My helmet saved my life!

Abstract

Despite many emotional claims that “my helmet saved my life”, the risk of death & serious injury increased after the helmet law.  The risk of accident almost doubled, but the protection provided by helmets did not compensate for the rise in accidents.

 

What the data tells us

The claim that “my helmet saved my life“, so often repeated, justifies the helmet law in the eyes of many.

Is it true?  Here are some stats on cycling death & serious injury for children in NSW, before and after the helmet law.  Two years after the introduction of the helmet law, cyclists death and serious injuries decreased by 32%.  Hooray!  This proves that helmet saved lives!  That is what many government funded “studies” have claimed after looking at similar data.

Can this 32% decrease be fully attributed to helmets though?  What if it was due to something else?  Like what?  Like a decrease in the number of cyclists.  After the helmet law, the number of child cyclists in NSW decreased by 44%.  So the 32% decrease in death & serious injuries is much lower than the reduction in cyclists, indicating an increased risk per cyclist.

The helmet law was introduced at the same time as other road safety measures, like a crackdown on speeding and drink driving.  This would have benefited cyclists and pedestrians similarly.  Pedestrians death and serious injuries decreased by 23% during this period.

The risk of death and serious injuries for cyclists, adjusted for the lower number of cyclists, increased by 21%.  We would have expected a decrease of 21% without the helmet law, like for pedestrians.  This indicates that the risk of death & serious injury increased significantly (by more than 50%) compared to what would have been expected without the helmet law.

Far from “saving lives”, it seems that the helmet law has made cycling more dangerous.

Hmm …..

Where are those cyclists saved by their helmets?  They are nowhere to be found in the overall data.  We’ve got many people claiming a helmet saved their life, yet the risk of death and serious injury from cycling increased.

Why have helmets failed to reduce injuries?

One possible explanation is that the risk of non-head injury almost doubled, indicating that the risk of accidents almost doubled after the helmet law.

Why?  One possible explanation is risk compensation:

“the law of unintended consequences is extraordinarily applicable when talking about safety innovations. Sometimes things intended to make us safer may not make any improvement at all to our overall safety”

Risk compensation is the tendency to take more risks when wearing safety equipment.
Lured by a false sense of safety, helmeted cyclists tend to have more accidents.
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Wearing a helmet can induce cyclists to take more risks, sometimes with serious consequences:

“the increased use of bike helmets may have had an unintended consequence: riders may feel an inflated sense of security and take more risks. …

The helmet he was wearing did not protect his neck; he was paralyzed from the neck down. …

”It didn’t cross my mind that this could happen,” said Philip, now 17. ”I definitely felt safe. I wouldn’t do something like that without a helmet.” ”

Risk compensation affects not only cyclists but also motorists who tend to be less careful around helmeted cyclists. As reported in a study published by the University of Bath in the UK:

“Bicyclists who wear protective helmets are more likely to be struck by passing vehicles”

Both the behaviour of the helmeted cyclist and surrounding motorists tends to increase the risk of accidents.

 

Another explanation is safety in numbers.  According to empirical data, reducing cycling by 44% increases the risk of accidents by 41%.  This was reported by Jacobsen, who concluded:

“the behavior of motorists controls the likelihood of collisions with people walking and bicycling.  It appears that motorists adjust their behavior in the presence of people walking and bicycling …

A motorist is less likely to collide with a person walking and bicycling if more people walk or bicycle. Policies that increase the numbers of people walking and bicycling appear to be an effective route to improving the safety of people walking and bicycling.”

A key factor for cycling safety is the number of cyclists.  This is called “safety in numbers”.
With fewer cyclists, cycling becomes more dangerous.
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What protection do helmets really provide?

But surely, despite the increase in accidents, helmets should have saved these people.  It looks like helmets saved some of them, as the 55% increase in the risk of death & serious injury is lower than the 93% increase in accidents. However, helmets could not save all of them, and overall the risk of death & serious injury increased.

It is worth noting that 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.

A soft-shell helmet is a piece of polystyrene covered by a layer of plastic less than 1mm thick.
It can protect in a minor accident.  However, it is not designed to protect in a serious accident.

 

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,”

Suspending belief

On one hand, we have plenty of anecdotes from people who claim that a helmet saved their lives.  On the other hand, we have evidence of an increased risk of accident and death after the helmet law.  Both cannot be true at the same time.  Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that some people BELIEVE that a helmet saved them:

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.

A helmet protects by absorbing the energy of the impact through compressing the polystyrene layer. If the polystyrene has not compressed, but has broken into pieces instead, it indicates that the helmet has failed. It may have prevented bruises & lacerations, but it didn’t do much to reduce the energy of the impact on the skull. Yet ironically many people mistakenly believe that a broken helmet “proves”  that a helmet has saved them.

Statistically, one can expect a severe head injury from cycling once every 8,000 years of average cycling. Yet for helmet believers, every fall without a serious head injury is “proof” that their helmet saved them from a dreadful brain injury.
On the other hand, cyclists who don’t wear helmets tend to ride slower and have fewer accidents. Most of them have neither accident nor head injuries, yet they don’t preach that their lack of helmet saved them.

It is natural to believe that a helmet saved the day, as it justifies wearing a helmet, and fits with the misleading advertising exaggerating the protection provided by helmets. However that doesn’t mean that it is true. We don’t know what would have happened without a helmet. Most bicycle accidents do not result in serious head injuries, with or without a helmet. Helmet wearers tend to forget that, and eagerly attribute their lack of head injury to their helmets, while in most cases the outcome would have 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.”

It is important to be realistic about helmets capabilities, and to base that assessment on facts rather than personal experiences, however traumatic they may be.

Not matter how strongly people believe in “helmets”, 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.”

This doesn’t mean that it is not possible that a helmet saved a cyclist life.  It did in some cases.  However, few people consider that the lack of a helmet tends to make them ride more cautiously, and have fewer accidents.  If they weren’t wearing a helmet, they may not have had a crash in which their life needed saving in the first place.

In many other instances, a helmet failed to save cyclists.  Overall the data tells us that  the risk of death & serious injury increased after the helmet law.  The additional accidents, more severe as they tend to be at higher speeds, are not compensated by the protection provided by a helmet.

Before claiming that a helmet saved your life, it may be worth suspending belief and asking a few questions:

  • How do you know what would have happen without a helmet?
  • Would this accident have occurred without a helmet?  Would you have ridden more cautiously?
  • Do you really want to rely on a piece of polystyrene to save your life in a serious accident?
  • Is it worth having a helmet law that reduce the number of cyclists, and almost doubles the risk of accidents, for the “protection” provided by a piece of polystyrene?
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4 Responses to “My helmet saved my life!”

  1. Matt says:

    Personal story. Fell of my bike, hard. Hit my head on the road. Lay there looking at the hard, hard road thinking ‘oh my god , I love my helmet. Hitting my bare head on the road in that instance would have been tragic’. As it was, I was fine. phew!

  2. Hank Sinatra says:

    These kind of questions have been around since mandatory helmet laws were introduced and with advocates of the quality of Crag I must ask as ever, why can’t people be convinced and exactly who (names!) conspired to introduce this legislation. Noone seems to know and yet excessive car usage (and worship) is the biggest economic and socialogical disaster ever to befall this country.
    Are all those dots only joined in my imagination and do I have a mental health issue or is it possible that there is a link between the car industry and the introduction of MHL?

  3. I do not believe for one minute that a piece of styro foam could possibly protect a cyclist from head injury. I would love to not have to wear my helmet when cycling but I have been pulled over a couple of times by a police officer. One day I decided not to wear it and one street a way from my house a police car came along and the police officer called from his vehicle and told me to put my helmet on. I was on the road and I kept going to get on the footpath and he instructed me again to put my helmet on (it was in my basket) and made sure I helmetted up so to speak. I am 59 years old but he treated me like some kid and I was not impressed. Ever since that incident I have not been game enough to not wear it but how I hate it. I believe it should be our free choice whether we wear one or not. We are not hurting others by not wearing it but we could well be hurting ourselves but wearing it. That law definitely needs to be changed and the sooner the better for all cyclists.

    • admin says:

      The patronising attitude of the police is really annoying. They have better things to do than harass peaceful citizens, but it’s a lot easier than tackling real crime.

      In Sydney, the police rarely harasses cyclists without “helmets”. In which city did this happen?

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