Are bike helmets sending the ‘wrong message?’

     Russell Meddin argues that wearing a helmet makes it seem like biking is dangerous. He says fewer bikers on the road make biking less safe. (Taunya English/WHYY)

    Russell Meddin argues that wearing a helmet makes it seem like biking is dangerous. He says fewer bikers on the road make biking less safe. (Taunya English/WHYY)

    Read the science on safety and bike helmets, and it can be confusing. Ask the experts, and they don’t agree.

    Look around to see if most bike riders have headgear on — and it kind of depends on what city and country you’re in.

    Some of the newest evidence — from investigators in Canada — suggests that at a population level, mandatory bike helmet laws do not improve safety.

    But just a few years ago, other health researchers said the opposite: helmet laws do reduce head injuries.

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    To take a measure of the long-standing debate, consider Australia. Roughly 20 years ago, that was the first country to have a universal mandatory bike helmet law, but this year, lawmakers are reviewing a string of so-called “nanny state” regulations that some people say get in the way of personal freedom. The bike helmet rule is on the list.

    “If you’re a NASCAR or a Formula One driver, yeah, you should be wearing a helmet. If you’re a pro-cycle racer, yeah, you should be wearing a helmet,” said Russell Meddin said. For a leisurely lunchtime ride — at low speeds, there’s no need, he said.

    “Helmets give the wrong message,” said Russell Meddin from Bike Share Philadelphia.

    He says when you see someone in a helmet, automatically you think what they’re doing is dangerous.

    Meddin believes the statistics that say that you’re more likely to get hurt slipping in the bathtub or falling from a ladder.

    During our ride around Center City Philadelphia, he did not wear a helmet. Meddin had on his regular work clothes: slacks, a maroon tie and a sports coat with a bike-shaped lapel pin. No spandex or special gear.

    Wear a helmet if you want, but Meddin says mandatory helmet laws discourage biking, and when there are fewer cyclists on the road, those roads are less safe. He wants to get more people up on bikes and to design cities so it is comfortable to ride.

    “I don’t bike without a helmet,” said Sarah Whites-Koditschek, a public-radio host in Little Rock, Arkansas.

    She’s a long-time city biker, who says accidents happen. Hers happened in Philadelphia.

    “So I was biking up to intersection in the bike lane and a guy just suddenly opened his door, so quickly I didn’t have time to break, and my bike slammed into the door,” Whites-Koditschek said.

    She and her bike went up and over the door.

    “I texted my boss [saying that] I’ve been in an accident, I’m going to be a few minutes late,” she said.

    Whites-Koditschek arrived at her morning meeting with a little blood on her face — a strained jaw, and years later, she still has a small scar on her chin. She doesn’t think her helmet hit the ground, and it probably didn’t matter much that day, but she wears headgear anyway.

    Randy Swart, director of the nonprofit Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, says what we know for sure is that helmets help in the crashes that are very common among cyclists.

    “If you are wearing a helmet and you crash—with no car involved–you are very unlikely to die. If you get hit by a car, you’re flying through the air at who knows what speed, and after that, things are bad,” Swart says that’s the personal experience of the bike riders that he knows.

    The institute, which does not accept money from helmet makers, encourages riders to wear a helmet but says he gets the sense that many Millennials were overprotected as kids, and now, as adults they want to manage their own risks.

    At the Franklin Institute’s SportsZone exhibit in Philadelphia, a whole wall is dedicated to helmets. At one station, kids push a button, then watch as a baton slams into a mannequin’s head.

    When a friend pats you on the back, that’s about 4 Gs of force. When a dog runs out in the street—and you go down on a bike, that could be 40 Gs whacking into one spot on your head, said Frederic Bertley, Senior Vice President of Science and Education.

    But snap on a helmet and the plastic lid dissipates that impact.

    Bertley says bike helmets have to be thrown away after a big hit — or even after you drop it on the floor hard.

    As the helmet takes the impact, Bertley says the chemical structure of the inside layer of foam changes, the cross-linked molecules can never absorb energy in the same way again.

    “It just takes one unfortunate incident to give you a traumatic experience,” Bertley said. “Of the 900 deaths — bicycle accidents in this country — about 60 percent of them are specifically due to head injury.”

    So if you are going to buy a helmet, what should you buy? The elongated helmet that Greg LeMond wore in the ’80s on the Tour de France is kind of passé. Today, everyday headgear is more round.

    The helmet-safety institute says that bowling-ball look lets the head slide when it hits the ground. A helmet with lots of angles may catch on jagged pavement and jerk the neck and brain even more.

    Beyond that, Bertley says, “if you are buying certified bicycle helmet, you’re great — whether you paid $25 or whether you paid $85 for it.”

    Mark Bracey is a teacher in Auckland, New Zealand who blogs and tweets about his biking life under the handle @WheeledPed.

    He does a gentle, 30-minute commute to work on his bike every day, and calls himself a “wheeled pedestrian.”

    He prefers that term because he says for many people, the word “cyclist” evokes images of a slim, spandex-clad athlete. Bracey wants people to embrace the bike as an everyday routine way to get around.

    New Zealand is one of the few countries with a universal bike helmet law, but most days Bracey doesn’t wear one.

    Cycle selfie

    “Funny enough, I’ve never been caught,” Bracey said.

    Bracey takes that risk, but says he’s not a risk-taker. He’s a father of teenagers and takes care when he’s riding. He believes in the environmental and health benefits of cycling, and says those pluses should be counted up along with the dangers.

    “What I’m arguing for is a choice. Helmets are not the panacea for making cycling safer,” Bracey said.

    Bracey says he manages his safety. Actually, he said he rides “like a woman.”

    “That’s not meant to be taken as chauvinistic,” he said.

    In a recent study, health-researchers at the University of British Columbia did find that female riders are less likely to be hospitalized. To explain that, other scientists say women tend to ride slower and they’re less likely to ride on streets that don’t have bike lanes.

    So “ride like a woman” might come to mean riding cautiously and responsibly.

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