(MAPLE XXVI) Protect your head!

This is all about the Scores that I kept track of last week.  As a reminder, those Scores were the following: 12-23, 22-55, 80-69, 6-69, 12-7, 11-21, and 2-2.  What each of those represent are, by day, the number of cyclists that I observed wearing helmets and not wearing helmets.  This corresponds to a non-scientific percentage of 37% of the riders that I saw wearing helmets.

Granted, most of my biking that week was done on the Northwestern campus, and there seems to be an air of invincibility among college students on bikes.  Granted, when riding on the sidewalk, the velocity is a lot less than if you are riding on the road, but even if that is the case, you can still cause havoc to yourself and others by crashing at slower speeds.

This post will be based partially off my own experience, and also some posts from The Chainlink, a Chicago cyclists’ online forum.  The discussion is linked (pun not intended) to this blue (or purple?) text.  There are some compelling arguments in either direction, and I would like to respond to some of them.

A helmet-wearer said that he would prefer not to, and offers this quote: “I think that is just natural to not want to have some hunk of plastic on your head weighing you down while you’re gliding freely down the street.  Helmets are often clunky and feel restricting, make your head hot, cost money, and can look dorky.”  The “look dorky” part is one thing that reminds me of a public service announcement encouraging the use of helmets: refuting the argument that helmets make one look uncool, because “being alive is much cooler than being dead.”  Furthermore, helmets cost money, but as I will mention later in my post, a helmet is an insurance policy.  And actually, just like wearing a hat, you are preventing heat concentration on your head by wearing a helmet when it is hot.

Another non-helmet wearer claimed, “A Dutch friend of mine said that the Dutch almost never wear helmets, and that got me thinking about why I do.  I ride slow (12mph), and generally I can avoid crashes.  If you look at the leading causes of head injury, falls and automobile accidents top the list.  Should I wear a helmet whenever I’m in a car or whenever I’m walking around?  Surely that would be safer, but I’m not about to do that.”  I have two responses to this.  The most important thing is that in Europe, biking is seen as more mainstream than in Chicago, so it is an unfair comparison.  I don’t know much about the culture of preventative measures in other countries, so I won’t even attempt to compare them.  Additionally, the “riding slow and generally avoiding crashes” is not an excuse.  Twelve miles per hour is still a pretty good clip (three to four times a normal walking speed), and if a crash does happen, it would be difficult to react to it, even at 12mph.  As another poster put it, [hyperbolic-sine-integral-with-argument-of-time] happens.

Here’s an argument with both sides of the coin: one poster said that some cyclists, wearing helmets, believe they may ride more dangerously, but helmets fail to give any measurable protective benefit.  That is a problem with any sort of  safety mechanism.  Just take a look at football helmets and how they are improperly used!  The idea is that the more perceived protection you have, the more reckless you can be, and that is NOT a sound judgment.  Taking more risk than needed defeats the purpose of having the safety items in the first place, because they don’t mitigate non-defensive behavior.

Although I agree with another poster who claimed that awareness, luck, and maintenance are more important than helmet use to keep you safe, I would argue that bad “luck” can be a mitigator for all the rest of the factors, including helmet use.  But at the same time, when a bad-luck situation (like hitting a pothole or having a non-defensive driver hit you or having your tire suddenly blow out) occurs, if you go flying, the helmet will reduce the impact time that your head takes, and it can be a huge difference between a minor concussion and something major.  Even if non-helmet wearers go flying and try to not have their head hit, the crash happens so fast that instincts may not take over.

Some of these probably appeared to be somewhat preachy.  I am not attempting to convert any non-helmet wearers to wear helmets, but I think that at least some anecdotal evidence may be convincing.  Let me add a few of my arguments for helmets.

Sometimes when riding, I see parents riding with their younger kids.  I don’t know what is more disturbing: the cases when the kids are riding with helmets and the parents not using helmets, or the case when the parents use helmets and the kids don’t.  Honestly, both are problematic: the former is the parent setting a poor example for the kids. Even if it is perfectly legal to not wear a bike helmet, you can’t cheat the laws of physics.  When I learnt to bike, Mom and Dad insisted that we wear helmets, and I never questioned it.  Sometimes I wonder if helmet use at a young age is a good predictor of those who will wear a helmet when older?

Most modes of transportation have methods of safety restraint.  Cars and airplanes have seat belts, and cars also have air bags.  Public buses and trains frequently do not, though!  The reason I bring this up is because on the Wednesday (that was the 80-69 score), I biked toward the Lakefront Trail and saw a “Click It Or Ticket” checkpoint that I rode past.  Wearing a helmet on bike is the analogue of wearing a seat belt in a car.  Honestly, if I would have passed that checkpoint and were not wearing a helmet, I would have turned myself in to be ticketed!  Unfortunately, it is LEGAL to fail to wear a helmet in Illinois, regardless of age, so I would have been laughed off.  But safety is no laughing matter!  Yes, cyclists not wearing helmets are not under the gun of politicians’ laws.  But they are certainly under the gun of Newton’s laws!

Although a helmet cannot protect against all head impacts, a single impact makes it all worth it.  One of the posters on the Chainlink forum said, “It took almost 2 years of commuting in Chicago before wearing a helmet saved me from serious injury.  A broken finger and shattered helmet seems like getting off easy though.”  AMEN to that!  For me, when I got hit by the car on November 22, a totalled bike, a shoulder injury, and a cracked helmet were what I sustained.  I got off VERY easy.

Another post summed it up very well: “For me, wearing a helmet is an insurance policy against all the random variables I can’t account for in my ride…potholes, car doors, absent minded peds, etc. I have and will heal again from bumps and bruises but will likely not recover well, if at all, from a serious head injury if not protecting my brain.”  Absolutely.  Bumps and bruises on other parts of the body from falls and crashes should easily heal with time, but the brain is something that does not recover as easily.  I am much more concerned about concussions and brain damage than I am about broken bones.  The brain is the most important part of the body to protect!

With that, I close my response to bike helmets.  As a few Chainlinkers said, “I don’t care if you’re not wearing a helmet, but you won’t see me without one.”  Though I may have taken a proselytizing tone in my arguments, I will say that the choice to wear a helmet or not is up to you.  But, if you get hit by a car while biking, or wipe out on bad terrain, or run into another biker while drafting, or get doored, what is your insurance policy for your most important organ?

Today’s counts and nugget:

Today is the 24th day of MAPLE.

היום שבעה וארבעים יום, שהם שישה שבועות וחמישה ימים לעמר

In every bad news, there is good news.

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