Are bike helmets safe?
Last year, Radio-Canada journalist Isabelle Richer was hit by a car while riding her bicycle in rural Quebec, a life-threatening collision that broke several vertebrae, briefly put her in a coma and kept her hospitalized for three weeks. The crash also shattered her bike helmet.
Now, some nine months later, much improved but still dealing with post-concussion symptoms, Richer is acting as spokesperson for Défi Tête La Première, a 500-kilometre charity ride aimed at raising funds to buy 750 helmets for children and at bringing awareness to the importance of wearing bike helmets.
“There is no way I would go onto a bike now without one, now that it saved my life,” Richer said in an interview for the Montreal Gazette.
The research on the effectiveness of helmets is not straightforward, however. Every year in Canada about 7,500 cyclists suffer serious injuries and in 2007, the last year for which statistics are available, 65 cyclists died in traffic collisions, representing 2.3 per cent of all road fatalities.
While studies have confirmed that among those injured in cycling crashes, the odds of head, brain or face injuries are significantly lower for people who wear helmets, there does not appear to be a similar effect of helmet on bicycle collision fatalities. For instance, a Transport Canada report compared data for cycling deaths between 1975 and 1987, when helmet use was minimal, to cycling deaths between 1988 and 2002, when helmet use became more popular (and in some provinces, mandatory). It turned out that the number of fatalities has remained fairly constant over these periods, suggesting that helmet use has not reduced the number of fatalities.
Along with the concerns over fatalities, governments and policy-makers have another issue to consider: studies have shown that on its own, making helmet use mandatory does not have a significant effect on injuries to cyclists and hospitalization rates for bicycle injury are not influenced by mandatory helmet legislation.
What does seem to make a difference is infrastructure and mass numbers of cyclists. In places where the proportion of people using bicycles for transportation is high, the rates of injury and fatalities is lower. And in regions where bike-specific infrastructure is in place (dedicated bike lanes, for instance) the rates of injury and fatalities are also lower.
In countries like the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, where cycling is more of a way of life (an estimated 10 to 27 per cent of trips are made by bicycle in these countries) helmet use turns out to be rare, yet injury and fatality rates are many times lower than those in Canada and the United States.
Cultural differences -such as a general valuing of bike culture over car culture- may account for some of the differences between the Northern European countries and North American in terms of bicycle collision statistics, but it is also evident that governments that invest in bicycle infrastructure not only help to perpetuate bike culture and bike safety but they save lives.
Germany, for example, has begun building an “Autobahn for bikes” and Norway has just announced plans for a $1 billion (USD) investment in bicycle superhighways to connect nine of its cities with their respective suburbs.
The thing about helmets is they are designed to prevent skull fracture when falling off a stationary bike, like when you get to the stop sign but can’t unclip to put a foot down. The energy in a motor vehicle wreck is orders of magnitude greater than that, so surviving a wreck with or without a helmet is mainly a matter of chance for not getting hit in the head.
And I say this as a long-time helmet wearing cyclist who has survived a 60 MPH hit from behind wreck that totaled the truck that hit me.
Or to put it another way, the difference in speed between an impact you could survive without a helmet, and one you can’t survive even with one, is vanishingly small. It’s literally less than the difference in the speed limit and the speed you get pulled over for.
It’s true that bicycle helmets have failed to produce the protection that was promised. As shown above, they’ve never provided anything close to the “85%” protection that was used to justify laws mandating them. Cyclist fatalities have not fallen any faster than pedestrian fatalities, and bicyclists concussion counts have actually _risen_ tremendously since helmets became popular. Yes, helmets have generated countless anecdotes, like the one from Ms. Richer above. But if you hear 100 “saved my life” anecdotes, yet see no drop in bike fatalities, it should be obvious that almost all the anecdotes are false.
But wait! Surely bike helmets prevent _some_ injuries, you may say. Surely they’re worth it if they simply prevent bad bruises, scrapes and cuts?
Obviously, they are not worth it for those purposes. Because contrary to the hype, almost 100% of head injuries of any type have nothing to do with bicycling. Consider, there are over 4500 pedestrian fatalities in the U.S. each year, with 45% due to brain injury. There are only 730 bike fatalities during a typical year, with exactly the same percentage (45%) due to brain injury. And on average, bicycling is actually far safer than pedestrian travel on the basis of fatalities per mile traveled. Yet helmets are considered “not worth it” for those who are actually more at risk. They’re certainly never proposed for the many thousands of motorists who, despite seat belts and air bags, die of brain trauma each year.
The important point here is that bicycling is not and has never been a significant source of serious brain injuries. Bicycling in any normal way is not a dangerous activity, and does not deserve the “Danger! Danger!” hype designed to sell this styrofoam consumer product.
Likewise, safe bicycling does not require vast networks of questionably-designed segregated facilities. Half of America’s rare cycling fatalities and serious injuries are due to blatant violations of traffic laws by the cyclists themselves. In other words, on average, cycling is already quite safe. For those riding legally and competently, it’s far safer.
Rather than pushing plastic hats and exorbitantly expensive construction projects, we should be promoting simple education – teaching kids and adults how to ride competently on the roads we have, and teaching motorists, police and judges that cyclists do have full legal rights to the road.
And we need to stop the “Danger! Danger!” hype. Bicycling is NOT very dangerous. It does us no good to pretend it is.
We should research high intensity rear lights too. Reviewers of those lights claim that drivers give a wider berth when using them. I wonder if they have the same effect on safety as having a high cycling modal share or helmets. The brightest that you could buy is the DS-500 which is 10W. I have a custom tail light made using 3W LEDs. It has four reds at the back and three ambers on each side pointing at 0, 45, and 90 degrees for improved side visibility.
Sounds good , but in the west coast of Canada, the surgeons asked for helmet legislature because of brain injuries. Secondly the car drivers coning into a municipality off a highway, are Velocitized. They are experiencing a deceleration motion perception problem. When they interact with local traffic including pedestrians and cyclists, the velocitized drivers see everything in slow motion and themselves moving in real time. This is extremely dangerous for everyone concerned and the Road Safety Office at the World Health Organization thinks we should have solved this years ago. Cyclists encounter these drivers and experience pure terror. Ask a urban cyclists about close calls.
What journalists are missing is the simple solution of safe, law abiding streets and highways. The same journalists suffer from the freewheeling phenomenon and enjoy breaking traffic laws with their kids on Mother’s Day. Uber is trying to introduce efficient taxi service, but no one talks about dangerous taxi driving behaviour. Why is it that internationally and through history, we enjoy a lawless industry and complain about an unsustainable economy? Anyone for law abiding taxi service?
Actually, it’s to prevent brain injury.
Honestly the law says when turning left, put your left arm out fully extended and turn when clear and safe. I personally adjust my helmet with my left arm, when drivers are getting too close and they give me a wide birth.
Check to see if it’s somewhat clear and put your left arm out as if you are turning left and the drivers will give you a wider birth. Also a French bread sideways an the back of the bike will give the drivers a message.
No. Helmets are designed to prevent skull fracture and are tested to just below the impact that causes skull fracture. The design spec dates back many years and the level was first set back in the ’80s. I have been doing bicycle safety for many years and I know whereof I speak. The design spec was set for skull fracture as there was no way of determining brain damage back when the specs were being set, especially since they were using cadavers to measure the impact required to break a skull.
The technology to determine TBI was not widely available even when I was hit back in 2001. To be honest it still isn’t in most hospitals, which is why Formula 1 drivers are required to have a baseline CAT scan every year before the racing season starts so they can use that when MRI scanners are not available. You can use a CAT scan to find diffuse axonal damage only if you know the sizes of all the sections of the brain ahead of time, otherwise there has to be a MRI done within 3 hours of the injury or it won’t show there either. DAI can cause things like memory loss, changes in personality, changes in speech including loss of foreign languages and large chunks of vocabulary or even aphasia, inability to navigate, and a whole variety of other losses of things the person could do but can’t . In my case I went from speaking 6 languages, 2 fluently, and having a 300K word working vocabulary to having only English and maybe 3K words of working vocabulary with random chunks of the 300K on a random basis.
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