Do helmets contribute to more bike accidents?

Photo: Madeleine Baran/MPR News/File

It’s National Bike to Work (Wearing a Parka) Day today and science writer Joseph Stromberg gives the pot a good stir on Vox by suggesting it’s time to stop forcing people to wear bike helmets.

It’s been drilled into most of us, of course, and Stromberg acknowledges that you’re better off wearing a helmet when you get plunked by a car, which you will at some point if you cycle in the Twin Cities.

But, he contends helmets make it more likely you’ll get into an accident.

In 2012, 1.8 percent of all traffic-related deaths were bicyclists, and 14 percent were pedestrians. Because biking makes up about one percent of all trips taken in the US, and walking about 10.9 percent, both led to a disproportionate number of deaths, compared to cars — but were relatively similar, compared to each other.

Bicycling, in reality, isn’t as inherently dangerous as people often think.

He says a Canadian study looked at head injuries in provinces with mandatory helmets vs. provinces without the law and found that in both cases, head injuries have fallen.

Though US data is scarcer, it’s hard to see the positive overall impact of helmets in the United States either. Between 1995 and 2002, for instance, the number of bike-related concussions suffered by people under 18 declined, but the number of young people who were biking actually dropped much more significantly.

Other data shows that despite increased voluntary helmet use by adults in the US and Great Britain, the overall number of cyclist fatalities hasn’t been affected.

On the whole, when large numbers of people begin wearing helmets, we really don’t see a benefit in the head injury or fatality rates. How is this possible?

His theory is that drivers are more careful around bicyclists who aren’t wearing a helmet.

He thinks encouraging the use of bike helmets sends the wrong message, and keeps people from riding, which is the entire point of a day like today.

If you want to wear a helmet, he says, go ahead. And if you don’t, don’t feel guilty about it.