When I get the chance, I love to take 15 or 20 minutes to watch a TED talk. They cover an incredible array of topics, and amazingly no matter which one I watch, it always feels like it is perfectly related to one of my interests. Mikael Colville-Andersen’s talk from a TED event in Copenhagen was one of those ones I went into knowing it would strike a chord. Titled Why We Shouldn’t Bike with a Helmet, his talk ran the risk of alienating some who are typically in his bicycle-advocate camp. He argued that we live in an increasing culture of fear – which is serving us more harm than good, potentially discouraging biking and walking rather than making them more attractive. This culture of fear is so pervasive, he argues, we’re even researching (and promoting) motorist helmets and pedestrian helmets. We even have this “stylish” attempt at a helmet.
Colville-Andersen references conclusions from several studies suggesting that those who wear helmets are actually more likely to be involved in bicycle accidents. Though, he does admit that the scientific community is almost completely split on the issue. But what I found most perturbing was that, at least in the US, the test used to measure the safety of a bicycle helmet doesn’t strongly relate to the situations it would be tested under in reality.
From the Center for Disease Control website: “Helmets are tested for the amount of impact protection they provide by dropping the upper torso and helmeted head of a crash-test dummy (i.e., a "helmeted headform") onto a metal anvil and measuring the amount of force on the headform.” Helmets are literally tested for front, low-speed impact only. How many people slowly fall off their bike, forwards? Bike-car crashes occur for a number of reasons, but many of them involve more than front impact. Motorist right-hand turns can be especially problematic for through-traveling cyclists. All of this is to say that our metric of what is a “good” helmet may not really be telling us anything. Thus it is even more difficult to say whether or not wearing one in the first place will decrease your risk of injury.