Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Caught in the Helmet-War Crossfire

To helmet or not to helmet? A question thats been floating around in my head this past year. Of course it's illegal to not wear one in New Zealand, though I don't know how vigorously the police enforce that law. 

I recently left an innocent comment on, a site run by my old Flickr contact Mikael. Just a couple of anecdotes from my past where I felt a helmet had saved me at the very least a fractured skull, and in one of my motorcycle accidents I'm pretty sure it saved my life. For balance I mentioned that I don't think they should be mandatory and I certainly agree with the anti-helmet brigade that regulating helmet use reduces the number of potential cyclists in a population. 

Well this is obviously a passionate subject! Insults were flying in both directions, examples made to support both arguments and statistics twisted to fit all views. 

I'm so keen on all forms of cycling that I don't like to see us arguing amongst ourselves, but it is a subject that needs debate - rational debate. 

So I walked away from this fight for now, a little gun-shy but determined to learn more about the subject.

What's your opinion?


Craigers said...

It is not a requirement to wear a helmet in the State of Wisconsin, USA. Statistically, folks that wear helmets have a better ratio of living through accidents than folks that don't wear helmets - you can't argue with the facts. Does this mean that I wore a helmet when I was still riding my Harley? I wore a helmet during my licenseing ride and about 2 weeks after, and then never again. As far as bikes go, you usually only have to wear a helmet when you are in a race or organized event, or they won't let you ride. Do I wear a helmet on my bike? Only when I'm doing a race or an organized event, or when I riding with my daughter (I believe in setting a good example - and being hypocritical). Should I wear one? Probably. Am I stupid? Probably. Take this for what it's worth.

Dan said...

I think it is very interesting that cycle usage decreased here in NZ following the introduction of compulsory helmets, but i wonder if other factors are also part of the decline in cycling - cheap imported cars for example.

I've had mountain bike accidents where i know the helmet has saved me from serious injury - i'd never MTB without one. But i'd like to be able to bike into town for a beer without my helmet as well.

Doug said...

I KNOW wearing a helmet has saved my noggin a couple of times. I'm an excellent bike handler, but all my accidents were kind of freak things. Unexpected and happened when I least expected them.

However, I never preach and feel it's a personal choice. There is no bicycle helmet law in my state here in the U.S.

coastkid said...

its not a legal requirement yet here in the uk,2 years ago i fractured my skull punching a hole in my cheekbone in a big crash riding downhill,that was wearing a fullface helmet!,it was just an uplift day and there was kids riding in jump lids,if id been wearing one of them i proberly wouldnt be hear now,at least not with out my teeth!!,ive had some concussion crashes wearing a lid so hate to think what would of happend without one,but i sweat my head off whereing a helmet!!!,looks strange when you see someone cycling on the road without a helmet,like somethings missing and i think of my big crash,3 days memory loss (wierd and scary!!)and the face scar i now have and i think of shouting to them get a helmet on!!!

Antoine said...

@Craigers: I have ridden motorcycles all my life and apart from a couple of years as a "headstrong" teenager have always worn a helmet.
I would wear one 90% of the time when cycling if it was not the law.

@Dan: The helmet law came in when I was about 18 so I spent my whole childhood helmet-less. I never heard of anyone injuring their head despite our many crashes but common sense says it must have happened. The traffic was lighter back then and I think you are right about the import cars -motorcycle use dropped-off as well.

@Doug: I agree with your points entirely but when cruising at 6mph, on a bike path, on a summers day, I would exercise that "personal choice" and ride without one. Still a chance to fall awkwardly but the same applies when running or skating at similar speeds. On the road I believe cars are the biggest danger.

@Coastkid; I had a motorcycle accident at only 50-60kph and would have lost my face as well (if not my life). The impact smashed in the fibreglass by my ear like a broken eggshell and the paint and half the fibreglass was scraped-away all around the chin-piece to the front. I never wore an open-face helmet again and my neck was sore for 6 weeks!

My cycling helmet is light and comfortable and I don't mind wearing it (just don't like being told to). The anti-helmet lobby will tell you that they are not manufactured to the same standards as a motorcycle helmet and are of no value at impacts above 15kph. My take on that is if someone was hitting your helmeted head with a baseball bat would you take it off when they started swinging above 16kph?

Don Mackie said...

Here goes... Three thoughts.
1. Off road, a helmet stops my scalp getting scarred by branches and also....
2. Drop something from a height of 1.8m and by the time it hits the ground it is going at 20km/hr. So if I flip on an oily manhole cover or the like I have about a second to put an arm out (and risk breaking it or my clavicle) and avoid my head hitting the kerb at that sort of speed. In these situations I think a helmet will reduce risk of serious head injury. And though I haven't fallen off lately it can happen to experienced riders, and is probably more likely to affect the inexperienced. I wear a helmet on road.
3 a few years ago now there was a paper in the BMJ that suggested cyclist deaths in London were more commonly associated with collisions with heavy goods vehicles or buses. Whether that was when the motor vehicles were turning or not was left as a question. Speeds were generally low. Visibility from HGV cabs is a whole other issue that two wheel riders often discuss. I'm not sure a helmet makes much difference if you are being crushed by a truck or the rarer event of being hit by a high speed vehicle, so expectations should be limited.

Antoine said...


All good points. Coincidentally I smacked my head hard on a pine tree branch while mountainbiking in the forest yesterday. It really hurt even with a helmet!

Our neighbour was showing off on an employee's motorbike and fell onto his bare head doing a u-turn at walking pace. It was touch and go for a while and he was bleeding inside his brain so I agree that you don't have to be going fast.

When I start talking about helmets I come across as some kind of helmet advocate but it's really quite the opposite. I seem to have more pro-helmet anecdotes but still don't want to wear one popping down the road for an ice-cream ;^)

Don Mackie said...

Kinda agree Antoine. It's the compulsion that rankle and nice to occasionally take the no-hat option.