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Risk Assessment

Does wearing a helmet make a bicyclist safer? Yes. And no. This story has been getting a bit of attention this week. British doctors are arguing that helmets shouldn't be mandatory by law, because such a law might discourage some people from bicycling, which would stop them from benefiting from exercise. It's a classic cost/benefit analysis where the costs exceed the benefits.

(from Rennett Stowe on Flickr)

Taking that point and asserting that helmets make bicyclists less safe is a stretch; but I saw that claim tweeted many times earlier in the week.

Helmets aren't required in DC, and other American cities, but bicyclists should still use them. Why? Because helmets are like an insurance policy that covers you from the risk of being perceived as irresponsible. Even if you don't believe that they're all the great at protecting your skull, you'll never be worse off in a situation if something happens. And if nothing ever happens? What have you lost?

Unfortunately, we live in a blame-the-victim society. If a motorist hits a bicyclist, and the bicyclist isn't wearing helmet, no matter who's at fault, the first thing you'll hear is that the bicyclist didn't have helmet. People will say the bicyclist should have known better. A few might even say that they had it coming. Whatever the case, it's something I would never want to deal with.


eclisham said…
Sigh. Anyone who's ambivalent about wearing a bicycle helmet should pay attention to what happened to Olympic athlete James Cracknell. If his amazing, impactful video, "I used to be James Cracknell," doesn't convince you, maybe your head's hard enough already.
Albert said…
Helmets seem to be helpful for high-speed bikers, dirt bikers, etc. They are far less important for low-speed commuters, people on errands, etc. They are not used much, nor are they needed, in countries where there are lots of riders, such as The Netherlands and Denmark. They most assuredly keep some people from riding.
Anonymous said…
an insurance policy that covers you from the risk of being perceived as irresponsible

I'd prefer an insurance policy or a safety policy that actually enhances my safety. A piece of styrofoam to counteract a possible scarlet letter because we live in a society that can't discern real risk and doesn't understand bicycling is a policy aimed for defeat.

Taking that point and asserting that helmets make bicyclists less safe is a stretch

Well yes, but the real problem comes from cyclists and vehicle drivers feeling a false sense of safety because of the helmets. The discouragement of potential riders diminishes the 'safety in numbers'.

And if nothing ever happens? What have you lost?

You lose flexibility. Imagine whether capital bikeshare would work if helmets were some rigid social or legal norm. You lose a lot of riders. There are the usual stories about how the Netherlands are the safest bicycling country in the world not because of helmets but because of appropriate infrastructure and education. We lose the necessary attention to the real bike issues and in the process a bit of our sanity.
dwainedibbly said…
Sadly, I've been thinking the same thing. A helmet might not prevent an injury, and might even increase the risk of rotational injuries, but I don't want my widow and her lawyer to have to deal with opposing counsel trying to convince a jury that I was at least partially to blame for an accident that killed me.
nathan_h said…
dwainedibbly, that is certain to occur if your survivors try to hold someone accountable, no matter what you strap onto your head. They won't even have to provoke it with a civil trial because your local news media will describe you as having swerved into traffic or somehow otherwise brought death upon yourself, before closing their report with a solemn proclamation that "no criminality" is suspected by police. At least, that's how we do it in NYC.

It's going to take a lot of work to undo the systematic embrace of roadway deaths that government and private institutions have disgraced themselves with. Crash helmets have played their part as a distraction and vain hope for salvation in the face of unyielding physics. It's time to acknowledge that they have utterly failed as policy, and move on to fixing needlessly deadly streets and roads.

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