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The Great Helmet Debate

Photo by George Ferris

When I was asked to write this blog, I must admit, I baulked at the thought. When it comes to debates between cyclists there isn’t much that’ll get the mud-slinging and teeth-gnashing brigade more fired up than this one.

And so I am being asked to sit myself squarely in the middle of this and ask those on both sides to start firing whilst I get caught in all the cross-fire….I think I might need a helmet for the job 😉

There is more to it than just do I wear one or don’t I. We’ll look at :-

1. Safety: is any helmet better than others.
2. What a helmet does protect against and what it doesn’t.
3. The BIG ONE! Legality and personal liberty.

There are a huge number of very detailed resources about helmets, but one of the best I have ever read is this one by Bruce Barcott and published a few months back in Bicycling Magazine. It’s quite long but is the most comprehensive article I have ever read and worth a read.

And so:-

1. Safety!

• What is a Helmet?

Helmets come in a vast variety of shapes, sizes and most importantly prices. But the most surprising thing is that no one helmet is much safer than another: unless you wear a motorcycle helmet that is.

All helmets are basically made in the same format. They feature a thick layer of expanded polystyrene (EPS) covered by a thin plastic shell-layer. There are a couple of brands such as Bern and Nutcase who have a slightly thicker shell layer and slightly more cushioning inside, but overall they’re all about the same.

• How do you wear it?

Sounds like a dumb question doesn’t it. In fact, the most important consideration is not the helmet itself but how you wear it. So many times I see people bobbing along on their bikes with their helmet pushed right back exposing their forehead, almost hanging off the back of their heads…utterly pointless.

It should fit the diameter of your head snuggly, most have an adjustable thingy at the back. Once you have the straps clipped together, they should all be tight fitting. If you can twist the helmet around on your head or if you can push it back any further than the top of your forehead, you have not got it right.

• When to replace it

If you have a crash then you should always get a new helmet, even if there’s no obvious damage. Otherwise, many manufacturers will suggest that you replace it every 3-5 years, but after research this seems to be unsubstantiated and more about marketing than safety. Do check the EPS foam inner every now and then for cracks which can occur over time. If you have any…get a new helmet.

2. What a helmet does protect against and what it doesn’t?

In a major crash, especially at high speed, a helmet will help protect your skin and skull and alleviate injuries. I crashed at over 40kph and snapped my collarbone in two. At the same time as my collarbone snapped on impact my helmet was cracking on the same tarmac. No helmet, and that would have been my skull cracking instead, just like my collarbone did. I hear so many similar stories played out as the final answer in the helmet debate but it isn’t that simple.

Sure at higher speeds it becomes more valuable, but at slower speeds a helmet becomes more and more pointless. Other than skull and skin injuries the other major risk is of brain damage, especially rotational brain injury. This is widely accepted as the cause of concussions, which can have serious and sometimes fatal effect.

There are no bicycle helmets currently on the market that can protect against rotational brain injuries. Some development has been carried out in recent years and a couple of systems are hopefully soon to be seen, such as MIPS (Multi-directional Impact Protection System). But at present there are none. Various reasons for this are

• Cost; a system such as MIPS will add $40-50 to the cost of each helmet
• Size – some argue these additional systems add to the bulk of the helmet, but this is questionable
• Regulations – this is a big one, no regulatory body requires rotational protection so manufacturers don’t bother with it, they stick to what’s required of them.
• Legal – make a helmet that claims protection against rotational brain injuries and you’re opening yourself up to a million greedy lawyers claiming against you. Cynical I know but true!

So any helmet only really does half the job anyway and is only of use at higher speeds in catastrophic crash conditions.

3. Law vs Personal Liberty

In this country it is law to wear a helmet. South Africa is one of many countries that have a helmet law irrespective of the age of the rider, but there are many more who don’t. And given it’s not enforced here is it even worth having? I am happy to be required to wear a helmet to race, where high speeds and bunch riding is involved, but if I bimble around town on a fixie who the hell cares if I strap on some foam to my head.

There are many studies that show that mandatory helmet laws actually decrease the amount of cyclists. Studies also show that the more cyclists there are on the road the safer we all are, so…..!!!!

In addition to this, one study in the UK demonstrated that motorists passed closer to cyclists who wore helmets, than they did to helmetless ones.

And finally, time after time (Melbourne being one very obvious example) where bike share schemes have been introduced in mandatory helmet law territories…THEY FAIL! So come on Cape Town, think this one through before spending loads of cash on a scheme that is doomed to failure due to current law!

Or rather re-think the law before you go ahead with an exceptional scheme of urban improvement. You just have to convince central government as well 😉

I’ve said enough, it’s been emotive and emotional, now I’ll retreat to a safe distance and watch the comments fly!!!!

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