Helmets Wars – Missing the Point

A much recycled and repeated debate. This article is a usefully dispassionate take on it. Personally I wear a helmet when I perceive the risk of injury to be higher. This is either because I’m riding on road where pedestrians and people driving cars will do unpredictable things that I may not be able to avoid, or mountain biking when I’m out to ride fast and jump things. I often don’t wear a helmet off road (sometimes on the same trails) if I’m riding with different intent and more slowly.  On tour I very rarely wear a helmet unless required to by law.

Off The Beaten Path


In the U.S., most “responsible” cyclists wear helmets, yet when I cycle in Europe or Japan, I see many cyclotourists who ride without helmets. The Europeans or Japanese don’t seem like dare-devils or poorly informed. What is going on here? I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’ve concluded that helmets don’t matter all that much.

As an individual cyclist, safety comes from being able to control your bike and from being able to anticipate traffic’s often erroneous moves. On a societal level, safety comes from having so many cyclists on the road that cycling is normal and accepted.
A helmet is only the last line of defense when everything else fails.

What about the arguments in the “helmet wars”? Let’s look at them one by one:


1. Most cyclists who died didn’t wear helmets (used as proof that helmets save lives).

This analysis assumes that riders who wear helmets…

View original post 942 more words


  1. It’s a good article and I don’t have an issue with people not wearing helmets but I have smashed 2 helmets commuting to work. The first was when a non attentive driver drifted into my lane coming head on, I just avoided the head on collision but while I was corning hard to avoid the car I hit a puddle and the bike just washed out from under me. I cracked the side of my 1 week old helmet. The helmet prevented my head from hitting the pavement.

    The second time was going through an intersection and the Shimano singlespeed freewheel on my commuter skipped while I was standing to pedal. I hit the ground very hard and smashed the side of my helmet on that crash. I actually laid in the middle of a busy intersection for about 2 minutes before I could get to my feet and get off the road. The cars just drove around me, not a single one stopped.

    I didn’t have a concussion from either crash but I was rather surprised at how well both helmets (they were from Specialized) crushed to absorb the impact. The second crash was a trip to the ER and months of hip and back pain.

    Prior to these incidents I rode a bike for 20+ years without ever wearing a helmet, including a lot of jumping on my BMX bikes. I started wearing a helmet because my son asked me to, he has to (under 16 in MD is required) so I did. I think I’m pretty lucky considering the first crash happened only a week later.

    Would I have survived both crashes without a helmet, probably. But I’m pretty happy that in both cases I didn’t have to pick asphalt out of my head or deal with a concussion.

    • Jeff

      Commuting is definitely a time when I use a helmet – as I said above in relation to unpredictable pedestrians and people driving cars. Commuting often involves riding a very similar route repeatedly – and for me a potential lack of due care when others don’t ride it as efficiently as I’ve come to do. It’s a time when I’m often tired and mulling over the events of the day or anticipating the day to come, so all times when my attention may wander.

      On our Americas trip we only wore helmets on trafficked roads and entering/leaving cities. We didn’t really start out with that intention – it just worked out that way. I found my wide-brimmed hat much more practical, and Sarah wouldn’t have replaced the helmet that was stolen in Costa Rica if a new one hadn’t been given to her in Colombia.

      Due awareness of current and likely future movements of nearby road users pays the best dividends.

      I’m just not convinced that helmets by law (as they are where I live) are enough of a good thing to offset the people who don’t ride because they are forced to wear the helmet.

  2. Wearing a helmet is a personal choice and I don’t feel compelled to push my personal choices on other cyclists. I choose to wear a helmet. This choice comes from over 30 years of riding bikes for fitness, transportation, touring and even some racing.

    Over those 30+ years I have seen several examples of where crashes didn’t coincide with urban or aggressive type riding. Sometimes a crash can occur when you would least expect it. In fact this just happening to me a couple of months ago which left me with some broken ribs. A totally benign ride where I NEVER would’ve expected to hit ground. No one around, cruising alone on a non-technical dirt path and BOOM – I’m on the ground.

    I consider myself an above average bike handler with good situational awareness and yet I hit the ground hard with little warning on a seemingly safe little cruise 5 minutes from my house. I was glad to be wearing my helmet even though this could’ve been the perfect ride to choose not to.

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