Monday, July 9, 2012

Cycling Safety: Wear your Helmet

I'm writing this as a follow up to my entries on safety (here and here). Scooby from Scooby's Workshop posted the following blog entry on "#1 Most Important Safety Device" and made some compelling arguments for his point. Scooby argues that aware cyclists are most likely to be hit from behind, and if they can see the cars behind them, they are better equipped to avoid them.

I think he overstates this argument. Helmets are far and away the most important safety equipment you can have while cycling. Head injuries can be severe, even in low-velocity collisions, if your head hits something hard. As reported by LiveStrong:
Studies have shown between 45 and 88 percent of brain injuries could have been prevented with helmet use and that wearing a helmet could prevent as many as 85 percent of head injuries. [Citations at link.]

For instance, head injury is a major source of concern in low-speed auto accidents:
The present preliminary survey was of 56 accidents in urban traffic. 50 per cent of surviving motor-cyclists incurred head injuries. Soft tissue facial wounds were sustained by 38 per cent and fractures of facial bone and teeth by 11 per cent of the injured. The majority of the accidents occurred at speeds of 30 m.p.h. or less to riders of machines of small cubic capacity. (From PubMed.)
Similarly, if a cyclist's head hits the pavement, a car, or even a person and even at low speeds, his is much more likely to be injured than if he has a properly fitted helmet in place. Conversely, bike helmets protect in high-speed impacts as well. As this site argues, the cyclist is likely to have decelerated prior to striking the ground -- without a helmet that person is dead but with one, he may well be saved. Here's an excerpt:

Myth 1: Helmets do not provide any protection to the head in the event of head impact crash.
Fact 1: Every case-controlled study proves the exact opposite. A list of case controlled studies is included below.

Myth 2: You shouldn't wear a helmet because helmets do nothing to prevent accidents.
Fact 2: This is poor logic for not wearing a helmet.

Myth 3: "The evidence of the protective ability of helmets in the event of a collision with a vehicle remains unclear."
Fact 3: This is a favorite one that's trotted out often, most recently in the U.K. after a conservative leader David Cameron was spotted riding with his helmet dangling from his handlebars. It's true, that if a vehicle (or a bicycle) runs a red light the vehicle broadsides the bicycle at 50 MPH, a helmet is probably not going to save the cyclist. But in reality, most car/bicycle accidents are not of that type. Typically the cyclists will go flying through the air, an will be decelerating until they hit the ground, and at impact they will be going much slower than the vehicle that hit them. Bottom line is that helmets have a huge protective effect in many, if not most, vehicle/bicycle collisions. Isn't it funny-sad how these lobbying groups have learned all the code words and are able to ignore all the evidence with statements like "remains unclear" or "needs more study." Just like those that don't believe every scientist in the world about global warming.

The site also contains links to studies on head injuries and helmet use.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has established guidelines for the manufacture and proper use of helmets:
On March 10, 1998, the CPSC published a final rule establishing 16 CFR Part 1203, Safety Standard for Bicycle Helmets, which applies to bicycle helmets manufactured after March 10, 1999. The interim mandatory standard that went into effect on March 17, 1995, continues to apply to helmets manufactured between March 17, 1995, and March 10, 1999. The standard mandates several performance requirements including:
  • Impact protection in a crash: The standard establishes a performance test to ensure that helmets adequately protect the head in a collision or a fall;
  • Children’s helmets and head coverage: The standard specifies an increased area of head coverage for children age 1 to 5;
  • Chinstrap strength: The standard establishes a performance test to measure chinstrap strength to prevent breakage or excessive elongation of the strap during a crash;
  • Helmet Stability: The standard specifies a test procedure and requirement for a helmet rolling off a head during a collision or fall; and
  • Peripheral Vision: The standard requires that a helmet allow a field of vision of 105 degrees to both the left and right of straight ahead.
In addition, helmets meeting the standard must have labels indicating that they comply with CPSC requirements. 
Learn how to fit a bike helmet at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation's website.

Scooby argues that avoidance is better than protection, and maybe in a perfect world he'd be right. But even when you see a car which might hit you, you may be powerless to do anything about it. (For instance, a parked car jams its door into you, shoving you into traffic.) Bike helmets can save you, even when you cannot save yourself.

Thus, while you probably should get a mirror, you should never ride in traffic without a helmet. Never ever. Thus, helmets are the #1 safety device for a bicycle.

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