Survival tactics for the urban cyclist
Let’s face it.
Biking may be fun. Okay, a lot of fun. But it’s a lot more enjoyable when you can arrive back home alive, and in one piece. In three decades of riding, mostly city streets, I’ve learned a few lessons about getting there and back safely — most of them the hard way. So allow me to share a few tips that could help keep you safe. And help you survive life on these mean streets.*
*Big Important Footnote: There are inherent risks to bicycling, especially in an urban environment, just as there are with any other physical activity. While these techniques have worked for me, they may not be right for every rider, or in every situation. Feel free to take advice from me or any other experienced cyclist. But ultimately, you have to make your own decisions about what is safe — and legal — in any particular situation.
Never leave home without it:
Helmet If you want to start a fight, bring up the subject helmet use in a group of cyclists (see comments below). But the simple fact is, wearing a helmet every time you ride can significantly reduce your risk of head injury in solo falls or slow speed collisions. Just remember, though, bike helmets are only designed to protect against impacts up to 12.5 mph, and will do little or nothing to protect against a high speed impact. Which means the best way to survive any collision is not to have one.
Riding glasses Look for lenses made of shatterproof polycarbonate that cover the entire eye socket to protect from falls or flying objects. Riding glasses should meet the minimum safety standards of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) or the Canadian Standards Association (CSA); many models come with removable lenses, allowing you to adjust for lighting conditions. Over the years, my glasses have protected my eyes from countless flying objects, from rocks to bees, and may have kept me from losing an eye in a solo fall.
Gloves If you’ve ever had road rash on your hands, you know why you should never ride without biking gloves. And if you haven’t, trust me — you don’t want to.
Sunscreen It may seem silly to slather on the lather before you hit the road; I didn’t think it mattered, and rode unprotected for years. Now I know better, having learned the hard way. So get a good, sweat-proof sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more, and wear it on every bit of exposed flesh every time you ride. Because the last word you ever want to hear your doctor say is “cancer.”
Degree of difficulty: 1 out of 5 (after all, you have to buy them — and remember to wear them)
Learn to turn
Whether you like to ride fast, or you’re a charter member of the Slow Cycling Movement, you need to know how to turn before you try to ride in traffic.
And that means no handlebars.
Using your handlebars to turn your bike is a slow, unsteady process — one that doesn’t allow you to respond quickly in an emergency situation. So if you still turn the old fashioned way, take yourself someplace where you have room to practice turning, like an empty parking lot.
Then try shifting your weight slightly to the right as you ride to turn right, to the left to turn left. Notice how your bike will follow in the direction you move; to straighten out, just center your weight on your bike again.
Keep practicing, and soon you’ll be able to carve a fast turn in either direction simply by dipping a shoulder or shifting a hip — giving you the skill you need to avoid a pothole or a door that suddenly pops open in front of you.
Degree of difficulty: 3 out of 5 initially; 1 out of 5 with practice
Once you’ve mastered turning by shifting your weight, you’re ready to master an advanced technique, known as counter steering, that can dramatically improve your ability to turn at high speed or in emergency situations.
Just before you start your turn, turn your handlebars slightly in the opposite direction, then lean in the direction you want to turn. While it may seem counterintuitive, the result will be a sharp turn in the desired direction, requiring significantly less time and space than any other method.
Again, practice somewhere with enough space to turn without hitting anything. And keep practicing until it feels comfortable before you attempt it in traffic.
Degree of difficulty: 4 out of 5 initially; 1 out of 5 with practice
Use your voice
Every car has a built-in warning system. And so do you.
The problem with car horns is that they may get your attention, but don’t tell you anything specific. It could a warning, an expression of anger or someone saying hi to a passing friend.
The same is true with an air horn or bell on a bike. All the tinkling of a bell tells anyone is that there’s a bike nearby. Or that an angel just got it’s wings.
So use your voice.
Instead of just announcing your presence, tell people you’re passing on the left or right. Shout a warning. (In my personal experience, a loud “Yo!” works best to get a driver’s attention, while “Look out!” works best for panic situations. For pedestrians, try the old playground favorite “Head’s up” to get attention and “Look out!” for emergencies.) Or tell people what they should do, like “Go ahead” or “Keep right.”
Just be careful which words you use. Short words work best.
And oddly, swear words don’t work at all.
Degree of difficulty: 2 out of 5
Wear bright colors.
Dark and earth-tone jerseys may be fashionable right now, but they can also make you blend into the background — and dramatically increase the risk that a driver will fail to see you, and cut you off or turn into your path.
When I ride, I always wear a bright colored jersey, usually yellow, red, or white with bright insets. (You might note that these are the same colors they paint fire trucks. And for the same reason.) Oddly, bright black seems to work well during the day, while any light color works at night.
Experience has taught me that most drivers are more likely to see — and as a result, avoid — me in colors like that. And the same goes for helmets — I had far fewer close calls when I used to ride with a bright red helmet than I do with a jet black one.
That doesn’t mean you have to dress like a circus clown. It’s your obligation to make sure you can be seen; it’s up to the drivers you share the road with to actually see you.
Degree of difficulty: 1 out of 5
Position yourself to be seen at red lights
Intersections are dangerous places. In fact, 45% of all collisions between cyclists and drivers occur at some sort of road junction. And where you position yourself at a red light can make a big difference in whether or not you join that statistic.
Once again, the key is to make yourself as visible as possible. While some respected sources suggest stopping behind the car ahead of you, in my experience, that’s exactly the wrong place to stop in most cases. Any cars coming up from behind will be focused on the vehicle ahead, and may not notice you waiting there behind it.
Meanwhile, if any of the vehicles ahead of you are trucks, SUVs or minivans — which is pretty likely these days — you will be completely hidden from view of any oncoming traffic, greatly increasing your risk of a left cross collision. And if you are more than one or two cars back from the corner, you’ll probably be hidden from any cross traffic, as well.
So work your way up to the front of the intersection, being careful to watch for turning cars and opening doors. Then position yourself in crosswalk just ahead of the through traffic, while leaving the right lane clear for turning cars. That way, you can be seen from all four directions, without blocking any traffic capable of moving before the light changes.
If any pedestrians are in the crosswalk, just smile and politely move out of their way. Then once the light changes, move slightly to the right while you cross the intersection, allowing the first few cars behind you to pass, before you take your place back on the right side of the lane.
Degree of difficulty: 3 out of 5
Watch out for the dips (and not just the ones behind the wheel)
So there you are, cruising along in heavy traffic, when suddenly up ahead you spot a big gaping maw in the face of the road — a gigantic pothole looming right in front of your wheel. The natural inclination is to swerve out into the traffic lane to go around it. Which isn’t a bad idea, if you know there aren’t any cars coming up behind you.
If not, you’re going to have to just suck it up and ride through it.
So try this. Loosen your grip on the handlebars, so you’re holding steady, but not tightly, and bend your elbows slightly to absorb the shock. At the same time, raise up off the seat to cushion your rear, keep both knees bent, and shift back a little to place more weight over your back wheel. Pull up slightly on your handlebars as your front wheel hits the far side of the hole and let your arms and legs absorb the initial impact, then rock forward to take pressure off the back wheel, using your legs as shock absorbers.
Do it right, and you’ll sail through with nothing more than a bone-jarring shock; get it wrong, and you might pinch a tube or crack a rim, or possibly risk serious injury by sailing over your handlebars. But it beats the hell out of what could happen if you swerve in front of oncoming traffic without any warning.
Degree of difficulty: 4 out of 5 initially; 3 out of 5 with practice
Don’t let the bastards get you down
We’ve all been there. You’re having a great ride, when some jerk cuts you off or nearly runs you off the road. And that’s all you can think about for the rest of the day. So don’t let them get to you. Instead of focusing on the one or two rude drivers you encountered, focus on the hundreds, if not thousands, of others who shared the road safely and courteously.
And enjoy yourself. Seriously.
Degree of difficulty: 5 out of 5
Learn how to fall
Sooner or later, everyone hits the pavement — no matter how good you are or how carefully you ride.
For most people, the natural instinct is to use your hands to break the fall. Unfortunately, that can be exactly the wrong thing to do. But I’ve found it’s possible to use today’s clipless pedals to my advantage, and roll with the fall to minimize the risk of injury.
Falling forward If you find yourself going over the handlebars, it’s natural to let go of the handlebars and put your hands out to break the fall — which means you’re likely to break an arm, wrist or hand bone, dislocate a shoulder, or land on your face or chest, resulting in facial or chest injuries, or a broken collarbone.
Instead, this what has worked for me: I try to remain clipped in the pedals, grip the handlebars tightly, and tuck my elbows into my body. At the same time, I tuck my head down between my shoulders, and round my shoulders to shape my upper body into a ball. My momentum will continue to move my body forward, rolling me over the handlebars, still attached to my bike, which helps me maintain my curved position. So now, instead of flying face forward, I’m likely to land on my shoulders and can roll with the fall to release momentum.
Falling sideways I suffered three broken arms before learning this technique. If I feel myself falling to the side, again, I remain clipped in the pedals, grip the handlebars tightly, and tuck my elbows into my body. At the same time, I tuck my head down between my shoulders, and lower my shoulder in the direction of the fall. Then I try to land on my shoulder and roll with the fall to release momentum.
Of course, every accident is different, and it’s still possible to get badly hurt. But since I’ve learned these techniques, I’ve also walked away from accidents that could have been serious.
Degree of difficulty: 5 out of 5
California law requires a bright headlight after dark, a red rear reflector, reflectors on each pedal, shoe or ankle, and additional reflectors on the side front and rear of your bike.
In real life, you need at least a front light and a red tail light anytime you’re out on the streets in partial or complete darkness, from roughly half-an-hour before sunset and after sunrise. The purpose is more to be seen than to see, even though the latter is important, as well.
I ride with a flashing light up front and in back; while the flashing annoys some people, I’d rather be annoying than not noticed. I also have a second red flasher on my messenger bag, as well as reflective straps on both ankles, and on my wrists to ensure my turn signals are visible.
I always carry a light set with me on late afternoon rides in case a mechanical problem keeps me out later than planned; many riders insist on using high intensity lights during the day as well as after dark.
Degree of difficulty: 1 out of 5
Be more defensive
It’s not that drivers are actually out to get you. But if you ride that way, you’re more likely to make it home in one piece every time.
The key to defensive riding is to assume that anyone on the road will do exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time. Assume the car approaching in the opposite direction will turn across your path, or that the car coming up from behind will pass too close or right hook you after passing.
Prepare for it — mentally and physically — and you’ll be ready for whatever happens. Even it nothing does.
Degree of difficulty: 5 out of 5 initially; with practice, 2 out of 5
Stay out of the swing
The same thing goes for car doors.
Dooring is one of the leading causes of bike collisions. While it’s rarely deadly, it’s likely to result in some seriously painful injuries that will remind you to never ride that close to a door again.
To avoid it, always position your bike at least three to five feet from any parked cars, even if that means riding in the middle of the lane in front of oncoming traffic; it’s a lot better to make drivers go around you than risk getting trapped between a swinging door and a car trying to squeeze by without changing lanes.
Then watch for any signs that the driver may be about to open the door or pull away from the curb, such as turn signals, brake or back-up lights, or front wheels angled away from the curb. Also watch for any sign of someone in the driver’s seat, whether through the back or side windows, or in the driver’s mirror.
And always be prepared for a driver throw open a car door immediately after parking.
None of that means a door is going to fling open or a car lurch away from the curb. But any of those should serve as a warning sign that something could happen. And the more prepared you are, the less likely it is to happen to you.
Degree of difficulty: 4 out of 5
Clipless pedals are very dangerous.
I’ve been riding bicycles continuously since I was 5. Have even commuted to work year-round in suburb north of NYC, Had been using Shimno clipless pedals for about 10 years and had several occasions when I couldn’t release from the pedal and dumped over. The last time, at age 58, caused my right hip to fracture. I needed 2 surgeries and 6 months of rehab. After the accident I found out about two other cyclists who suffered hip fractures because they couldn’t release from their pedals.
Needless to say I took them off my Trek and will never use them again.
The Pain was not worth the gain.
Use shimano mountain pedals, but you’ll need to buy their multi release cleats….usually only the single release cleats are sold with the pedals. During my 15 years mountain biking these things have been a blessing allowing me to disengage by rolling my ankle laterally, pulling up hard and the standard heel rotation
One word: Speedplay
Amen. ‘Nuff said. Hands down the best pedals to get in and out of.
Agree completely. I use toe loops. That’s all. I don’t care what anyone thinks or says about my choice. I can pull – up – as well as you, and I can take my feet out whenever I want.
Ha! This is a hoot! The same guy posted the same exact comment to this post of mine:
I guess he has some kind of a chip on his shoulder…
Clipless pedals can be adjusted by loosening the screws that hold the shoe and the pedal together. Personally, mine are quite loose, and I consider them safer than toe clips after several wrecks where i got wrapped up in the bike..I don’t attach to the bike when riding in heavy traffic or bad weather.
This is a good list. As with most riders, as I ride I am always working out my own in my head. I write things down (if I remember once I’m off the bike) and will post once I get it in order. (Thanks for the blog link by the way.)
I often look at those photos of stylish Copenhagen cyclists and the usual reaction is, “No wonder they look cool, they don’t have a helmet on!” The sad compromise we make for survival. Those Bern helmets are at least a bit hipper, maybe I’ll try one of those.
And P.S., the commenter above doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder, I think it was on his hip. (Rimshot) But getting hurt is no fun. When I was practicing using clipless on my road bike I was right in front of my house and just tipped over, landing (foolishly, as your “falling sideways” post above points out) on the heel of my hand. Luckily I didn’t break it, but my wrist was sore for about a month. But the main lesson is, learn how to fall, so it might be second nature in that instant you need to reposnd instinctively.
I appreciate your efforts. However, I have been riding for 3 decades as well and have come to ride my bike in a very different manner. For one thing, I do think that it is not a given that one will fall, and that teaching or suggesting that one learn how to minimize injury when falling would be better served if we emphasized NOT falling. To that end, I would like to offer my advice for riders: Do not ride your bike where there is any chance to falling. Also, “How To Not Get By Cars” would be a helpful link.
Martial arts training is great for cycling… No, I don’t beat up drivers, though I’ve seen many who’ve earned it. If anything, the training allows me to be in more control of my aggression, so I don’t get sent to jail for assault. The Aikido I took has taught me how to roll out of falls, and I have had plenty, on and off road. I’ll list the basics, but in reality nothing beats hours of practicing falling:
– don’t fear the fall that’s too late to avoid
– never let your head hit anything
– never hit with a straightened limb
– never hit on a joint
– don’t slide
– think ‘roll’
– avoid traffic situations where you’d be run over after falling (try to)
– get off the road quickly, or make yourself visible if you can’t
Couldn’t agree more, James. I only studied Aikido briefly before a back injury forced me to give it up, but I found it very helpful in learning to control my body. And my suggestions on how to fall came directly from that training.
If I ever took up road biking again I’d carry a sidearm, fully visible. Will I ever take up road biking again? Never. Will I ever live in LA again? Never.
I wanna carry an AK47 strapped across my back.
Saw a dude here in Minnesota do that, Arne. It does work as a deterrent. The only problem is that the pistol cannot be seen from all directions. But it could prevent rear collisions and “buzzing.”
If you have handyman skills, attach a car horn to your bike–with easily accessible push-button and a good rechargeable battery. It works on psychology: A road-rager or clueless cellphone-head steers at you and hears a loud horn–he pauses because he thinks he’s gonna hit an SUV that he can’t see, not just a bike… It gives you a split second to dodge the danger, and by the time he realizes he’s been fooled, you’re long gone.
I knew a guy back in Baton Rouge who rode with a .22 strapped to his bike. Can’t say I recommend it, but I did understand why he did it.
I know its a very American thing and no doubt I will get howled down but your helmet advice is flawed.
The stats on hospital admissions etc I accept but you make no case other than a personal speculative anecdote that helmets would have made any difference to those stats. Rodgers did a study of 8 million US cyclists and found that those wearing a helmet were more likely to suffer a head injury. The experience of Australia and New Zealand when they doubled helmet wearing by making it the law was that cycling numbers dropped but head injury rates didn’t change. The largest study in the UK could find no evidence that helmets made any difference to head injuries and the Dutch who almost never wear a helmet but still fall off their bikes, have the lowest cyclist head injury rate in the world.
While helmets don’t appear to do any good the best you can say is they do no harm in accidents but there are two real concerns. The biggest is that they put people off cycling by portraying it as a dangerous activity and because of the inconvenience – youth cycling dropped by up to 90% when the Australian law came in for example. And what we need is more cyclists on the streets so motorists become accustomed to us being there and used to dealing with us. The second is that people seem to take more risks when wearing a helmet thinking its making them safe when it isn’t. A good rule should be if you aren’t prepared to do it without a helmet, don’t do it with one either. That particularly applies to traffic which helmets are not designed or tested to protect against – they are designed and tested for no more than a fall from a stationary bike onto a flat surface, not being hit by a car at 30mph which would exceed their design limits by 476%!! Its known scientifically as “risk homeostasis” and you can read more about it and helmets in the book Risk by Prof. John Adams.
As for your anecdote, I hear ones like it all the time. But the reality is for every person coming off their bike with a helmet, statistically another two come off without one and yet the hospitals are not full of all those latter cyclists with the head injuries you think your helmet prevented. You need to give more credit to the evolutionary design of the human head MkI. The Dutch do and don’t seem to have a problem.
If you were to ride in the exact same fashion with and without a helmet, you will be safer with a helmet, for sure. Research that finds you safer without a helmet treats all cyclists equally while we all know some go more extreme than others, and the extreme usually wear helmets.
However perhaps even safer would be flowing blonde wig on top of your helmet.
So how do you explain the Australian and New Zealand results when they made helmets mandatory. Was the rise in the head injury rate because all those cyclists who strapped on helmets for the first time suddenly became extreme cyclists?
But I’d rather be a silly European with a fraction of the cyclist head injury rate of the US than a fully armoured American cyclist.
Of the 6 million cycle hire journeys in London over the last year, mostly by inexperienced riders with less than 5% wearing helmets, there have been zero deaths and zero serious injuries. I wonder how that compares with fully armoured cycling in SoCal?
I’d like to see the source of that information Tony. Zero deaths in London? Head injury rates going up in NZ??
I like between both places and can state categorically that your statements are rubbish.
Personally I will never ever ride with out a helmet, and have never in over 40 years of cycling.
I am living proof that helmets work! Otherwise I’d be in the Drool Unit!
I suffered a cracked helmet vs. a cracked head. I would have been dead! Helmets save lives and I am living proof!
this just happened to my brother in law. thank god for his helmet. Horrible news. My dad was struck by a Hit and Run driver while he was riding his road bike with Rene and I yesterday. He was hit from behind while climbing La Tuna Canyon in Sunland. He is currently in the ICU and Keep praying folks. After 20 hours, he is still unconscious and we are hoping for some progress. On paper his condition looks to be okay. Lots of abrasions, and a few broken ribs. CT scans show nothing major on the brain. Spinal cord looks to be okay. They had him heavily sedated and are starting to ween him off. It’s been almost 20 hours since the accident. Keep the thoughts optimistic and hopeful. He is a fighter. All we know about the car is that it was a newer Black Mazda SUV. https://www.facebook.com/jennylynn77/posts/10154953831817601
Tony, could you please be more specific (who is Rodgers?) about the sources you cite regarding your claim that wearing a helmet is less safe than not wearing one? Data reported in one source I checked (http://www.bhsi.org/stats.htm) indicates that ninety-one percent of bicyclists killed in 2008 reportedly weren’t wearing helmets. In addition, during the years 1994-2008 data from the same source indicates that 92.59% of a total 10,998 deaths occured in those who were NOT wearing helmets. The responsible behavior to follow until some real data is presented to the contrary, is to wear one’s helmet.
The responsible behavior to follow Daniel, would be to wear a helmet every time you got in a car. I am willing to bet that’s not something you would even consider. Makes me wonder……….
Rodgers did a study of 8 million US cyclists which found an increased fatality risk in helmeted cyclists compared to cyclists without helmets.
Rodgers GB. Reducing bicycle accidents: a re-evaluation of the impacts of the CPSC bicycle standard and helmet use, Journal of Products Liability 1988;11; 307-17.
Other research worth looking at are two papers by Hewson on a detailed study of the UK cycle accident statistics. He found two things amongst others. First “The conclusion cannot be avoided that there is no evidence from the benchmark dataset in the UK that helmets have had a marked safety benefit at the population level for road using pedal cyclists”. Second that although under-16 females were twice as likely to wear a helmet as under-16 males, they were just as likely to suffer a head injury cycling.
Hewson PJ. Cycle helmets and road casualties in the UK. Traffic Injury Prevention 2005;6; 127-34.
Hewson PJ. Investigating population level trends in head injuries amongst child cyclists in the UK. Accident Analysis and Prevention 2005;37; 807-15.
Finally when Australia and New Zealand introduced mandatory helmet laws that doubled helmet wearing rates, there was no decrease in head injury rates – in fact the number of head injuries fell by less than the number of cyclists so the head injury rate went up. What did happen is loads of people, particularly kids, stopped cycling and Australia now has the highest obesity levels in the world. Obesity by the way is about to overtake smoking as the leading cause of preventable death.
BHSI is a site that sets out to make the case for helmets. The stats you quote are typical of what clouds the whole issue. Unless you know the helmet wearing rate in the cycling population those figures you quote are meaningless. Its a bit like declaring Fords and GMs the most dangerous cars on the road because that’s what you see most of in the repair shops. For balance you might like to look at http://www.cyclehelmets.org which presents a counter view to BHSI.
The data is out there if you care to look for it and its not supportive of helmets for other than minor cuts and grazes. Its also not widely appreciated that helmets are only designed and tested for falls from stationary bikes. Even a 20mph impact with a car is 2.5 times its design limit and a 30mph impact almost 6 times.
The two questions though that you need to ask yourself are a) is cycling unusually dangerous compared to other everyday activities such that it requires head protection and b) does a helmet provide that protection. The answer to a) is no, its about as risky per mile as walking and nobody sensibly suggests you should wear a helmet when walking and b) there is no evidence that helmet wearing does decrease head injuries in cyclists.
But in the end it should be a free choice, although preferably an informed free choice and most people are not aware of what the research data actually shows.
The answer to the question regarding the effectiveness of bicycle helmets may not be as universal as I have imagined at first. The question does need to be addressed by paying attention to deeper detail, or to variables that do not seem to be addressed or properly controlled in some of the literature you cite.
I managed to find studies that support the protective role of a worn helmet. For example, see: Hagel, B., Macpherson, A., Rivara, F.P., & Pless, B. (2006). Arguments against helmet legislation are flawed. British Medical Journal, 332(7543), 725–726. Also, see pasted below quote from above study:
“Robinson’s opposition to helmet laws is contrary to published evidence on the effectiveness of bicycle helmets. At least six independent studies have reported a protective association between wearing bicycle helmets and head injuries.w1-w6 Furthermore, systematic reviews of the relation have all noted a protective effect of helmets.2-4 Similarly, six studies have examined the relation between helmet laws and head injuries, and all found a reduction in head injuries after legislation was enacted. w1 w7-w11”
I am a professor of Kinesiology and Nutritional Science at California State University, Los Angeles and my research interest is in youth sports and gender bias in sports. I teach research methods classes to undergraduate and graduate students. I have outlined my professional credentials here not claim some bragging rights, but rather to emphasize that as a scholar I take research findings very seriously, and, especially so, when “to wear or not to wear a helmet while riding a bicycle is the question.” You are welcome to visit my kidsfirstsoccer.com website a read articles I authored about heading safety in soccer. Last, but not least, I am a lifelong (I just turned 45 this summer for the 14th time) avid cyclist who until recently regularly rode the stretch of road on Mulholland past Stokes Canyon road (in both directions). Over the years, I have lost control of my bike and hit the trail or pavement on many occasions, twice hard enough to crack my helmet but not my head. On the two occasions that I ended up in a hospital emergency room following a cycling accident, in the first visit I suffered a bruised rib and the second visit followed a broken wrist. The first significant injury accident I was involved in was a head-on collision with another cyclist. It happened on the Galloping Goose Trail, on Vancouver Island’s Saanich Peninsula. Our helmets collided with a big bang, yet no head injuries resulted. The hit I suffered to the chest bone from the other rider’s aerobar, however, is another story. It happened more than a year ago and I still am terrified of the prospect of sneezing. In a more recent accident (March 4, 2010), I was hit from behind by a motorcyclist. I was thrown with my bike up in the air and landed on my left side on the pavement still clipped in my pedals. It happened as I was making a left turn into Dry Canyon Cold Creek Road off Mulholland past Stunt Road. I hit the ground quite violently and slammed my helmet on the pavement. If the above few snap shots of my forty years of road and off-road cycling experience strike you as an anomaly, then simply ignore my next point.
If my experience is in anyway indicative of the experience of riders that ALWAYS wear their helmets, then out of hundreds of thousands of times that helmet wearers hit the ground or an object with their helmet on, they rarely end up with a head injury severe enough to require an emergency room visit during which the head injury is treated and recorded. How many times, on the other hand, do you suppose one can hit one’s head in the course of a cycling mishap with no protection and then “shake it off” and simply walk away? Here’s a critical variable that needs to be closely watched in the plethora of head injuries and helmet wearing studies that were published in professional journals. Given the data I have reviewed and given my personal experience and given the collective experience of many of my fellow helmet wearing riders I must, until clearly proven otherwise, strongly recommend the wearing of a helmet at any time while riding a bicycle.
First I am concerned, now I know you are a research professional, that you are strongly recommending cycling helmets without having critically reviewed the evidence base first. How would you react if one of your students in research methods came to you and said “Actually I didn’t bother to do a literature review because I already have a hunch what the answer’s going to be”?
Your quoting of the BHSI stats does not inspire confidence either – it should have been obvious to you that measures of outcome without any measures of exposure are meaningless.
It is clear you have not critically reviewed Brent Hagel’s paper or you would have spotted its major failings that have been pointed out in a number of responses. They include my own which you can read at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1432140/ (Don’t be fooled by my attribution – I treat cycling as personal, not professional activity but I can trade bragging rights with you any day).
As you have journal access (and apologies to others reading this who do not) you really should look at http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.332.7543.722-a (especially Figure 3) together with
I note in your soccer article you automatically assume the helmet will make a difference, yet there is mixed evidence on whether they do. (Br.J.Sports Med 2005;39:i40-i48)
Both there and in cycling there is a serious risk of engendering false confidence because of the perceived but possibly illusory protection of the helmet, leading increased injury and death. You would do well to have a look at John Adam’s book Risk. It might explain why you have so many bicycle crashes 😉
But overall you would do well to heed the four lessons learnt that Diana Petitti wrote as an editorial in the International Journal of Epidemiology following the HRT debacle (based on small hospital studies HRT was promoted as protecting women against coronary heart disease. Subsequent populations studies showed that far from protecting them, it increased the risk) Her lessons learnt were:
1. Do not turn a blind eye to contradiction
2. Do not be seduced by mechanism
3. Suspend belief
4. Maintain scepticism
There are quite a few parallels between the HRT story and the helmet story and the lessons should be heeded.
Thanks Tony. Finally, an unbiased view regarding cycling safety. Having started riding and racing in 1975, I’d really like the activity to return to the days when crashes and constant injury was the exception, not the rule. I view helmets as a form of armor, severely altering the user’s consciousness in regards to self-preservation. Having raced in both eras (hairnet and helmet), I can say that we were better off pre-helmet.
You were correct in your assertion that I have not done my homework as thoroughly as I should have in my two previous reactions to your entry. I am, nevertheless, tempted to keep our exchange alive (as long as it is fine with you) despite the fact that as is I am still behind on my readings on the topic of cycling helmet safety (I am and I will keep working on it, as we speak…).
Should I realized at some point during my research into the question of helmet wearing safety that indeed the data you present provides enough evidence to support not wearing helmets while cycling, and that indeed not wearing a helmet is safer, I would have to yield to the findings. At this early stage of our discourse and following my review of additional studies, however, I am still obliged to respectfully disagree with your conclusion that wearing a helmet is more dangerous than not wearing one.
It is conceivable to me that our diametrical opposing views of the issue of helmet safety may in part be related to a possibly different experience and thus perspective. I can imagine how wearing a clumsy and often heavy helmet while riding a commuter bicycle could both obstruct one’s vision and not provide adequate protection. Addressing your comment that: “… in cycling there is a serious risk of engendering false confidence because of the perceived but possibly illusory protection of the helmet, leading increased injury and death. You would do well to have a look at John Adam’s book Risk. It might explain why you have so many bicycle crashes.” I must reply that I do NOT know anyone who is older than 3 or 4 who puts a helmet on and thinks “Now that I have my helmet on–I am superman. I can therefore be careless since nothing can happen to me.” Do you, or does author John Adam know such individuals? I ride a lot and have done it for many years under different weather conditions and have thus suffered a few accidents (Still a fraction of the mishaps I experienced playing soccer and training and competing as a gymnast in my teens).
It is very obvious to me that helmets are not a panacea. About a year ago, a long-time acquaintance was riding his commuter bike in Washington DC and suddenly crashed (unknown circumstances). The accident resulted in a few broken bones and he sunk into a deep coma. He wore a helmet at the time of his tragic accident. Several weeks ago he passed away. Surely the helmet he wore grossly failed him and the many who knew and loved him. The race bikes my friends and I ride are hardly ever used on surface streets. We ride on relatively secluded one lane highways and we move along at a fairly fast pace. The helmets we use are very light but still very strong and they fit very tightly. Once involved in a crash the helmet must be promptly replaced (and they’re not cheap). May I thus submit to you that specific accident circumstances may render a helmet as more or less effective when properly worn. I am, however, having a great difficulty with seeing how wearing my helmet puts me under greater risk.
My stubbornness regarding this issue is grounded in the notion that “a hit on the head is a hit on the head anyway one looks at it.” No matter how hard I try, I fail to dismiss the logical axiom that a hit on protective gear that separates one’s skull from the elements first must be less severe than a direct hit on the skull. You cite the D. L. Robinson (2000) article as evidence that supports your take of this issue. Robinson discusses changes in head injury rates following the implementation of the New Zealand bicycle helmet law. He criticizes those who claim a significant reduction in head injuries by pointing out what he considers a methodological flaw in studies that show improvement. Specifically, he posits that: “Unless voluntary wearing is 15 times more effective [to override the trend?] in reducing head injuries, it seems likely that the apparent effects (as described by Povey et al., 1999) were an [artifact] caused by failure to fit time trends in their model. Such inconsistency of effects over periods of substantial change compared with periods of little change in helmet wearing may be a useful indicator of the presence of trends.”
He also states that: “Because the large increases in wearing with helmet laws have not resulted in any obvious change over and above existing trends, helmet laws and major helmet promotion campaigns are likely to prove less beneficial and less cost effective than proven road-safety measures, such as enforcement of speed limits and drink-driving laws, education of motorists and cyclists and treatment of accident black spots and known hazards for cyclists.” Thus, Robinson (2000) suggests that both money and effort would better serve the public if it were invested in safety measures other than the legislation of mandatory wearing of helmets. Simply stated, he says that helmets may not be as effective as claimed by Povey et al., (1999). Robinson may think that helmets may not be “that great” but he surely does not even hint that one would be better off not wearing one. Robinson (2000) did not perform an original study but rather has written a critical analysis of a published data based study.
Farley, Laflamme, & Vaez (2003) (Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, Vol. 57, No. 9, pp. 668-672), on the other hand, measured the effects of a community based bicycle helmet program and collected data on some 140,000 children ages 5-12. Their quasi-experimental design employed a control group and they reported a reduction in reported head injuries. A second study by Grant & Rutner (2004) published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management (“Effect of Bicycle Helmet Legislation on Bicycling Fatalities”) investigated the effect of legislation passed in the 1990s in several states requiring youth to wear helmets when riding a bicycle on bicycling fatalities. They found that a helmet law reduces fatalities by about 15% (I would submit that this reduction would have been significantly larger had more kids followed the law!) in the long run and less in the short run. Ten years following the initial implementation of helmet laws 130 lives were saved. Had these laws been adopted by all states in 1975, more than 1,500 lives would have been saved. The helmet legislation for youth had no spillover effects to the adult population. This, however, does not imply that adults are better off not wearing a helmet when riding a bicycle. What it does imply, is that adults (don’t we all?) require kids to do stuff that they won’t do themselves. For example, I can buy cigarettes and alcohol but I will not allow my kids to do so. I should also point out that while Grant and Rutner (2004) did not conduct their own original research on the topic of the medical efficacy of helmets, they state in their introduction section (review of literature) that: “While the medical effectiveness of bicycle helmets is ESTABLISHED (my emphasis) in the literature, research on the effectiveness of bicycle helmet legislation is limited in size and scope. Well, they have conducted a study that was both large in size and scope and concluded that helmet legislation, and the consequential wearing of a helmet, saves lives. And, for those among us who happen to be parents, the saving of one single child’s life is infinitely significant.
Last, but not least during this discourse, let me thank you for this thought stimulating exchange (I hope other thread readers are not yawning their heads off). Also, as I am getting ready to take a much harder look into this question (I’d like to find out how often cyclists crashed their helmets and kept riding as compared to cyclists who crashed their heads and simply shook it off) let me just point out that if the data you cite represented the current “best practice” view of the state of helmet safety, Tour De France (and every other country’s Tour) cyclists would be still riding wearing their baseball hats backwards. I am now inspired to find out why do the best athletes in a wide variety of sports wear helmets. For example, professional cyclists, snowboarders, kite surfers, triathletes, downhill skiers, just to mention a few sports.
P.S., I still need to find it and get back to you regarding the Rogers study of 8 million riders…
Speaking strictly for myself, I’m an fascinated bystander in this debate. It’s rare to have two knowledgeable people take on this subject without devolving into name calling. Thanks to both of you for presenting both sides of this debate so readers can make their own well-informed decisions.
I have three cracked helmets in my garage. All of them happened on the south bay bike path (Santa Monica to Redondo) and two of them also resulted in a concussion. I don’t like to contemplate the injuries I might have suffered if I had not been wearing a helmet. I never ride without one.
Riding in Europe, especially the Netherlands is not the same as riding in the US. In the Netherlands cycling is integrated into the transportation infrastructure. I still wear a helmet when cycling in Europe but I do believe the risk there is significantly less than in the US because of the culture.
Agree! Thank you for making this point. And I would add, that biking in SoCal is not like biking in some other parts of the US where helmets might be optional. I live 5 miles from my work, which should be a quick, easy ride. The one, 4-lane, road has a very narrow bike lane (finally), but the cars are going 55+ and cutting in and out, as if on the freeway. Recently added to this are huge semi dump trucks at a construction site half way, that turn onto this road for about 2 miles, then make a swervy turn onto a perpendicular road. When I take a few side roads to avoid this traffic, the pot holes are so bad, they really slow me down. This is not like riding in 20 mph traffic or as you say in an environment that is planned around all modes of transportation, including, prominently, the bicycle.
Perhaps not worth reminding you that helmets are designed for a maximum impact speed of 12.5mph and at 55mph you are expecting them to work at 20 times their maximum design limit. Plus a cracked helmet is a failed helmet that absorbed very little of the impact. A helmet that worked would have compressed polystyrene at the site of the impact, not a break.
That’s a common anti-helmet fallacy, Tony. Helmets are designed to crack to absorb impact, just as crumble zones on cars are designed to give way in order to protect the occupants. Cracks in the foam indicate that the helmet did its job; that’s why helmets are single-use items, and must be replaced after impact.
Its not a fallacy but a fact and basic material science as well as the basis on which the helmet is designed and tested. If it cracks in the standards testing its failed accredition.
The helmet is designed to work by compressing the foam and thereby decelerating the head slowly while absorbing the impact energy. No foam compression no helmet role in mitigating the impact. Associated with the compression may be some cracking around the edge as the polystyrene is stretched but otherwise cracks are brittle fracture of the polystyrene which absorbs almost no energy.
To illustrate this take a slab of one inch thick polystyrene and try and squash it thinner. Note the effort involved. Now take a similar piece and snap it in two. Note the effort involved. That’s the difference between compressive energy absorption and brittle fracture failure.
Thank you for your special knowledge – please explain to me the maximum impact speed of the human skull of a 65 y/o female, and how exactly it absorbs impact.
You might say I expected helmets to work at 20 times their design limit, but I never mentioned helmets. I was comparing roads and riding conditions in parts of SoCal (“Inland Empire”) to other parts of the US or Europe, following on Larry’s excellent comment.
“*Big Important Footnote: Bicycling, especially in an urban environment, is an inherently dangerous activity.”
It’s a shame that so many people promote and believe such nonsense.
Bicycling is NOT inherently dangerous! Anyone who has done any research into the matter is aware that cycling is much less risky than many common activities, such as swimming or driving a car. Now, it is certainly possible to pursue riskier styles of cycling, such as downhill mountain bike racing, but I think it is a very sad state of affairs that so many people are led to believe that merely riding a bicycle down the street is a life-threatening activity. It’s a great racket for retailers of the above mentioned helmets, gloves, and glasses, but who else benefits from such arguments? Certainly not the potential cyclists that are the usual target of the “cycling activist”…
So let me get this straight. You’ve never fallen and skinned a knee? Never hit a pothole and been knocked off your bike? Never been knock over by a big friendly dog or chased by a mean one? Never been buzzed by a car and forced off the road? Never hit gravel rounding a corner and ended up with road rash? Never had a sudden flat while riding at speed? Never had to dodge a careless rider in a peloton? Never known a friend who was hit by a car?
Damn, I want to live in your world.
Sorry Noel, but riding a bike assumes an inherent risk. So does getting out of bed in the morning. In either case, I believe the prudent action is to recognize that risk and prepare for it. Don’t leave things on the floor where you’ll step on them when you get out of bed. And ride defensively, so you’re prepared to deal with adverse events.
As for those helmets, gloves and glasses, I can only say that each has protected me from injury in the past. If you don’t want to use them, that’s certainly your decision.
If the argument is that cycling is “inherently dangerous” in the same way that doing anything at all – getting out of bed, for instance – is “inherently dangerous” then we have no disagreement. I hardly think that is what you intended to convey when you wrote the line, however.
The obvious implication is that riding a bicycle entails an unusually high level of risk. And indeed for some cyclists it does, either because they choose to undertake particularly risky forms of cycling or (much more common, in my experience) because they lack skill and/or make poor decisions while on the bike. Why are so many of the most ardent “safety” advocates the same people who are constantly falling off of their bikes and being “saved” by their accessories?
Regardless, the bottom line is that there is precious little evidence that simply riding a bicycle is any riskier than many other common activities, and a great deal of evidence that bicycling can be quite safe. This is especially borne out by those populations where cycling is seen as a “normal” activity, rather than one where everyone dresses up like Superman prior to throwing a leg over. Frankly, the idea that cycling is an “inherently dangerous activity” would come as quite a surprise to the commuters of Amsterdam, for instance. Do you suppose that they are all hiding the injuries they have received to their eyes, hands, and heads? Or do you suppose that they are doing something differently that causes them not to need all that “necessary” safety gear?
Actually, what I meant by that is exactly what I continued with in the sentences that followed. The tips on these pages are what have worked for me; they may or may not work for someone else in any given situation. And every cyclist is responsible for his or her own safety.
Biking is a funny sport. You can do everything right and still get hurt, or do everything wrong and walk away without a scratch.
Personally, I’ve been to the ER four times in 30 years of riding — once because of a freak encounter with a swarm of bees, once because a driver intentionally hit me in a road rage incident, once because I instinctively laid my bike down to avoid a child who darted in my path, and once because of my own damn stupidity.
That may sound like a lot, but that’s just four incidents in tens of thousands of miles of riding safely.
So I suspect we’re more in agreement than you think. I just prefer to be prepared, based on my own personal experience.
How have you prepared for another bee attack? Do you wear a sting proof body suit and and a netted hat?
I assume not, and I further assume that your reasoning is that your odds of suffering a massed bee attack are pretty small.
Therein lies the “anti-helmet” argument: at least some of us who choose to forgo the helmet do so because we have investigated the potential risk and the potential benefit and decided that the helmet is so unlikely to be needed that it’s not worth the effort.
Perhaps if enough cyclists yell “Get a bee suit, moron!” as you ride past, my opinions will be a bit more intuitive to you. 🙂
“Also, as I am getting ready to take a much harder look into this question…let me just point out that if the data you cite represented the current “best practice” view of the state of helmet safety, Tour De France…cyclists would be still riding wearing their baseball hats backwards. I am now inspired to find out why do the best athletes in a wide variety of sports wear helmets. For example, professional cyclists, snowboarders, kite surfers, triathletes, downhill skiers, just to mention a few sports.”
I don’t know anything about snow boarding and kite surfing, but professional cyclists wear helmets because they have to. It’s in the rules. Spend any time training with professionals, though, and you’ll note that very few wear helmets when it’s not required. Perhaps they are aware of details like the fact that in the 100+ year history of the TdF — countless miles ridden by thousands of cyclists, weaving their way through team cars, down mountains at 60+ MPH, in the rain, snow, mud, and shoulder-to-shoulder on narrow cobblestone paths — there have been a grand total of two head-injury related deaths, one of which was widely recognized as being unpreventable by anything short of a motorsports helmet.
But hey, some guy on the internet says “Bicycling is an inherently dangerous activity” so I guess we all need to buy $200 Styrofoam hats.
Wes, stop sending me links. I don’t need you to keep pointing out what these fools have done to my sport.
Noel, no one says you have to buy a “styrofoam hat.” Unless you happen to live in a locality with one of the well-intentioned but misguided mandatory helmet laws, whether or not you choose to wear one is your decision. And you can certainly get one for a lot less than $200; a $40 helmet is designed to the same safety standards and offers the same limited degree of protection (see below).
On the other hand, neither those who support helmet use or those who oppose it are fools; as the above debate clearly shows, there is evidence to support both arguments.
Actually, being told to “Get a helmet, moron!” is a frequent occurrence for those few of us who buck the trend here in SoCal. That’s one of the reasons I tend to be so obnoxious when confronted by blogs such as yours. (Well, that and the gin. Sorry about the “fools” comment…)
Apology accepted. And actually, I appreciate your perspective; I can learn a lot more from people who disagree with me than I can from those who don’t.
As for the “Get a helmet” comments, I find that those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; and those who don’t have a clue express it at the top of their lungs.
Trust me, if we met on the street, you’d get no argument from me about your choices, even if they’re not the ones I would make or recommend.
You might find it interesting to look at the take on helmets in Europe where cycling is very much more widespread than in the USA. In the Netherlands for example, and in Cambridge, UK, about 30% of journeys are by bicycle and almost nobody wears a helmet other than wannabe racers. Have a look at what the European Cycling Federation (the European equivalent of LAB) says about them:
Also the advice of the UK Cyclist Touring Club, the main representative of UK cycling:
and compare that with the LAB position
I think the CTC position is a sensible approach to the advice that should be being given to cyclists and prospective cyclists.
Riding a bike in So Cal is inherently dangerous. It shocks me that anyone would question that. It’s 8/29/2013, and we’ve already had 62 fatalities in So Cal this year. http://tinyurl.com/png93q2 My head may never hit the pavement, but if it ever does, I prefer the helmet to hit first.
Well Noel, you don’t have to read them. I was just pointing out that it’s not two against the world, and that Tony has taken the time to write and engage Dany in the discussion.
If I may put it in simplistic terms, if someone with a baseball bat is going to hit you over the head, well yes, protection is advised. What I am trying to say it that the best solution to this is to take the bat (man, sorry) away from the equation. That is to say, ride so carefully that you do not fall, ever. This is apparent to every 5 yr old who ever learned to ride a bike, pre-helmet.
The difficulty is that “risk compensation” works subtly and sub-consciously, so that the wearer does not recognize the risks being taken. This is the one and only reason why injury and death has become so commonplace. If you doubt that risk compensation exists and you are an avid helmet propagandist, try riding your bike around the block, without.
I do wish my observations and conclusions were without merit and unfounded. If they were, then we could stop the endless barrage of injury and death. However, our mindless following of unfounded claims of salvation, by helmet advocates, only means that the carnage will continue.
I may or may not write again. I have found that like religion, it is sometimes impossible to convert the zealot. But for those who are open minded, let me point out that since the beginning of the cycling club Velo Club La Grange around 1969, there have been seven deaths. Six of these were from around the year 1993 (Kellie Wilson) and during the mandatory helmet mentality era. I am sure that of the 7, 6 were helmeted. Of course, this proves nothing, just saying.
Let’s not forget that helmets are designed to provide protection only in a relatively slow speed fall. The standards require full protection up to 12 mph, and partial protection up to 20 mph. They don’t provide any protection if your head hits an object — or vice versa — at a higher speed, and don’t protect any other part of your body in the event of a collision.
Whether or not someone wears a helmet is a personal decision. I know where I stand on the issue, and the advice I give others — not based on any study but on my own personal experience. But I recognize that it is not a shield that will miraculously prevent all injury. And if you or anyone else chooses not to wear one, that’s certainly your prerogative.
My only concern, as yours appears to be, is that every rider arrive back home in one piece; we merely differ on how best to achieve that.
There was also a study of bicyclist’s in Great Britain, that indicated that the mere appearance of wearing a helmet caused cars to be more daring, passing in near vicinity, not slowing down, etc. So not only do you get more risk-seeking activity, but you get more risky behavior by motorists. That would seem to outweigh pretty much all the anecdotal “evidence”. And why not require pedestrians to wear helmets, they suffer the same risks, do they not?
I heard this term, “historical amnesia” recently. Helmets are a solution to a non-problem. And by it’s use, has led many a person to get on a bike, who would have been better off if they considered any other sport. The illusion of safety, not provided by helmets has led many incapable people to participate in an activity they have no particular talent for. This has led to an never ending series of broken backs, necks, collarbones, hips, femurs, legs, etc. In the time period 1975 to 1985, when I race racing and riding a LOT, hardly anyone got hurt. Certainly, no one was killed. We have made a mess of things, with junior racing participation at a very low level. I quit coaching as it finally dawned on me that what we were doing in the 70’s and 80’s is vastly different than what we have today. I’ve picked up riders from every hospital in Los Angeles, and it’s disgusting.
Well, you can keep sending links. Just call ahead first to see what kind of mood I’m in, so I don’t make an ass of myself in public. *G*
Tinker refers to “risk compensation” (making an adjustment to a behavior if the perceived risk either increases or decreases) a real effect that was detected in the GB study of helmet wearing cyclists and driver behavior and in other cases such as the wearing of seat belts and antilock braking systems.
The fact that one tends to adjust her/his behavior based on different conditions does not automatically translate into the conclusion that we should throw away our seat belts, antilock breaking systems and helmets. The point that I suspect Tony and I will differ on is whether the magnitude of the effect in the case of cyclists overrides the protective contribution of wearing a helmet. Rider behavior in this case, however, may modify the risk compensation effect. For example, I did notice that some drivers get too close to me or accelerate as they pass me rather than slow down. In case the driver’s behavior is triggered by my helmet, my reaction to the “compensation effect” that causes the driver to be less careful is to become more careful and make every effort to stay out of the driver’s way. When climbing up Stunt Road, in the Calabasas, CA area for example, I often hear exotic cars and motorcyclists race up or down hill. My reaction is to either get as far as possible to the left shoulder or, at blind curbs to stop, get off the bike and completely off road and wait until the racing party has past me. Thus, my personal adjustment in this case is a compensation effect in the other direction. I do appreciate and at time long for the feeling of freedom of not wearing a helmet but I will nevertheless keep mine on at all times.
Wow, what an explosion of postings! I’ll try and be succint in my reply!
Dany: Please don’t come back with every paper as you find it that supports your view. Go and do a proper literature review as you would teach your students to do (I hope) and be critical when you do it (you might start with thinking critically about the papers you’ve just cited because they have some fairly glaring methodological problems in them, Grant and Rutner in particular which makes the same major mistake as the early studies of the Australian and New Zealand experiences over a decade earlier). I don’t have the time to tutor you through all the papers one by one as you find them. Also its quite clear from your posting that you are not looking at this with a dispassionate scientific mind but trying to prove your beliefs – the sort of thing you would fail one of your students for if they tried it. And if you really do think that one child’s life is important then you owe it to them to use a proper evidence based approach and not personal hunches.
As for the Tour de France, that is driven by advertising and sponsorship (and UCI rules) not safety. If you look at the number of deaths in professional cycle racing it has increased since helmets were made mandatory by the UCI. As for other sports, professional motor racers wear helmets – does that lead you to wear a helmet driving?
Finally, the way you describe your riding style I can see why you have a lot of accidents. Get yourself a copy of Effective Cycling by John Forester and read it (you’re never to old to learn something new!). Riding in the gutter is inviting problems.
Tinker, that study by Ian Walker was very interesting and its notable that while he was doing the data collection he was knocked off his bike twice and both times were when he was wearing a helmet. He also donned a long blond wig and found he was given much more room so maybe that rather than a helmet would be better 😉 It was an interesting study for me because several years previous when I first started to read the research on helmets and stopped wearing one as a result, the first thing I noticed other than feeling uncomfortable without the helmet, was how much more care cars took around me and how much more overtaking room they gave me. I soon got over the discomfort and now never wear one. Next time you pass a cyclist in your car, have a look at them. If they are wearing a helmet its very difficult to tell who they are, even if its someone you know. Without a helmet they are a clearly recognisable human being and you would know instantly if they were someone you knew. I think that difference if perception is what makes the difference but that’s only a hunch and I have no evidence.
At the end of the day though cycling is a very safe activity – there are 13 deaths a year in London out of about 200 million journeys a year. And most of those are people that ride up the inside of trucks at lights so easily avoided. But even on those statistics I would have to cycle twice a day every day for 15,000 year to have a 50% chance of a fatality which means its extremely safe even if it may not feel it. So whether you wear a helmet or not is not going to matter too much. What does concern me though is helmet laws in particular, but also helmet promotion are known to decrease the numbers cycling because they promote the view that its dangerous. It has been calculated that the your life expectancy is increased by the health benefits of cycling over 20 times more than it is shortened by the risks of cycling. So again Dany that is what you should be concerned about. Obesity is the biggest threat to the health and life expectancy of our children and a paper just published shows obesity is lower where people walk or cycle to work and the correlation holds at the national, state and city levels.
In my previous response I have made a clear effort to very specifically address my issue with your choice of sources to support your point of view. Among other sources, one being an opinion you wrote, you implied, for example, that the Robinson (2000) study supports your point of view. It does not. I provided extensive direct quotes from the Robinson (2000) study that readers are welcome to evaluate for themselves. I went through the trouble to include the quotes in my response, since as you, Tony, rightly pointed out, the access to library data bases may not be readily available to other readers.
Rather than directly address the points I have made, you resort to the use of a dismissive and patronizing tone. I am not impressed nor am I intimidated. Your procedural approach of vaguely dismissing the two studies I cite and your failure to support your claim of “fairly glaring methodological problems” with substance indicate intellectual dishonesty rather than intellectual superiority. After 30 years of teaching and research and service on editorial boards of professional journals, service as thesis and dissertation projects’ director I am still open to learning new stuff. You, Tony, on the other hand seem to already know it all. But, unfortunately, you do not have the time to teach it to me. What a pity…
Why not keep this forum as an honest, open minded discussion of the merits of wearing (or not wearing) a helmet while cycling? As this dialogue evolves I was hoping that the two camps that hold on to opposing views would find ways to bridge rather than widen the gap between views and ideas. Regardless of what has transpired thus far I am very confident that we all have a good intention, i.e., to reach some consensus about maximizing the safety of cyclists everywhere. If Tony’s camp turns out to have the upper intellectual (and factual) hand in this debate both camps will benefit and we’ll all be winners. However, if some legitimate lessons to be learned from “the other side” are ridiculed and ignored (e.g., helmet laws saved the lives of 130 kids over a ten-year period) and only one point of view prevails, we’re all going to end up as losers.
So, please can we try to “get along” and keep our focus on the problem rather than redirecting it on each other?
If you are going to make a case for intervening with protective equipment for cycling you need to satisfy three criteria
1. Is cycling unusually productive of head injuries that it warrants protective equipment?
2. Is the proposed protective equipment designed to protect against the risks you are wishing to protect against and
3. Is there any evidence the protective equipment works?
As far as 1. is concerned there is plenty of evidence that cycling is no more dangerous than many other everyday activities such as walking for which no-one would consider a helmet to be necessary. It is a minor cause of head injuries in the population and head injuries form a lower proportion of cyclist hospital admissions than pedestrian or motor vehicle occupant admissions (at least in the UK data)
For 2, helmets are designed for no more than a fall from a stationary bike. That equates to an impact speed of about 12.5mph. The magnitude of the impact goes as the square of the velocity so that a 20mph impact is 2.56 times the designed limit of a helmet and 30mph is 5.76 times. If you are planning to use it for fast riding or in traffic, then the helmet is woefully underspecified for the risks you are protecting against. If you are planning on some slow speed stunts in the park then it might be OK.
For 3,. The literature is a minefield here as there is a large amount of poor quality research out there and not a lot of well founded research. Let me address the two papers you raised.
Grant and Rutner is the worst of the two. They make the same mistake as many of the early post law Australian studies. They measure a 15% reduction in head injuries post law and ascribe it to the protective effects of helmets. What they do not have is any measure of the effect of the law on the numbers cycling. Those studies which have measured the effect of helmet laws on cycling have found that there is a big decrease in the numbers cycling especially young cyclists. Helmet promotion has a similar effect. So without knowing what the impact of the law was on numbers cycling you cannot say whether a 15% reduction in the NUMBERS of head injuries is a reduction or increase in the RISK of head injuries. Studies which do measure the numbers cycling too usually show a bigger percentage drop in the numbers cycling than in the number of head injuries i.e. the number of head injuries went down but the risk of a head injury went up. If you want to argue that the NUMBERS are what matter then the best safety intervention you could make for cycling is to ban it so head injuries drop to zero.
If you look at their Figure 1 also you will see that juvenille cyclist head injuries followed pretty much the same reduction trend as juvenille pedestrian injuries. Unless there was a pedestrain helmet law introduced at the same time it very much points to helmets not being responsible for any changes. Otherwise you would see a divergence between the pedestrian and cyclist curves whereas they are on top of each other in 1976, 1978, 1982, 1990, 1996 and 2000. Over the period of 1990 to 2000 when juvenile helmet laws were introduced there were only minor differences between the two trends.
Farley, Laflamme and Vaez is a little more subtle. In Column 1 on page 1 it says of the helmet promotion programme they are evaluating:
“The programme,in place during the period 1990 to 1993,had a population based approach,forming part of a five year plan that aimed at reducing road injury mortality and morbidity in the entire Montérégie region”
i.e. there were other road safety interventions going on at the same time in the target area that were not going on (at least they make no mention of them) in the control area. Its therefore difficult to tell whether any effect was due to helmets or the other safety interventions taking place or even just people being made more alert to safety issues by the safety campaign.
They have no counts of helmet usage or cycle usage (helmet promotion programmes are known to reduce cycling (TRL Report 365, 1998). All they have is self reported ownership of helmets and intention to use a helmet by children in an environment in which there was community “reward” and “punishment” for wearing/not wearing a helmet (you need to follow up one of the references to know this).
They do show a reduction in head injuries compared to other injuries before and after the promotion campaign but you need to set that against the above and the Nova Scotia experience where they did measure cyclist numbers when a helmet law was introduced. There the head injuries halved. The cyclist number halved too (so no change in risk) and more importantly for assessing this paper, other injuries increased. So again without the cyclist counts you can’t tell whether there is a decreased risk of head injuries or they have had an experience similar to Nova Scotia. That’s not to say that definitely happened in this study but without the data you cannot make any claims about changes in risk.
Coming on to Dorothy Robinson’s papers (“he”‘s a she by the way) I present them only as a starting point for to those who are not aware there are alternative views about this. There is a lot of good research which comes to the “no effect” conclusion. None of them are perfect and you should read them just as critically as the pro-helmet papers which I will leave it to you to do.
Finally you say you cannot dismiss your belief that helmets make a difference:
” My stubbornness regarding this issue is grounded in the notion that “a hit on the head is a hit on the head anyway one looks at it.” No matter how hard I try, I fail to dismiss the logical axiom that a hit on protective gear that separates one’s skull from the elements first must be less severe than a direct hit on the skull.”
No-one knows why it might be the case that helmets make no difference or make things worse but there are a number of candidates – the helmet doubles the impact cross section of the head making it twice as likely you’ll hit it. It increases the mass and radius of the head possibly increasing rotational forces which are the ones that cause the serious brain injuries. They may induce cyclists to take more risks. They may induce drivers to take more risks and drive closer etc (the Ian Walker research mentioned in an earlier comment)
Sorry everyone about the length of the reply but Dany did ask that I address his points.
My interest in this discussion does not stem from a desire to force helmet wearing laws on “thy neighbor” as if I were engaged in some religious crusade. I joined the forum because I got both fascinated and puzzled by your strong advocacy to not wear helmets. It immediately struck me as counter intuitive. As I keep digging into the question of helmet wearing efficacy I discover more variables that one may have to control in order to sort this mess out.
Despite the inherent complexity of the issue at hand, I am willing to follow your suggestion for a need to substantiate (at least as a starting point) my claim that protective gear for cycling, i.e., the wearing of a helmet, is a justified necessity.
1. Is cycling unusually productive of head injuries that it warrants protective equipment?
When compared to other activities cycling does not appear to be unusually productive of head injuries. However, when a serious cycling accident does take place, according to the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) the most common cause of death and serious disability are head injuries. Specifically, according to the 1995 CDC report 62% of bicycle-related deaths resulted from head injury. Surviving a nonfatal head injury in no picnic. The effects of head injury are often very severe and they last for a long time. “Minor” head injuries are no picnic either… Where did I put my helmet???
2. Is the proposed protective equipment designed to protect against the risks it claims to protect against?
The majority of cycling death occur as a result of an accident with a motor vehicle. In these accidents, only a small portion of the deaths (25%) results from head injuries. The wearing of a helmet, I must therefore conclude does not protect against the risk of an accident with a car. Clearly a helmet is not designed to act as body armor. It is supposed to protect one’s head. According to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health by Kraus, Fife, & Conroy (1987 cited in the CDC report) of all brain injuries close to 7% are bicycle-related. And, among several other empirical studies, the 1995 CDC report quotes the results of a 1989 case-control study published in the New England Journal of Medicine indicating that the use of bicycle helmets reduced the risk for bicycle-related head injury by 74%-85% (Thompson, Rivara, & Thompson, 1989). Thus, if the defined risk is the risk of head or brain injury, even if it is a relatively small risk, I’d be sure to grab my helmet if I can find the darn thing.
Wearing my helmet makes me feel safer. As the data suggests, I may be safer vis-à-vis a possible brain trauma but alas, there is evidence to suggest that drivers around me drive faster and closer and thus put me in the kind of danger that the helmet provides little if any protection for. At this point I am compelled to engage in a personal risk assessment exercise and decide to reach for my helmet anyway. But, darn, I still can’t find my helmet. As it turns out, Tony is hiding my helmet and he has a legitimate and logical reason to do so but I nevertheless still feel a strong craving for my helmet.
3. Is there any evidence the protective equipment works?
Wearing a helmet worked for me on more than one occasion and every crash that I have survived thus far has served as a learning experience. The helmet I wear keeps saving me and thus enables me to keep riding and keep … crashing (this pattern must change!). Helmets do work according to the CDC report if properly designed and worn. In cases of head impact, and even a severe one, a helmet provides protection against head and brain injury. OK, Tony, give me my helmet back and I have to admit that I am starting to better understand the reason you feel safer without one.
Helmets do make a difference in some 8 out of ten instances of a relatively less frequent instance of a head impact during a cycling accident.
1. Have you tried setting bicycle head injuries in context? Look at the data a bit more closely, than an old CDC press release from 1995 – the CDC has published a lot of much more recent data.
In most accidents sufficiently violent to cause death, there are multiple causes of death of which head injury is usually the one recorded as the primary cause (it tends to be the more visible and definitive cause compared to internal injuries). In a small study of this, 20 cyclist deaths were investigated. Of those 14 (70%) had fatal head injuries but only 4 (20%) died of their head injuries alone. The other 16 all had multiple causes of death Only one of the twenty was helmeted and was the only one to die from a head injury alone in a bicycle only accident.
Sage M, Cairns F, Koelmeyer T, Smeeton W. Fatal injuries to bicycle riders in Auckland. N Z Med J. 1985;98:1073-4.
That is in line with another report that reconstructed 100 fatal cycle accidents and found that in only 20-30% could a helmet have played a role in preventing the fatality.
D Hynd, R Cuerden, S Reid, S Adams, The potential for cycle helmets to prevent injury – A review of the evidence, ISBN 978-1-84608-842-1 (2009)
If you look at ski helmets, usage in the USA has risen from zero to 40% over the last decade. There has been no reduction in skier deaths over that period. What there has been is a redistribution of the recorded cause of death. From the studies done its not known whether that was a real change in the cause of death (i.e. a real reduction in head injuries) or the presence of a helmet influences people to not record head injury as the primary cause. Helmeted skiers are also measured to ski 10% faster than non-helmeted ones and most deaths occur in above average skiers on intermediate slopes (risk compensation in play?).
Also you have not set the bicycle data in the context of serious brain injury in general. According to the latest CDC report this year over the period 2002-2006, on average 51,538 people a year in the US died from traumatic brain injury and it was a contributing factor in 30.5% of all injury related deaths. Another 275,146 were hospitalised. 35% of the deaths were from falls, 10% from assaults, 17% from motor vehicle accidents, 17% from being hit by or hitting objects etc. Cycle related road deaths were just 312 or 0.6%. That’s about in line with the exposure levels.
So I am still waiting for your evidence that cycling is unusually productive of head injuries or your confirmation that you always wear a helmet, cycling or not which would at least be a consistent approach to risk.
2. You addressed a completely different question. I asked about the design specification of the helmet. What are you using it for, what it the specification it would need to meet to provide that protection and what is it actually specified to. Helmets are specified only to protect against an in-line impact when falling from a stationary bicycle – equivalent to an impact velocity of 12.5mph. Is that what you are using it for or is it to protect against much higher impact velocities when cycling or when in traffic and when more likely than not you will hit your head tangentially as you roll and slide?
By the way, anyone who cites Thompson, Rivara and Thompson 1989 as a credible source really does themselves no credit. That’s the study that kicked helmets off and compares one group best characterised as typically kids from deprived inner city neighbourhoods riding alone on city streets without helmets with another group typically white middle class suburban kids riding helmeted in parks with their parents and ascribed the difference in head injury rates as solely down to the helmets. Subsequently others have used the same data sets and methodology to show that on that basis helmets prevent 75% of leg injuries and even the authors have since revised their claims downwards.
3. You have descended from evidence back into anecdata as it is pejoratively known – psuedo-data produced from personal anecdotal observations. The sort of thing that says the earth is flat and the heavens revolve around it as is obvious by just standing outside and looking.
Go back and re-read what you posted as if it were an undergrad dissertation your were grading. If an undergrad handed that in to me I would fail them on it and I hope you would too.
An interesting article written by a leading US expert on ski-safety about ski helmets. It covers the experience of the increased use of ski helmets and also talks a bit about cycle helmets.
Fascinating article — thanks, Tony. Interesting to see that his research has documented more aggressive behavior with helmet wearers, rather than the usual anecdotal evidence.
I don’t think my helmet affects my riding like that. Maybe it’s because I’ve been wearing a helmet for 23 now and it feels as natural to me as wearing my bike shorts, but once I start riding, I don’t even notice that I’m wearing it. Based on my own experience, I’m more concerned about road rash and broken bones than head injuries, so those are far more likely to moderate my behavior on the bike.
I think the bottom line, as Dr. Shealy says, is whether or not you choose to wear a helmet, ride as if you’re not wearing one.
A helmet covering the head, so alters one’s innate, natural ability to interpret sensory information in regards to speed, balance, timing and danger, that it is impossible to “ride as if you’re not wearing one”. That one “feels” safer if wearing one, attests to this. It is this warm and comfy feeling, while in the midst of potential, sometimes life threatening danger, that makes helmet use so sinister.
I was a helmet advocate myself. When I met Noel, I thought the multitude of different solo and group skills as he was teaching at the Olympic Velodrome was the answer. Teaching these things does go a ways to help, but ultimately, all is for naught when you have 100, helmeted gladiators trying to cross the finish line first.
Bicycle racing in the 70’s and 80’s was almost as safe as running a marathon.
The plethora of evidence on both ends of this debate has its detractors. An example from another highly contentious debate is that as many a gun owner will tell you, “guns do not kill, people with guns do.” On the other hand, I used to warn my soldiers that “A gun will fire at least once while it is not loaded and no one presses its trigger.” On more than one occasion, a soldier thought his gun was not loaded, played with it and dropped it and alas, it fired. A machine gun mishap in the barracks on one particular day resulted in quite a mess. There is evidence that the wearing of a helmet does appear to be associated with behaviors that lead to a higher risk threshold by riders and drivers. Also, it is quite reasonable to assume that in some instances a worn helmet may function in ways that are extremely counter to its intended role. A dear high school friend of mine died when the army truck he was riding flipped over. The impact of the crash has bent one side of the military helmet he was wearing and crushed his temple. If one assumes that the above summary of some of the reports (and anecdotes) represents a cause and effect (of which the exact mechanism still isn’t clear), then I would still submit to you that the remedy should not be to throw away the helmet but rather to engage in a vigorous campaign that promotes safety in a fashion that would render the helmet as an added value to safety rather than a contributor to added risk. A link you have included in a previous comment illuminates the point I am making here (Essay by Jasper E. Shealy, PhD). On the other hand, there are confirmed instances in which helmets do work and thus prevent head or brain injury or save a life. I chose yet once again to wear my helmet today as each of the four other members of my mountain biking weekend group did and we made it to the safety of the Gelson’s in Calabasas for a yummy breakfast.
Addressing your latest comments, you dismissed the CDC 1995 reference I quoted as too old and then immediately you followed it up with a 1985 reference. As you know (I could have said here instead “As you should know…” but this tone strikes me as silly. If your digs at me make you feel better, may the force be with you. From this point on, I’ll just keep my nose clean.) the Sage, et al., (1985) study you cite looked at 20 cases that represent one group of 19 non-helmet wearing cyclists and a second “group” of one that wore a helmet. The subjects were further subdivided into types of head injuries etc. Is it an interesting limited scale study? Yes. Does it provide statistical power to make any generalizations within itself or to the general population. No. The Sage, et. al., (1985) study, Tony, hardly puts anything in context.
In the second study you cite, i.e., Hynd, Cuerden, Reid, & Adams (2009), the authors reconstructed 100 fatal cycle accidents and estimated “that in only 20% – 30% could a helmet have played a role in preventing the fatality.” Making a 20% – 30% profit on an investment these days would be considered as a fantastic gain by most investors. How fantastic would then the prospect of saving 20 to 30 lives out of 100 be? I’ll let the readers be the judges of that.
You cite the latest CDC report and quote among other statistics that “Cycle related road deaths were just 312 or 0.6%.” You then comment: “That’s about in line with the exposure levels.” I do not want in any way to imply here that you may not take road deaths as seriously as I or others do. I do, however, want to emphasize to our audience that when a tad over one half of one percent translates to 312 deaths, a fraction of one percent is put in a different light. It is not clear at all from this statistic, however, whether the wearing of a helmet would have either increased or decreased the reported 312 deaths. A further tweak of this statistic would inform our discussion in a significant way.
I do not hold the view that riding a bicycle is an inherently dangerous activity. If I have stated this much earlier, let me stand here corrected. Of the minimal danger that cycling does present, potential head injuries are of the greatest concern to me. Still, for example, Per-Olof Åstrand (founding father of modern exercise physiology) was once asked whether individuals over 45 should avoid starting an exercise program prior to an exercise readiness medical exam. His answer was that inactivity is much riskier to one’s health than starting to exercise without first getting a medical exam. As a kinesiology professor by trade I concur with your (and other’s) position that the risks of not getting enough exercise in modern society greatly outweigh the relatively small (or imagined if you will) risk of riding without a helmet. As I have stated above, a better educational campaign about this issue is in order. And, let me repeat here that I have already initiated my own education about helmet safety. Thank you Tony, for the time, effort, and expertise you have thus far kept pouring into this forum.
Finally, I have and I will continue to use anecdotal evidence in my arguments for the following reasons:
(1) It provide the readers with information regarding my personal experiences and the ways it shaped my riding style and attitudes regarding helmet safety.
(2) It invites readers of this thread to join in on the discussion and while doing so share their personal anecdotal stories (Some did; cheers mates, and BikingInLA, thank you for joining in on the action.)
(3) Use the collective experience of this and other forums to formulate educational and intervention strategies for the advancement of cycling safety.
(4) Spice up the narrative and make it more interesting and thus more fun to read.
The presented anecdotal information in my comments is in no way intended to serve as proof of anything. It is strictly anecdotal and readers are welcome to decide for themselves what it is that they are willing to walk away with.
Late to the party, am sure it’s over, but want to thank everyone for the reading material. I didn’t see mentioned the data which show that many/most bike injuries come from low speeds or even at a stop. They often involve arm and occasionally skull injuries. People simply fall over at stop signs. That would tend to skew findings. I’ll need to produce these data, I know, if anyone reads this (doubtful).
As a long time rider and mechanic I’ve seen the results of a plethora of ‘incidents’ and many a broken helmet. I want to make the case that the increased surface/angle argument is moot – good helmets are designed to self destruct on impact, carrying away the energy that would otherwise be damaging tissue and bone.
Car hits are another story, but even then if you’re very, very lucky, your helmet can save your skull and you only have to spend years rehabilitating your shoulder joint. And I liked that helmet.
I think a bad Madison partner is much more dangerous than bad drivers. A picture of me and my Madison partner doing a bad exchange made its way into Velonews last year. My old coach has had some worse experiences. At least I did not have to pull a several foot long splinter out of my ass. You have my eternal gratitude for everything you taught me Noel.
I’ve always said that the most important aspect of bike safety is not helmets (or mirrors, neon vests, annoying flags, shouting “on your left”, etc), it is where you put you and your bike. I remember Noel telling students that he had promised his wife that he would not race miss n’ outs. And so, please let me ride casually without your admonition that I will cost tax payers millions when I am hooked up to a breathing tube. Also, you ex-coach is not old…..he is just a wise ass.
[…] Rogers, who runs the blog, Biking in L.A., urges cyclists to do two things: stay clipped in, and hold the handlebars tightly. He tucks his […]
RE: helmets and cycling–People will either wear them or they won’t. I’ve met many cyclists who not only scoff at my helmet-wearing habit, but also denounce the side mirror that’s attached to it. I feel safer with a helmet because of the many non-lethal accidents I’ve witnessed, whether on bike paths, beach paths, or streets. The helmet won’t be your biggest concern if you’re hit by a truck. The argument there is that it won’t protect the rest of your body.
However, I’ve seen riders who have landed on the ground in the most harmless situations, at less that 10mph, end up with head injuries that may have been avoided if their heads had been protected. Sometimes people hop on a bike with absolutely no idea of their own responsibility as a person on a moving vehicle (ie, making sudden U-turns while on a beach bike path, and I’ve been nearly t-boned by cyclists who have blown through stop signs). Others believe themselves to be above the rules and create dangerous situations for others (ie, drafting behind me and my panniers at 20mph while I’m cycling to work on a busy street–imagine the carnage if I have to stop suddenly). And then there’s the danger of pedestrians who might unknowingly step into the path of an oncoming bike. They’re so accustomed to listening for cars that they don’t hear the cyclist approaching even on a quiet side street.
Of course, there are many other valid scenarios that might put the average cyclist in harm’s way, and which provide an argument for wearing a helmet. Simply put, my defensive strategy when I hop in the saddle is that I wear my helmet because I trust my cycling skills, but am not so sure about everyone else out there.
BTW: great safety tips!
Btw, one of the most fatalities for cyclists (at least over here in Germany) are right turning trucks where the Driver doesn’t see the cyclist.
So while your tip to queue up at first in front of _cars_ is a good one, this doesn’t work with Trucks, but is outright dangerous.
A realy good tip is: Don’t mess with trucks! you’re going to loose in any case and will pay with your life in many.
Same in the UK. In London trucks are less than 5% of traffic but are involved in 48% of male and 87% of female cyclist deaths. Its exacerbated by cycle lanes tempting cyclists to cycle up the inside of trucks at junctions.
Be seen! staying visible while not being run over is a fine line. ‘taking the lane’ to keep a vehicle behind one’s bike risks being run over; pulling up in front to prevent being ‘right hooked’ by a truck may result in an even worse ‘right hook’. there are more choices such as stopping further back or getting off the road (don’t mess with trucks).
And wear some kind of rear view mirror.
The helmet argument is getting boring and I’m tired of reading it. I do wear one, my husband does not. It depends a lot on the traffic patterns where you ride. Europe is SLOW in most cities, so we cannot compare them with open spaces in the US.
I commute 5 mi between Redlands and Loma Linda, and it is hot and treeless. The cars are fast and often inconsiderate, and the road is fairly flat and straight. Speed limit on parts of this one road is 55mph in the scariest areas, and the busiest intersections are not bike friendly. There is a bike lane in parts. There are plenty of cyclists on all sorts of bikes, wearing all sorts of clothes, usually riding to work at the hospitals.
I’m most interested in protecting myself from the blazing sun in the “Inland Empire”. I’m wondering if you have added a big visor after your cancer scare, or have other recommendations, in addition to sunblock (as opposed to sunscreen), which I do use always, even when not biking.
I do know what you mean, Kate. Personally, I never ride without a helmet, and I alway recommend one to other riders. However, it is a personal decision that should be left up to each individual.
I did not add a visor, or any protection other than a minimal SPF 50 sunblock. As a road bike rider, I’ve found that a visor restricts my vision to too great a degree; for someone who rides in a more upright position, it may not be as much of a problem.
10 Y/O kid veered left into a cyclist last weekend on on bologna bike path, Los Angeles. Kid was not wearing a helmet and was out cold and in serious condition. Other cyclist wearing a helmet slammed head off of railing on the way down and struck head again on pavement resulting in minor road rash. Helmet prevented worse injury in my book.
The kid is still in the hospital even though the speed of the crash was slow. Pavement is not very forgiving.
Helmets do save lives. How many? Who knows?
Kids knock themselves out falling over or running into things without a bicycle being involved. Are you suggesting that they should wear helmets all the time whether cycling or not?
The latest assessment from New Zealand is that helmets cost lives. http://bit.ly/zuopdL
Here’s a simple test for the helmet no-helmet debate. It involves you, a friend, a helmet, and a baseball bat.
First, put on the helmet and have your friend hit you on the top of the head with the bat. Then, remove the helmet and repeat.
That is a simplistic “test” and does not consider the real world causes of bicycle crashes and injury. Risk compensation suggests that people who feel protected, are apt to take risks which put them in danger. My suggestion is that you take the baseball bat away (ie: crashing) and there is no need for a crash helmet…….any five yr old knows that. Most racing and group rides in the 70’s and 80’s were way safer than what we have today. Those who won’t acknowledge this are in denial. If Focuspuller would like to discuss this issue, you can call me at 323-857-5701.
Of course only someone with a helmet on would remotely consider letting someone hit them on the head with a baseball bat Those without a helmet would avoid it altogether and very few with a baseball bat would consider hitting someone on the head with it.. Thereby neatly illustrating the concept of risk compensation whereby people wearing helmets take more risks and those wielding baseball bats or motor vehicles are more cavalier.
Interestingly there are far more head injuries from assaults than from cycling accidents so I assume you wear a helmet all the time when out and about just in case you get assaulted.
Sorry, but this is also a typical false argument. The subset of bicycle riders is minuscule compared to the general population. Of course there would be more assault injuries than bicycle accident injuries. And equating risk of head injuries via bicycle accidents and assaults by criminals is absurd.
In my neighborhood, the risk of assault is infinitesimal compared to my risk of head injury when riding a bike.
Excuse me, but “simple” does not equal “simplistic.”
What IS simplistic, and fallacious, is equating “correlation” with “causation”, a very common error of either ignorance or willful deceit.
To conclude that wearing a helmet “causes” more accidents and serious injury based on an alleged statistical correlation is a typical example of such erroneous logic leading to an absurd conclusion.
If this logic were valid, mandatory seat belts in cars would have resulted in a huge spike in auto crashes, leading to repeal of seat-belt laws.The very same false arguments are present re risk-taking due to sense of safety and reckless behavior by other drivers due to misperceived reduced vulnerability in the seat-belted driver. And yet, seat-belts are credited with saving thousands from death and serious injury every year.
The point is: Whenever, and for what ever reason one is in a bicycle accident where one’s head is impacted, helmets make s positive difference.
That is a “simple” fact.
I don’t know about the US but in the UK the Isles Report looked at auto crashes pre and post the seat belt law. It was commissioned by Government but then suppressed for many years until it was leaked. It showed no change in driver and front seat passenger death rates (they were only mandatory in the front seats) but a big spike in cyclist and pedestrian deaths.
Similarly the Munich taxi driver study of ABS braking found the drivers in cars fitted with ABS accelerated and braked harder, cornered faster and had just as many accidents as those in the non-ABS equiped cars.
So the logic is valid except the law was not repealed as you suggest but the data suppressed by Government instead. These are some of the data central to the development of the risk compensation theory.
As it turns out, the baseball bat experiment example for the protective value of wearing a helmet while riding a bike is easy prey to counter arguments that are no less simplistic. An example of the simplicity of the counter argument is that one might as well wear a helmet at all times when out and about just in case one may get assaulted.
As a rider who does chose to wear a helmet while riding my bike, I treat my helmet as an integral part of my cycling outfit (i.e., cycling attire that includes riding shoes and socks up to helmet and everything in between). On the rare occasions that I am getting ready to ride off with no helmet on, I quickly realize, usually within the first 100 feet that something is wrong with my riding attire and I turn around to grab my helmet. Not wearing a helmet is the unusual state of mind in my case. I will shun here from making any assumptions about other riders’ state of mind while riding while wearing or not wearing a helmet. Again, in my case, wearing a helmet is pretty much business as usual rather than an altered state of mind that makes me imagine that I am transformed into an indestructible superman.
Referring to the argument that since professional riders used to not wear helmets in the past and currently some still resist the wearing of helmets while training one should follow their lead, my comment is that one should do so at one’s own risk. And, especially so, since few of us mere mortals may boast the skills and experience professional riders possess. Still, blog contributors, such as Tony may ride under conditions and may possess riding skills that make them safer with no helmet on while, on the other hand, my past crash experiences have demonstrated to me, on several occasions, the efficacy and protective value of having worn my helmet.
I too used to treat it as part of my cycling kit and when I first abandoned my helmet, after researching their effectiveness, it did feel exposed but that quickly went away. What I did notice immediately was that cars gave me more clearance and took more care around me – subsequently confirmed by research in the UK and US – and that I took more care. You may feel it is not influencing you but there is a growing body of research indicating that helmeted riders do ride faster and take more risks than un-helmeted ones. And from what you have said I would bet you ride more cautiously when you don’t have your helmet because it feels wrong.
As for your crash experiences, I have crashed a number of times too and that has demonstrated the efficacy and protective value of a bare head. It is easy to prove from the accident statistics that most “helmet saved my life”stories are wrong by the way.
You, Tony, and I, must have looked at very different data regarding driver behavior around riders that are wearing or are not wearing their helmets. The validity of the “helmet saved my life” experience is certainly no less true than the validity of the story of those who crashed and did not suffer a head injury. The devil here lies in the details. I am not suggesting that the wearing of a helmet would provide some global solution to all hazards of the otherwise very safe activity of bike riding (playing collision team sports, for example, is more dangerous). Helmets are useful in cases where the speed of the impact was within the helmet’s resistance to impact standard and in instances the angle of impact is such that the helmet provides a barrier between the skull and a hard surface.
I’d also like to point out that I ride my dirt bike mostly on fire roads and single trails where I rarely encounter a motor vehicle (park rangers and power line workers are the exception). The typical danger I face while on my ride is new rain damage to the trail, other bikers that go downhill too fast, groups of hikers that are not very good about sharing the trail and the occasional lazy rattle snake on a hot summer day. I do wear my helmet for every ride and when in doubt I dismount the bike and walk through some of my ride’s rough and/or steep sections.
What data have you looked at Danny? The data I have is a paper published papers by Iain Walker in Accident Analysis and Prevention and the Florida DOT study which both showed drivers gave helmeted cyclists less room.
The invalidity of the helmet saved my life stories is easy to show. Helmet wearing in the US is about 60%. So on the assumption that helmeted and unhelmeted cyclists have similar accidents for every three “helmet saved my life” incidents there should be two “lack of helmet killed them” events. So take the number of cyclists killed in a year and at most there can only have been one and a half times that “helmet saved their life” incidents. There are about 600 cyclists killed a year in the US which puts an upper limit of 900 on the number of “helmet saved my life” stories that could be true. That’s 900 incidents across the whole of the USA. I doubt very much that you were one of those 900, even less that you were one of those 900 several times.
Sorry, Tony, but that equation relies on a number of invalid assumptions, most particularly the cap of 900 cyclists saved by helmet use each year. We have no way of knowing how many of the approximately 51,000 reported bicycling injury accidents involved head injuries, or how many head injuries may have been prevented by helmet use.
However, we do know from the 10-year New York City study that 74% of fatal cycling crashes involved a head injury, and only 3% of the cyclists killed were wearing a helmet. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the victims died from a head injury, or that the collisions would have been survivable with a helmet.
In my own case, I will contend until the day I die that if my helmet did not save my life, it certainly preserved my mental capabilities. I landed on my head with enough force to knock me cold for upwards of five minutes and place me in intensive care with a traumatic brain injury; without the added protection of the helmet, there is every reason to believe those injuries would have been much more serious.
It is also important to note the limitations of helmet usage. As you note elsewhere, helmets are only designed to offer protection in impacts up to 12.5 mph, making them ideal for low impact collisions and solo falls such as mine. Especially at higher speeds, it is far better to avoid a collision than to rely on a helmet to protect you.
However, that does not mean helmets have no value. While I wish they would be required to offer a higher level of protection, I consider them very cheap brain insurance, and like Dany, will never ride anywhere without one.
That is my personal choice, which should be respected, just as I respect the choice of you or anyone else to ride without one. Even if I disagree with that choice as much as you disagree with mine.
I started riding and racing in 1974. Hardly anyone got hurt from 1974 to 1984. The constant injury we have today, on all levels, is without precedent. No one I know was killed, broke his back, pelvis, or neck during that 10 yr period. I’ve coached and taught road and track for many yrs and no matter what skills are practiced and taught, high speed, helmeted racing will always have horrific crashes. If Lance had started now, he would not have been able to win so many TdFs.
Its interesting but if you look at the deaths in professional cycling competition over the past three decades, the death rate tripled after the UCI made helmets compulsory.
First I am not disrespecting your personal choice but trying to bring a few facts to the myths about helmets.
Re. the New York study its fine giving the number of fatalities wearing or not wearing a helmet but without the data also on what percentage of cyclists wear or don’t wear a helmet it tells you nothing at all about the relative risks. Using your approach did you know that Fords are the most dangerous cars on the road – more Fords crashed than any other car? The report gives very little good data on helmet wearing rates but for example in one of the high accident and death groups – high school students – only 20% had ever worn a helmet during the year so it wouldn’t surprise me if the number wearing helmets regularly was around 3%. Certainly studies elsewhere in the world demonstrate no difference in head injury rates between helmet wearers and non-wearers. See for example Hewson’s studies.
You may contend that the helmet saved your life or serious head injuries but remember there are many many people riding out there without helmets and if they had similar experiences to you but without a helmet you wouldn’t be talking of thousands of people out there with head injuries but millions. The numbers simply do not stack up and the reality is you probably would have been no worse off without your helmet. The biggest study ever done in the US by the helmet expert at the CPSC looked at the records of 8 million cyclist accidents and found no difference in the head injury rate between helmet and non-helmet and a small but significant increased risk of death in the helmet wearers. And which nation has the lowest cyclist head injury rate in the world – the Dutch who almost never wear helmets.
I’m not suggesting you’re disrespecting my choice; I’m just reminding everyone that it is a personal choice, and we should all respect whatever choice someone else makes.
Comparing Dutch and American injuries is comparing apples to oranges. The Dutch ride in a completely different manner than Americans do; here in the U.S., we tend to ride faster and in heavy traffic, while the Dutch ride in separated bikeways on slower, heavier bikes that are easy to step out of in a fall. If I rode in Holland on a Dutch bike, I might not wear a helmet either.
As for my personal injury, I would tend to trust my doctors who said I wouldn’t be here without my helmet over your opinion or that of anyone else who wasn’t there. I think it’s very hard to argue that the injuries I suffered in a direct hit on the pavement wouldn’t have been significantly worse without one. As for all those helmetless people you refer to, in over 30 years of riding, I’ve only needed a helmet once. But I thank God I had it that one time.
Your contention that the Dutch ride slower is new to me and has so much context to it it’s mind bogling.
I’ve spent some time researching tonight though and consistent Ithink with the helmet thread here and antipathy towards most power assistance AND dismal glee about a kickstarter project I want to chime in here how moving dangerous people from cars thath make them dangerous to bikes with us is a marketing and feature thing.
I am disgusted by one companies putting on there own website TWO links that demonstate they have not read them or care not what they actually say- for example ‘exponential’ improvement was actually a heavier technology.
Our muscles especially on bikes you talk about are UNDERTAXED on level ground. Some kids called this “coasting”- and point out it’s not in breaking that we should be looking to improve sustainability and safety in decongesting.
Rather in changing the percentage of effort we put into the bike in any moment that goes into maintaining or accelerating the speed.
Please meditate on this and understand that we are talking about a matter of hundreds of dollars- not thousands, or tens of thousands as in J. Leno’s ride on a 20 pound german bike with a 20 pound battery and obviously lights etc. not just the 62 mpg motorcoming in at under 20 lbs.
I have notfound there website yet- but rather an early academic one that shows pictures like those in the 70’s or ‘american’ design now.
The concept rocks and I talked someone down from itrecently without understanding it- someone who believed you can put a generator ona bike to charge thebatteris whjile runningthemotor.
It’s pedaling when the pedaling is easy that should be charing mtors for use only when it’s not!
No charging from the grid or need to own one- a use for
while still coming in well under a grand!
Lesser batteries will fail quickly from the very high cycles of charge discharge so don’t think this is trivial to do right. Of coures using compressed air etc. solves that problem as well.
Kmart is clearancing there refillable paint ball co2 tanks- so for half a dozne bucks you can get a dozen dollar THERE COST tank and with proper nozzlingi and regulation change your flats and pressurise them to ANY PRESSURE WITH EASE.
Again I didn’t buy iti last night because I didn’t know for sure aboutthe fittings I’d need. Survival means riding again- my mentee just returned a frame pump having spent several timesas much as he should on one forhimself. Despite that it will be uselss with his high pressure tires. For less we can equip him with enough co-2 to fill dozens of large even tires. Every ride should have a designated co-2 man carryhing either the cup bottle or the nearly three cup model. Some tires have wide pressure ranges- and carrying super cheap co2 allows you to lowerthe pressure and raise it several times during your commute ifyou want to. a car puts out thousands of pounds of co2 so don’t worry about it’s impact from such a practice.
I’ve always believed bikes shoudl have multimode tires- fat when needed but then when at speed able to drastically reduce there rollling resistance- its’ nothard to do.
Yet despite spendingeven thousands i’ve neevr seen that sold…. amazing..
safety is easy
wearing a helmet and having a ‘fast’ bike is nonsensical enough wihtou donning a helmetthat says it’s dangerous out there when it’s not- not compared to driving. It’s not a personal choice. It’s the most political thing we do when we ride- saying our brain is worth screwing everyone elses future for. People die everyday because helmets get seen by the the people who instead of riding as well ‘accidentally’ kill them in a car.
good lord. i find this “it’s safer without a helmet!” argument just ridiculous. it’s riding on some extremely skimpy statistical wheels, and it has this air of defensiveness. you don’t want to wear a helmet? well don’t. when i ride to the farmer’s market up the street? i don’t wear one – it’s wonderful. when i’m in traffic here in LA, knowing it’s a possibility i’ll be knocked to the ground, i want something extra between my head and the concrete. what is so tough to understand about that? am i supposed to be comforted by the info that some statistical driver may be statistically less careful passing me because of my statistical helmet? christ, it’s all a crap shoot out there, and i’m a sample of 1, and i know that the contents of my brain are very important to my family’s security – so i try to protect it. my biggest fear is the distracted driver, not the one who sees me. that said, i’ve always felt that this was all an unfair argument, since, over time, there are fewer and fewer people out there to defend the ‘riding with no helmet is safer’ point of view – sadly taken in their prime…
I just want to comment on the original article where he talks about turning the bicycle with out using the bars. I’ve been riding motorcycles and bicycles for 40 years, have taken several motorcycle safety classes, and read numerous books that discussed the topic.
The fastest way to steer a two wheeled vehicle is by counter steering with the bars. It’s a bit dangerous telling people to only steer with body weight.
Another comment on the subject of using your voice. I find a bell to be much better to alert pedisterians to you coming than yelling anything at them.
I think that the bike is going too slow for counter steering to be effective. Relative weight (20lbs vs 350lbs+) may also be at work.
Anything faster than walking speed counter steering works. Especially on fast downhills. Give it a try next time your riding. Push on the back of the bar end in the direction you want to go.
Bells are better and more ‘friendly’.
Tony.. thanks for all your work and input. I’m in the “helmets are useless” camp. I’m no scientist or scholar, but I’ve tried to scour the internet in a search for the best helmet for an under 18 relative and in doing so, it appears to me that the vast majority of the helmets being marketed are just crap. There are glaring design flaws such as protrusions, multiple air vents, fabric coverings, etc. Some of the crazy shapes, visors and aero effects would seem to me MORE dangerous; I can just see my neck being snapped as the fancy helmet snagged on something. And the testing “standards” are laughable! But in the interest of being completely open-minded, I wonder if you have looked into the possibility that a tiny fraction of these designs might have some merit. I’m thinking of the SNELL standards. Also, in this long debate, no one has brought up the “rotational vs linear acceleration” issue. Maybe you can comment on that as well. Perhaps, if some SERIOUS scientific research on helmet design, materials composition, and TESTING was done, there might be some definable, statistically relevant data to support helmet use in limited situations?
There are minor differences between the various standards with Snell being the most demanding but even their standards have been downgraded over the years.
Overall though its very difficult to detect any beneficial effect of helmet wearing from the studies that have been done so nuancing the differences between helmets with slightly different testing standards will be close to impossible. What I do know from the owner of a helmet testing house is all helmets tend to only just meet the standards and some of the cheap ones do a better job of meeting them than the very expensive ones. I do agree though about all the fashionable design elements which are counter to their supposed objective – protecting people – but very pertinent to the real objective of selling helmets.
You can go into all the possible causative reasons – rotational v linear, risk compensation, increased size and mass of the helmeted head etc – but no one really knows why helmets don’t achieve what they set out to so they are interesting but ultimately futile side debates to the headline that they don’t work until that is someone does some more research.
If you were to ask me what helmet to wear though it would be a purely subjective guess but I would tend to go for the skateboard style helmets with a thick and rounded hard shell like the Bell Faction or Giro Flak. No evidence they perform any different but they just seem to be a more sensible design approach if injury prevention is your aim. Maybe not practical if there is much exertion or heat in your cycling though.
Thanks again Tony! You’ve confirmed my suspicions. Do you think it’s POSSIBLE to design a helmet with demonstrable benefit in low speed impact situations, assuming proper design, materials, and research methodology are employed? In other words, given adequate financial, human and material resources, could YOU come up with a helmet that would benefit riders (at least kids) in low speed impact situations?
That’s a question that can’t be answered until you know why they don’t currently appear to work. But its the wrong question in my mind. The real question do the low speed impacts that helmets are designed for present enough of a risk of head injury to warrant wearing protective equipment. And what you find is cycling is no more dangerous than many other daily activities for which we do not wear protective equipment (walking, climbing stairs etc), that slow speed impact accidents are a tiny minority of cycling injury accidents – most involve a motor vehicle at impact speeds way beyond the design limits of a helmet – and that the vast majority of head injuries are caused by things other than cycling for which helmets are never considered a requirement.
Tony brings up some valid points regarding the defects of low-speed impact cycling helmets. Indeed, helmets are far from perfection and could sport improvements in design, especially in the way helmets fit on one’s head, and in the ways helmets provide protection to the face, as well as in their strength and resistance to impact. The above observation, however, does mean that helmets are useless and even much less so that they are dangerous. As previous writers on this blog have pointed out, the conditions one rides under, and one’s riding style vary and the fluctuations in the efficacy of a helmet’s protective value is greatly modified by these factors. The observation that Tony makes “that the vast majority of head injuries are caused by things other than cycling for which helmets are never considered a requirement,” however, needs to be tested in the proper context. For example, elderly and young individuals that experience balancing problems use walkers, canes, and even wear head, knee, and elbow protective gear. Still, the differences between walking and riding a bike, for example, are very significant. For example, the average time to a full stop, to changing directions, to bring one’s hands up to the head to protect the head etc., while riding a bike is two-to-three times longer than the time it takes to come to a full stop while walking. Still another significant difference is that while walking one can collapse her/his body first and thus significantly lessen the eventual impact of the head with the ground. This is NOT the case while riding a bike and being “trapped” in the bicycle’s frame. The frame keeps one’s body from collapsing and acts as a fulcrum and thus the impact has a potentially greater momentum on the head and other body parts. Also the hands are on the handlebars and thus not as free to protect the head. The comparison of walking to riding a bike is not an appropriate one as the differences are too vast for such a comparison to be valid.
And yet despite all you say, the risk to a pedestrian from motor vehicles is 50% higher per mile than the risk to cyclists. And pedestrians are 30% more likely to suffer a head injury in such accidents. On top of all that, pedestrian serious injury accidents involving no vehicle (e.g. tripping and falling on uneven surfaces etc) are six times those from motor vehicle – pedestrians accidents. Yet nobody (well almost nobody to be accurate) is proposing wearing helmets as a pedestrian. Indeed most people would think it a very silly suggestion. The reality is though there is a much better case for pedestrians and drivers to wear helmets than there is for cyclists if you want to reduce head injuries.
P.S. I should point out by the way that the only study done on the benefits of pedestrian helmets carried out city wide in Japan over five years found that like cycling helmets, there was no observable reduction in head injuries in the helmet wearing group when compared with the group not wearing helmets.
Track and road helmets are changing. Track sprinters are now moving towards a helmet that has no aero, duck tail sort of back end. As matched sprints and esp. keirins end up in falls, the absence of material extending 3 or 4 inches in back gives the wearer a chance to tuck in his chin and not hit the back of his head.
The aero end almost assures that your head/helmet will hit the ground. If you an older helmet, put it on and lay on your back and attempt to keep your head/helmet off the ground……you can’t. The Specialized “Decibel” was one of the early road helmets to address this issue.
I should also point out, in response to Tony’s comment, that where I ride, on the Santa Monica Mountain roads in Southern California there are very few if any pedestrians. Again, the conditions one rides in dictate the efficacy of wearing a helmet. And for the record, I am not an advocate of forcing one to wear a helmet by legislation.
So do you spend your entire life on your bike in the Santa Monica Mountains? And do you not go to other places and sometimes become a pedestrian? Because unless you do the stats still apply to you. You are far far more likely to suffer a head injury in the car, while walking or while at home than you are cycling on your bike.
Those who ride bikes have a greater risk of head injury while riding a bike. Those who do not ride a bike have other risks that we all share. As may be the case with you, Tony, and many of this blog’s readers, I have hit my head on open drawers, on my partially opened garage door, the rim of my opened hatchback car door (those are especially nasty), etc. It hurt a lot but I was able to “shake it off” each time. I have also, had several bad falls while riding my bikes. Every time I was wearing my helmet and my helmets cracked, got poked, scratched. My helmets protected my head from severe injury on multiple occasions. And, BTW, as a gymnast, in a different life time, I used protective landing mats and I do understand that the world would have been safer with protective mats all over, but when tumbling or swinging on the rings or parallel bars, one better make sure one has good mats in place. Given my experience, the time I spend on my bike is the time I should wear my helmet. Here’s how it works for me: I wear my helmet for three-to-five years on average to get one huge return on investment. My 87-year-old mother says I should ride slower and be more careful. And, who can argue with his mother, as mom know best.
So Danny, your helmet protected you from severe head injuries on several occasions did it? Well if you are a typical cyclist then all those cyclists who don’t wear a helmet would likely have suffered a serious head injury by now. As they haven’t we can only conclude either your helmet is leading you to take massively greater risks than those without a helmet or, more plausibly given what we know about helmets, you were never at risk of a serious head injury in the first place.
Cyclists with helmet saved my life anecdotes are ten a penny. Cyclists without helmets whose lives were lost are very rare. Conclusion: the helmet didn’t actually save their life.
P.S. If your helmet cracked it failed by brittle fracture. If it had actually worked it would not be cracked but crushed. I have yet to see a helmet that is crushed but not cracked in an accident. All the ones I’ve seen have been cracked but not crushed showing they failed to work as designed.
Tony, whether or not Danny’s helmet saved his life is a matter of opinion; neither you nor anyone else can say with any factuality that it didn’t.
As I’ve pointed out before, I firmly believe my helmet saved my life, or at least my cognitive abilities; the doctors who treated me for a traumatic brain injury in the ER and intensive care unit certainly felt I wouldn’t have survived without it. However, I have no way to prove whether it actually did or didn’t, and neither do you.
I truly appreciate your insights on helmet use, and you have influenced my thinking. However, I don’t think it’s appropriate to challenge other people experiences without actual knowledge of their accidents and injuries.
And can you provide a link to back up your contention that a helmet that cracks has failed to provide any protection? I can’t say I’ve seen that standard anywhere.
Bikinginla, you can show statistically with a very high degree of certainty that Danny and your helmets did not save your lives. Assuming helmet wearers and helmet non-wearers ride similarly then you can work out from the number of helmet non-wearers who suffered serious head injuries, exactly how many lives (or serious head injuries) could potentially have been saved by their wearing a helmet. That “saving rate” can then be applied ot the population of helmet wearers to estimate the maximum number of lives that might have been saved by their wearing a helmet. That number is very very small. The probability that Danny had one accident in which it saved him serious injury is therefore very very small and the probability that he had several accidents where that happened is vanishingly small (for three accidents its very very small cubed).
That is coupled with the fact that after several decades now of growing helmets use, nobody can point to any evidence of a reduction in head injuries in cyclists above the general reduction trends seen in all road users as evidenced by the link to the Australian Institute of Public Affairs link in your latest posting – “Even after 20 years and plenty of research there is still no compelling evidence that Australia’s compulsory helmet laws have reduced injury rates on a population wide basis” and “enforced helmet laws discourage cycling but produce no obvious response in percentage of head injuries”
P.S. To put it in context, very very small is about the same chance of it having saved your life as there is of winning the lottery jackpot and vanishingly small is about the same chance as winning the lottery jackpot several times.
And yet, people win the lottery every day — and some, more than once.
Sorry, Tony. I don’t buy it. My experience and that of Danny say our helmets saved our lives, regardless of what any stats may say.
I will readily acknowledge that I have only benefitted from my helmet once in over 30 years as a rather aggressive cyclist. However, that one time more than made up for all the rest.
Besides, where else would I put my helmet cam?
Yes, one or two do but tens of millions buy tickets every day with the dream/certainty that today they are going to win it and don’t. But how many people have actually won the lottery jackpot twice?
If my riding style, Tony, has anything to do with the fact that I wear a helmet then using the same logic, it would also be reasonable to assume that the fact you do not wear a helmet is modifying the way you ride your bike. And, that, Tony, would say something about the potential attitude that you may have about the wearing of a helmet, i.e., that one must be more careful when riding without head protection gear. In addition, since you keep throwing numbers and statistics in your comments, may I point out to you that in one major report, out of ten fatalities caused by head injuries in cyclists, nine of those cyclists were NOT wearing a helmet. Furthermore, your argument suggests that one style of riding in one specific environment should somehow dictate the gold standard about this issue. This, however, as I keep repeating myself, is not the case. Also, since you do not wear a helmet when you ride your bike you most probably have never cracked a helmet while experiencing an accidental fall. For your information, Tony, helmets have a plastic skin coating that keeps holding the cracked shell together and since the head is separated by space from the shell, one’s head is spared from the trauma that is inflicted onto the helmet. As is the case with seat belts, shin and mouth guards, as well as, car bumpers, etc., all provide limited protection and do not work under all possible accidental circumstances, but we still use them. I will continue to take the risk of wearing my helmet and you and all those who are in your camp are welcome to take the risk the other way around.
Lastly, since I have joined this blog some two years ago, I have read many of the articles you have quoted in past posts on this blog. I have read many additional articles too. My conclusion based both the studies and the statistics I have read, and based on my personal experience, as well as the shared experiences of dozens of my fellow riders (mountain and road but NO city street riders), is that wearing a helmet is the sensible action to follow while riding a mountain bike on the trails on the Santa Monica mountains or a road bike on Stunt Road, or on the Mulholland Highway in Southern California. I beg to respectfully differ with what seems to me as an absolutist rather than a relativist position about the “to wear or not to wear a helmet” dilemma (BTW, I do hope that you get to watch some Olympics in between our exchanges. Congrats for the Bronze Medal your compatriots earned in Men’s Gymnastics. The British team has surely put together a great show!).
Danny, I won’t go further into a long drawn out exchange. I wouldn’t really care what you choose to wear or not wear except for one basic problem. You say “all those who are in your camp are welcome to take the risk the other way around.”
Unfortunately there are plenty of people out there constantly trying to force me to wear a helmet through legislation. In some countries they have succeeded and in many US states they have succeeded where children are concerned. There have been five attempts where I live in the past 8 years.
I know of nobody who is trying to ban you or your children from wearing a helmet. I am not trying to stop you wearing a helmet either but just to counter some of the myths that are circulated about the dangers of cycling and the magical properties of helmets. I would hope people would make informed choices on what they do and a bit of factual information might help that process. You are free to ignore it if you wish.
There does though seem to be a philosophical divide though between the US with high helmet wearing rates, high head injury rates and low cycling levels and Europe with low helmet wearing rates, low head injury rates and high cycling levels.
I shall rest it there. You may have the last word if you wish.
My conclusion from reading the to and fro above… is you guys need to spend less time reading studies and more time riding a bike.
Late to the party, but great debate.
I think I understand both side’s positions pretty well. And as a new street rider, it has been invaluable to learn what a helmet is and what it isn’t going to do for me.
I would like to throw out a question… IF a helmet is good, then isn’t a bigger, stronger helmet better? It would stand to reason that if the answer to the first part is yes, then the second part would be affirmative also. If a styrofoam yamaka is good, then a motorcycle helmet should be better. Yet, even among the helmet fans, and manufacturers themselves I see no range as far as the level of protection goes. Seems to me, if I’m going to wear a helmet, I need a better one.
One point that I feel is missing in most of these debates, is not specifying location. What holds true in one part of the country (of even one part of the city) may not hold true for another. With the amount of traffic, speeds, erratic drivers etc., that I see on the West Side of Los Angeles, I cannot think of road biking as anything other than “dangerous” for the cyclist. There is part of me that thinks biking should not even be allowed on certain busy streets during peak hours as the cyclist is overexposed, and from a driver’s standpoint I can only describe them as “rolling traffic obstructions and safety hazards”. However, drive 30-40 minutes away from the city and the risk vs benefits ratio changes dramatically. Not a groundbreaking thought, but something that should be specified when debating a personal choice issue, in public (IMO).
It is interesting that, unless I missed it somewhere, there is no mention of blinking taillights and flashing headlights, certainly for night use, but also day use. Not too long ago I did a solo Century ride from Huntington Beach to San Diego using mostly PCH, a known road where vehicles usually travel at high speeds (45-75 MPH), what I equipped myself with was 2 taillights, one one the back of my bike under the seat, and one on my helmet, also with 3 double flashing white LED lights on my handlebars, and am convinced that they helped for visibility to motorists from the front as well as the back. I did not experience and problems or even close calls, and there is a 7 mile stretch where you must ride on the 5 south. Just my 2 cents, but I think lights deserve mention in the survival tactics.
Flashing lights front & rear all the time say, “see me!!”. Sunglasses reduce 80% of the light and shade trees along a road reduce that remaining 20% by another 40% down to 12%!.
Man, how many falls have you taken on the road to be able to post some “best practices” about falling?
I accept your advice however I hope to never have to use it.
signals turns, especially at intersections – keep it simple. point your left arm for left turns and point your right arm for right turns. drivers understand.
signal ‘straight ahead’ with either arm when there may be doubt, especially near intersections. make eye contact as often as practical
Why is this even a discussion? To say helmets provide no greater protection….one must be a moron to think that. Plain and simple.
Ah, a member of the “Don’t confuse me with the facts” school of (not) thinking 😉
Biking in traffic is too dangerous to be worth it.
I would suggest that the millions of people who ride safely every day are proof that you can ride in traffic; you face a far greater risk of dying in your own home than you do on a bike. And on a per-hour basis, you face twice as much risk riding in a car as you do on a bike.
Bad things can happen anywhere, and using any form of transportation. Don’t let that stop you from living your life.
If you think biking in traffic is dangerous you might as well give up on life which is far more dangerous. If you were a high mileage cyclist (5k miles p.a.) it would still be 10,000 years on average before you had a fatal accident. Cycling is extremely safe; its just that sites like BikingInLA give the impression its carnage out there by reporting every fatality. Yes we want fewer fatalities but relative to the number of people cycling fatalities (and serious injures) are extremely rare. And the health benefits of cycling extend your life expectancy by 20 times the amount the risks of cycling shorten it. But if you don’t want to be a statistic, cycle sober. Alcohol impairment is involved in 25% of cyclist fatalities.
You guys ever notice that a lot of these fatalities are in the middle of the night? What the hell are people riding around those hours doing?
Uh, because bicyclists have places to go at all hours of the day or night, just like people who drive.
Stop thinking about bikes likes toys or hobbies, and realize they’re a legitimate form or transportation, regardless of the hour.
That said, riders do need to ensure they can be seen with good lights and reflectors, and ride with care because drivers may not be looking for you at that hour.
You should note thats not just the cyclists which may consume alcohol. Bright light is always a good companion on the bike.
“. . . position yourself in crosswalk just ahead of the through traffic, while leaving the right lane clear for turning cars. That way, you can be seen from all four directions, without blocking any traffic capable of moving before the light changes.”
A great big +1 to this. The problem with it however, is that not everyone, cyclists and motorists alike, realize it. Trying to educate people on it is most often met with total lack comprehension, (Who is that crazy on the bike talking too?!?!?), hostility (Who is that crazy on the bike talking too!!), and in maybe 1 in 20, “Ooh, yeah.”
I’m from Long Island, NY. I just came back from a ride with my wife. Great day, great road. One problem: cars honking and yelling at us!!!
I totally agree with what you say in you blog about “Don’t let the bastards get you down”. However, how can we allow this?
If we allow this to happen, there won’t be any changes in the future.
I propose a protest to raise awareness. In NYC, at the bloomberg building (there’s a pedestrian space on the center), on Saturday April 12, 2014 (to give time to spread the word), at 4pm. We can ride to Times Square taking the full street all the way. Are you in?
Nice set of ideas, but the discussion of turning is flawed. Turning at very low speeds is in fact done by steering in the direction you want to turn. And many riders fall off or run into things at very low speeds, so it should be practiced. I just returned to raiding after 30 years and am embarrassed to say I ran right into a post while trying to execute a simple downhill left with a slight drop from pavement to dirt. You may never forget how to ride, but the body does forget how to ride well in three decades.
At higher speeds I know it seems like the turn is initiated by leaning, but if you study your body mechanics carefully you will find that in the process of leaning your are actually “counter-steering”: turning the bars in the opposite direction from the turn. Try this: go to a big open parking lot, get up to speed, and keep your body erect while gently turning the bars toward the right. You and your bike will pitch into a left hand turn surprisingly quickly. This is a consequence of the fact that your front wheel acting like a gyroscope.
A lot of motorcycle accidents have been caused by folks not understanding this and truing to steer in the same direction as they lean in an emergency. I suspect the same is rue on bicycles.
Oddly, I did learn to turn doing exactly what you describe, by going to an empty parking lot and working at it until I had it down pat.
Unlike you, however, I didn’t take a 30 year sabbatical from bicycling; I’ve been riding for the last 30 plus years. And no, I do not turn the handlebars when I turn except, as you point out, at extremely slow speeds.
Despite what you and the writer below suggest, a simple lean is more than sufficient for a rapid swerve out of danger, as well as most full turns. To compare it to a no-hands turn is ludicrous.
And yes, counter steering is efficient for situations when a sharper turn is required, such as an emergency turn to avoid a right hook. It is a skill every rider should learn, but hardly required for normal situations.
Absolutely correct! You can turn by only leaning but it’s a very slow turn, just like riding with no hands.
No offense, but that is completely untrue. To compare the efficiency of leaning into a turn to riding with no hands is absurd. If that were the case, I would have been dead many times over.
Please go try the experiment I suggested and see if you still don’t beleive in counter steering. i didn’t beleive it either when I first heard it. Another very useful experiment it to take your wheel off your bike and hold it with two hands on the axel while someone spins it up. Now try to turn it and see what happens.
I never said I don’t believe in counter-steering; it is a technique I’ve used when appropriate for years, and it’s gotten me out of some very dangerous situations.
But why would I feel a need to go to a parking lot, as I did decades ago as a beginning rider, to conduct the same experiments I did then to explore the same turning techniques I’ve already mastered and used for the last 30 years? And yes, I did the wheel-in-hand experiment in junior high science class.
I appreciate your enthusiasm, and you are more than free to disagree with anything I say here. If you believe in counter-steering in all situations, by all means, counter-steer.
But don’t assume that I, or anyone else, lacks knowledge of cycling simply because you favor a different technique. I ride the way I do based on my own personal experiences since taking up riding as an adult in 1981; my advice here is what has worked to keep me safe and alive ever since.
I guarantee you won’t get down Polamar Mountain, or down Couser Road (to name just a few around my house) without countersteering. Most people countersteer without even knowing they’re doing it. Countersteering makes the bike lean.
I’ve read motorcycle accident reports where they attributed the fact that the operator turned into the crash because of the lack of knowledge of countersteering.
Read Keith Codes “Twist of the Wrist”. I’m done.
Actually, leaning on the bike makes it lean, as does shifting your weight. As noted above, by you, me and Carl, counter-steering is a useful technique that works beautifully in the right situations.
It is not the only technique. And yes, many riders unintentionally counter-steer when attempting to turn; many experienced riders, like myself, don’t.
After 30 plus years on the bike, I know how to turn. Seriously.
And let’s not forget that most bicyclists will never ride down a mountain, or ride at racing speeds.
So what, exactly, is your point?
We’ve already agreed that counter-steering is an effective technique, and one I myself have used for decades, though not as my primary steering technique.
You have also derided my primary steering technique, and that used by millions of other riders, as being the equivalent of turning with no hands.
As I’ve already suggested, the overwhelming majority of bike riders will never ride down a mountain or ride at racing speeds. And even the video you linked to described counter-steering as a technique for advanced and pro cyclists.
So are you suggesting that everyone should use counter-steering, and only counter steering, all the time in every situation? That when a car door pops open, or a car pulls out in front of a less experienced rider, he or she is better off counter-steering rather than simply swerving around the threat?
I seriously did not intend to offend anyone. However, counter-steering should be in everyones bag of tricks. Use what works in the situation you find yourself in.
PS – yes ,I took 30 years off – and I’ m old – but what does that have to do with bicycling safely?
The only question it raises is why someone who hasn’t been riding for 30 years would assume he knows more than someone who has.
Age has nothing to do with bicycle safety. Riding experience and knowledge has everything to do with it.
For all I know, you could be a relative neophyte who has just gotten back on a bike for the first time since you got a driver’s license. Or you could be an expert cyclist with an in-depth knowledge of bicycle safety, despite the time you’ve taken off from riding.
Based on the limited self description you’ve given, I have no way of knowing.
For some reason, though, you seemed to assume that I was not familiar with counter-steering, and did not even know whether I was actually doing it without realizing it. I can assure you that neither of those assumptions are true.
While your advice to go to a parking lot and practice those skills was well intentioned, that was exactly what I did as a beginning rider just learning how to turn effectively. I spent weeks in that lot, practicing my turns over and over before I ever tried it out on the street, until I mastered the skill of plotting a line through a turn, and carving a perfect arc with my knee just inches from the ground.
And I’ve used those skills on a near-daily basis ever since, riding well over 150,000 miles as a very conservative estimate; 200,000 plus is probably more accurate.
Look at it this way. Picture some skill you mastered decades ago that is central to your life. Now imagine that someone who tells you he hasn’t done it in years says you’ve got it all wrong, based strictly on a brief bit of advice you gave to help others who might not have your skills or experience.
That’s exactly what bicycling is to me. It’s been the central aspect of my life for over 30 years, ever since I resumed riding as an adult in my early 20s. If I’m not riding my bike, I’m writing about riding, or advocating for better conditions and safety for cyclists.
I intentionally did not include advice on counter-steering on this page because I didn’t want to confuse less experienced bicyclists. For those riders, I still believe they are far better off learning to steer their bikes by shifting their weight rather than using their handlebars, or moving directly to an advanced technique like counter-steering.
However, you are right that it is as valuable skill to have. And based on your input, as well as that of Danny, I will add a brief reference to counter-steering on this page, describing it as a more advanced technique allowing riders to turn more sharply on tight corners or in emergency situations.
Which is exactly how I use it.
Sorry, I have to make one more comment, and I do respect your contributions to cycling.
Counter steering two wheel vehicles is not an advanced technique that is only done in high speeds. They taught it to us at the Honda Motorcycle Safety class. We were riding in an area the size of a hockey ring on 250 motorcycles. I doubt we ever got above 20-25, which is pretty much what cyclists do on flat ground with no wind.
I agree you can make small course corrections by leaning, and its useful riding in a pack or a straight line, but when you want to turn, the safest, most controlled method is counter steering. It’s something people really need to understand to be safe and in control.
I’m 53 and have been riding bikes and motorcycles since I was 6. I grew up on a farm and we road motorcycles everywhere and our bicycles everyday. I confess I didn’t understand counter steering until 2-3 years ago when I decided I wanted to learn about being safer on my motorcycle. I took a couple of motorcycle safety classes and read several books. When I started using it on the bicycle I couldn’t believe I had ridden so long and was ignorant on how I was actually controlling the bike.
Just think, if you didn’t have to counter steer you wouldn’t need a headset. They’d probably make TT bikes like that since the courses are straight and you’re not in a pack.
Keep up your good work.
I apologize for the poor dictation as I am using the verbal dictation system
I think you need to have on your website the basic rules the bicyclist need to follow
I do not own a car and three bicycles
I have been biking in Los Angeles for 17 years
On a recent Sunday afternoon in Santa Monica at a busy four way stop sign intersection I observed the following
Of 33 bicyclist
23 ran the stop sign
Of those 23 seven completely blew through it at high-speed
On many occasions the bicyclist almost hit a pedestrian and that usually resulted in the bicyclist flipping off the pedestrian going nuts
I observed twice the car making the light contact with the car when the bike blew through the intersection but the bicyclist seemed irate
I would estimate have to sit tallies and Siri June injuries involving bicyclist in LA and cars are the fault of the bicyclist
You need to step up take responsibility and stop blowing through stop signs for a pedestrian is killed or another bicyclist dies
I was trying to find a theme – something we can grab on to and work around stated from one of our riders and will call him AG! Not sure but it seems like most of the fatalities were on high-speed roads that typically have wider shoulders and therefore we’ve always considered them “safe.” PCH, San Juaquin, Santiago, Newport Coast… seem to have the following factors:
-most fatalities seem to be same-direction collisions – a car veering into the bike lane going the same direction
-high-speed (55-mph plus) roads
-riders tended to be either alone or in small groups
-doesn’t seem like the riders could have done anything about it.
Is it realistic to avoid these types of roads? Perhaps ride in larger groups? Maybe be really nerdy and increase lights and high-visibility colors? Who knows? Distracted/drunk drivers won’t see you in any situation, and that seems to be a large majority of the culprits.
Good stuff here. I’ve posted this to my blog. I’ve never seen a discussion of tactics for falling and turning by shifting body weight.
Learning how to ride a motorbike could be of great help for riding a racing type bicyle, just for getting the right feeling for the involved physics on a bike. With high speeds you do everything with weight shifting. On behalf of falling I guess learning from martial art how to roll is the best advise. Fantastic discussion btw.
[…] is a great post from bikinginla about safety tactics for cyclists. The points of greatest interest to me are tactics for falling […]
I ride to work, about a 20 mile round trip. I try to stay on side streets as much as I can. It seems to be safer and is a lot easier on my nerves.
I have a simple, definitive bike helmet experiment that anybody can do at home. Go out to the sidewalk in front of your house. Get down on your knees. Now slam your forehead on the cement really hard — go ahead, you can do it! Whack!! Hurts, doesn’t it. A little dizzy? Now wipe off the blood and put on your bike helmet. Slam your head on the sidewalk again. Notice the difference?
Regarding Tactic “positioning yourself to be seen at red lights’:
This is good advise and it makes sense logically in terms of angles of view. However when you move forward to the crosswalk past a line of cars waiting in line for the signal, the immediate reaction which some driver have is: “does he think he is special?” Then add to that being actually in the crosswalk; this annoys pedestrians and the drivers who are watching. The impression is that the person on the bike is acting entitled and without regard for the pedestrians.
Bottom line: this may seem like a way to ride, but it actually causes more anger among drivers and others. A far better tactic is to just lay back and allow traffic to clear, or even better, if it is a really busy urban intersection, just dismount and walk the bike across the crosswalk like we learned as kids. This in my opinion is the far better and far safer approach. Besides, what is the hurry? Choosing to ride a bike means you have more time on your hands to spare and don’t need to try to travel as fast as the cars.
Just a thought after reading several of the helmet posts.
It might be possible that people wearing helmets do not get injured, and, therefore, do not even report the accident they were in. I had a fall a few years ago, and didn’t report it. My helmet was cracked, instead of my head. I felt a bit woozy afterwards, indicating some head trauma. Now, common sense says, without that helmet, it would have been much worse.
For several years now, I’ve been riding with a rear-view mirror.
I use it constantly. I can see when drivers are coming too close. I often see them from a good distance away, and am always aware of them. I am convinced that I could, and might just save my ownn life one day, by taking an aversive maneuver if someone gets too close. I’ve even thought of practicing doing bunny hops with my road bike, so I could bunny hop a curb if necessary, to get out of the way of an approaching car. Has anyone else thought along these lines?
Actually, that’s a pretty common technique to avoid a crash; I remember one of the previous victims of Dr. Thompson used a bunny hop to jump the curb and get out of his way to avoid a crash.
As for a mirror, many riders use one for exactly the reasons you describe. Personally, after 30+ years of riding, I’ve learned to listen to the sound of oncoming traffic and bail if I hear one coming too close. However, with the advent of electric and hybrid vehicles. I’m starting to think I should get one so I don’t get surprised by a near silent car.
Regarding the mirror.
Anyone else out there who uses one, and has experience with it saving them, please share.
When I was riding in Detroit a lot 30+ years ago the I read an article in a local paper that the police were giving away free whistles to bicycle riders and anyone else I guess. I did not use it much then but I am riding again in So Cal so I bought another one and am using it a lot. It is especially good on sidewalks to alert pedestrians that you are coming through if you are going the same way as they are. It is also good for alerting drivers in parked car along a street so they may not door you or pull out.
Your definition of defensive riding seems to mean being aware of your surroundings. More recently, defensive riding means to know bike crash types such as a left or right hook, etc., and to position yourself properly. To cycle as if you were a vehicle, in the center of the lane when appropriate. A bike safety class such as one from the League of American Cyclists or Cycling Savvy will teach how to ride defensively.
Working your way past cars to line up in the crosswalk is not the safest way to position yourself. What if there is no bike lane and traffic starts up while you are working your way near the curb? You’re going to be stuck to the right as traffic starts up and you are not in the lane. You will have to re-enter traffic with cars moving very close to you, which may not be easy to do. Also, you could be in a car’s blind spot and get a right hook if you don’t get to the front in time. If you are moving up in the right turn lane, somebody ahead could change their mind and move into that lane at the last second and hit you. Then, you want to position yourself in the crosswalk? Not everybody is a good driver. You can make cross traffic nervous and they could swerve into you. This is called “directional focus”, which means they want to avoid you but are nervous and head straight for you. If you think this is rare? It’s probably about as common as getting hit from behind while waiting behind a car at an intersection. Besides, if you’re wearing bright clothing and got a bright tail light, that should help immensely. Then, intersections are a common place for accidents between cars. They could ricochet and head for you. This does happen. Lastly, why would you want to go through an intersection first? This is when cars run the red light. Its safer to go through an intersection with a car in the front and in the rear, to protect you. If you’re behind a big truck, ride left of center to be seen by cross traffic. This is what is known a “defensive cycling”, to be properly positioned. Or, have a flashing front light for better visibility. Plus, waiting your turn to move through the intersection will prevent motorist from viewing cyclists as narcissists who believe they are entitled to do anything they want.
[…] Below are a few safety tips and survival tactics for the urban cyclist: […]
I’m bringing up a long ago subject about helmets. It’s my personal experience, therefore anecdotal. Statistical data is great at the macro level, but how much does it really help the individual situation?
I was clotheslined by a branch of a large tree, the section of branch was a bit thicker than the fat end of a baseball bat. I was knocked off my bike, and landed flat on my back while my bike stopped several feet past me. There was both crushing and cracking of my helmet.
I did some force calculations from an online calculator:
-MLB player: 33 ounce bat (.94 kg) with 75 mph bat swing speed (33.5 m/s squared) = 31.5 newtons
-Me: 160 lbs (72.8 kg) traveling at 13 mph (5.8 m/s squared) = 422 newtons
My helmet took the equivalent force that is 31 times greater than the average MLB player swinging a bat. Imagine that force hitting my forehead directly.
My visor obstructed my view and there was no evasive action on my part, I was completely caught of guard. Not only did my helmet soften the blow, but there was a secondary branch that was cut off that main branch and a sharp protrusion was left, similar to a door wedge. This would have cut my scalp and possibly deep into bone. My worst injury was a stiff neck, and rug burn the size of a quarter on my forehead from my sweatband. I did see stars but did not lose consciousness.
My point is… you can’t always predict how head protection will reduce injury. Statistically this exact scenario is near improbably for any one single rider, but it happened to me. I average over 2000 miles per year between my road and mtb and have been riding consistently since 1991. Statistically I will probably never need a helmet again as protection, but it’s a good place to mount headlights so I’ll keep using one… minus the visor.