Last week, I participated in the Ride for Refuge, a charity bike ride to raise money for a number of charities that help displaced people around the world. One of their rules was that participants have to wear a helmet. I imagine it’s an insurance thing, or maybe some misguided nagging, but it’s their rule and I agreed to play by the rules.
Man, I hated it. It’s not comfortable; it’s not enjoyable. Thankfully, it wasn’t a hot day, because that helmet got hot. I’ve ridden my bike long distances when the humidex gets close to 40. I cannot fathom doing it with a bucket and not getting heat stroke.
Worst of all, of course, is that it probably provided no added safety.
Organizations like Ottawa Public Health and Safe Roads Ottawa are often pushing helmets. A little while ago, we had a cop stopping bicyclists downtown and lying to them, telling them they had to wear a helmet. All sorts of people–anti-biking folks, concern trolls and just run-of-the-mill busybodies–like to nag bicyclists about wearing helmets. The claim its for safety, but that’s bullshit.
I’ve written before about how there is no evidence that bike helmets increase bike safety. In fact, the information we do have shows a correlation between helmet use and biking injuries. Yes, that’s right, the evidence we have shows that it is quite likely your bike helmet makes you less safe when going about your day-to-day biking.
The anti-biking folks and their useful idiots keep trying, though. Every now and then, a new study comes out, and they try to ramp up their bike helmet propaganda. The most recent study…the most recent lie (that I have seen) comes out of Australia. As reported at Treehugger.com:
No more Dutch style cycling for you; The Guardian reports on a new study by Australian statisticians Jake Olivier and Prudence Creighton that claims helmets reduce the risks of serious head injury by nearly 70 percent.
Helmet use is associated with odds reductions of 51% for head injury, 69% for serious head injury, 33% for face injury and 65% for fatal head injury. Injuries to the neck were rare and not associated with helmet use,” the study found.
No doubt the helmet nannies will pick up on this study and quote it often; the abstract of the study concludes:
Bicycle helmet use was associated with reduced odds of head injury, serious head injury, facial injury and fatal head injury. The reduction was greater for serious or fatal head injury. Neck injury was rare and not associated with helmet use. These results support the use of strategies to increase the uptake of bicycle helmets as part of a comprehensive cycling safety plan.
That makes sense.
It’s really weird that the writer accepts this as sensical even has he goes on to debunk the study. The post goes on to argue why the study doesn’t show that you have to wear a helmet. Basically, it’s pretty safe to ride a bike and if you think you need a helmet for biking, then you should think you need it for walking and driving.
(This is a fair analysis. Anyone who suggests the “risk” of bicycling warrants a helmet but not the risk associated with walking or driving is revealing their ignorance or intellectual dishonesty.)
But the entire premise of the study is faulty. As the writer notes:
But so far as I can tell, the study doesn’t look at the rate of accidents, which surely matters. This is what risk means, and according to Kay Teschke of the School of Population and Public Health, University of British Columbia, who tweeted me a note:
The authors of the study seem to be very careful not to use that word, because they did not study risk. Their review is about the odds of a head injury given [a cyclist has an] injury. The studies take place at hospitals and they count the cyclists with head injuries wearing or not wearing a helmet and compare them to those with other injuries wearing or not wearing a helmet. The evidence on this issue is not contentious, helmets reduce the odds of a head injury among those who are injured when cycling (and would do the same for walking, car driving, etc. as many people have pointed out).
These studies, and there are so many of them, that study the effect of wearing a helmet when in a collision are not studying bike safety; they are studying collision safety.
Of course wearing a helmet is going to protect your brain if you get knocked off your bike. Of course wearing a helmet will protect your head if you smack it off the pavement. Of course it is better to wear a helmet if you are going to be in a non-catastrophic collision.
It’s better not to get injured at all.
I know what you’re going to say: but you can’t ensure that someone’s not going to run you over!
You’re right, but you can reduce the risk that you will wind up in a collision! Studies that look into actual bicycling safety show that we tend to get more injuries the more people wear helmets. Prof. Teschke recently released a study that found this correlation (the study was actually about the effects of helmet laws on bike safety–tl;dr bad–so they didn’t investigate the causes of this correlation).
So why is this? Maybe drivers take more risks around helmeted bicyclists. There’s anecdotal evidence to support that. Maybe bicyclists take more risks when helmeted. There’s anecdotal evidence to support that, too. But, right now, that doesn’t really matter. Helmets appear to be a safety hazard for normal, urban bicycling.
Alright, let’s get to the caveats. Maybe all the studies have just found some weird anomaly. Maybe someday, someone will actually find a correlation between bike helmets and bike safety. Maybe studies from one country don’t apply to other countries. Maybe the dynamics will change from province to province, or even city to city. Maybe in certain situations (say, bad weather) wearing a helmet will actually improve bike safety. But right now, if you want to keep peddling the bike helmet propaganda, you’re dealing in fantasy…dangerous fantasy.
As with other times I’ve written about this, I’m not going to tell you to go without a helmet (I’ll let the limited evidence do that). Wear what you want; do what you want. I know people who don’t feel comfortable riding on certain streets without a helmet. That’s fine; it’s irraitonal, but people are often irrational. If you need a helmet to feel sufficiently safe to hop on your bike, then wear it, but at least be willing to admit that you’re likely choosing the feeling of safety over actual safety.
And by god, stop telling others to adopt your baseless, dangerous choices.