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by Peter Flax
November 2, 2018
Photography by Shutterstock
Before you dive into Peter Flax’s piece below, a quick note. First and foremost, the following column is Peter’s opinion. It does not reflect the opinion of CyclingTips.
Most of us at CyclingTips wear helmets most of the time. I wear one whenever I kit up for a ride. They’re pretty comfortable these days, and I don’t see any reason not too, even after reading the story below. For some of our readers, helmets are mandated by law, and of course, we don’t want anyone to break the law.
To be frank, I wasn’t sure if it was a perspective we wanted on the site. We have multiple writers on staff who credit helmets with saving their lives, or at least preventing far more severe injury. I’m glad they were wearing helmets, and I’ll continue to wear mine.
Then again, sometimes I don’t wear a helmet for rides around town.
We can disagree on logical or ideological grounds and still appreciate the argument. So, here goes. Let us know what you think in the comments below. But if I may make one request — read all the way through first.
Let’s just cut right to the chase: I haven’t worn a bike helmet in five months. I’d say that in the 30 preceding years of cycling, I wore a helmet on more than 99 percent of my rides. But since May, I’ve ridden about 3,500 miles with nothing more than a cycling cap on my head.
I finished a draft of this story a week ago but I tossed it. I unceremoniously deleted it and started over. I think my first stab was too argumentative, too defensive. Not wearing a helmet can do that to you.
I opened my original draft with a passage about how I still religiously wear a cycling cap every day—because I have indisputable evidence that a cap offers a clear benefit (protection from the Sun’s harmful rays) with no discernible caveats or controversy.
But the more I thought about the history and volatility of the conversation around bike helmets, the more I thought I should open with a less combative approach.
So let me briefly tell you the story of the worst bike crash I ever had and how I think a bike helmet might have benefited me.
The crash took place in the summer of 2000. This was a time when my riding life was all about riding further and faster. I was single and in my younger 30s, a phase of life in which I spent an enormous percentage of my free time riding bicycles.
On this particular afternoon, I was finishing up a three-hour ride in the hills of Oakland, California, and heading toward home. I was in the drops, zipping down a fast descent a few miles from home; I’d guess I was going at least 40 miles per hour. As I flew around a sweeping right turn, I came upon a large pile of debris in the shoulder—a road crew had recently trimmed back all the bushes that lined the street and left all the clippings on the pavement.
I lacked the time or the skill to navigate my way around this obstacle, and I went down. Hard. I can still remember the force of my face hitting the road, and had an awareness in that instant that it was enough to kill someone.
The impact was fierce. I sheared five of my teeth at the gum line, shattered my jaw, and broke bones in my hands, arms, and shoulder. My body bounced and slid about 25 yards from the point of impact until it came to a stop.
It is true that I continue to deal with the implications of that crash — I have a titanium plate in my chin and recurring dental problems and I still feel pain in my right hand when I open a jar of tomato sauce — but it also is true that it didn’t change the arc of my life.
I’ve always felt that the bike helmet I was wearing that day had something to do with that. I had this Giro Hammerhead—it had a purple-to-blue fade, and when I wore my violet Cannondale jersey and rode my powder-blue Lemond Buenos Aires, I felt like a Pantone boss. I can still recall how that colorful helmet thumped on the pavement as I hit the ground and decelerated.
I suffered no significant head injury that afternoon in Oakland, and I feel like my helmet had something to do with it.
So imagine how it would feel, 18 years later, to voluntarily decide to ride without a helmet. Now I have a wife and two children—a family that I love and that depends upon me. I ride every day on the streets of Los Angeles, by some objective measures the most dangerous city for cyclists in America. Why would someone like me choose to sling my leg over a top tube with only a cycling cap on my head?
It’s a damn good question.
Before I go any further, let me state emphatically that I am not out to dissuade anyone from wearing a bike helmet. Although I am about to express my perception that the facts about helmets often are misinterpreted, I believe that helmets confer some obvious safety benefits and that there’s a certain wisdom to wearing one. I would still make my children wear a helmet even if the law didn’t mandate it, and I would certainly strap one on for a hard group ride or an adventure on technical singletrack.
But still: I haven’t worn one in five months. I’ll admit that this decision has emotional and ideological components, but there are strong empirical factors, too.
Most people, including lots of folks in the cycling community and others who never ride, are convinced that there is incontrovertible scientific evidence that helmets have massive lifesaving powers and that anyone who questions this fact is a contestant for a Darwin Award. They think that bike helmets are like seat belts for cyclists and that riders who don’t wear one are negligent.
But if that were indeed true, why do the countries with the highest rates of helmet use also have the highest fatality rates among cyclists? Riders in the United States wear helmets more than anywhere else and yet get killed more frequently than in any other Western nation. In fact, in countries like Denmark and Netherland, where the fewest riders strap on helmets, fatal crashes are incredibly infrequent.
If that inverse relationship seems surprising, let me break it down for you: Having quality infrastructure and a culture that respects safety will impact exponentially more lives than insisting that riders wear helmets. Trying to solve the problem of vulnerable cyclists with helmets is like trying to reduce the number of fatalities in school shootings by making students wear bulletproof vests. It’s not actually solving the problem.
If helmets are lifesavers, how come Dutch riders who wear one get hospitalized more than cyclists who don’t? According to data from the Dutch government, cyclists there who wear a lid are roughly 20 times more likely to get hospitalized than riders who don’t. This result obviously isn’t suggesting that there’s something wrong with bike helmets available to Dutch consumers; instead it reflects that mountain biking and fast road riding and any kind of racing carries radically different risks than the utility riding that most Dutch people enjoy. In many user cases, helmets just aren’t a silver bullet.
I’ve spent a quarter century reading studies and listening to experts, and after weighing both sides of the ongoing helmet debate, I’ve come to believe that the conventional wisdom that helmets are miraculous lifesavers is at best a well-intentioned exaggeration. My revised conclusion is that in some circumstances, some riders may be protected from some kinds of injuries by a helmet. They do a pretty effective job of mitigating skull fractures and head lacerations in certain types of crashes and they do a poor job preventing concussions and they are almost certainly useless if you get hit by a speeding SUV or a dump truck.
Many people in the helmet industry and the research community know that the safety protocols—the standards that the underlie the little regulatory stickers on your helmet—are woefully inadequate and outdated. Helmets are not seat belts—it’s not like there are decades of peer-reviewed research and public-health debate that questions the wide-scale adoption of auto restraints.
Sitting at the center of the eternal debate are medical studies (like this classic) that appear to offer strong evidence that a disproportionate percentage of cyclists who get admitted to the hospital with serious head injuries were not wearing helmets. These epidemiological analyses lead to pronouncements that there’s proof helmets reduce the odds of getting a head injury by almost 50 percent or a little more than 50 percent or maybe about 70 percent or perhaps more like 85 percent. (Related: We all know that eating fatty red meat every day will increase the odds of getting heart disease, but no one tries to twist epidemiological data to call someone stupid for eating a hamburger.)
Many of these studies have unfortunate biases and flaws — like small sample sizes, funding from the helmet industry, meta-analyses that exclude certain studies, a disproportionate number of children in the data, and no analysis of whether different kinds of riding or alcohol was involved — but there is a larger, more fundamental issue with them. Namely, if there’s such obvious proof that helmets slash the rate of serious head injuries, why is there decades of data indicating that the rate of head injuries among American cyclists is rising even as helmet usage grows? Where is the real-world proof that putting helmets on millions of riders is saving a significant number of lives? If we are going to continue to demand an intervention that demands a small subset of consumers spend money and wear distinctive headgear, shouldn’t there be clear quantitative proof that injuries are declining?
Furthermore, I’d like to add a rhetorical question to that list: If the epidemiological data is right, why don’t we make all people at risk of a head injury wear a helmet? One major study concluded that more than 75 percent of adult Canadians who were hospitalized for a traumatic brain injury had been injured in a motor vehicle crash or a fall when on foot; by comparison, cyclists made up a tiny percentage of the hospitalizations with similar injuries. To state the obvious: If authorities pressured all motorists and senior citizens who frequently use staircases to wear a Styrofoam cap sheathed in plastic, the impact to head-injury rates in the general public would be far greater.
Of course, to most people it would seem absurd to imagine a family driving to a soccer game in helmets — just as it seems perfectly normal to insist that someone pedaling to a farmer’s market should wear one. Maybe we need to start mandating that all cyclists wear wrist guards or pull on downhill armor?
The calculus of helmet safety is really complicated. Since I’ve started riding without a helmet, I’ve observed that the number of close calls I’ve had with L.A. motorists has declined. I ride different kinds of bikes and wear different kinds of apparel in my daily riding — and I notice that drivers give me considerably wider berth when I wear street clothes and ride a flat-handlebar bike, and that I most frequently get buzzed when wearing spandex on a racing bike. Multiple studies (like this) have substantiated my anecdotal observations. Given the likelihood that aggressive drivers pose the greatest risk posed to me on my daily commute, maybe I’m safest with my helmet hanging in the garage.
In that same vein, I’ve noticed changes on my weekend rambles on a road bike. Most of my longer recreational routes take me to the hilly roads of Palos Verdes to my south. On such rides, there’s just no getting around how my behavior changes without a helmet on my head. One descent I do often is the trip down Crest Road and Palos Verdes Drive East — it’s a flowing six-mile route that has moments of crappy pavement and a grade that encourages big-ring accelerations.
While I used to rip it at 45 miles per hour, now I’m far more cautious—anything over 30 feels a bit dicey. A bike helmet can deceive riders into thinking they have a cloak of invulnerability that isn’t actually there, and at least one study has confirmed how riders change their behavior when the hat comes off. I never thought of myself as a big-risk taking cyclist but without a helmet I handle certain situations differently.
I’m starting to feel that I might be safer riding without a helmet.
But facts only take you so far if you’re trying to deconstruct how people feel about bike helmets. Emotions and ideology play a huge role, too.
Helmets have become a symbol of something far larger than an encased hunk of polystyrene that likely confers moderate health benefits in certain situations.
For me, the hardest part of deciding to stop wearing a helmet wasn’t intellectual or practical — it was facing up to the trolling, the well-meaning but ill-informed questions, the institutional forces that try to shame, marginalize, or even criminalize the act of choosing to ride without a helmet. (Admission: I remain concerned that if a worst-case scenario crash happens, that my decision, however well-reasoned, will negatively impact a potential settlement my wife and kids might receive.) I had to decide that I was ready to face the world with a decision that many people might not like or approve of.
I’m sure this might seem melodramatic to some people, but in the past five months, I’ve been subjected to hundreds of interactions in which my decision has been challenged.
I’ve had conversations about my decision with members of my extended family, coworkers, neighbors, and other members of my community. I’ve been hassled and trolled on social media about it; I’ve been hollered at by drivers on the roads of Los Angeles. I’m constantly compelled to defend the logic of something that I believe should not require a defense.
In particular, I had one neighbor — the parent of one of my kid’s friends — interrogate me at a big multi-family dinner to see if I understood the risks I was taking and if I saw how it undermined my outspoken advocacy for bike infrastructure. The inference, of course, is that I’m a hypocrite for wanting safer streets while not taking every available step to accept responsibility myself. This is something I hear all the time.
It’s worth noting that this conversation took place at a restaurant, and that all of the adults present had one or two glasses of beer or wine and then drove their children home — something that is far more likely to lead someone getting hurt or killed than riding a bike to work without a helmet. We are surrounded, even saturated, on a daily basis by people who have made choices in their life — to smoke, to drink, to drive too fast, to forego exercise — that are unhealthy but don’t elicit the shrill victim-blaming that non-helmeted cyclists face.
It’s frustrating to me that a substantial chunk of this harassment comes from within the cycling community. When I was editor-in-chief of Bicycling, the world’s largest cycling magazine, I knew that any photograph of a rider without a helmet on would precipitate a firestorm of shouty criticism, as if the brand was imperilling bike culture simply by documenting how a fair number of people ride a bike.
It seems to me that by now, cycling enthusiasts would know that bike helmets aren’t as safe as they could be and there just hasn’t been a consumer groundswell to update Snell and ANSI and CPSC and EN-1078 testing, or for design standards to be more rigorous. I helped edit a landmark feature nearly a decade ago that highlighted the deficiencies of helmets to prevent concussions and the emergence of the MIPS system to address that shortcoming. I’m generally happy to see these helmets in use, or research that suggests they work, but nearly every cycling enthusiast I know still makes their helmet choices based on looks, weight, cost, and the quality of venting rather than quantified safety. I still don’t fully understand why a demographic that is only marginally engaged with helmet safety is so often critical of people who reached a different conclusion than them.
Of course, the shaming and criticism and biases from outside the cycling community is even worse. I read hundreds of news stories a month about crashes involving bikes and motor vehicles, and it has become a trope in these accounts to mention whether the cyclist was wearing a helmet. It’s become so routinized that most people don’t even notice it. We don’t expect a news story about a rape to mention the length of the victim’s skirt, so when a negligent bus driver right-hooks and pulverizes an innocent rider on her way to work, why is the question of her headgear even relevant? The hostility peaks on social media and in the comments of news stories about crashes, where the absence of a helmet signifies selfish and hypocritical idiocy.
There is a war unfolding and likely escalating in every American city (and in many other countries, too) as communities struggle to decide what our streets will look like in the future. So many projects that aim to provide safer infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians face fierce opposition from people who would prefer to maintain the status quo — to maintain the primacy of cars.
The loudest voices in that latter group have a consistent tactic to try to marginalize the pleas of cyclists, and helmets have sadly become part of that conversation. In 2018, riding without a helmet has become the corporeal equivalent of rolling through a stop sign — a symbol that you don’t deserve respect or a seat at the table. Few of these people care about your safety or even the public-health costs of bike crashes — they simply want to thrust responsibility on cyclists rather than give us a safe place on the road, or they want to use the helmet issue to discredit us.
The same goes for any outside force advocating something like body paint or daytime running lights for cyclists or high-vis socks. I understand fully that each of these things may have an incremental safety benefit for riders but I’m intensely skeptical of any corporation or government agency and especially entities connected to the automotive industry trying to push responsibility onto cyclists’ shoulders. The problem isn’t that I’m not wearing a helmet — the problem is that streets with crappy bike lanes in the door zone are packed with people speeding in SUVs while they peek at their iPhones.
In the end, the battle over helmets does far more harm than a theoretical fractional rise in head injuries. Cycling is not an inherently complicated or unsafe activity and one does not need specialized safety equipment to ride to a coffee shop. Putting up barriers that discourage people from riding will have a far greater public health impact than trying to shame people into wearing helmets.
Think about the world that we live in. In the United States alone, more than 100 million people have heart disease, diabetes, severe obesity, or another chronic condition that could be prevented or mitigated with regular exercise. Our city streets are clogged and dangerous. Scientists are unanimously raising the alarm about climate change, carbon emissions, and air quality.
Riding a bike helps solve all of these complex problems. One major study that tracked 260,000 commuters for five years came to the conclusion that folks who rode to work were 41% less likely to die than people who drove to work. But instead of talking about how to lower the barriers to getting butts on bikes, we’re wasting time arguing about helmets in the name of safety.
In short, helmets have become a scarlet letter — more powerful as a symbol than as a piece of safety equipment.
Feel free to use your head as you see fit.