Shattered Myth Count: 45


"If you can not answer a man's argument, all is not lost; you can still call him vile names."

Elbert Hubbard


Swedish poster encouraging the use of bicycle helmets.
Translation: "As a cyclist you belong to the naked, unprotected group in traffic.
 You don't have a metal shield or a safety belt to protect you. The most
important thing you have to protect is what you have inside your helmet"


Bicycle Helmets Work!

As helmet usage has increased in Ontario, the number of major head injuries attributable to cycling accidents has dropped significantly   Of 2500 Major Head Injuries Annually in Ontario

49% motor vehicle involvement - including pedestrians, excluding cyclists
35% falls
 6% homicide
 2% suicide
 6% other causes
 2% Cycling


"Simply put, they have contempt for the concepts of truth, logic, and evidence. Worse, there is a hypocritical divide between what they say (or write) in public and what they actually know to be true."

This web site puts an end to the periodic "Helmet Wars" by exposing the myths used by AHZs (anti-helmet zealots), and countering them with documented facts. It's important to expose the myths because apparently many people lack the critical thinking skills necessary to understand the false information promulgated by the AHZs, most of which consists of insults with a total lack of any documented facts. 



Contents

  1. 1 Myths and Facts
    1. 1.1 Myth List
    2. 1.2 Myth 1: Helmets do not provide any protection to the head in the event of head impact crash.
    3. 1.3 Myth 2: You shouldn't wear a helmet because helmets do nothing to prevent accidents.
    4. 1.4 Myth 3: "The evidence of the protective ability of helmets in the event of a collision with a vehicle remains unclear."
    5. 1.5 Myth 4: The effectiveness of bicycle helmets in preventing head injuries is seriously exaggerated.
    6. 1.6 Myth 5: "It is just not possible to promote both cycling and helmets. The two are contradictory."
    7. 1.7 Myth 6:  The high cost of good helmets discourages cycling when helmets are required or even encouraged.
    8. 1.8 Myth 7: The risk of cycling is far lower than the risk of health problems through inactivity.
    9. 1.9 Myth 8: Studies show that when helmets are mandated bicycling rates fall by 30%.
    10. 1.10 Myth 9: Countries with the lowest helmet use also have the lowest number of head injuries; that proves that helmet use is inversely proportional to head injury rates.
    11. 1.11 Myth 10: Helmet wearing causes more car/bicycle accidents
    12. 1.12 Myth 11: Helmets are just foam hats and foam isn’t going to protect your head.
    13. 1.13 Myth 12: Bicycle helmets don't have a hard shell covering like motorcycle helmets or football helmets so they won't protect your head.
    14. 1.14 Myth 13: A helmet makes your head larger making it more likely you’ll get whacked by a low branch or a vehicle’s side view mirror.
    15. 1.15 Myth 14: When you wear a helmet you can’t hear cars coming up behind you.
    16. 1.16 Myth 15: Motorists don’t wear helmets so why should cyclists.
    17. 1.17 Myth 16: Other activities besides bicycling could be made safer with the use of helmets, but you don’t see people wearing walking helmets, gardening helmets, or cooking helmets.
    18. 1.18 Myth 17: There are no studies that show a correlation between helmet usage and a reduction and head injuries.
    19. 1.19 Myth 18: If the Thompson & Rivara study is accurate than injury and fatality rates should have decreased 63-88% after a helmet law was passed.
    20. 1.20 Myth 19: That 88% or 85% number that's constantly quoted in the media is bogus. No way helmets reduce the number of head injuries in the population by that much.
    21. 1.21 Myth 20: The Thompson and Rivara study showed that helmets reduce leg injuries by 70%. This proves that the study is faulty.
    22. 1.22 Myth 21: If you choose to voluntarily wear a helmet then you're unintentionally voting for a mandatory helmet law.
    23. 1.23 Myth 22: Sample sizes in studies of injury rates are too small and hence cannot be believed.
    24. 1.24 Myth 23: Okay, so case-control studies do show a benefit to helmets, so why don't population studies show a similar benefit?
    25. 1.25 Myth 24: More people die in car accidents than in bicycle accidents so why isn't there an effort to promote driving helmets?
    26. 1.26 Myth 25: The problem with mandatory helmet laws is that they're too difficult to enforce.
    27. 1.27 Myth 26: "In some communities police have used helmet laws as an excuse to target minority kids. In Austin the last time anyone checked, over 90% of the no-helmet tickets given to kids went to black and Hispanic kids."
    28. 1.28 Myth 27: Helmet laws thus make cycling more dangerous, because fewer cyclists on the road means that motorists are less used to seeing cyclists.
    29. 1.29 Myth 28: When you wear a helmet you take more risks, increasing the risk of injury. When you aren't wearing a helmet you compensate by taking fewer risks.
    30. 1.30 Myth 29: No one wears helmets in the Netherlands, and they have lower rates of injuries and fatalities. That proves that helmets don't work, and may even actually cause more injuries and fatalities.
    31. 1.31 Myth 30: Alcohol impaired cyclists have more head injury crashes than helmeted cyclists so helmets have no benefit.
    32. 1.32 Myth 31: There are many activities more dangerous than cycling but you don't see campaigns encouraging or requiring people engaging in those activities to use safety equipment, so it makes no sense to encourage cyclists to use safety equipment either.
    33. 1.33 Myth 32: If the vehicle is at fault in a vehicle/bicycle collision, the monetary damages that the cyclist can receive are unrelated to whether or not the cyclist was wearing a helmet.
    34. 1.34 Myth 33: The weight of bicycle helmet can increase the severity of rotational injuries in a crash.
    35. 1.35 Myth 34: Helmet laws are a good idea because those incurring head injuries are receiving government sponsored health care for their injuries.
    36. 1.36 Myth 35: Helmet laws for minors make parents believe that cycling is exceedingly dangerous then they won't let their kids ride bicycles.
    37. 1.37 Myth 36: In one case study, 21% of cyclists that showed up at the ER had been wearing helmets at the time of their crash, but this was more than the percentage of helmet wearing cyclists.
    38. 1.38 Myth 37: A bicycle helmet won't protect you if you're hit head-on by a dump truck while descending a hill at 40 mph, so why wear something that can't deal with those kind of forces?
    39. 1.39 Myth 38:  I've seen more bike riders die from heart attacks while riding than have suffered head injuries so why wear a helmet?
    40. 1.40 Myth 39: Motor racers, fighter pilots, and imperialist goons wear real helmets every day. What we call a "bicycle helmet" is not a helmet.  It is Styrofoam beanie.
    41. 1.41 Myth 40: I can break a bicycle helmet apart with my bare hands. That proves that the material is so weak that it offers no protection.
    42. 1.42 Myth 41: You're better off learning to not fall off your bicycle than wearing a helmet.
    43. 1.43 Myth 42: Child helmet laws have caused a drastic decline in child cycling levels in states and cities where they have been implemented.
    44. 1.44 Myth 43: Properly designed and manufactured safety gear works within the parameters it was designed to meet.  The problem with bike helmets is that they are under-designed for the forces involved.
    45. 1.45 Myth 44: Snell and ANSI certified bicycle helmets are no longer available.
  2. 2 Myth 45: Requiring a child to wear a helmet can turn them into an adult non-cyclist.
  3. 3 Why You Should Be Opposed to Mandatory Helmet Laws for Adult Cyclists
    1. 3.1 So despite all the facts about helmets, why are helmet laws still a bad idea?
    2. 3.2 So if helmet laws are a bad idea, why are so many new ones being implemented?
  4. 4 Preventing Helmet Laws
    1. 4.1 What can you do to prevent compulsory helmet laws from being passed in your city, state, or country?
  5. 5 Recently Reported Statistically Sound Studies Conducted Using Scientific Methodology
  6. 6 Google Usenet Searches for Factual and Fictional Posts on Helmets
  7. 7 Feedback


Myths and Facts



Myth List

Myth 1: Helmets do not provide any protection to the head in the event of head impact crash.

Fact 1: Every case-controlled study proves the exact opposite. A list of case controlled studies is included below.


Myth 2: You shouldn't wear a helmet because helmets do nothing to prevent accidents.

Fact 2: This is poor logic for not wearing a helmet.


Myth 3: "The evidence of the protective ability of helmets in the event of a collision with a vehicle remains unclear."

Fact 3: This is a favorite one that's trotted out often, most recently in the U.K. after a conservative leader David Cameron was spotted riding with his helmet dangling from his handlebars. It's true, that if a vehicle (or a bicycle) runs a red light the vehicle broadsides the bicycle at 50 MPH, a helmet is probably not going to save the cyclist. But in reality, most car/bicycle accidents are not of that type. Typically the cyclists will go flying through the air, an will be decelerating until they hit the ground, and at impact they will be going much slower than the vehicle that hit them. Bottom line is that helmets have a huge protective effect in many, if not most, vehicle/bicycle collisions. Isn't it funny-sad how these lobbying groups have learned all the code words and are able to ignore all the evidence with statements like "remains unclear" or "needs more study." Just like those that don't believe every scientist in the world about global warming.


Myth 4: The effectiveness of bicycle helmets in preventing head injuries is seriously exaggerated.

Fact 4: If there’s one thing that those against bicycle helmets need to learn, it’s that correlation does not equal causation. If helmet use goes up and head injuries from bicycle crashes goes up, that means that helmets are causing more head injuries right? Wrong. If head injuries did go up (and they didn't) it could be for other reasons, specifically increases in the number of cyclists for reasons unrelated to the increase in helmet usage.

Every population study and every emergency room study (by “study” I mean actual scientifically and statistically sound studies) show a marked reduction in head injury rates as helmet usage increased.


Myth 5: "It is just not possible to promote both cycling and helmets. The two are contradictory."


Fact 5: There's a big difference between helmet promotion and helmet discouragement. Despite the proven protective effect of helmets, helmet laws mandating their use are a bad idea for the reasons outlined below. However what some people have chosen to do is to actively campaign against helmet usage by anyone, with claims that any cyclists even choosing to wear a helmet is against cycling. Their logic is as follows: if a non-cyclist sees a cyclist wearing a helmet, then they won't become a cyclist because they believe that any activity that some people wear helmets for must be exceptionally dangerous.


Myth 6:  The high cost of good helmets discourages cycling when helmets are required or even encouraged.

Fact 6: Helmets cost as little as $10. In most areas there are organizations that provide helmets for free to children unable to afford one. The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute found no difference in the protective capabilities of expensive versus cheap helmets (http://www.bhsi.org/testbycost.htm).

Myth 7: The risk of cycling is far lower than the risk of health problems through inactivity.

Fact 7: This logic-free statement is trotted out regularly. The premise is that if people are encouraged (or required) to wear helmets that they'll immediately give up cycling and replace it with sitting home on the couch watching TV and eating potato chips or other junk food. The reality is that  there has never been a shred of evidence that encouraging, or even requiring, helmet usage leads to a decrease in cycling. In the unlikely event that some cyclist got so upset about helmets that they vowed to never cycle again, they would almost certainly replace cycling with some other activity that provided similar health benefits.

There's another aspect of this myth that is often ignored. Most helmet laws, at least in the U.S., are only for minors. For better or for worse, many parents have the idea that by wearing a helmet, cycling is turned into an exceptionally safe activity (in fact it is far more dangerous than driving on both a per mile and per trip basis). This encourages parents to permit or require that their children use their bicycles to get to and from school, and to and from friend's houses.

Myth 8: Studies show that when helmets are mandated bicycling rates fall by 30%.

Fact 8: One group in Australia counted the number of cyclists on the one day of the year before and after a helmet law went into effect and claimed that they counted 30% fewer cyclists. While any statistician would laugh this study off because of its methodology, this “study” has taken on a life of its own among those opposed to helmets. In fact, the group conducting the study intentionally left out large numbers of cyclists going by, claiming that they were part of a “bike rally” and hence should not be counted. Also never mentioned is that future counts showed that the number of cyclists quickly went back up to the pre-law level (or course the level never went down 30% to begin with, if it went down at all). It's junk science and junk statistics at its worst.

Anytime you see the 30% number used on a web site opposing the use of helmets, you can be pretty certain that the rest of the material on the web site is equally flawed.

In fact, every study shows that cycling rates have increased after helmet laws. But there is no proof that the helmet law was the cause for the increase. One could create several reasons why an mandatory helmet law could possibly be the cause of the increase, but that would be pure speculation. There could be multiple causes for increases and decreases in the number of cyclists on the same month and day one year apart. Weather, a large change in the price of fuel, mass transit issues, etc. A statistically sound survey would do daily counts over much a longer period of time.

When someone incorrectly claims that there was a decrease in cycling following the adoption of a helmet law, and claims that the helmet law was responsible, they're beginning with a false premise, then speculating as to how something that didn't happen was caused by the new law.


Myth 9: Countries with the lowest helmet use also have the lowest number of head injuries; that proves that helmet use is inversely proportional to head injury rates.

Fact 9: The country they are referring to is the Netherlands, which has an infrastructure for cycling totally different than that of the U.S. or most other countries. Also, helmet usage is increasing in the Netherlands.


Myth 10: Helmet wearing causes more car/bicycle accidents

Fact 10: One person in the U.K. measured the distance vehicles gave him when he was wearing a helmet versus not wearing a helmet and proclaimed that he got 3.5” more space when he was un-helmeted. Of course no cars hit him in either case. This is another “study” that has taken on a life of its own and that is constantly taken out of context by those opposed to helmet use.


Myth 11: Helmets are just foam hats and foam isn’t going to protect your head.

Fact 11: EPS (Expanded Polystyrene Foam), the material used in helmets, car bumpers, and packaging materials is designed to absorb impact, which is what it does. Hint: Look at how fragile eggs are packaged in many areas. Any time you see someone using the "foam hat" shtick in an effort to convince someone that helmets don't work because, you know, they're just made out of "foam," it's an excellent indication that they're about to lie again. They have utter contempt for the concepts of facts, logic, science, and statistics because in contradicts what they want, but know isn't, true. There's an easy way to test their beliefs. Tell them you're going to throw a ten pound chunk of concrete at their head at 14MPH and ask if they'd like to put on a "foam hat" or not.

If you're in a vehicle crash and your airbag deploys, and nylon and nitrogen save your life do you claim that it's "magic nitrogen?" Or magic nylon. How could some gas and nylon possibly protect you? Oh wait, in a 60mph head-on crash, you'd still be dead even with an airbag, so clearly air bags are under-designed for the forces involved and are hence worthless. In fact the mere presence of air bags in cars has reduced the number of cars sold as people give up driving--just look at car sales figures for the last two years.

The "magic foam" and "foam hat" shtick are used by those that either unintentionally uninformed or intentionally dishonest, with the latter being more probable. No doubt they really do understand why EPS foam is used in a plethora of products, including helmets, where the need for impact protection and light weight are key requirements. They've lost the argument based on statistical and scientific fact, so being smarmy is their only choice.


Myth 12: Bicycle helmets don't have a hard shell covering like motorcycle helmets or football helmets so they won't protect your head.

Fact 12: All of the impact absorbing properties of the helmet are in the foam, there is no reason to have the weight of a hard shell. While a hard shell would better protect the foam from peripheral damages, this is not considered a worthwhile trade-off for the greater weight and expense of a hard shell. Understand that bicycle helmets are designed for a single impact. They are not like football helmets or batting helmets where they are designed to be used for multiple impacts.


Myth 13: A helmet makes your head larger making it more likely you’ll get whacked by a low branch or a vehicle’s side view mirror.

Fact 13:  It could happen that the extra inch of helmet makes the difference between hitting an overhead or side-head object, but it’s extremely unlikely, and has never been shown to have happened. Just another creative fantasy.


Myth 14: When you wear a helmet you can’t hear cars coming up behind you.

Fact 14: Bicycle helmets do not cover the cyclist’s ears or cause any significant extra wind noise that would result in the cyclist hearing less noise. There is a study on this subject (for motorcycle helmets) here.


Myth 15: Motorists don’t wear helmets so why should cyclists.

Fact 15: Motorists are protected by a steel cage inside a vehicle that has active safety devices such as multiple airbags, and passive safety devices like seat belts, side impact beams, and safety glass.


Myth 16: Other activities besides bicycling could be made safer with the use of helmets, but you don’t see people wearing walking helmets, gardening helmets, or cooking helmets.

Fact 16: It’s true that other activities have an element of risk that could be further reduced by protective equipment. However with those other activities the external risks beyond the control of the person involved, are minimal. That’s not the case with bicycling.


Myth 17: There are no studies that show a correlation between helmet usage and a reduction and head injuries.

Fact 17: First off, be aware that correlation does not equal causation. That said, nearly every scientifically and statistically sound population survey shows a decrease in head injury rates among cyclists as helmet usage goes up.


Myth 18: If the Thompson & Rivara study is accurate than injury and fatality rates should have decreased 63-88% after a helmet law was passed.

Fact 18:  First, Thompson & Rivara never stated that injury and fatality rates would fall 63-88% (see next myth). Second, helmet usage does not go from 0-100% immediately after a helmet law is passed because helmet usage is generally high even before a law is passed, and even after a law is passed not everyone obeys the law. Do not be misled by media misinterpretations of the Thompson & Rivara study.


Myth 19: That 88% or 85% number that's constantly quoted in the media is bogus. No way helmets reduce the number of head injuries in the population by that much.

Fact 19:. The oft-misquoted Thompson & Rivara study never claimed that helmet usage reduces head injury rates 88% or 85%. The study looked only at a population of cyclists that experienced a crash and that received medical attention for their injuries--a population that is an extremely small subset of bicyclists. For the subset of cyclists that experienced a crash requiring medical attention, and that was wearing a helmet, they found a 63-88% reduction in the risk of head and brain injuries. Thompson & Rivara used only well-conducted, case-controlled studies in their analysis. No junk science or junk statistics. The problem with the Thompson & Rivara study is that the results are often used out of context by those lobbying for mandatory helmet laws. Put into context, if 1 in 100 cyclists experiences a crash during their lifetime that requires medical attention, then the reduction in the risk of head and brain injuries that comes from everyone wearing a helmet is from 0.63-0.88%. The bottom line is that in the extremely unlikely event that you're ever involved in a bicycle crash serious enough to require medical attention, you're much better off with a helmet than without one. No one would argue with that.

Ironically, the Thompson & Rivara study reports only on crashes where the victim sought medical attention. They have no way of knowing how many crashes there were where the presence of a helmet mitigated the injuries to the point where medical attention was not necessary. Hence, the 63-88% range given by Rivara and Thompson is almost certainly quite conservative.

Paradoxically, whole population studies in countries that have adopted an all-ages helmet law show a greater reduction in head injuries than the Thompson & Rivara study would indicate, while at the same time finding no change in cycling levels as a result of the legislation. There are several possible reasons for this, but there have been no studies to investigate the reasons.

What is true, is that the "85%" figure is trotted out way too often by well-meaning, but clueless officials, who sometimes use it out of context. But contrary to what the anti-helmet websites claim, the 85% figure was arrived at by statistically and scientifically sound case controlled research, which is a lot more than you can say for any of the "studies" they are fond of quoting.


Myth 20: The Thompson and Rivara study showed that helmets reduce leg injuries by 70%. This proves that the study is faulty.

Fact 20:  The study did not show that at all. This myth is promulgated by people that do not understand the difference between causation in correlation. In any study, you can find strange correlations that are meaningless. For example, if you look at head injuries based on education, you could conclude that a college degree protects you from injuries. In reality, those with higher education are more likely to ride in a responsible manner, ride in areas with lower risk of an accident, maintain their bicycle in a safe operating condition, and use safety equipment such as helmets and adequate lighting at night.


Myth 21: If you choose to voluntarily wear a helmet then you're unintentionally voting for a mandatory helmet law.

Fact 21: This is a typical idiotic statement by those that don't wear helmets and are upset that not everyone follows their example. That statement is also contrary to the way politicians think. If most people engage in the behavior that they believe is correct, then they are much less likely to see the need to pass a law to force the few remaining people to also engage in that behavior.


Myth 22: Sample sizes in studies of injury rates are too small and hence cannot be believed.

Fact 22: It isn't surprising to see this myth trotted out because so few people are aware of how to compute statistical margins of error. For example, the Singapore study cited below has a margin of error of only 7.75%, based on the sample size (160) and the total population being considered (450,000).


Myth 23: Okay, so case-control studies do show a benefit to helmets, so why don't population studies show a similar benefit?

Fact 23: Well at least we've made some progress here, but this myth has a false premise. The fact is that nearly every population study does show a benefit in terms of fatality and injury reduction based on increased use of helmets. The "problem" is that the number of bicycle crashes that result in head impact is so small that a large percentage change in injury severity is lost in the noise of a whole population study. Populations studies are also subject to external factors such as changes in the cycling infrastructure, economic changes, weather, etc.

In fact, most of the population studies show decreases in injury rates that far exceed what can be attributed to increased helmet usage (and no, there was no decrease in cycling levels). The decreases could be attributed to better bicycling facilities, changes in driver behavior, marketing campaigns promoting bicycle safety and awareness (i.e. "Share the Road"), or equipment improvements. For example, brakes, even on low-end bicycles, are now far better than what they were in the past. Lighting is better, as the world has moved away from low power dynamo lighting to higher power, safer, lighting (including daytime strobes). So it is fair to say that the population studies don't jive precisely with case control studies, but not in the way the evil-doers would like people to believe.


Myth 24: More people die in car accidents than in bicycle accidents so why isn't there an effort to promote driving helmets?


Fact 24: This myth is one of many that begins with a false premise then poses a question based on that false premise. If you look only at absolute numbers, yes, more people are killed and injured in car accidents than in bicycle accidents. But when you look at things statistically, measured per trip or per mile, cycling has a far higher injury and fatality rate than driving. On a per mile basis, cycling is about 11 times as risky as driving. On a per trip basis, cycling is about three times as risky as driving. Before you get too upset about these numbers, remember that they really are irrelevant, and were only brought up show the idiocy of the whole "driving helmet" premise which is unfailingly brought up on every web site railing illogically against bicycle helmets. When you're in a car, you're inside a reinforced steel structure with multiple active and passive safety features to protect you. These include side airbags, head curtain air bags, front air bags, seat belts, padded dash, and safety glass.


Myth 25: The problem with mandatory helmet laws is that they're too difficult to enforce.


Fact 25: While there are several reasons that mandatory helmet laws are a bad idea, the difficulty of enforcing such a law is not one of the reasons. Many, even most, laws are passed with the full knowledge that it will not be possible for the police to do 100% enforcement. Most laws are obeyed simply because most people are law abiding citizens and if the law is reasonable then they comply with it. Difficulty of enforcement is never a good reason to avoid passing a law.


Myth 26: "In some communities police have used helmet laws as an excuse to target minority kids. In Austin the last time anyone checked, over 90% of the no-helmet tickets given to kids went to black and Hispanic kids."

Fact 26: You gotta love the way someone can quote sources here, "the last time anyone checked." What this really means is that "no one ever checked this, but I'll write it anyway because no one will be able to prove that it's wrong."


Myth 27: Helmet laws thus make cycling more dangerous, because fewer cyclists on the road means that motorists are less used to seeing cyclists.

Fact 27: Again, while stressing that I am opposed to helmet laws, this myth takes what would otherwise be a fact (more cyclists on the road makes cycling safer) and claims, without any evidence, that a helmet law will reduce the number of cyclists. There has never been any statistically sound study that has linked helmet laws to lower cycling rates. Quite to the contrary, in every country where helmet laws have been enacted, cycling rates have increased (but again, the increase likely had nothing to do with the helmet law).


Myth 28: When you wear a helmet you take more risks, increasing the risk of injury. When you aren't wearing a helmet you compensate by taking fewer risks.

Fact 28: Wait! Why would this be true if helmets do not provide any protection?! Seriously though, there is no evidence to suggest that this myth has any basis in reality.


Myth 29: No one wears helmets in the Netherlands, and they have lower rates of injuries and fatalities. That proves that helmets don't work, and may even actually cause more injuries and fatalities.

Fact 29: The cycling environment is very, very different in the Netherlands, compared to almost any other country. From the attitude of motorists towards cyclists, to road design, it is not logical to compare the Netherlands to the U.S., U.K., Australia or most other countries. It would be great if other countries followed the example of the Netherlands when it comes to cycling infrastructure. As Peter French, co-convenor of CBD BUG, an Australian advocacy group which focuses on bike use issues within the CBD (Central Business District) stated: "If you look at the countries where there's really high levels of cycling, such as the Netherlands and Denmark, they have much smaller proportions of people being killed or injured over there, even though they don't wear helmets. It is because their governments have focused on safety programs which target traffic speeds and separating cyclists from fast moving traffic." Hmm, why didn't he say "it's because helmets are magical foam hats that don't serve any purpose?"

John Forrester, author of Effective Cycling, writes: "The maximum safe speed for Dutch voonerven has been given as 8 mph. Average travel speeds on Dutch urban bikepaths are universally described as very slow, probably below 10 mph. On the other hand, speeds of American bicycle commuters, now easily measured with electronic speedometers, typically are in the 16-22 mph range. Dutch cyclists tolerate their low speeds for two reasons: travel times are not great because they travel short distances and motoring is so inconvenient that it would probably take longer. American cyclists would not tolerate Dutch speeds because of the longer distances they must travel. The facilities, traffic rules and speed-controlling attitudes that are acceptable to one nation are obviously unacceptable to another" (underlining mine).

If you've ever ridden in the Netherlands or China, you'll understand that it's not the pavement or the bicycle that's limiting the speed to 8 mph, it's the mass quantity of bicycles sharing the road or path, especially at rush hours. Until you accept the slow speed, and go with the flow, it can be maddening if you're trying to ride at the typical speed a bicycle commuter in the U.S. rides at. You quickly learn to ride at the same speed at everyone else and not make any sudden turns or sudden stops. On the plus side, with slow speeds, separate lanes for bicycles, and the attitude of the vehicle drivers, the chance of a collision where you get seriously hurt is much smaller.


Myth 30: Alcohol impaired cyclists have more head injury crashes than helmeted cyclists so helmets have no benefit.

Fact 30: Just when you though the zealots lack of logic could not get any worse, you have this gem from Avery Burdett. The exact quote: "Not only were the authors unable to validate their theory about the protective value of helmets but they found that an increased risk of head injury is associated with alcohol use. This finding casts doubt on other case control studies that may have confused the effects of alcohol use with cycling without a helmet. Such confusion could result in overstating the benefit if any of helmet use." Sorry Avery, the only one confused is you!


Myth 31: There are many activities more dangerous than cycling but you don't see campaigns encouraging or requiring people engaging in those activities to use safety equipment, so it makes no sense to encourage cyclists to use safety equipment either.

Fact 31: While there are plenty of activities, other than cycling, that could benefit from the use of safety equipment, it's not an either-or scenario. It's ludicrous to proclaim that as long as other activities are more dangerous that we should not strive to educate cyclists about how to make cycling safer. The argument that is unless helmet usage is encouraged or mandated to reduce injuries and fatalities in every human activity that bicycle helmets should not be worn is specious at best..


Myth 32: If the vehicle is at fault in a vehicle/bicycle collision, the monetary damages that the cyclist can receive are unrelated to whether or not the cyclist was wearing a helmet.

Fact 32: This is no longer the case in the U.K., and no doubt lawyers in the U.S. and other countries will attempt to follow the U.K. example. "Whilst undoubtedly much must depend upon the circumstances of a cycle accident, and the extent of which, in a particular case, the failure to wear a helmet contributed directly to the injuries suffered, the wearing of a cycle helmet is increasingly becoming a preliminary litmus test in settlement negotiations in cycle accident claims."


Myth 33: The weight of bicycle helmet can increase the severity of rotational injuries in a crash.

Fact 33: A bicycle helmet weighs very little. It's not like wearing a heavy motorcycle helmet. There has never been any evidence of increased rotational injuries caused by a bicycle helmet.


Myth 34: Helmet laws are a good idea because those incurring head injuries are receiving government sponsored health care for their injuries.

Fact 34: Some states in the U.S. have relaxed their motorcycle helmet laws for riders that provide proof of private health and accident insurance. However for bicycling, where the number of serious head injuries is much less than for motorcycling, such an approach is too nanny-state. Unless the government wants to require proof of private health insurance to buy cigarettes, eat ice cream, or drink scotch, they should not be dictating how much risk its citizens are allowed to take. Education is better than legislation.


Myth 35: Helmet laws for minors make parents believe that cycling is exceedingly dangerous then they won't let their kids ride bicycles.

Fact 35:  Ironically, the helmet laws for minors actually promote cycling. Many parents mistakenly think that cycling is exceedingly dangerous and they mistakenly think that if you wear a helmet that it makes it exceedingly safe. In reality, the safety level is between those two extremes, and while helmets are very effective in mitigating head injuries, they aren't a panacea. Regardless of what many parents mistakenly believe, the important thing is that helmet laws for minors promote cycling.


Myth 36: In one case study, 21% of cyclists that showed up at the ER had been wearing helmets at the time of their crash, but this was more than the percentage of helmet wearing cyclists.

Fact 36: This myth starts with a false premise and moves on from there. In fact, the only study that looked at overall helmet usage for the year of the study showed a rate of use for children in the targeted area (the focus group of the study) to be well over 21% (the percentage of helmet wearing kids that showed up at the ER). The overall rate of helmet usage in the entire population was around 4%. This is yet another example of the way some people use statistics dishonestly for their own purposes. That said, it's probably true that parents of helmet wearing children were more likely to take them to the ER after an accident, but that's because the helmet wearing children were typically from more affluent families that had health insurance, where an ER visit would have only a small co-pay.


Myth 37: A bicycle helmet won't protect you if you're hit head-on by a dump truck while descending a hill at 40 mph, so why wear something that can't deal with those kind of forces?

Fact 37: It's true that in the dump truck scenario you're not going to survive with or without a helmet. But most bicycle accidents are not high-speed head-on collisions. The most common bicycle accident is hitting a vehicle that turns right in front of you when you're going straight. Hitting your head on the pavement at even 10 mph can result in a brain injury that a helmet would prevent.


Myth 38:  I've seen more bike riders die from heart attacks while riding than have suffered head injuries so why wear a helmet?

Fact 38: The logical fallacy in this statement speaks for itself. I won't insult anyone's intelligence by trying to explain it!


Myth 39: Motor racers, fighter pilots, and imperialist goons wear real helmets every day. What we call a "bicycle helmet" is not a helmet.  It is Styrofoam beanie.

Fact 39: Helmet standards are specific to each activity. A helmet for auto racing has requirements specific to the sport. First, it must be fireproof. Second, it has to be full face. Third, it does not have to be exceptionally light. A football or hockey helmet needs to be able to withstand multiple impacts, it is not replaced after every impact like a bicycle helmet so it is constructed differently. A bicycle helmet is designed to absorb impact in a crash then be replaced. It must be light. It must be well ventilated. Expanded polystyrene foam is used in many types of helmets. It has excellent impact absorption properties and it is lightweight. It can be fabricated to vary the impact resistance to desired levels. The same type of foam is used in a variety of products that require impact resistance, from car bumpers to packaging foam.

The critical factor is whether the helmet meets standards that have been established to dictate appropriate protection. For example, Snell Memorial Foundation, the leading test lab for helmets, has different helmet standards for the following activities.

  • Bicycling
  • Horseback Riding
  • Motorcycling
  • Children's Motorsports
  • Karting
  • Moped Riding
  • General non-motorized activities
  • Recreational skiing and snowboarding
  • Skiing
  • Competitive Automotive Sports
Anytime someone brings up the "foam hat" schtick, it's an indication that they have no idea what they're talking about.


Myth 40: I can break a bicycle helmet apart with my bare hands. That proves that the material is so weak that it offers no protection.

Fact 40: It's true that you can rip apart a helmet that lacks a hard shell with your bare hands. Such an action is totally different than the helmet hitting the pavement and the impact being absorbed by the expanded polystyrene foam. Flexural shear loads aren't of any consequence It's not unlike many other impact resistant materials. A sheet of tempered glass, such as a refrigerator glass shelf, is incredibly strong and impact resistant against being hit on the surface or having items dropped onto it. Yet tap the edge of the glass and it will shatter into thousands of tiny pieces (which is why refrigerator shelves typically have a plastic around the edges). You can also break apart the foam blocks that are used for packing material for fragile items but that is meaningless in terms of the protection they offer to the fragile item. This sort of myth is typical of the desperation of  those opposed to bicycle helmets to come up with something, anything, no matter how patently ridiculous, to base their opposition upon.

Even hitting an empty helmet on the surface with great force does not prove anything. When a helmet is on a head, the head is providing a load to the foam. It is much more difficult to break a helmet that's being worn, than an empty helmet.


Myth 41: You're better off learning to not fall off your bicycle than wearing a helmet.

Fact 41:  If the only accident situation where there is head impact is falling off a bicycle and hitting your head then this might have some validity. Unfortunately, most bicycle crashes where a helmet provides protection are not simply someone "falling off."


Myth 42: Child helmet laws have caused a drastic decline in child cycling levels in states and cities where they have been implemented.

Fact 42: There is absolutely no evidence that rates of child cycling have declined, and there is absolutely no evidence that helmet laws have had any effect on cycling levels. According to the National Bicycle Dealers Association,, sales of children's bicycles have increased at faster than the increase in children's population for decades, with a few minor bumps due to economic factors. There are so many students bicycling to school that schools have to scramble to add more bicycle parking areas.

Some people have a notion that parents today are more protective of children taking part in activities that carry with them a risk of injury, while in fact the opposite appears to be true. Today's parents allow their children to engage in activities that the parents never would likely have been allowed to participate in, including sports like hockey, rock climbing, snow-boarding, BMX biking, and mountain biking. Girls that used to go to Girl Scout meetings to do crafts are now in High Adventure Girl Scout Troops or co-ed BSA Venture Crews, going backpacking, pistol shooting, and on kayak and canoe trips.


Myth 43: Properly designed and manufactured safety gear works within the parameters it was designed to meet.  The problem with bike helmets is that they are under-designed for the forces involved.


Fact 43: Bicycle helmets are specifically designed to reduce the severity of head and brain injuries. They are specifically designed for the forces involved with the full knowledge that, like any safety equipment, there are trade-offs between practicality and protection that need to be made. Specific standards have been set for each type of helmet for each type of activity. The same trade-offs are made in helmets for motorcycling, football, hockey, and hard hats for construction. The same people complaining that bicycle helmets cannot protect a rider in a 40 mph head-on collision with a cement truck are the ones that would be complaining that helmets with greater protection are too heavy and too hot.

Think about air bags in motor vehicles. When your airbag deploys, nitrogen gas fills a nylon bag and the inflated bag absorbs part of the impact instead of your body. It's not magic nitrogen. Or magic nylon. Alas, in a 60mph head-on crash, you'd still be dead even with an airbag, so are air bags are under-designed for the forces involved and are hence worthless? Has the mere presence of air bags in cars has reduced the number of cars sold as people give up driving?


Myth 44: Snell and ANSI certified bicycle helmets are no longer available.

Fact 44: There are several standards and organizations that set standards and testing requirements for bicycle helmets. If possible, choose a helmet that has been tested by the Snell Memorial Foundation. You can find a list of such helmets at http://www.smf.org/cert.html. If the sticker in a helmet states "Complies with U.S. CPSC Safety Standard" if most likely has been self-certified by the manufacturer. Most bicycle helmets state that they meet the CPSC standard. Specialized has several models that have been certified by Snell. The reason not all helmets are Snell certified is not because they can't pass, it's because of the expense of the testing. You can see which helmet standards apply to which activities at http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/pubs/349.pdf.


Myth 45: Requiring a child to wear a helmet can turn them into an adult non-cyclist.

Fact 45: This myth came from an anecdote about a teenage girl who proclaimed "I'm never riding my bike again" because her mother forbade her from riding without a helmet. The alleged child is now an adult, and allegedly does not ride a bicycle because of what her mother allegedly said to her when she was younger.


The idea that a stubborn teenager's refusal to wear a helmet until age 18 would be the cause of giving up cycling forever is ludicrous. A lot of kids give up cycling when they become adults, for various reasons unrelated to helmet requirements (imposed by society or a parent). Similarly, many people become avid cyclists as adults even though helmets are often required for club rides, centuries, benefit rides, or even by law.

If this story is actually true, it points out one of the big advantages of helmet laws for children. If a parent can tell a child "whether I think it's necessary or not, it's against the law to ride without a helmet" rather than "I forbid you to ride without a helmet" it's much more likely that the child will agree. This eliminates the child's antagonistic attitude toward helmets and keeps them riding as a child, though of course it may not translate into continued riding as an adult. If they do continue to ride as an adult then they've gotten into the habit of wearing a helmet which is another plus.


You can view more myths and facts about bicycle helmets at http://www.bhsi.org/negativs.htm. Many are similar to the one's I've detailed above, but some are in addition to what I've detailed.


Why You Should Be Opposed to Mandatory Helmet Laws for Adult Cyclists

So despite all the facts about helmets, why are helmet laws still a bad idea?

  1. Education is better than compulsion.
  2. Bicycle crashes involving impact to the head are rare.
  3. Safe riding promotion will have a greater payback than a helmet law.
  4. Adults can can make their own decision regarding the amount of risk they are willing to accept in their lives.
  5. Passing more laws to make everything safe for everybody is not what a free society should be doing. In the words of Michael Bluejay of bicyclesafe.com, who writes about helmets and helmet laws on his web site, "unfortunately many people don't understand that just because something is a good idea that doesn't mean it should against the law if you don't do it.

So if helmet laws are a bad idea, why are so many new ones being implemented?

The biggest reason why we've seen a lot of new helmet laws recently, for both children and adults, is ineffective opposition to the laws when public hearings are held. On one side you have safety experts, doctors, nurses, and paramedics, showing up with a mountain of evidence on the effectiveness of helmets, and on the other side you have people showing up whining about driving helmets, and claiming, without any factual basis, that a helmet law will reduce cycling rates by 30-50%. Who are the politicians going to believe? Faced with choosing between the testimony of medical professionals versus the testimony of what appears to be a group of lunatics, they make the obvious choice.

To stop mandatory helmet laws we need to mobilize normal people, that use facts and logic, to explain that while helmets reduce injuries in a head impact crash, such crashes are rare and it should be left up to the individual adult rider to decide the level of risk they will accept. It's tougher to oppose helmet laws for minors, and it's probably better to not go down that road. It's better to negotiate non-monetary penalties for a minor's only helmet law. Talk about the need for education rather than punishment.



Preventing Helmet Laws

What can you do to prevent compulsory helmet laws from being passed in your city, state, or country?

1. Do not believe everything you read. Accepting flawed "research" uncritically is what allows the people in favor of compulsory helmet laws to make fools of those that oppose them. Appearing at a hearing with talk of driving helmets and gardening helmets is not going to impress the lawmakers that are also being presented with volumes of scientifically and statistically sound studies from doctors, nurses, and paramedics, that prove the efficacy of bicycle helmets.

2. Stress the personal choice aspect of accepting slightly greater risk in ones life.

3. Explain that while studies do prove that a helmet provides a degree of protection in a crash, that such crashes involving head impact are sufficiently rare that education is a better option than compulsion.

4. Refrain from using junk science and junk statistics in your arguments. You are certain to be exposed by well-informed opponents who of course are well aware of the tactics used by those opposed to helmet laws.

5. Understand that not everyone opposed to helmet laws is necessary your ally when fighting the adoption of these laws. Those with contempt for the concepts of truth, logic, and evidence, and with a hypocritical divide between what they say (or write) in public and what they actually know to be true, can sabotage, unintentionally, the fight against mandatory helmet laws.

6. Read and understand the actual research on the subject of bicycle helmets, injuries, and fatalities. Don't simply regurgitate junk science and junk statistics.

7. Don't become a missionary trying to save people. Few people have been duped by the misinformation of the anti-helmet web sites, but it's important that you stick to facts, logic, and sound science and statistics. Gently explaining the factual reasons that someone might want to consider wearing a helmet goes a long way.



Recently Reported Statistically Sound Studies Conducted Using Scientific Methodology

Helmet use and bicycle-related trauma in patients presenting to an acute hospital in Singapore, Heng K W J, Lee A H P, Zhu S, Tham K Y, Seow E (http://www.sma.org.sg/smj/4705/4705a1.pdf)

The mother of all studies, it looks at 16 case controlled studies. http://depts.washington.edu/hiprc/practices/topic/bicycles/index.html

The conclusions of the case-controlled studies are not surprising.

Attewell, 2001. Results provide clear evidence of helmet benefits. Helmets reduce risk of head, brain, facial injury, and death.
Kelsch, 1996. Bicycle helmets reduced the incidence and severity of head injuries.
Finvers, 1996. Strong prospective effect of helmets for serious head injuries. Protective effect of helmet underestimated due to exclusion of ICU cases. None of the ICU cases wore helmets.
Acton, 1996. Oral maxillofacial injuries frequent. Design modification helmets need such as a lightweight chin protector.
Thompson et al., 1996. Bicycle helmets are effective for all bicyclists regardless of age and regardless of motor vehicle involvement in the crash.
Thompson et al., 1996. Helmets protect against upper face and middle face injuries. Use of two control groups thought to "bracket" the true effect of helmets on risk of facial injury.
Maimaris et al., 1994. Helmet use significantly reduces the risk of sustaining a head injury, regardless of type of bicycle accident. Some evidence refuting claims that helmet users are either more cautious or take more risks than non-users.
Thomas et al., 1994. Helmet use significantly reduces the risk of upper head injury and loss of consciousness in a bicycle crash.
McDermott et al., 1993. Helmet use significantly protects against head injury.
Spaite et al., 1991. Helmeted riders over 33 times less likely to sustain a major head injury and over 16 times less likely to have an ISS (injury severity score) >15 than non-helmeted riders.
Thompson et al., 1990. Significant protective effect among helmet users for serious upper facial injuries compared to non-users.
Thompson et al., 1989. Helmet use protects against risk of head and brain injury by 85% and 88% respectively compared to those not wearing helmets. Population-based control group provides the best estimate of helmet effect.


Google Usenet Searches for Factual and Fictional Posts on Helmets

The periodic "Helmet Wars" on Usenet are always a source of amusement, with the usual tripe regarding gardening helmets, driving helmets, "foam hats" always being trotted out. If you're interested in reading these threads, here's some links to factual and fictional posts on rec.bicycles.tech on the subject of helmets. Enjoy!

Factual Posts

1, 2

Fictional Posts

1, 2, 3, 4 ,5, 6, 7





Feedback

If you think of any other myths that I can include here, you can send them to: "bicyclehelmetmythsandfacts@geemail.com" (replace "geemail" with "gmail").

Please, if you're going to send me an email telling me that there's an error on the site, have the good sense to provide a reference to a scientifically and statistically sound study that proves it wrong. That excludes anything on the few anti-helmet web sites that have made a career of promulgating misinformation.