So I'm pulling this helmet conversation out of the comments of another post so that it doesn't overwhelm or confuse that issue.
It started when old guy wrote
Not wearing a helmet while riding on that road -- indeed any road -- is pretty dumb. Why don't folks understand this?
Which led me to ask
I wear a helmet. But let me ask this question, why is riding a bike without a helmet dumb?
I asked this because I have a somewhat weak opinion about helmets. About as strong as I can state it is "I think you're probably better off wearing a helmet." I can't really back that up with any hard data. I would probably do better than arguing the opposite, but still not very well. So I wince when people decide to call others stupid for not wearing one or when they freak out about because Ellen Jones is riding a bike on the front page of the Washington Post and she's not wearing a helmet. People react with the same alarm they would if she were teaching a baby to smoke. But no one has ever been able to make a particularly convincing argument that bike helmets save lives or prevent head injuries.
I also wince when Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize belittles people who do wear helmets for largely the same reason. He can't really convince me that a helmet is a useless talisman. The helmet most of us use now wasn't invented until 1990, so for the argument that we're becoming wimps and "I didn't wear one when I was a kid" I say, they didn't exist when you were a kid. We used to not use seat belts, but a seat belt has probably saved the life of every member of my family at least once. We're not becoming wimps, we're getting new tools.
old guy replied:
because if you're going to ride a bike, at some point you're going to fall off. And wearing a helmet so increases the probability of surviving such an event, at such small cost, none but a fool would eschew that protection.
So, there are activities for which we wear helmets (football, whitewater rafting, hockey etc...) and those for which we don't (tennis, basketball, reading, etc...). There is some line drawn between activities where a helmet is necessary and those for which we think it is unnecessary. But that line, for most people I've talked to, is arbitrarily drawn. It has much more to do with social norms and gut feelings than it does with facts.
Ideally, helmet wearing activities would have a probability of a head impact above 0 at some number p and there would exist a helmet that would improve the survivability and/or reduce injuries. The value of p is pretty arbitrary. In fact no one could probably name that value for themselves. And even if you did, it would be difficult to know the probability of head impact for cycling or any other activity. So you've sort of pulled a number p out of thin air and then placed cycling above or below that value again based on numbers you made up (of you're own experience which has some value but is probably not too reliable).
Originally helmet use started with bike racing, which is - from my observation - much more likely to result in a fall than riding around town. Cyclists ride fast, close together, in positions that maximize speed at the expense of visibility and maneuverability and so, wearing a helmet makes more sense. But then helmet use moved into recreational and transportational riding. So the rise of helmets in day-to-day riding may have started as a fashion choice which would have little to do with safety.
Even if it did start as fashion, does wearing a helmet when riding make sense? Not as much sense as when racing (which is what the guy on the cover of the City Paper was probably thinking. Racing is above the line. Riding is below the line), but it still might make sense depending on where your line is. For Barack Obama, riding with his family on closed roads may be below the line.
Oddly, by his statement, old guy hasn't been arbitrary. He has named his p, p>0. People have hit their head while cycling, and if you ride long enough, so will you. Therefore you should wear a helmet. That's actually a very respectable and defensible position.
But if p>0 is your line then you need to make a list of every single activity you do where there is a chance of hitting your head and then wear a helmet - if one exists that works - or else you're "dumb". Which is basically what I wrote back to him.
The National Safety Council estimates that there are 25,000 slip and fall accidents for pedestrians every DAY, and that every year 16,000 people die from such falls. Many of these injuries and fatalities are in the form of head injuries. Do you wear a helmet when walking around? If you walk around, eventually you're going to fall. Do you wear a helmet in a car? If you drive around, eventually you're going to hit something?
old guy modified his position.
25,000/the billions of walking trips is minuscule compared to the proportion of biking trips that end in falls.
So his line is arbitrary. It's above 0 and above whatever he thinks the probability of hitting his head while walking is and below whatever he thinks the probability of hitting his head while cycling is. That's fair. He knows himself better than I do. Maybe he's a safe walker but a reckless cyclist. Whatever. I don't care. And I don't think he's stupid. Because my placement of the line is just as arbitrary as his. But we all need to recognize that we've made this arbitrary and largely indefensible decision and thus no one is dumber than us if they come up with a different decision. And so, if you're going to call people who choose a different helmet choice than you "stupid" or "dumb" I'm going to ask you to defend your position with facts (that don't exist).
guez has also put his line above walking and below cycling, but admits that it comes from his gut.
It's only illogical to wear a helmet while cycling--or playing hockey, or skateboarding, or walking around a construction site--but not while walking if the danger of serious head injury while walking is equal or greater than that of these other activities. While I can't prove it, I suspect that it isn't.
Though I haven't embraced the Copenhagenization "pedestrian/motorist helmet" meme I was using those activities as examples. I don't believe in memes in general as I find them shrill. Still I might wonder about certain types of walking. What if you're drunk? Would your chance of getting serious head injury while walking being greater than cycling sober? What about drunk at night? What about drunk at night and in the snow and ice? I mean, I've seen drunk people walk in the snow and they fall down a lot. So should they wear a helmet?
Somehow old guy thinks this means I'm arguing against helmet use.
You know as I think about it, I really find it reprehensible that some novice reading this thread would see how you, a paragon of bicycling wisdom, are arguing against using a helmet.
I'm not. If you want my opinion, I'll restate it. I think you're probably better off wearing a helmet. I wear a helmet.
I'm confident that you're better off riding a bike. So if a helmet keeps you from riding then don't wear one, you might regret it, but on average the benefits of riding probably outweigh the risks of not wearing a helmet.
For those who would call a non-helmeted cyclist dumb I'd also ask this: have you taken a confident city cyclist course - which by the way is free? If not, are you dumb? I suspect that getting every cyclist to take that course would save significantly more lives than getting a helmet on them.
And finally, if you suspect that the danger of serious head injury while walking isn't equal to or greater than cycling I'd point you to some study results on cyclehelmets.org
The road users most at risk from head injury are pedestrians and young drivers.
Helmets for motorists are much more effective than those for cyclists and more beneficial than seat belts, interior padding or air bags. Their potential for reducing injury is 17 times greater than that of cycle helmets.
And from statistics here in the states. The ratio of walk commuters to bike commuters is 5.6 to 1 (2.8/0.5) The ratio of pedestrian deaths to cyclist deaths is 6.7 to 1 (4644/698). So you and I may not have our lines in the right place.