Thinking about helmets…



Thinking about helmets…

Sad news in the Providence Journal, yesterday, about a gentleman, father of two, who fell off his bicycle and died two days later of a brain hemorrhage.

I am always amazed – and saddened – that, while many parents enforce a helmet use policy for their children, they eschew them for their own use.  When I teach kids, I always ask who DOES NOT wear a helmet. Invariably 1/3 of the kids raise their hands.  When I ask them why, the universal answer is: “Because I am a great rider!”  I think that is a very honest statement and I think that a similar degree of confidence in ability may be why so many parents put them on their kids, but not on themselves.

But here’s the dirty little secret on being a great rider and wearing a helmet: the acorn under your tire, the squirrel chasing the acorn and the dog ~ walking the bike path on a retractable leash ~ who takes up chasing the squirrel can all cause you to fall and hit your head.  And they don’t care if you are Lance Armstrong, multiple Tour de France Champion or Mike Steidley, nine-times National Trials Champion and about the best bicycle handler you will ever meet.  Helmets are for situations you cannot control. Helmets are to reduce your chances of being injured in an accident. Helmets keep kids safe and parents in this dimension so they have a better chance of raising their kids.

Here is a graphic that shows the decrease in head injuries sustained in kids 15 and under in Swedish study as helmet use rose from 20% to 35%.  Imagine if everyone wore a helmet.

So please, kids, wear your helmets and make sure that your moms and dads do too!  It isn’t a sign of how good a rider they may be, it is a sign of how intelligent they are.

Download this Helmet Fit & Pre Ride Sheet on how to adjust a helmet to fit well.  Remember: helmet straps are made of nylon, which slides against itself, meaning that helmets require frequent re-adjustment.


  • Dennis
    Sep 15, 2011 at 8:22 am

    This is a sore topic for me.

    That helmet will protect your head, I agree, but it certainly isn't the first thing you should tell folks getting on a bike to do. No matter the age.

    I see so many cyclist that have a helmet on, but:

    1. Have it on backwards.

    2. Ride on the wrong side of the road.

    3. Ride on the sidewalk.

    4. Dodge in and out of parking spaces.

    5. Talk in the phone… while on the bike.

    6. Run red lights and stop signs.

    7. Hang their CVS bag on the handlebars.

    8. Ride on the road at night without lights.

    My point is that while that helmet might help we should teach folks a safer way to ride first. If you get creamed by RIPTA when you do something stupid I really don't think that helmet will do much to save your life.

  • Sep 15, 2011 at 9:39 am

    Agreed! Wholeheartedly! That's why we offer bicycling instruction for adults and kids over at

    What we do is more important than driver's education because, on a bike, you may become healthier, you may become more productive at work and/or get better grades (studies indicate both are likely) but you are exposed and mistakes can exact a higher cost than mistakes made in a "cage."

    That said, you MUST take every teaching moment available…and teach.

  • Sep 15, 2011 at 11:10 am

    As some likely know, I've spent many hours cranking up and down the EBBP. In that time, I've called the ambulance for two cyclists now who had squirrels try to dart through spokes in their front wheel… it does not end pretty for either the squirrel or the cyclists. Both were wearing helmets and both sustained significant impact marks on their heads from striking the pavement. However, both walked to the ambulance rather than being carried.

  • Bill Lewis
    Sep 19, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    This study is biased and uses discredited studies in it's meta-analysis. Not to mention that they discredit their own study in the discussion section by admitting that there is no proof that helmets prevent serious brain injuries.

    All a helmet is capable of doing is preventing non-life threatening injuries. Anyone who thinks otherwise is not very informed on the subject, or hasn't read the disclaimer on the manufacturer's package.

    The unfortunate death of Mr. Chopin in Warwick is sure to be touted as a reason to wear helmets when the real lesson is DON'T RIDE ON THE SIDEWALK.

    I have no problem with the requirement of helmets for children as they tend to fall when learning and the distance of thier head to the ground is well within the design limit. As a person of adult height falls the helmet impact exceeeds the parameters the helmet splits and fails. The regulatiion for helmets is only a stationary fall of six feet or an impact at 12 MPH. There is no protection from concussion as this is caused by the brain impacting with the inside of the skull due to rapid deceleration.

    We need to spend more time stopping the bad behaviours pointed out by Dennis than sweating helmet use by adults. Nothing gets me more mad than someone riding on the sidewalk or wrong way on the street.

  • Sep 20, 2011 at 7:07 am

    Interesting comments, Bill. And I wholeheartedly agree that real bicycling education is greatly needed. So much so that I founded a non-profit here in Rhode Island to do just that.

    I wonder though, the gentleman was riding down the sidewalk – likely to avoid a less savory route. He probably wasn't riding that fast. Perhaps he should have been walking his bike. He was not. It sounds like he had a low speed fall and hit his head. Would the shock attenuation provided by a helmet have reduced the force of impact at the contact point? Surely it would have. May he have survived? Perhaps. I would take his one life saved for wearing a helmet in lieu of chastising him for riding on the sidewalk. Wouldn't you?

    But, to your point about helmets being only for the slowly moving and low to the ground, I am sure that Jens Voigt disagrees

    I am sure that Ivan Basso disagrees

    I am sure that Davis Phinney disagrees

    For what it is worth, so do I.

  • Labann
    Sep 20, 2011 at 9:54 am

    ^So does Greg Lemond (I own/read his autobiography) and a lot of racers I know who've been saved from serious injury in accidents by them. My wife made it an absolute prerequisite, and she's the highest authority on the subject, one you can't ignore. One of the many differences between bikes and vehicles is that, on a bike, you WEAR your crumple zone and exterior shell; vehicles are cages that carry their exterior so you conveniently don't have to. Lately, though, as I infrequently drive, I feel NAKED doing so without gloves, helmet and safety glasses. But you don't have to legally do anything while riding; your survival is not mandatory.

  • Sep 20, 2011 at 9:59 am

    @ Labann,

    "…on a bike, you WEAR your crumple zone…"


    And I hear you about feeling naked sans gloves when driving. I also find that I have begun driving home from various locations via the same routes I use when riding.

  • Bill Lewis
    Sep 20, 2011 at 4:40 pm

    Ok let's look at Jens' crash, I guess this is the one from 2010 tour. If you watch his interview from his hospital bed you see most of his injury to his head is below his helmet meaning his face hit the deck, He also still suffered a concussion because as I said the helmet can't prevent your brain hitting your skull due to rapid deceleration. He may not have even hit his head if not for extra thickness of the helmet.

    Now Basso, he hit with his face and shoulder it's right in the article. But he did a nice shout out for one of his sponsors. Unless he was wearing a full face motorcycle helmet his lid was of no help at all.

    And Phinney? Please what a fail pal, auto glass is made to break on impact at a much lower force than a fatal injury. I know one personal friend who went through a rear window when he was a bike messenger in San Francisco without a helmet and at least one person from my reading on that also went into a window. Phinney cut his face, again a bicycle helmet didn't save him from injurys below the rim.

    Millions of people all over the world ride millions of miles every day without a piece of beer cooler foam with a thin plastic shell and don't die.

    Bicycle helmets serve to make cycling look dangerous to the average person, if we want to get more folks on bikes we would do better to make it look like a normal activity and not something that requires special equipment and expensive silly clothes.

    I have been carfree my whole life and never had a drivers license I ride everywhere in any weather on any road in Rhode Island that is legal.

  • Sep 21, 2011 at 5:03 am

    Here is a link that came through my inbox on this topic. The page comes from One Street, a group dedicated to increasing bicycle use. The research reports to have been done by the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation, never heard of them before. Anyways, here is the report:

  • Bill Lewis
    Sep 21, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    Hello Mark,

    I am well aware of the information in the report as I have spent considerable time in the bicycle safety and advocacy section of I have been in contact with many members who live in British Columbia, New Zealand and Australia. There has ben an ongoing set of threads for years on just helmet issues alone not to mention salmoning, ninjas. inadequate bike lanes and sidewalk riding.

    Every place where mandatory helmet use is tried bicycle usage goes down. Studies have shown that the health benifits of riding far outweigh any gain by wearing helmets.

    When the number of cyclists goes down we lose the safety in numbers effect, as cyclists become rarer drivers seem to notice us less.

    It's funny that helmet mania is almost exclusively in english speaking countries almost no one else in Europe, Asia or Africa has as many chicken little safety nannies as we anglos. And many millions ride in places with crazy traffic and mix it up with cars, trucks, busses and motorized rickshaws.

    We are the victims of Madison Avenue hysteria brought on by helmet sellers looking to profit on fear mongering. It seems the most vocal helmeteers on the forum are employees or owners of bike shops.

  • Sep 21, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    For those interested in this topic, here are a handful of other links that came about during the same discussion on the other listserv:

    Meyer Hillman's classic (1992) Cycle Helmets: The Case For and Against

    Michael Bluejay's What's Wrong with Bike Helmets

    Dr. Ian Walker's research into motorist behavior and bike helmets

    Not quite the same as the other researchy links posted above, but this one always comes back to me. Remember the story about Ryan Lipscomb getting his head run over by a panel truck? I've always wonder how much of his head was actually run over. It's hard to argue that the helmet didn't at least help though.

    Bottom line, I plan to continue wearing a helmet. I figure it can't hurt. I do so with full knowledge that in any serious accident with a car, it's going to do nothing almost nothing. I have had one personal accident where I was glad to have a helmet though. It was an early Spring ride and I came in contact with the very last traces of a triangle of sand in the middle of a Y intersection. My direction didn't have a stop sign, so I was probably traveling around 20mph at the time. The front tire slid… not a problem I held the slid and would have been fine… and then it caught, big problem. The fall was so fast that I didn't know what had happened until I was on the ground on the other side of the road. I definitely hit my head, split my helmet big time and bent up the top tube of my bike, from the handle bars hitting it, so badly that the frame was totaled. Would I have been okay without a helmet? Probably. Would I have been worse off without it? Probably. If nothing else, I probably would have ended up with some road rash on my head… for those who don't know me, I don't have a lot of spare hair 😉

  • Alan Barta
    Sep 22, 2011 at 6:49 am

    With yesterday's knifing on WSBP in West Warwick, I'm reminded of the time I was assaulted just above Sherman Avenue crossing. I was riding hard (~20 mph) with my helmeted head down when a gang wielding bats slammed me on bicep and head. The helmet was crack completely across but I wasn't knocked off bike. My entire bicep was black for 6 months, but head sustained no injury. Another time I fell off bike backwards, heavily clocked my helmet, and walked away unharmed. But anecdotes don't make facts or policy; lies, more lies and statistics do.