Bike Helmets Bad For Cyclists?

Just in time for prime bike season: news that wearing a bike helmet may actually increase your chances of an accident involving a motor vehicle. I'm not just pulling your leg, this makes a lot of sense to me. But I've done a little reading on it, so let me throw the links at you...

Neatorama reports on
a Scientific American article about
the findings of University of Bath's Dr. Ian Walker.

As a perennial pedestrian, people-watcher and rider of public transportation, I have no problem whatsoever getting behind Walker's reason for conducting this road safety study.
His road safety work is currently considering questions relating to how drivers' attentional and decision-making mechanisms affect the safety of vulnerable road user groups such as pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists. Of particular interest at the moment is the issue of how our natural tendency to "read" other people (i.e., to interpret their gaze signals and other non-verbal communications) affects the safety of vulnerable groups.
[via Ian Walker's site]
I've worn a bike helmet ever since I started biking through the city. I've never been hit, but Chicago traffic is always more dense and less predictable than, say, DeKalb traffic. I do remember first wearing kneepads and a helmet while skateboarding on a half-pipe, and feeling invincible. But I also get the feeling that certain accidents are likely to happen regardless of the cyclist's choice of headgear.

Does wearing a helmet just say to everyone "the wearing of this helmet is totally protected"? It would seem that some effect like this is indeed at play. Do you think drivers are more likely to take precaution when a cyclist is not wearing a helmet?


bigsoda said...

Claude Shannon's Information Theory work describes how we mitigate noise in communication by providing para-content. In other words, I can say the words "that's a great idea" to you with many different inflections and facial expressions and mean as many different things. The message is the sum of the content and the para-content. It seems to me that the actual content being exchanged on the road (e.g. "left turn coming") is pretty minimal. Even more so when it's abstracted to a hand signal or flashing light. The way we mitigate the relative paucity of content and abundance of noise is by providing para-content through eye contact. Anything that infringes upon the ability to exchange para-content leaves room for noise and misinterpretation of intention. While the helmet may provide protection from the result of an impact, it may actually make the impact more likely.

E said...

I've done a lot of bike riding in the city including commuting to work in rush hour traffic for the better part of two years. I've been involved in two crashes, and various other scrapes, including being sideswiped, intentionally even.

This study primarily deals with vehicles passing a bike traveling in the same direction. To me, the findings do indeed make sense, but so what? Consider the limited circumstances being tested here before you decide whether to wear your helmet or not.

Very few Auto/bicycle accidents occur in which the bicycle is rear-ended. Both of the crashes I was involved in were due to cars moving in the opposite direction making a turn at a bad time. Neither driver saw me. In one case they should have, in the other, I can't really blame the driver due to the traffic conditions. I was wearing my helmet in both cases, but luckily, never landed on my head.

Based on my experiences, regardless of what the driver may be thinking, if they see you, you're in better shape than if they don't. I know quite a few people who have been doored, and that really only happens when someone is oblivious to a bicycle in their presence.

Wearing a helmet may make for a more harrowing ride as cars pass you, but cars coming from behind are one of the least frightening things to deal with, at least for me personally, because you can still predict their behavior fairly easily.

I'm still gonna wear my helmet.

Bigsoda-How would wearing a helmet infringe on exchanging para-content? In my experience, eye contact is definitely immensely valuable, but generally not hampered by wearing a helmet. Plus, there's not much chance for eye contact when being overtaken from behind.

bigsoda said...

Take my comments with a grain of salt since I am not a biker (a fact to which my sorry physique will reluctantly testify). My understanding of PYLB's assumption was that the helmet provided a false sense of security and, therefore, a reduced level of awareness of the rider's surroundings. My point was only that vigilance is a better avoider of accidents while helmets are a better avoider of injury. If the reduced awareness assumption is accepted, avoiding injury reduces vigilance, and you see where I'm going with this...

pylbug said...

Right. I am not suggesting that it's safer to not wear a helmet, but that it takes more than a helmet to be safe. And that's it's ironic that a helmet may actually increase the chance of a car getting too close to you on your bike.

I think bigsoda sums it up well when he says the helmet does more to prevent injury while vigilance does more to prevent incident.

Jason said...

As you know, I bike and walk almost exclusively. This has included lots of riding in busy Chicago traffic. I've had more near colisions with cars then I can count. Like E said, most of those have been with cars coming from the other direction making a turn in front of me. Others were from a car moving in the same direction trying to speed past me and then make a right turn immediately right in from of me. Also I've had lots of near misses with car doors opening. The only serious accident I was in was when I got the car door opened right in front of me. I was flipped from my bike and landed smack on my head. Or more specifically, my helmet. The helmet cracked in half, I was dazed and scratched but pretty much okay although my hand hurt for a couple months. I'm scared to think what would have happened if I wasn't wearing a helmet. I've continued to wear a helmet ever since and still shudder when I see peoople on bikes speed by me not wearing one.