You Wear a Helmet, Don’t You?

Helmet use is an evergreen topic widely debated by cyclists and non-cyclists everywhere. Conclusion? No one agrees and this debate will rage until the end of days.

I decided to jot down a post about helmet use yesterday, when talking to a friend as I prepared to leave my building on my bike. Somebody walked by and said casually, “Nice cycling cap. You wear a helmet, too, don’t you?”

Man, those kinds of comments rankle me. Perhaps they originate out of concern, but they come across as judgmental.

No matter how I answer, I feel like it’s a no-win. If I say “Yes, I wear a helmet,” I feel like I answered a question that was really no one else’s concern but mine. Responding with “None of your business” sounds ridiculous, as a helmet’s overall obviousness negates it as a matter of privacy. If I say “No, I don’t wear a helmet,” I’m opening the door to a talking-to, frowny disapproving look, a recitation of accident statistics, or anecdotes starting with “I had this friend who wasn’t wearing a helmet…”

I do wear a helmet. I’ve been in two accidents since I began riding in D.C. In one instance, I was doored. In the other, I was cut-off by a driver that made a left turn right in front of me. The driver didn’t see me until I went bouncing across the hood of his SUV.

In both instances, I was wearing a helmet. In the case of my dooring, I don’t remember how I fell or if wearing my helmet protected me in some way. When I was cut off, it was my chin and upper body that took the brunt of the impact, and I don’t remember the rest of the collision. Perhaps my helmet helped me out as I landed on the ground, but I can’t recall. Accidents make the memory foggy.

Luckily, I was going at fairly slow speeds when these accidents happened and neither my bike nor I sustained any long-term injuries. In addition, I was glad I wore my helmet not only because of the possibility that it could have helped my noggin somehow, but also because I did not want to have any onlookers say, “And she wasn’t wearing a helmet.”

I did a completely unscientific Google search of “bike accidents.” As I read through the newspaper articles it returned, I noticed that about half of them (four of the nine I reviewed) stated whether the rider was wearing a helmet. I actually thought it would come up more frequently so my search did not feed into my righteous anger as much as I anticipated. Still, it was mentioned about half the time.

What I perceive as judgmental comments about helmet use serves as one of my primary reason for wearing a helmet. If I am ever involved in another collision, I don’t want anybody to tweet, write a newspaper article about, or utter anything akin to, “And she wasn’t wearing a helmet.” That’s just crap.

I know people will continue to ask me this question about wearing a helmet, and I’ll continue to be somewhat ticked when they ask and reply “Yes.” I wear a helmet because, in addition to getting people to leave me alone with these stupid intrusive helmet comments, I think it can also possibly help in an accident, depending on where the impact occurs.

In the larger picture, though, safety on the roads doesn’t boil down to a cyclists-only, wear-a-helmet issue. Like it or not, it’s everybody’s responsibility. A helmet may help a little bit. However, there’s a whole lot more that goes into keeping cyclists safe than the use of bike helmets.

30 thoughts on “You Wear a Helmet, Don’t You?

  1. The helmet-wearing status of the bicyclist struck by a motorist must be taught in journalism school Fundamentals 101. A month ago in Pittsburgh, a bicyclist was riding in the street, stopped riding in front of his house, picked up his bike and lifted it up onto the sidewalk. Carries it up onto the sidewalk, takes off his helmet, and he’s futzing around with putting his gloves into his gearbag. A car jumps the sidewalk and runs over him.

    Inevitably, newpaper coverage: A cyclist who was not wearing a helmet was struck by a car yesterday, ….

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  2. I started wearing a helmet because I was told it was the thing to do. That was 25 years ago. I have never once hit my head on the ground in a bicycle crash. And I have had my share. I wear a helmet out of habit now and for two other reasons: (1) Event rides require them. and (2) I have no where on my bike to mount a headlight so I put it on my helmet.

    It makes some sense to wear a helmet if you are going to do some high speed riding like going down a mountain. Otherwise, meh.

    When a pedestrian asks if you wear a helmet, you can always ask them if they do. After all they are walking across the street in front of cars and taking scary Metro escalators. They could get hurt.

    Helmets discourage cycling for two reasons. They give newbies the sense that it is a really dangerous activity. And they raise the cost of cycling which puts it out of the reach of the marginal purchaser.

    A long time ago somebody said that if we really want to get car drivers to driver responsibly we should take out the seat belts and air bags and put a sharp metal spike on the center of the steering wheel.

    Nobody wears a helmet in Europe. I bet they don’t have thousands of brain injured former cyclists on the dole.

    MG, you struck a nerve, I guess.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Rootchopper. It’s a provocative topic, as you know. We have lots to discuss at Friday Coffee Club! True, too, that I also wear a helmet b/c of event rides/brevets.

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  3. I was clipped by a car about a week ago and I know for certain that my helmet did not play a role in protecting my person. However, I am now encouraging all cyclists to strap a ginormous pillow to their butt before heading out the door.

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  4. I feel overwhelmingly that we require more facts and data to understand bicycle helmets better. I do know, though, that being fatigued by an argument has no impact on the validity of one or the other of the sides of the argument. If it’s a worthwhile or important argument, we shouldn’t give up, but rather doggedly pursue truth until we find it.

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    1. Fair point. A couple of people who responded via other means noted that: 1. It would help to have more information gathered on bike accidents, i.e., bike accident reports; and 2. more research into what injuries are most likely to be sustained in bike accidents.

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  5. Although I feel a bit guilty every time I leave the house without one, I tend to wear a helmet about half the time. My daily commute to work is 95% on a bike/ped trail, and I encounter very little traffic on the remaining 5%. I did get hit by a car that ran a stop sign last year, and got a decent gash on the head, though. The most significant deterrent to helmet use? Heckilng! I sometimes ride through “rougher” neighborhoods, and have only encountered hostility when wearing a helmet and visible clothing. It’s a strange phenomenon.

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  6. Great post MG (as usual!). I wear a helmet because I know two or three cyclists who are confident it saved their noggins; including me. No not my bike v car accident, never hit my head on that one. I caught the edge of the pavement 1 block from from my house. Not moving car, pedestrian, dog or other obstacle in sight, just a moment’s inattention by me. Saw stars when the left side of the helmet hit the pavement. Could only have been worse from there without one.

    For those who choose to offer unwelcome advice or comment, I think @rootchoper is on to something.

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    1. Same here – no problem with others wearing or not wearing a helmet in the city. Personally, I was doored in Columbia Heights a couple years ago, knocking my head on the street, and was happy to be helmeted at the time. I try to wear one any time I get on a bike (except for spontaneous Bikeshare trips). I do agree this is only anecdotal, but it’s enough reason for me – since, well, it happened to me.

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  7. I particularly like your last paragraph. Wearing a helmet has become a symbol– it is not a panacea for safety issues. There are larger concerns to be addressed here.
    I admit that I was guilty of badgering a friend once for not wearing a helmet when he was doored and had sustained a mild concussion. I feel bad about that– it was coming from a good place (I also warned him not to ride so close to parked cars), but in retrospect, I realize I shouldn’t have chastised my friend when there was a motorist involved who also was not paying attention to what was going on around him. Different sides of the story need to be considered here.

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  8. I still wear a helmet, and I still think it’s a good idea to do so.
    Until recently, I was in the “anyone who doesn’t wear a helmet is a fool” camp.

    Then I read some fascinating articles on helmet use. Some points that took me by surprise: in the majority of accidents with a car/bus they won’t save your life; they seem to foment the view that cycling is a dangerous and risky activity (ie “it’s terrible that cyclist got hit, but cycling is dangerous and it was bound to happen”). It’s sort of akin to the “what were you wearing?” question that used to be commonly asked of rape victims.

    Miss Manners always says when someone asks you a question that’s nosy/judgmental/none of their business, the correct way to answer is “Why do you want to know?”

    Personally, I’d be more inclined to retort, “yes, and you do use birth control, don’t you?”

    (Sorry, Miss Manners.)

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    1. “It’s sort of akin to the ‘what were you wearing?’ question that used to be commonly asked of rape victims.” That’s how I experience it, too!

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  9. I wear a helmet, have for years, and it’s saved my bacon in a few instances (I’ve cracked three in my cycling lifetime). However, I agree with others who understand that by wearing one, cyclists are not suddenly surrounded by an invisible magic field of impenetrable protection. In fact, I agree with Grant P that some cyclists assume the helmet affords more protection than it in fact does, and take unnecessary risks. I’ve also read study synopses that found most helmets currently on the market, with their angular, vented contours, actually increase the risk of neck injuries because these helmets tend to grab the asphalt on impact instead of sliding across it.

    One last personal observation: one of the most disturbing cycling accidents I witnessed occurred about 8 or 9 yrs ago at the North Carolina State Games Criterium in Raleigh’s legislative plaza. On the last lap of the adult men’s race, a very fatigued rider lapped his front wheel when rounding an up-slope left turn, missed his line, touched another rider’s rear wheel, and went down. Given fatigue and the upward slope, he and his cluster of “bringin’ up the rear” riders wasn’t moving fast. I was about 30 ft from the group with a clear view and was watching. It didn’t look like he went down hard. Regardless, he was knocked unconscious, and remained so. It took a couple of minutes for the paramedics to arrive. After several minutes of checking him, stabilizing him on a body board, etc., they loaded him into the ambulance. He still hadn’t regained consciousness. Obviously, the guy was wearing a helmet as required to participate in the race. I’ve long wondered how he made out, if he had any long-lasting/permanent problems from that wreck. Though he was wearing a helmet, it was clear that he’d taken a very serious head/neck impact.

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  10. Hi – I’m one of those people whose skull has been saved twice by a helmet in two very different incidents about 20 years apart. I realize the plural of anecdote is not data, but it’s impossible for me to support going w/o a helmet. There are many safety precautions that I take, such as wearing a seat-belt, that haven’t actually saved my life yet, but I still believe they merit doing in the off-chance. I don’t find “what they do in Europe” compelling because our cultures and infrastructure are so different. Hopefully we’ll get there someday, but I don’t want to lead with our skulls in order to make a point (brains are another matter). I also don’t feel we have adequate data to draw conclusions. As far as legal requirements go I’m undecided and get the feeling that at this point nobody is truly qualified to say.

    All that being said, I do agree that being asked whether you wear a helmet is condescending and annoying!

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  11. I’m over in the, no I dont weat a helmet camp. I’ve come off my bike once, I did not injure my head – had a lot of hand and arm injuries.
    I do own one – I bought it for an overnight charity bike ride – it was raining, I thought I’d better get it because of the rain & any potholes I didnt see. Again I wore it doing an organised ride on a tandem – I’d not been on a tandem before, so thought I’d better wear it, but that didnt last long. Every time I put a helmet on and set off riding, I actually feel less safe. Not sure if it’s some kind of claustrophobia, but the feeling of something on my head (I cant ride with hats either) makes me feel unsteady on my bike, I feel that all I can concentrate on is ‘there’s something on my head’ and I end up taking off the helmet and feeling much relief.
    I think my reasons are exceptional for why I dont wear one. I’ve never heard of anyone else feeling that way.
    I do also believe that anything that’s a barrier to get other people riding, is a bad thing.
    Most kids I see & some adults with helmets dont even wear them correctly, totally defeating the point of having one in the first place.
    It’s sad that we live in a culture of blame and finger pointing, when it’s local authorities who have the power to change road designs, educate people to share the road and make a difference.

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  12. I wear a helmet. It does not prevent me from getting into collisions. Paying attention and following the rules of the road does prevent collisions and has helped me avoid them many times, particularly thanks to what I learned in a cycling skills course.

    – RG>

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    1. Yeah, I am not asking that people ask me about my bike handling skills rather than whether I wear a helmet, BUT the point is that it’s more than a helmet that helps keep a rider safe. AND that I just find it rude when ppl ask.

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  13. Lots of layers to this discussion and I agree it will not end until the End of Days. One aspect of the issue is voluntary vs. mandatory use. When law (or society in general, as is the case with the intrusive questions you get) mandates helmet use, it becomes onerous and an invasion of privacy. Nobody likes that. While helmets may make good sense (like lights, reflectors, and reflective belts/vests), head injuries are not such a crisis that we should require their use, nor should we harp on people who choose not to wear them. They are simply one safety option amongst many that cyclists have.

    If someone asks about your helmet, I suggest you answer truthfully and ignore their response. Or perhaps not answer at all. I say we treat your response like helmet use: do what you think is best for you and to heck with what everyone else thinks.

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  14. To each his or her own. I took a tumble, banged some ribs and dented my helmet. I don’t think I was knocked out but I’m happy to have a dented helmet (now in retirement) and not a dented head or even a headache. You never know when you will leave your bike, careful as you might be. And maybe you never will leave your bike so it’s no problem that you are riding sans helmet.

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  15. Great article! I will never understand why people are willing to risk their lives to look “cool” – which is what it really boils down to, despite the excuses they give. When I see a helmetless rider I don’t say, “Oh look how good he/she looks.” I say, “What a moron.”

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