Poking the Helmet Debate

I’ll be up front – I usually wear a helmet while riding the bike. Both of my kids have bike helmets, and are pretty religious about wearing them, even to the point of telling their friends “Hey, wait – I’ve got to get my helmet” when they go to ride bikes. Helmets are good, m’kay?

But bikes are better.

The couple of times I’ve caught the kids without helmets, I’ve just handed them to them, and a couple of times when we’ve been out as a family in the evening, Missy and I walking and the kids riding, I’d just told them to keep going, ’cause in my mind building kids who love cycling is going to make them healthy years later. I’d rather treat the helmet as a “nice to have” instead of an all-or-nothing, making riding the bike sometimes a negative experience.

I’m not arguing that helmets don’t work – they do, even in high speed situations. But making them completely mandatory with punitive makes people not ride bikes, or so sez some Commonwealth medical researchers via BikeRadar:

For example, a 1989 case-controlled study (i.e. directly comparing helmet wearers with non-helmet wearers) published in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that bicycle helmets reduce the risk of head injury by 85 per cent.

Writing in the British Medical Journal in 2006, Dorothy Robinson, a statistician at the Department of Primary Industries in Armidale, Australia, claimed that helmet laws caused cycling levels to drop by 20 to 40 percent in several Australian cities and states.

Robinson’s point seems to have been backed up by evidence from 1990 – Victoria, Australia, introduced an all-ages cycle helmet law in that year and helmet use rose from 31 percent to 75 percent, with the number of head injuries dropping by 40 percent.

However, cycle counts in Melbourne showed drops of between 33 percent and 46 percent. Injuries dropped roughly in proportion to the decline in cycling. The proportion of serious head injuries compared to overall injuries fell only slightly.

I’ll be clear again: I think if you’re going to ride and have a helmet, you ought to wear it. However, if you’ve got a bike and a car and decide to go somewhere on the bike instead of in the car, do it. If you want to go cruise the rail-trail in a straw bowler, feel free. And if you really, really want to go climb wearing a USPS cap and pretend you’re Lance back in 1999, knock yourself out, helmet or not.

Bikes rule. Go ride.