February 26, 2022
Do cyclists suffer from excessive fixation on helmet safety?
With accidental deaths at historic highs in the United States, it’s a good time for cyclists to consider how to best protect themselves. As part of this process, we should be willing to rethink what we believe about safety, and poke holes in conventional wisdom, if that “wisdom” is making us less safe.
Bicycle helmets are one great example. Ask someone how to best protect herself on a bike, and “a good helmet” is likely to be answer number one.
And that makes sense – our brains are the most vulnerable, and irreplaceable, parts of our anatomy.
Yet as a recent Bicycle.com piece argues, it’s possible to place too much emphasis on a single safety intervention. While helmets are great, in many cases, they are the equivalent of trying to treat a severed limb with a band-aid.
According to Biycle.com:
“The truth is that helmets help, but only to a point. If a person cycling hits a pothole, a helmet would act as a significant injury preventer, cushioning the impact of their head against the asphalt. But if a person cycling is run over by a 13,000-pound truck, they and their helmet would be crushed.”
The article also raises the specter that helmets may not provide as much protection as we commonly believe.
“There is also evidence that drivers are more reckless when driving near cyclists wearing helmets, that laws requiring helmets make people less likely to ride a bike, that repealing those laws would make people more likely to ride a bike, and evidence that this effect—fewer people riding bikes—actually increases the number of per-capita bike crashes. While a higher number of people who ride bikes in an area is linked to fewer bicyclists showing up injured at local hospitals, there is no such correlation for areas that require bicycle helmets by law. Further, among countries with high rates of bicycling, the ones where people wear helmets the least also have the lowest cyclist fatality rates. In the United States, which has the highest rate of helmet use of all those countries, the rate of cyclist fatalities is also highest.
That is certainly food for thought. The article goes on to point out that Giro, a major helmet manufacturer, admits it does not design its helmets to provide protection from cars. Additionally, studies have shown that ticket citations for failing to wear a helmet are disproportionately given to people from marginalized backgrounds.
Helmets have their place – but they are not a substitute for protected bike lanes, laws and regulations designed to protect cyclists and motorists who are willing to share to road in a fair and peaceful manner.
Ultimately, cyclists can only do so much to protect themselves from fatal collisions. The onus remains on our communities and the politicians who lead them. Instead of an excessive focus on helmets or safety gear, or simply becoming inured to “accidents” occurring in perpetuity, we need to realize that most of these fatal incidents are fully preventable. By advocating for ourselves, we can ensure that the political will exists to protect cyclists.
Gary Brustin is a lifelong cyclist and a specialist in bicycle accident law. In fact, these are the only types of cases he accepts. If you’ve been injured in a collision, we urge you to contact Gary for a complimentary consultation.