“On Sunday evening, while Mr S. Davies was descending a steep hill near Llangollen, on a 54 inch bicycle, he lost control over his machine, and dashed against the stone bridge at the bottom of the hill. The rider was thrown headforemost over the bridge into the River Dee, and was instantly killed, his head coming into contact with a huge boulder, which fractured his skull. The dead body of the unfortunate gentleman was afterwards recovered by a police-constable, who proceeded down the river in a coracle.”
Illustrated Police News, April 29, 1893.
Reading about the sad death of Mr S. Davies in 1893 reminded me that I am one of those who chooses not to wear a helmet when I’m cycling, unless I am required to do so by law or by the rules of any event I’m participating in. It’s a personal choice and one I usually defend with a shrug of the shoulders rather than any evidence for or against the effectiveness of a helmet. When I started cycling helmets were uncomfortable to wear, in the price range I could afford they offered 3 vents that left my head feeling like it was melting, and then there was helmet-hair! I did buy one under pressure from my partner at the time, wore it on a couple of rides, and then relegated it to the attic where it never saw the light of day again.
Several years later event organizers in the United Kingdom began insisting that participants wore a helmet, which forced me to invest in a new one. Admittedly it was light, tolerably comfortable enough to be worn for a couple of hours, and with lots of vents my head felt colder wearing than it than when not, presumably due to the way that air was channelled over my bonce. Regardless, I still only wore it when I had to, much preferring to perch my glasses on my head in the summer or wear a woolly hat in the winter. Despite a number of crashes in the ensuing years, none of which have involved a head impact by the way, I still don’t wear a helmet except on rare occasions.
At the moment the effectiveness of helmets is open to debate. Depending on your point of view you can find research that claims they reduce fatalities, or research that claims they have no meaningful effect at all. Part of the problem is that research that focuses on fatalities may be skewed by the nature of the accident that resulted in death. No bicycle helmet is effective protection against a head on-collision with a motor vehicle and where multiple injuries have been suffered a head injury is not always the cause of death.
To complicate the picture data from the International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group for the period 1990 to 2011 showed that the overall trend for road fatalities in the countries it reported on was downwards, often by significant margins. Interestingly, Australia’s bicycle fatality rate increased between 2000 and 2011 after it had made helmet wearing compulsory, while the majority of countries in which helmet use is voluntary saw the number of cyclist fatalities decrease.
Meanwhile tests on bicycle helmets are far from rigorous, only involving relatively low speed impacts of less than 15 mph, and that dont realistically replicate serious crashes. The most rigorous standard, the Snell B-95, only requires that a helmet can withstand temperatures of between -20 and 50ºC for anything from 4 to 24 hours (ditto for being continuously sprayed with water), withstand various weights being dropped on it from various heights ranging from 3 centimetres to 60 centimetres, and withstand being dropped onto a flat anvil from a height of up to 2.2 metres. Typically few manufacturers comply with Snell, instead using other less demanding but still internationally accepted standards.
To be absolutely clear, none of this is an argument in favour of not wearing a bicycle helmet. Personally I think it’s down to individual choice and your assessment of the risk factors that you face in your day-to-day riding. I ride on the road, and mostly on quiet rural roads where traffic volumes are low and the risk of coming a cropper are much less than when riding off-road on a mountain bike for example.
Subjectively, I feel at less risk in the countryside than I do when riding in town. Objectively, data from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents tells me that nearly half of all cycling fatalities in the United Kingdom occur on the very rural roads I prefer to ride on, and that of these fatalities 80 per cent suffered moderate or serious head injuries. The same data also tells me that 75 per cent of serious or fatal accidents occur within urban areas, . Then there’s the data that suggests that 60 per cent of fatalities occur in urban areas during the working week and the trend is then reversed at the weekend which sees 60 per cent of fatalities occurring in rural areas.
If the debate on helmet use and the statistics available tell me anything it’s that assessing risk isn’t easy to do. It would seem that when I’m out in the countryside my risk of an accident is lower but my risk of it being a fatal accident is higher. This seems logical. It’s well known that the risk of serious injury and death as a result of collision with a vehicle is significantly lower at speeds under 20 mph. On most of the UK’s country roads the national speed limit of 60 mph applies and the chances of surviving an impact from a vehicle are thus dramatically lowered.
Which leaves me asking the question, should I wear a helmet? I’ll be honest, I just don’t like wearing a helmet and prefer not to if I can. I find a helmet no more than tolerably comfortable for a couple of hours at most, after which I start shifting it around on my head, undoing the straps, taking it off and hanging it from the stem before putting it back on again. The noise of air passing over the straps is irritating and distracting, while also making it more difficult to hear what’s behind me. And did I mention helmet-hair?
Yet, if I’m being rational the answer is straightforward: Yes I should wear a helmet. They have been proven to reduce the risk of head injury within certain parameters, though they also increase the risk of neck injury. My riding pattern does put me at risk. And also why take the chance? Which brings me back to Mr S. Davies and his tragic fall from the stone bridge over the River Dee. A helmet may not have saved his life but it might have increased his chances of survival. I should remember that accidents by their very nature are unexpected and unpredictable and so the next time I go for a bike ride I will be wearing my helmet … probably.
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