The Great Helmet Debate

Close textual analysis of this blog should make it fairly clear that I don’t, when cycling, wear a helmet (I don’t wear a helmet for anything else either, of course. Just thought I’d make that clear). This was more or less normal when I was a student, and even up to a few years ago but these days I seem to be in the minority.

There are many reasons not to wear a helmet on your bike. Wearing a helmet makes you more reckless and prone to taking risks. Not wearing a helmet makes car drivers give you a wider berth when overtaking (that’s all the way up from one nanometre to two). Wearing a helmet makes you look a bit of an arse (like I don’t in my scary yellow jacket, but never mind). Wearing a helmet makes your hair go funny. There aren’t enough organ donors to go round. These are all reasons I have given in the past, but they are actually none of them the real reason. The real reason why I don’t wear a helmet is this. Going out and buying a helmet means admitting to yourself that cycling is dangerous and if nothing else you’re going to need something to keep the bits of your head together long enough that your family can identify your body. Although they do, actually, also make you look a bit of an arse.

A colleague’s wife got knocked off her bike last week by a bus. They had to bring the fire brigade in to winch the bus off her foot*. They closed down the whole of Fulham Palace Road to do it. She escaped with cuts and bruises. She was wearing a helmet. I’m beginning to reconsider my position.

I have the day off today, so I have no commuting tales for you. Instead, I’m going to let you, the readers, decide. Should I wear a helmet? Do you wear a helmet or not? And why?

* I’m actually quite jealous of this. Is this wrong?

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26 responses to “The Great Helmet Debate

  1. Yes, but I hardly ever ride a bike. Can’t you get the cars to stay away a bit more by occasionally wobbling a little? I wouldn’t ride among traffic with a bike – it scares the bejeezus out of me.

    Your colleague’s wife – who escaped with cuts and bruises – should you add a crushed foot to that list? If somehow not, I think you’re okay being a little jealous – oh the drama! oh the burly firemen! etc etc.

  2. No, the foot was fine! So maybe it’s stout boots I need rather than a helmet?

  3. I’ve never worn a helmet, but then my bike got stolen about 15 years ago and I’ve not ridden one in central London since. I never wore a helmet for all the reasons you said and even then I was still a reckless cyclist.

    We’re buying the little boy a bike for Xmas this year and he will be wearing a helmet, as will I, if I ever get another bike. I guess I’m getting old and responsible.

  4. I came to this blog expecting an entirely different debate.

    That is, a discourse concerning New York post-hardcore rockers, Helmet.

  5. Here it is again:

    Have you read the saftey reports? No? I’ll save you the bother (they are dry and boring):

    Helmets are DESIGNED to prevent head injuries in the case of falling off your bike while stationary. Bizarre, I know but they are NOT designed (or tested) for protecting your head when coming off your bike in a collision. In fact, the experts have had to admit that in the vast vast majority of cases where helmet wearers survived an accident, they almost certainly would have survived without and in fatal accidents, the helmet is unlikely to have saved a life.

    Also, a recent study showed that indeed, drivers give helmet-less cyclists significantly more room than cyclisets with helmets.

    wearing a helmt shifts your perception of danger and people tend to take more risks than without a helmet.

    Some have argued that giving children helmets to wear makes them head-heavy, so when they fall off their bikes (stationary or no) their heads make a beeline for the ground because their central nervous system can’t handle this shift in centre of gravity.

  6. The CTC (Cycling Touring Club) magazine, which is for all cyclists (not just tourers) is very careful in their choice of photos. They try to include pics of cyclist with and without helmets, because it is such a controversial issue. The tests on helmets they’;ve done in the past have always surprised me in how ineffective they actually are.

    Also, the biggest thing you an do to stop accidents is to make yourself visible (so big tick for the high viz gear you wear and the lights you have) and to cycle defensively (so stay a foot away from parked cars, put yourself in the centre of the road when you consider it unsafe for cars to pass you, always stop at red traffic lights and cycle in a predictable and consistent manner, so always in a straight line, especially when moving around a parked car or when out of a cycle lane (because some git has parked in it. It is best to move out early and cycle in a diagonal line than swerve out in front of a car)

    By the sounds of it, you do these things and that is probably why you’ve not had an accident.

    Contrary to what oink feels (and it’s preception of risk) cycling in traffic is perfectly safe if you are sensible. It is rare for cars to cycle up the back of a cyclist, most accidents occur at side roads, roundabouts and junctions and it’s good judgement on the part of the cyclist that is often key at these places. Many cyclists often make really stupid manouvres and are not aware of how a motorist is thinking or what they can (or can’t see).

  7. cycling defensively is the key. Make yourself visible, behave predictably, indicate your intentions. I’ve had some close shaves myself, but once I made the mistake of assuming a van had seen me pull up beside him at traffic lights and the other time, the car just pulled left to park up on the kerb, but I was far enough from the kerb to avoid collision.

    I also sometimes shun cycle lanes if they are unsafe and ride on the road because, actually – the way some cycle lanes have been laid down, cars can see you better on the road and won;t run you over coming out of a side road (because they never stop BEFORE the cycle lane, they stop to look ON the cycle lane)

    the only time I think it is vital to wear a helmet is for sports like mountain biking. Road cycling or cycle touring is a whole other matter.

  8. Lilo – I think for kids it’s another matter (although see Cookie’s comments & get a lightweight one) because they can’t really make up their own minds

    Lemon – I am unfamiliar with that particular popular beat combo. Try Jukebox Junior.

    Cookie – wow. I’m a pretty bad cyclist but I’ve never fallen off while stationary. At least not while sober, and the Gods look out for those who cycle drunk. (nobody else will)

  9. Cycle helmets aren’t going to be great for impact protection. If they were they’d be more like motorbike helmets.

    However, they are good in sliding and scraping type accidents. My husband slid sideways off a wet manhole cover and took a large proportion of skin off his left side – but luckily his cycle helmet saved his head and face.

    I have a bright red cycle helmet that matched my gloves and sets off my yellow jacket beautifully.

  10. The face thing is a bit worrying, I admit – but would one of those hairnet type helmets protect your face? Or prevent concussion?

    What really worries me about coming off my bike at any speed is that I wear glasses – I really, really don’t want those breaking anywhere near my eyes, but I doubt a helmet would do much to prevent that, either.

    I could dig out my old riding hat, I suppose …

  11. Yes on the helmet thing. Definite yes. But a sylish one 😀

  12. OK so where do you get stylish ones? The ones I’ve seen all seem to be designed to make you look like an alien from the planet of flat-pointy-headed people…

  13. I think I remember you wearing a helmet when you were a teanaged fireperson yourself. Not stylish perhaps but serviceable

  14. Which reminds me of another point. I have a very small head. The fireman’s helmet (they didn’t have firegirl helmets) in question had to be strapped so hard onto my head to stay on that I couldn’t open my mouth. You can stop laughing at the back. Any bike helmet would probably be the same. Last time I wore a bike helmet (setting a good example to some nephews) I actually had to wear a six-year-old’s. And it fitted …

  15. I would like a bore-helmet, to protect against bores like undercovercookie. But yes. I would don a helm, if I were you. Also, I second Lemonsquash’s comment re: Helmet (NYC alt. metal combo).

  16. uh, thanks menace.

    anyway, here is a link to some points re the helmet debate. I don’t disapprove of helmets but their perceived safety is a bit of a myth. Nothing wrong with wearing one, I’m just glad they’re not mandatory.

  17. Wear if it makes you feel more relaxed. Maybe you could get one of those cool ones that Chris Boardman used to wear?

  18. Menace – be nice

    Cookie – thanks for the link

    Geyvid – what the pointy aero dynamic ones? I’m not sure ‘cool’ is the word you’re looking for.

  19. you should wear a helmet although I dont, and it does make you look like an arse. But wear one, just for the sake of this blog, will you ?

    no, seriously, you should wear one, it’s better for your health, you never know what maniac’s drivin next to you.

  20. Yes. I wear it so that I do not die when a truck runs over my head (though this may be unfounded optimism). I wear a snowboard helmet which covers the temples and makes me look like a super-cool boarder (if you ignore the inconvenient inconsistencies of a fat arse and a dayglo jacket)

  21. Hannah – it’s the maniacs driving over me I worry about

    Moobs – Photo, please

  22. I think the Tour De France jerseys look better on the tour because, well, professional cyclists are built like whippets and not like paunchy office workers… nothing like a bit of lycra stretched over a beer gut to really make my morning.

    I’m leaning towards a skater-type helmet. Or just aiming not to fall off if I can help it.

  23. my children(3) all wear helmets – the eldest when he was only quite small managed to head towards steps in a park. Before we could stop him, he went straight over the edge, with his bike, tumbled over the handlebars on his way to the bottom and actually smashed the front out of his helmet when he hit the floor forehead first. His face was unscathed – without the helmet I dread to think of the damage he would have caused. The helmet was wrecked but replace free of charge by the manufacturer.

    He and the other boys do not question wearing helmets – its what they have alway done and the rule in our house is no helmet-no bike!!

    They do want to know if they can wear snowboard helmets instead as they come in cool colour/designs. I dont know the answer – anyone help?

  24. I can’t remember the brand or the model but there is one skateboarding/snowboarding type helmet which is also certified for use on bikes.

  25. Richard Keatinge

    The trouble with bike helmets is that they don’t seem to work – laws have stopped a lot of people cycling and have done nothing for head injury rates, see http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/332/7543/722-a. It appears that helmets break easily, but don’t absorb the impact, see the engineers quoted at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicycle_helmet. A broken helmet has simply failed. Helmets have also strangled some young children who were wearing helmets while playing off their bicycles. Fortunately I’ve never made my children wear helmets.At my moderately advanced age it’s far too dangerous not to cycle – regular cycling, Danish style, not too far, not too fast, nearly halves the death rate, see http://archinte.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/abstract/160/11/1621 All-Cause Mortality Associated With Physical Activity During Leisure Time, Work, Sports, and Cycling to Work. Andersen et al, Arch Intern Med. 2000;160:1621-1628.

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