Cycling Helmets Do Far, Far, Far More Harm than Good

LTRs can skip this.

In this article, I restate my earlier claims and cut n’ paste from a single article.

OK, I seem like I’m obsessed with helmets. That’s because I am.

The more I dig, the more more I find that helmets are actually a potential form of risk. (I do suggest reading the whole article and perhaps just skipping this blog post):

I have mentioned that helmeted riders will intentionally and even worse, unintentionally take more risks.

Here’s an example where a helmet is implicated in a man who is paralysed. He has stated that if he did NOT have a helmet, he would not have taken a risk that has put him in a wheelchair.

“One such example was reported in the New York Times . In August 1999, Philip Dunham, then 15, was riding his mountain bike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and went over a jump on a trail. As he did, his back tire kicked up, the bike flipped over and he landed on his head. The helmet he was wearing did not protect his neck and he was paralysed from the neck down. Two years later, Philip has regained enough movement and strength in his arms to use a manual wheelchair. He has also gained some perspective. With the helmet he felt protected enough to ride off-road on a challenging trail. In hindsight, perhaps too safe. “It didn’t cross my mind that this could happen,” said Philip, now 17. “I definitely felt safe. I wouldn’t do something like that without a helmet.”

The name of the above series of comments, from the BMJ, is called: “No clear evidence from countries that have enforced the wearing of helmets”.

This should cause us pause. Why is there “no clear evidence”?

I’d say that if the effects of helmets on injuries is so small that the best attempts to measure it have failed, that it does not exist. There was certainly no 85% decrease in injuries which is the claim that can be found in many, many places.

The predictions of some of the most frequently cited papers:

Dorsch, 1987 -90% fatalities
Thompson, Rivara, Thompson, 1989 -85% head injuries, -88% brain injuries
Wasserman, 1990 -29% concussions, -82% skull fractures
McDermott, 1993 -39% head injuries,
but no significant reduction for adults
Thompson, Rivara, Thompson, 1996 -69% head injuries, -65% brain injuries
Table 1
Injury savings predicted by case-control studies

There are a few things I’d like from the pro-helmet crowd.

1. Clear data that shows that helmets work as intended and save lives. I’d like to know how many lives and in what circumstances.

2. I’d like to know where helmets are not intended to work. What are some scenerios where a helmet is known to fail? An example of this is sky diving. I don’t expect to live if I jump out of a 50 story building and land on my head. If the speed that helmets help me is in collisions with cars of 20 MPH or less, I have to say that unhelmeted pedestrians will survive 95% of the time. To reduce a risk below that is not worth the hassle.

I do not think that “safety in numbers” is a good reason to argue for helmets at all because it looks bad. That is, to say that we need to downplay helmets because it causes people not to cycle is not a good argument because it implies that we are lying to people and putting them at risk just to make cycling unpopular.

A better argument is that “helmets are useless. If you like helmets you must be for less expensive infrastructure improvements that actually work.”

If you really would like a laugh look at table three in the above link:

“Naive approaches simply reporting trends as effects of helmet laws (as in the Canadian study) would lead to the conclusion that bike helmet laws also prevent pedestrian injuries (Fig 3) A more plausible explanation is that helmet-law provinces also introduced other measures (e.g. speed cameras or random breath tests) and that they improved safety for all road users.”

Thus, claims of protection by helmets are, as I said earlier, are confounded by real increases in road safety. Thus, pedestrian injuries and fatalities should be accounted for when we argue that increased wearing of helmets saves lives.

But there’s more!

“Rotational injuries from sports helmets are a recognised problem: “The use of helmets increases the size and mass of the head. This may result in an increase in brain injury by a number of mechanisms. Blows that would have been glancing become more solid and thus transmit increased rotational force to the brain. These forces result in shearing stresses on neurones which may result in concussion and other forms of brain injury.” Experiments on monkeys show that rotational forces cause much more severe brain injuries than linear forces.”

Here’s a response to the story that “I fell off my bike and my helmet broke.”

(from the above article)

“Because of the difficulty finding adults who crashed or fell off their bikes, 86% of the community controls (CC) were children under 15.[2] At the time, a large observational survey in Seattle showed that 3.2% of child cyclists wore helmets, compared to 21.1% of children in the CC group.[3]

If, as Ms Thompson suggests, these helmet wearing rates are correct, it would seem that helmeted children fall off their bikes 7 times more often than non-wearers. There would be no point in recommending helmet wearing, because helmet wearers seem to have many more injuries than non-wearers.

Why should helmet wearers have more accidents? Clarke details how helmet use can lead to more head impacts plus additional accidents.[4] Thompson’s approach to helmet research appears to assume that differences in head injury rates were due to helmets.”

“These cycling numbers should be compared with WA cyclist hospital admissions in the years pre and post law enforcement:

1985 – 623

1986 – 660

1987 – 630

1988 – 698

1989 – 596

1990 – 638

1991 – 730

1992 – 574

1993 – 633

1994 – 644

1995 – 660

1996 – 715

1997 – 754

1998 – 850

1999 – 862

2000 – 913

There was no decline in overall cyclist hospital admissions despite the traffic surveys showing a ~30% decline in cyclists on the roads (more than 50% reduction in schoolchildren cycling from 1991 to 1996). ”

“As Robinson shows, there is solid reason to doubt the likely benefits of the monomaniacal focus on cycle helmets which currently dominates much “cycle safety” policy, and genuine cause for concern as to the effects of the relentless portrayal of cycling as dangerous which underpins helmet promotion.”


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