the helmet.

    Good idea for a GoFundMe

  • Susan says:

    Just had my own head on collision with a parked truck going 17mph. Glad I had my helmet on. I don’t know Steve but can tell he’s loved by many within the community and am sending him healing vibes!! Great blog as sometimes we need to be reminded why we take the precaution of wearing out helmets!! ❤

  • Matthew says:

    I’ve raced for four years without incident (more or less, and thank god). Last week I fell off my bike while riding with my kids to the park. Going about 5km/hr. No helmet, concussion. Now I just think it’s never worth it to ride without one and I was pretty strongly the other way a little over a week ago.

  • The Cyclist says:

    What ppl sometimes forget is how important it is to work on your arms’ strength and core too. Helps you a lot when you need to brace yourself and your head from impact. If you know how to decelerate yourself properly and have upper body strength for that you’ll do lot better with or w/o helmet.

  • ArkTrav says:

    Most people I know who survive hitting their head on the ground the first time, wear a helmet after that.

  • Brenda Bell says:

    I got into the “no helmet, no ride” mentality back around 1980, when living with a bunch of serious collegiate cyclists (I was more the commuter at that time). Last year, riding the Tour de Cure, I hit a pothole at the wrong angle and instead of sliding out to some road rash, woke some 15-30 minutes later to five EMTs hovering over me. No skull fracture (though the pain level made me think there was one), but severe concussion and lots of road rash. Helmet broke at the point of maximum pain. I’m pretty sure what only *felt* like a fracture would have *been* a fracture without the helmet. I can’t tell from my records what my exact speed was, conflicting devices say 7, 15, and 22 mph.

    So my rule for MY bicycle and for anyone riding with me is, you WILL wear a helmet and gloves. But that’s MY rule, and I can back it up with a story, photos (what the “selfie button” was REALLY made for!), and a broken helmet.

    OTOH, if you’re riding by yourself, it’s your choice — and I’d rather see people riding without helmets than not riding at all.

  • Seth says:

    Hello fellow Seth cyclist traveler. I had a very bad over the bars spill in a mundane sprint for a city limits sign 19 months ago. I absolutely destroyed the back of my helmet–there were pieces of it on the road and the whole thing was split down the sides.

    I also had a painful and slow recovery from what turned out to be a brutal concussion from the accident. I am still not 100%. I am convinced without a doubt that the helmet kept me from being one of those unfortunate 50,000 TBI death statistics that you hear about. You know, another Kivilev or Agostinho.

    Everyone, just wear a fucking helmet.

    • fsethd says:

      No argument here. Glad you recovered.

      • Seth says:

        I would say that I’m still recovering. I may never be quite the same. But at least I had a fighting chance by wearing a helmet, and I live a full and productive life. Tilford’s injuries are almost impossible to predict in terms of outcome. I am praying for his full recovery.

  • Tom F. says:

    I’m only here because of a helmet. At least 3 of my 9 are used. Not a lot of serious incidents given I’ve been riding since 1985, but enough for me. Jan. 3, 2006 (80 year old man driver could not see 40 riders in the bike lane and turned left…boom. If not a VW Beetle, I’m not here). Jan 23, 2006 (drunk driver 0.30 BAC, run down from behind in Moorpark at mile 85 after being dropped by Thurlow, Dara and others–more important lesson, do not be dropped). Feb. 18, 2007 (cop parks moto in the road after turn 2 on last lap of criterium; teeth broken..again). Lots of science points in lots of directions. I’m wearing mine, as I think it’s safer than not. Ride safe people.

  • channel_zero says:

    any safety benefit from wearing helmets

    If there is a benefit, it is the savings in medical costs. The donorcycle stats on States with mandatory helmet laws show this, repeatedly.

    Look at Steve’s situation, daily MRI, daily ICU care for days, daily brain trauma specialist care, long term brain trauma recovery. The chances a helmet could have improved that to a concussion are great. As such, the social costs of medical care would have fallen steeply.

    Again, I don’t ever argue that a helmet works 100% of the time, or even 50% of the time. If a helmet works as designed even a few times out of 100, the savings in medical costs are substantial. Helmet use is reasonable public health policy.

    • fsethd says:

      With that reasoning, no helmets should ever be worn, since they depress ridership and increase health costs due to inactivity.

      • channel_zero says:

        Well, there are some people arguing “helmets don’t work.” Instead of engaging them on that very arguable point, there’s no arguing the medical costs of wearing a helmet and crashing are far lower.

        • fsethd says:

          I don’t think anyone seriously argues that helmets don’t work. There are now on the market helmets that provide concussion protection (MIPS) and direct impact protection (standard ANSI/Snell helmets). The problem is that non-MIPS helmets don’t prevent and can exacerbate concussions, which are by far the greatest type of head injury.

          The bigger picture is whether or not the societal cost of reducing the number of people going out for an ordinary ride at slow speeds due to required helmet use is outweighed by the benefit of having more people on bikes.

          And there’s no study looking at all helmet/non-helmet medical costs that I’m aware of …

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