Among bicycle riders – be them cyclists riding for distance, or those just pedaling for fresh air on a nice day — there is one nagging issue they all agree on: Getting your pant leg stuck in the chain sucks balls.
That being said, there is also one issue that divides bikers like no other: Helmet vs No Helmet. The “no helmeters” argue that government regulations mandating the use of helmets:
1. Reduces rider’s enjoyment of bicycle riding.
2. No longer permits the wind to whip through a rider’s hair.
3. Infantilizes them.
4. Doesn’t work. Because helmets don’t protect your head during an accident the way the government says they will.
5. Reduces the empirical number of people who ride bikes… which then causes an increase in the number of vehicles on the road… which leads to more accidents and pollution.
On the other hand, riders, government officials and medical professionals who support the mandatory use of bike helmets argue:
1. Helmets reduce the likelihood of a serious brain or skull injury in the event of a bicycle crash.
2. Bicycle riders have accepted the use of seat belts in cars… Meaning, the “infantilization” they speak of, is nothing new.
3. When the wind blows through your hair. It messes it up. Which is bad. Especially if you spent time making it look pretty.
And these aren’t the only issues that affect the bicycle riding community. There is evidence that the drivers of cars are less safe around riders with helmets. In a well known scientific study, the author determines that drivers of cars get 3 1/2 inches closer to bike riders wearing helmets when they pass them on the road. Another issue is that of risk compensation. In this theory, we’re left to consider whether or not the behavior of a bicycle rider changes while wearing a helmet? Meaning, does a cyclist with a helmet ride more recklessly because subconsciously, they believe they are protected from injury because of the helmet?
There are studies to be sited that support both sides of this issue. But for now, lets focus on some answers to the questions below… and it’s vital to remember that when it comes to accident protection or prevention there are NO guarantees — rather, there are things that have proven statistically to help reduce the likelihood of injuries — while not guaranteeing them.
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1. If you are in an accident, does wearing the helmet — in fact — do more good than harm? You see, there are some who suggest that head injuries from bike accidents are predominantly those of rotation — which the helmet would not protect against. And, as some evidence suggests, could complicate.
However — in answer to the first part of the question, yes! — in the event of a blunt force accident — meaning, your head slams into the street, a parked or moving car — wearing a helmet would likely lessen the severity of an injury. And statistically speaking, not make it worse.
2. Do bike riders act more recklessly when they wear a helmet?
There have been scientific studies that both tend to support and disprove this hypothesis. So, anecdotally speaking, lets look at an analogous situation. In football, we do not tend to see players acting more recklessly when they tackle an opponent just because they are wearing a helmet. (The issue of concussions while important, is not germane to this discussion.) For another example, lets look at cars. There is no proof that drivers behave more recklessly when wearing their seatbelt. Nor, is their evidence that drivers of cars with recently installed baby seats drive more recklessly, either.
Cyclists, like hockey and football players, are acutely sensitive to the likelihood that a miscalculation can result in serious injury, and govern their behaviour accordingly. We find it highly probable, in the absence of any change in propensity to take risks, that cyclists will respond like hockey and football players to measures that reduce the severity of the consequences of miscalculation. (Dr Jake Olivier and Chair of Road Safety, Professor Raphael Grzebieta)
3. What are the overall statistics related to bicycle riding and accidents.
In 2010 in the U.S., 800 bicyclists were killed and an estimated 515,000 sustained bicycle-related injuries that required emergency department care. Roughly half of these cyclists were children and adolescents under the age of 20. Annually, 26,000 of these bicycle-related injuries to children and adolescents are traumatic brain injuries treated in emergency departments. (United States Centers For Disease Control)
Bicyclists are also at high risk of colliding with motor vehicles, and when riders are not wearing helmets, such collisions frequently result in serious head injuries. For example, about 90 percent of bicyclists killed in the United States in 2009 were not wearing helmets. A majority were middle-aged men. (NY Times)
According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, cycling accidents played a role in about 86,000 of the 447,000 sports-related head injuries treated in emergency rooms in 2009. Football accounted for 47,000 of those head injuries, and baseball played a role in 38,394. (NY Times)
4. Do mandatory helmet laws significantly reduce the total number of bike riders?
There is scant evidence to suggest that mandatory bike laws discourage so many from riding bikes… that there is now a significant increase in the number of automobile accidents.
So, what should you do? Do whatever you want. But, keep these results in mind:
“The benefits of helmets were clear in this study. Cyclists without helmets had up to 3.9 times the risk of sustaining a head injury, compared with those who wore helmets. The more severe the injury, the greater the benefit: Helmet use reduced the risk of moderate head injury by 49 per cent, of serious head injury by 62 per cent, and of severe head injury by 74 per cent” (Dr Jake Olivier and Chair of Road Safety, Professor Raphael Grzebieta)
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