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Yet another rant to let off steam
“Helmets? What’s the issue? They make cycling safer.”
How many times do you hear these phrases trotted out? In my mind too often. Why don’t I like them? Well to be quite honest and to answer the above, there’s a huge issue and no they don’t make cycling safer. Those people who claim that their helmet saved their life, how can they be certain? I’m not going to dispute it, but I hear of too many people who have had an accident, looked at the small dent in a very soft foam, and relate that to death; when in reality all they’d have is a grazed scalp and a desire to reach for a paracetamol.
So am I claiming that helmets are useless and not worth wearing? No, not at all. And this is why the helmet debate goes on and on.
But before we go any further I’d like to remind you of some of the rules of this website. I am not an expert in this field. I have read and discussed this topic to some lengths, but only for my own interest; not for qualifications nor to be able to teach it to others. This document is written with the intention of making you think, to ask your own questions, and then for you to do your own research. If you know of something that you think is critical to help others think about this topic then please let me know and I’ll seriously consider adding it. Now lets read and think!
In the smallest, simplest and most logical sense, it’s obvious that helmets “must” be a good thing because the head is padded and protected. Go and perform the basic test, strike a wall hard with your head, then repeat whilst wearing a helmet. Which did you prefer? Yes the helmet gave protection so it “must” be a good thing.
Now go and look at a photo of a cycle racer who has crashed badly (or if you’re mad enough go and do it yourself). Look at the grazed face, the broken cheekbones, the broken or dislocated jaw. What good did their helmet give them? Well ok I’ll admit that we do not know, but it certainly didn’t protect them from skull injury.
My next two questions now. One, put your helmet on (properly) and try to press yourself flat into the wall or floor, as if you’d been thrown there by an impact. You won’t be able to, unless you twist your neck into an unnatural position. And Two, what are we really trying to protect? Our skulls or our brains?
The reason I link these is that there is evidence come to light which suggests that helmets could, in some cases, actually cause injuries. I know one person with spinal injuries which her physio believes to have been caused by her helmet twisting her neck during a low speed slide on ice. I was lucky last time I fell off not to suffer the same; I had a graze on my shoulder just under my ear, and this proves that had I been wearing a helmet it would have hit the ground.
There is a study which shows that because a helmeted head has a greater diameter than a plain skull, the head can be forced to rotate much faster during an accident. This rotation, as well as damaging (or breaking) the neck can detach the brain from the inside of the skull, causing brain injury or death. This injury is not associated purely with cycling, but also other sports such as American Football and boxing where helmets are used.
So if helmets are dangerous, why do the sporting bodies mandate their use? Well I believe the answer is twofold. The risks appear small in relation to the protection; and the injuries only became apparent after helmets were used, remember I said above that logically you’d expect padding to help.
In some ways cycle helmets are better than other helmets. They’re lighter and smaller. Look at motor racing where a new safety device has had to be created to prevent the mass of the helmet and head from injuring the neck during high speed accidents. But in other ways they’re worse than other helmets, my motorcycle helmet is smooth all over to prevent it catching on the floor and twisting my neck, as well as protecting my head. However there’s no way I’d want to wear that helmet for cycling. It’s too heavy and too hot. The weight, as in motor racing adds too much to the head, as will be suggested by an undertaker friend of mine who says that the majority of motorcycle casualties he collects are relatively unharmed other than the broken neck.
So after all this doom and gloom, what benefits do helmets give and why do I often wear one?
Well the benefits that helmets give are that they will protect the head in a small simple blow (as when you hit your head against the wall above). They will, more importantly protect the head should you be unlucky enough to strike it against the corner of a kerb. Helmets will also, as long as they don’t twist, protect your scalp from grazing.
The difficult thing is working out whether you will fall in a way which will require a helmet for protection, or a lack of helmet to prevent injury! Actually, lets take a step back, and look at the real way of preventing injury.
What injuries can occur? Head injuries, whilst they can be serious, are not the common injury. Broken collar bones are the most common cycling injury; together with grazed arms and legs. Will helmets protect from this? Nope.
Therefore we have to look at either full body armour, full face helmets and so on. This still won’t protect us should we be run over by a car. All it will do is make us hot, uncomfortable, less able to concentrate on cycling safely and more likely to stop cycling altogether.
What we have to do is to concentrate on accident prevention, rather than injury limitation.
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