I don't wear a cycle helmet any more. This page is to explain my reasons in one place so I don't keep repeating myself, so I can add references without re-finding them every time and in case we ever need to demonstrate the logic of this decision quickly.
Would helmet promoters stop before this?
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I don't wear a cycle helmet any more because:
- Helmets became a pain in the neck. Literally - my neck and shoulders hurt often. Balancing an extra quarter-kilo-plus as far from your neck as possible doesn't seem like the greatest idea if you ride much, especially on our rough roads. I was worried I might be doing lasting damage and when I switched from helmet to lighter hats (a fleecy beanie in winter, a cotton cap in summer), the pain lessened and gradually went away.
- In a collision, a helmet's extra weight and also extra size would make my head a larger, heavier object and I think that would defeat my instinct to protect my head, as well as potentially increase rotational and strangulation injury risks. Helmet wearers seem to report head impacts more often despite being a minority of cyclists.
- Helmets probably won't help in a collision: they're designed for simple impacts with no-one else involved. I rarely crash like that and when I have, it's been trivial, without any head impact and helmets are too big a cost for an improbable benefit to me. If a motorist hit me, it seems like a helmet would be an irrelevance, at best. Chris Boardman said "I manufacture the things. In an incident with a car they will have almost no effect."
- Despite an obvious physical benefit in certain types of impacts, research seems to suggest that helmets do not offer a significant benefit overall, although much research has serious problems. Something must be counteracting the impact protection and we don't really know what yet. No-one seems to be doing crash dummy tests. The oft-cited 85% risk reduction was so dodgy that the US government is no longer allowed to use it.
- Modern helmets probably won't help in a fall that would injure me: they're tested from a lower height than my head and falling onto only a flat surface or a kerb. When I've crashed, it's usually because of damage to or debris on the road or cycle track. When I started wearing a helmet, they were also tested for falling onto a lump/stone shape - which seems much more a worry to me - but most aren't any more, which may be why modern EuroNorm helmets are lighter and "gappier" than my first Snell-approved one.
- Helmet straps are a source of artificial wind noise and I believe that my (already imperfect) hearing is useful when riding because I can hear cyclists' bells, car horns, approaching engines, shouts and so on. I don't wear headphones for the same reason. I do sometimes listen to a speaker (including a sat nav speaker) but I can hear loud noises over that.
- Helmets are too hot in summer (they're mostly foam insulation) and too cold in winter (thanks to all the vents in modern designs). There's some evidence in other sports that a hotter brain is a dafter brain, basically, and I'd rather have all my wits about me while riding. Some people wear caps or buffs under their helmets to help with sweating or the cold, despite explicit warnings against doing so by many manufacturers - I don't think it's worth wearing a helmet if you're going to impair it like that.
- Helmets are impractical - it's a fairly large object to lug around your destination, protecting from knocks and scratches - they're too big for most briefcases and havesacks, or a small rucksack if you have anything else in there. Can you imagine how much less popular motoring would be if drivers had to carry an F1 helmet around at their destination? Also, it's inconvenient to carry one for a whole trip just in case you might hire a cycle and I wouldn't trust a hired helmet that has probably been knocked about.
- Helmet-wearing contributes to the false belief that cycling is particularly dangerous and deters people from cycling (the "second round effects" mentioned in the BMJ article). I want more people to cycle because that means fewer people motoring which means less serious collisions.
- Helmet-wearing moves us closer to legislators forcing helmet-wearing, according to a government petition response.
- There's a little evidence that motorists drive closer to helmetted riders and that people wearing helmets take more risks. Both of these are marginal, but may be part of the reason cycle helmets don't show a real-world benefit to users.
- All the helmet-wearers claiming that they crashed and their helmet saved their lives are annoying, contribute to the false belief of danger and logically cannot all be true because far more cyclists claim to have been saved than were ever killed before.
- Helmets are a massive distraction from real road danger reduction. Chris Boardman again: "it's not in the top ten things that you can do to keep safe."
- Helmet-company-sponsored advocates like James "Crackpot" Cracknell often use emotional blackmail like "Even if you don't care enough about yourself to wear a helmet, other people care about you" when urging people to wear helmets, which makes me very very suspicious that the evidence for their desired change is unsound. In fact, I care enough about myself and my family and friends to have considered this subject more deeply than most and made a rational decision to NOT wear a helmet, both for my own safety and for the good of society.
- Where helmet use has been forced by law, it has sometimes been through underhand tactics like lack of parliamentary process (New Zealand) or publishing forcer-sponsored evidence only on the day of the debate (Jersey). This again suggests that the evidence is too weak to support such laws. The data gathered since the laws in New Zealand and Australia seems controversial, but I feel that plotting graphs suggests that helmet-forcing laws have reduced the numbers cycling and not reduced the rates of head injuries.
- and yes, of course, helmets look awful and mess up your hair. This isn't a major reason, but even Crackpot Cracknell acknowledges it, albeit while claiming the rest of the downsides don't exist. I do prefer to arrive at my destination looking more ordinary than a motorist, rather than some sort of armoured stormtrooper. Helmet promoters often suggest that this is the only reason, or the main one: as the above list shows, it really isn't.
In my opinion, the only sound reason to wear a cycle helmet in the UK at the moment is Highway Code Rule 59 says you should, although it was apparently included based on little/no evidence and didn't appear in earlier editions when far more people cycled. Some cyclists fear that ignoring the Highway Code could lead to a reduction in compensation for injuries if a motorist runs them over, but many cases like Smith v Finch 2009 have upheld precedents that "the burden is on the Defendant to prove (i) that the Claimant failed to take ordinary care of himself, or in other words, to take such care as a reasonable man would take for his own safety by not wearing a helmet and (ii) that his failure was a contributory cause of the damage" so damages would not necessarily be reduced. (Note: much of the non-legal reasoning in that judgement seems in doubt due to later research IMO.)
However, I think the best way to deal with that reason is to remove that and similar cyclist-bashing from the Highway Code ASAP and I will support any campaign to do so.
If you still wear a helmet despite the reasons above, please wear it in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions, else you're getting all of the drawbacks without even the limited impact protection.
In particular, please check your helmet manual before potentially negating any protection by wearing another hat underneath it - or worse, a helmet that slips off could easily cause worse injuries than no helmet. Many manufacturers specifically say not to do it. A few examples:
Kask: "Never wear anything under your helmet except for a winter cap accessory specifically designed for your helmet and supplied by your helmet manufacturer." (way to corner that winter cap market, Kask!)
Trek/Bontrager: "Anything between your head and the helmet can reduce the protection. A cap, scarf, or even some high-volume hairstyles might allow the helmet to move during an impact. Barrettes, headphones, or anything else under your helmet can injure you if the helmet is impacted."
Giant: "YOU SHOULD NEVER ... Wear anything under your helmet"
Specialized : "Do not wear anything underneath your helmet, such as a cap, hood, bundled hair, headphones, barrettes, as the helmet may loosen or come off."
Bell : YOU SHOULD NEVER: "5. Wear anything under your helmet."
Giro "4) DON’T Wear anything hard or sharp under your helmet."
Even a close-fitting cap with flat seams can help a helmet to slide around and not provide the designed impact protection in a crash. Please follow the manufacturer's advice and tell others to do so. Telling others to still use a helmet but to ignore the maker's instructions is a logically-inconsistent position: if you think the makers know what they're doing, then you should follow their advice; if you think the makers don't know what they're doing, then why would you trust their products?
Finally, please don't push me to wear a helmet, especially not by supporting divisive tactics like club or event helmet-forcing rules.
If anyone wants to discuss this please contact me. Thanks.
10 Feb 2016, MJR