Helmets: To Wear or Not To Wear?

Two approaches to riding a bike: helmeted and helmetless

At the risk of setting the internet on fire, this is an article about wearing helmets. We’ve seen a few articles lately that seem to have reignited this timeless debate, and thought we’d jump into the fray.

Before you get all fired up, know a few things

  • We believe in the studies that show helmets save lives, and always wear one when we ride
  • This author personally had his life saved, or at least avoided having to relearn the alphabet, by wearing a helmet
  • We haven’t always been stringent helmet wearers, and spent years going lidless (in fact the day I had my accident was almost a lucky chance, at the last minute I completely randomly decided to grab my helmet for my ride to the grocery store)
  • Ultimately the choice whether or not to wear one is up to you

Like politics, helmet wearing tends to be super divisive. The two most vocal camps (though maybe not the most numerous) tend to be:

  1. Helmets are totally unnecessary for the everyday cyclist, and just make cycling seem more unappealing
  2. Helmets offer critical protection, and should be mandatory for everyone.

But in the middle are a huge number of riders who just go out and ride their bikes, do what they do, and don’t really get too worked up about stuff like this.

But for the sake of argument, let’s break down the two opposing views:

 Anti-Helmet:

This mom and daughter in Hasselt, Belgium are just going about their business-- no helmets needed

This mom and daughter in Hasselt, Belgium are just going about their business– no helmets needed

This camp tends to be more the urban/transportation type of rider, who usually bikes at slower speeds, and in slower moving traffic. To these riders, the helmet is simply an impediment to getting people on bikes. There are some valid arguments to be made here, including studies that show that mandatory helmet laws decrease participation, which actually makes riding more dangerous since there are fewer bikes on the road. Others dislike them because they think it makes cycling seem excessively dangerous, or that they do little to prevent injury. These are also valid points—most cyclists will never need the protection a helmet provides, and in the event of an accident, there really is only so much a helmet can do.

Let’s look at some other positives here:

  • Your hair will always look fantastic (unless it’s windy)
  • It’s one less thing to worry about buying
  • Riding helmetless feels more relaxing
  • You won’t get as hot when you ride
Helmet or no, we kind of hope we look like this guy on a bike when we're older. Major steez, for sure

Helmet or no, we kind of hope we look like this guy on a bike when we’re older. Major steez.

Another point that is often cited is that helmet use is relatively uncommon in other industrialized countries, such as in Europe.

When we were in Belgium a few weeks ago, we saw countless people on bicycles in the city going about their commuting and errand-running business without helmets…similar to what we have seen when we’ve visited and ridden in Norway, Denmark, France and Italy (although in all those places we always noticed road and MTB riders wearing helmets). And before you get up in arms about better infrastructure, allow us to say that riding in a city in Europe, even ones with protected bike lanes, can often be more terrifying than riding along a divided highway in the U.S. The roads are tiny, the drivers are unpredictable, and the traffic patterns are utterly incomprehensible. If a car can fit somewhere, then that’s where that car is going—pedestrians, cyclists and legally-binding signage or not.

The point is that people choose to ride bikes, and don’t worry too much about the details.

Couple just out for a ride on a rare warm Belgian evening

Couple just out for a ride on a rare warm Belgian evening

Pro Helmet:

For many, wearing a helmet is a basic safety precaution

For many, wearing a helmet is a basic safety precaution

For others riders, the helmet is a necessary safety precaution, and one that they wouldn’t leave the house without, akin to wearing a seatbelt. Personally, this is the camp we fall into. We freely admit that if you’re struck by one ton of metal at 35mph, there’s only so much some foam and plastic can do, but that simple barrier can, and often does, mean the difference between a traumatic brain injury and a mild headache—as it did for us.

Study after study has shown that helmets can and do reduce the risk of both minor and serious head injury. Many take the view that there is little to be gained and much to be lost by not wearing a helmet. You only get one brain, and the brain is the only part of the body that can’t repair itself, so you better protect it.

Study after study has shown that helmets save lives and can prevent more serious injuries

Study after study has shown that helmets save lives and can prevent more serious injuries

The counter argument to the European philosophy is that you have to be realistic. We might all work toward and strive for that hopefully-near future when North American roads and politics will permit two-wheeled travel the way that some European cities do, but in the here-and-now that is simply not the case, and wishing will not make it so. Drivers here are inattentive, in many communities it’s still uncommon to see people using bicycles for transportation or recreation, and in many cities the roads were simply not designed for pedestrian or bicycle travel. Cycling on many American roads can be dangerous, and while you can’t live in fear, it’s best to take reasonable precautions.

Anecdotally, I was struck by a car in Chicago in a 25mph zone. While this might not seem fast, try riding 25mph on your bicycle and it sure seems fast enough. Even at that slow speed, with an oblique strike, it was powerful enough to throw me to the ground, break my collar bone in two places, fracture my scapula, and smash my helmet. At the ER I was told, verbatim, by the doctor holding my destroyed helmet: “if you hadn’t been wearing this, you would probably be upstairs in intensive care and we’d be calling your family”.

We won’t go so far as to advocate for mandatory helmet laws—at some point personal choice and personal responsibility become factors—but to us wearing a helmet is a smart personal choice.

Every year more and more styles of non-technical helmets become available

Every year more and more styles of non-technical helmets become available

So now that we’ve examined—at least in cursory detail—both sides of the argument, let’s hear your thoughts.

Eurobike Wrap-Up

We’ve finally recovered from the jetlag after Eurobike, the cycling industry’s biggest international trade show. A 3 day festival of anything and everything bike-related, Eurobike takes place every year near the idyllic shores of Lake Constance in the southwest corner of Germany. While the show is really too big to sum up in just a few paragraphs, we’ll hit a few highlights and trends below – before we head out to the biggest US cycling show, Interbike in Las Vegas.

The scenery around Eurobike is slightly different than at Interbike in Las Vegas.

The scenery around Eurobike is slightly different than at Interbike in Las Vegas.

1. 27.5″ (or 650B) wheels for mountain bikes are here to stay. This in-between wheel size (although it is closer in size to 26″ wheels than 29″ wheels) was on full display at Eurobike, with every major manufacturer offering a trail bike in this ‘tweener format. Mostly these bikes are being pitched as “all-mountain” or “enduro” bikes – but in reality that’s what most of us ride every day! We ride up, down and over whatever the trail throws at us, and want a bike that makes any trail more fun, so 27.5″ bikes should be a great fit. The continued rise of 27.5″ bikes also mean that more tires, wheels and suspension are also becoming available for upgrades later on. We’re especially excited about the new GT Force and Sensor bikes, and Joe Breeze’s very first full-suspension bike, the Breezer Repack.

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2. Hydraulic disc brakes for road/cyclocross bikes were also highly evident throughout the show. While we know that not everyone is going to be interested, many manufacturers have incorporated at least one road bike with hydraulic stoppers into their lineup, and definitely on a cyclocross bike if they have one. Both SRAM and Shimano offer hydraulic options on their newest high-end road components, and Campagnolo has partnered with Formula to offer a system. With the promise of increased braking power and consistency plus more freedom for the design of road bike wheels, it will be interesting to see how this trend develops over time.

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3. E-bikes, or electronic-pedal assist bikes, also had a huge presence in the halls of Eurobike. From city bikes to road bikes to full-suspension mountain bikes, manufacturers have jammed electric motors into just about any type of bike you can imagine. While e-bikes have not made inroads in the US so far, in Europe they already have a huge presence, even with costs of over $4,000 per bike (e-bikes account for 10% of all bike sales in Germany). We actually test-rode quite a few models of e-bikes at the show, including one rated at an assist level of up to 45km/h (or almost 30mph), and they are fun to ride, even if it does feel like you are cheating a bit.

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4. On the fashion front, Eurobike was awash in bright and highly visible colors, from safety orange, to brilliant blues, to fluorescents yellows and greens – although we noticed some camo patterns making a comeback as well. There were still plenty of traditional colors being used, but in our books these bright colors are good news – we’re in favor of anything that makes us more visible while we’re riding our bikes!

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5. Finally, Eurobike was exciting simply for it’s proliferation of creative and, sometimes, wacky ideas for bikes and gear. The energy and enthusiasm for anything bike-related was great to see – the world of people who love bikes and see great opportunities in this market is vast. Not all of these ideas might make it, but we love seeing what people dream up for the future of cycling.

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You can find all of our photos from Eurobike in a gallery on our Facebook page.

Wordless Wednesday

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