When a bicyclist dies

Long-time readers of NewsCut might recognize that I’ve long been troubled by the inclination of journalists writing about car crashes to pause for a public service announcement in an otherwise tragic story about a death: whether the person was wearing a seat belt.

This is a fairly typical headline. This one appeared in October 2016.

It carried a certain “serves ’em right” mentality that seems inappropriate. Would a seat belt have saved that person’s life. Nope. And we know that because a week later the authorities revealed that the man in that story was wearing a seat belt.

Yesterday, a cyclist in St. Paul died when he was struck head on by a bus driver making a turn.

Any driver knows that the vehicle making the turn yields the right of way to oncoming traffic.

So why the focus on the cyclist wearing a helmet? And how might the stories be different today if the answer was “no”? What exactly is the point of the question and the urge to establish that if a bicyclist dies, it must have been his/her own fault?

Julie Kosbab, writing on Streets.MN today, says it’s the wrong question.

If you are hit by a flat-front bus, accelerating through a left turn, a helmet is the least of your worries as a cyclist. You are not going to die from the head wound. You are going to die of blunt force and internal injuries to your torso.

It doesn’t take experience in trauma, in collision science, or even a passing grade in high school physics to realize this.

A recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that SUVs, with high-riding style, flat front ends, and higher total horsepower are likely to strike higher on the bodies of pedestrians and cyclists — at the chest rather than in the legs — and strike with more force. And they’re smaller than these buses!

So what are the right questions to ask? Well, here are some ideas:

  • “Was the bus driver the regular operator for this route?”
  • “Do the signals at this intersection have a Leading Pedestrian Interval, to allow pedestrians and cyclists to start crossing before motorists get a green?”
  • “Do the east and westbound signals change simultaneously, or are there timing gaps to allow turns to occur?”
  • “Was the bus coming from the service drive, or the main through lanes?”
  • “Was the cyclist riding the service drive, or the main through lanes?”
  • “Are we aware of anything that could have blocked the bus driver’s view of the cyclist?”
  • “What were the injuries to the cyclist, per paramedics at the scene?”

Bike helmets are a good idea, mostly, even if there’s some evidence that helmets can make it more likely you’ll be involved in an accident, but not because of the actions of the cyclist; because of the attitude of the vehicle’s driver.

They usually escape inspection.

On Monday afternoon, for example, Linnea Rice, 45, of Onalaska, Wis., was pinned underneath the car that hit her when she was stopped at a traffic light, doing nothing wrong. “Rice, who wasn’t wearing a helmet according to the sheriff’s office, went by ambulance to Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse,” WXOW reported.

  • Erick

    Thank you. I have been frustrated by the coverage of this tragic event. The sad fact is that for too many people motors always have the right of way.

    • Barton

      that belief has got to stop. We really need laws that focus on vulnerable road users.

  • Barton

    Victim blaming. We as humans are good at doing that any time a horrible event happens that may infringe on something we like to do. At least the media has seemingly (FINALLY) stopped calling these “accidents” and is using “collisions” instead.

    The comments section on all such posts from regular media outlets really needs to be turned off when these events happen. The bile spewed after this event was horrible.

    Also of note, many in the cycling community noted that the photo published by MPR yesterday showed the bicycle, and I guess that Grahn’s bike was well known by many (something distinctive about the color/pattern/stickers, I’m not sure). I don’t know if anyone actually contacted MPR or not about that, but what a horrible way to find out a friend had died.

    • jon

      Blaming the victim in these situations is a self defense mechanism for many…

      I see it all the time on youtube videos of motorcycle crashes…

      It’s not so much the victim is to blame, it’s that I do something different than the victim so this could NEVER happen to me.

      I’ll never crash my motorcycle because I do the speed limit (mostly), I’ll never die in a collision because I wear a helmet, I’ll never get hit by a vehicle turning left because I stop for all posted stop signs at intersections…
      And sometimes it reaches out to “my loved ones won’t be a victim because they…”

      It becomes not about the collision, not about the loss of life, but about why they’d ever find themselves in a place to be the victim…
      This is also why things like terror attacks and mass shootings are so scary to people… very few people can come up with a reasoned argument why these things could never happen to them based on their behavior, we all go to movies sometimes, or concerts, or work, or churches, or what have you… And most of us can’t come up with any justification for how we’d blame the victims in that situation… they did nothing wrong, so what can I not do to avoid being like them? (some people do find ways to blame victims even in those events, because they would have shot back, fought back, not felt pain when they were shot, etc…)

      It’s about about protecting themselves from the reality that we are all mortal, we could all die at any moment, from any number of causes, and we’ll probably not see it coming until it’s too late (because if it wasn’t too late, we’d avoid it.)

      • Guest

        Exactly, easier to think this would not be me than to think this might be me.

  • Rob

    I agree that looking at what caused/contributed to the accident should be the upfront part of the story. But when the proximate cause of injury or death is the fact that a person wasn’t wearing a seat belt or a helmet, that is is also an essential part of the story, and is most assuredly not victim-blaming.

    In this particular crash, it’s been determined that the lack or presence of a helmet wasn’t a factor in the injuries that caused the rider’s death, so it doesn’t make sense to focus on this aspect.

    As to the notion that helmets can contribute to crashes because drivers are more cautious around riders not wearing helmets – that sounds like a bunch of codswallop to me.

    • In the scenario you describe, then, the first question is “what’s the cause of death?” If it’s blunt force trauma to the head, THEN you can ask the question.

      Instead, leading with the question presumes the cause of death is a head injury and I would submit that presumption is an unsound activity for a journalist.

      It’s not an essential part of the story until you know WHY it’s an essential part of the story.

      • Rob

        No. The first questions relate (or should) to how the crash happened/ contributing factors, etc., as your post asserted. Never said the leading question should be what the specific cause of death is, but it’s totally relevant to the story if the victim’s fatal injuries are due to the absence of a helmet or seat belt. You can’t get thrown out of a car and then have the car land on top of you if you’re wearing a seat belt.

        • A lot of people thought you couldn’t get sucked out of an airplane while wearing a seat belt either. a few weeks ago, that seemed to be the initial response to the SWA tragedy. “Why wasn’t she wearing a seat belt.”

          People are in a hurry to blame victims for their predicament. They often don’t even realize that’s what they’re doing. But that’s what they’re doing.

          • Rob

            You’re talking about anomalies. A reporter’s noting that a person died in a crash because they weren’t wearing their seatbelt and were launched out of the car and killed by impact with the ground is not victim blaming, it’s merely thorough journalism.

          • What if they’re not launched out of the car but still die. Does it matter if they’re wearing their seat belt?

            In the photo headline above, what was the purpose served by noting he wasn’t wearing a seat belt, let alone identifying an actual driver with “unbelted”?

            More often than not, the invocation of the element is a matter of possibility. Something COULD have been caused by wearing or not wearing a seat belt. Or maybe it wasn’t. Good journalism would answer that question first and go from there.

            the reason I used the SWA incident as an example is to explain the psychology of why want to know these things. We’re afraid of things and when we are, we’ll contort any factoid in order to assure ourselves that it couldn’t happen to us.

            We couldn’t get hit by a bus for doing nothing wrong. We couldn’t get sucked out of a plane by following the rules. We couldn’t get pinned under a car while we waited at a stop light, obeying every rule of the road.

            This is the psychological element of why we instantly go to the mode where we look for reasons to blame the innocent victim.

          • Rob

            I go to the mode where I want to understand any contributing factors that led to a crash death. It has nothing to do with being afraid of things. I’m quite clear on the concept that life is uncertain and unfair, and then you die.

    • Barton
      • Rob

        If you review the article you cited, you’ll note that the research findings are underwhelming, both in terms of space differential and sample size.

  • Harrison

    It’s not unreasonable or “victim shaming” to want to know the circumstances around these episodes. Where they wearing a helmet (or seatbelted)? where they speeding? Were they intoxicated? Were the road conditions treacherous? Did they have a licence? Texting? Any of these can be factors to contribute to the chance of an accident or or increased severity of injury in an accident. Don’t get on your moral high horse and protest the appropriateness of asking about a helmet or seatbelt unless you’re willing to put aside all such information as above.

    • X.A. Smith

      “the first question is “what’s the cause of death?” If it’s blunt force trauma to the head, THEN you can ask the question.

      Instead, leading with the question presumes the cause of death is a head injury and I would submit that presumption is an unsound activity for a journalist.

      It’s not an essential part of the story until you know WHY it’s an essential part of the story.” —Bob Collins

    • Maybe. But the fact they focus on the cyclist and not the driver betrays the assertion.

      If there is evidence that any of the things played a part, then it becomes essential information.

      Streets.mn makes a good point when it points out that the reporter asked about the cyclist going against the red light. If that were true, the bus driver would have too.

        • WXOW – La Crosse, in a story bout a woman who HIT A MOTORCYLIST WITH HER CAR:

          With the help of the drivers, and passersby who stopped to help, Rice was able to get out from under the Hawthorne vehicle.

          Rice, who wasn’t wearing a helmet according to the sheriff’s office, went by ambulance to Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse.

          Details on what the driver of the car was doing when SHE HIT THE MOTORCYCLIST? Zip.

        • Kellpa07

          Can’t tell. You’ve provided only the headline. To answer the question, we’d need to see the whole story. I am willing to concede, however, that headlines are frequently misleading and fail to include important details, and that reporters often get their facts wrong.

    • theoacme

      (Accurate analogical question redacted)…

      …it’s people like the person to whose comment I am directly replying to that make my life as a pedestrian/Metro Transit user such…

      …that if I was utterly and indisputably legally crossing the street, at a controlled crosswalk, with a fresh ‘walk’ indicator, and was struck and killed by two motor vehicles simultaneously, and both vehicles were struck by trucks carrying high explosives, which exploded, and 241 people died…

      …people like the commenter I am replying to would blame me for all their deaths.

      • Harrison

        No, but we would want to know if the drivers of the vehicles who hit you were seat-belted, intoxicated, texting, speeding, etc…. and same for the drivers who for some reason are toting around high explosives in an urban setting.

        • If the person who died yesterday hadn’t been wearing a helmet. What is the knowledge from that you would considered of value?

          • Joe

            Then he could ignore this story, and not worry about trying to make our roads a safer place for all, or change his behavior when he drives.

    • Michael McDonald

      Focusing on whether or not they were wearing a helmet doesn’t matter when they had the right of way, and the cause of death was not head trauma. It is ABSOLUTELY victim blaming and focuses the attention of readers on the wrong thing.

    • Frank Krygowski

      In my mind, the question is: Why is a bike helmet assumed to be so desirable that a victim should be chided for riding without one?

      Is it because bicycling is a primary cause of serious or fatal traumatic brain injury (TBI)? No. Bicyclists are only 0.6% of America’s fatal TBI problem. They’re less than 2% of the serious but non-fatal TBI problem.

      Is it because bike helmets have greatly reduced cyclist deaths? No, pedestrian deaths have dropped faster than bike deaths since helmet advertising efforts hit high gear.

      Is it because bike helmets prevent concussions (that is, mild TBI)? No, bike concussions have risen over 60% with helmet use.

      Is it because riding a bike is so terribly risky? No, per mile traveled, bicycling’s fatality risk is less than one-third that of pedestrians.

      If a person is competing in a bike race or crashing though the forest on a mountain bike, perhaps one can justify a helmet – although for 100 years the Tour de France did not require helmets and had only two TBI deaths.

      But pretending every bicyclists must wear a helmet is like pretending Mom should wear a NASCAR-approved helmet to drive kids to kindergarten.

      • jon

        Did you know that when metal helmets became standard issue in the military the number of head wounds reported actually increased by several fold!

        Classic way to lie with statistics.
        What I left out above is that deaths from head injury dropped when that happened…

        //Is it because bicycling is a primary cause of serious or fatal traumatic brain injury (TBI)? No. Bicyclists are only 0.6% of America’s fatal TBI problem. They’re less than 2% of the serious but non-fatal TBI problem.

        What do these numbers even have to do with each other?
        Let me put it this way, “Do seat belts save lives? Only 1.2% of deaths in the US each year are caused by motor vehicle collision.”

        //Is it because bike helmets have greatly reduced cyclist deaths? No, pedestrian deaths have dropped faster than bike deaths since helmet advertising efforts hit high gear.

        Again two unrelated numbers, that you don’t connect.

        //Is it because bike helmets prevent concussions (that is, mild TBI)? No, bike concussions have risen over 60% with helmet use.

        And has bicycle use risen more over that same time? how about bicycle collisions over that same time? And reported concussions over that same time in general (because the concussion protocol even when I was a kid was “walk it off, don’t fall asleep, see a doctor if you vomit.” now it’s a bit more rigorous…

        //Is it because riding a bike is so terribly risky? No, per mile traveled, bicycling’s fatality risk is less than one-third that of pedestrians.

        Flying is safer than driving, yet we are still required to wear seatbelts in planes… The key is the cost benefit analysis on helmets, do they create more risk than they mitigate, and do they cost more than the injuries they prevent? are they so onerous that they are unlikely to be used at all? It’s not about eliminating risk, it’s about reasonable mitigation of risk. pedestrians are unlikely to get geared up to walk, but bicyclists, they already have some gear (a bicycle) that they are leveraging, asking them to wear a helmet isn’t much of a stretch.

        //If a person is competing in a bike race or crashing through the forest on a mountain bike, perhaps one can justify a helmet – although for 100 years the Tour de France did not require helmets and had only two TBI deaths.

        Only two deaths… how many injuries? And keep in mind these are professionals, who aren’t contenting with cars, buses and motorcycles, not the amatures we have on the streets here who are competing with motorized vehicles for access to a shared resource (the road).

        Suggesting that the tour de france riders are comparable to the local transport riders is about as reasonable as comparing professional nascar to soccer moms-

        //But pretending every bicyclists must wear a helmet is like pretending Mom should wear a NASCAR-approved helmet to drive kids to kindergarten.

        • Frank Krygowski

          I’m sorry you’re having trouble understanding my points, and I’m sorry you don’t know the relevant data. I’ll give more detail.

          First, understand that two common rationales are used for bike helmet promotion: 1) Reducing cost to society based on either deaths from TBI or care of seriously injured cyclists. 2) Reducing risk to an individual rider, as in “You can topple off your bike and die or become a vegetable, but a bike helmet can prevent that.”

          But bicycling is _not_ unusually risky. U.S. cyclists suffer only one fatality in over ten million miles of riding (some data says one fatality per fourteen million miles). By that measure, it’s more than three times as safe as walking.

          And yes, bicycling causes just 0.6% of U.S. TBI fatalities and less than 2% of TBI overall. If helmets prevented all those (which they clearly don’t) it would cause negligible reduction in society’s costs. The huge efforts wasted on helmet promotion are directed at a grossly exaggerated problem. If you want to reduce society’s TBI overall, there are other groups with far more people at risk.

          One group is pedestrians, who are similar to cyclists in so many ways that the two are often conflated in statistics. In most countries, bike and ped injuries and fatalities tend to run parallel (with, of course, higher counts for peds). But the takeup of bike helmets did not cause a deviation from parallel. In other words, national data provides no evidence of helmet benefit.

          And yes, U.S. bike concussions have risen, not fallen. Did bike riding increase? No, Jon, nothing like the 60% increase in concussions. You could have looked that up. You could also try looking up the TBI data for the history of the Tour de France. I think you’ll find no statistically significant benefit attributable to the helmet requirement.

          Why is bike racing relevant? As with the points above, some helmet promoters have said things like “All the bike racers use helmets so you should too,” as if riding 10 mph on a quiet street is as risky as 60mph down a mountain road. Oddly, they refuse to use that logic regarding NASCAR and ordinary driving.

          The fact is, ordinary bicycling is not and has never carried an unusual risk of TBI. And bike helmets have not caused any significant reduction in the tiny TBI risk of bicycling.

          Which may be why the last “bike safety” video I watched said this of helmets: “Just wear one, OK? No questions. Just wear one.”

          That’s the sort of thing people say when they know they don’t have answers to questions. It comes from people who have had the propaganda pounded into their head, but have never bothered to actually look at the relevant data.

          • jon

            So you didn’t bother understanding what I wrote… and decided that means that I don’t understand what you said…

            //And yes, bicycling causes just 0.6% of U.S. TBI fatalities and less than 2% of TBI overall. If helmets prevented all those (which they clearly don’t) it would cause negligible reduction in society’s costs. The huge efforts wasted on helmet promotion are directed at a grossly exaggerated problem. If you want to reduce society’s TBI overall, there are other groups with far more people at risk.

            I’m glad to know that you won’t be wearing a seatbelt any more though, given that there are still 30,000 motor vehicle collisions related deaths each year (proving seat belts don’t save lives) and that motor vehicle deaths ONLY make up 1.2% of all fatalities in the US they aren’t a problem worth solving.

            //And yes, U.S. bike concussions have risen, not fallen. Did bike riding increase? No, Jon, nothing like the 60% increase in concussions. You could have looked that up

            I did look that up… but without specific dates in your 60% increase it’s hard to pin down how much miles cycled increased over an unspecified time…
            Though it’s not hard to find recent time frames where cycling miles more than doubled… so a 60% increase is actually a decrease over miles cycled… but reality is no match for your narrative you decided to push.

            I’m sorry you didn’t understand what I was saying, I’m pointing you that your stats are bogus, and don’t prove any of the point you claim they do.

            Saying them again while suggesting I’m confused doesn’t change that.

          • Frank Krygowski

            According to two articles reporting on the increase in bike concussions, the time frame was 1997 to 2011, a period when helmets became much more popular. The actual increase in bike concussions was 67%. Data was from CPSC.

            There is no way bicycling increased 67% during that time period. For example, “Since the year 2000, adult participation has basically remained flat at
            about 25.5 million, whereas youth has seen a significant decline,” said
            Dustin Dobrin, the National Sporting Goods Association’s director of research in 2017. See http://www.bicycleretailer.com/studies-reports/2017/05/05/cycling-participation-edges-higher-2016-nsga-reports

            Regarding the comparison between cars with seatbelts, vs. bikes and helmets:

            You say 30,000 motorist deaths are just 1.2% of all U.S. deaths (actually, motorist fatalities are closer to 37,500) so you use that to mock my statement that bicyclists are only 0.6% of the nation’s TBI fatalities. Did you think people wouldn’t notice you’ve changed the denominator, i.e. that you’re looking at 2.6 million deaths from _all_ causes, not the 56,000 due to TBI?

            If your reference is total deaths in the U.S., the 350 or so cyclist TBI fatalities are just 0.013 percent of the total. I think most people understand the concept of “negligible.” (And please don’t get into some “If we can save only one life” schtick.)

            Furthermore, seat belts and bike helmets are not even vaguely comparable on a cost or performance benefit. Typical bike helmets cost around $30. Typical bikes cost about $300. The cost of a typical bike helmet is 10% of the bike’s cost; and then the fragile helmet must be stored each time you park the bike, protected from excess accidental impact, excess heat, chemical fumes, etc. For years, manufacturers have said helmets need replaced every three years. Oh, and helmets are tested and certified using only a 14mph perfectly linear impact of a model of a human head with no body attached – something that in no way replicates a real bike crash.

            By contrast, seat belts are designed for realistic crashes, and tested with full crash test dummies in actual cars that are slammed into fixed barriers at 35 mph. The seat belts are self-storing, require no care or maintenance, and comprise far less than one percent the cost of the car. They last the life of the car.

            Perhaps most telling, there is good data showing that motorist fatalities dropped significantly as seat belts came into use. In other words, seat belts work reasonably well. There is no parallel data with bike helmets. Bike deaths did not even drop as fast as pedestrian deaths, and concussions actually increased.

            The data seems pretty clear: Bike helmets are an ineffective solution to a problem which is almost entirely imaginary. They’ve worked only in their one biggest objective, which is to make lots of money for their manufacturers and sellers. They’ve also done wonders for the sincere folks who get “feel good” points for promoting them.

            The downside is they – or the efforts to promote them – have added to the fear of bicycling. They’ve dissuaded people from using bikes instead of cars, thus lessened the benefits of moderate exercise built into one’s daily routine, plus the benefits of reduced environmental impact. And of course, they’ve wasted an immense amount of consumer money.

  • Guest

    The more light rail trains and the more bikes, the more fatalities. Sheer physics.

    A train can slam on the brakes when there is a person in front but it still takes way longer than a bus to stop.

    A collision between a bike and anything else on the road will end badly for the biker.

    Every decision has both good and bad consequences, please discuss ALL consequences…..including “it is worth the extra deaths caused by a policy of……..”

    • jeb_r

      Bike-on-bike accidents are almost never deadly, and I’d be surprised if most are even serious enough to warrant an ER run.

      The problem isn’t bikes or bicyclists. The problem is automobile drivers who aren’t paying enough attention to drive safely and avoid crashes.

      (Also, there’s a wee bit of irony in saying that light rail trains cause more fatalities and praise buses for being able to stop faster when this crash involved a bus but no trains.)

      • Brian Malarski

        jeb_r, cyclists, motorcyclists, pedestrians, and motor vehicle drivers all are guilty of not paying attention, breaking laws, and not riding/walking/driving with common courtesy, respect, and consideration for those around them. As someone whom uses all of those modes of transportation, I’ve seen operators of each guilty of these things. Heck, as a pilot and canoeist, I’ve seen other pilots and canoeists guilty of this also. It’s time everyone stop blaming the other forms of transportation for being the problem and begin correctly training cyclists, motorcyclists, pedestrians, and motor vehicle drivers how to safely operate on public roads, paths, and sidewalks, so this does not continue to happen.

    • Where would you rank people driving cars who are driving irresponsibly in your calculations?

      • Guest

        As long as it is considered, that is all I ask.

    • Frank Krygowski

      “A collision between a bike and anything else on the road will end badly for the biker … please discuss ALL consequences…”

      It sounds like you’re trying to dissuade bicycling, or policies that encourage bicycling. But you’re not discussing ALL the consequences.

      Specifically, there are at least five studies I know of that have examined the benefits of bicycling vs. its risks. In each case, the results have been that the benefits of bicycling greatly outweigh its risks. That was found to be true whether benefits and risks were in terms of years of life gained vs. lost, medical expenses saved vs. spent, or any other metric.

      Simply put, those studies show bicycling has so many benefits, it’s safer than _not_ bicycling.

      Bicycling is not very dangerous. It does us no good to pretend it is.

      • Guest

        NOT pretending it is, just asking for exactly the type of wide view you just showed.

  • Sara J.

    Thank you so much for this article, Bob. Not only do I find these headlines and questions upsetting, I am also finding lots of message board comments about this particular accident that ask (in colorful terms) what the biker did wrong.

    I work at Macalester in a building that overlooks this intersection. Yesterday my colleagues and I watched the aftermath of the accident as police and emergency personnel gathered, as a tarp was placed over the victim, and as school children were led off the back of the bus, many in tears. I can tell you that the last thing on my mind was “was the biker wearing a helmet?” I wasn’t even thinking, “whose fault is this?”

    I was thinking about the tragedy for all involved: about the biker and the people who love him, about the bus driver and the people who love him, about the children and the people who love them, about the pain and suffering all were or would experience, and how tragic this was for all involved. I was thinking about how nice it would be if instead of rushing to judgement we rushed to recognize the familiar in each other and extend compassion, help and care.

    The only question I care to ask today is how we can prevent something like this from happening in the future. My thoughts are with all involved and their loved ones.

    • Jeff C.

      Yes! I was about to write the same thing. The human stories are so much more important than the mechanics of who did what. The use for them is to learn from the mistake(s) and make changes — to intersections, rules of the road, driving/riding habits, etc. This tragedy has directly touched so many people (thank you, Sara, for mentioning the bus driver, who may very well be fired if they were at-fault — how will that effect them?) — we, the readers, should be feeling empathy for them, not curious about what caused someone to die.

  • JMR

    This is such a tragic accident, and I was actually really surprised by the neighborhood it happened in. It’s one of the more “bike friendly” neighborhoods in St. Paul.

    I will say, I’m not surprised that the bus was a third party contractor. My husband and I have noted that if we ever had kids that we wouldn’t want them to be on contracted buses; both of us have almost been taken out by buses in our neighborhood.

    Other cities have found a way to make it so vehicles, bikes, and pedestrians can coexist. St. Paul, you can do better.

  • Brian Simon

    I first learned of this accident on facebook yesterday, when a friend wondered if it were someone he knew. And I wondered the same thing. I have freinds who’ve been hit by cars; and I’ve had close calls. So far, none of my immediate friends have died; but friends-of-friends have. In a car, or larger vehicle, it is so easy to forget that you’re protected by not just the material surrounding you, but the profound mass differential to that of a pedestrian or cyclist. Wing me with a mirror & you might not even notice, though I might get a broken arm, or be tossed to the pavement. But we generally don’t consider those consequences, blithely ignorant of the dangers we pose others.

  • Also, let’s change the way reporters frame stories and editors frame headlines that remove agency from drivers who hit bicyclists and pedestrians. All too often, reporters resort to passive voice (“Cyclist killed by bus”) instead of the more accurate and fair active voice (“Bus driver strikes, kills cyclist”). Someone in Canada did a whole study on the topic as it involves pedestrian deaths in news coverage. If you’re interested in changing the culture of how journalists frame these stories, it’s a must-read: https://journals.macewan.ca/earthcommon/article/view/1229/1026

  • dukepowell

    Being a paramedic for close to 40 years has given me some insight concerning injury in bicycle vs motor vehicle accidents.

    Over the years, I was at the scene and treated and/or transported many injured riders. Few patients I saw were dead on arrival of first responders. It was my experience that, by far, the most common cause of critical injury was head trauma.

    Additionally, the older you are the more you are susceptible to major trauma and particularly to head trauma.

    • Frank Krygowski

      It’s not clear if dukepowell’s remark is an attempt to defend the focus on bike helmets. But whether or not that’s the case: Nationally, about 350 cyclist deaths per year are caused by brain trauma. That’s roughly 45% of cyclist fatalities. Meanwhile, about 2000 annual pedestrian fatalities are caused by brain trauma. That’s roughly 40% of ped fatalities. In other words, the percentages are nearly the same, with the pedestrian total (and thus the cost to society) being far higher.

      But we never see pedestrians blamed for their own deaths with the phrase “The person was walking without a helmet.”

      And should we discuss the tens of thousands of unhelmeted motorists who die despite air bags, seat belts, crumple zones and reinforced passenger compartments?

      • To me, the focus on bike helmets and the value of bike helmets are two different discussions.

        • Frank Krygowski

          Surely they are inescapably connected! If nobody thought that cycling carried tremendous risk of brain trauma (TBI) and if nobody thought that bike helmets greatly reduce TBI, helmets would not be mentioned after almost every bike crash.

          Have you seen a news article saying “The fatally injured cyclist was not wearing lycra riding shorts”?

          • Whether someone’s death is used as advocacy helmets in subtle/not subtle ways is, in fact, different from the question of whether someone is safer with a helmet than without.

            But if the next heart attack victim’s story reveals whether he smoked, drank, got regular exercise, and revealed his weight, I might reconsider.

          • Frank Krygowski

            Again, helmet advocacy is – or should be – closely related to the question of whether someone is safer. If everyone knew there were no safety benefit, there would presumably be no helmet advocacy.

            But I’ll submit that “Is someone safer?” is too simplistic. First, it’s too low a standard. After all, we don’t recommend _everything_ that will make people safer. We should first examine the real level of risk and compare it with other similar risks. (And for bike helmet promoters, the first step was to grossly exaggerate cyclng’s TBI risk). There should be a concept of “safe enough.” And we should balance potential for increased safety vs. any detriments, such as expense, inconvenience, discomfort, discouragement of healthy behavior, etc. Here I’m talking not only about bike helmets, but about any promoted “safety” device or strategy.

            For example: Presumably, all swimmers would be safer if they always wore water wings. But despite the fact that the per-hour fatality rate for swimming is by one estimate about four times that of cycling, nobody proposes “wear water wings each time you swim.”

            And nobody says about a drowning victim “he was not wearing water wings.”

  • In 2001 I was broadsided on my bike by a pickup while not wearing my helmet. By some miracle all I got was a class III concussion (knocked unconscious) and a wrenched shoulder.

    I judiciously wore my helmet thereafter. In 2008 I stood up to pedal and my chain snapped. My foot slammed down on the concrete, I fell hard on my side, my right elbow cracking two of my ribs on that side, and my head smacked into the pavement.

    It felt like laying my head on a pillow. My helmet smashed and cracked, my head didn’t. I didn’t lose consciousness. I knocked the wind out of myself, I had to sleep propped upright on pillows for a week, but my brains were A-OK.

    These statistics about helmets increasing the likelihood of accident, y’all are splitting hairs. Those tradeoffs in risk are teeny, tiny differences, whereas the risks of severe injury or dying when you hit your head without a helmet are orders of magnitude higher.

    I got LUCKY in 2001, but in 2008 I got SMART. Get smart, wear your helmet and your seatbelt.

    As far as headlines – readers want to reassure themselves that in the same situation they would not have suffered the bad outcome. Reading “no helmet” or “no seatbelt” lets them reassure themselves that they WOULD have worn the helmet or seatbelt, and therefore would have been okay. It’s self-soothing magical thinking, and the headlines play into that. But what are the editors supposed to do, wait around for facts and details that won’t emerge for hours or days? The industry is trying to survive, they ain’t got time for that.

    • Yes

    • Glsai

      I learned the helmet lesson last summer when my brother got hit riding his bike. He was driving in a vehicle lane as he was moving too fast for bike lanes (around 25ish mph) someone turned in front of him and hit him. Thanks to his safety equipment (including his helmet) he was able to survive the hit. Even with his helmet he came away with fractured vertebrae (another 1-2 mm more on the break and he would have been paralyzed for life) and to this day has cognitive issues from the hit. The helmet saved his life and his mobility. Now every member of our family wears our helmet all the time. Even my 67 year old father started wearing a helmet when he bicycles.

      So yes, a helmet will help save lives. What will save more bicyclists from being hit though would be other vehicles paying a bit more attention on the road.

      • Frank Krygowski

        I’m sorry, but “the helmet saved his life” can not be proven. “My helmet saved my life” is said reverently over every cracked helmet. And when bicyclists die of brain trauma despite a helmet, people and manufacturers say “Well, no helmet can protect against every crash.”

        Yet since about 1980 (when bike helmets really began catching on) pedestrian fatalities have dropped by a bigger percentage than bike fatalities, even though pedestrians don’t wear helmets. And as noted in June 2013 _Bicycling_ magazine, since the 1990s, bicyclist concussions have actually _increased_ over 60%. Where’s the helmet benefit?

        After all-ages mandatory helmet laws were passed and strictly enforced in Australia and New Zealand in the 1990s, the number of bicyclists dropped by a greater percentage than did bicyclist brain injuries. In other words, the remaining riders were at greater risk for brain injury.

        The certification test for bike helmets is a perfectly straight impact of 14 mph on a model of a human head, no body attached. The test is ridiculously unrealistic. Unless a cyclist trips while standing still, a crash is likely to exceed the helmet’s capacity.

        Yet despite documented lack protective capacity and lack of benefit, these flimsy foam caps are venerated just like St. Christopher medals. They’re “magic” protection for bicycling, an activity that causes only 0.6% of America’s traumatic brain injury fatalities.

        America has nearly 60,000 TBI fatalities per year. About 350 of them are bicyclists. When, oh when, will we hear “He was not wearing a helmet” about the other 99.4%?