The Helmet Debate and How

A few weeks ago I watched a short TEDxCopenhagen presentation by Mikael Colville-Anderson, in which he talks about how bicycle helmet safety laws and pressure are tools in a fear campaign to keep cars dominant.  I was ready to agree with him, but found his presentation to be less than interesting and poorly argued. (I do think I agree with his thesis but not really any of the data or arguments he presented)

In any case, I began reflecting on the 'helmet debate' and here are my thoughts from the past few weeks

1: mandatory helmet laws are not the best way to increase bike safety.
2: wearing or not wearing a helmet is a personal choice. (and should be respected)
3: helmets are not the most important part of bicycle safety.
4: People in cars and on bikes must cooperate to improve safety for everyone.
5: both personal safety techniques and policy improve safety for road users.

I have become a bit frustrated with how helmet issues are debated as well.  I think the debate needs to continue but more civilly and more carefully.
Here are a few tips when dealing with heated helmet debates:

1:don't take it personally
   All cyclists want to ride safely and have fun, and just because someone disagrees with you about helmets doesn't mean you're not pushing in the same direction.
2: read the argument carefully and identify the point.
   This one can be tough because most helmet discussions I've seen are ambiguous about this.  Realize that statistics, scientific studies and even personal experiences are all flawed in representing 'the one truth' about bike helmets.  There are almost innumerable angles from which to observe helmet safety, and just as many ways to misconstrue data.  For example: A study may conclude that just as many accident fatalities wore helmets as didn't, so helmets don't increase your chances of surviving a crash.  A good question to ask would be 'of the fatalities how many died of head injuries?'  Realize that a study that shows that helmets don't improve survival rates, says nothing whatsoever about minor collisions or solo accidents involving train tracks or bike malfunction.  Wearing a helmet in a head on collision with a car traveling 100mph won't save your life, but it may save you from a concussion if you get a stick caught in your wheels or if you eat it on a corner in the rain.
3:attempting to refute statistics by citing your personal 'thank god I had a helmet' story is not productive (and neither is disregarding personal experience when looking at statistics)
   A study that says wearing a helmet increases your risk of injury while cycling is not refuted by the fact that you once were in a terrible accident and 'thanks to the helmet' made it out alive.  Your experience is important, and often is worth mentioning in a discussion, but be aware that you don't necessarily know the parameters of the study or what the researchers were looking for.  Were they studying only head injuries?  All injuries?  Deaths?  Vehicular collisions only? etc.
4: remember that a bicycle helmet is no substitute for safe riding techniques.
    It doesn't matter how safe your equipment is, if you ride dangerously, your chances of being injured or killed increase.  Step back and look at the bigger picture here.

Taking points 2 and 3 into consideration, I think cyclists should each identify why they personally ride with or without a helmet.  Do you wear a helmet so people will think you're a 'safe cyclist'? To save your life in that 'big crash' that may come any day? maybe you've had a bad experience, or know someone you trust who advocates helmet use.  Regardless of your reasons, recognize the limitations of the bicycle helmet and that we are all striving for safer more livable streets.

Here are a few links to check out:
And a graph that I like: http://cyclehelmets.org/1079.html
Ride safe my friends,



  1. I really liked this post, Spencer - a lot of great points I have never considered!

  2. thanks for reading! I'm not really good with statistics or investigative research, so I left that to other people, but I figured I'd share my layman's thoughts on this kind of hot debate in the bike world. I've had some good responses from other people as well. On an individual level pretty much everyone I know strongly supports helmet use, but it's interesting to take a look at global helmet use and how we have high use but the worst accident rate in the world. Not to alarm anyone, but in Japan I ride helmetless and so far I've felt really safe. (helmet users are the extreme minority here) but when I get back home the helmet's coming back on. :-)
    thanks again!

  3. Nice post, you present a clear and practical perspective for a very divisive subject. It's funny just how personally people take helmet law debates.

    I am surprised at how quickly people seem to assume that simply being on two wheels automatically elevates someone into some kind of perceived high risk category... If I walk across the road or peddle I am equally at risk of being hit by a car.
    I will look both ways and cautiously enter the danger Zone... just as I would if I were walking... but if I were hit and not wearing a helmet my death or serious injury would be viewed or reported quite differently to that of a pedestrian. Isn't that weird.

  4. It is indeed. I've been living in Tokyo for the past few months and helmets hardly exist here, despite the fact that almost everyone rides a bicycle around the city. As a child I was certainly taught that helmet use was 'common sense' and I still think helmets can save your life, but it's the unequal treatment that gets me. Some studies say pedestrian death rates are higher than cyclists', but nobody seems to be advocating pedestrian helmets... :-)
    thanks for the comment!