Are bicycle helmets bad for you?


Bicycle helmets undoubtedly protect users from brain injuries. But is it possible, as some studies have suggested, that the helmets make you hot and sweaty and distracted and thus increase the chances of an accident? This idea has been picked up by some who oppose mandatory helmet laws.

Some scientists decided to look into it. Based on a controlled laboratory study of 19 participants, they concluded that while the helmets were uncomfortable and raised temperature, these negative effects were not significant.

Helmet-wearing was associated with reduced comfort (p = 0.001) and increased temperature perception (p < 0.001), compared to not wearing a helmet. Just one out of nine cognitive parameters showed a significant effect of helmet-wearing (p = .032), disappearing in a post-hoc comparison. These results resolve previous disparate studies to suggest that, although helmets can be uncomfortable, any effect of wearing a helmet on cognitive performance is at worst marginal.

I was a bit surprised as to how they could get such stringent statistical limits based on so few participants in the study.

But still, wear your helmets, folks. It could save your life.

Comments

  1. Nick Gotts says

    Someone’s doing serious work on paper cycling helmets. The point is better protection than the current polystyrene ones, but perhaps they’d also be less uncomfortable.

    Anecdote time: a colleague of mine, not wearing a helmet, was knocked off his cycle because an auto driver at a roundabout didn’t see him. He hit his head and cracked his skull. Spent a couple of weeks in an induced coma, and several months off work. Long-term effects? Very difficult to predict.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    Thirty minutes seems rather a short time to draw any meaningful conclusions. I have ridden distances (50+ miles) on very hot and humid days, with and without helmet. The difference in comfort or performance never even occurred to me. Maybe there would be significant differences at longer distances.

  3. wtfwhateverd00d says

    Always good to remember how many studies cannot be replicated, especially medical studies. And if it sounds to good to be true it is.

    19 people. 30 minutes.Not cycling, but sitting in an 81F room with no wind completing some sort of test.

    They did this sitting down test twice: same room, just with or without helmet.

    “These results resolve previous disparate studies to suggest that, although helmets can be uncomfortable, any effect of wearing a helmet on cognitive performance is at worst marginal.”

    19 people, 30 minutes, sitting down, completing tests.

  4. says

    Another anecdote: Because of sliding on an unexpected patch of ice with my bicycle, I once crashed with my helmet-less head into the curb, resulting in a severe concussion and retrograde amnesia that lasted for about a week.

    This study with one participant is significant enough for me to be for mandatory helmet laws.

  5. countryboy says

    I prefer to wear a skid lid primarily because drivers never look for cycles of any kind and are likely to force you into severe defensive maneuvers. Around my home area bicyclists also ride like idiots ignoring traffic signs and tearing down sidewalks making pedestrians dodge to the sides. It got bad enough the police are issuing the same kind of fines and penalties to bicyclists as to motor vehicle operators, including suspended and revoked drivers licenses.

  6. G. Priddy says

    The bicycle helmet debate has been around since the introduction of the bicycle helmet, and will probably be around for a very long time to come.

    There is some evidence to suggest that bicyclist who wear helmets are more likely to take risks while on the bike, resulting in more injuries, not fewer. The hypothesis is that they feel emboldened by the perceived protection of the helmet.

    The current crop of helmets is designed to protect against very big impacts, but the EPS material from which they’re made doesn’t compress very much in a lesser impact. There is also evidence to suggest that current helmets do very little to protect the brain from rotational torque, which is what causes concussions. New designs are attempting to address these shortcomings with multi-density materials and limited slip between the head and the helmet.

    My personal take? It’s pretty cheap bump and scrape protection, and if it happens to also reduce the effects of a TBI-level impact, all the better.

    Oh, and expensive helmets offer the same protection as cheap ones. They just do it while being lighter and better ventilated.

  7. mnb0 says

    “Bicycle helmets undoubtedly protect users from brain injuries.”
    There is a much better way to protect cyclists from brain injuries: provide safe cycle-tracks.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P1RNisaWSbM

    In the Netherlands only racing cyclists were helmets. It’s probably also the safest country in the world for common cyclists.
    We Dutchies don’t even listen to MS’ advise about cycling in winter:

  8. Trebuchet says

    Are bicycle helmets bad for you? Probably not as bad as (American) football helmets. I suspect they’d have fewer concussions in the NFL if they played without helmets of any kind. Or maybe just the old leather ones.

    The same arguments against bicycle helmets have of course, been made ad nauseum about motorcycle helmets.

  9. says

    Anecdote: A boy who was a year or two ahead of me at uni was a student government star while there had graduated and was working on Parliament Hill as an intern or staffer or some such. Big bright future ahead. Went out rollerblading sans helmet at his lunch hour, fell, hit his head and died.

  10. Mano Singham says

    @ G. Priddy,

    The idea that safety features encourage people to take more risks is something that has to be taken seriously. We see the same issue with people who think that anti-lock brakes and all-wheel drive allows them to drive fast on snow and icy roads. But I think that that danger is outweighed by the actual safety benefits of these things and hope that time and education will educate people to be as careful wearing them as without them.

  11. lochaber says

    I usually wear a helmet when I ride a bike, but mostly because I’ve heard it’s legally mandated in some areas around me, and I don’t want to deal with cops. I also wear a helmet when I’m on a motorcycle, but that’s mostly to keep wind and bugs out of my eyes, and to protect against grinding off part of my face if I wreck it. Also, I stuck a pair of speakers from headphones in there, and attached a small mp3 player, so I can listen to music. I’m fine with motorcycle helmet laws, I think it pretty much makes sense there.

    I’m not in favor of bicycle helmet laws. I think more should be done to encourage safe driving, and to provide bicyclists with actual safe routes, not just a ‘lane’ that serves as extra parking space for cagers.

    Lately I’ve been wondering what it would be like if a country (state, small city, etc.) banned private ownership of cars, and how that would work…

  12. says

    Those who argue against mandatory helmet and seat belt lawss use the ludicrous and idiotic argument of “personal freedom”.

    Here’s what your “personal freedom” gets you:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/03/motorcyclist-dies-helmet-protest_n_889427.html

    Motorcyclist Dies On Ride Protesting Helmet Law In New York

    ONONDAGA, N.Y. — Police say a motorcyclist participating in a protest ride against helmet laws in upstate New York died after he flipped over the bike’s handlebars and hit his head on the pavement.

    The accident happened Saturday afternoon in the town of Onondaga, in central New York near Syracuse.

    State troopers tell The Post-Standard of Syracuse that 55-year-old Philip A. Contos of Parish, N.Y., was driving a 1983 Harley Davidson with a group of bikers who were protesting helmet laws by not wearing helmets.

    Do you want a bad hair day that can be fixed by a comb and washing your hair, or a bad brain day permanently because of a skull injury?

    As for the claim of “too sweaty”, I say it’s nonsense. I ride 100-200 km per week for exercise – with a helmet – and don’t have a problem with it. I’m in a warmer climate than most of those making that claim.

  13. says

    I forgot to add:

    Most (All?) bicycle helmets nowadays have a removable liner attached by velcro. You can take it out and throw it in the washing machine.

    Sweaty and unhygenic? Only if the user doesn’t make the effort to keep it clean.

  14. countryboy says

    Mano, I always told my boys that if you have rear wheel drive you’re going in the ditch backwards, front wheel drive you’re going in frontwards, 4 wheel drive you’re going in sideways, but if you overdrive conditions you’re going in the ditch. Overdriving conditions and driving recklessly seems to be a national trait in the US these days.

  15. kyoseki says

    If you’re dumb enough to ride without a helmet I say you should be encouraged to ride without a helmet.

  16. Lofty says

    Living in a country that introduced mandatory helmet laws (MHLs) I originally was put off cycling for a while. I suspect many people just feel claustrophobic in them. Here in Australia arguments over MHLs rage continuously, with those who habitually wear helmets ridiculing those who wish to ride helmetless. Some cite studies that show reduced brain trauma across the whole population, some show adverse effects from rotational brain trauma that needs addressing by better design.
    Personally I have gotten used to helmet wearing and feel naked without one. I feel that the kind of accident that a helmet is the most useful in is the slow speed accident, such as on a slippery bike path. I’ve observed enough slow speed accidents during social group rides in the last 15 years to convince me of the value of helmet wearing. My own falls as a 12yo, helmetless, would have turned out better with a helmet. Two days in hospital for the first accident.
    Certainly modern helmets are more ventilated than their earlier versions, so cooling is really only an issue when you are going really slow. If I get to a hill too steep to ride easily I often dismount and remove my helmet in hot weather.
    Lastly helmets are useful in mounting cameras to help catch drive-off bullies, and for mounting cable ties. Why cable ties? In Australia there is a very territorial bird that vigorously defends its patch and cable ties help keep it away from your ears!

  17. TxSkeptic says

    RQ @ # waaay beat me to it, but the intriguing ‘bicycle airbag’ (iinflating helmet) is certainly an interesting approach. The big collar thing may not be a hot distraction in Sweden, however it might be a real sweat rag in the summer in the southern US.

  18. sumdum says

    Last time I ever fell on a bike was as a kid while learning to ride a bike. I can’t remember ever hearing a friend or family member hitting the ground either. Well, except for my brother, but that was due to an epileptic seizure. Just anecdotal evidence, I know. But I see little reason for myself to wear a helmet.

  19. Nick Gotts says

    There is some evidence to suggest that bicyclist who wear helmets are more likely to take risks while on the bike, resulting in more injuries, not fewer.

    [citation needed]

    But even if it is the case that helemts increase injuries, which I very much doubt, you can make yourself safer when cycling by wearing a helmet and not taking extra risks.

    But I see little reason for myself to wear a helmet.

    You can get knocked off. I’m tempted to go along with kyoseki@16, but really, I don’t want limited resources having to be devoted to the care of those who suffer brain damage through their own stupidity. (No, I’m not saying we shouldn’t treat idiots injured through their own stupidity. I’m saying “don’t be an idiot”.)

  20. mordred says

    Hmm, you made me think about this again. so far with more than 30 years riding a bike I had a few accidents, the worst of which resulted in a broken hand, the rest only in scrapes and bruises, but I never hurt my head.

    I never wore a helmet but after some falls last year I’m seriously reconsidering it. Still no thread to the head but I think my skills with the bike are deteriorating, I get older and find less time to ride each year. (Current job is to far for the bike…)

    I really think I should include a helmet to my list of things I need for the new biking season. (Currently only new tires and a better pump planned)

  21. Mano Singham says

    @ibis3,

    Stories such as these are so sad, because they might have so easily been avoided.

  22. scoobie says

    Oh boy. Study completely unrelated to wearing a helmet while riding a bike makes irrelevant conclusions followed by meaningless anecdote after meaningless anecdote. We could almost be discussing religion!

    If you think you’re going to hit your head in a low speed collision (e.g. 11mph), wearing a cycle helmet will probably reduce your head injury. That’s it. If you think there is any comparison to be made between cycle helmets and motorcycle helmets, then you really don’t get it. So for a slow-moving individual, there can be benefits amidst all the disadvantages of helmet wearing, such as, erm, overheating.

    At a wider level, wearing a helmet makes you feel safer, so you will take more risks. Obvious is obvious.
    Drivers also feel they can take more risks around helmeted cyclists than non-helmeted.

    Mandatory helmet wearing discourages bike usage. Bike use should be ENcouraged because it is SAFE, effective, pollution-free and makes you feel good. Victimising it by forcing its practitioners to wear unnecessary safety gear is counter-productive.

  23. jamessweet says

    The thing about mandatory helmet wearing leading to more risk-taking potentially leads to one of my pet paradoxes: Let’s assume for the sake of argument that this effect causes helmet laws to be a net negative. If that were the case, then optimal public policy and optimal individual policy turn out to be directly at odds. From a public policy perspective, helmet use should be neither encouraged nor discouraged*; whereas from an individual perspective, the best thing to do of course is to wear your helmet AND not take unnecessary risks.

    * Just to reiterate, I am referring only to the hypothetical scenario here. While the data suggesting increased risk-taking among helmet wearers is both intriguing and concerning, there would need to be a much stronger case before it would countermand a general public policy of encouraging (if not requiring) helmet use.

    This pattern of divergence between individual solutions and public solutions crops up again and again. I think it explains a lot of right-wing economic policy, in fact, particular in regards to the poor. Many on the right see poverty as a personal failing. We often try to debate them directly on that point, but I think that honestly kind of misses the big picture. While the vast majority of poverty is systemic, there ARE some people who are in the shits because they are lazy assholes (I know a couple personally), and those wishing to deny systemic poverty will always have anecdotes they can point to in order to defend the “personal failing” hypothesis.

    Instead, I prefer to ask: So what? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that lots of people are shiftless leeches. What are we going to do about it as a society? Bitter experience shows us that failure to provide a social safety net and to encourage upwards economic mobility ends up costing us even more in the long run, through crime, medical emergencies, and other secondary effects of poverty.

    The confusion here is about the divide between public and individual solutions. On an individual level, sure, people can make better life choices. Even if you are born into the worst circumstances, there are those who pull themselves up, and on an individual level, we should all aspire to be like that. On a public policy level, that’s just naive and stupid.

  24. says

    At a wider level, wearing a helmet makes you feel safer, so you will take more risks. Obvious is obvious.

    Mandatory helmet wearing discourages bike usage.

    No, not “obvious”, that’s an assertion without evidence. Quite to the contrary, when I get on any of my bikes, placing the helmet on my head reminds me of potential danger and hence, the reason why I’m wearing a helmet. I would also like to see some data regarding it discouraging bike usage. That’s kind of like saying that wearing running shoes to protect your feet from rocks and so forth discourages running.

    Anecdote, my brother was riding his mountain bike one day on the trails and wound up flying over the handle bars. He broke his collar bone but more importantly, he landed headfirst on a boulder. Cracked the helmet but no other problem. Without the helmet it is likely that he would have suffered severe brain trauma and quite possibly death.

  25. Gareth says

    Growing up in the Netherlands, I cycled to school everyday and never wore a helmet because there is no need, its one of, if not the safest place in the world to ride a bike.
    Now that I live in the UK I never cycle, because the roads are just so crap. Its no wonder the few people who do cycle here cycle like mad men (and they are overwelmingly men) and are more likely to suffer injuries, the more risk averse types have been chased away from cycling.

  26. colnago80 says

    Having been in a fall previous to wearing a bike helmet and later that night having to go to the emergency room of a hospital for a CAT scan, I learned the lesson the hard way. I wouldn’t ride to the end of the cul de sac that I currently live in without wearing a helmet. The arguments for not wearing a helmet are as moronic as the arguments for not wearing the combination shoulder harness/seatbelt when driving a car.

  27. Nick Gotts says

    At a wider level, wearing a helmet makes you feel safer, so you will take more risks. Obvious is obvious. Drivers also feel they can take more risks around helmeted cyclists than non-helmeted. – scoobie

    You winge about anecdotes, and then make claims utterly unsupported by anything except your own intuition that they are “obvious”. Pfft.

  28. dean says

    The idea that safety features encourage people to take more risks is something that has to be taken seriously.

    If you’re going to make statements like that you should also note that people who cycle a great deal realize that it is an inherently risky hobby and so tend to be more aware of the possibility of accidents – which negates the “risky behavior” comment.

    sumdum, anyone who rides a great deal will fall sometime, either because of some dick motorist cutting them off, an animal in the road, sand on a curve, etc. If you choose not to wear a helmet so be it, but there is a very good reason folks like you are referred to as organ donors by many riders. Even a slow-speed fall, sideways, can put you at risk, as your head is then (essentially) on the end of the long whip that is your body and can whang to the surface with a good deal of force.

  29. Pierce R. Butler says

    Some (British) studies claimed, decades ago, that mandatory seat belt usage was causing drivers to feel more secure and take more chances, resulting in increased injuries… to bicyclists and pedestrians.

    Ergo, seat belt laws lead to helmet laws (insert Randian rant of choice here, or a bike helmets = mark o’ the beast rant if you got one).

  30. snoeman says

    jimf:

    “Quite to the contrary, when I get on any of my bikes, placing the helmet on my head reminds me of potential danger and hence, the reason why I’m wearing a helmet.”

    This is how I feel about it as well. I’m conditioned to the point I would no more consider riding without my helmet than I would driving without wearing my seat belt. But I suspect that’s partly a condition of my environment. If Seattle’s cycling infrastructure was as good as Amsterdam’s, I might feel differently.

    My own anecdote is that I got into a very low-speed (probably only going 5-7mph) crash last summer. A touch of wheels, and down I went. I broke the fall with my head, and required a trip to the ER and a bunch of stitches around my eye. I was lucky not to have damaged my eye and lucky to have escaped a concussion. I think I have the helmet to thank for the lack of a concussion. I would imagine the injury would have been worse without it, but I’m not willing to repeat the experience without a helmet as a control to see if it makes a difference.

  31. says

    Wow. Did someone really just criticize the use of anecdotes in this thread and the applicability of the study to real world conditions…and then argue that “obvious is obvious,” or did I imagine that?

    Comparing low speed impact related head injuries on motorcycles and bicycles is actually quite valid.

  32. says

    I wonder what percentage of the people who chose not to wear helmets and went on to have an accident and subsequent serious head injury were very confident that, because they had never fallen and struck their head before, and didn’t know anyone who had either, that wearing a helmet was an unnecessary precaution.

  33. Obscure reference says

    I have two anecdotes so my conclusions are better, right?

    First, as a teenager I was on the back of a bike driven by my brother, who is a careful driver. Had to wear helmets because we’re under 18 and Mom & Dad said so. And I wanted to keep my face intact.
    He got cut off by inattentive car driver, we nicked a parked car and I got knocked off the back. My head bounced on the pavement a few times as I slid to a stop. Had some other minor injuries to my knee and shin, but no head injury. The scrapes on the helmet would have been on my scalp instead. Not pretty.

    Other one, in my mid twenties, my (then) husband and I bought a motorcycle. He was going to go out and practice riding. (I tried to talk him into a training course but he was too arrogant since he’d ridden a friend’s cycle years ago.) Since didn’t have a license I insisted that he wear my helmet. He wiped out at low speed. The helmet (full face) had some deep scratches right on the front and by the ear. I pointed out to him that that would have been his face on the pavement. Not to mention the chance of a concussion.

    Helmets save lives and also disfigurement. Whether on a bicycle or a motorcycle.

  34. richardrobinson says

    I haven’t seen any discussion here about the relative severity of the putative injuries. In the debates about seat belts and airbags, injuries caused by the safety devices (mostly bruises and chemical burns) were cited as reasons not to use them, despite the fact that far more severe injuries were much less common when the safety devices were used.

    I suspect the same is true here; we’re trading traumatic brain injuries for scrapes, bruises and broken bones. I think that’s a good trade.

    Regarding behaviour, I recall reading several years ago that drivers treat cyclists differently based on whether the cyclist was wearing a helmet, given those without helmets a wider berth.

  35. elpayaso says

    bah. since i got my new “Stand Your Ground” ™ bicycle helmet with the integrated fire-control system linked to my Guardian Angel ™ drone, them car drivers have learned to stay away from me…… that school bus driver would never cut off another bicyclist, if he’d lived……..

    more seriously, add me to “anecdotes ain’t data but i got one” brigade. i dropped my first motorcycle at speed no greater than i regularly hit on a bicycle and bounced down the road on my face. altho the full face helmet was trashed (ground down the chin bar), i kept it around to show kids why you should wear one. unsurprisingly, pointing out that you’ll be nicknamed “pizza face” and “never get laid again” seems to get the attention of young males more than the risk of brain damage.

  36. dean says

    I have had two unfortunate helmet – related incidents: one my fault, one not.

    The first time I rode RAGBRAI, since I would be camping in Iowa in late July, I shaved my head for ease of maintenance. As we were gathering up for the first day’s ride I noticed that I was the only person who was not donning a covering rag or tight-fitting cap under my helmet, but didn’t understand why others were. At the end of the day, when my head was covered with air-vent shaped sunburns, I understood.

    The other time: an errant hornet found its way inside my helmet. Only two stings before I could get it off and the hornet out, but I did not enjoy it.

  37. kyoseki says

    There was a used helmet hanging on the wall at the motorcycle shop I used to go to that had clearly been wrapped around a light pole or something at some point.

    Seriously, there was a 3-4″ wide gouge straight down the middle of the crown of the helmet, if he hadn’t been wearing it, his head would easily have been split in half.

    On the other end of the spectrum, there was an instructor running an MSF training course in LA who was doing something as innocuous as simply walking backwards in a parking lot, tripped, fell over backwards and cracked his head, died on the spot.

    You don’t need to have a major collision for helmets to do their job, do you want to be left eating crayons for the rest of your life because you fell off a bike at walking pace and hit your head on the curb?

    One thing that you can say about helmets is that they protect you from the “wow, really?” types of fatalities.

    That said, if you choose not to wear one because you’re an idiot who likes to take needless risks, you should be allowed to do so.

  38. sumdum says

    Sure, I might get knocked off. I might also get struck by lightning, but certain risks are small enough that we accept them and go through life without special precautions. Perhaps if I lived somewhere else I might wear a helmet, but here the risk is tiny to the point I won’t bother.

  39. scoobie says

    Wow. Did someone really just criticize the use of anecdotes in this thread and the applicability of the study to real world conditions…and then argue that “obvious is obvious,” or did I imagine that?

    So you’re only willing to risk cycling with a helmet on whilst claiming that wearing a helmet doesn’t make you take more risks. How does that work, exactly?

    Comparing low speed impact related head injuries on motorcycles and bicycles is actually quite valid.

    Only if you’re wearing the same helmet in both cases. Which you’re not.

    I wonder what percentage of the people who chose not to wear helmets and went on to have an accident and subsequent serious head injury were very confident that, because they had never fallen and struck their head before, and didn’t know anyone who had either, that wearing a helmet was an unnecessary precaution.

    Probably less than the percentage of holier-than-thou helmet wearers who were surprised at receiving significant head injuries despite/because of wearing a helmet.

    I have been astonished at the overwhelmingly reactionary attitudes towards cycling on this thread. Really quite depressing.

  40. aspidoscelis says

    kyoseki wrote:

    On the other end of the spectrum, there was an instructor running an MSF training course in LA who was doing something as innocuous as simply walking backwards in a parking lot, tripped, fell over backwards and cracked his head, died on the spot.

    Ergo, pedestrians should wear helmets. Further, given that more pedestrians than cyclists are killed in the U.S. by vehicular collisions:

    http://www.pedbikeinfo.org/data/factsheet_crash.cfm

    Presumably a greater societal good would be achieved by requiring pedestrians rather than cyclists to wear helmets. And, of course, your risks for head injury don’t stop there! Presumably, we should all be wearing helmets more or less constantly. After all, wearing a helmet reduces your risk of head injury and that’s a good thing, right? Wearing a helmet has negligible disadvantages, right?

    So far as I can tell, arguments in favor of wearing a helmet while cycling have more to do with our society’s view of cycling as an exceptional–and exceptionally dangerous–optional activity rather than as simply a normal part daily life than they have to do with any objective assessment of risk. See also:

    http://www.daclarke.org/AltTrans/BikesDangerous.html

    We think cycling is a lot more dangerous than it really is. Just get out and ride, with or without a helmet. If you want to increase cycling safety, your effort is better spent on bike-friendly city planning than on worrying about helmets. Although the danger to cyclists isn’t as high as we think it is, that danger isn’t caused by a lack of helmets–it’s caused by motorists.

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