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Why wearing a bike helmet makes sense to me

Written by Fiona

November 16 2010

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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