So this weekend I was out for a bike ride with some friends of mine and we stopped by a bike shop. And the guy at the bike shop told us that we should be wearing helmets. He said, “if they cut your legs off, if they cut your arms off, you’re still alive, but if you hit your head, you’re dead or a veggie” and “you only have to be going 6 km/h, that’s all it takes for a major concussion.” I didn’t say anything. I didn’t even say that if someone cut off my legs while I was biking I’m pretty sure I’d be dead. Or that the 6 km/h figure sounds like complete bullshit because I’m pretty sure you can get a concussion falling off a standing bike and in any case I’m also somewhat confident the speed of head impact isn’t very strongly dependent on your biking speed. Anyway, I didn’t argue because it’s obvious the guy at the bike shop knows more about bikes than I do and I wouldn’t convince him. And also, I don’t want to argue against safety. Safety is important! I am for safety!
If someone wants to wear a helmet while bicycling to increase their safety, I am 100% behind them. Similarly, if they want to wear a helmet while ice skating or skiing, or even walking around or driving. But I don’t think forcing people to wear helmets in the one instance of cycling is reasonable or improves safety overall. Because the #1 thing that increases bike safety is more people biking, and mandatory helmet laws discourage people from biking. Luckily, I was reading twitter today and came upon this (admittedly very old, and possibly even questionable) paper by D.L. Robinson of the University of New England which states my opinions in fact form. Here is the abstract in full:
The first year of the mandatory bicycle helmet laws in Australia saw increased helmet wearing from 31% to 75% of cyclists in Victoria and from 31% of children and 26% of adults in New South Wales (NSW) to 76% and 85%. However, the two major surveys using matched before and after samples in Melbourne (Finch et al. 1993; Report No. 45, Monash Univ. Accident Research Centre) and throughout NSW (Smith and Milthorpe 1993; Roads and Traffic Authority) observed reductions in numbers of child cyclists 15 and 2.2 times greater than the increase in numbers of children wearing helmets. This suggests the greatest effect of the helmet law was not to encourage cyclists to wear helmets, but to discourage cycling. In contrast, despite increases to at least 75% helmet wearing, the proportion of head injuries in cyclists admitted or treated at hospital declined by an average of only 13%. The percentage of cyclists with head injuries after collisions with motor vehicles in Victoria declined by more, but the proportion of head injured pedestrians also declined; the two followed a very similar trend. These trends may have been caused by major road safety initiatives introduced at the same time as the helmet law and directed at both speeding and drink-driving. The initiatives seem to have been remarkably effective in reducing road trauma for all road users, perhaps affecting the proportions of victims suffering head injuries as well as total injuries. The benefits of cycling, even without a helmet, have been estimated to outweigh the hazards by a factor of 20 to 1 (Hillman 1993; Cycle helmets—the case for and against. Policy Studies Institute, London). Consequently, a helmet law, whose most notable effect was to reduce cycling, may have generated a net loss of health benefits to the nation. Despite the risk of dying from head injury per hour being similar for unhelmeted cyclists and motor vehicle occupants, cyclists alone have been required to wear head protection. Helmets for motor vehicle occupants are now being marketed and a mandatory helmet law for these road users has the potential to save 17 times as many people from death by head injury as a helmet law for cyclists without the adverse effects of discouraging a healthy and pollution free mode of transport.
That’s right. Let me repeat that last part for you: mandatory helmet laws for drivers will prevent 17 times the deaths from head injuries without the adverse effect of discouraging cycling. So unless you have something newer and more authoritative to tell me, I’m sticking with this. Please put on your driving helmet before getting into the car. Or else maybe stop with the alarmism.