Health & Fitness

Despite safety benefits, there’s no consensus on bike helmets

A cyclist makes the turn off the bike trail into Old Sacramento at the end of I Street near the Sacramento History Museum as the sun rises over California’s capital city.
A cyclist makes the turn off the bike trail into Old Sacramento at the end of I Street near the Sacramento History Museum as the sun rises over California’s capital city. Sacramento Bee file

It seems like such a no-brainer. You get out your bike to go for a ride and you put on your helmet, a highly engineered and carefully scrutinized piece of equipment designed to protect you from serious brain injury, even death.

Helmets are lighter, more comfortable, more versatile and more stylish than ever. If you come out to watch the Amgen Tour of California on Sunday, when the peloton of 100-plus riders will be speeding around Capitol Park at 30-plus mph, it goes without saying that all of the racers will be wearing helmets.

But helmet use at the recreational level does not enjoy that kind of consensus, something you’re bound to realize during May is Bike Month events, when thousands of local bike riders will be racking up close to 2 million miles commuting, touring, cruising, training and, in some cases, racing. For something that seems so obvious – helmets protect the brain in a fall or collision – it may surprise you that helmet use has been studied and studied again for decades.

Some studies suggest motorists give cyclists without helmets more room when they drive past. Other studies suggest we take more chances and perhaps ride more recklessly when wearing a helmet. And other studies seem to show that making helmet use mandatory would discourage many would-be bike riders from getting out there.

And then there are the people who just don’t think bike riding is all that dangerous of an activity. In 2014, 726 cyclists were killed in accidents in the United States, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Take Mel Melvin, who gave up driving altogether while in college, and these days uses his bike for everything from riding to work to going out to dinner. If you ask him, he’s neither reckless nor foolish. But he made the conscious decision to not wear a helmet, and he hasn’t looked back.

“I don’t wear a helmet because I don’t feel cycling is a dangerous enough activity to warrant wearing a helmet. I’ve been car-free for 28 years and I’ve never been hit by a car and I’ve never had an incident with a car,” said Melvin, who has a master’s degree in history and does environmental consulting.

Sometimes his helmet-free ways trigger unsolicited responses from friends, loved ones and even strangers, ranging from advice to outrage.

“People say I’m reckless or I’m completely disregarding my well-being by not wearing a helmet,” Melvin said. “I don’t discourage anyone from wearing a helmet. I just don’t believe it’s dangerous enough to do so. At times, I feel people are judging me that I don’t care about myself. I just feel it’s a rational decision. I’ve never seen any data that suggests that cycling is that dangerous that you need to be wearing a helmet.”

That’s not how Steven Maviglio sees it.

“Every time I see someone without a helmet, I think they’re risking their life,” said Maviglio, a longtime political consultant. “Accidents can happen anywhere, and the chances of surviving an accident are much better when you’re wearing a helmet.”

Maviglio points to a personal incident in which his helmet saved him: Riding on the bike trail a couple of years back, he crashed and landed on his head. The helmet absorbed the blow.

“Once a week, there’s something in the near-miss category where I have to think about my safety,” said Maviglio, who rides 3 miles to work, rain or shine.

Like Maviglio, many others wouldn’t consider going for a ride without a helmet, even if it’s a slow-paced excursion to the store or a cruise around the neighborhood. When we asked the question on Twitter, most responses were decidedly pro-helmet. A pediatrician weighed in. So did a neurologist. Parents said they wore helmets to set an example for their kids, who are legally required to wear a bike helmet up to age 17.

“Always. I cringe when I see others without them,” tweeted Susan Berg, a recreational cyclist who lives in Citrus Heights and is the mother of two teenagers, both of whom wear helmets.

In a follow-up interview, she said, “I can’t think of a situation where you wouldn’t be safer wearing a helmet. It would be like driving in a car on the freeway without wearing a seat belt.”

Berg’s position – how can it hurt? – is perhaps the most common argument in favor of bike helmets.

“We don’t need to do randomized controlled studies to know that parachutes save lives or that it’s a good idea to suture wounds and immobilize broken bones, and we shouldn’t need randomized controlled studies to know that helmets are protective,” wrote Harriet Hall on the website Science-Based Medicine. “The principles of physics and a little common sense tell us that helmets must provide some protection, even if the degree of that protection can be disputed.

“If you personally had the choice of hitting your head on the pavement with or without the protection of a helmet, which would you choose? It seems to me to be a no-brainer. (If nothing else, a helmet would prevent skin abrasions and contamination of wounds with dirt and gravel.)”

Despite occasional forays by politicians seeking to make helmets mandatory for all, California and most other places in the United States continue to leave it as a choice for adults. Part of the problem with the debate is that bicycle riding is such a varied activity and bikes range from lightweight racing machines to beach cruisers.

Those who use cycling for intense exercise – they ride fast and push themselves to their limits – tend to already wear helmets. Many organized, large-scale rides such as centuries (100 miles) make helmet use mandatory. Amateur and professional racers are also required to wear helmets by the governing bodies of the sport. On the American River bike trail, it is rare to see a serious road cyclist without a helmet.

When we look for answers abroad, the helmet question becomes even more complicated. In Denmark and the Netherlands, tens of thousands of people ride their bikes for transportation of all kinds. Americans who visit are often alarmed that almost no one wears a helmet and there seems to be no great helmet debate.

Are cyclists there safer because the cycling infracture is better? Because motorists are more considerate and aware? Because riding a bike is more ingrained in the culture? It’s probably a combination of those factors.

In the United States, cycling advocates point to Amsterdam and such cities, where folks ride their bikes and feel absolutely safe in doing so, as a bicycle riding utopia. In the Netherlands, a quarter of all trips are made by bicycle, according to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Dave Snyder, executive director of the California Bicycle Coalition, opposes mandatory legislation, in part because bike riding comes in so many forms. Per capita bicycling injuries have been dramatically reduced in recent years, in part because of more bike lanes and, as cycling increases in popularity, greater visibility of bikes around town.

His organization has gone on record in opposing mandatory helmet laws, pointing out that bicycling rates dropped or stagnated in Australia and New Zealand when laws were passed requiring cyclists to wear helmets.

“Thinking about bicycling in terms of risk alone is the wrong way to evaluate how risky it is,” the Californian Bicycle Coalition’s written position stated. “Yes, there is some risk in bicycling, and a helmet can reduce the risk for many collisions. But there is much greater risk in being sedentary.”

Snyder says there is also a great disparity between low-income and affluent neighborhoods when it comes to helmet use. He worries that a mandatory helmet law would unfairly punish the poor, many of whom use their bikes for getting to work. But he also thinks that most cyclists already make appropriate choices about their safety.

“It’s pretty clear that there is a kind of bicycle riding where you really should wear a helmet and it’s pretty clear there is a kind of bicycle riding where a helmet is not necessary, and all the rest of the riding falls in between,” he said. “I don’t think it’s practical or appropriate for the government to draw the line.”

For Maviglio, who always wears a helmet, he agrees that requiring helmets for everyone might have the wrong impact.

“The only thing that worries me about making it mandatory is it would probably discourage a lot of casual riders who don’t want to wear a helmet because of their hair or because they don’t want to get suited up.”

He paused for a moment before adding, “Personally, if I was in the Legislature I’d vote for it.”

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob