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Senseless: on the lack of forward progress in bicycle helmet design
June 18, 2013 1:17 PM   Subscribe

"Bicycle helmets do an outstanding job of keeping our skulls intact in a major crash. But they do almost nothing to prevent concussions and other significant brain injuries—and the very government agency created to protect us is part of the problem. The time has come to demand something safer."
posted by killdevil (125 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
Actually, I think bicycle helmets do a terrible job of keeping our skulls intact in a major crash. A helmet is worthless if you're getting creamed by a semi at 60 MPH.

What they do is a good job at protecting your gourd in the vast majority of crashes that aren't major -- usually not even involving a motor vehicle. Hell, I've cracked my head in a fall from a full stop, when I couldn't get my frigging foot out of my clips. Bikes crash into pedestrians, walls, other bicycles, parked cars, and all sorts of other obstructions, to say nothing of the street we're riding on.

The author is also misrepresenting the concussion story with football. The danger from football doesn't come from getting a concussion; it comes from getting MANY of them. Indeed, an average lineman, even in high school or junior high, can receive 50 or 60 sub-concussion impacts a day, even during practices. THOSE are the impacts that are implicated in Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. If you're cracking your bike helmet 50 or 60 times a day, you need a new hobby.

I really don't see how bike helmets are going to be improved without turning them into...motorcycle helmets. You can buy one of those today, if you want to.
posted by Fnarf at 1:34 PM on June 18, 2013 [26 favorites]


Vehicles passed him [Ian Walker, a psychologist at the University of Bath] on average 3.35 inches closer when he wore his helmet. Walker argued that drivers assume cyclists wearing helmets are more experienced and need less space.

[Psychologists] tested the risk-compensation theory: If you trust your helmet to protect you, you'll engage in riskier behavior, like riding faster.

Are they nuts? No offense to the psychologists out there, but are they really best suited to be making the anti-helmet argument?
posted by wensink at 1:39 PM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also: no amount of protective gear is going to prevent injuries without the most important safety feature of all: numbers. Put a thousand other riders on the road you commute on, and your risk from car crashes goes to almost zero, and your risk from other problems reduces drastically too.
posted by Fnarf at 1:39 PM on June 18, 2013 [20 favorites]


Ridiculous article. You cannot make a bicycle helmet that will prevent concussions without defying the laws of physics. If your head is moving at 20+ MPH and decelerates rapidly enough - even without an impact - your brain will be concussed against the inside of your skull.

The only solution is something that can anticipate an impact and slowly, gently decelerate. A helmet alone will never be able to do this.

Can/should the safety equipment that the average cyclist wears when biking on city streets be improved? Maybe. But focusing on helmets and government safety ratings is a silly non-sequitur.
posted by Anoplura at 1:41 PM on June 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Everyone ought to wear a full motorcycle helmet with visor and screen at all times. Then we'd really be safe!
posted by spitbull at 1:41 PM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I bumped my head on the door of the kitchen cabinet the other day. I need to start wearing a helmet around the house.
posted by grubby at 1:43 PM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ridiculous article. You cannot make a bicycle helmet that will prevent concussions without defying the laws of physics. If your head is moving at 20+ MPH and decelerates rapidly enough

The foam is there to give your head more time to decelerate, so hopefully it's no longer "rapidly enough".
posted by Jpfed at 1:44 PM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


I crashed my bike hard when I was 12 or so. I came to walking home. Had no bike, no memory of striking the curb, no desire to go back for my bike. I was walking when I started to become myself again. I had a crazy buzzy feeling like happy gas at the dentist.

I didn't want to tell my parents, not because I was afraid I'd get in trouble, but because I felt dumb.

I went home and went to bed. A neighbor brought the bike by later that day.

I'm 42ish. 30 years ago no one wore helmets.

I am thinking of getting a new bike. You can bet I'll have a helmet.

I really don't see how bike helmets are going to be improved without turning them into...motorcycle helmets. You can buy one of those today, if you want to.

And:

If your head is moving at 20+ MPH and decelerates rapidly enough - even without an impact - your brain will be concussed against the inside of your skull.

I won't speak to the efficacy or the physics, but this is addressed in the article. From what I see the helmet sort of buckles and shifts.
posted by cjorgensen at 1:45 PM on June 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


With the introduction of the CitiBike thing in NYC I momentarily considered becoming more of a cyclist/pedestrian than a cabtaker/pedestrian but then I remembered I would have to completely encase my body in some sort of protective gel in order to feel safe riding a bike anywhere ever.

sigh
posted by elizardbits at 1:45 PM on June 18, 2013


Anddddd "helmets are silly" in 6... seriously? The forces in a bicycling accident, even a simple fall, are hard enough to justify helmet use. That's been proven.
posted by randomkeystrike at 1:47 PM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Fnarf, according to the article in minor crashes traditional helmets fail to protect because the liner remains intact and your head absorbs the impact.

Anoplura, the article addresses this. You need to get to the part where the author starts talking about rotational acceleration.
posted by hyperizer at 1:48 PM on June 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


The forces in a bicycling accident, even a simple fall, are hard enough to justify helmet use. That's been proven.

So are the forces when you get hit by a car as a pedestrian, or when you fall in the shower. Do you routinely wear a helmet in those situations?

People are allowed to make their own choices about the level of personal risk they will tolerate.
posted by enn at 1:52 PM on June 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


What if we had Daft Punk robot helmets instead? Everybody thinks those are cool, right?
posted by Rangeboy at 1:56 PM on June 18, 2013 [12 favorites]


My idea for a new sport called "Football-Biking" is never gonna take off, huh?
posted by Drinky Die at 1:56 PM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I would love a better helmet. I stopped riding bikes almost entirely after a friend of mine, who was a cyclist on a college team, was nearly killed after a hit and run accident. The vehicle never stopped, and his helmet was almost destroyed. However, his skull wasn't (well, not entirely.)


Vehicles passed him [Ian Walker, a psychologist at the University of Bath] on average 3.35 inches closer when he wore his helmet. Walker argued that drivers assume cyclists wearing helmets are more experienced and need less space.

What we could really use though are better laws and road designs protecting cyclists and pedestrians from drivers. Maybe safe interaction with pedestrians and bicyclists should be a mandatory part of driver's tests, along with merging onto highways and parallel parking.

I do hate the design of this article, in large part because I would love to save and link to the After the Crash flowchart with the suggested concussion questions, but that isn't an option.
posted by jetlagaddict at 1:57 PM on June 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Ridiculous article. You cannot make a bicycle helmet that will prevent concussions without defying the laws of physics.


The entire thrust of the article is that there hasn't been enough research to decide the question either way.
posted by madajb at 1:59 PM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


That was a good long but depressing read. I know what the author is talking about, helmets are so hard, the padding so slight, that they only work in hardcore crashes. Smaller crashes give you almost no padding or protection, but I understand that if you optimized for padding the smaller kinds of crashes, you'd end up with something that failed on big impacts.

I own 3-4 helmets right now, and I buy at least a new one each year looking for something better. I remember seeing that POC mountain bike helmet at a bike show and loving the design of it, I'm definitely checking one out as soon as I can find one around.
posted by mathowie at 2:00 PM on June 18, 2013


Interesting, though I would like to know more about the mechanism the "better" helmets use to protect against rotation. I wouldn't wear a full motorcycle helmet, but I'd be willing to go a bit heavier if it made a clear, significant difference.

I'd also like to see data about other bike injuries and how to protect against them. I wouldn't wear a full motocross style armor, but maybe wrist and clavicle protectors?
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 2:01 PM on June 18, 2013


Unexpectedly thorough reporting... Could use an edit to bring a mention of the effects of rotational force to the front of the article. I've heard sometimes people who've had sub-concussion head trauma lose their ability to RTFA in its entirety.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:02 PM on June 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


People are allowed to make their own choices about the level of personal risk they will tolerate.

But please be considerate of others when making those choices. Having to dial 911 always freaks me out.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 2:02 PM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


hyperizer: "Anoplura, the article addresses this. You need to get to the part where the author starts talking about rotational acceleration."

The explanation of the rotational issue is the only wheat in this massive field of chaff.

This article is riddled with crazy assumptions and untruths, which is sort of surprising given it's Bicycling Magazine, especially the "helmet technology hasn't changed in 40 years" nonsense. Also table saw safety? Has this guy not seen the video of the hot dog and the SawStop technology?

The premise that the equipment manufacturers will only seek the minimum requirement, which I guess is the main complaint of the article (?) and the framing of this FPP, is just stupid.
posted by Big_B at 2:02 PM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also he mentions the new helmets aren't bulkier.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:03 PM on June 18, 2013


And maybe I'm jaded becuase I stick to the dirt mainly, but I've gone down a couple of times of the years hard, and was extremely happy to have a helmet on. It's so second nature for me that even riding around the block pulling a trailer with a kiddo in it I wear one. Why not? A fall at 5mph onto pavement is going to go easier with a helmet. Concussion or not.
posted by Big_B at 2:06 PM on June 18, 2013


jetlagaddict: “I do hate the design of this article, in large part because I would love to save and link to the After the Crash flowchart with the suggested concussion questions, but that isn't an option.”

Right click > open image in new tab. That'll get you here.
posted by koeselitz at 2:08 PM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Helmet design is hard. What I learned from looking into motorcycle helmets:

Humans are fragile. There are a great variety of ways that people can be injured, and they can sustain serious injury at speeds much lower than we expect. The kind of helmet that protects against one type of injury will probably not protect as well against other types. Helmets have to fulfill different, competing goals: protection, comfort, ease of use and yes, style.

What causes the most head injuries is gravity - the energy imparted from the rider's head moving from a stable riding position to the ground. From this specific hazard, bicycle riders are at increased risk, due to their height above ground.

I almost think of bicycle helmet design for safety like the oft-used MeFi phrase: a technological solution to a social problem. Not to detract from helmet-wearing - I always wear a helmet on motorcycle and bicycle, and I think you should too!

With more riders on the road and increased bicycling awareness, bicycling becomes safer.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:08 PM on June 18, 2013


Yeah, very few people here in the Netherlands were helmets, unless they're doing the full Tour de France reenactment.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:12 PM on June 18, 2013 [10 favorites]



I've come off my bike a few times. Absolutely all of them my fault. None involving cars. Hit my head on the floor "hard" 3 times, and replaced 3 helmets as a result.

Once I lost my bike on a decent at approx 40 mph. I did a sort of barrel roll affair and my helmet exploded into small pieces, my recollection is a bit fuzzy of exactly when my head hit the floor. The rider behind me said that if I hadn't been wearing a helmet I'd have been in "serious trouble". I lost a lot of skin off one of my legs and the shirt was ripped off my back by the asphalt. But not even a scratch on my head.

Another time I got my feet caught in my clips at a traffic light and did the embarrassing slow stationary fall. Didn't think I'd hit the floor very hard but it cracked the helmet. I would probably have had a nasty duck-egg swelling but been ok.

It turns out that heads are heavy and a long way from the fulcrum in a typical cycling scenario. I think you'd have to be insane to not wear one. The drawbacks are almost nil. In a major (perhaps car related) crash you're no worse off, and in the vastly more common "idiot" moments you're benefiting from a small amount of additional protection.
posted by samworm at 2:13 PM on June 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


So are the forces when you get hit by a car as a pedestrian, or when you fall in the shower. Do you routinely wear a helmet in those situations?

Walking and taking a shower are nowhere near as risky as riding a bicycle. "Bicycle crashes rank second only to riding animals as a sports- or recreation-associated cause of serious injury."
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:15 PM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Third picture down on this page, from an accident a few years ago, shows what would have been the side of my head instead of a punctured helmet. There are occasional bike trips that I don't wear my helmet, but it's on if I'm spending any length of time in automobile traffic.
posted by Celsius1414 at 2:19 PM on June 18, 2013


From this specific hazard, bicycle riders are at increased risk, due to their height above ground.

Yeah, everyone should probably ride a recumbent for a bunch of reasons, but somehow I think wearing helmets is more likely.
posted by GuyZero at 2:19 PM on June 18, 2013


I actually own a couple helmets, and in the past five years of biking I can count the number of times I've worn them in one hand. I just can't make myself do it--even the "ventilated" designs are like putting on a thick wool sweater in mid-summer.

I'd like to see some kind of airbag collar that could, in the event of a sudden drop, deploy a full airbag around my head. It'd kill two birds with one stone: it wouldn't insulate the hottest part of my body while I'm exercising, and it would be safer than any currently available helmet.
posted by mullingitover at 2:19 PM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I just can't make myself do it--even the "ventilated" designs are like putting on a thick wool sweater in mid-summer.

Get a haircut. Ride faster.

I mean, sure, I get that that's your experience, but everyone in my family wears one every since time they ride their bike and honestly, none of us care. You're going to get hot riding a bike in the summer any way you slice it.
posted by GuyZero at 2:22 PM on June 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


In NYC, 97% of biking fatalities [pdf] were people who were not wearing helmets. 3% of the fatalities were people wearing helmets. Until someone can convince me that somehow that means wearing a helmet is more dangerous than not, I'm going to just go with it.
posted by the jam at 2:23 PM on June 18, 2013 [10 favorites]


Wouldn't it make more sense if helmets were like big Nerf afros? You'd get much smoother deceleration that way.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:23 PM on June 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


Well, I make my kids wear helmets and when they ask why, I tell them we can't afford organic brain damage. They just roll their eyes at me, which means I know they're going to remember my words. I fell off my Pink Huffy in 1978 - went over the handle bars, skidded to the curb on my knees/palms and hit the right side of my forehead on the sharp corner of the neighbor's bricked-in mailbox, requiring 12 stitches. I could have used a helmet that day, but I could have also used gloves and knee pads.

I never really thought that any bike helmet would save my life or save me from brain damage when I used to ride my bike from South Austin to UT every day if I got hit by the wrong vehicle or a vehicle going fast enough, but but I wore one anyway. I agree that the technology between when I started wearing a bike helmet in about '89 and now is not drastically different, except flash-blinky LED's are more prevalent and much cheaper. I agree with the guy from Snell when he basically says if you're getting more than one concussion per year from riding your bike, you might be doing it wrong. I have a friend/coworker who took up bike riding a few years back when he started getting sober and in all our conversations over the last 4-5 years, he's only conked his head once. He cracked his helmet, but no concussion and that was during organized, loosely monitored yet still rigorous off-road riding.

I also agree that it's smart to be wise about concussion symptoms. My 8 year-old hit her head pretty soundly on part of her wooden bed frame the other day while executing some kind of gymnastics maneuver (she wasn't wearing a helmet). We applied ice (frozen corn) and I kept an eye on her through the evening and night. Didn't need the big, long scary article about it either. I guess when everything becomes a DIRE WARNING, it just turns into overload after a while. No more space in the DIRE WARNING circuits. Mine crapped out at GMO food will give you lockjaw and night vision and I can't handle anything else.
posted by PuppyCat at 2:24 PM on June 18, 2013


GuyZero: "I mean, sure, I get that that's your experience, but everyone in my family wears one every since time they ride their bike and honestly, none of us care. You're going to get hot riding a bike in the summer any way you slice it."

True, but without a helmet it's hot. With a helmet it's omg-I'm-gonna-vomit hot. Which makes it not fun, and makes me not ride. So which is better--not riding the bike ever, or riding (carefully) without one?

And of course I'm not saying children should go without them. They can definitely go without the bike ride if they're not willing to put a helmet on. Me, I've lived my life.
posted by mullingitover at 2:24 PM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'd like to see some kind of airbag collar that could, in the event of a sudden drop, deploy a full airbag around my head.

The Hovding Biking Airbag
posted by the jam at 2:25 PM on June 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


mullingitover: I actually own a couple helmets, and in the past five years of biking I can count the number of times I've worn them in one hand. I just can't make myself do it--even the "ventilated" designs are like putting on a thick wool sweater in mid-summer.

This doesn't at all reflect my experience. I don't have usually have trouble with my head overheating, unless I'm overheating all over (usually as a result of a slow, steep mountain bike hill climb during the hottest heat of summer). I actually consider road biking to be the activity friendliest to the heat, as unless I'm either climbing a steep hill or riding at the exact same speed and directly as the wind it's basically impossible to overheat.

I wonder if it has something to do with your helmet or your hair.
posted by Mitrovarr at 2:27 PM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


In NYC, 97% of biking fatalities [pdf] were people who were not wearing helmets. 3% of the fatalities were people wearing helmets. Until someone can convince me that somehow that means wearing a helmet is more dangerous than not, I'm going to just go with it.

How many people wear helmets? Without that, the statistic you gave is meaningless.
posted by wayland at 2:27 PM on June 18, 2013 [9 favorites]


Helmets suck. My solution is walking everywhere and occasionally taking the bus.
posted by 2bucksplus at 2:28 PM on June 18, 2013


Last year, I crashed while riding on my local multi-use car-free path. The crash was entirely my own fault - I was trying to avoid a suicidal squirrel, ran off the side of the path, and went over the side of the bike. I ended up in a shallow drainage ditch with the bike on top of me, but other than a few scrapes, I was unhurt. After the crash, I looked at the damage my helmet took - there were some deep scores and a couple of cracks in the plastic shell. I'm no doctor, but I'd imagine that had I not been wearing that helmet, my head would have had similar scrapes and cracks.

Yeah, bike helmets may not be perfect, but I'd sooner get on a bike without pants than without a helmet.
posted by deadmessenger at 2:29 PM on June 18, 2013


True, but without a helmet it's hot. With a helmet it's omg-I'm-gonna-vomit hot. Which makes it not fun, and makes me not ride. So which is better--not riding the bike ever, or riding (carefully) without one?

So I think this is a false dichotomy. Clearly I don't know you face-to-face personally and I want to avoid arguing against your own personal experience. But this doesn't happen to most people. Maybe you just need to get used to it. Maybe your helmet isn't as ventilated as it could be. Or like I said, increase the airflow.
posted by GuyZero at 2:30 PM on June 18, 2013


I think the point about the table saw was that the tech exists, and some manufacturers will implement it, but that it's almost impossible to turn that into regulations. (Business Week article, found via Wikipedia)
posted by epersonae at 2:31 PM on June 18, 2013


True, but without a helmet it's hot. With a helmet it's omg-I'm-gonna-vomit hot.

Just out of curiosity, is your helmet a dark color? I've found having a reflective white one makes a noticeable difference in heat.

Also, wearing a bandana that you keep wet -- either under the helmet or tied around your neck -- helps tremendously thanks to evaporation.
posted by Celsius1414 at 2:32 PM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


epersonae: "I think the point about the table saw was that the tech exists, and some manufacturers will implement it, but that it's almost impossible to turn that into regulations."

Aside from requiring helmets for children, this is a feature and not a bug.
posted by mullingitover at 2:32 PM on June 18, 2013


This article has given me caltrops to throw in the path of proponents of required-bike-helmet laws: focus instead on a rating system that distinguishes MIPS helmets. Cool.

I'm bullish on wearing a helmet myself, because that's how I was raised and the downsides don't concern me much. But I'm in favor of any change that gets more people out of cars and onto bikes, because that makes drivers more aware of bicyclists and increases the viability of bike facilities like parking, rentals, lanes, and paths. Since helmet laws seem to cause fewer people to ride bikes frequently, I say screw the helmet laws and create better helmet rating standards.
posted by daveliepmann at 2:32 PM on June 18, 2013


How many people wear helmets? Without that, the statistic you gave is meaningless.

Assuming that NYC is at all like the rest of the country: 58% of American cyclists do not wear a bike helmet, which means that about 42% wear bike helmets. The 97% number still looks really bad for the non-helmeted.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:36 PM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


So are the forces when you get hit by a car as a pedestrian, or when you fall in the shower. Do you routinely wear a helmet in those situations?

People are allowed to make their own choices about the level of personal risk they will tolerate


Unfortunately, some of the responsibility for that personal risk falls legally into the hands of other people. For instance, if you're a pedestrian or a bicyclist in Chicago, the law says the driver is at fault if you get hit by a car. Period.

I can think of lots of good reasons for this, and I won't engage in an argument whether the law is good or bad. However, I will point out that if you are a cyclist who is being careless and reckless, and you put yourself in a position through carelessness and recklessness that gets you hit by a car, it isn't only you who bears the responsibility for your actions, and having you in a helmet will make you and the other party a bit better off.

Incidentally, I don't quite get the helmet hate. I wear a full-face motorcycle helmet while on my scooter in LA traffic, I wear a typical bicycle helmet while on my bike in LA traffic, and it doesn't represent any kind of burden (other than, perhaps, feeling a bit like a tool the first few times I did it.) I've done it on very hot, sunny days as well, and it hasn't been bad (note: my helmet is white.) Is the pushback a question of freedom, of style, or of something else?
posted by davejay at 2:39 PM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]



Yeah, bike helmets may not be perfect, but I'd sooner get on a bike without pants than without a helmet.
posted by deadmessenger


Apparently you wish to avoid becoming an eponysterical legend!
posted by spitbull at 2:41 PM on June 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


When I still had my Ninja motorcycle, I wore a full helmet, jacket, and pants in the depths of the Houston summer. When stopped at a red light I would quickly start to die, but even at ~20 mph the helmet was so well designed for air flow that I felt like I was in air conditioning. So I absolutely think that bicycle helmets could get better at being cooler.

I still always wear a helmet when bicycling, though. Comfort is for cages.
posted by BeeDo at 2:42 PM on June 18, 2013


People have different levels of discomfort when it comes to wearing things on their head. I suspect it comes down to how efficiently we sweat, but who knows.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:43 PM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ben Goldacre and David Spiegelhalter have a nice editorial in the BMJ on bicycle helmets and why it's such a complicated and contentious topic.
posted by penguinliz at 2:44 PM on June 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


Simply, there is no way any 42% of NYC bicyclists wear helmets. Even if you factor out the delivery guys, who rarely do (although more than used to), it has got to be lower based on my observations. CitiBike is making it worse.
posted by spitbull at 2:45 PM on June 18, 2013


Wouldn't it make more sense if helmets were like big Nerf afros? You'd get much smoother deceleration that way.

Most of your afro isn't going to help in the case of collision; the part directly between your head and the concrete will quickly get fully compressed and then you're SOL. But, if you surround the afro with a hard shell, then much more of the afro will deform (and so contribute to absorbing energy) when any part of the shell is struck.
posted by Jpfed at 2:45 PM on June 18, 2013


Although I wear a helmet, I'm on the "it's really miserably hot to wear on humid days" camp. I don't remember every colour helmet I have had, but they're always ventilated and they fit right, and it's just hot.
posted by jeather at 2:45 PM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


They're likely too cool for school, but I'd be curious to hear the fixed-wheel, helmetless peloton weigh in.
posted by wensink at 2:46 PM on June 18, 2013


Re: the With a helmet it's omg-I'm-gonna-vomit hot discussion: I commute to work by bicycle every day in New Orleans, even during the summer. I wear a dark gray helmet - a cheap one, too, not some ultra-fancy racing model but the $40 bargain. I personally don't find it significantly hotter riding with than riding without, though I will admit that my rather short haircut may be influencing this opinion. Point is that even in the pouring sun and sweltering heat wearing a helmet doesn't radically change my body temperature.

I know, I know: my experience is not your experience. Still, put me down in line with the others saying, "Maybe you need a different helmet."
posted by komara at 2:49 PM on June 18, 2013


Incidentally, I don't quite get the helmet hate. I wear a full-face motorcycle helmet while on my scooter in LA traffic, I wear a typical bicycle helmet while on my bike in LA traffic, and it doesn't represent any kind of burden (other than, perhaps, feeling a bit like a tool the first few times I did it.) I've done it on very hot, sunny days as well, and it hasn't been bad (note: my helmet is white.) Is the pushback a question of freedom, of style, or of something else?

PR. It's one more thing discouraging non-cyclists from joining the club, and increasing the size of the cohort and, by extension, their political clout is going to net us more safety gains than helmets can offer.
posted by invitapriore at 2:49 PM on June 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


With the table saw thing, it seems to me to be a complicated mess of who would be liable for what and how high the patent royalties would be. This in combination with what appear to be a bunch of prickly characters and some lawsuits meant no headway for ten years on active table saw arrestors. Even worse than bike helmets, if such a thing is possible.
posted by bonehead at 2:50 PM on June 18, 2013


Simply, there is no way any 42% of NYC bicyclists wear helmets. Even if you factor out the delivery guys, who rarely do (although more than used to), it has got to be lower based on my observations. CitiBike is making it worse.

Nice try, Dorothy Rabinowitz.
posted by zombieflanders at 2:52 PM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Simply, there is no way any 42% of NYC bicyclists wear helmets. Even if you factor out the delivery guys, who rarely do (although more than used to), it has got to be lower based on my observations.

Oh, well, as long as you've got anecdotes.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:53 PM on June 18, 2013 [8 favorites]


I am really interested in some of the ideas around improving helmet safety, especially if doesn't increase discomfort. I even looked up to see if the Scott Lin is available locally.

I've had one crash that cracked a helmet (story/helmet pic) and I wouldn't be surprised if there was a bit of a concussion too.* Might've had a slightly better Thanksgiving with a slightly better helmet, if that had been an option.

* ...on top of what turned out to be a bruised rib in pretty much the worst place for a fairly busty woman to have a bruised rib. Which I guess is part of the helmet issue? Plenty of crashes that don't involve helmets at all....
posted by epersonae at 2:55 PM on June 18, 2013


I'm a supporter of citibike, think its great, dont get me wrong, zombieflanders, but so far I don't see many riders wearing helmets (and I see tons of them where I live). This has been a widely voiced concern among the pro-bike set too.

Actually I was also wondering how people dealt with temporary security too, like when you stop at a deli between stations. Presumably you carry a chain or u-lock and a helmet with you!
posted by spitbull at 2:55 PM on June 18, 2013


: "They're likely too cool for school, but I'd be curious to hear the fixed-wheel, helmetless peloton weigh in."

I too would like to hear from these fixed-wheel hipsters. It wasn't enough to have fixed gears, they had to immobilize the entire wheel?
posted by mullingitover at 2:58 PM on June 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'd be curious to hear the fixed-wheel, helmetless peloton weigh in.

I have a fixed-wheel bike, and it's pretty great, although obviously a lot different from a normal bike; it sort of scrapes the ground as you drag it behind you, and consequently tends to leave skids of paint where it contacts the road. I've heard you can mitigate this somewhat by heavily greasing the underside of the wheels, but to be honest, I kind of like the screeching sound it makes when you go greaseless. Anyway, I've never worn a helmet in conjunction with this particular bike, but that's mainly 'cause it only goes about two miles an hour or so. Just seems like overkill.
posted by Greg Nog at 2:58 PM on June 18, 2013 [25 favorites]


And pope, I wasn't proposing a scientific theorem, I was making what to me seems a common sense observation.

I am open to correction if anyone has studied the question scientifically, you know?

Do you know differently?

It's not an anti-bike observation, really. I live downtown. Lots of tourists rent and ride bikes here, and they are often unhelmeted to my observation.
posted by spitbull at 2:58 PM on June 18, 2013


Sigh, it's not a widely collected statistic. This NYT article says a study shows only 30% of Washington DC bike share riders wear helmets. The article looks at low helmet use in European bike share programs too.
posted by spitbull at 3:05 PM on June 18, 2013


Too late to fixie it for ya, but...

via the Wiki:
A fixed-gear bicycle (or fixed-wheel bicycle, commonly known as a fixie) is a bicycle that has a drivetrain with no freewheel mechanism.
posted by wensink at 3:06 PM on June 18, 2013


> Ride faster

Which, unfortunately, increases your chance of serious injury in the result of an incident. All that ½mv2 gotta go somewhere ...
posted by scruss at 3:07 PM on June 18, 2013


Although the article I linked also says 70% in DC used helmets riding their own bikes, which I failed to notice. So there's that.
posted by spitbull at 3:09 PM on June 18, 2013


Simply, there is no way any 42% of NYC bicyclists wear helmets. Even if you factor out the delivery guys, who rarely do (although more than used to)

Most of the delivery guys I see (YMMV) are wearing not only helmets, but neon reflective vests, often with the name of their restaurant displayed prominently. I had considered buying one of those vests for my CitiBike travels (if my card ever comes, sadface), but I decided it was overkill. A helmet is probably enough.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 3:10 PM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I agree they are increasingly suited up, it's true. But on the other hand they break every traffic law in the book! I'd wear a helmet and vest too.
posted by spitbull at 3:11 PM on June 18, 2013


The problem is that [polystyrene] doesn't absorb much energy unless the impact is forceful enough to make it start to disintegrate. "Think of it like a drinking glass," Parks said. "If you hit it lightly it won't deform at all. But if you hit it hard enough it will shatter. It's not really attenuating any impact energy until it starts deforming and cracking."

What's needed is a soft foam that becomes firmer and more impact resistant in response to velocity; maybe an electric current makes it stiffen up.
posted by Flashman at 3:13 PM on June 18, 2013


> Fnarf, according to the article in minor crashes traditional helmets fail to protect because the liner remains intact and your head absorbs the impact.

How did the author spend over a year on this issue and come to such a silly conclusion?

Standards call for a helmet that's (arguably) too stiff so in minor accidents it absorbs too little energy and you get a concussion. It doesn't absorb no energy.

Expanded polystyrene foam (EPS) single-impact helmets absorb energy by crushing the cells in the foam, not be ripping them apart. Helmets are not supposed to crack. In fact, newer, better ventilated helmets have kevlar or carbon fiber strings embedded in the foam to keep them together.

Snell certified motorcycle helmets are also too stiff. William "Pete" Snell died in a race. Those of us staying below 100 MPH might want a helmet that's DOT approved (required in the US) and BSI approved, but not Snell certified.
posted by morganw at 3:15 PM on June 18, 2013


> "[polystyrene] doesn't absorb much energy unless the impact is forceful enough to make it start to disintegrate"

OK. I missed this part of the article.

There's a photo of a cut-in-half Kali helmet with the dual-density EPS used in the Cannondale helmet mentioned in the article here.

Here's a pricy helmet with a big knob on the back to catch the pavement & twist your head, but a "Patented Kevlar-reinforced Inner Matrix for ultra-light construction and energy management" to make up for the big-ass holes.

Oh an an impact-stiffening foam. Available for elbow & knee pads & iPad cases. (!?)
posted by morganw at 3:32 PM on June 18, 2013


Actually the table saw thing is a good illustration of how seriously an established industry tends to take safety improvements. Once they've got enough case law on their side so they can't be sued if their product cuts off your finger or gives you a concussion, they don't have any incentive to change things. In fact they have a positive incentive to leave things the way they are; if they change something and it doesn't pan out, they could be liable for things that they wouldn't have been if they stuck with the old design.

In the table saw case, the tech to keep a blade from cutting off your finger is out there, but no manufacturers license it because of some combination of the above legal stuff and bickering over license fees. Nothing's going to change unless the CPSC requires it. I'd love to get a Powermatic or Grizzly table saw with active protection, but they won't sell me one until they're forced to.

Similar kind of thing with the helmets: since the helmet makers aren't responsible for your injuries, they don't have to care too much about making improvements.
posted by echo target at 3:37 PM on June 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Snell certified motorcycle helmets are also too stiff.

How are DOT helmets any better in this respect? I compete in autocross (granted, cars, not bikes) and despite us staying well below 100 mph on course, no event I've attended would permit a DOT helmet (indeed, the SCCA rules prohibit DOT helmets).
posted by indubitable at 3:50 PM on June 18, 2013


CitiBike is making it worse.

Maybe it's making helmetlessness worse, but it's certainly not likely to make more people less safe.

Research bears it out: more riders = lower rates of injury ("safety in numbers" concept).
posted by entropone at 4:20 PM on June 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


In fact, newer, better ventilated helmets have kevlar or carbon fiber strings embedded in the foam to keep them together.

Snell certified motorcycle helmets are also too stiff. William "Pete" Snell died in a race. Those of us staying below 100 MPH might want a helmet that's DOT approved (required in the US) and BSI approved, but not Snell certified.

posted by morganw at 6:15 PM on June 18 [+] [!]


There are a lot of misstatements packed in here. Let me unpack a few.

I am unaware of any manufacturer embedding carbon or Kevlar strings in the compression foam inside helmets; these fibers are routinely added to the shell composite to improve strength.

It is disingenuous to state as fact that "softer" helmets are better for street use when there is a great deal of lively debate on the subject. Very few helmets sold in the US are BSI certified but a great many are ECE22.05 compliant, which is a softer standard than Snell. Indeed, the Snell M2010 standard (which is currently in effect) has been revised to approve softer helmets than the preceding 2005 standard. Also, DOT approval is not required in the US because motorcycle helmet standards vary by state, even among states that require helmets at all. For example, Georgia requires helmets but does not require them to be certified by anyone; the law is written as "Protective head covering."

Thus ends this derail (hopefully) and we return you to your regularly scheduled bicycle helmet flamewar.
posted by workerant at 4:22 PM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Sold a bike to a customer yesterday. She was great. Super enthusiastic. Dropped $600 on it and was talking about how it was an investment in herself (that's what I'm always saying to customers in my bike shop).

Comes time for me to suggest some accessories (I'm not pushing upsells. These are things I legitimately think you should consider owning along with a bicycle). Bottle and bottle cage? Check. Spare tube? Check. Tire levers? Pass. Helmet? Pass.

Time out. I tell her if it's a money thing, consider putting the other stuff back and getting the helmet. She says it's not a money thing, it's a fashion thing. They just look so dorky. I show her other styles that might suit her. Nah, she says, she's just using it to commute, not to race. I tell her doctors can set your bone, but they can't put your brain back in your skull. She's not having it. I'm just going to be riding it around the neighborhood, afterall. And I haven't ridden a bike since I was eight.

So they can do whatever they want to helmets, but if people aren't going to wear them, they're not going to do a damn bit of good.

I had a scary interaction with a customer last winter who asked me the same two questions several times. Eventually I clued into the fact that she spoke fairly slow and deliberately, and then she told me that she was in a coma for a few weeks last year, but she's getting back into riding. She has very little short term memory. Wasn't wearing a helmet then, won't wear one now because of the fashion thing.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 4:24 PM on June 18, 2013 [8 favorites]


I am unaware of any manufacturer embedding carbon or Kevlar strings in the compression foam inside helmets; these fibers are routinely added to the shell composite to improve strength.

I'm not aware of any Kevlar fibers inside the foam, but Lazer does put an interesting "roll cage" type of thing in their foam to help it stay together to absorb multiple impacts during a crash. It's meant to protect your head from the car, and then the pavement, and then the rock (all in one crash), not to protect against the car you hit last week and the pavement you'll hit tomorrow.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 4:29 PM on June 18, 2013


I'd like to see some kind of airbag collar...

First of all, although they are only prototypes, there are impact-inflating head protectors in the works; we had an FPP on it last fall.

Second, motocross and some roadracing motorcyclists do, in fact, wear safety collars/braces between helmet and body armor/roost protectors. They can be as simple as a neck roll and as complicated as a jointed brace that connects to the upper-body safety wear, itself including an articulated spine protector.

Some BMX and other mountain bike riders could wear the same safety gear, but prepare to sweat seriously. It's probably why so few non-racers wear the equipment.
posted by Dreidl at 4:40 PM on June 18, 2013


Wasn't wearing a helmet then, won't wear one now because of the fashion thing.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 7:24 PM


I used to think that way too, until my friend flipped over a car door and had to have a hole drilled in his skull to relieve the pressure so he wouldn't die. I decided skull holes were never going to be cool, so I'll just go with the helmet.
posted by orme at 4:44 PM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]




mullingitover: "True, but without a helmet it's hot. With a helmet it's omg-I'm-gonna-vomit hot."

How good is the ventilation in your helmet? I'm a sweat hog - like, break a sweat at 70F sitting still, and thoroughly damp all over just standing there in the shade at 80 - and getting a better helmet improved my head heat considerably. When I started riding longer distances, and produced enough sweat to completely coat my sunglasses with sediment, I started using a bandana. As it got dampened with sweat, any airflow at all made it almost chilly.
posted by notsnot at 4:54 PM on June 18, 2013


My problem with helmets is not a problem with helmets in and of themselves, but that they are the only safety measure that people think they need on a bike. Sure, a helmet will increase your safety, but so will brakes, lights, bike fit, obeying traffic laws and owning your lane so you don't get doored.
But most people don't get educated on how to operate the bicycle; they just get told to wear a helmet.
posted by Duffington at 5:01 PM on June 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


The most effective way to protect cyclists from deadly injury has already been pioneered in some jurisdictions, and consists of preventing giant, heavy motor vehicles moving at high speeds from hitting the bodies of people on bicycles. That said, I'm not going to tell someone that they're a huge idiot for protecting their child's most vital organ with a semi-effective piece of padding instead of with nothing. But the place we want to get to is the place where wearing a helmet to ride a bike is considered as alarmist and irrational as wearing one to walk down the sidewalk, and where that's an accurate assessment.
posted by threeants at 5:01 PM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


the place where wearing a helmet to ride a bike is considered as alarmist and irrational as wearing one to walk down the sidewalk,

Even with no cars around, I'm going 20 to 25 MPH on my bike, possibly faster going downhill.

I'm going to wear a goddamn helmet even on a closed road where I'm guaranteed to be alone.
posted by GuyZero at 5:10 PM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


In the table saw case, the tech to keep a blade from cutting off your finger is out there, but no manufacturers license it because of some combination of the above legal stuff and bickering over license fees.

Well, the thing about table saws was that SawStop was trying to get their particular type of automatic braking enshrined in law with manufacturers being required to license it from them.

Which is entirely different from a law or standard that says "When a spinning blade touches a finger, it must stop in X amount of time"

If a manufacturer invented a better mechanism, say one that didn't destroy the saw blade or worked in green wood, it would not be able to legally sell it. If I were a big manufacturer, I'd be leery as well.
posted by madajb at 5:52 PM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


the place where wearing a helmet to ride a bike is considered as alarmist and irrational as wearing one to walk down the sidewalk,

Even with no cars around, I'm going 20 to 25 MPH on my bike, possibly faster going downhill.


Guyzero, I think you missed the point. You are cycling as a sport at high speeds, which, sure, wear a helmet. But if we want to make cycling an acceptable form of transportation/commuting, we need to get everyone and their grandmother out on bikes, moving at sane and sedate speeds. Requiring helmets keeps people off bikes. Here is what I am talking about. This is the goal.
posted by antinomia at 6:02 PM on June 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


True, but without a helmet it's hot. With a helmet it's omg-I'm-gonna-vomit hot.

I don't think this is correct. At least not in my experience. I always wear a helmet, and have ridden double centuries with climbing in well over 100 degree temps. Decent helmets are well ventilated, and keep the sun off your head.

I'm not good lookin' or strong. The only thing I've got going for me is my brain. If a helmet helps even once it's well worth the missing of the wind bowing through y hair.
posted by cccorlew at 6:03 PM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


> In NYC, 97% of biking fatalities [pdf] were people who were not wearing helmets. 3% of the fatalities were people wearing helmets. Until someone can convince me that somehow that means wearing a helmet is more dangerous than not, I'm going to just go with it.

Selection bias. Those riders who were wearing helmets have already shown that that were both more safety conscious than those who were not and more invested in cycling to the point that they owned helmets, and thus most likely more experienced riders.

Aside from the feeling of looking goofy (which passes, cycling isn't the most dignified act to begin with), there's really no reason to NOT wear a helmet. Even the "it's hot" argument is moot, since you're going to be grunting and pedaling (and if you're like me, sweating buckets) regardless. It's really only a concern at long stops and longer uphills anyways. All of this is coming from someone who has done plenty of helmet-less riding around town out of laziness, forgetfulness, or simply ne'er-do-wellness.

That being said, I find the focus on helmets as seemingly the only aspect of safe cycling to be an exasperatingly simplistic one. Sure, they're the number-one best protective item for a particular class of accidents, but less so for other types of collisions. Moreover, helmets contribute absolutely ZERO to the more important safety concern for a cyclist: to not get hit. Instead of having the same rehash of the same hackneyed arguments about safety and helmets, I really wish we could instead of different tiresome safety arguments about things like the importance of head/taillights, teaching people to ride assertively, and building intelligent infrastructure.
posted by Panjandrum at 6:04 PM on June 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Yeah, it seems really obvious to me that the biggest point of leverage in terms of cyclist safety is simply getting more cyclists on the road (and, in turn, promoting cyclist-friendly infrastructure). It's not that the helmet thing is bad, per se, but there are pretty absolute limits to how safe you can make cycling itself, and I feel like there's a weird phenomenon when something becomes so Conventionally Wise that it crowds out alternate explanations for things.

Like, if there were a rash of car accidents in a particular town, there wouldn't be a big discussion over automobile safety features, they'd start redesigning intersections.
posted by downing street memo at 6:08 PM on June 18, 2013


> I am unaware of any manufacturer embedding carbon or Kevlar strings in the compression foam inside helmets; these fibers are routinely added to the shell composite to improve strength.

It's not super clear where the kevlar would be in this helmet, but it isn't in the shell.

A similar photo of a more recent model.
posted by morganw at 6:42 PM on June 18, 2013


That was an interesting article. Far more interesting than yet another argument about whether helmets make bicycling safe, or whether we should require bicyclists to wear helmets. So thanks for posting it. I wouldn't have seen it otherwise.

There's a similar conversation that has been going on for years about body protection in two primary contexts: the military, and the NFL. It's interesting for me to read this article in that light. Also, it would be a great reading assignment for a high-school class studying government, bureaucracy, or business.

...or journalism. It's excellent reporting.
posted by cribcage at 6:48 PM on June 18, 2013


It is hard for me to bring myself to do another one of these, but a couple of things have jumped out at me...

Some great comments up thread about the fundamental physics involved. There was an AskMe many years ago where I delved into this question. Because the link to the graph is dead, I'll fix it here:
Perhaps a more detailed analysis will demonstrate my point.. First off, based on braininjury.com, I will assume that the highest impact allowed is 50g. Now, lets take a look at what happens when you are riding along a street, collide with something, and slam your head into the ground.

Here is a collision profile graph I just drew, reduced to a single dimension for simplicity. The graph is of cyclist brain velocity vs. time (vbrain vs t):
  • Our cyclist is cruising along at 30km/h. At time (1) he notices that a collision is immanent.
  • He begins to break hard, for several seconds, but fails to stop. The collision occurs at point (2).
  • As the front wheel and fork crumple, and the cyclist's arms give way, there is a brief but severe deceleration. By point (3) the bike has stopped, but he hasn't.
  • Our ill-fated cyclist is flying through the air, but only for a second, because the ground is coming up fast - at point (4) the ground arrives.
  • Our cyclist's body hits the ground, his arm/shoulder/leg cushion the impact, which leads to a brief but gentle deceleration. Unfortunately, he just can't help it, his head hits the ground/wall/car door at point (5).
  • Finally, our cyclist's brain is going to stop, but how bad will it hurt? Point (6), ouch!
The helmet, if it is on, does it's job between point (5) and point (6).

The math which demonstrates a minimum thickness for helmet foam is actually very straight forward. First, given the maximum acceleration of 50g, and the speed at point (5) of 15km/h, how long is the minimum Δt between (5) and (6)? Simple, velocity = acceleration x time, so:
vbrain_0 = amax x Δt
15km/h = 50g x Δt
4.17m/s = 490m/s2 x Δt
Δt = 8.51 x 10-3s
To be clear, this is the minimum Δt. The actual event will be highly non-linear, but given a maximum acceleration, the quickest possible way to stop is to slow at amax until you stop.

So we know that there is a minimum time of deceleration, 8.5ms, if the duration is any shorter, amax would be violated. Time to calculate dmin, the distance our cyclist's brain travels while coming to a full and complete stop.
dmin = intΔt( vbrain(t) dt )
= intΔt( vbrain_0 - amaxt dt )
=intΔt( 15km/h - (50g x t) dt )
= 4.17m/s x Δt - 490m/s2 x Δt2

dmin = 1.776 x 10-2m
Which is, you know, pretty close to 1".
And then there is the 97% number... A couple of numbers from that same study that people haven't quoted: in 41% of cases, helmet use is not known; of the 86% of deaths were the cause is known, head injury alone was only the cause of death for 49% (and contributing factor in a total of 74%). 26% of deaths were not from head injury, yet those cyclists are part of the 97% to 3% split too!

The only other thing I'll offer is my personal helmet anecdote.
posted by Chuckles at 6:56 PM on June 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


Oh, and I corrected the math on that too...
I just did a lot of typing :P And I made a mistake.. I forgot the 1/2 when integrating a x t.. Δt2 is so small that it doesn't really effect the answer, dmin should be 1.774 x 10-2m.
posted by Chuckles at 7:02 PM on June 18, 2013


> It is disingenuous to state as fact that "softer" helmets are better for street use when there is a great deal of lively debate on the subject.

I guess I overstated my opinion, but I didn't mean for it to be taken as fact. My (7 year old?) moto helmet is BSI and DOT stickered though I see that Suoumi is switching to ECE 22.05.

I'm also of the opinion that the debate over softer helmets for motorcycles isn't a big derail from one over the same issue for bicycle helmets.

>> Even with no cars around, I'm going 20 to 25 MPH on my bike, possibly faster going downhill.
> Guyzero, I think you missed the point. You are cycling as a sport... transportation/commuting,


I hit 20 MPH on the flats commuting with a 5 lb. laptop and a change of clothes in my bag. I get the larger point that helmet nags/laws discourage casual riders, but you don't have to be racing to risk carless head damage.
posted by morganw at 7:04 PM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


helmet use is a really easy thing to focus on and legislate and blame. everyone who has an emotional helmet story gets to tell it and since they have no counterfactual, they can atrribute everything that could have happened but didn't to the helmet.

it's much much harder to address things like reducing speeds and reframing the idea of street design to stop favoring moving traffic or not killing people. seriously, do you know how difficult it is in the us to reduce a speed limit?

it's like focusing on weight as an indicator of health. yeah sure there are some correlations and possibly even some direct causation, but it ignores the larger more complicated picture in favor of the simplistic. and shames people who don't fit into the societally accepted message. lecture someone about wearing a helmet and continue to portray cycling in the states as a dangerous activity!

i just want everyone who wants to ride a bike to be able to do it comfortably. and that isn't possiblle in the states yet.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 7:15 PM on June 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


> I am unaware of any manufacturer embedding carbon or Kevlar strings in the compression foam inside helmets; these fibers are routinely added to the shell composite to improve strength.

It's not super clear where the kevlar would be in this helmet, but it isn't in the shell.
"

Ah, sorry. I was describing motorcycle helmets.
posted by workerant at 7:17 PM on June 18, 2013


and then she told me that she was in a coma for a few weeks last year, but she's getting back into riding. She has very little short term memory. Wasn't wearing a helmet then, won't wear one now because of the fashion thing.

Eventually you can't save people from themselves. My father was laid up in bed for a week or two with all over bruising from a bike accident, but had a helmet and no lasting damage. I fell after being cut off by a car and landed on my head but had a helmet and no lasting damage.

Sure, there are other things to suggest; I'm all for other things which make bikes a normal part of the road. But that doesn't mean that helmets aren't also good ideas.

I don't think this is correct. At least not in my experience. I always wear a helmet, and have ridden double centuries with climbing in well over 100 degree temps. Decent helmets are well ventilated, and keep the sun off your head.


I think that you and all the people who say helmets keep your head cool are wrong too, if that means anything.
posted by jeather at 8:00 PM on June 18, 2013


One thing I don't get about the helmet thing is why the pro-helmeters always seem to feel the need to proselytize that YOU SHOULD WEAR A HELMET, DUMMY! I mean ok, but if I CHOOSE not to that's my deal, right? Is there some self righteous need for these folks to express why YOU ARE WRONG and they're on the "sensible" side of this argument?

IMHO, if you want more safety install more bike lanes. Preferably buffered.
posted by nowhere man at 8:13 PM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


The time has come to demand something safer... streets and laws actually designed to improve the cycling experience for average men and women and children, and the safety in numbers that comes from increasing cycling modal share.

The world's safest biking is in the Netherlands, and that's with virtually no helmets at all. Getting from where the English-speaking countries are to the Netherlands' quantity and safety of cycling requires street design that prioritizes cyclists at junctions, and physically separates low-speed biking from high-speed car traffic. Safer helmets (if such a thing can be made, contrary to decades of stagnation) do not prevent collisions and would do little to get more people cycling. And the focus on helmets (sometimes legislated) is off-putting to many non-hardcore potential cyclists.

In New York, as cycling infrastructure has been put in place and streets were made safer for non-car travel, the amount of cycling grew while the annual number of injuries fell.

So if you're talking about the safety of urban, low-speed cycling (rather than sport or mountain biking), helmets just are not that meaningful for improving things. Helmets are not going to be the locus of fundamental changes to overall public health as it relates to cycling.
posted by parudox at 8:19 PM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


One problem I always have with this discussion is that it is always reduced to "do helmets reduce injury? if so, everyone should wear one." But this is a false emphasis. Of course, it's safer, but do we want to live in a society where you have to wear a helmet while pedaling less than 15 mph in slow, non-sporty ways? I don't. Others have pointed out the safety in numbers issue and the fact that helmets (and the perception of cycling as dangerous) reduce cycling (review article about impact of helmets in many countries). But there is plenty of good evidence that there are many other major risk factors for injury and death, many of them preventable. The focus on helmets detracts from things like improving road conditions (especially intersections where many conflicts occur), training people to bike safely (riding the right way, having lights, biking slower, anticipating conflict, etc.) and maintaining equipment. Moreover, many of the studies that make bicycling look so unsafe group all road users together. There is significant variation in risk across demographic groups. Children, recent immigrants and older people are all at much greater risk of injury (helmet or not). People who drink, don't maintain their bikes, or ride in risky fashions (wrong way, too fast, without lights etc.) all have elevated risks. Driver behavior and road design and condition obviously also have huge impact. Few studies that compare helmet use vs non-helmet effectiveness try to control for those groups (admittedly because it's very hard.)

Overall, it's much easier for those in power to support helmet legislation or helmet education because that doesn't cost very much. Improving road conditions to reduce likelihood of conflict or actually training people to ride (and drive) better is much, much harder. Incentivizing biking and walking strongly enough to significantly increase numbers is also hard and expensive (and in many US cities politically foolish). Instead of castigating people for not wearing a helmet, which only makes bicycling seem more risky and keeps people off bikes, why not encourage them to do whatever they want but get some safety training? Overall, it's likely better for people to be biking, helmet or not, because it improves health -- in much the same way that it's worth walking more even if it means crossing more roads.
posted by R343L at 9:13 PM on June 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Well I think that perfect is the enemy of good here - sure, I suppose that if America was Denmark then everything would be rainbows and happiness all the time. But it isn't. America isn't a fraction as dense as Denmark or the Netherlands and it's impossible to expect roads to be relaid or rerouted.

Are we really comparing massive changes to American urban planning to headgear?

A realistic way to prevent injuries when cycling is to wear a helmet.

I mean ok, but if I CHOOSE not to that's my deal, right?

Sure, I guess. Feel free to smoke and don't wear a seatbelt. Helmets are cheap and pretty much effortless. But the world needs organ donors too.

IMHO, if you want more safety install more bike lanes. Preferably buffered.

Pick me up some of those next time you're at the bike shop.
posted by GuyZero at 9:25 PM on June 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Also, for those who are vaguely anti-helmet the article isn't saying helmets are bad. it's saying they're not able to prevent every possible head injury and they they haven't changed much lately.

Saying helmets could be better isn't the same thing as saying helmets are not useful.
posted by GuyZero at 9:27 PM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Focusing on everyone-wear-a-helmet once again attempts to privatize what should be a public, infrastructure, traffic-culture burden onto individuals.
It's the reckless bicyclist's fault if they're injured when they were hit by a vehicle that should have been 6 or more feet away.
It's the injured rider or the sad driver who blundered into the bicyclist who bear the financial and ethical cost of the injuries - not the locale that should have invested in clearly demarcated bike lanes or completely separate bike paths, or the car culture that could, but doesn't, have every motor vehicle driver aware of bicyclists while teaching everyone to cycle safely.
posted by Dreidl at 9:51 PM on June 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's the reckless bicyclist's fault if they're injured when they were hit by a vehicle that should have been 6 or more feet away.

No one has ever made this argument.

not the locale that should have invested in clearly demarcated bike lanes

I actually have clearly demarcated bike lanes where I live and I will still continue to wear a helmet. Not every accident is a cyclist being hit by a car.
posted by GuyZero at 10:33 PM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've noticed here (Australia) a lot of cyclists wearing skating helmets and a few even wearing ski helmets instead of traditional cycling ones. I think it's a fashion choice, but I wonder whether the different sorts of helmet are actually designed for different sorts/speeds of falls and impacts, and whether wearing one of those on a bicycle makes you safer or less safe, or doesn't make much of a difference either way.
posted by lollusc at 2:59 AM on June 19, 2013



Well I think that perfect is the enemy of good here - sure, I suppose that if America was Denmark then everything would be rainbows and happiness all the time. But it isn't. America isn't a fraction as dense as Denmark or the Netherlands and it's impossible to expect roads to be relaid or rerouted.

A slight correction might be that most of the US is not as dense. There are areas that are, though. NYC and the surrounding area is pretty dense, and has slowly been installing more protected bike lanes and other protected infrastructure.

IMHO, if you want more safety install more bike lanes. Preferably buffered.

Pick me up some of those next time you're at the bike shop.


Again, there are groups that are working to make cycling safer in urban areas. In NYC there is Streets PAC which you can donate to; they work to promote candidates who promote safe streets for bicyclists and pedestrians. There are probably similar groups elsewhere in the country.
posted by lyra4 at 3:18 AM on June 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Looking for a safer helmet? Buy a wig. Meet Dr Ian Walker, University of Bath:
To test another theory, Dr Walker donned a long wig to see whether there was any difference in passing distance when drivers thought they were overtaking what appeared to be a female cyclist.

Whilst wearing the wig, drivers gave him an average of 14 centimetres (5.5 inches) more space when passing.
To cite his original finding:
Across the board, drivers passed an average of 8.5 cm (3 1/3 inches) closer with the helmet than without
He was mentioned before by wensink but I couldn’t find any link to the results. If someone else did get there before me I apologise.

wensink also asked if psychologists are “best suited to be making the anti-helmet argument?” Probably not. But people like Walker are researching not so much helmet safety as they are looking at traffic safety and how different traffic participants react to different situations. So while they cannot judge on how well a helmet works technically I do trust them enough when they say cars treat cyclists in a specific way.

In the case of Walker, he did all the testing himself:
Dr Walker, who was struck by a bus and a truck in the course of the experiment, spent half the time wearing a cycle helmet and half the time bare-headed. He was wearing the helmet both times he was struck.
In my personal experience as a long-time commuting cyclists (without a driving licence), I have never worn a helmet or felt the need for one. Maybe because I am Dutch, as MartinWisse has said I am not doing the Tour de France I am merely commuting. Made plenty of slips on icy tops, tree roots, you name it.

Some years ago I got in a collision with a car on the E45 (80 km/h). They hit me from the side when I made a turn to exit the road to the left. My neighbour later told me she saw me flying through the air, I can’t recall such details myself. I just realised what happened when I was lying on the road and understood I had to get to the safety of the bus stop as soon as possible. Hospital visit, insurance paperwork, and a new bike later I still do not wear a helmet.

Old habits die hard? Maybe. But a part of me just thinks the helmet would not make a difference either way.
posted by Martijn at 3:23 AM on June 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am a Brit, if I lived in the Netherlands I wouldn't use a helmet either but we do not have Dutch-style road conditions here. In our cities, given the roads we have, helmets offer a worthwhile degree of insurance.

I am old enough to remember when car seat belts were made compulsory here, at the time there were the same rabid objections citing ineffectiveness and the erosion of personal freedom as we hear from the anti-helmeteers. Legislating helmet usage is pointless, people would just find ways around it, education is what we need. But as I said, given the roads we have ...

Me? I'm looking around for a MIPS helmet, every little helps.
posted by epo at 5:47 AM on June 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am a Brit, if I lived in the Netherlands I wouldn't use a helmet either but we do not have Dutch-style road conditions here.
I should probably have added I am now living and cycling in Sweden since a few years. The road conditions can not be compared to the Netherlands and more importantly the drivers in this part of Sweden are not used to cyclists.
Legislating helmet usage is pointless, people would just find ways around it, education is what we need.
Here in Sweden helmets are mandatory for kids under 15 years of age (cf.). It seems to work insofar that I see very few kids without a helmet when they are playing out on the streets. Once they get older they stop cycling, mostly because of the long distances, but when I see any ~18 year olds out it is more often than not without a helmet.
posted by Martijn at 6:04 AM on June 19, 2013


Compulsory helmet usage for children, absolutely. But, I saw a young girl cycling home yesterday with a helmet ... dangling from the handlebars. Then she stopped at lights and decided to put it on her head, but didn't bother doing the straps up. You know you're getting old when you want to lecture someone else's kids about dangerous behaviour.
posted by epo at 6:19 AM on June 19, 2013


The trouble with the safety-in-numbers goal is that you won't get it overnight; it's a cultural sea change that takes time, and each individual added to the system bears the short-term high risk that all the current individuals in the system bear, until sufficient critical mass is reached. So it is a good goal, but you must also consider mitigating risk until that goal is achieved.

It really seems to boil down to two things: entitlement (drivers who feel bicyclists are taking their rightful space on the road, bicyclists who feel traffic laws don't apply to them) and vanity/insecurity (bicyclists who won't wear a helmet because they don't want to look dorky.)

Of the two, the entitlement problem is the key one to address; if entitlement isn't a problem, more people will bike, which will reach the safety-in-number goal faster, which will reduce the potential harm from not wearing a helmet (as in the Netherlands) or increase helmet usage because vain/insecure people will see more people wearing helmets and won't feel so out of place.

So: how do we do that? There are many options. The most popular is to sidestep the issue completely by segregating people on the streets, but that's hard to do with 100% coverage across a whole city, and then the entitlement issues just show up in those areas not covered. Alternatives include licensing cyclists and adding them to the policing infrastructure (ie you can get a ticket if you don't obey traffic laws, and if you run they'll still have your license number), significantly increasing the amount and quality of driver's education required to obtain a driver's license, PR efforts to remind drivers that bicyclists have road rights too, accommodation (but not segregation) via painted bike lanes, and so on.

Unfortunately, like the safety-in-numbers goal, the reduced-entitlement goal takes time, and in a way we're seeing the human response to these efforts that you'll typically also see in a gentrifying neighborhood or a neighborhood where a different race of people is moving in: an upswing of hostility, and resistance, first on one side and then on the other in response. The only real difference is that the land being disputed is in the street rather than on the blocks.

That means no simple answer, no short-term solution, and so a reasonable mitigation is to make sure that bicyclists understand the danger they're putting themselves in until this sea change happens. Helmet laws are a way to do that (albeit not necessarily the best way) that also slows the rate at which we achieve the safety-in-numbers goal.

After all that, do I have a solution? Nope. Just wanted to lay this all out, because the truth is everyone in the thread is both right and wrong. This is a topic thick with grey area, and we'll all do ourselves and others a service by remembering that instead of being all fighty.
posted by davejay at 10:34 AM on June 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Saying helmets could be better isn't the same thing as saying helmets are not useful.

Nor is saying that helmet laws are a bad idea the same thing as saying helmets are not useful.
posted by Mars Saxman at 10:49 AM on June 19, 2013


Personally I'm ambivalent about mandatory helmet laws. Like seatbelt laws or anti-smoking ordinances, this is something I'd do personally anyway. I think these laws are pretty impotent overall.

Also, since I'm here I wanted to clarify that after thinking about it I feel like pointing out that I'm not against bike lanes of any sort - bike lanes are great! Any urban planning accommodation for cyclists is welcome. But it's not an either-or with helmets.

And to play a final card of Infinite Moral Superiority, last year I biked to work about 170 days. I am very lucky that I have bike lanes on fairly empty roads but waiting for Denmark to materialize here in the suburban Bay Area (outside of SF) before I start biking is... well, it would be a long wait. I go to war on the roads I have, not the roads I want.
posted by GuyZero at 11:13 AM on June 19, 2013


I lived in the Netherlands for the first 29 years of my life, and have been on a bicycle pretty much every single day since I learned how to ride one at age 4. In all this time I don't remember ever seeing anyone wear a bicycle helmet. Ever. The worst accident I remember having was around age 6 or 7, when I fell sideways and scratched my knee. That's all. I haven't had any trouble since.

A few months ago I moved to Sweden, and of course I brought my trusty old bicycle with me. Now, don't get me wrong, Sweden is awesome and I really enjoy living here. But I've honestly lost count of how many bicycle-related accidents and near-accidents I've been involved in these three months.

If I'm on the road, then car drivers don't know what to do around me; either they trail behind me at a snail's pace because they're too afraid to pass, or they decide I'm just a figment of their imagination and go full pedal to the metal without any regard for my safety. Bicycle lanes do exist, well, sort of. I have to share them with pedestrians (why, god, why), and they're understandably none too happy about sharing with me. The lanes themselves seem to be designed to offer as many obstacles and as little vision on the oncoming traffic as possible. Other cyclists can't even seem to make up their mind about whether they should be riding on the left or the right. My bicycle experience here has been, in a word, disastrous.

(I should point out though that the accidents I did have were not severe and did not involve me falling on or hurting my head. They did give me some bruises on my elbows and knees.)

Just last Saturday I read in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper that 33% of all Stockholmers never ride a bicycle. Another 21% say they ride one "a few times a year". I already was worried about their attitude to cyclists before, but now I'm downright mortified. More than half of the car drivers here have no idea what it's like to be on a bicycle.

Well, shit. I never thought it would come to this, but for the first time in my life I'm actually seriously considering whether I should get a helmet or not. Or, perhaps more sensibly, whether I should simply lock away my bike forever and just get used to walking a lot.

(On preview: it's interesting how similar Martijn's experience is to mine. Also, it's good to know that I'm not alone.)
posted by Caconym at 12:20 PM on June 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, everyone should probably ride a recumbent for a bunch of reasons

I say thee nay. Recumbents are evil, awful in traffic. They're faster than your average bike almost in scooter territory, but much much less visible and I've seen that pedestrians, other bikers and cars have a hard time dealing with them.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:35 PM on June 19, 2013


I've been riding all my life and only wore a helmet when I used to be a kid and was scared of tickets... but I ditched the helmet at 18 and haven't looked back. I went to driver's ed but did get a car until I was 25 so I ended up taking most of the driver's training and applied it to my cycling. I don't do "vehicular cycling" but rather simply follow the rules of the road as they apply to cyclists... that means no lane splitting here or running lights. I have a mirror and use daylight running lights even.

I ride all year round (no studded tires either) and have done many long rides; even tours... I haven't even managed to crash my bicycle in all these thousands of kilometres nor do I have any good "close call" stories and am perplexed that many cyclists seem to think that they are "badges of honour" or whatever...

Many international studies seem to indicate there isn't much difference in head inujury rates among the helmeted vs. bare. There are a lot of links and studies on that site if that sort of thing turns your crank.
posted by glip at 1:54 PM on June 19, 2013


Here is what I am talking about. This is the goal.

You know what you see in that video? Not just all kinds of people biking, but biking unsafely: no helmets, kids loose in the front of a bakfiets, or stacked in front and behind mum or dad on their bike, etc.

And why is this possible?

The infrastructure you also saw there, the separate bike paths, the lights, the huge investments municipalities, provinces and central government put into providing this.

Which isn't something that's really happening in the US (or the UK for that matter), isn't it? Hence the obsession with the helmet as the be all and end all of bike safety. That is something that you can control as a biker, something that gives you a bit of safety in a world where every car seemingly seems out to kill you.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:30 PM on June 19, 2013


> Recumbents are evil
This one or this one ?

There's as much variation in recumbent design as there is in upright bicycle design. Brakeless bikes belong on the track. Birds are dinosaurs.
posted by morganw at 12:53 PM on June 20, 2013


> infrastructure [...] isn't something that's really happening in the US
baby steps
teaspooning
> you won't get it overnight; it's a cultural sea change that takes time
amen, brother.
posted by morganw at 12:57 PM on June 20, 2013


Looking for a safer helmet? Buy a wig.

In my experience, towing a bike trailer gets me such a wide berth from passing cars, I would be tempted just to leave it on my bike all the time, if it weren't such a damn sail against the wind.
posted by ambrosia at 5:14 PM on June 20, 2013


But the world needs organ donors too.

Please don't do this.
posted by normy at 4:49 PM on June 21, 2013


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