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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Why I'm Done Wearing a Helmet

Breakfast rides became a popular Sunday non-event a generation ago. The rides were the idea of Harold Absalonson. This photo was taken March 28, 1983. (Rich Landers/Photo Archive/The Spokesman-Review)
Breakfast rides became a popular Sunday non-event a generation ago. The rides were the idea of Harold Absalonson. This photo was taken March 28, 1983. (Rich Landers/Photo Archive/The Spokesman-Review)
By Lindsey Wallace
I’m done wearing a bike helmet.
Now, don’t hold me to that. Maybe I’ll want one in the winter when the roads are icy. Maybe I’ll be required to wear one on a group ride. Maybe I’ll travel cross-country, planning to bike on deserted roads. But when it comes to casual riding, I’m done.
At the conference I attended last week, I mentioned, “I don’t wear a helmet, and I’m a public health professional,” to audible gasps and laughter. I invited people to ask me why later, and many of them did. I’ll share with you what I told them in just a moment, but let me preface this: I think the main problem around making an informed decision about whether to wear a helmet is hard because there isn’t great data around helmet use. Due to the confirmation bias, we’re all looking for information to back up the belief that we already have. Do your own research, use your own brain, and figure out what seems right and feels right for you.

IT’S DEBATABLE WHETHER HELMETS ARE EFFECTIVE.

A 1987 study of helmet use determined that helmets reduce the risk of serious injury by 85%. That’s a statistic you’ll still see all over the place. The problem is, that study was deeply flawed and has been refuted. Governmental agencies have stopped using this number due to issues with the study. Other more recent studies have investigated the question of helmet efficacy, and have found that the benefit is not nearly as high as we used to think. One well-done study that evaluated all the current studies out there (called a meta-analysis), found there to be no benefit to helmet use when you take into account all types of injuries. Helmets protect against certain kinds of injuries (those to the head) and increase the likelihood of other injuries (those to the neck). Any study about helmet use is very hard to do well. You can’t assign one group of people to use helmets and another group of people not to use them. All you can do is look at two groups of people and compare them. The people who wear helmets are likely more safety-conscious than those who don’t, which makes comparing the two groups very difficult and will make it appear that helmets are more protective than they actually are.
People will so often put up photos on social media of obliterated helmets and say, “Holy crap, look at my helmet! It saved my life!” But helmets are not supposed to shatter. When a helmet protects your head from a serious injury, the styrofoam inside will be compressed and stay that way. Most of the pictures I’ve seen are of helmets that have broken apart. It’s likely that the helmet did not protect someone from a severe injury.
Cyclists don’t die from just falling off their bikes, they die because they are hit by cars. Bike helmets only protect against certain types of injuries to certain parts of the head, and the evidence is not compelling that they even do that well...

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