The Helmet Question (and my decision)

This post is making reference to one I posed about a week ago (or so) regarding the question (my own personal dilemma really) as to whether I should start wearing a helmet again, and what others thought about it. To read the original post click here, and follow ups were posted here and here.

First of all I would like to thank all who commented and/or voted on the poll...the comments were insightful and really made me think and question the subject). The poll actually surprised me...I expected most people to say that they never wore a helmet (seems like I see more helmet-less riders than those who wear them) but the results were actually to the contrary. 16 voted that they always wore a helmet, 10 said they never did, and 7 said they sometimes did.

Anyhow, after much deliberation I've decided once again to be a hard head of sorts and wear a helmet...not sometimes but always...just as I did for years prior to this past summer. I totally respect the people's opinions that are opposed to wearing helmets. I also agree that there is not much evidence supporting the fact that helmets saves a person from serious injury. I doubt, for example, that a helmet will save me if I am ever broadsided by a car, and in the 30-some years I've been a cyclist I've only had one fall that could qualify as a "close call" (more on that in a bit). But the bottom line is that wearing a helmet makes me feel safer...and I don't think this is an unrealistic approach. My problem is, as much as I trash the car drivers who do stupid things I do as many stupid things on a bike that put me in harms way. And I am almost 100% an urban cyclist...there are cars, potholes, and other obstacles in front of me every time I take that first push on the pedal. And the biggest reason is that I have a teenage son who I love very much...the bottom line is that I want to be there for him (in my full capacity) as he grows into a man.

I guess one of the main things that shook me, and the thing that made me post the original question was something I witnessed about a month ago. I was on the Yuba on my way the the health club and was approaching a busy intersection when I saw traffic was at a standstill and that there were flashing lights ahead. Thinking it was a fender-bender I was feeling pretty cool as I coasted through traffic while people were at a standstill in there cars. When I got to the intersection I could see that the chaos was because a young woman had been hit by a car...she was not wearing a helmet. She was on a gurney with a neck brace and braces on her legs. She had her hands on her head and was (literally) screaming in pain. Again, I don't know if a helmet would have helped this young women (and I pray that she is ok) but the scene really shook me.

I also feel I have been spared a few times in my life from serious lasting head injury...two of them I'll briefly share here. The first happened when I was a child (10 years old) and fell off a swing set and landed on the pavement...breaking my arm and fracturing my skull...I could have died, but I survived. Another time, about 15 years ago I was on my way to work and had a bag of red lentils on my rear rack. I was flying down a small incline (I used to pedal fast...all of the time) when a van made a turn directly in front of me. As I slammed on the breaks I stupidly turned to see if the lentils were falling off the bike (can you believe I actually did that) and in the process my front wheel turned...and literally hurled me over the bike. I didn't have time enough to put my hands out and landed on my side (knocking the wind out of me) and on a second bounce (I think) I hit my head (I was wearing a helmet). I landed directly in front of a bus stop, and as I lay there gasping for air a mother and young daughter came to my aid...the van kept going. Turns out my only injury (determined after x-rays) was bruised ribs.

So the question still remains, I suppose...will a helmet save me (or any of us) from serious injury if I get hit or fall hard...doubtful, but who knows. There is though, that small chance that it may help in a minor fall or head-bump that may otherwise be a serious one. And that's not a chance I want to wager. While this past summer it did, I have to admit, feel freeing riding helmet-less, I also have to admit it does make me feel a little bit safer riding in an urban environment when I have one on...and that to me is reason enough to wear one.

The bottom line, I think, is that whether you wear a helmet or not is to ride and ride use your riding as a living example that it is possible to get around (mostly) without a car.

Thanks again to all those who voted and commented.


Unknown said…
"But the bottom line is that wearing a helmet makes me feel safer...and I don't think this is an unrealistic approach."

That's sums it up quite well.
Chris said…
Sorry I missed your poll. This question has been vexing me recently.

A few years ago I upgraded to a road bike, and between the speed and the head-first position I decided to always wear a helmet, after years of avoiding them. I've enjoyed feeling safer, and in some weather it's the most comfortable hat, but more often it's been a sweaty nuisance that ends up dangling from my hip the whole time at my destination.

So I'm still conflicted, and I've been reading...

Did you know, for instance, that the standard for bike helmets is 'intended to give protection in the kind of accident in which the rider falls onto the road without other vehicles being involved.’ That bike-related head injuries have not decreased with helmet use, and may even have increased? That thirty times as many motorists as bicyclists die from head injuries every year, and that per hour of use, bikes pose a lower risk of fatal injury than cars?

That last one really didn't sit right with me. Almost always, when someone gets all serious about how you have to wear a helmet, that person uses a car for their primary transportation -- some haven't biked in years, if ever. Yet it turns out they are being just as reckless every day without realizing?

Well, since I was committed to head protection in situations as dangerous as bicycling, I had to be consistent. For a few months this summer, whenever I was given a ride, or borrowed a car, or used Buffalo CarShare, or biked, I wore my helmet.

It was heartbreaking. Dear family and friends who had repeatedly talked about the importance of helmets saw me wearing it, asked why, found out that cars are just as dangerous as bikes, head-injury-wise, and no-one joined me in wearing a helmet.

My conclusion is that it's basically a form of hazing that functions to malign every cyclist either as a daredevil or a rube -- neither has the quiet dignity of an ordinary commuter.