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Cycling Beginner Basics: Do I need to wear a helmet?

by on April 30, 2012

When people begin cycling, there is often a pretty steep initial cost.  The bike, a saddle, tools, pedals, shoes, clothing and the like.  When I bought my first serious road bike a couple of years ago, I spent $900 on the bike and another $500+ on other items.  One way people propose saving some money is to ride without a helmet, thereby saving between $40 & $200.

The convoluted logic that goes into this kind of thinking runs something like this: “I know how to ride a bike.  I won’t fall or crash.  I don’t need a helmet.”  I frequently see “adults” on the local bike trail riding without a helmet.  (I use the term “adult” loosely.  They may be over age 18 but are lacking something in common sense.)

You need a helmet.  You need to always wear a helmet while riding a bike.

Accidents (the meaning of accident is that it is unplanned) often happen quickly and without warning.  Sometimes they are not your fault.

In my first two years of riding, two accidents happened where I was unable to “catch myself” in time and my helmet struck the pavement.

The first was when I transitioned from a paved road surface to a wooden bridge.  The bridge was damp with dew, and had been shaded enough that there was a light sheen of green growth under the dew.  These two elements combined in such a way that before I even knew what happened, I got my bell rung.  I don’t remember slipping and falling.  I only remember the hard hit of my helmet against the deck of the wooden bridge.  It was hard enough that I saw stars.  After clearing my head, I cautiously made my way to meet up with others so they could help assess my possible injury.  Without the helmet, I might have lay there undiscovered for quite some time (it was not a heavily traveled bridge).

The second time, my foot slipped out of the pedal as I attempted to start from a dead stop.  My imbalance pulled me down, my helmet struck the pavement after I cracked a rib.  Dazed it was a few minutes before I could resume the ride.  There would have been a bloody head wound had I not been wearing a helmet.

But don’t just take my word for it.  A telling study from New York City has analyzed bicycle crash data and published a report. (I know, you don’t ride in New York City … more about that later.)

  • Almost three-quarters of fatal crashes (74%) involved a head injury.
  • Nearly all bicyclists who died (97%) were not wearing a helmet.
  • Helmet use among those bicyclists with serious injuries was low (13%), but it was even lower among bicyclists killed (3%).

If you wish, you can spend all day looking at the data from sites like this.

Without chasing down the actual details, I remember reading once that the simple elevation caused by riding a bicycle increases your odds of a head injury dramatically in a fall.  Both of my accidents described above happened under 6 mph!  I can’t even imagine what it might be like at speed.  Neither of my accidents involved other vehicles.  Just because you don’t ride in New York City doesn’t mean you are immune from falls or crashes with vehicles.

Always wear a helmet when riding a bike.

Riding with the helmet on your handlebars doesn’t count.  (I’ve seen that.)

Riding with the helmet straps dangling doesn’t count. (I’ve seen that.)

Riding with the helmet perched daintily on the back of your head doesn’t count. (That looks funny AND dangerous.)

Learn how to wear the helmet and use it every time.  Take care of it and replace it regularly.  It will matter one day.

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One Comment
  1. I totally agree. What’s fascinating to me is there is a very loud and persistent group of advocates who argue otherwise. They pick apart the statistics in studies such as the one you reference in an attempt to demonstrate flawed analysis. This is important to their argument because if there truly is no statistical benefit to wearing helmets, then it can be said that mandating helmet use makes cycling appear far more dangerous than it actually is. This, in turn, discourages people (particularly women) from cycling.

    It’s a fascinating argument from an academic perspective. This perspective doesn’t follow me to my riding, where I always wear a helmet (one of which has been cracked in an accident).

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