Any activity with a large number of participants has its religious wars, pitting one group of true believers against another. Biking has plenty of these pointless, internecine battles, including, but certainly not limited to, roadies vs. mountain bikers, lovers of Lycra vs. wearers of wool, and posteriors on plastic seats vs. tooshes on tanned-leather saddles. Perhaps the loudest battle among bikers is the helmet wearers (“My helmet saved my life/How could you be stupid enough not to wear one?”) vs. the helmet free (“Helmets discourage biking/make me sweat/mess up my hair/look silly/are for wimps”).
I wear a helmet, but I’m not going to presume to say that everyone should wear one. (I bought my first helmet when I started biking in Manhattan and mixing it up with cab drivers in Midtown.) Physics and neurology seem, to me, anyway, to be on the side of wearing helmets, but the anti-helmet crowd can cite research to bolster their case. On the website of the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation (BHRF), whose agenda you can spot at 20 paces while blindfolded, you can find a graph plotting the percentage of trips by bike in eight countries against fatalities per billion kilometers biked, along with the percentage of riders in each country who wear helmets. The results?
- The countries with the smallest percentage of trips by bike and the largest percentage of helmet wearers have, in general, the highest fatality rate.
Supposedly this means that wearing a helmet makes you more likely to die in an accident.
- The countries with the largest percentage of trips by bike and the smallest percentage of helmet wearers have, in general, the lowest fatality rate.
Then again, they also have superb biking infrastructure and have drivers who are much more accustomed to sharing the road with bikers, neither of which appears in the graph. It also probably doesn’t hurt that, in some European countries, a driver is automatically considered liable in an accident with a biker.
What does it all mean? Admittedly, my quick analysis skews toward wearing helmets, but it’s not mine to say; do what you’re most comfortable with. Note, however, that if you live somewhere that helmets are mandated by law (as I do) and you choose not to wear one, you may face the occasional ticket.
Now on to the subject of today’s symposium: if you decide to wear a bike helmet, how do you choose one? In the U.S, the answer to this question got a lot easier in 1999 when the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) started requiring that all helmets sold in the U.S. meet the same standard. The website of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, the pro-helmet equivalent of the lobbying group mentioned above, is awash in useful information for folks who want to wear a helmet (plus oodles of clutter—they desperately need an editor and a graphic designer):
- A description of testing for the CPSC standard as well as for the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and Snell standards.
- An overview of what you should look for in a bike helmet.
- A list of places to get inexpensive (or free) helmets that meet the CPSC standard.
- Links to Consumer Reports reviews of kids’ bike helmets. Although you have to be a subscriber to see the ratings, the accompanying articles, which you can view for free, provide general information on what to look for in a kids’ helmet, an explanation of how to fit a kids’ helmet, and the 30,000-foot view of general bike safety for kids.
- Recommendations on when to replace a helmet.
- An analysis of helmets for the 2011 season.
Here are a few thoughts based on my last trip to the bike shop to buy a bike helmet, a couple of years ago, to replace a 10-year-old helmet that had seen a lot of use:
- One brand of helmet fit me quite well while another brand didn’t fit worth a tinker’s damn, and even within the brand that fit well, some models were more comfortable than others. I don’t think one brand was of higher quality than the other, I just think they were made for heads of different shapes. Based on that experience, I’d recommend that you not buy a helmet online if you can help it, and that you try on every helmet of your size in the shop.
- If you live someplace where the weather gets cold enough to want a stocking cap under your helmet, you may find it useful to get a helmet on which you can adjust the fit. (Stocking caps now come in very thin, warm materials, not just in bulky wool for folks who live in places where shallow lakes freeze solid in the winter.) Mine has a little dial in the back that I can rotate one direction or the other to loosen or tighten the fit for when I’m especially full of myself or when I want to wear a light cap under my helmet to take the chill off. With the size and number of vents in current bike helmets, temperatures in the 40s are plenty cool enough to make me want another layer.
- If you ride after dark, you may be interested in a helmet that has a clip in the back for a rear bike light (sometimes known as a blinky butt light). Unfortunately, last I looked, there were no helmets that had both a size adjustment and a light clip. Ask anyway, just in case things have improved.