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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Bicycle Helmet Wars

Air Date: Week of

American children are trained to always wear bicycle helmets. The evidence showing their benefit in a crash is clear. But are there unintended consequences to helmet-wearing that may be causing harm? Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah pedals through the center of helmet wars.


GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. In our last show we pedaled National Bike Month and took an international turn in our conversation with Mikael Colville-Andersen. He's considered Denmark's bicycle ambassador. Biking is a way of life there and Colville-Andersen surprised us when he said bike ridership in Copenhagen, the capital, is actually going down. He blames advocates of bike helmets.

Kids, and adults, ride helmet-less in Amsterdam. (Photo: Scott Osberg)

COLVILLE-ANDERSEN: There's very few places in the world where there's a mandatory helmet laws, but the simple promotion of them - suggesting that people wear them - we've seen this in every region of the world where helmets have been promoted, that cycling levels fall. It really sort of is a bullet in the back of the head of any healthy bicycle culture.

GELLERMAN: Well, them's fightin' words for many bike riders here in America, who wouldn't be seen riding without a helmet. Still, when it comes to bike helmets, we're a nation divided: about half of us wear them, half don't. Both wearers and helmet swearers are armed with statistics and Living on Earth's Ike Sriskandarajah rode right into the middle of the debate of what's called the helmet war.

SRISKANDARAJAH: When I got my own first two-wheeler - a sweet Trek 850, it came with freedom, fun…and an annoying accessory, mandated…by Mom.

MOM: I would tell you to wear a helmet. You hated wearing that helmet…

SRISKANDARAJAH: So after my mom closed the door, I’d run around back and ditch the helmet under a bush. And that worked - until I got caught.

MOM: I saw that and I ran and grabbed and got the helmet, and I'm running behind you and yelling and screaming "Ike - stop!" But I don’t even know if you heard me because you had your earphones on!

SRISKANDARAJAH: Around that same time, in 1989, helmet advocates dialed up the volume.

KID: When you ride one of these [magical sounds], you should wear one of these [magical sounds]. Whoaa. Here’s why.

Kids use peer pressure to teach good helmet wearing.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Johnson and Johnson funded the Safe Kids Campaign and made bike helmets a national issue. It forced parents to consider some gruesome statistics: 91% of bicyclists killed weren’t wearing helmets; 1,000 kids land in the ER everyday with bike-injuries—helmets reduce the risk of brain damage by 85%.

KID: Brain injuries are not cool!

SECOND KID: So be smart, wear a helmet.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The numbers were jarring. And the push worked. Bike helmets became standard.

MOM: Yes, I hope so. And I really believe that you do wear a helmet - you’re a grown up now!

Now Ike wears his helmet. (Photo: Ben Ewen-Campen)

SRISKANDARAJAH: Since that time, helmets themselves have grown up quite a bit. The sleek, safe bike helmets today look pretty different from the primitive gear of the 1970’s.

SWART: We called them hairnets because they were strips of leather-covered foam and they looked kind of like a hairnet. And that’s about all the protection they gave you.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Randy Swart is a long-time rider and the director of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, which he runs out of his house in Arlington, Virginia.

SWART: When I asked experienced racers, "Are these helmets any good?" they said, "Well, they don’t do you any good at all on the impact, but as you slide across the pavement they keep your ears from being ground off."

When Randy Swart started racing in the 70's, these leather straps were affectionately called "hairnets." (Photo: Randy Swart/ BHSI)

SRISKANDARAJAH: He was involved in developing our national standard.

SWART: We were founded as the helmet committee of the Washington area Bicycle Association in '74 because there was no standard and there was all kind of junk on the market and you didn’t know what you were looking at. Then in 1999 the Consumer Product Safety Commission adopted a U.S. national standard.

SRISKANDARAJAH: That became the law for all helmets sold here. It specified how much of the head needed to be covered and the force the helmet could withstand. Today, no matter if you buy a $30 or a $300 helmet -

Bike helmets of all prices offer the same standard of protection. This $2000 fur covered Prada helmet is no safer than one in your garage. (Photo: FlickrCC/ mpieracci)

SWART: We found that the cheap ones performed exactly the same as the expensive ones. The lab was amazed. I was amazed.

SRISKANDARAJAH: After the PR push and the new uniform standards, the campaign found global endorsement with the tragic death of professional cyclist, Andrei Kivilev. The Union Cycliste Internationale oversees the biggest cycling competitions. Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Mario Zorzoli:

The death of Kazak cyclist Andrei Kivilev shocked the professional cycling world. (Photo: Wikimedia)

ZORZOLI: After the death of this cyclist everyone was highly concerned about the risk while not wearing helmets. This had been a problem already in the past, but finally UCI decided in 2003 we had to impose the wearing of helmets even at the professional level.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Earlier efforts had been defeated by riders; citing drag, discomfort and personal choice. But in the wake of this tragedy, the rule stuck, and 1,200 of the world’s most famous and admired bicycle athletes had to comply if they wanted to compete. But would this rule have saved Kivilev?

ZORZOLI: If the speed, and therefore the force of the impact is too elevated, then even such a protection as this may not be enough to save a life.

SRISKANDARAJAH: On a downhill, pros can reach 65 mph. Randy Swart, with the Director of the Helmet Safety Institute will tell you, with a head-on collision at that speed, even helmets have limits.

SWART: Yeah, you can say for certain it will help. You can’t say for certain that it will save you.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Most of us will never reach bike speeds that high. But a study published in the June issue of the American Journal of Public Health confirmed that wearing helmets makes regular cyclists ride a little faster then when they aren’t wearing one.

(Photo: Scott Osberg)

OSBERG: It's called risk compensation or risk homeostasis and it's pretty controversial.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Scott Osberg is a traffic safety researcher.

OSBERG: You know I personally think there’s something to it. Especially children may feel they are safer so they can take all kinds of risks that they wouldn't take if they were not wearing a helmet.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Osberg wrote a paper, 15 years ago, that compared bicycle safety in helmet-prone Boston to helmet-averse Amsterdam—and found the death rates in the Netherlands to be significantly lower. He credited Amsterdam’s pro-cycling culture as one of the main factors: there’s safety in numbers.

OSBERG: I really believe there’s a theory that there’s a critical mass of bicyclists that, once you get up to that point, car drivers become more aware, they expect to see bicyclists and they drive more carefully. For instance, when I bicycle over in Amsterdam I feel perfectly comfortable not wearing a helmet. Whereas in Washington, DC, I would never want to do that.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Another study, funded by England’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council - shows that cars are twice as likely to drive close to a helmeted biker than a non-helmeted one. The English researcher running the study was actually hit twice while gathering his data. Both times he was wearing his helmet.

We asked Easton-Bell Helmets - the largest manufacturer of bicycle helmets - to weigh in, but they refused to comment. So… if Osberg and Swart could change one thing to make bikers safer:

OSBERG: Probably the infrastructure is the single most important thing in my mind.

SWART: Well, the obvious answer if you’re the Director of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute is going to be helmets.

SRISKANDARAJAH: In an accident, you want to have your helmet on. But in terms of preventing accidents - the helmet might have a mind of its own. For Living on Earth I’m Ike Sriskandarajah.



The History of Bicycle Helmets By Randy Swart, Director of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute

Scott Osberg’s Research on Bicycle Use and Safety In Paris, Boston, and Amsterdam

Questioning the value of bike helmets

Traffic Safety Facts 2009

Cars drive closer to bicyclists wearing helmets

Men bike faster when wearing a helmet

Pedalcyclist Fatalities in Motor Vehicle Traffic Crashes by Year, State, and Helmet Use


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