To Helmet or Not To Helmet

I was interviewed yesterday by Grand Rapids Press reporter Jim Harger about whether or not Grand Rapids should pass a mandatory bicycle helmet law requiring ALL bicyclists to wear helmets. I said I would not support this ordinance. (Edit: Here is the article. It turns out that Mr. Harger did not choose to quote me.)

Unknown to many, helmets can be a hot, controversial topic in the bicycling community.

Ken Kifer, a cycling advocate who was tragically killed by a drunk driver in 2003, lays out some of the main arguments for helmet use:

1) Bicycling accidents are frequent and unavoidable, and head injuries and death are likely to result from these accidents.

2) Many cyclists have attested that a helmet saved their lives and even have battered or broken helmets to prove it.

3) Scientific evaluations have been made of helmets which ensure that they will protect the head against almost all injures.

4) Researchers have determined that up to 88% of head injuries or deaths could be avoided by wearing a helmet. A drop in the number of cyclists killed each year is further proof that bicycle helmets work.

5) Any protection is better than none, there is no handicap involved in wearing a helmet, and no advantage comes from not wearing one. Statistics show that when bike riders are given a free choice of whether to wear helmets or not that most of them don’t.

He continues on with the reasons he does not believe those arguments are valid. See his article here.

There are many other sites opposing mandatory helmet laws as well, including the
League of Bicycling Voters, an Austin, TX group that formed to oppose a proposed mandatory helmet law in that city.

The bicycle helmet debate has extremely passionate and convincing advocates on both sides. There are two main websites that will be referenced by each side.
The pro-helmet side: Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute
The helmet skeptics: Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation

Each is packed with data and scientific studies that supposedly back up their point of view.

Who is right? As with many complex issues there is not a clear-cut answer.

A bicycle helmet is a tool for bicycle safety and can clearly help prevent some types of injuries in low-speed crashes. This is why I wear one nearly every time I ride a bicycle, and I encourage others to do so as well. However, it may be of little help in many bicycle/motor vehicle accidents that happen at higher speeds, which are the ones that typically result in serious injury and death.

Crash prevention is the best way to avoid these situations. We need widespread education of both drivers and cyclists on the causes of car/bike collisions and how to avoid them. We need “Complete Streets” that safely accommodate all road users. We will have to work together with local governments, educational institutions, and the bicycling community to implement these changes and others.

Doing these things will be a lot harder than passing a mandatory helmet ordinance, but it will be more effective in encouraging people to get out and ride, continuing to build a bicycle culture in Grand Rapids, and making our city a Bicycle Friendly Community.