The Bike Safety Debate

December 02, 2010

In addition to enjoying good statistical analysis, I am also a wannabe cyclists. One of the rallying cries about bike safety is "Always wear a helmet." I admit, I hate wearing a helmet. I spent the first 25-or-so years of my life riding without one. I wear one now most of the time. If I am not riding in traffic, I prefer to not wear one—especially if I am just casually trail riding.

The question is: How much do helmets really protect you?

I started thinking about this after reading an article on about a wrongful death suit involving a motorist and cyclist. In this case, the motorist is countersuing the family of the cyclist on the grounds that the rider was not wearing a helmet. The author, Bob Mionske, points out that the driver does not stand much of chance, especially with his history of reckless driving, DUIs and the fact that he was going 83 mph in a 45 mph zone.

More importantly, he points out that Connecticut, where this accident occured, has a specific proviso on the helmet law stating that not wearing a helmet is not contributory negligence on the part of the cyclist. It is an important distinction once you dig a little deeper into what helmets can and cannot do.

According to Mionske, bike helmets are only rated for protection for low-speed impacts. The general benchmark is 14 mph. This means they might offer protection for crashes where the cyclist loses control and crashes or falls off the bike. However, they are not an effective measure of protection against cars traveling at the typical city speed limit (25-35 mph). In fact, some research suggests that helmets might actually contribute to the accidents they are protecting us from.

This seems counter-intuitive, I know. But aren't those the most interesting studies?

Anyway, I am not going to rehash all the pros and cons of helmets. (If you want to read some those you can find them here, here, here and here.) What interests me most on this topic is how illogical humans are.

First, there is the theory of risk compensation. Basically, it says if you introduce a measure to make something safer, people will adjust their behavior to make it more dangerous. Helmeted riders tend to take more chances and ride faster because of the feeling of being protected. On the other side, motorists are more likely to give a cyclist without a helmet more clearance when passing them than they do a cyclist wearing a helmet. This phenomenon exists in other areas where safety measures are introduced (ABS brakes being a good example).

Secondly, I am always amazed at how people see research and either accept it or reject it based on previous beliefs rather than on the quality of the conclusions. In this case, most of the pro-helmet talk is based on flawed studies and observations. Yet, we want to believe helmets make us safer, so we ignore the errors in methodology and anything that contradicts this belief. We ignore our own logic or rationalize the behavior.

Let me elaborate on that a little. We all know smoking cigarettes is bad. Study after study shows that smoking leads to an earlier death. As a result, we restrict the sales of cigarettes and encourage (harass) smokers to quit. No one would argue that logic. Now think of this. This summer, a study came out that said heavy drinkers live longer than nondrinkers. Extending the cigarette logic to this, people who do not drink alcohol are engaging in a behavior that is shortening their lives. Yet, I do not see anyone suggesting they are killing themselves by not drinking. Why not? It is a behavior that results in shortening one's life. Shouldn't we actively encourage people to drink and live longer?

Obviously, there are other complications with encouraging everyone to drink, but the point is we regularly ignore the evidence when it does not fit into our belief system, especially if it is well outside what we would call "conventional wisdom." The major issue in terms of bike safety is people too often ignore all the primary bike safety measures (signalling, traffic laws, lights, staying in bike lanes), because they incorrectly view the helmet as the most important protection.

The key here is people forget that the point of research is to discover the truth; it is not meant just to confim our beliefs. When we forget about that, we end up making decisions that only give the illusion of fixing a problem.

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Jeff Francis is a marketing geek who would never refer to himself as a guru. He is that weird sort who enjoys watching commercials and analyzing communication strategies. He is also available for hire and would love to hear from you. So, head on over to the contact page and get in touch.

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