Thursday, June 11, 2009

Helmet "Skeptics": Do They Protest Too Much?

The vehemence with which the bicyclist opponents of bike helmet use attack the practice of wearing one makes me wonder if they secretly (or not so secretly) feel they might be wrong about not wearing one. They feel the need to state (even screech) over and over that helmets HURT CYCLING! DO YOU UNDERSTAND!? HELMETS ARE BAD, VERY BAD, NOT GOOD! GET RID OF YOUR HELMET AND REALLY HELP CYCLING TO GROW!

Sorry, I've just been following this thread on another cycling site. The helmet debate heats to a boil instantly. Each side throws its statistics at each other. Then the snide meter goes through the roof.

I hate wearing my helmet. But then, the designers of the Titanic hated how their pretty ship would look with a bunch of fugly lifeboats all over it. The vast majority of ships make it to harbor without ever needing lifeboats. If you have a good ship and know how to operate it, you'll never need those lifeboats anyway. Lifeboats, in fact, give the impression that SHIP TRAVEL IS DANGEROUS. Ticket bookings drop precipitously when potential customers think they might be in danger out there. And if you've ever actually been in a lifeboat, you will surely agree, those things will only save your life by the wildest stretch of luck. They're so small, in that huge ocean. Every passenger should have the choice of bringing their own lifeboat if they feel it will enhance their safety. The poor misguided sods.

Brothers and sisters, people started to stop riding on the streets in the 1980s, long before there was a thriving bike helmet industry. Their perception of the danger stems from large numbers of pushy bastards shoving ever increasing numbers of vehicles through curb-lined death canyons in city and suburb. In fact, cyclist numbers began to drop well before the advent of the SUV. Maybe things were different in some specific regions, but in general many industrialized countries spent the 1980s falling out of love with the bicycle. Why do you think those of us who rode through that period are so shell-shocked and bitter? We believed all that 1970s horse shit about peace and love and ten speeds. We knew from experience that a better life was as close as our local bike shop and your own streets and roads. And the vast majority of our fellow citizens couldn't shit on us enough.

The tide seems to be turning, hallerlooya. A whole bunch of people have suddenly gotten the word, and that's good. I'm willing to bet that a large number of the people in the helmet debate weren't there from 1975 to the present.

Skimming the principal (and possibly only) study by Dr. Ian Walker regarding motorists overtaking cyclists with and without helmets, I see only points of departure for further, better organized and targeted studies no one will ever undertake because of the trouble and expense involved. For instance, Dr. Walker states that motorists passed cyclists much closer when the riders were farther out in the lane, "contrary to what many experienced cyclists believed would happen."

Dr. Ian, I don't expect motorists to give me more room when I cover the lane. I either intend to block them completely until it is safe for them to pass, or I'm just trying to gain myself a little more escape room when something big decides to wedge in beside me.

Dr. Walker states that helmets do protect the head in low speed crashes. Because of this, he says, they are good for children, but of dubious benefit to adults. Of course. Adults never ride slowly. Here's an idea: as soon as you get up to a really safe speed you can take your helmet off and put it on the rear carrier until you plan to slow down again. "Please return seat backs and tray tables to the upright position and fasten seat belts as we make our approach to the runway."

I know a lot of slow adults. Indeed, many of the "street clothes cyclists" who make the loudest noise about the massive benefits of riding helmetless make a big point about how they ride upright bikes in a non-strenuous way: SLOWLY.

None of this would draw my interest except for the ululating of the faithful on both sides of the battle lines.

"Ayeyeyeyeyeyeyeyeyeye!! Death to helmets!"

"Ayeyeyeyeyeyeyeyeyeyeye!! Death to the naked-headed!"



Rantwick said...

Yeesh indeed. Great post. Why does everybody have to get so psycho? I wear one as a hedge against those 'lifeboat' odds, but why the intensity on both sides?

cafiend said...

You know what's funny? I had just slipped over to take a look at your blog.

Yeah, the anti-helmet folks try to make helmet advocates feel like idiotic bigots and industry dupes. Hey! That could be a magazine! "Idiotic Bigots and Industry Dupes"

Anonymous said...

If I ever decide to ride the Quickbeam over to my step brother's house in North Conway I'll stop by the shop and we'll talk.

Who knows, we might even part friends, or maybe not. I'll likely arrive wearing a helmet, or maybe just my trouper hat. I'm not a true believer on either side of the issue, but at least strive to be a realist and wear my helmet when and where I perceive it to potentially provide value and sometimes decline where I do not.

Yes, I was there when to get a "bicycle" helmet I had to visit a hockey/mountaineering store and got jeered by EVERYBODY for wearing it. I even wore a Bell Star in cold weather (keeps your ears and nose nicely warm, although there is the fogging issue to deal with).

However, your analogy of the lifeboat is flawed. What you are really doing is taking Pascal's Wager.

And Pascal's Wager is flawed.

Richard Keatinge said...

Well, plenty of us know that the real risk of cycling is low and helmet laws have stopped a lot of people cycling and have done nothing for head injury rates, see Robinson DL. No clear evidence from countries that have enforced the wearing of helmets. BMJ 2006;332: 722-5. It appears that helmets break easily, but don't absorb the impact, see the engineers quoted at A broken helmet has simply failed, and the widespread anecdotes on the theme of "a helmet saved my life" seem to owe more to wishful thinking than to science. The only known connection is that helmets have strangled a few young children who were wearing helmets while playing off their bicycles. Why helmet zealotry? - there's a good question.

I'm cool, but I guess some people get irritated at being ordered to do silly useless uncomfortable things, what do you think?

Ham said...

Anon, Comparing it to Pascal's wager is unfair but accurate, but I suspect I mean that from different reasons.

What we are really crap at, as human beings, is risk evaluation. Probably best in some way for community survival, but on a personal level it can play heck with your life expectancy. Nowhere more so than on bikes.

What do I mean? Well, many people go and buy a lottery ticket and they feel good about it - the ad strap line in the UK for years was "It could be you". They may believe that their chances are infinitismally small, but they know there is still a chance, so they go for it. Few people think that way about their chances of having an accident or a helmet saving them from severe injury.

My own stance is that, after it saved my bacon in a freak accident where I had a flying lesson when a barrier blew into my bike, I wear one (almost) all the time these days, but everyone should make their own decision.

Had I not been wearing a helmet that day There's little doubt that I would have been severely injured instead of walking away. If you'd have asked me after that, if I wanted the option of going back in time and wearing a helmet every day I know what I would have said.

Anonymous said...

The following was written in response to R.K., but can apply equally well as a response to Ham. As a physicist I do not accept that an argument that can be categorized as accurate can be categorized as unfair. Nor do I accept anecdote, it is all too often (even my own), just plain wrong on empirical test:

What bothers me most (as a *helmet wearer* with a background in physics and engineering) about the pro helmet arguments are the people who offer glowing anecdotal evidence that their helmet saved their life; and point to their shattered shell as evidence of this.

These people SHOULD be sending vitriolic letters to the manufacturer about how their shoddy product failed (catastrophically) to protect their heads, instead of the glowing endorsements they actually send.

If you wear a helmet for protection take all the trouble you can to wear one that actually has a chance of protecting you.

That means a hard shell. A round one like a classic motorcycle helmet, that covers the back of your head and doesn't just sit on top of it (the most likely fatal blow is to the temples or the base of the skull, not the crown). Keep it well polished and WAXED. This isn't for looks; it makes it a better helmet.

While helmets generically may actually work, the likely hood of the modern micro shelled (i.e. shrink wrapped), vented, duck tailed bit of styrofoam doing so is virtually nil. All of those shattered shells are testimony to this.

Because they CAN'T. Because they canna change the laws of physics.

If you feel safer wearing one of these contraptions you, very simply, are relying of a very ungainly St. Christopher's medal to provide you with safety and arriving unscathed from an accident while wearing one is no more evidence that it protected you than is arriving unscathed while wearing a medal (which a good many people will actually claim protected them. People are funny critters).

And even with a good hardshell one would be advised to ride as if one did not have a helmet on, because even the best helmet cannot actually provide true protection from injury, only mitigate it in certain limited circumstances.

Some helmets work, to some extent. NONE of them (not even the motor sports ones) work well. Because they can't. It's an idea worth accepting and getting used to.

Anonymous said...

Addendum addressed at Ham:

Think about the refutations to Pascal's Wager. It fails because it relies on a false dichotomy.

Now apply that to helmets and I think you will find my claim fair, BECAUSE accurate.

Keeping your head safe on a bicycle DOES NOT inherently imply what the market currently offers you to do so.

Evaluate the CLASSES of risk and evaluate the CLASSES of possible mitigations of those risks.

Ham said...

Anon, Pascal's Wager fails on so many levels, primarily hoist by its own petard: assume, then, that choosing God is a safer bet - but which God?? by the terms of the wager, you have to get it right, and as most faiths are mutually exclusive you are dead in the water. The similarity to the helmet argumnet for me is that he, too, was crap at evaluating risk.

Also, without getting at all personal your rant against the construction of the helmet appears a little misplaced. OK, full face and motorcycle helmets are more effective, but that does not mean that the ones we wear are ineffectual, especially for the sort of manoeuvre I carried out - a head plant in the road at moderate speed. Your argument appears to be similar to saying that a car that doesn't deform on impact is safer for its occupants than one that does.

Try a scientific experiment. Get a square of expanded polystyrene an inch or so thick, maybe 4" square. Hold it in the flat of your hand and whack it with a hammer. Now try that on your hand without the polystyrene.

I believe that for the most part I am able to control the risks on my bike by observing, anticipating and avoiding what would otherwise be dangerous situations. That I appear to be a freak-accident magnet, combined with the potential life changing harm that can come from a simple head injury - or in other words my own risk assessment - is why I, personally, choose to wear a helmet. I am also strongly anti compulsion.

Anonymous said...

". . . but which God?"

THAT is the false dichotomy to which I refer. Pascal's Wager has as an unstated axiom that only Pascal's God is an alternative to no God at all.

Similarly it is a false dichotomy to assume that "bicycle helmet" is the only alternative to no helmet for protecting a cyclist's head from injury (not to mention assuming that said helmet protection actually exists without subjecting the claim of the SPECIFIC helmet to critical analysis).

". . . that does not mean that the ones we wear are ineffectual . . ."

Indeed, it is the REASON motorcycle helmets are more effectual that mean the ones we wear are not.

"Try a scientific experiment . . ."

I have done such experiments. I have also done far more sophisticated ones in both understanding and pragmatic application. I am well aware of spreading loads over greater surface areas and mitigating accelerations by controlled crush structures.

But I would have to spend a couple hours with you in a lab walking you through where I am coming from.

You could, however, construct your own simple pressure/impact gauge out of a few scraps of wood and some weights (like water volume in a cup) and play around with blown out egg shells with various holes cut in them and liner materials applied to the inside.

IF you find such activities inherently enjoyable and do NOT fear that "faith" might be challenged.

In the meantime I would advise you to get a Pro-Tec BMX helmet. It isn't very good, but at least it's a damned sight better than the roadie style micro shell thingies.

"I am also strongly anti compulsion."

I think you find that, at the core, that is why the "anti" helmet people are so "intense" in their arguments.

The argument presented here suggests that the arguments for and against helmets are symmetrical; and they are not. There are no lobby groups to trying to force helmets OFF people's heads (except in automobiles, where they have actually been locally successful, which I find sadly amusing).

cafiend said...

It would be interesting to know Anonymous's qualifications, since (s)he speaks with such confident authority.

No lobbying group would try to force a piece of safety equipment OFF of a user group without the greatest confidence there would be no blowback. Even if a device is useless, unless that uselessness is irrefutably demonstrated, creating a powerful groundswell of opposition, any accident believed to be made worse by its absence will generate negative consequences for those who agitated for the device's removal.

Can there be lightweight, comfortable, effective helmets? Is there any point to trying to make them?

Ham said...

That's the answer! What I am experiencing are hallucinations brought about by a blow to the head whilst wearing insufficient protection. Explains a lot. Not why I still can't walk through walls, but I can work on that one.

Anonymous said...

"It would be interesting to know Anonymous's qualifications. . ."

I SAID I bought my fixie from Grant Peterson. What more evidence of my perspicacity do you require?

I do not advocate argument by authority. If you took Physics 101 from me the first thing I would have you do is MEASURE gravity for yourself. Only then would I proceed to lecture on the subject. I have suggested a means by which you might begin to TEST helmet design yourself; and there is, of course, a literature that goes back decades before the first bicycle specific models were introduced; and a broader literature on monocoque structures in general.

Experiment; and THINK about your experiments. Examine the literature and try to pick flaws in the testing methods and design parameters.

It is through criticism, not support, that knowledge is gained.

I find this exchange interesting in that I am not arguing against helmets, I am arguing for helmets worth a crap, and the resistance is not from anti helmet sorts, but from PRO helmet sorts defending Pascal's Helmet.

Go play with some eggs.

cafiend said...


Mikael said...

helmet haters?
hmmm. never met one of those.

helmet sceptics who are against promotion and legislation... yep, there's loads of those and I know most of them.

Funnily they are generally passionate cycling advocates, doctors, researchers, scientists, etc.

Calling these people 'helmet haters' is rather lame. We prefer 'lovers of the bicycle'.

cafiend said...


Anonymous said...

I missed this somehow:

"Can there be lightweight, comfortable, effective helmets?"

No. And is not same true of bikes themselves? Why did I spend $2k on a one speed bike and wait the better part of a year for it when I could have just gone to Wal-Mart and walked away with a 27 speed bike for a hundred bucks?

The Riv is lighter, more comfortable and more effective. A better overall value as well.

Are you not familiar with the engineer/mechanic's maxim?:

You can have it:
1. Right
2. Cheap
3. Fast
Pick any two.

This triune relationship can be applied in suitably modified form to may things.


"Is there any point to trying to make them?"

No, the very laws of physics forbid it. I canna change the laws of physics. I can only manipulate parameters within them toward a certain goal, while inherently degrading other goals I might well wish not to degrade, but them's the breaks.

So, one can make a heavier, less comfortable helmet that is more effective at achieving a very PARTICULAR goal; and one can make it a bit lighter if one is willing to raise the cost by roughly an order of magnitude.

That's just the way the universe is made; and one might as well get used to it, because if it weren't made that way we wouldn't be here with lives to protect from the way the universe is made in the first place.

Just a cyclist said...

I guess I am one of those that you like to call "helmet haters" altough I do not feel any hostility towards someone wearing one while cycling. What I dislike, however, is the disproportionate emphasis of danger on bicycles and the disproportionate emphasis of the powers of the styrofoam "panacea" - especially when there are much more important safety considerations to be applied.

Speaking of which, having followed the helmet wars on the web I've come to notice that whenever the "helmet haters" mention something about that helmets for car passengers would actually be more effective than for cyclist the "helmet lovers" all of the sudden become the loudest helmet-opponents...

orc said...

There's no disproportionate emphasis on the danger of bicycles. I'm riding unsecured on top of a vehicle at high speed and there are a host of things out there that can make me into a lawn dart or pancake without even a by your leave. Knowing this, and taking it into consideration when riding makes me safer than someone who jumps into their SUV and weaves off down the road as if they were Marie of Romania.

(And you know there are things called "seatbelts" that attach you to the inside of an automobile? If you don't rattle around inside the cage, you're /much/ safer there.)

Just a cyclist said...


cafiend said...

Just a Cyclist, hey, thanks for the accent. I can never remember how to get that.

"Helmet Haters" was probably an unfortunately inflammatory word choice, but it provided alliteration and did convey the strident tone of some of the critics of brain buckets and their proponents.

I amended it immediately to Helmet Skeptics when Mikael objected. Since I tend to live in my own little bubble I had not been acutely aware that the helmet industry was a criminal enterprise run by con men at the behest of government bureaucrats bent on "look good" pseudo-safety legislation.

I guarantee the motoring public would welcome anything that reduced cyclist numbers on the road, regardless of what that might be. If they ever figure out they can simply target us for annihilation we'll be in for a bloody few years. Helmets will remain irrelevant to survival, perhaps doubly so.

"It was an accident. I didn't see him. He had brown hair."

Just a cyclist said...

Wow, I guess you're on to something here. So maybe THAT is the reason why the helmets are pushed so hard... by the motoring public, to reduce the number of cyclists. You know, I am allways open to conspiracy theories so thank you for this one =)

cafiend said...