Why wearing a bike helmet makes sense to me

The other day I was a mile or so into my hour’s bike ride when I realised I did not have my helmet on. I’d already put on my running beanie and so I can only think that when I left the house it “felt” as though I was wearing a helmet. I noticed I wasn’t when I went to scratch an itch on my head. I probably should have returned for the helmet but I was limited for time and so I continued without.

But I confess that for the entire bike ride I felt a bit uncomfortable to be helmet-less and I also felt the eyes of other road users glaring at my head. Perhaps no-one actually noticed that I wasn’t wearing a helmet but I still felt embarrassed not to be. (I’m very pleased that Little Miss Outdoors did not spot me coming home helmet-less because I’ve always tried to set a good example for her.)

I’ve not always been a fan of bike helmets but since I began cycling in towns and cities some 15 years ago I felt it was a worthwhile precaution to wear one. They can make you sweaty and they are not always very comfortable but over the years I’ve become less bothered by my helmet. These days you can buy fairly comfortable and very lightweight helmets.

Over the years I’ve also had heated discussions (and even arguments!) with other cyclists over the merits of wearing a bike helmet. I’ve known people who have been badly injured when they crashed while not wearing a helmet. I’ve also known of several people who have been injured when they crashed while wearing a helmet but they have told me that medics said it could have been worse.

One running/cycling friend has argued with me that there is research that “proves” that wearing a bike helmet can actually put cyclists at greater risk of injury. I have never been able to find this piece of research on-line but since the friend is a learned chap I will need to believe it exists.

Smiling and wearing my bike helmet

I believe the theory is that wearing a helmet can somehow adversely affect your safety judgement because you “feel” safer wearing the helmet and so may take more risk while cycling. Alternatively other road users may subconsciously deem you to be safer because you’re wearing a helmet and therefore take greater risks around you. I just can’t buy into this idea because I don’t think any cyclist is keen to fall or crash while on their bike and will do everything they can to avoid it. Even with a helmet we’re all aware that major injuries still happen.

I have also heard the argument that walking along the street, driving a car, crossing the road, shopping etc put us all at risk of injury every day.. so what’s so different about cycling without a helmet? I guess people who smoke use a similar argument! And would these people set off on a motorbike without wearing a helmet? When you ride a bike on the road or a mountain bike off-road you are placing yourself in greater danger and bigger odds of danger than when walking along the pavement or crossing the road and so it makes sense to take precautions against fatal injury.

In my opinion, it’s rather like wearing a seat belt or not. If there’s a belt to be worn that could save your life then why not use it?Even if you think you’re a safe driver (or cyclist) you never know what others on the road might do or what might suddenly walk/run/fly across your path.  And, so if there’s a helmet to be worn that could save your life if you are unlucky enough to be in an accident then why not wear one? It’s a small inconvenience for a potentially large gain (or the rest of your life).

So why am I ranting on about this? Well, apart from my helmet-less ride of shame at the weekend, today I spotted a new piece of research carried out in Australia into the merits of wearing a bicycle helmet. I’ll let you read the whole article here on the blog Biking and hiking in Western Australia, but the results are summarised as this:

Information was available about the location of the fall and helmet use for 287 of the 313 cyclists identified from 2008–2010 (Box 3). Their mean age was 36 years (95% CI, 34–37 years) and 81% were men. Non-helmet wearers had five times higher odds of intracranial bleeding or skull fracture compared with helmet wearers after adjusting for road type and mechanism of injury (odds ratio, 5.3 [95% CI, 1.7–17.1]; P = 0.005).

The increase in admissions for bicycle injury is consistent with recently reported population trends.4 In addition, the number of cyclists sustaining severe head injuries has remained consistently low over the long term, with an apparent decline in the rate of severe head injuries in admitted patients since 2005. The odds reduction for skull fractures and intracranial bleeds in those wearing helmets is within the range reported in a Cochrane review of helmet use.5 The benefits of helmet use need to be placed in the context of lifetime costs of severe traumatic brain injury, estimated to be around $4.8 million per incident case.6

It is the opinion of the trauma service at RPAH, based on these findings, that mandatory bicycle helmet laws be maintained, and enforced as part of overall road safety strategies.

At the end of the day it’s up to the individual whether they wear a helmet but there are a few things that usually make me reach for mine:

1) My daughter would be devastated to lose me or to have a severely injured mum. (This also applies to all loved ones.)

2) I like my healthy life as it is.

3) Accidents happen but avoidance of the severest injury is a good tactic.

4) I feel a bit stupid without one.

I wonder how much people will agree or disagree with me? Please use valid research in your comments!

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10 Responses to “Why wearing a bike helmet makes sense to me”

  1. For a fairly comprehensive round up of research on the effectiveness or otherwise of cycle helmets have a look at: http://cyclehelmets.org/

    My summary would be that there is precious little good research on the subject. Wear a helmet or not as you want – whatever makes you happier.

    Detailed boring argument follows :-)

    It is actually surprisingly hard to do good research on this sort of subject, and the Australian paper you mention is not very convincing. They have (fortunately) a very small sample of people with serious head injuries (0-3 per year), most of whom were presumably wearing helmets (as required by law in Oz). So, I’d guess, roughly 20 serious injuries over 10 years, most of whom were helmet wearers and a few, say around 5 in total, who were not. This is way too small a number to draw any meaningful conclusion from.
    Also, there is no obvious attempt to control for other factors such as age. As an example (which may or may not be true) teenage boys may be both less likely to obey the law on helmets and also less likely to obey other road laws. They will therefore tend to be involved in more crashes, and be for these crashes to be more serious. The reason they are more frequently in hospital is because they are reckless teenage boys, not because they were or were not wearing a helmet.

  2. The only valid research i have is my past expereance when i was side swipped by a car and his bonnet had a helmet coloured streak across it. With out a helmet it would by an Andy’s head colouered streak (ie red) across it instead.

    Wore a helmet ever since.

  3. This is a valid and thorough reply and I will be looking into the research you’ve pointed out. I wonder if any of the evidence would persuade me NOT to wear a helmet though!

  4. Scary story. And one similar to close shaves that at least five friends have recounted over the years. I’m with you on the helmet wearing..

  5. Fiona,

    The research is pretty inconclusive. In my opinion it is:

    A) certainly not strong enough to convince you to wear a helmet if you don’t want to

    and

    B) certainly not strong enough to convince you to not wear one if you do want to

    Just keep on getting out there and enjoying your cycling :-)

  6. Fi, I agree with you. The debate will continue amongst hard core cyclists about the pro’s and con’s of wearing a helmet but I know that if I was involved in an accident, I know which option I’d choose – to be wearing a helmet.

    I don’t think I cycle more dangerously when wearing a helmet. You’re far more likely to break your collar bone, wrist or ankle in a fall so I’m not going to take extra risks.

    I read some research that said in 100,000 hours of cycling, you won’t need your helmet but for a few seconds of that 100,000 hours, that’s when you’ll need it.

    It’s a bit like going on a building site without a hardhat. Having said all this, I rarely wear mine. I used mine recently in Portugal because I found it helped to shield me from the sun though.

    Anyone who doubts what a serious head injury can do to you, should look at this.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1289616/Labourer-survives-HALF-head-following-25-ft-fall-building-trained-work-on.html

  7. Great comments here.. I still can’t find a reason NOT to wear a helmet but then it’s entirely down to preference. It just seems that these days the majority do wear a helmet and it’s always very noticeable when someone doesn’t. Indeed my daughter always points out cyclists who don’t wear helmets because she thinks it’s ‘silly”. Her word not mine!

    I do agree with Dave though – let’s all get out and cycle more!

  8. To be honest I can’t think of a reason why you wouldn’t wear a helmet unless there were elements of vanity there (and perhaps peer pressure?). A friend of mine is rapidly losing his nine lives in the name of helmets. Three times his life has probably been saved by wearing a helmet. Once when being taken off his bike by a HGV lorry, another time when taking a fall rock climbing and another time when ice climbing and a chunk of ice fell on him. Yes, he does do dangerous pursuits and cycling on roads is one of them. His (mis) adventures are enough to convince me to always wear a helmet.

  9. Risk compensation (as it’s known) is a very real and non-intuitive phenomenon.

    For instance, it makes sense to wear a seatbelt for saftey in a car. But making it a law to wear seatbelts has never been demonstrated to reduce fatalities.

    A study showed that “drivers drove an average of 8.5 cm closer, and came within 1 meter 23% more often, when a cyclist was wearing a helmet,” and “The closer a driver is to the cyclist, the greater chance of a collision.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Risk_compensation#Bicycle_helmets

    I still wear one except when
    a) it’s so cold I need a woolly hat.
    b) it’s so hot I need a sunhat.

    I have met cyclists who take off the helmet going up hill (slower, sweatier) and put it on for downhill…

  10. The risk compensation idea is an interesting point and one I have thought about. But, for me, the difference is: between saving one’s life and reducing the extent of injury. In my experience, too, drivers still drive too close even when i’m not wearing a helmet! There are other obstacles as well, such as pedestrians, animals etc. These obstacles if hit, or run into, are more likely to cause a cyclist injury rather than death because of the speed of your cycling and so a helmet would then come in handy to prevent a bad knock to the head. Other examples would be drivers opening their car doors into traffic and knocking a cyclist off. I know three friends who had this happen to them. In all cases the helmet prevented these people from suffering a far worse injury to their heads. I guess there are lots of variables and lots of opinion. I don’t find a helmet much hassle to wear. yes it does get hot sometimes and i may then leave the helmet off because it’s just too uncomfortable but for the most part it’s not much hassle to wear a helmet so i simply do! each to their own in terms of risk! Thanks for engaging in the thread…