Category Archives: Helmets

Can helmets cause permanent disability?

In 1993, a team of researchers conducted lab experiments on bicycle helmets. The purpose was to measure the chin strap forces in accidents. The researchers were shocked by what they found. They had discovered that helmets can seriously damage cyclists neck:

“The non-shell helmet did in all trials grab the asphalt surface, which rotated the head together with the helmet. The consequences were in addition to the rotating of the head, a heavily bent and compressed neck, transmitted on through the whole test dummy body after the impact.”

A related incident was reported in the New York Times:

“In August 1999, Philip Dunham, then 15, was riding his mountain bike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and went over a jump on a trail. As he did, his back tire kicked up, the bike flipped over and he landed on his head. The helmet he was wearing did not protect his neck; he was paralyzed from the neck down.

Two years later, Philip has regained enough movement and strength in his arms to use a manual wheelchair. He has also gained some perspective. With the helmet he felt protected enough to ride off-road on a challenging trail, in hindsight perhaps too safe.

”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.

Bicycle helmets can get caught in accidents, damaging the neck, as reported in the Canberra Times:

“Lud Kerec was training for one of the toughest triathlon events in the world when he smashed head-on into another cyclist in the ACT’s north. …

”It is unlikely I’ll walk one day,” said the 65-year-old Mr Kerec, who takes half a cup of drugs a day. He was nearly garrotted by the strap from his own helmet after he believes it became tangled in the other bike and yanked his head back.”

These are not unique incidents. Many studies have evaluated injuries since bicycle helmets emerged. They all report increased neck injuries. For example, research by McDermott et al. (Trauma, 1993, p834-841) found 75% more neck injuries among helmet wearers.

Why don’t bicycle helmets have warnings about the risk permanent disability while using them?
This is a serious risk that people should be aware of.

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The paradox of bicycle helmets

When wearing “protection” results in more injuries,
perhaps we need to look deeper about what is really going on.


After a helmet law was introduced in Australia, many cyclists insisted their helmets had saved them.

Yet cycling injuries increased.

How can both be true at the same time?

They can be true at the same time if there is a large increase in accidents.

From the injury data, this is what seems to have happened.


This is the paradox of bicycle helmets. People believe their helmets saved them, despite suffering more injuries. The catch is that the helmet saved them from accidents that may not have happened without the helmet.

It seems “obvious” & “intuitive” that wearing a helmet should reduce injuries.
Yet sometimes our intuition can be wrong.
Sometimes there are consequences we cannot see that are more harmful than what seems obvious.

More helmets –> more accidents –> more injuries

This surprising result not unique to Australia. Other countries have experienced increased injuries following an increase in helmet wearing.

In the US, a rise in helmet wearing led to more head injuries, according to the New York Times

the rate of head injuries per active cyclist has increased 51 percent just as bicycle helmets have become widespread…

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

”People tend to engage in risky behavior when they are protected,” he said. ”It’s a ubiquitous human trait.”

Even cyclists who discount the daredevil effect admit that they may ride faster on more dangerous streets when they are wearing their helmets.

In New Zealand, a study found that injuries more than doubled following a bicycle helmet law.

1989 US study found that helmet wearers were 7 times more likely to have accidents.
How can a flimsy piece of polystyrene compensate for 7 times more accidents?

A strange helmet culture

Riding in Australia is a unique experience. Cycling accidents are considered normal. There is a special word for a bicycle accident, called a “stack”. Many cyclists have tales of their frequent “stacks”, and how each stack reinforce their belief in helmets. They would never ride without a helmet. Cycling is far too dangerous, even suicidal, according to a doctor from Melbourne:

riding a bicycle on Melbourne’s roads … is “verging on suicide”

It is a strange ideology, where helmets and accidents justify each other.

Helmets accidents cycle


Contrast this with countries that do not mandate helmets, like the Netherlands.
Accidents are rare.
Cyclists have little fear of accidents.
Cycling is safe.

Which philosophy is safer?

  1. Accident avoidance: no helmets, few accidents. The Netherlands
  2. Accident protection: many accidents protected by helmets. Australia.

Australia cycling serious injury rate is 22 times greater than in the Netherlands:


Can bicycle helmets compensate for more accidents?

Choosing to wear a helmet seems a like “No brainer“. Such an obvious “precaution”.

Choosing not to wear a helmet is a more subtle decision.
It requires paying attention to what cannot easily been seen, rather than what seems “obvious”.
It requires an understanding of how helmets affect the risk of accidents.
It requires comparing a higher risk of accident with protection from polystyrene. 

It feels safer to wear a helmet. Yet the evidence indicates it may not be safer.

The paradox is: feeling safer may not be the same as being safer.

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US government drops claim that helmets reduce 85% of head injuries

The US government has dropped its claim that bicycle helmets reduce 85% of head injuries. The claim came from “research” conducted by helmet advocates in 1989. Many researchers have tried to replicate its results, but have been unable to do so. Amid severe criticism, the authors had to re-work their data, and arrived at a lower effectiveness rate.

This invalid claim is often quoted by people eager to push helmets. The US government had quoted the claim on its web site.

In 2013,  the US Department of Transportation agreed to delete the claim. This followed a petition lodged under the Federal Data Quality Act. The Data Quality Act requires information on federal web sites to be accurate and supported by appropriate research.

This was first reported by the Washington Area Bicyclsists Association. This followed its successful campaign against a bicycle helmet law in Maryland in early 2013.

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Helmet manufacturer ordered to pay $3 millions as compensation for brain injury

US helmet manufacturer Riddell had to pay US$3 millions in compensation to an injured football player. Rhett Ridolfi suffered severe brain damage, as well as paralysis, despite wearing a helmet. A Colorado jury found Riddell negligent in failing to warn players about concussion.

This is one of many lawsuits about brain injury while wearing a helmet. The injured person lawyer said:

“If they had told the truth, and said, ‘You have a 50 percent change of getting a concussion with this helmet,’ what mother or father would let their kid play football in a Riddell helmet? And you can still buy this helmet today.”

Helmets provide the illusion of protecting against brain injury. Helmets cannot protect against rotational acceleration, the principal cause of brain injury. Report from the Toronto Star:

“Increasingly, what helmets have become are talismans. Riddell (and every other manufacturer) understands that no space-age resin, no lightweight polymer, no amount of high-tech bafflegab is going to fully protect you if you nail something hard and fast at just the wrong angle. They manufacture the illusion of full protection …

What they’re selling is witchcraft. The fault here does not lie with the manufacturers. It lies somewhere within the culture. …

There is very little difference between wearing a helmet and wearing a piece of the true cross. Both are faith objects. The power of any talisman is that its protective aura is self-reinforcing. As long as you aren’t hurt while you’re wearing it, one presumes the talisman takes the credit. …

the surest way to protect against brain injury is to either engage in pastimes that
A) don’t require helmets or
B) have adapted themselves to relatively safe, helmetless participation. …

With the helmet goes a misplaced sense of invincibility.”

As Jerry Seinfield noted, a key issue is the culture surrounding helmets:

Bicycle helmets have the same deficiency. Additionally, they can increase brain injury:

“Protecting the brain from injury that results in death or chronic disablement provides the main motivation for wearing helmets. Their design has been driven by the development of synthetic polystyrene foams which can reduce the linear acceleration resulting from direct impact to the head, but scientific research shows that angular acceleration from oblique impulse is a more important cause of brain injury. Helmets are not tested for capacity to reduce it and, as Australian research first showed, they may increase it.“

Helmets have been promoted by claiming they protect against brain injury. This can lead to people overestimating their benefit, taking more risks. As reported in the New York Times:

“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.” “

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The fallacy of the cracked helmet

We tend to look at a cracked helmet and assume it is “proof” it saved a life.
Actually, a cracked helmet 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. In a serious accident, polystyrene helmets tend to break into pieces. If the polystyrene has broken into pieces but not compressed, it has failed to work as intended.

soft-shell-helmet A bicycle helmet is a piece of polystyrene covered by a thin layer of plastic.
Notice how the helmet has cracked, but the polystyrene did not compress.
This indicates the helmet failed to absorb the energy of the impact.

We have a tendency to attribute causality from the timing of events. If we notice a cracked helmet and we do not have a head injury, we tend to attribute the lack of head injury to the helmet. Yet, cyclists fall with and without helmets, and rarely get a serious head injury in either case.

Protection is good, except when it increases the risk of accident

Helmets can have unexpected side-effects. One surprising observation has been an increased risk of accidents. In Australia, cycling injuries tripled after the helmet law:


 In Australia, cycling injuries tripled after the helmet law.
Many of those extra injuries would have been “cracked helmet” scenarios.

How can the widespread wearing of helmets increase the risk of injuries? There is a well-known safety phenomenon called “risk compensation“. As we feel safer, we tend to take more  risks. More risks means more accidents.

Sometimes our intuition can be wrong

It is easy to forget that bicycle helmets are only designed to protect in minor impacts:

“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.“

Dr Carwyn Hooper from St George’s University in London 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”

Helmets increase the volume of the head, thus the chance of the head hitting the ground in an accident. 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.

It is natural to assume a helmet saved us. But that doesn’t mean it is true. We don’t know what would have happened without it. 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. We tend to overlook this, and attribute a lack of head injury to the helmet:

“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.”

Helmets can be deceptive

Cycling is a safe activity. Cyclists can expect a severe head injury once every 8,000 years of average cycling.

Wearing a helmet can increase the risk of accident. Wearing a device that increases the risk of accidents may not be the most effective way to enhance safety. It is ironic that a cracked helmet is hailed as “proof” it saved a life, 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 bicycle helmets are not designed to protect in a serious impact.

Bicycle helmets can be insidious:

  1. At first, they seem to protect.
  2. They tend to increase the risk of accidents.
  3. They do not offer adequate protection in a serious accident.

Does the protection compensate for more accidents?

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Barefoot running and cycling

An interesting analogy between barefoot running and cycling:

For years it has been ingrained in to folk that go hill-walking that it
is *essential* to wear “stout footwear with proper ankle support”, with
the latter taken to mean a high lacing cuff and the phrase really
meaning big, stiff hiking boots.

In more recent times folk have started to realise that this is a lot of
tosh, and in fact the literature on foot injuries tells you
counter-intuitive things about how and when feet get injured (like more
often in shoes than barefoot). Such people have started taking to the
hills in sandals and trainers, realising that the human foot isn’t an
evolutionary misfire but is perfectly capable of looking after itself as
long as the user engages in the ancient Zen mind-trick known as “looking
where they’re going”.

But you tell this to the boot die-hards, and they look at the scuffs on
their dreadnoughts and say they prefer intact toes to bloody puddings on
the end of their feet, and how their boots have saved them from terrible
injury etc. etc.

I used to preach the gospel of Big Boots too, but entering a Mountain
Marathon had a curative effect. All these people doing this regularly,
faster and over rougher terrain than I usually do, and hardly a pair of
boots in sight, perhaps they know something I’ve not been accepting?
c.f. cycling trip in Amsterdam and helmets…

This analogy is from by Peter Clinch, from Dundee, Scotland.

I love this part:

the ancient Zen mind-trick known as “looking where they’re going”

This highlights the difference in philosophy between the two groups.

  1. One takes responsibility for being cautious enough to avoid injuries.
  2. The other relies on technology to compensate for higher risk taking.

The belief in the “protection” using shoes is like the belief in the “protection” using helmets:

  • Both appear to “protect”, even though they can result in increased injuries.
  • Both seem so “obvious” than few people question them.
  • Both are harmful in ways that are counter-intuitive.
  • Both have their strong advocates who show a religious faith in them.
  • Both induce a false sense of safety, resulting in increasing risk taking.

In cycling, as the shoulders are much wider than the head, most falls do not result in the head touching the ground. Should it happen, the scalp makes the head slide, reducing friction and rotation. This reduces the risk of brain injury through rotational acceleration.

With a helmet, the larger volume of the head makes it more likely for the head to hit the ground. The polystyrene helmet tends to stick to the road and increases rotational acceleration. This increases the risk of brain injury.

Is this “protection”?

We can be fooled into accepting “protective” equipment that is not necessary, and even harmful. After the helmet law in Australia, the risk of injury tripled.

Helmet manufacturers know how to exploit our fears using scaremongering advertising. It takes effort to escape such insidious influence.

Next time somebody peddles “safety” equipment, ask

  • Does the risks warrant the equipment?
  • Could the “safety” equipment do more harm than good?
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