The bicycle helmet debate
Wearing a helmet when you ride a bike may seem like common sense, but it's controversial here in San Francisco. The dangers are highlighted in a recent NY Times article:
Whether you ride on hectic city streets or bucolic back roads, helmets are essential armor. Bicycle helmets have been shown to reduce the risk of head injuries by up to 88 percent and facial injuries by 65 percent, according to a Cochrane Database Systemic Review published in 2000. Bike riders who play against those odds do not fare well in accidents. More than 90 percent of the 714 bicyclists killed in 2008 were not wearing helmets, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
(Interesting to note that SF Streetsblog somehow overlooked this story in its May 20 "Today's Headlines" feature, even though they obsessively tally every cyclist injured by a crash with a motor vehicle in the Bay Area.)
Some see the whole helmet movement as just another manifestation of greedy US capitalism:
The reason is quite simple. All the main helmet manufacturers are American. When they started suddenly promoting helmets in the late 1980’s, they targeted their local market and aimed helmets at those who cycled there; namely sports enthusiasts and hobby cyclists. The helmet was yet another piece of ‘necessary gear’ to be sold. The manufacturers capitalized on their branding of cycling as a fast-paced, sweaty sport.
And why am I not surprised that Andy Thornley of the SF Bicycle Coalition doesn't wear a helmet when he rides?
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. 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.
Out of this neurotic muddle, Critical Mass was born. Carlsson is now an old guy, and in the Times article a doctor has a special warning for us old guys:
People over 30 should be particularly careful because their gray matter is not packed as tightly as it used to be. And I don’t mean that only figuratively. “As you age, your brain shrinks, but your skull does not,” Dr. Gardner said. “That extra space means that the brain can bounce around inside the skull and may be more easily damaged from a blow.”...Even a light blow to the head can be serious. “You don’t have to be going fast to hurt your brain,” said Dr. Gardner, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians. A simple concussion can be debilitating, keeping you off the job or operating at half speed for weeks. “And every concussion increases the likelihood that you will have an injury to the brain if another concussion occurs,” Dr. Gardner said.
That's why Steve Young, the great 49er quarterback of days of yore, retired from professional football: his doctors told him that any more concussions and he could end up as a complete basket case. Unlike most quarterbacks, Young had a habit of lowering his head and plowing into defenders when he ran with the ball.
You can cite accident studies that demonstrate that helmets protect your head in an accident, but The Guardian's Steve Jones is unconvinced:
Context is important here. The most recent federal statistics on bicyclist accidents shows there were 716 bicyclists killed on roadways in the U.S. in 2008, or about 2 percent of all traffic fatalities. Certainly, helmets might have prevented some of those deaths, but from public health or statistical perspectives, this is a pretty low number.
Here's the New York study that tells us that "Nearly all bicyclists who died (97%) were not wearing a helmet." That means that 694---or 97% of the 716 fatal accidents noted by Jones---might have been prevented had the cyclists been wearing helmets.
But the most dramatic testimony is from those who have had an accident that would have been a lot worse if they hadn't been wearing a helmet:
I crashed my bike and was knocked out. I was wearing a helmet, which had a big dent in the forehead area. I fully believe I would not be capable of typing this had I not been wearing a helmet. For me that is the end of that argument !
Another anecdote from the Bay Guardian's blog:
During the production of the film, one of the actors was riding down Dolores Street on a bicycle and ended up going head first into a car windshield. The actor was wearing no helmet, which by all accounts would have protected him from the injuries he received to his brain which resulted in the need of surgery. The young man basically had to learn to do everything over again, as if he was almost an infant.
I've been cycling for 2 decades, and have known more than 1 person who died (no, not hit by a car) because they fell off their bike and cracked their head open on the sidewalk, or ran into another bicyclist. Both completely survivable if a helmet had been worn.
I of course am not a cyclist, but surely the moral of the story is that you should wear a helmet when you ride a bike.