It would be so nice if we could say that wearing helmets is always better than not wearing them, and the great news is that if you live in the South Bay, where people love to shout “WHERE’S YOUR HELMET???”, you can certainly live out your cycling life believing that the little styrofoam and plastic doohickey atop your skull is making you live longer, safer, healthier, more happily, and without having to consider facts, science, competing ideas, or, dog forbid, studies.
Two doozies recently popped up on my radar screen thanks to friends who, like me, wear helmets, just not all the time, and who, like me, find it amusing that so many cyclists screech and wail about helmets as if they were the panacea to everything from head injuries to herpes.
The first study was a confirmation of an earlier study which found that cagers are more likely to subject riders to dangerous punishment passes when the riders are helmeted. This means that in many situations wearing a helmet actually encourages motorists to endanger you, and of course some of those punishment passes result in collisions.
To repeat: In some instances, helmets INCREASE your risk of injury or death. Here’s the study, so fascinating as it shows how a dedicated researcher spent five years validating his results after they were attacked by helmet nazis, and it shows how truly disturbed and careless many motorists really are. Passing someone closer because they wear a helmet?
Hold on there just one darn minute!
Before the anti-helmet forces burn down all helmet factories and declare victory, another study popped up that sort of debunks the risk compensation hypothesis, which states that cyclists with helmets engage in riskier behavior than those without.
Anyone accustomed to wearing a helmet knows that when you take off your lid you feel more exposed and try to be more careful, at least for the first few minutes until you are overwhelmed with the joyful free feeling of the wind in your hair, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that once you strap on the helmet you become a kamikaze.
You can read the abstract here; it’s kind of a plus for helmets unless you are unlucky to run the thing by America’s best bike analyst, John Forester. John basically says all of the studies are crap because of one tiny little detail: None of the studies can define risky behavior; safe cycling isn’t as cut/dry as safe sex. Here’s his analysis:
I have read the summaries presented in the article listed below. The question is whether or not the wearing of a cycling helmet induces more risky behavior. It is believed that this is a question that is worthy of consideration. In some kind of theoretical consideration of the science of psychology this issue may be worthy of consideration, but in this specific and practical case consideration is completely worthless. Why? Because nobody knows which cycling behaviors are safe and which are risky. Consider whether obeying the traffic laws is, or is not, risky. There is plenty of evidence that many Americans believe that cyclists obeying the traffic laws are riding in a very dangerous manner, whereas obeying the traffic laws is the key to safe operation.But which traffic laws? Those which make vehicle operation safe, or those intended to restrict cyclists for the convenience of motorists under the excuse of cyclist safety? The article repeatedly referenced the relationship between fear of danger and risk aversion. However, it is well known that those who most fear traffic dangers are also those who ride in the most dangerous style, curb hugging. Dutch-style slow and helmetless cycling seems to be safe, while faster cyclists seem more likely to use helmets. Does that mean that fast cycling is a risky behavior? To some extent it does. The faster the cyclist in a crash, the more likely is he to be carried forward (by his own momentum) and therefore the more likely he is to land on or near his head. So it is reasonable that faster cyclists tend to wear helmets. But does that mean that fast cycling is risky behavior? Or only that slow cycling is inconveniently slow? As long as opinions about cycling risk are in such contradictory confusions, any attempt to analyze cyclists’ habits in terms of risk homeostasis is bound to fail.John Forester, 2018
Of course anyone who can use the words “risk homeostasis” in a sentence wins the Internet for the day, so those who would force everyone everywhere to always helmet up … try again.
Safety is key. But in modern ‘Merica, the biggest piece of the safety puzzle is the person behind the wheel of the car. Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. Thank you!