Wednesday, April 14, 2010

To Wear or not To Wear

It seems to be a rite of spring, as the flowering of fruit trees and the greening of the grass, comes articles discussing the merits of wearing a bike helmet or not wearing a helmet. This blog was inspired by a recent article in the magazine Spacing. The issue is to whether people should wear a helmet when they bike. If not compulsory, should it be something that is encouraged.

The idea is that wearing a helmet is safe. You're riding a vehicle that is open and if you get hit by a car, or simply fall off it, at least your head will be safe from the impact of hitting the pavement or a vehicle. From one point, it makes sense, after all the brain is an important organ and so you should have a few ounces of foam and plastic on your head will keep you from suffering brain damage.

However many will point out there are detriments to wearing helmets. For example, they will say that people hate wearing helmets and so if compelled to do so will mean they will not ride a bike. Helmets are considered too hot to wear or that wearing one gives the tragic effect of 'helmet head' or 'helmet hair'. Of course we understand there is nothing that makes a person a pariah as helmet head.

Others will point out that nations such as Denmark and the Netherlands are no helmet laws and very little bike riding fatalities. The situation there is the reality of a strong cycling culture and the government has gone out its way to devise special roads and pathways for cyclists. I would question putting these two nations into the mix because they are so bike friendly.

Am I saying that cycling is dangerous? As I consider my own cycling experience I would count the number of falls as being negligible. Mind you, those accidents have been quite good and I still have the scars in my knees to show those accidents. There is something about doing wheelies in a gravel covered parking lot that is not the smartest thing to do. I've done a few endo's in my life, usually when I've hit a rut and couldn't get out.

Others will say that wearing a helmet causes a change in behaviour to the cyclist. They feel they can take greater risks, such a riding faster or not paying closer attention to road conditions or traffic situations. I suppose there is some truth to that, although I would wonder if the same feeling exists with those who wear seatbelts while driving. Does that alone explain for increased speeds? Probably not. I would suggest most people don't consider anything when putting on a seatbelt, they wear it and now its just part of the driving experience.

Others will point to this conclusion:
A widely cited systematic review calculated the effect of helmets on brain injury from three studies of cyclists given emergency treatment, with a total of 347 concussions or other brain injuries (plus many superficial head wounds).16 The data I present are based on 10 479 head injuries severe enough to appear in hospital admissions databases. The lack of obvious benefit from helmet laws may be because helmets (which prevent head wounds) are not designed for forces often encountered in collisions with motor vehicles or other serious crashes that cause most head injuries requiring hospital admission. Helmets may also encourage cyclists to take more risks, or motorists to take less care when they encounter cyclists, counteracting any benefits.3 Cyclists compelled to wear helmets may take less trouble to wear them correctly and ensure they fit well, reducing their effectiveness.w16

So what do we do? I will say that I wear a helmet. I don't think its a problem at all, when I'm doing recreational cycling, or even some bike commuting I wear a helmet. Is it because I feel the activity is unsafe? No, not really. Perhaps a better word would be 'respect', for what could possibly happen. These things are called 'accidents' for a reason, in that there is a risk of something going wrong. Does that statement mean cycling is unsafe, no it doesn't. While I have the scars, I can also say that the last time I had an accident on the bike is about ten years ago. Has my riding decreased over that period of time, I can say it has not. It has been stable, perhaps not as much as Vancouver days, but its still up there.

So why do I wear a helmet? Well for a few reasons, first of all, riding in BC means wearing a helmet. It's the law and so you simply get used to wearing a helmet. Secondly , helmets are cool, there is enough vents to ensure proper air circulation. Also, they are cool to wear. Helmets look nice and while the word 'helmet' may not be the best word, they are great to wear. It's one less worry and while I jokingly will tell people I feel invulnerable while wearing one, I know I still have to have the same precautions while wearing a helmet.

Is there a change? I can say one thing, I do feel safe and that's the bottom line.

1 comment:

tOM Trottier said...

Helmets are useful. The best have BETTER cooling than a bare head, eg, because they pull in lots of air and send it closer to your scalp at a faster rate than your speed.

They also are a good platform for lights and fluorescent and reflective stickers to gain attention.

I feel naked cycling without one.

However, I have seen studies done in Australia and Nova Scotia when adult helmet laws were introoduced which show that:
a. helmet laws decreased the number of cyclists significantly.
b. bike casualties per (remaining) cyclist went up.

Contrariwise, helmet laws for kids didn't decrease kid cycling - and kids have the great majority of the accidents, understandably, since they have less experience and skill and take more chances - and there's more of them.

Cycling is very safe for adults, and helmets only save your skull, not the rest of you. Cycling also leads to longer health and a longer life.

So it is better to wear a helmet, but worse to insist others wear helmets.