Are bike helmets overrated?

Don Ryan / AP 2008
Short Description Biking through Portland, Ore.

“Admonishing a teenager for smoking is commonplace. Reprimanding people for taking antibiotics when they don’t really need them is the next big thing. And giving people a hard time about biking without a helmet is still entirely in vogue. It’s because we care. But as we learned from the original food pyramid, sometimes good intentions pave the road to adult-onset diabetes,” writes The Atlantic’s James Hamblin.

People are still questioning whether bicycle helmets, compulsory or voluntary, reduce injuries. Do we ride more aggressively when we wear them, because we feel invincible, putting our whole bodies in more dangerous situations? Drivers are more cautious around riders without helmets. While good evidence says helmets do their job in reducing head injuries, we’re best to — as in all things — think outside of our heads.

Today’s Question: Are bike helmets overrated?

  • Uh, no. They have saved my noggin on more than one occasion.

  • DotWonder

    when i got hit by a car in 2010 i was VERY glad i was wearing mine!

  • Jim G

    No, I’ve ridden bicycles 28 years as an adult. During that time I’ve had two crashes where my head hit the ground. I replaced my helmets, not my brain. The cost of a helmet is insignificant to the greater risk of brain injury. I used my brain before the accidents by choosing to wear a helmet. God knows my fate if I had decided differently.

    • Tim Kelly

      I agree. I work part time in a bike shop and every year someone comes in and tells us a story that ends with “I’m glad I had my helmet on!”.

      • Dave M

        Of course you’re going to hear stories like that. You work in a bike shop.

  • John A

    As with all helmets, they primarily protect the skull but don’t do a lot for the brain. It is certainly better to wear one but the acceleration/deceleration and coup/contra coup injuries to the brain are helped only minimally by helmets.

    The one exception might be the ‘air bag’ helmet by Hövding that deploys from a packet on the back of the head when sensors identify a crash in progress.

  • Chris Gillham

    Check the facts in Australia’s all-age helmet jurisdiction … http://www.cycle-helmets.com/ or http://www.cycle-helmets.com/cycling-1985-2013.html, or New Zealand … http://www.cycle-helmets.com/zealand_helmets.html or even the USA itself … http://www.cycle-helmets.com/us_helmets.html

    The helmet supporting comments so far suggest the usual … all cyclists who wear one would be dead or in a wheelchair without a helmet. Meanwhile, almost all bare head cyclists in the world live healthy into an old age. Every helmet law supporter who claims their life was saved (seemingly all of them judging by blog comments over the past decade) just proves the point that helmet wearing increases risk compensation and crash occurrence – with cracked helmets galore showing what happens when you double the surface area of the head that can make contact.

  • davehoug

    Are bike helmets overrated? = = = YES…….until skull meets concrete.

  • Sue de Nim

    Having known a couple of people with permanent brain damage that could have been prevented, or at least lessened, by bike helmets, I would say no.

  • Kate Thulin

    (With the caveat that anecdotal evidence does not make the most persuasive of arguments, I feel the need to weigh in.) I live in Denmark and work at a university, and I would say that about 70% of the bicyclists I see every day (student or otherwise) do not wear helmets. Denmark is an incredibly bike-friendly society, with bicycle lanes almost universally respected by drivers and pedestrians alike (which almost certainly is part of the reason for the lax helmet use). About two weeks ago, a 20-year-old woman was biking at speed down a small hill outside my office when she was hit by a car whose view of her was obstructed by other cars parked along the road. The driver of the car was not speeding and did not need to yield (he was driving straight; the bicyclist was turning). The cyclist was not wearing a helmet and she died of her head injuries in the hospital. I imagine you would be hard-pressed to find drivers who are “more cautious around riders” than in Denmark, where riders’ ubiquity forces that caution and constant awareness on the part of drivers (most of whom are, in other circumstances, bicyclists themselves). However, even under circumstances of widespread and practically in-born respect for cyclists, accidents that have nothing to do with driver carelessness can and do still happen; and even in a society where people learn to ride a bike before they learn to form a sentence, cyclists can still let down their guards, helmet or not. The pile of flowers and candles on the curb outside my office window would likely not be there if the woman whose memory it honors had been wearing a helmet.

    • intergalacticSpartacus

      There will always be tragedies. If she was riding “at speed” then it might have been wise for her to wear a helmet. But the issue here is that a helmet law will start to disintegrate cycling infrastructures in areas that are only beginning to see the light. Imagine if Denmark started only building separate bike lanes today, and someone was killed, and a helmet law was created. What would happen to the culture? We can wear full medieval armor and there will still be accidents. The issue is that helmet laws destroy cycling culture and end up making it more dangerous for everyone.

  • PaulJ

    I doubt people ride more aggressively when wearing a helmet; the rest of you is still very exposed.

  • JimWhoWorksForALiving

    Helmet mandates are just what the government wants us Citizens to get used to! The Liberal run media will also emphasize big brother tactics! Back in the 50s/60s we didn’t need helmets to grow kids who were able to fly to the moon! A constant nanny state! All you Birkenstock wearing big government loving folks don’t mind this at all!

    • Brendan K.

      There’s a lot going on here and I’m confused. You seem to believe that helmets offer unnecessary protection to the point of being useless and that the government acts as a nanny/big brother that won’t leave us alone. So, what’s wrong with Birkenstocks? Unlike big cumbersome shoes that protect your feet like helmets protect your head, Birkenstocks allow for full-footed comfort and freedom. Short of going barefoot, I can’t think of a less-restrictive pair of footwear, and you seem to be the kind of guy who opposes any restrictions on your freedom from some outside authority.

      P.S. You know kids didn’t fly to the moon, right? Highly trained, highly educated, highly skilled and brilliant people, with the full support of the government, launched some of the most advanced technology ever created by man into outer space in order to safely transport ASTRONAUTS WEARING HELMETS to the moon.

      P.P.S. I always wear a helmet on my bike because, even though I ride safely, accidents are by definition completely and 100% unavoidable.

    • John A

      I worked in a long term care facility for brain injured patients, many of whom were injured riding either a bicycle or motorcycle without a helmet. The cost of their care was paid by taxpayers, including you who work for a living (as do I). Very expensive! Use of a helmet may not have prevented all damage but would likely have helped reduce the degree of impairment and hence the costs associated with 24 hour care of an individual in a vegetative state.

    • David P.

      I’m not sure if you are trying to be humorous or need to adjust your tin-foil hat to communicate with the mother-ship.

      • mitch

        yes!

  • Pearly

    Helmets should be required by law in Hennepin county. With a fine for offenders

  • Adam L.

    Helmets create the illusion (and/or provide evidence) that bicycling is dangerous in our cities. They are still very necessary today given the current state of bicycling infrastructure in the cities. Upon visiting cities like Copenhagen or Amsterdam, you might be surprised to find that hardly anyone wears a helmet there. Why? bikeways are separated from cars/traffic, people have a better general understanding of the rules of the road, and it’s A LOT safer.

  • Jim in Plymouth

    I am convinced I would have been killed or seriously injured had I not been wearing a helmet the day I exited my bike over the handle bars. It was a very slow speed crash but I made a three point landing on helmet, shoulder and knee. I got a concussion and the helmet was cracked. I do not find helmets overrated.

  • intergalacticSpartacus

    Are bicycle helmets overrated? Not in situations that call for them. Are Bicycle Helmet LAWS overrated? A big, fat YES. Countries that have adopted mandatory helmet’s have seen a bicycle culture backfire like nothing else, it causes such a stigma that ridership drops. By all means, know when to wear a helmet, but don’t force others, because helmet laws ultimately make riding more dangerous for *everyone*, not just those who don’t wear their helmets. Education works. Head injuries per rider have dropped significantly. However, in Australia, a great example with drivers as aggressive as here in California, head injuries per rider STOPPED dropping after the helmet law. This is because ridership dropped and bicycling in general became perceived as a dangerous activity. Well, so is walking across a street. We don’t force pedestrians to wear helmets, even though by the logic of this proposed helmet law, they should be.

    Keep educating. Keep funding bike lanes and a safer bicycling infrastructure. Dozens of miles of bike trails and lanes can be created for a fraction of just a mile of car lanes. Enforce existing laws. Put some damn brakes on your fixies. Learn to ride properly. Learn to drive properly. This all reduces head injuries for everyone. Cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers.

    Wait… drivers are still way ahead when it comes to head injuries per accident. Why aren’t they required to wear helmets?

  • kitty

    I don’t want someone dictating to me what to wear on my head just to ride down a back pathway to the store. It has nothing to do with her or anyone else. Most people don’t have money to pay fines either, I know I don’t. It looks like people like her are working overtime trying to find ways to squeeze more money out of people, especially those on fixed incomes. I don’t ride at night, but those who do should have a flashing light to warn drivers that they are there. An accident involving a car would affect more than the cyclist, so it is important to be visable at night.

  • Mitch

    Are you kidding? Every person in my family is probably alive today because of a helmet. I made contact with a railroad track, my son lost consciousness with a fall to a curb, scariest of all, my husband was hit by a car running a red light (driver’s head turned and was talking to children in the backseat). This is a very irresponsible pose you take here, kind of like vaccine and climate naysayers. Be responsible as a journalist, please!

  • Cyclist in Hertfordshire

    Over-rated as has being shown in every single peer reviewed study. A helmet broke, ergo it didn’t reduce the impact by more than a few newtons. Helmet wearers take more risks..FACT, ergo they have more incidents. Head injuries go up in relation to % of helmet wearers another FACT (this is shown in the stats for both Australia and NZ and indeed in children in the USA). Helmets are good for low speed (less than 12mph which is the design test perameter for helmets) this will reduce/prevent minor abrasions. Above that it’s guesswork as to a helmets efficacy and there’s an increase in brain rotation/neck injuries. But let’s not anecdotal evidence get in the way of facts shall we… :eye-roll:

  • Anthony

    Everyone who rides a bike long enough, crashes. The bike helmet is the only piece of protection you have as you go down. If you brake an arm or leg they will heal back to full use. We cannot say that about a broken head. I have never seen an instance of someone riding their bike more recklessly simply because they wore a helmet. Do we drive cars more recklessly because we wear seat-belts?
    It is the bike riders who do not wear helmets that concern me more as I ride or drive.