Image via victorcamilo from Flickr

Image via victorcamilo from Flickr

Across the United States, the legality of wearing a bicycle helmet varies.

While there is no federal law requiring you to protect yourself with a helmet while riding, at present, 22 states (including the District of Columbia) maintain statewide laws. In all of Alabama, for example, cyclists under the age of 16 have to wear a helmet, while in Alaska, any cyclist of any age can legally ride without one.

Safety-conscious cyclists wouldn’t even consider taking to the road without their helmet, while others are happy to take the risk. However, do you really need to wear one, or is it less necessary than you might think?

Casting Doubts

Recently, a neurosurgeon at London’s St. George’s Hospital admitted that he never wears a helmet when cycling, claiming that those countries in which they are compulsory have seen no reduction in bike-related injuries.

As unlikely as it may seem, there is some evidence in place to support his bold words. Research has shown that drivers tend to become a little less safety-conscious and cautious around helmeted cyclists, driving three inches closer to them; as a result, this makes accidents more likely. This study demonstrated that a cyclist wearing a helmet affects some drivers’ own margins for error, and implied that a helmeted rider appears more experienced with road safety.

Furthermore, a 2001 article by the New York Times claimed that bike-related head injuries had risen by 51 percent in the decade following the introduction of widespread helmet-use. The results of the aforementioned study may go some way toward explaining this, though other factors – such as the behavior of the cyclists themselves, the condition of roads, and other environmental features – should still be considered.

On top of this, cyclists may well feel an inflated sense of security and robustness when riding their bikes with a helmet, perhaps even enough to encourage them to act in ways they otherwise would not. For example, in that same New York Times article, one severely-injured cyclist discussed how the feeling of safety prompted by his helmet led him to perform a slightly risky move – one he claims he’d normally avoid.

The Importance of Personal Responsibility

While there is compelling evidence to suggest that wearing a bike helmet could potentially increase your risk of injury, there is also no denying the major role played by personal responsibility.

If you wear a bike helmet and believe this somehow means the rest of your body is at reduced risk of injury, or that your helmet will withstand any force of impact (no matter how strong), this is down to a misinformed personal mindset. To say that cyclists would be safer without a helmet at all is misleading: the wearer pushing themselves further than they normally would is down to their own perception, rather than the helmet’s inability to protect them.

Likewise, anyone who refuses to wear a bike helmet on the road, be it in the countryside or in a sprawling urban environment, is not impervious to accidental injury simply because they are more aware of their vulnerability. True, one study demonstrated drivers were more inclined to move closer to cyclists, thereby increasing the risk of collisions, yet there are many other potential hazards to consider.

To start with, the cyclists’ sense of road safety and grasp of their surroundings could well be inhibited – entirely possible, when one in five killed in crashes have blood alcohol concentrations of.08 grams per deciliter or above. This illegal level could seriously impair your judgment.

Likewise, if a cyclist feels they understand the rules of the road, have many years’ experience riding a bike without a helmet, and have never suffered an injury as of yet, this has little bearing on the actions of others. For example, you may well take your time to ride through a bustling city center, stopping at every turn, maintaining a cautious speed … but what about a cab driver rushing to make a pick-up before a competitor, or someone under the influence at the wheel of a truck?

You have no control over the actions of others, and your careful approach would have minimal impact in the event of a collision. Add to this that a cyclist without a helmet would have nothing protecting their head as they struck a vehicle, hit a brick wall, or collided with a street lamp, and the risk is only intensified.

Statistics from New York City show that almost all cyclists (97 percent) who died during a set period wore no helmet, while the American Journal of Surgery discovered that helmeted cyclists faced a 51 percent reduction in their odds of receiving a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI). There was also a further 44 percent reduction in their odds of death, and the odds of facial fractures dropped by 31 percent in cyclists wearing a helmet.

Further afield, in Australia, the evidence in support of bike helmets is equally strong. According to research conducted by the University of NSW (New South Wales), bike helmets were shown to reduce fatal injuries to cyclists’ heads by around 65 percent.

Given how lightweight yet durable the best cycling helmets are today, there is no excuse to leave them on the shelf. For example, while clunkier, heavier designs could well cause discomfort to the head or neck over extended use, a streamlined model provides robust protection without such physical strain.

In an ideal world, cyclists would both wear a helmet and stay aware of their own vulnerability, exercising the same caution they would without the protection. The best way to stay as safe as possible on the road is to remember that, while a helmet can absorb impacts, it doesn’t make you impervious to harm or give you license to ride faster or more wildly than you otherwise would.

Take the time to choose a helmet that fits properly: it should come halfway down your forehead, and cover much of your head’s rear; the strap needs to sit closely under your chin, and create a V-shape around your ears. Try multiple sizes and styles until you find one that feels secure and comfortable, seeking expert advice as needed. If you’re a female and want to protect your hair, then check out special hair helmets for women.

​Take the time to really consider how a bicycle helmet could save your life while ​cycling on the road.