On Wearing a Helmet — Duh!

Of all the bicycle related topics on the internet, none seem to generate more passion and zeal than the subject of helmets. In most places, the choice to wear a helmet or not is yours. Today we will enumerate the arguments for and against helmets so you can make an informed choice about their use…or just know how to wade into the fray.

Picture of a bike and helmet
It can be hard to appreciate the scenery with a debilitating brain injury…but helmet use is up to you. Photo by James Trosh.

Like most adults, I did not grow up wearing a helmet while riding and despite epic crashes, I turned out ok…mostly. So when I took up biking again about ten years ago, I was resistant to helmets and wore one only grudgingly to set a good example for my kids. The two helmets I have broken in the intervening years made me a fanatic about their use. But in the last year my stance has softened; I sometimes go helmetless if I’m running from my office to lunch or from my house to church.

As near as I can tell, the arguments against helmet wearing are:

  • “I find helmets to be uncomfortable”
  • “Helmets discourage cycling by making it look like a dangerous activity”
  • “Helmets lead to more risk taking and result in less deference from motorists”
  • “Helmets mess up my hair or my hair doesn’t fit under my helmet”
  • “Cyclists in Amsterdam don’t wear helmets”
  • “Helmets don’t do any good in a crash anyway, so why bother”
  • “I don’t want to and you can’t make me”

I won’t go into details on these arguments, but they are very well summed up at cyclehelmet.org.

Magic Helmet
With my speuw and magic hewmut.

The arguments for helmet wearing appear to be:

  • “A survey of the literature show that helmets do reduce injuries”
  • “Wearing a helmet is not onerous, you might as well”
  • “Putting something on your head protects it … duh!”

This last argument seems to dominate the thinking of the pro-helmet faction and explains why websites such as the one for the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute are fairly unsophisticated. If you have a position that seems obvious, why go to a lot of trouble defending it? (Click here for a good article from the New York Times defending helmet use.)

Should You Wear A Helmet?

I say yes; but don’t do it because I said so. You are an intentional commuter who looks at the choices and makes rational decisions…decisions that are subject to change with experience and circumstance.

My case: I moved from reluctance to fanaticism after one accident left a helmet broken in two, but my head unscathed and another accident (involving a chain link fence) left my helmet looking like it had met a cheese grater. This year, I began following the helmet debates and thinking rationally about risks and what I want.
I realized that my two big accidents had involved road debris — in the dark — smack in the middle of my commute. I had never had a problem in the neighborhood, or around my office, in the bright light of day. Heading out to lunch one day this summer, I didn’t take my helmet and the world didn’t end. Now that I’ve written this post, and thought about it some more, I’ll probably go back to wearing a helmet religiously.

All of this is subject to change.

Question: Why do or don’t you use a helmet? Enter you answer in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “On Wearing a Helmet — Duh!

  1. I wear a helmet virtually all the time I’m riding, but safety is sort of a secondary consideration.

    I like to look back the way I’ve come for all kinds of reasons. My main commuter bike is a recumbent, and looking back is very difficult without a rear-view mirror. A helmet mounted mirror is the best solution I’ve found.

    1. That’s a great reason to wear a helmet. After commuting for seven years without one, I asked Santa to bring me a helmet mirror, now I find my self trying to check it just when I’m walking!

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