Wednesday, July 7, 2010

I wear a helmet. Do you?

I'm a firm believer that helmets take whatever beating your skull otherwise would, and are therefore good things to have on your head whenever you ride.

But if you read the Vancouver Sun, you might have read this article by Harvey Enchin:

Wearing a bike helmet might not make you any safer.

My immediate reaction to the headline was something like this:

Is he trolling? Is he trying to poke the hornet's nest? Just what is he talking about?
Colin Clarke, a mechanical engineer and British cycling advocate, has argued that the helmeted head will be subject to more impacts than a non-helmeted one in part due to the larger size of the helmet compared with the bare head. A near miss for a bare head may have an impact force of 70 per cent of a direct impact for a helmet wearer, he claims.
Yeah, maybe if you ride 5mph on the sidewalk.  And who in the heck is Colin Clarke? (Yes, I know he's a mechanical engineer and British Cycling advocate, but what has he published?)
Furthermore, while helmets may offer adequate protection from skull fractures, they may increase the risk of brain damage from "rotational shearing forces" given the greater number of impacts for helmet wearers.
I think I'll take my chances with rotational shearing forces over having a dent in my skull any day of the week, not to mention having my scalp peeled back leaving me to bleed to death in the street. But hey, if you worry about rotational shearing forces, so be it.

Is there a point to shocking the cycling public at large?
According to a 2003 article in the American Heritage Invention and Technology magazine, a surge in bicycle helmets from 1991 to 2001 -- to the extent that 69 per cent of child cyclists and 43 per cent of adult cyclists wore helmets by the end of the period -- was accompanied by a decline in ridership and an increase in cyclist accidents, resulting in 51 per cent more head injuries per cyclist.
Was this an illustration of moral hazard? Did wearing helmets give riders a false sense of security, resulting in riskier behaviour? Or perhaps traffic conditions, aggressive motorists or faster, lighter bikes are responsible for the elevated injury rate and mandatory helmet laws kept it lower than it otherwise would have been. We don't know.
Oh, he doesn't like mandatory helmet laws.

I've got a libertarian bent in me and I do share his sentiment that laws enacted to protect you from yourself are a waste of taxpayer dollars, but I also feel that proclaiming that you might be able to skip over a proactive step in protecting yourself is irresponsible.

Seriously, that sort of behavior is for the blogosphere. Most journalists are educated folks who don't need to resort to such stunts to drive readership to their publications.

There's got to be a bigger point in here amongst all the anecdotal evidence against protecting yourself... ah here it is, in the last paragraph:
In the Netherlands, there is high a rate of cycling and a low rate of cycling injuries. Virtually no one wears a helmet. There is, however, a vast cycling infrastructure that keeps bikes and cars apart. We need more study to determine whether the helmet law is achieving its objectives and, more importantly, to develop a comprehensive plan to improve cycling safety. In the meantime, I'll continue to wear my helmet.

Okay, so he wants what one finds in continental Europe. I don't have a problem with that. Cycling facilities are inexpensive and can be added to existing facilities with minimal interruption of services to existing users.

Lincoln, Nebraska, where I live, has over a hundred miles of bike path added to arterial streets, abandoned railroad corridors and flood control projects. Hundreds of miles of secondary streets are posted "bike routes".

The author also chooses to wear his helmet, despite the threat of rotational shearing forces that may cause brain damage.

The only people who responded to his headline are cycling enthusiasts. Given his message advocating more research into cycling safety and implication that Vancouver needs more cycling facilities to separate motorized traffic from the non-motorized, he is simply "preaching to the choir".

What about the rest of the congregation? What about the people who skim the headline and let out a smug little chuckle at "bike dorks" and move on to the World Cup news? What happens to them?

I'm picturing one of the aforementioned congregation, the one who chuckled at "bike dorks" visiting a bike shop in Vancouver with his new girlfriend (who happens to be a cyclist) buying a new bike, a water bottle, a bottle cage, a pump, a couple of spare inner tubes and a set of tire levers to keep the good times rolling. When asked about a helmet, he gives this response:

"Helmet? And look like a bike dork? Please. I read somewhere that helmets don't do any good anyways."

An article by some Australians, available for download at the USA's National Institutes of Health says otherwise.

Case in point: I was once told that drinking diet soda causes weight gain. I'm pretty sure the person who told me that read a shocking headline and didn't read the rest of the article. (I was later told by another person that rats who were given diet soda also tended to over-eat to compensate for the calories their little rat brains were expecting from the sweetness. Keep the shocking headlines to yourselves, people: I'm human and capable of telling my overgrown brain "you'll get NOTHING, and LIKE IT!")

Don't be misled: wear your helmet. The life you save will be your own.

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