A cracked helmet is a helmet that has failed. It is more likely to be an indication of an accident that may not have happened without it, than “proof” it saved a life.
Many people look at a cracked or broken helmet and believe it is “proof” it saved their life. Actually, it is proof it failed. In a serious accident, bicycle helmets tend to break into pieces and absorb little energy. Technically, a cracked helmet is a helmet that has failed to work as intended:
“The next time you see a broken helmet, suspend belief and do the most basic check – disregard the breakages and look to see if what’s left of the styrofoam has compressed. If it hasn’t you can be reasonably sure that it hasn’t saved anyone’s life.“
Polystyrene-based helmets protect by absorbing the energy of the impact through compressing the polystyrene. If the polystyrene has broken into pieces but not compressed, it has failed. Yet ironically we mistakenly believe that the broken helmet saved us.
We have a tendency to attribute causality from the timing of events. If we have a fall with a helmet, then notice that the helmet is cracked and we do not have a head injury, we tend to attribute the lack of head injury to the helmet. However, cyclists fall with and without helmets, and rarely get a serious head injury in either case.
Statistically, we can expect a severe head injury once every 8,000 years of average cycling.
For helmeted cyclists, almost every damaged helmet is “proof” it saved them.
Un-helmeted cyclists tend to ride slower and have fewer accidents. Most have neither accident nor injuries, yet they don’t claim that the absence of a helmet saved them.
Helmets increase the volume of the head, thus the chance of the head hitting the ground. Helmets also increase the risk of neck injuries, and can aggravate brain injuries. There is no guarantee that a fall with a helmet will result in less severe head, neck or brain injuries. Attributing a lack of head, neck or brain injury to a cracked helmet is no more rational than attributing a lack of head, neck or brain injury to the absence of a helmet.
It is natural to assume a helmet saved us, as it justifies wearing it. However that doesn’t mean it is true. We don’t know what would have happened without a helmet. Cyclists, with and without helmets, get hit by cars; the survival rates are identical. Most bicycle accidents do not result in serious head injuries, with or without helmets. Helmet wearers tend to overlook this, and eagerly attribute their lack of head injury to their helmet, even though the outcome would have been the same without one:
“see the double-standard of finding it entirely logical when helmeted cyclists who survive collisions report that wearing a helmet saved their life. It is a powerful emotional argument, but logically, statistically, and scientifically, it is erroneous for the same reasons it would be erroneous to say that not wearing a helmet saved Gene Hackman’s life. If a cyclist wears a helmet and they emerge from a collision alive, that implies correlation, not causation.”
What is a bicycle helmet anyway? It is essentially a piece of polystyrene. Calling it a “helmet” doesn’t give it protective abilities. However, it can fool people into believing that it provides far more protection than it does, and induce people to take unwarranted risks.
Polystyrene based helmets are not designed to protect in a serious accident:
“In cases of high impact, such as most crashes that involve a motor vehicle, the initial forces absorbed by a cycle helmet before breaking are only a small part of the total force and the protection provided by a helmet is likely to be minimal in this context. In cases where serious injury is likely, the impact energy potentials are commonly of a level that would overwhelm even Grand Prix motor racing helmets. Cycle helmets provide best protection in situations involving simple, low-speed falls with no other party involved. They are unlikely to offer adequate protection in life-threatening situations.“
Helmets make little difference in a serious accident, as Dr Hooper reports:
“Looking at evidence, it does not matter if people are wearing a helmet or not, any serious accident on a bike is likely to kill them,”
There is not much a piece of polystyrene can do in a serious accident. After being asked
“Can your helmet save your life?”,
a helmet manufacturer salesperson shrugged and laughed uncomfortably, before responding:
“Can it?” “Well, not save your life, no.”
A cracked helmet may indicate a cyclist not riding cautiously enough, perhaps lured into a false sense of safety. After the helmet law was introduced in Australia, the risk of accident more than tripled. The risk of cycling injuries, including head injuries, INCREASED. This is unlikely to be a coincidence. It is ironic that a cracked helmet is hailed as “proof” that the helmet helped, while the accident may not have happened without it.
It is easy to be mislead, especially after a traumatic experience. It is important to be realistic about helmets capabilities, and to base that assessment on facts. Overestimating their protection can be dangerous. After a serious accident, it is too late to discover that helmets are not designed to protect in a serious impact.
Bicycle helmets can be insidious:
- At first, they seem to “protect”.
- However, they tend to increase the risk of accidents.
- They provide less protection than we have been led to believe, particularly in a serious accident.
Does the protection compensate for additional accidents?