Stupid campaigns against bike-helmets

In a Twit­ter-com­ment to a discus­si­uon on bike-hel­met laws, i wro­te:

More peop­le dies from inac­ti­vity than from not using hel­mets. But the hel­met saved my head.”

It sums up my opi­nion on bike-hel­met laws: Use of hel­mets should not be com­pulsory, but I recom­mend the use of hel­met. I am using hel­met most of the time when I am riding my bike.

To my sur­pir­se I got rat­her insul­ting replies from Amster­da­mized and Copen­ha­ge­nize, orga­ni­sa­tions that sup­port cycling.  As a reply to my twe­et, Amster­da­mized wro­te:

sor­ry, no it didn’t. Phy­sics make that impos­sib­le. Rese­arch.”

They are refe­ring to “rese­arch”, but they are still able to make a defi­ni­ti­ve con­clu­sion about my acci­dent, wit­hout any know­led­ge of what hap­pe­ned. One can­not take peop­le who are refer­ring to “rese­arch” serious­ly when they can make unsub­sta­ti­a­ted state­ments like this. My reply was:

The hel­met was damaged, the head insi­de was not. Enough for me.”

Copen­ha­ge­nize added insult by wri­ting:

Did you see the face of jesus in the clouds, too? ”

They were refer­ring to the web­si­te cyclehelmets.org, run by an orga­ni­sa­tion cal­led Bike Hel­met Rese­arch Foun­da­tion (BHRF). I know this orga­ni­sa­tion only from the infor­ma­tion pro­vi­ded on their own web­si­te. As a pro­fes­sor, I natu­ral­ly read at least the reports and artic­les referred to that seemed to be most rele­vant. At the same time I am scep­tic to infor­ma­tion pro­vi­ded by only one source that I do not know. The­re are many out the­re in cyber­space who claim to be neut­ral, impar­ti­al or obje­ti­ve, but who have vested inte­rests and hid­den agen­das. I do not know if BHRF have, I am only say­ing that I do not know the orga­ni­sa­tion, hen­ce the source. I can see what they are refer­ring to, but I do not know what they have left out (if any­thing).

If I should sum­ma­ri­se the reports and artic­les on the sub­ject I have read so far, the main con­tent is this:

A bike hel­met may not give as good pro­tec­tion as some will claim. Some stu­dies show good pro­tec­tion against head and face inju­ries, others not. If you crash with a motor viech­le or head on a con­cre­te wall, the hel­met may not save you. The hel­met will not save your neck and spine, and you may get inju­ries from rota­tion of your head (pro­bab­ly neck inju­ries). If the impact is real­ly hard, the hel­met may crack, which may mean it will give no pro­tec­tion in the inci­dent. If a hel­met pro­tects, the the expan­ded poly­sty­re­ne liner should crush and not break. Once fully com­pressed, it gives no furt­her pro­tec­tion.

First an answer to Amster­da­mized: The expan­ded poly­sty­re­ne liner was com­pressed in my hel­met. The hel­met was damaged on the sur­face, but it had not cracked. My head insi­de the hel­met was not damaged. I know much bet­ter than Amster­da­mized what hap­pe­ned. I am con­fi­dent that the hel­met absor­bed a lot of the energy from the impact, and it also saved my head from brui­ses. I am glad that my head did not look like my leg, which still, more than a year after the acci­dent, has very visib­le tra­ces from the inci­dent.

Other stu­dies sug­gest that those who use hel­met will cycle with hig­her risk. It is ele­men­ta­ry that a sta­ti­s­ti­cal cor­re­la­tion will not say very much about cau­ses and effects. [Edit insert: Whe­re the­re are more fire figh­ters, the­re are more fire => More fire figh­ters cau­ses more fire.] It may very well be that peop­le who use their bike on flat ter­rain in cities at fai­r­ly low speed do not use hel­mets and have few head inju­ries, as long as they are not hit and run over by cars (whe­re a hel­met will not give much pro­tec­tion). If you are cycling at hig­her speed, the situa­tion may be dif­fe­rent. The risk of being inju­ried in an acci­dent will be hig­her if one ride at hig­her speed, and it is like­ly that inju­ries will be more serious. I guess that the pro­portion of cyclists using hel­mets are hig­her among those who ride at higt speed. Some stu­dies sug­gest that use of hel­met will cau­se cyclists to take hig­her risks. But this is pure spe­c­u­la­tion with no evi­den­ce to sup­port such con­clu­sions. I do not think I take hig­her risks now than I used to do before I star­ted using hel­met.

I have not seen any stu­dies even sug­ge­s­ting that use of hel­met may increase the risk when cycling. The stu­dies makes Amsteramized’s state­ment that the hel­met can­not have saved my head, down­right stu­pid.

We may remind the peop­le from countries flat as pan­ca­kes, such as Den­mark and Nether­land, that in some countries we have real hills. We do not have to go 20 km out of town to find somet­hing with a slight resem­blance of a hill, as they had to do when hos­ting the world champion­ship out­side Copen­ha­gen. The gent­le, rol­ling lands­ca­pes the danes love to call “alps” can hard­ly be cal­led hills. In the Oslo-area, whe­re I live, any cyclist can reach a speed of 40–50 km/h wit­hout any effort when going down­hill. If you do not bra­ke, you will often reach this (and hig­her) speed.

This was what hap­pe­ned to me. I was riding dow­hill, not peda­ling to gain speed. But as usu­al I did not bra­ke just to redu­ce speed, I just let go. Then a dog run across the lane right in front of me. I bra­ked hard, and was pro­bab­ly thrown over the handle­bar (and the dog), and hit the tar­mac. I do not remem­ber the seconds from when I hit the bra­kes till I was lay­ing on the ground. As I had a GPS, I could see after­wards that my speed when it hap­pe­ned was 48,5 km/h. The hel­met did its job. And of cour­se when the cus­hion was crush­ed, it would not give much more pro­tec­tion. I had to get a new hel­met.

The stu­dies referred to may indi­ca­te that hel­mets do not give as good pro­tec­tion as some will claim, and it will not save your head (and life) in all acci­dents. But it gives some pro­tec­tion and will save you from serious inju­ries in some acci­dents. I am still happy that it was my hel­met and not my head that took the main impact when I hit the tar­mac in 48,5 km/h.

I can­not give any evi­den­ce of what kind of inju­ries I whould have had, had I not used hel­met. And I can­not give any evi­den­ce on what would have hap­pe­ned with the two per­sons I hap­pen to know who got serious head inju­ries when they crashed riding bicy­c­les to work, not using hel­mets. One of them has never fully recovered years after the acci­dent. May­be a hel­met would have saved their heads, or at least not made the inju­ries less serious. At least it would not have made the situa­tion wor­se. It is worth a try.

The same day as I had my acci­dent, the vice rec­tor at one of the Nor­we­gi­an uni­ve­ris­ties was kil­led in a cycling acci­dent. He lost con­trol, may­be becau­se of some loo­se gra­vel on the tar­mac, fell and hit the rai­ling. He did not wear a hel­met. We will never know if the hel­met would have saved his life, but it could have done. I am con­vin­ced that my inju­ries would have been much wor­se had I not used the hel­met. I ended with a frac­tu­red thumb, a bruised leg and bea­ten (but not bro­ken) shoul­der, but with no head inju­ries.

The state­ment from Amster­da­mized that the hel­met could not have pro­tected my head means that they are say­ing that a hel­met can­not give any pro­tec­tion in any situa­tion. And they are refer­ring to rese­arch! I have not found any reports even sug­ge­s­ting any­thing that could sup­port this state­ment. They disqua­li­fy them­sel­ves from any serious discus­sions on the sub­ject by state­ments like this. And Copen­ha­ge­nize is not far behind.

Bike hel­met laws that makes the use of hel­met com­pulsory, is a very dif­fe­rent mat­ter. The­re are many rea­sons to oppose such laws, which I do. If you are riding at a relaxed speed of 10–15 km/h, which I think is rat­her com­mon in city traf­fic, hel­met is not neces­sa­ry. It is not fas­ter than the speed of a fai­r­ly well tra­i­ned jog­ger. When I am riding my bike to the local bake­ry in Fran­ce to get fresh bre­ad for bre­ak­fast, I may drop the hel­met. But using hel­met is a habit, just as using seat belt when dri­ving a car. I some­ti­mes fas­ten the seat belt even when moving a car in the gara­ge just becau­se it feels natu­ral to use seat belt when dri­ving, and I use hel­met when riding a bike even when it is not neces­sa­ry.

Many poli­ti­ci­ans are media dri­ven. They are trigge­red by sen­sa­tions and dra­ma, not by know­led­ge. One dra­ma­tic acci­dent, and it will be a cry for laws making pro­tec­tion equip­ment man­da­tory, and to for­bid any­thing that might car­ry some risk. It is those peop­le who are like­ly to order any tree to be cut down becau­se a child could climb it and may­be fall down. It is these poli­ti­ci­ans that will pre­vent child­ren from lear­ning to use a kni­fe or an axe, becau­se it is dan­gerous. And of cour­se, if you never learn how to use it, it will be dan­gerous. Some sug­gest that the increase in extre­me sports with very high risks may be a kind of com­pen­sa­tion for an over­pro­tected child­hood.

Those who will make the use of hel­met man­da­tory also tend to over­look that many more peop­le die from inac­ti­vity than from biking acci­dents. If laws that requi­res bike hel­mets cau­se peop­le to park their bikes and go back to cars, it may cau­se more perm­a­tu­re deaths than those pre­vented by hel­mets — even if hel­mets work as good as some claims. But pre­ma­tu­re death cau­sed by an inac­ti­ve lifes­tyle will not make head­li­nes, thus not trig­ger the poli­ti­ci­ans who will pre­tend that they are doing somet­hing.

I am not among those who says it is a liber­ty and a right for anyone to take high risks in all situa­tions (and send the bill to the health care sys­tem). I sup­port man­da­tory use of seat belts when dri­ving, hel­mets when riding a motor­cy­cle, etc. If anyone should claim that seat belt laws keep peop­le from dri­ving cars, it is no pro­blem. The­re will be no posi­ti­ve effect if peop­le should be dri­ving more. But cycling has a very posi­ti­ve effect. The cyni­cal, but rea­li­s­tic view is that we may have to sacri­fice some who may be inju­ried or kil­led in acci­dents wit­hout using hel­mets, to save those who would have died from inac­ti­vitiy had they not been cycling (wit­hout hel­met).

I stick my ini­ti­al com­ment: More peop­le die from inac­ti­vity than from not using hel­mets when cycling. But I am still con­vin­ced that I would have had more serious inju­ries had I not used hel­ment when I crashed.

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