Bikers you see on the street that wear helmets look like they're overdoing it.
Cruising in the comfort of a bike lane seems like the immaculate image of safety. This is especially true if you've ever witnessed kids and young adults vigorously riding BMXs down the park or any random open space. They practice risky tricks wearing just their bike caps, rugged jeans, and long-sleeve button-downs. So, seeing these adults coasting on the safety of a flat concrete with a helmet on makes you think, “Is our concept of safety out of place?”
That's what brought you to this article. You want to know what's the deal behind wearing a mountain or a road bike helmet even in a safe environment. Moreover, you want to know if you should wear one on the streets yourself. If not in the streets, then where? To answer these questions let’s look at the backstory that polarized bike rider’s opinions about safety and wearing helmets.
The Helmet Debate: The Issue of Wearing Bike Helmets
Riding a bike without a helmet on can cost a lot. If you're an avid bike enthusiast who's been enjoying the cool breeze running through your hair without paying for it, you're lucky. But there are bikers out there that may not experience that feeling again. In economic terms, doing so may cost them as much as $260 and an infraction.
Before we tackle bicycle helmets, it's important to discuss the issues surrounding one. You may be here either because you want one or you need one. Whatever the case may be, seeing the bigger picture will help guide your purchasing decisions.
The issue has a clear starting point, and it starts with a law.
In the 1990s, Australia implemented the mandatory wearing of helmets when riding bicycles on the road in an attempt to keep cyclists safe from road accidents. To the lawmakers, wearing a helmet is comparable to wearing a seatbelt while driving.
This created a debate between those who are in favor of wearing helmets and those who are not. Surprisingly, the ones who are not in favor of wearing helmets are bike enthusiasts.
The debate is focused on the question of whether the mandatory wearing of bike helmets is necessary to prevent accidents while riding a bike on the road. The bike riding community thinks otherwise.
As mandatory helmet laws sprout from other countries, more and more cyclists question the idea of equating helmets for road safety. Research has been done and data has been collected, and it seems to be siding with the bikers.
On the subject of head injuries, a study conducted in Canadian provinces involving hospital admission for cycling-related head injuries yielded a conclusion that the decreasing rate between the years 1994 and 2008 is consistent for both provinces with and without mandatory helmet laws.
That problem lies in the perception of solving road cycling safety problems. Helmets are seen as a panacea, at least for those who are outside of the biking community. But for those who pedal two-wheeled vehicles, a helmet only addresses one thing: preventing head injuries. It can't protect them from reckless drivers and other potential risks on the road. The helmet only protects them after the accident has happened, which isn't much of road safety. To make the argument stronger, helmets actually increase risks and promote danger rather than prevent it.
Helmet use increases fatalities. In a 2016 study conducted in the United States, comparative data shows that increased wearing of helmets among riders correlates to the increased fatalities per billion kilometres cycled. This draws a comparison with the Netherlands that has only a few riders wearing helmets. The country also has the lowest fatalities per billion kilometres cycled.
Another study affirms this increased fatality and helmet wearing correlation. It's called risk compensation. The more cyclists feel protected, the more they think they can subject themselves to danger because an object such as a biking helmet can "compensate" for the safety and risk gap. So they tend to ride faster, take more risky turns and jumps, or become less mindful about other vehicles.
On the other hand, the mandatory wearing of helmets can also lead to decreased enthusiasm of bike riders to do the activity. The monetary penalties and the unnecessary interaction with law enforcement are dominant factors that can dissuade riders and would-be riders from going out for a ride.
The decreased enthusiasm results in the decreased number of bikers on the road, exacerbating danger in the sense that fewer bikers on the road mean they are more vulnerable to road hazards. It also doesn't help build a perception of a strong bike culture, which people actually need to realize that it takes more than just a helmet to keep road bikers safe.
Helmets have been in the center of focus for legislators when it comes to rider safety. But this is a band-aid solution. According to Chris Boardman, a former Olympic champion, bike helmets only distract us from the real issues surrounding the safety of bikers.
The fact is, it takes more than just a helmet to ensure safety not just of the biker's heads but of the biker and their vehicle. It takes infrastructure changes, encouragement, and even business.
The Netherlands has made it possible to pedal around without a helmet on. They have well-established infrastructure that involves bike paths, signs, and signals that are integrated with their roads. They encourage and even support the young in learning how to ride a bike. They have a dedicated space for bike renting and parking. All this takes work that should involve the community, the government, and businesses.
Helmets are not the all-encompassing solution to road safety, but it is definitely effective safety equipment for your head. Case-control studies found that bike helmets reduce the risk of head and brain injuries by 63–88%. That's a huge difference between being able to function properly and being incapacitated because of severe head trauma.
Your head is a very important part of your body. Unfortunately, your head is also at the most risk when you fall off a bike because of an accident. So we're not saying you shouldn't wear one. If there's one thing that you can take away from the bike helmet debate, it's that you should be able to have a choice when it comes to your safety. That choice entails a personal responsibility to assess the risks, and choosing the course of action that would maximize your safety.
Whichever state you live in, whether that state imposes a mandatory helmet law or not, you have a choice. You can choose to obey the laws laid out with good intentions and wear a helmet every time you go out. You can choose to enjoy wearing one by purchasing a stylish one that also provides maximum protection. You can also choose otherwise.
If there are no mandatory helmet laws where you live, you can choose to exercise your freedom to ride without a helmet on. But you can also choose to keep at least one with you to use whenever you assess a risky road situation. It wouldn't hurt to put on a helmet, just as long as you're safe.
Whether you choose to wear a helmet or not, we ask you to get one anyway.
The Non-Negotiable: When You Should Definitely Wear a Helmet
If you're engaging in off-road mountain biking disciplines, wear a helmet. The risks involved in cruising down the city street and braving the mountain trails are miles apart. While you're relatively safe on the road as long as you stay in your lane, it's different when you're in the mountains, alone, and dashing downward on a complicated course filled with bumps and corners.
One of the risk factors that dominate mountain biking is rider error—the number is at 70%. These errors can occur when you're practicing on a trail and getting acclimated to the obstacles it offers. Injuries happen when you miscalculate a curve or a jump or if you don’t notice a sharp bump that topples your bike and leaves your face planted on the rough and dirty mountain ground.
Head trauma is one of the leading injuries that result from rider error. Alongside it, facial trauma and fractures to the forearms, hands, and shoulders.
The rate of rider error and the possibilities of severe injuries are very likely. This result makes wearing a helmet a non-negotiable. So, if you're engaged in any mountain bike discipline, you must have a helmet.
Imagine your head as a non-glass container, and inside it is jelly. If you throw the container towards a concrete wall and open it, the container will have some surface dents and damages, and jelly will most likely be torn out of shape. That's how the head and severe brain injury could be if you hit your head on the ground while you're riding full speed on the road or full tilt on a mountain descent.
Now, consider wrapping that container with a sponge and then applying a plaster cast all around it. When you throw towards the wall with the same force as you did without the additions, the plaster cast will break, but the sponge will remain intact because it's soft and flexible. Most importantly, the container will have no surface damages, and the jelly will remain intact.
That's how a bicycle helmet protects your head and brain. It keeps your skull from fractures and your brain from being severely shaken up or damaged, which can lead to serious conditions.
A bike helmet's protective capabilities is a combination of two materials:
Outer shell - This hard outer surface is often made of Kevlar and fibreglass materials that provide maximum protection but remain lightweight. It also absorbs the impact and distributes the force on the entire surface area of the shell.
Inner liner - The inner liner is composed of a foam-like substance called expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam. A high-density, impact-absorbing foam that acts as a cushion to your head and gives it the wiggle room it needs when your head takes a hit.
The perfect helmet fit involves a couple of things. Gender, age, and bike discipline are the popular factors. Preferences like style and comfort also have to be accounted for. So what comes into play when choosing the helmet that's right for you? Here's what you need to know.
Women's bike helmets and men's bike helmets virtually have no distinction in terms of function. Manufacturers just tend to produce a helmet with smaller size measurements for women as opposed to men. While style and design are subjective, some bicycle helmets are marketed towards women or men. But either helmet can be worn by either gender.
On the other hand, many women and some men have to account for things like whether they have to tuck in long hair inside a helmet as well. In that case, they should browse through the men's section for bigger helmets.
Kids who are younger have specific helmet sizes. The style and design is also different, and the color schemes often appeal to kids who are more on the playful side.
Your bike discipline will dictate your choice of a helmet. Certain weight, ventilation, and degree of protection should go into a particular helmet, depending on your discipline. Here are some of the things to keep in mind.
Commuter/Cruise - Go for something light and solid. Particularly an open helmet that covers the entirety of your skull. Ventilation is unnecessary as you will only be riding at slow to moderate speed, and you won't sweat much.
Road - The best road bike helmetis lighter than other types. The ones that look like a cap with a lot of vents are ideal. This is because roadies want to reduce as much weight on them so they can go faster without compromising protection.
Trail/Enduro - These types of helmets tend to look like cruiser helmets but with ventilation holes around them. Enduro helmets have chin guards, while the trail ones don’t have any.
Downhill - The downhill helmet offers the full range of protection. It looks like a motorcycle helmet, and it has a full chin guard and a visor. It also has a lot of interior cushions. As a result, this helmet weighs more.
The general rule for selecting your bike helmet is that it has to snugly fit your head. There should be no wiggle room inside when you fit one, yet it should also be not too tight. The idea is to not allow any space that could cause head movement on impact because it reduces the absorbing power of the foam lining and the outer shell.
Helmet Inspection, Maintenance, and Care
Your helmet is as important as your other biking gears and accessories. Thus it should always be in good condition, before and after you buy it. A damaged helmet must be replaced with a new one. A helmet that hasn't tasted concrete or dirt yet should be given proper care. Here's what you need to do.
Before you purchase a helmet, you must inspect it for cracks, scratches, or damage. If you spot any cracks, you can try to bend the helmet apart to check if the crack opens up. This will give you an idea of the severity of the crack. Try not to bend the helmet too hard, though. You might end up completely breaking the thing and buying it anyway. Look for cracks on both the shell and the inner lining.
If the helmet you're trying to buy has a closed chin, it would be hard, if not impossible, to bend. Instead, try running your fingers on the crack or scratch you find and press it. If it sinks down, you'll need to get new stock. This inspection method stays the same in instances where your helmet takes a hit after a ride.
Helmet maintenance is integral to its longevity. You want to make sure that your helmet is functioning at its best, no matter the frequency of use. Here are some things you can do to make sure it's in its top condition.
Store it properly.
You'll want to store your helmet somewhere that isn’t exposed to direct sunlight or moisture. The heat from the sun can cause the shell's coating to fade. Moisture can creep into the foam lining and it may develop moulds, leading to bad odour or even aspergillosis.
Store your helmet in an indoor setup with proper air ventilation and light. Hang it on a wall or put it on top of a table.
Don't expose it to chemicals and substances.
Keep your helmet away from chemicals like bleach or industrial detergents as these can damage the EPS lining in the interior. Similarly, exposing it to substances such as degreasers or bike lubricants can also damage the inside and outside section of your helmet.
Don't use it if it's damaged. Replace it.
It seems impractical to ditch a helmet with just a small dent or crack. But like what you have learned from the inspection phase, this should not be tolerated. A helmet's impact absorption decreases even with just a small dent. Recall the helmet's ability to spread out the impact, and this will make sense. If one or several areas of your helmet has tiny dents, it will not function as well as it should.
Cleaning your helmet shouldn't be complicated. It should only involve water and mild soap. For lighter cleaning, you can soak it in liquid and brush it lightly. But if you want a more intense cleaning that involves removing odours, it's best to soak the helmet for several hours before brushing it. Rinse and repeat if the dirt or odour is still present.
The debate about whether a helmet should be mandatory almost borders on the philosophical. Certain external forces interact with your choices that come into play. But the only constant truth remains unavoidable—safety is important.
Amidst the complexities of bike laws, hefty penalties, and personal values and risk tolerances, the safest choice is to get a helmet and then ponder the choice of wearing it or leaving it at home as the situation arises. So, whether you want to wear one or not, just remember: it's always okay to get a bike helmet.