Are you safer without a helmet?

I’ve seen this research before, but according to this article you are less likely to get hit by a car if you aren’t wearing a helmet.

Apparently drivers are much more cautious around commuters that don’t have a helmet on because they perceive them as more vulnerable. This makes sense to a certain degree, and according to Ian Walker’s research, 23% more drivers came within a meter (3.3ft) of him when he had a helmet on as opposed to riding without.

Assuming this is true… what’s the better decision? Leave the helmet at home to decrease your chance of getting hit by a car? Or wear it and increase your chance of living once it happens?

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0 thoughts on “Are you safer without a helmet?”

  1. John says:

    Based on the information available in this article, we should leave our helmet home. If our chance of getting hit diminishes, so does our chance of dying.

    One part of the article quotes research and gives a conclusion, the last sentence gives an opinion, (no facts).

    So to answer the authors question, “Assuming this is true”. It would be wiser to go with not getting hit at all. Kind of saves a lot of speculation. In my opinion.

  2. Drew says:

    I say wear your helmet. You are more likely to be hit by someone who doesn’t even see you because they are too busy dialing a phone, changing cd’s, spilling coffee, putting on makeup, etc…

  3. Steve says:

    I saw a post on this study on the xtracycle blog. There’s a big hole in the study. Despite there being 2300 observations, there is only one rider for the study. As a result, the study is only generalizable to him, because he doesn’t randomly assign all the other variable characteristics that might influence a rider’s risk to being hit. The one glaring missing variable is accounting for different riding styles from his own, unless he is able to randomly change his riding style which would have to be quantifiably supported. He may be safer without a helmet, but it doesn’t mean I am.

  4. Fritz says:

    Ryan says he wouldn’t have been hit if he wore a wig and skirt instead of a helmet. 😉

    Seriously, risk compensation is a known factor. We (especially men) ride more dangerously when we wear helmets.

  5. wolfy says:

    I wear the helmet for the stupid things I do while riding, not for the cars. I fall down all the time, or at least come close.

    Did that guy have a sensor measuring how far HE was riding from the curb?

    We should survey drivers and see if any of them notice if we have a helmet on or not. Or what color our shirt is, or weather there was one or two, or if they even saw us at all…


  6. optimuscrime says:

    It’s an interesting study. I’m not sure I agree with Steve about a lack of external validity (i.e. it can only generalize to the one rider). I’m not sure I can think of what part of an individual’s riding style would interact so dramatically with helmets as to render the observed relationship spurious.

    I’d certainly be interested in whether the observed effect was what Fritz calls ‘risk compensation’, or whether drivers were making attributions about the rider’s skill or experience level. For instance, they might associate the helmet with a frequent rider, which in turn would make them less cautious about crowding (assuming that a seasoned rider could somehow better deal with close proximity than a novice).

    If I were designing a little replication, I might try to see if I could rule out this alternate explanation. One way to do this would be to use a 2×2 factorial design. In one cell, the rider would wear his usual t-shirt with a helmet. In the next, he’d wear his helmet plus a fancy bike jersey. The last two cells would be t-shirt, no helmet, and jersey, helmet. The jersey would communicate ‘seasoned rider’ to the average driver without changing their assessment of the rider’s protection from an accident. So, if the observed effect was really because of risk compensation, the helmet would have an effect of its own beyond what could be explained by the ‘seasoned rider’ look.

  7. mark says:

    I wonder how much it matters that the study was conducted in England – it might be possible to conclude that British drivers give a little less space to helmeted riders, but you can’t draw any conclusions from the study about American drivers, unless you believe drivers in Houston and Los Angeles are just like drivers in London. Or, from a different perspective, could you conclude from this study that helmeted riders in the Netherlands are less safe from cars than their mostly un-helmeted compatriots?

  8. Drew says:

    If you really want to get into it, how do we know the rider maintained the his line throughout all the rides? It is entirely possible that he moved a little closer to traffic while helmeted. In addition, the roads in Europe are a bit narrower than most roads here in the US, at least based on my experience, so is this study reall applicable? Probably the only way to conduct a study like this with any basis would be to have a cyclist algorythm put into a driving simulator. That way you can grade each drivers behavior towards each type of cyclist.

    It’s a good idea, but this study falls flat on too many levels to count for much…Drew

  9. dabac says:

    I have big trouble accepting the risk compensation line of reasoning. A fall in traffic is ALWAYS scary and unpredictable and anybody who believes in the concept of a controlled accident is naive beyond belief.
    I’ve used a helmet for so long that when I use the bike to run an errand, for commuting, or some other everyday purpose the helmet is just another neutral part of the gear, like the shoes or a pair of sunglasses, and I can’t see it affecting my riding style or risk level at to any significant degree at all.
    Then there are occasions when I gear up for a particular purpose, but on those occasions the increased risk is my choice, and the helmet is the consequence – not the other way around. Blaming the helmet for the increased risk in those circumstances is like saying that wearing bike shorts increases the risk of the rider exerting himself.

  10. Ludwig says:

    This report came out sometime last year ago here in the UK and everyone picked up on it. Unfortunately for those of us that live in metropolitan cities the results were completely useless, regardless of whether the research is faulty or not. The study was done on amply wide rural roads, where drivers had plenty of space to actually give a cyclist more room should they choose.

    Here in London, and most metropolitan cities for that matter, it’s just not possible. And even if it were I seriously doubt it would happen. I don’t wear a helmet for my own reasons and most drivers don’t think twice about cutting it within inches.

    As for whether I’m safer with or without a helmet – there’s lots of information published arguing both sides. My advice to anyone taking up cycling would be to read it, and make your own decision rather than rely on a single study.

  11. Mike in Florida says:

    As someone who has actually been hit IN THE HEAD by a truck mirror, I say—-wear your helmet. Whether helmets increase one’s risk of being hit is immaterial. When the hit occurs, you want to be helmeted.

  12. Tim Goss says:

    I read an article in the paper today about a medical students from Wisconsin who while biking was run over by a truck whose driver apparently didn’t see him. The wheel of the truck went right over the guy’s head. The picture of the guy, who survived with just a concussion, holding his mashed helmet is enough for me to wear my helmet every time I ride:


  13. Paul of N.W. GA says:

    I am an assertive and aggressive rider. I tend to take turns too fast and love the speed as I build up strength, which means I wreck more often. Then add the oil and other liquids from motor vehicles mixed with wind and gravel. If I go six moths with out laying my bike down, I’ve been lucky. Some motorist don’t care if we are wearing a helmet, all they care about is us being in there way or making them selves feel bigger by picking on us.

    Statistics say we are going to have wrecks. Are you willing to loose the ability to talk or care for your self? Not only do I wear a helmet, I don’t buy the cheapest one either.

    Where I live, sidewalks are too dangerous for the speeds I travel and the roads have little if any shoulders and no bike lanes so I take the lane 99% of the time. I believe it is my responsibility to make my self as visible as possible as that seems to keeps most motorists away from me, as they have more time to change lanes or plan passing better.

    Last week I was up in Minneapolis, it is a totally different world up there as bikes were every where and I did not feel like a freak being the only vehicular cyclist.

    Road cycling is an art not a science.

  14. Speaking as someone who has personally survived a face first launch from his bike onto the pavement and is around to talk about it solely because of his helmet I would NEVER even think of not wearing one.

    Anyone who doesn’t wear a helmet is an idiot.

  15. tom says:

    Back in highschool; some “accident” films were shown to drivers. Sometimes they showed these mainly to those drivers who had received a number of speeding tickets. The films showed some bad accidents but probably not too graphic I would think but enough to make a point. I have seen graphic photos of motorcycle accidents and a friend of mine did once come upon a motorcycle accident where the guy was not wearing a helmet (and a woman was riding on the motorcycle too; though I did not go into wanting to know all of the details). Needless to say, my friend saw a gruesome sight. Just for the protection of the cerebellum; and all that; I would think it would be worth it; especially with any bicycles with real speed and that are out on the highway. I pedal a classic English 3-speed in the neighborhood too; and no, I don’t really feel the need as far as this goes but I have.

  16. Tim Goss says:

    In the 30 years I’ve been commuting by bike, and wearing a helmet, I’ve never been hit by a motor vehicle. I guess I’m lucky. I’ve been hosed down with a fire extinguisher and had chewing tobacco spit poured on me but never been hit. I have, however, fallen off my bike more times than I’m probably willing to admit because of road conditions, dodging animals, forgetting to unclip my shoes, being stupid and twice just getting off my bike. To get an idea of what it would be like to have your head hit the pavement without a helmet, assuming you are going about 12 miles an hour when you fall, try dropping a cantelope from that height and watch what happens.


  17. KOOL KID says:

    tim goss has a point if i where riding fast down a slope and fell down hard head first on a pointy side walk edge i would rather have something like a helmet to absorb some of the shock waves instead of my bare skull

  18. Kate says:

    I survived being hit by a truck from the side. I had the right of way but the driver obviously didn’t see me. After being unconscious in the ICU for 3 days with a TBI I had to relearn how to use my right hand. I know that if I hadn’t been wearing my helmet I wouln’t be alive today. And I learned that having ID is just as important as a helmet. In my situation, it took hours before my family was notified. One of the doctors who just happened to live in my neighborhood remembered seeing my bike parked at my house. He told the police which house to notify.
    That lucky coincidence is the only reason I was identified before I regained consciousness.

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