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Cycling helmet-free in Amsterdam, where car accidents aren't the leading cause of cyclist death.     Photo: Andrés Nieto Porras/Flickr

The Case for Ditching the Bike Helmet Isn't What You'd Expect

We always preach the importance of wearing a helmet while cycling. But new research suggests that the brain buckets aren't keeping us much safer—and one Olympian argues we should do away with them altogether. So what can we do to keep cyclists safe?

Helmet advocates have been dealing with a PR crisis ever since a new study questioning the lids' efficacy in preventing brain injuries received widespread attention this month. But it was Olympic gold medalist Chris Boardman's BBC morning show appearance that truly set people off. Why? He refused to wear a helmet while giving cycling safety tips.

Boardman defended himself, arguing on the BBC's Facebook page and later in an article on British Cycling.org that helmets "discourage people from riding a bike" and shift the attention away from what's most likely to kill a rider—a car. 

So is Boardman right? Yes, cars pose the greatest threat to riders (more on that later). But the science surrounding helmets is a bit murkier.

First up: the recent helmet study. Led by a trauma surgeon from the University of Arizona, Dr. Bellal Joseph, and published in the European Journal of Trauma and Emergency Surgery, the study reviewed 709 cyclists who came through Joseph's trauma center.

"Bicycle helmets protect against bruising and scratching," Joseph concluded from examining the cyclists, but not against intra-cranial bleeding—the bleeding inside the skull that ultimately causes brain injury and death. The non-helmeted cyclists in the study were more likely to have a skull fracture, but not any more likely to have intra-cranial hemorrhage than cyclists who crashed while wearing a helmet.

We're not telling you to stop wearing a helmet because of this study. Neither is helmet advocacy group, Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute. For every study questioning the efficacy of helmets, the group quotes statistics that seem to underline the "brain bucket's" importance in preventing death. But their most alarming stat, meant to advance the argument for helmets, might actually prove Boardman's point.

The main cause of bike deaths in New York City, BHSI points out, is crashes with cars. Ninety-two percent of fatal crashes last year involved cars. That's 12 out of 13 crashes, and it's what Boardman is protesting by refusing to wear a helmet. He didn't mention an opinion on the helmet's ability to protect cyclists when they fall—instead, he's on a helmet strike because he believes we shouldn't need them. If the streets were safer, 92 percent of fatal crashes wouldn't happen. 

"That is why I won't promote high vis and helmets," Boardman wrote on BritishCycling.org:

I won't let the debate be drawn onto a topic that isn't even in the top 10 things that will really keep people who want to cycle safe. I want cycling in the UK to be like it is in Utrecht or Copenhagen and more recently New York City—an everyday thing that people can do in everyday clothes whether you are eight or 80 years old.

He posted this video of people cycling everywhere in the Netherlands—in street clothes, without helmets—to bolster his point:

Of course, even in cycling meccas like the Netherlands, people still die in bike-car accidents. But the number of deaths relative to the total distance cycled is incredibly low. And while safe-cycling cities like Amsterdam and New York are still trying to improve their already impressive safety records, imposing helmet laws is not on the agenda. It's a move that backs Boardman's argument that having more cyclists on the road and better infrastructure will do far more to improve bicycle safety than telling the people who chose to ride to armor up.

That argument does have some science behind it. Several studies have shown that cyclists not only feel safer in protected bike lanes, they actually are safer. Since New York City installed more than 30 miles of protected bike lanes, a recent analysis concluded that total crashes with injuries were reduced by 17 percent. And that giant drop in injuries occurred as the number of cyclists in the protected lanes increased.

"Pushing helmets really kills cycling and bike-sharing in particular because it promotes a sense of danger that just isn't justified," Piet de Jong, a professor in the department of applied finance and actuarial studies at Macquarie University in Sydney, told the New York Times. De Jong, who grew up in Amsterdam, said of the Netherlands: "Nobody wears helmets, and bicycling is regarded as a completely normal, safe activity. You never hear that 'helmet saved my life' thing."

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