Monday, May 11, 2009

“The problem with a head injury: we can’t fix it.”


Chris Carlsson, one of the founders of Critical Mass, is considered an intellectual by the bike people, though it's hard to see why. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed is king, I suppose. Carlsson sneers at the idea of wearing a helmet while riding his bike.

Most bicycle accidents cause injury that a helmet cannot help, but still many cyclists share the mass media bias that says "if you’re not wearing a helmet, you have given up your rights to complain about an accident or the injuries you may have received." I find this absurd and offensive.

I've never seen any statement in the media, mass or otherwise, like the one he puts in quotes. Seems like Carlsson won't wear a helmet until the country's "hostile road structure" is a thing of the past, which means never:

It’s not a moral imperative to buy a commodity that offers meager protection in order to be critical of a ridiculously hostile road structure. You don’t deserve to die, or even suffer injury, just because you refuse the "common-sense Consumer Duty" to buy and wear a helmet. Road engineering today guarantees serious accidents between bikes and cars, and of course, cars and cars.

No, of course you don't "deserve" to die just because you aren't wearing a helmet while cycling, but not wearing one makes it more likely that you will. And it's not "a moral imperative," either. It just seems prudent. Carlsson then backs off a little:

You may survive a slightly higher percentage of these predictable and designed "accidents" wearing a helmet, but you are reproducing an insidious logic when you criticize bare-headed cyclists. It is terribly false to place the onus for traffic safety on the individual vehicle driver, whether car or bike. The system is designed in such a way that it is entirely predictable that many thousands of people will die in the "normal" course of events on America’s roadways. Cyclists who ride without helmets do not thereby deserve the fate handed out by the unforgiving streets of America.

He puts "accidents" in quotes, since he thinks it isn't really an accident when cyclists get hurt because of the way our traffic system is designed. But it seems that much of the "onus" for cyclists staying safe in traffic should be placed on them, and it's irresponsible to suggest that not wearing a helmet makes you some kind of rebel.

See the writings of Robert Hurst and John Forrester, who emphasize that the safest cyclist is the most experienced, best prepared, best equipped, and wariest cyclist, all of which are under the control of the individual cyclist. Both writers note that most cycling accidents have nothing to do with other vehicles; and both recommend wearing helmets, as does the National Safety Council, which tells us that 85% of cycling fatalities are caused by head injuries.

The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute says that that number is only two-thirds:

But helmets aren’t meant to prevent accidents. They’re there to prevent head trauma in case of an accident. The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute says two-thirds of bicyclist deaths are from brain injuries. And while some riders worry that helmets will be useless in a high-speed collision, experts say that most brushes with the pavement do not happen at a very high speed. Helmets are designed to deal with the average impact exceptionally well...“The problem with a head injury is that we can’t fix it,” says head injury specialist Mary Pat McKay. “If you come in here with a severe brain injury, you’ll never be the same again. You may not go back to the same job you had before. You may need round-the-clock care.” McKay says the hardest thing about her job is giving families bad news. It hit close to home when her friend’s son crashed on his bike without a helmet. His head hit a pole. He was about to graduate from an Ivy League law school. Now he paints houses.

Kirk Janes, a San Francisco bike messenger, died last year when he ran into a truck near Alamo Square. He wasn't wearing a helmet.

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15 Comments:

At 2:21 PM, Blogger murphstahoe said...

Did you just invoke John Forrester?

I guess you would gravitate towards Forrester as he HATES bike lanes. He thinks Bikes belong right in the middle of the primary traffic lane. That's what he means by being prepared and wary - don't let cars squeeze you - just ride right in front of them so they can't pass.

Amusing.

 
At 4:18 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

It's foolishness with or without bike lanes, especially without a helmet.

 
At 10:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know what's foolish? Having so many cars on the street that people can't walk or ride a bike without having these things threaten their safety.

 
At 12:37 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

So it's all about getting cars off our streets, even though most cycling accidents are solo falls that have nothing to do with other vehicles?

 
At 11:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since the biggest danger to SF cyclists is cars, yes.

Falls won't normally kill you. Most probably won't even seriously injure you. A car hitting you, that's a different matter.

Helmets are good for bicycle racing and other fast riding, but they won't protect your internal organs from 5,000 pounds of steel going 35 miles per hour into you.

Bike lanes where people know not to drive, that might help with that.

If drivers actually obeyed the speed limits, that would help.

If they knew what the laws really were regarding cyclists, that would help.

Helmets? They're an example of what me might choose to emphasize if we were unwilling to do what it takes to make things safe for cyclists.

 
At 9:05 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

You mean it's all about those wicked motor vehicles? No, of course a helmet won't protect you from being hit by a car going 35 miles per hour, but it will help with most other accidents, like the one cited in the Washington City Paper article I linked, where the guy ran into a pole. Or the accident that killed Kirk James when he ran into a truck that was already in the intersection.

Cycling experts agree that car-bike collisions account for only a small minority of cycling accidents. Robert Hurst says it's only 15%, while John Forester---who has done exhaustive analysis of accident statistics---says car-bike collisions account for only 12% of cycling accidents.

Forester: "In most cases, the cyclist was disobeying a rule of the road---in at least 52% of urban car-bike collisions and in at least 67% of rural ones. Even if the cyclist was not disobeying the rules, he or she was unlikely to have been riding in the standard manner...In short, most car-bike collisions are caused by the cyclist doing something unusual..." ("Effective Cycling," John Forester)

Considering how recklessly many cyclists behave on city streets, it's a wonder that more aren't killed.

 
At 10:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One can only assume that when the idiots who bike without helmets and blow through red lights and stop signs with abandon finally have the accident they seem to be seeking by their behavior, and are killed or end us as vegetables, the population of cyclists will trend slightly toward more intelligence with each loss.

Cycling darwinism.

 
At 3:44 PM, Blogger murphstahoe said...

Even if the cyclist was not disobeying the rules, he or she was unlikely to have been riding in the standard manner...In short, most car-bike collisions are caused by the cyclist doing something unusual..." ("Effective Cycling," John Forester)

You've outdone yourself. Forrester's vision of the "rules" or "riding in the standard manner" means riding in the middle of the lane blocking traffic.

Since you invoke him as a source, I assume you agree with him completely? Or are you just taking one quote out of context. If we are going to play that game...

"Bikes Uber Alles" - Rob Anderson

 
At 10:27 PM, Blogger Aaron said...

Why don't auto drivers wear helmets? Statistically it would be safer as it could prevent some head injuries. You could make all the same arguments for auto drivers needing helmets as have been made for bike riders. Yet it's easier to direct your ridicule and scorn toward bikers who don't want to wear them because you've already designated them as second class. I'm fairly certain Rob Anderson will never be wearing a helmet as he drives his car; I'm fairly certain that he, too, would "sneer" at the idea.

 
At 9:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Considering how recklessly many cyclists behave on city streets, it's a wonder that more aren't killed."

Hmm... maybe cycling isn't so "dangerous" after all, eh Rob?

 
At 9:24 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

That more cyclists aren't killed is in part attributable to the sensitivity and alertness of motorists in SF.

 
At 10:04 AM, Blogger murphstahoe said...

"That more cyclists aren't killed is in part attributable to the sensitivity and alertness of motorists in SF."

Damn you Rob Anderson, I was drinking a coke when I read this and I laughed so hard it's all over my computer screen. You owe me some wetwipes.

 
At 6:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rob,
The solo falls aren't killing many people. Collisions with cars is the culprit. If you didn't cherry pick things out of Hurst's book you'd represent that bit of information.

The last paragraph of your post is exactly what cyclists are sick of hearing. When a cyclist dies in an accident there's one piece of critical information: "Did he have his helmet on."

What we want is a little bit of analysis on what he did wrong to get into the accident. To be fair, this isn't universally missing and is sometimes impossible for the media to ascertain.


Again, if you understood Art of Cycling you'd understand that defensive riding is vastly more important than protective gear. It's especially more important than helmets.

There's one piece of protective gear that's often missing and goes entirely unspoken for: Lighting. Wear a helmet with no lights at night: Now that's stupid!

 
At 3:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just want to say there would be a LOT less bicycle accidents if cyclists actually followed traffic laws like they are supposed to. Traffic laws are put in place to help protect everyone's safety. Instead, cyclists just ride right through intersections, not stopping at stop signs or even lights sometimes, then the wonder why they almost get hit by cars all the time.


If a cyclist does not follow traffic laws he/she has no right to complain about cars or lack of bike lanes.

 
At 10:29 AM, Blogger Chiah said...

People have been making comments about bicyclists being culprits - or cars... and what I want to say is that its sad that these accidents happen at all. As a bike rider and a car driver - I think bikers should wear helmets... that's just a safety issue. People in cars don't wear helmets because we have metal surrounding us... But Cars do need to be more vigilant to bikers. AND!!! Bikers need to obey traffic laws. Its not ok that when i come to a 4 way intersection and wait my turn and start to go but slam on the brakes when a bicyclist breezes right in front of me... That's not ok.

Basically -
Bikers wear helmets and obey traffic laws

Car drivers - be more vigilant - look out for bikes.

 

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