Helmets – The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

by Todd Hofert


Seven months ago a friend of mine suffered a horrific cycling accident that resulted in a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Were it not for the competence of the people in the group he was riding with, some luck of having a trained emergency responder on scene almost immediately and a flight for life crew that was able to stabilize him and get him off the mountain and into a hospital quickly, the accident may well have been fatal. That is the upside.

The downside is he has since spent nearly two months in the Intensive Care Unit of our local hospital, another two months in a rehab facility for TBI patients and yet another two months in a separate rehab facility learning how to function independently again. The emotional toll it has played on his family and loved ones is remarkable and I cannot even begin to conceive of the financial toll it has taken as result of the medical bills and his inability to return to making a living for he and his family.

While the specific circumstances of his crash may not be the perfect preface for a conversation about helmets, it does serve as a harsh reminder of how quickly cycling accidents can happen, how severe the outcomes can be and how a person’s life can be changed or taken in the blink of an eye.

Is it time for a new helmet?
Is it time for a new helmet? Photo: Greg K Hull ©Chasing Light Media

According to a paper published by the American Medical Association in 2009, cycling injuries are an issue that affects both developing and developed nations. In the US it is estimated that 5% of children are on bicycles daily. Add to that bicycle commuters and cycling enthusiasts, the total of US cyclists is close to 67 million.

The paper also notes that: “Globally, the use of helmets is low. Studies in the US and in Europe suggest that helmet use can be as low as 14% (UK) and only as high as 42% (US). Fatalities from cycling injury are most commonly associate with head injury and helmets have been shown to decrease morbidity and mortality for injuries sustained while cycling.” And Helmets.org cites statistics published by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety stating that “Ninety-one percent of bicyclists killed in 2009 reportedly weren’t wearing helmets”.

USA Pro Challenge 2013 Stage 1
Photo: Kim Hull © Chasing Light Media

Despite the statistics that point to a relationship between serious injury/death and the lack of helmet use by victims, there remains a debate on the topic. Many believe that bicycle helmet laws inhibit the growth of bicycle use, particularly bicycle use for utilitarian purposes. Requiring someone to wear a helmet only discourages them from riding bicycles and fewer people using bicycles results in fewer bicycle specific infrastructure improvements. It stands to reason that bicycle specific infrastructure provides for a safer cycling. Add to this the notion that the health benefits of cycling far outweigh the risks associated with it, and you have a foundation for two sides of the argument. And so the debate continues.

Setting aside the debate, as an avid cyclist I believe in the use of bicycle helmets for the recreational use of bicycles. Those who share that belief should be aware of some of the considerations involved with the purchase and proper use of a bicycle helmet.

Are all helmets the same?

In 1999, the Consumer Product Safety Commission voted unanimously to issue a minimum federal standard that all bicycle helmets sold in the United States must conform to. As a result consumers can be assured when buying a new helmet that it meets a minimum federal safety standard. While the standards are stringent it does not mean that all helmets are created equal.

From an impact standpoint, helmets my fare the same in an accident. Performance in other areas however may vary dramatically. The weight of the helmet, the number of vents, the ease of making adjustments etc will set the more expensive helmets apart from the bargain brands. Do your homework when purchasing a helmet and be sure to consider the reputation of the brands you are considering as well as the ratings of the specific models you may be interested in. The Internet is a great way to start your new helmet research.

Equally if not more important is proper fit of the helmet. Following the advice of your preferred and reputable local bike shop is a good first step to insure you achieve a proper fit. Your local bike shop is a great resource to answer your questions, set the helmet up and show you how to properly wear the helmet. A helmet purchase can be a significant purchase with potentially significant consequences. Take advantage of the resources available to you through your local bike shop and don’t let price be your sole determining purchase factor.

Give your helmet a good cleaning, then inspect it
Give your helmet a good cleaning, then inspect it Photo: Greg K Hull ©Chasing Light Media

When should a helmet be replaced?

Finally, sound practice suggests you replace your helmet every few years. This is particularly important if you have any damage to the helmet. Damage to the straps or strap closures, damage as a result of hitting it on something, damage from a crash etc. Crash related or other sources of impact can damage the foam in the helmet. The damage may not be obvious by looking at the shell of the helmet. Damage to the helmet whether visible or not can compromise the effectiveness of the protection it provides. Err on the side of caution, if you hit your head while wearing the helmet replace the helmet. You can also refer to the recommendations below as found on helmet.org:

  • Did you crash it? Replace!
  • Is it from the 1970’s? Replace!
  • Is the outside just foam or cloth instead of plastic? Replace!
  • Does it lack a CPSC, ASTM or Snell sticker? Replace!
  • Can you not adjust it to fit correctly? Replace!
  • Do you hate it? Replace!

And finally, don’t let a helmet discourage you from getting out on your bike. Buckle up and hit the road.

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