Bike Helmets: 30 Years of Protection || I am a firm believer

I started wearing bike helmets 30 years ago and I firmly believe it has made me a safer cyclist.  I’d like to share why I am so supportive of wearing a bicycle helmet and why it’s safer.  Thanks for reading and watching!  How do you feel about helmets for cycling?

The Setting

Last weekend, I had a great reminder of why I appreciate wearing a bike helmet when bike commuting, sport cycling, doing errands, or just riding around with my children. Last weekend during a trail running race here in South Africa on some very technical and rough trails, I tripped and could not get my hands down quickly enough to avoid my head impacting the ground on the side of my head just beside my left eye. It was a big hit and led to cuts to my face, a black eye and a serious whack to my head. I was a bit stunned but was able to continue although my seriously battered and bloody appearance shocked many people around me. (My thanks to the medics in the finish area for helping clean me up and the icepack!)

Why and When I Started Wearing a Helmet for Cycling

Given that I was running, the type of fall and head impact I had was pretty similar to coming off one’s bicycle at a lower speed. I was extremely fortunate to only hit my head on the very hard dirt ground and not the rocks all around where I had impacted. Hitting those rocks would have been a catastrophe given how hard my head impacted the ground. During the remainder of that running race and thereafter, it occurred to me that I hadn’t had such a head injury in cycling since the late 1980s. Having learned to ride in the 1970s and then into the 1980s, there really wasn’t a helmet option or consideration. I suffered more than a few falls and hits to the head and facial injuries similar to last weekend’s injury.

It wasn’t until I got into bicycle commuting to high school in the mid 1980s that I realised the value of wearing a helmet. A few years into it, a driver passed me and seconds later turned a hard 90 degrees across my path to enter a filling station. It happened so quickly that I had no where to go other than hitting the front side of her car at speed, being thrown over the handlebars and hitting the pavement very hard including my head hitting the ground. I’d been doing my best to be safe but that was not enough. It was then that I realised the value of getting one of the bike helmets that were appearing in bike shops, you know the real Styrofoam looking helmets.

Since that accident in the late 1980s, I have worn helmets and gotten as used to wearing a bike helmet as buckling up my seat belt. I love every form of cycling be it training, racing, travel touring, commuting, and spending fantastic quality time with my children.

Throughout the decades, I can’t believe the debate that has continued as to whether bike helmets should be made mandatory. I am encouraged that many countries have made it mandatory for children given the number of falls and hit impacts I had as a child. For my kids it’s just a habit since they have worn them since day one.

Hurray for Safer Cycling Environments!

It is also wonderful how many countries and cities have undertaken building fantastic safer cycling infrastructure such as keeping cyclists and motorists more separated. Laws have been passed in favour of cycling safety. In many cases, cities have really been transformed to improve safer active living with cycling and walking in mind. Accidents still occur for cyclists even when they are benefitting from these safety measures. One can still suffer falls from a bike even if one is being cautious.

But Gravity has not been Eliminated

In all my adult years of cycling, I’ve had falls from time to time. Never had I predicted when a fall would occur. The circumstances were always different and ranged from being hit by other cyclists, my front wheel slipping on wet leaves, an off-leash dog darting across my path, a mistake while riding in trails, etc… In many types of crashes, when a helmet absorbs an impact, it is permanently damaged in the process and then needs to be thrown out. I’ve had to replace 3 or 4 deformed helmets in my 30 years of wearing helmets. Fortunately, years and years have passed by between cycling incidents where I had a head impact caused by the ground, a tree, or whatever. My point is that I never predicted when each of those head impacts was to happen and therefore been given me the opportunity to prevent it from happening.

The Mandatory or Not Debates

In all these decades, I have heard the debates of whether helmets should be made mandatory and heard statistics of there “only” being a few hundred cyclists killed each year despite the millions of kilometres travelled by bike in a particular country each year. But what if more of those cyclists had been in the habit of wearing a helmet? How many fewer cyclists of those hundreds per year of deaths would have occurred each and every year. Yes, many deaths occur when major trauma is inflicted to other parts of the human body. But many deaths and permanent injuries occur when the trauma is to the fragile human skull and brain. My running fall, which really simulated a low speed cycling fall, reminded me why I am such a firm believer of adopting cycling helmets for biking.

We each have to decide where we draw the line in terms of adopting safety measures. Running head injuries are very rare. My running fall and head injury last weekend was pretty out of the ordinary as it was in extremely rough off-trail terrain and it was my first running head impact injury, I believe, ever. In talking about my fall and injury with my children and me saying that I could not have hit that part of my head on the ground had I been wearing a bike helmet, one of my children suggested wearing my bike helmet for my next extreme trail running race of that type. Smart kid. “Daddy, you could have avoided that injury!”

So Many Factors So I Try To Reduce The Risk To My Head In Case Of A Cycling Fall

I really hope that cities and countries all over the world continue to improve cycling infrastructure, to adopt and enforce laws in favour of protecting cyclists and pedestrians, and that cycling continues to be made safer each year. I guess the reality with cycling is that falls still occur even in increasingly safer environments. Even in the so-called safest countries, cycling head injuries still occur. Hitting my head during my running race last weekend in a way that I haven’t hit it in cycling since I adopted wearing my helmets 30 years ago reminded me of how happy I am with that habit.

I’m Happy With My Decision

Mandatory for adults or not. You decide. It just makes sense to me. Sure, it is still a foreign concept in many places but one serious head impact is enough to validate having adopted wearing a bike helmet even if it is only ever decade or so.

I’m also glad my children are growing up where it is just a habit for them and I can’t see them suddenly abandoning their helmets as they grow older and become adult cyclists.  I’m happy about that, too.

However you cycle and which ever decision you take regarding helmets, I hope you have a lifetime of safer cycling ahead of you.

Some Parallels to Downhill Skiing Helmets, no?

The 1970s to 1990s rarely saw a (non-competition) downhill skier wear some sort of ski helmet.  When a friend of mine hit a chairlift pole head first after a reckless skier had collided with him, a modern day downhill ski helmet would likely have lessened the severity of his major head trauma.  He spent many days in a coma before finally awaking.  A modern ski helmet might have limited the effects of the crash to a concussion.

As a result of living abroad extensively in the last dozen years and having rare access to downhill skiing, when I have a rare opportunity to downhill ski, I continue to be amazed at the number of children and adults who now wear them.  It seems most ski resorts now require helmets for children and youth.  I don’t think most resorts make it a requirement for adults and yet most adults now wear them.  Ski resorts are for profit businesses and yet they haven’t shied away from mandating helmets or suggesting their use.  Have massive numbers of skiers refused to ski as a result of the helmet requirements for children and youth?  I don’t think so.  Ski hills seem as packed as ever.  People have just made them a habit.

For years after people started adopting helmets, many people refused to wear them on account of it eliminating the skiing sensations such as the wind against one’s face.  I admit that I, too, was a rather late adopter of ski helmets.  It was only three years ago that I wore a ski helmet for the first time.  It was merely an hour or two and I forgot it was there.  It even helped keep my head warmer.  Now a downhill ski helmet feels as normal as my cycling helmet and car seatbelt.

Do you feel that helmets make cycling and downhill skiing safer in the case of a fall?

Join the conversation below and please be respectful.  I respect the differing views.

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