There are few things that produce more debate than that of the value of wearing a helmet whether you are riding a bicycle or a motorcycle. So for this edition of Cycling on the Cheap, we will explore the debate on helmet use while bicycling.

REASONS TO WEAR A HELMET

Medical Studies — According to a New England Journal of Medicine study, wearing a helmet is 85 to 88 percent effective in preventing or lessening head and brain injuries. The general feeling out there is that helmets really are a good idea from a medical standpoint. You can find thousands of stories where people wrecked on their bikes and destroyed their helmet but suffered no ill effects.

Laws — Several states and municipalities mandate helmet use. This sometimes applies only for children but may also mandate helmet use for adults as well.

Keep from looking dorky — You will look pretty funny in your full team lycra kit with your helmet-less head. These days, not wearing a helmet does not make you look cool. It really reveals you as being pretty uneducated and unrefined. Look at the folks you see out there cycling around Champaign-Urbana with and without helmets.  Who do you want to emulate?

 

REASONS NOT TO WEAR A HELMET (and my responses to them)

I forgot it — That's happened to me a few times and not as big of a deal when riding on the interior of campus as much but I try to avoid it if possible on the roads.

It will make me look dorky or mess up my hair — Okay, let’s get something straight: it is not the helmet or your hair that is making you look dorky. 

It costs too much — Ever look into the cost of brain surgery? The cost of a helmet starts at about $20 in many local stores and start even lower for kids helmets.

Helmets only protect from crashes less than 15 miles per hour and I always ride way faster than that — If they did not offer protection, tour riders would not put helmets on after a long climb for a high speed descent.

It will make my head heavier and more likely to hit when I crash — Possibly, but at least you will be protected. Your head is heavy in relation to other parts of your body and probably would hit anyway in that situation. Most modern helmets don’t weigh as much as they used to.

It might make the crash worse — Yes, and wearing a seatbelt can be fatal in a certain wrecks also, however the odds are in your favor that you are better off with it than without it. It is also true that in some instances, due to rotational forces in a crash or with some kids playing with bicycle helmets on a playground, that they could get the helmet trapped and hang themselves on the straps. Of course you should only use a bike helmet while cycling.

Cycling helmets cause overheating — This is not really true anymore, helmets have come a long way offering all kinds of vents and they are much lighter than their predecessors.

It won’t help me if I get hit by a bus — Most likely true but if you fall over and bump your head, it can help you just bounce up and dust yourself off rather than having a nasty lump… or worse.

Motorists get closer when I wear a helmet — There may be some truth to this.  A study in Europe found that cars were about three inches closer when a person wore a helmet than they were when a cyclist was wearing a helmet. This is also probably true, but since three inches is not a huge amount; the study could also be a factor. Did this person make sure to always ride the same distance from the edge of the road, or did he unconsciously move further out, or did the cars actually get closer? I will give three inches to avoid head injury, as I think the benefit still outweighs the consequences of not wearing one.


I do support the use of helmets when bicycling.  It is true that they are not going to guarantee you total safety, but in most accidents they can actually have you walk away from an accident. Most accidents are going to be you hitting the pavement or ground often at low speeds or stopped. However, I am totally against mandating their usage. Enacting those types of laws tends to reduce the number of cyclists, which reduces the safety in numbers benefit, impacts low-income populations disproportionately, and could lead to people taking more risks because the feel more protected. Overall, helmet laws do not prove to reduce overall injuries in countries where they have been tried.

So how does this relate to Cycling on the Cheap? You should buy the cheapest helmet that is comfortable and fits well. Due to federal regulations, the most expensive and cheapest helmets offer the same amount of protection. The less expensive one may be a tad heavier and have fewer vents for air but will offer the same protection. Unless you are a Lance Armstrong wannabe, you probably won’t even notice. The trickle-down of technology means that your budget helmet is very similar to top models of a few years ago. The one cheap thing you might want to avoid is using a used helmet. It may save you a few bucks, but it is not usually suggested because you don’t know what kind of damage that helmet has had in the past. Also, the materials can degrade, offering less protection over time.

The best suggestion one can have in the debate on helmet use is to make the best decision for you. For me, the helmet provides me some measure of security if I fall, but I also know that it is no substitute for riding defensively, obeying traffic rules, making sure I am wearing bright clothes and having my bike equipped with lights. The floor is now yours on this helmet debate, so feel free to leave a comment.