Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Helmets: Are they BS?

A recent comment seemed to criticize me for using a certain pro-helmet argument in a segue.

I said: It is said that a rider who doesn't protect his brain with a helmet has nothing to protect anyway.

Fritz said...

The tendency of helmet advocates to fall back to -- nay -- start with empty but insulting ad hominem says something about the emptiness of their efficacy claims. IMO.

This would seem to imply that the commenter does not believe helmets are effective. Yet the argument that non-users have not thought about the problem thoroughly seems like a valid one, if one believes that helmets have a beneficial effect.

Interestingly, in almost all of my serious crashes I was not wearing a helmet, and it didndidndidndidn hurt me none. I'm perfectly fine AND WHERE DID THOSE BATS COME FROM?!?!?!?! GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!

Seriously, though, I have hit the ground hard a number of times without benefit of brain bucket and come out of it no more addled than I went in. Which isn't necessarily saying much, but I have not displayed any strong indications of permanent damage. Honest. I was this flaky before.

But wait: my most serious crash ever occurred before I went into third grade. I felt a little under-motivated in second grade, but I actually hit the pavement hard enough to be knocked unconscious in the big crash, and had trouble paying attention in school (or much of anywhere else, truth be known) ever afterwards. Hard sayin' at this point, but maybe a crash hat would have taken the edge off and put me into Phi Beta Kappa later on.

I made somewhat of a career of smashing into things throughout my childhood. Through cycling I was able to carry this pastime on into adulthood. Except for crashes in races, where helmets were required, I always went down bare-skulled. In more than one instance I felt my noggin bounce off the tarmac.

I started wearing a helmet somewhat regularly when I commuted on a busy four-lane road. On quieter streets I had talked myself out of the geek dome, but my new wife put pressure on me to wear it. That and the mechanized meat grinder nudged me over the line. I became a helmet guy.

I did lapse. I wasn't wearing it when a passenger in a car stopped in traffic threw a car door into my left leg as I rode by at 20 in a marked bike lane to the right of where her chariot stood in line with a hundred others in a traffic jam. The edge of the door drove into the muscle of my thigh, bringing me to a rapid halt. But most of the time I felt naked without it, as if this might be the day my luck finally ran out.

One time when I crashed in a race, tee-boning a rider who had rolled a tire in front of me, I flipped over and landed head first on the frontal area of an old Bell Biker. That impact probably would have been a skull-crusher. It was a tight field and I don't recall being able to get my hands out of the drops before going over the falls. I was not able to assume the perfect tuck-and-roll position in the time and distance available.

I do feel safer in traffic than in any race field of low-level licensed riders. Even at high levels, tight fields and hot sprints can lead to some chaotic situations. Cars are usually easier to evade. But people throw things out of them, pedestrians dart out from behind obstructions, front wheels get knocked around by a variety of things. Would you go to sea on a ship with no life boats?

One customer complained that if he wore a helmet he would linger in a coma, whereas without it he would die cleanly. If only you could count on things to work out that tidily. But you don't really know. Others say they don't need a helmet because they ride slowly. Yet at slow speeds you are more likely to fall straight down instead of sliding in. And slow riders who may be timid may be more likely to fall, and fall stiffly.

Our local bike path offers many opportunities for unsteady riders to bite it. The rails are still there on this rail trail, because a rail car club uses it from time to time. The path runs between the rails in some areas, and beside them in others. That means riders have to cross the rails many times. The crossings get scuffed out. The rails are fiendishly slippery when wet. The path surface is not uniformly firm, so a bike's tires suddenly wallow into unconsolidated sand. Many other sketchily paved or totally unpaved venues present opportunities for less experienced riders to go down.

Sure, many generations did very well with no head protection at all. Maybe I picked up my initial prejudices from some experienced riders I respected a great deal. Why worry? Something gets you eventually.

My employers can get pretty pushy about the helmet thing. Mostly they're afraid of getting sued. So whenever a renter turns down the helmet there's a lot of clucking for some time afterwards. Likewise with helmetless Mitt, who has been a mobile tourist attraction around town for several years.

Incidentally, I didn't seriously think Romney's choice in this matter made much of a difference. He has other positions with which I disagree. I just thought it was funny two helmet objectors would turn out to be his staffers.


greatpumpkin said...

I used to be one of those people who hated wearing a helmet because I thought I would look like a dork. That was back in the days of the old Bell box turtle shell. Then the helmet makers began designing them to look like fashion accessories. That helped. But really it was when I got that I would look even more like a dork with a broken head that a helmet oculd have prevented. Now I wear a helmet like I wear seat belts in the car--obsessively. I hate even to test ride a bike around the parking lot without one. There are enough ways to get hurt cycling, even when you are doing everything right, not to make use of everything that could enhance your safety.

Anonymous said...

Fritz: as an American you still have your ability to choose NOT to wear your helmet. In my opinion that makes you sort of a stupid fool, but we have a right to be stupid fools.

Of course if you become a drooling semi-zombie unable to care for yourself, and you lack the means to hire a drool wiper you can always depend on us, the tax paying non zombies to help you out.

The problem with people that argue for the pro-helmet lobby are in fact trying to rob you of your freedom as are the evil anti-smoking lobby and the safe-sex bunch and I agree they must be stopped.

Life free or die, doe not mean Live Free and Die, does it ?

God Bless America, God Bless Freedom

Anonymous said...

> Yet the argument that non-users have not thought about the problem thoroughly seems like a valid one, if one believes that helmets have a beneficial effect.

No, if one believes that helmets have a beneficial effect and that this is the only possible conclusion anyone who thinks about it can possibly come to, then it's a valid argument. But since that's not true, it's not a valid argument.
But just because your argument is wrong and your claims about it are wrong doesn't mean you have no brains to protect, so the original ad hominem, even with the weasel words "it is said", would have been wrong anyway.

Anonymous said...

The argument is not "wrong", the argument is "not valid". Play by your own rules logic-boy.

cafiend said...

1: I should have said that if one takes helmet wearing as an article of faith then non-believers could be simply cast in the wrong. It is still your choice whether to believe in the wrong thing and go to hell. ;-)

2: The question remains, on a less polarized level, Are Helmets BS? What are the drawbacks and limitations that make non-use a preferable option?

3: Is this the sort of topic that makes endless forum threads? We don't have a good format here for that sort of discussion.

steve said...

Here's my reason to wear a helmet: after being hit by a 78 year old driver on disabled plates who turned left into me, doing a somersault over the front handlebars, landing on my head then on my back across the kerb, thanks to the helmet and body armour I was wearing my injuries were:

* Compressed fracture of T4 vertebrae
* Wedge fracture of T5 vertebrae
* Minor whiplash to the neck
* Road rash on left arm, right knee
* Bruising all over the place

General consensus from the doctors was without my protection I would be paralysed (and quite possibly brain damaged) or dead. I don't think my helmet is BS.

cafiend said...

I know another Steve who has split two helmets in different crashes. He adamantly endorses helmet use.

Dr. Logan said...

And there was that guy in NY who's head was run over by a truck a couple months ago. In any case - a question for those that don't use helmets:
Do you encourage your kids to use helmets?

cafiend said...

...that guy in NY who's head was run over by a truck a couple months ago


And good question about encouraging kids. I wear my dome even on short hops because I feel responsible to set a good example for the young 'uns.