The paradox of bicycle helmets

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

Wearing a helmet can make us feel safer.
However feeling safe is different than being safe.

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 happened.

This is the paradox of bicycle helmets. People believe their helmets saved them, despite suffering more injuries. The irony 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.
Cyclists wear helmets because they have frequent accidents.
Wearing a helmet increases the risk of accidents.

 

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 safe is not the same as being safe.

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