Bike Helmets Might not be so Good at Saving Lives
Parents say bike helmets save lives. Your local government might even have bike helmet laws designed to save your kids’ lives. Your neighbor would probably chastise you if she saw your kids riding their bikes without helmets. Everyone, it seems, buys the notion that helmets saves lives. I have always contended, however, that they do not. Just the opposite seems to be true. The statistics clearly show that helmet laws not only do not make people safer, they discourage bike riding and make the people who do continue to ride less safe rather than more. Helmets also cause uncoordinated people to do things on a bicycle that they would otherwise be too smart to attempt. The absence of a help, I contend, makes us all just a little smarter with our safety and, no matter how effective technology might seem to be, it doesn’t make up for stupidity. But, I wouldn’t be writing this article if it was just my opinion lending weight to it. There is research to back me up.
The Vancouver Sun newspaper has published an article about the subject and included some safety statistics that have been around a while but which I had not seen before. Please read the whole article for more context, but here are a few of the raw numbers that were gathered:
1. Between 1991 and 2001 helmet usage increased to 69% among American children and 43% for adults. During that same period there was a decline in overall ridership but an increase in accidents, including a 51% increase in head injuries.
2. In Western Australia, head injuries declined by 11-21% where there were helmet laws, but bicycle usage fell by more than 30% which therefore resulted in a higher, rather than lower, ratio of head injuries to riders.
3. Studies that found reductions in head injury rates where there were helmet laws did not adjust their numbers for changing ridership and are therefore seriously flawed.
4. Canadian provinces that had helmet laws saw hospital admission fell by 10% while those without helmet laws saw a corresponding decline of 22%. Still, no helmet riders seem to be safer.
5. The author makes a good point that the Netherlands has high ridership and low injury rates. Almost nobody in Amsterdam wears a helmet (I can attest to that as I have seen it first hand).
It’s nice to know that there are credible experts who agree with me that helmet laws both discourage riding, and do nothing to save lives. Much like stoplight cameras at intersections, they might even be counterproductive.
When you Were a Kid:
Nobody wore helmets when we were kids. I use that argument occasionally, and I’m always amused when the response is “yeah, and a lot more kids died, too!” No, they didn’t. In fact, fewer kids died. A helmet will mitigate damage on direct impact. In that sense, helmets do save lives. But, like the article says, a helmet increases your profile. What would have been a narrow escape before becomes a glancing blow now, and that has resulted in more hospital visits (internal bleeding and such). I remember one particular crash that I had riding down a steep hill when I was a kid. I was riding no hands, and I hit a patch of sand. As I fell I made a conscious decision to protect my head from the pavement. I aimed my fall and wound up badly skinning the entire left side of my body. I’m sure my head narrowly escaped hitting the pavement. If I had been wearing a helmet, my head might have bounced off the pavement because of its increased size or I might have not been as maneuverable in the first place, thereby causing even greater damage.
I knew a kid who was in a coma and who suffered brain damage from a fall. He was not wearing a helmet. Of course he was also attached by a rope to the back of an ATV. The ATV stopped, and he didn’t which resulted in him flying over the ATV and landing on his head. I knew another guy who was wearing a helmet riding his motorcycle at 25 miles per hour in a residential neighborhood. He swerved to miss an intersecting car, fell off the bike, and just happened to hit his head on the curb. He died as a result, regardless of him wearing a 400 dollar helmet. What’s the point? Simple. Individual cases do not prove anything, statistics do. There are people who might be saved by wearing helmets. There are also people who will die. The only way to prove a point is to wait for the numbers to come in and see what they say. On first glance, it might make sense that helmets would save lives, but it seems that our collective assumptions about helmets have impaired our ability to read the facts. We have opted instead for sensational advertising and peer pressure to guide us.