The Pros and Cons of Bicycle Helmets

We talk a lot about getting outdoors. And we talk about why biking is excellent exercise. While we have written in the past about hiking equipment, we haven’t spoken about safety equipment for biking. We planned to write a blog today about why you should always wear a helmet while riding a bicycle. We thought the blog would have the message that bike helmets aren’t just for kids. But, when we started to do research for the blog, it turned out that it was not quite that simple. There are pros and cons to bike helmets.

While you might think it’s common sense that helmets make you safer on a bike, that might not be true. We know it sounds odd for us, a blog about safety and health, to say helmets might not be best.

Helmets can give a bike rider a false sense of security. Helmets decrease the risk of a severe head injury. That is a fact. But, data from Canada shows that cyclists wearing a helmet are just as likely to need to be treated in a hospital after a crash and are more likely to be involved in a crash. They may be more likely to be involved in a crash because they take more risks. When a person doesn’t wear a helmet, they ride more slowly, cut between cars less and generally ride with more care. In a British study, researchers found that car drivers are also less careful near cyclists wearing helmets.

Bike helmets reduce the risk of a head injury by 48 percent and a serious head injury by 60 percent. They also reduce the risk of a face injury by 23 percent. So, while a person may be more likely to be injured, they are less likely to damage their brain. In the U.S., about 800 cyclists are killed every year. A further 500,000 make trips to the ER. Two-thirds of the deaths and one-third of the injuries involve the head and face. With those statistics in our country, it suggests that wearing a helmet and having situational awareness could be the key to being safer. The problem with helmets in the Canadian study appeared to be that they made people brash. If you pay attention and don’t take risks, a helmet could make your ride much safer.

One of the most significant safety hazards facing American bike riders is unsafe streets. Places like Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands don’t require helmets. They also gave some of the most cyclist-friendly roads on Earth with bike lanes and a driving culture where cars are careful and considerate to riders. They have the lowest number of injured riders. The U.S. has the highest rate of helmet use and the highest cyclist fatalities per mile. Cities and towns often don’t have bike lanes, and drivers often have little patience for bikes or don’t look out for them.

We need safer streets for bikes. From smoother road surfaces to protected bike lanes to a better driving culture, cyclists should be better served to be safer on the roads. Until then, a helmet can help you protect your head from the dangers of being in an accident. But, you have to remember that a helmet is not a shield that can prevent you from being in an accident, and it can only protect your head — not the rest of your body!  

Banner image: Patrick Hendry via Unsplash

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