Riding a bike? Wear a helmet.

June 12, 2009 By Alan J. Salzberg
Now that the sun has finally come out in NYC today after what seems like weeks of rain and cold weather, it seems an appropriate time to talk about one of my favorite summer recreational activities--riding a bike.

Growing up in the 1970s, I don't think I ever saw a helmet, much less wore one. However, in the same way we've figured out that seatbelts (and airbags) save lives, we also now know that biking with a helmet makes you safer. The Consumer Product Safety Council reported that wearing a helmet can decrease risk (of head injury) by as much as 85%.

Sadly, there are still a lot of enthusiasts out there that have a take no prisoners type attitude about wearing helmets, even implying that they are less safe (see for instance the helmet section of this web page in bicycle universe). Yet I think anyone who understands the statistics will see that the "freedom" of riding without a helmet is far outweighed by the risk.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has long been a great source for safety information. They've got the same goal that hopefully most of us do, reducing deaths and injuries. In a 2003 report, the IIHS reports that child bicycle deaths has declined by more than 50% since 1975 (despite increased biking and presumably because most children wear helmets now). In addition, about 92% of all bicycle deaths were cyclists not wearing helmets (see this report). The same report also shows that while child bicycle deaths have declined precipitously(from 675 in 1975 to 106 in 2007), adult deaths have increased since 1975 (from 323 to 583).

Helmet usage is harder to figure out, but most sources put overall use around 50%, with children's use higher. This means that, given that 92% of deaths are cyclists not wearing helmets, you stand about 11 times the chance of getting killed if you don't wear a helmet. This number can be played with a little and wittled down if you assume, say, that cyclists not wearing helmets bike more dangerously, but there would have to be enormous differences for helmets to be shown to be ineffective. Moreover, all the major scientific studies show large positive effects from helmet usage (see this ANTI-helmet site for a summary of the case-control studies).

So why, when you search the internet for helmet effectiveness, or read through the literarture of a number of pro-cycling organizations, do they cast dispersions upon helmet use? This one, for me, is an enigma. I understood why the auto industry was against airbags and seatbelts (they cost money) and why the cigarette and gun manufacturers are against regulation, but why do people care so much about us not wearing helmets. I can think of only a couple of things: a) cyclists want bike lanes and other safety measures without committing to anything on their own, and b) some are too lazy/cool to bother with a helmet. Of course, I'm a cyclist and clearly, I'm all for helmets (and yes, laws requiring them). I also think that if we want state and city governments to take us seriously about increasing cyclist safety through new bike lanes, changing traffic patterns, and building of greenways, we need to do our part, too.