On the Road without a Helmet: It’s for your own good

20
Aug
2014

Here’s an interesting perspective on cycling without a helmet, written by Joanna Jaoudie.  I know our friends over at @cyclelicious might agree with this one….how about you?  Let us know your thoughts.

On the Road without a Helmet: It’s for your own good!

by Joanna Jaoudie

I love cycling. It’s something I grew up with. I remember when my parents taught me how to cycle for the very first time. They put a helmet on my head first. That was always the first rule. Then we had to move away for many years, bouncing back and forth between different countries that weren’t bike friendly, so I had to give up my bicycle. I knew I’d never forget how to ride a bicycle, and that it would only take some convincing before I agreed to put on a helmet again (I never really liked wearing one) when I found out that I’d be moving to the Netherlands. I was surprised to find see for myself upon my arrival that wearing a helmet is practically non-existent in Holland, and weirder things you wouldn’t expect to see happening on a bicycle was the norm. Exhibit A:

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[Screen shot taken from: “A cyclist’s mecca, with lessons for Boston” by The Boston Globe staff]

It’s more common to see a young mother transport her children on the same bicycle than to see someone wear a helmet. Yet, we see professionals wearing them all the time. We know that others have received a fine for cycling without one in the US, Canada and Australia. Even the UK has been fighting to pass a legislative bill over the matter for the last few years – though it still remains non-compulsory– probably for good reason.

There’s so much insistence on the matter, you’d think it’s a question of life or death. Is it really though? I’m here to argue that it isn’t, and to show you how wearing a helmet can actually be more harmful than not.

Let’s let the Netherlands, the bicycle capital of the world, set the example for us. Out of the 16 million Dutch people who own bikes (not counting international students and expats), only 6 people in Amsterdam and 200 nationally die in bike-related accidents yearly. Compare that to the 147 deaths that are witnessed per million inhabitants in the US every year. This article addresses these numbers more extensively, and for any sceptics out there, you can find the raw data officially published by the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment (in Dutch only). On the other hand, countries that make it obligatory to put on a helmet such as Australia don’t seem to be doing a good job keeping the death toll low, with the number of bike deaths spiking in fact.

So what is going wrong here? There are three important factors that need to be taken into account when discussing cycling safety: infrastructures, vehicles and human behaviour. Surely, contraflow cycling on dedicated lanes is one of the best structural adjustments that can be made –  something the Netherlands has taken care of. Not every single road is paved with safety, but designated bike paths and calculative road-safety investigations take care of vehicles getting in the way for the most part. However, the most interesting factor for the sake of this article is how human behaviour plays a role.

We’ve been told that helmets will protect us from potential skull and brain injuries that can happen when we suffer a fall, just like we’ve got it engrained in our heads that wearing a seat belt will save our life if we ever get into a car accident. Let’s get some physical facts out of the way first. Science doesn’t really support this theory, and data on the topic is ambiguous at best. According to Dr. Henry Marsh, a neurosurgeon at St. George’s Hospital in London, the flimsiness of many helmets can actually cause brain damage upon impact.

In addition to this, Dr. Marsh goes on to explain that the perception of both car drivers and cyclists change when helmets enter the picture. It turns out that piece of equipment that’s supposed to stop an accident may in fact be a trigger for one. Helmets tend to give us the impression that we are safer when we’re wearing them, which in turn makes drivers less wary of keeping their distance. In essence, cars are more likely to drive 3 inches closer to you when you’re wearing a helmet than not. To complement this behaviour, cyclists wearing helmets tend to pay less attention to their surroundings or how fast they’re going because of the obsessive association we’ve made with helmets and safety. The truth is though that you’ve exposed yourself to more danger the moment you convince yourself that a physical item is what will save your life.

It’s not like the Dutch have some supernatural ability to dodge the kinds of accidents that would lead to life threatening head trauma, but they do seem to harbour the kind of behaviour that is needed to make a living and breathing cycling society thrive without the need for helmets: trusting in themselves and their bicycle as the main method of transportation.

They do have the supernatural ability to make a call and cycle hands free like this though:

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Maybe it’s time for you to reconsider the next time you put on that helmet!

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About the author: Joanna Jaoudie is loving her bike and cycling her way through life in the Netherlands (without a helmet) where she’s lived for the last 3 years, first studying that funny thing called the mind and brain before taking on the nifty world of discounts with the global coupon site Flipit.com.

 

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6 Responses to “ On the Road without a Helmet: It’s for your own good ”

  1. Eric Hutchins on September 9, 2014 at 10:38 am

    While I normally agree with EVERYTHING on the LTB site, there is a fair amount about this post that I don’t agree with. Now I will say that I a fine with the personal choice aspect and I do not think any government regulation of who wears helmets and who doesn’t make sense.
    But, similar to Bobs comments, I am 100% certain that wearing a helmet has saved my life in two separate incidents in which I was struck by a car. One was a car running a red light and the other was a distracted driver. In neither case would the car have been more likely to see me if I did not have a helmet on, AND if I didn’t, I am certain I would not be typing this message today.

    It is not reasonable to compare a society/culture that is built around bicycling, to one like the US unless there is SO LITTLE cycling infrastructure. I wish there was, but there isn’t.

  2. Bob on August 21, 2014 at 7:18 pm

    I’ve been in a crash, avoiding a car that decided to turn in front of me at the last minute. My helmet was badly scraped and cracked in three places. With out the helmet I would have suffered at the minimum significant a brains to my head. The 2nd accident I had a car left hook me, that helmet was only dented and cracked in one place. Neither case was the helmet a factor in the drivers behavior, in one case he misjudged my speed, in the other case he just didn’t see me (I had more then sufficient lights and was wearing hi-vis). In the Netherlands they had vastly better infrastructure and there is a different attitude in the legal system towards pedestrians and cyclists. I know that the helmet won’t protect the rest of my body and that if vehicle slams into me at 30-40mph I’m toast so I’m not buying the argument that wearing a helmet makes me feel safe. I will continue to wear my helmet and I am opposed to mandatory helmet laws. I always use a rear light (blinking mode).

    • Joanna Jaoudie on September 15, 2015 at 7:34 pm

      If you take a look at the linked article that discusses the pros and cons of wearing a helmet, it’s noted that the impact an accident has on landing on your head (head first for instance) is what determines just how much a helmet can save a person’s life (or not). Of course, in an accident where your head plunges first to the ground, a helmet will save your life! In more flimsy scenarios that don’t involve high speed, the space that allows your head to bounce about in the helmet can have consequences (according to the Neuroscientist). Heck, I flew off my bike at 25mph and am lucky that I had enough time mid-air to influence how I landed (on my arm, leaving me with a fracture). If you’re going to cycle at a higher speed, yes, by all means- keep your helmet on!

  3. Mike on August 21, 2014 at 10:30 am

    Glad to see alternative interpretations of the actual data instead just bald assertions.

    I’m in Raleigh, I ride both here and in the Chapel Hill area. It is amazing how different drivers treat cyclists in different locations.

    I’m aware of the British experiments of drivers passing closer to cyclists based upon perceived cyclist characteristics. Closest for helmeted male adults, Furthest for unattended kids. Regardless for me, I’ll wear my hi viz helmet. It’s a great mount for head and tail lights. But mostly, I all to occasionally make mistakes would otherwise have taken a good knock to my head.

    One thing, I think that drivers give more space and are more courteous if your using a bright blinkie or 2. Others on a cycling forum have said they think that’s the case as well.

    Thank you for your essay.

    • Joanna Jaoudie on September 15, 2015 at 7:22 pm

      Glad you enjoyed it! It sure is a controversial topic. I’m not saying it’s wise to go without a helmet in countries where the most fundamental aspects of bicycling haven’t fully been figured out yet (at least to the extent in which they have been here in the Netherlands), and things like blinking front and rear lights are just as important at signalling to drivers that you’re on the road. I didn’t mention this, as I didn’t want to stray too much from the helmet topic, but you will receive a fine for riding without lights here in the Netherlands, just not if you’re riding without a helmet. Funny. :).

      • mike on September 17, 2015 at 8:09 am

        Again, the way humans thinks tend to reduce the complexity of chaotic systems, seemingly in an effort to get an impression of control.

        See the comment above about the helmet NOT effecting the driver who hit thems behavior. Bald assertion that seems reasonable, but frankly when examined there is no way the person knows what effected the drivers behavior. Even asking the driver is a poor method as perception mostly occurs below conscious thought…

        Oddly, I didn’t take your article as promoting riding w/o helmet, just an examination of what we think we know.

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