It’s not about the helmet; it’s about safe habits.

When the arguments are in and weighed, I shall likely remain in favor of me and my loved ones wearing helmets when we bicycle, even though some research suggests that the act of wearing a helmet actually makes us more likely to be hit by a passing vehicle.

According to a September 2006 BBC story (link below), research demonstrates that “Cyclists who wear protective helmets are more likely to be knocked down by passing vehicles, new research from Bath University suggests.”

Still, I shall continue to wear a helmet, because I stubbornly believe that if, or more pessimistically, when I am in an accident, it will help protect my head to some degree. And, if nothing else, by wearing a helmet I am showing my wife that I want to see her again, even if we just had an argument. And I am promising to my nieces and nephews that I want to see them again. And I’m promising to my clients and customers that I’m going to come through on my promises. And I am promising to myself that I’ll take the precautions necessary so I can compete in next season’s masters swimming events. In other words, I’ll wear a helmet because I take myself seriously, I care about my well being and I care about other people.

After years of cycling in New York City, and witnessing the habits of other cyclists, I have come to strongly suspect that it is the act of caring, and having safe riding habits, rather than the presence of a helmet on the cyclist’s head, which results in cyclist safety. Too bad once again motorists have to spoil the party — as well as the environment — by driving yet more dangerously around helmet-wearing cyclists.

Unfortunately, those who would legislate bicycle helmet wearing seem more concerned with winning their argument than with saving lives or protecting cyclists’ health. Presumably they make money if they win their argument; no other force is powerful enough to distort simple evidence or widely accepted notions of self-determination.

The most typical argument, as it is revealed in public anyway, goes something like this: In the first place, helmets protect the head. In the second place, facts show that when cyclists are hit by motorists, fewer of those who wore helmets end up dead; and, in contrast, more of those who were NOT wearing helmets, DO end up dead. Therefore, helmets must provide the cyclists with safety.

However, it is a causal assumption, and precisely the sort of superficially convincing argument put forth by a person who is more concerned with winning arguments (and making money) than with being right (and saving lives).

I would imagine that in and among the many cyclists who are hit by cars every year, there are some who are tragically or mortally injured someplace other than the head, like, perhaps, the spine or the internal organs. It is obvious that a bicycle helmet does not prevent a car from hitting a cyclist in the first place. Add to this the research demonstrating that, rather than protect the rider, the presence of a helmet INCREASES the likelihood that the cyclist will be struck.

(Foot note: one wonders if it’s better to wear no helmet at all, rather than one that fits improperly or is incorrectly adjusted, since an ill-fitting helmet provides little protection and the act of wearing a helmet increases the risk of being hit by an over-taking car.)

Being as I live in America and no longer so naive, I believe the insurance companies likely have a hand in advancing the cause of helmet wearing laws. For one thing, who else would care. It can’t be mothers, because Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) are…against drunk driving. I can’t imagine doctors and dentists objecting as a mass political force; after all, it gives them more work, and some of it probably pretty interesting. That leaves perhaps the unions of school teachers, compelled to mass march because they’re fed up with their math and history lessons going down the drain when their ex-students are hit by cars. Right? I don’t think so.

The weather vane points to the insurers — motor and health insurance, at least. The logic is so simple most dunces could follow the money trail: when (not if) motorists — drunk, tired or distracted — hit cyclists, the insurance company of the driver will be called upon to pay damages to the injured cyclist or the family of the killed cyclist. The insurance company will be compelled to pay LESS money to a less severely injured cyclist than to a more severely injured cyclist (and presumably still more to the survivors of the dead cyclist). Furthermore, the health insurance company of the injured cyclist will be looking at a smaller average medical bill from cyclists — dead or otherwise — who were protecting their heads, but larger average medical bills from those who were not.

From the perspective of insurance companies who are involved in the equation, obviously, the financial incentive is to pay as little as possible for claims. That’s been proven often enough. Therefore, insurers would naturally prefer there to be laws that require all cyclists to wear helmets. And not because it will save lives.

The question I wish to raise is this: if motorists drive more dangerously around cyclists who wear helmets, why are not more helmet-wearing cyclists killed?

Presumably one reason is because when they are knocked off their bikes, they suffer fewer brain injuries. But I don’t believe that’s the main reason. The main, overwhelming reason is that those riders who care enough to wear helmets to begin with are simply more inclined to ride cautiously; they care more about their health and well-being and they’re motivated to take safety precautions to protect themselves. …Like wearing helmets, yes, but also, precautions like not running red lights, using lights at night, getting regular tune-ups and checking their brakes before each ride, etc.

About a year ago, I mentioned this notion to a researcher in the automotive industry whom I met at a transportation conference here in New York. (His name was John, he had a PhD, he was from Michigan, he worked for Ford, and he also happened to be a touring cyclist.)

In reply, and in support of my theory, he relayed a true story about Volvo cars, which are famous for being particularly safe. And why are they safe? John’s story went along the lines of this: transportation researchers were looking at video footage taken from above a roadway to observe how much space motorists were allowing between their own car and the other cars on the road. As the data accumulated, an intriguing fact began to emerge: on average, drivers of Volvo cars, in comparison to the drivers of other makes, put more space between their car and the car in front.

In other words, the operators of Volvos drove more cautiously. Their cars didn’t FORCE them to drive more cautiously. They, simply, drove more cautiously. Now, Volvos may well have features that make the cars safe. But could it ALSO be, that Volvo cars, through successful marketing, particularly appeal to drivers who are inclined to drive cautiously? And is it too far-fetched to argue that cautious drivers have fewer bad accidents than incautious drivers? I think not.

I shall go out on a sturdy limb and suggest that cautious cyclists are less likely to have accidents than incautious cyclists. And cautious cyclists are more likely to wear helmets. And are more likely to behave, overall, in ways that decrease the likelihood they will have an accident.

Generally, when I see a cyclist riding like an idiot — riding the wrong way down a one-way street, running red lights, swerving through traffic, talking on a cell phone while riding, riding with ear phones in their ears, riding at night without lights, riding an inappropriate or ill-fitting bike, and generally riding carelessly — they are also rarely wearing helmets.

Conversely, I rarely see cyclists who are wearing helmets but also riding like idiots (I have indeed seen it, but in my experience, it’s simply more rare). One can even see this casually, for example when a newspaper publishes an article on-line about some contentious cycling subject. In the reader comments, one will sometimes read multiple criticisms of those who would ride like utter fools “without even wearing a helmet” as if the helmet will protect the idiot from his idiocy. It would be odd to find the perpendicular observation: of cyclists riding idiotically but at LEAST while wearing helmets.

I have no faith that it’s the helmet that protects me. But I am a safety-centric cyclist and I shall continue to wear a helmet, even if it compels drivers to drive closer to me. To ward them off a small amount, I put reflective tape on my helmet. And I wear a high-viz highway workers safety vest (research shows it wards drivers away a bit more).

To keep out of the hospital, I shall try to keep from being hit in the first place. If nothing else, I am confident that the mere fact that I think at all about things like safety tape and driver behavior will increase my chances of survival.

Should my efforts to be safe fail to ward off every single one of the millions of terrible drivers in New York, it is my hope that if a driver still manages to hit me — in spite of the helmet, the high-viz vest, the good cycling habits and the adherence to traffic rules — that I’ll have provided my lawyer with a much better foundation for securing a judgment that adequately pays for my medical needs and/or the needs of my loved ones left behind.

If insurance companies continue to hold the reins of power, one can anticipate future laws that are meant to decrease the insurance payouts but not intended to save lives: cyclists must wear helmets. And cyclists must not wear high-viz safety vests or use bright lights at night. For the insurers, there’s more profit to be earned from blaming dead cyclists for their own deaths.

Obviously, from my perspective, I do not consider that an acceptable state of affairs.

All best,
Robert

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Robert Matson
NYC Recumbent Supply (TM)
 The Innovation Works, Inc.
www.NYCRecumbentSupply.com