Press Camp 12: Important Helmet Announcement

Interrupt our normal programming for an important announcement from Lazer Helmets.

The ‘Ize blogs and others are going on again about fear campaigns and a helmet conspiracy. They got it in their unhelmeted heads, somehow, that the helmet manufactures influence governments to write legislation. As I’ve said elsewhere, for some time, that’s a foolish notion muttered by conspiracy theorists. Ridiculous even and guaranteed to get a huge laugh at an industry event when mentioned. I’ve met most makers of helmets – they’re making a safety product and not one marketed with fear or placed in the stores by well-greased palms. There are no helmet lobbyist walking the halls of government buildings with a suitcase of cash or using payola with media and bloggers.

Why those that want to abolish helmet laws take this ludicrous tact, I don’t know, but definitely speak up about it and throw Tweed Lobby accusations back at them. You want to back a conspiracy theorist into a corner? Mention an even wilder conspiracy…involving the garment, shoe industry, and bikes.

Helmets Use Saves Lives

I believe helmet use is a personal choice, no laws required, and just as I was writing this, the Coroner of Ontario released a new report that studied cyclists death. His conclusion was to call for helmet use to reduce deaths and injury.

The Coroner has the science to prove it and cites the studies the helmet haters do. I wear a helmet, as I please, when the situation calls for it. Also don’t believe in conspiracy theories and have never seen a fear campaign in the industry.

What those that fight helmets don’t understand, is elsewhere in the world, people die while riding their bikes.

Helmets save lives.


For me, the real question is this: as a cyclist, would you rather have more cyclists, only some of whom are wearing helmets, or fewer cyclists, all of whom are wearing helmets?

As to people talking or blogging about a “helmet conspiracy,” only one I could find by Googling referred to the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust in the UK—which is aimed exclusively at under 16 riders. Could you provide some links to discussion about this worldwide conspiracy, please?


I trust Smithers when he says there is no conspiracy. However, there is a helmet-industrial complex that isn’t accountable for the safety or durability of the product.

“Is it safe?”
“It’s certified.”

“I gave my helmet a funny look, is it still OK?”
“I dunno, you should buy a new one, better safe than sorry.”

Yet a truly cautious consumer expects straight answers about just how sensitive and perishable their product really is. I’ll keep choosing to wear helmets, but spending much less than they’d like me to.

This so-called debate fatigues me. At best, the participants are impolite, making fun and calling names at the other side and trying to beat the other side up with one report or factoid or another. While I like this blog and don’t read the ‘ize blogs, I lump this post in that category.
I have no opinion about this vast conspiracy you describe, and don’t really care. You have to acknowledge, however, that helmet manufacturers are trying to make money selling a product and are more than happy to rely on people’s assumptions that their product actually makes them safer. Those assumptions are cemented in people’s minds in part by people chanting “helmets save lives” and “better safe than sorry.”
I read the paper you link to, and it’s soft science. It follows the classic error of substituting correlation with causation. People whose cause of death “included” a head injury were 3x less likely to be wearing a helmet. The paper then concludes that helmets must provide some protective effect. But the critical question is whether a helmet would have mattered. Would it have saved a life? I think you can look at the case studies in the paper and draw some conclusions—3 of the 5 say “no helmet” but the description of the accident makes it pretty clear that a helmet would have been irrelevant. E.g., hit by a van travelling at “highway speed.” Um, wrap yourself in an SUV and you’re likely to have sustained a serious head injury in that case. The others are similar: turned into path of a streetcar; hit from behind by a car and hurled 27m into a pillar. Helmet, schmelmet. 26% of the cases were wearing a helmet and died anyway. What was their accident? Did their helmet save them? One guy bombed down a city hill at 40mph, hit a boulder, and died of a head injury. The paper doesn’t say whether he was wearing a helmet (which is odd in a paper drawing sweeping conclusions about the safety of helmets), but would it have mattered?
23% of the dead were drunk. Can I conclude from that fact that riding sober will makes me safer by some calculated factor? No. It’s a correlation, not a causation. As I said, the paper is soft science. Or, more accurately, agenda masquerading as science. 

Basically, it looks like the only conclusion you can draw is that if you ride your bike, you might get smashed by a car and die from massive trauma, particularly if you’re drunk, travelling at high speeds, or turning into the path of a train. Of course, you might also die from those things regardless of what activity you are engaged in at the time.
What gets lost in this debate is the fact that riding your bike down the street is actually a pretty safe activity. If you’re doing risky stuff like bombing down a city street hill at 40 mph, wear a helmet (though it likely would have been irrelevant in that case, too). If you’re riding up the block at 10 mph and generally obeying traffic laws, do what you like.

I ride the city streets almost every day and wear a helmet 95% of the time. I wear it because it’s the law in Seattle and because it spares me from the abusive comments hurled at me regularly in the 5% of time I choose not to. I don’t wear it because I think it decreases my risk of injury in any meaningful way. So, what fatigues me is that we cyclists spend all this energy flinging excrement at each other from our high perches of inconclusive science on both sides, instead of focusing energy on what would be more meaningful, like infrastructure, speeding cars, or distracted driving.


Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

Introducing this post elsewhere, I wrote “Not that I want to engage in another helmet debate, I don’t, but the ‘Ize blogs and those that follow them are on a propaganda campaign to repeal helmet laws. They’re doing so by asserting that there’s a helmet conspiracy and the industry engages in fear campaigns. They do not, that’s a lie, and there are no conspiracies. ”

That’s what this post is about. When the rhetoric ratchets up, a response is in order. Then not something I want to talk much more. I don’t care what choices make with their heads, but I’m in this industry and telling the truth as I see it. As you note there is no actual debate here, both camps are entrenched, and I’m not trying to convince anyone of an opinion or sway them about helmet use. It’s that there is no helmet conspiracy or fear mongering. If there is, let’s see it. Like any PR campaign, if you say something enough, if true or not, people believe it. On this specific issue, I’m saying it’s not true. Or as true as a Tweed Lobby.

The point of a bombastic post with wild accusations is to throw their tactics back at them. You can see how rattled they got on Twitter about it and I think have gone mostly unchallenged and propped up by their followers. Disagree with them and like any group, they’ll lump you in with those that don’t believe their truth.

Context from @tweetymike

The ONLY safety we have IS IN NUMBERS. Helmets defeat that. 100% truth.

Helmets defeat cycling? Or that they’re not really effective, or that the helmet companies lobby for laws?

When I see that is when I speak up; also when I meet the CEO and Founder of Knog tells me that helmet laws have had NO effect in Australia that’s ridiculous, I wonder why the helmet haters stick to that one study so much.

Agreed that the rhetoric on both sides tends toward the extreme and neither is very evidence based. That’s really the problem. A lot of researchers have looked at aspects of cycling safety, and the data keeps cropping up to support each side to some degree or another. The helmet haters have Australia; the lovers have Thompson & Rivara. The truth, if we could ever find it, is probably somewhere in the middle—helmets provide some protective effect in certain types of crashes, but the effect isn’t so great as to prevent people from making their own reasonable risk decisions about wearing them.
That’s my hypothesis, at least, after reading a lot of the research on it. And after falling into that middle ground, I get tired of the shouting from the fringes when the meaningful debates about changing our (American) culture about bicycles and their role in transportation don’t seem to go anywhere fast enough for my tastes.
The role of helmets as part of transportation cycling (which is my personal cup of tea) is actually a pretty interesting topic for discussion if one keeps it from turning into a mob riot, which is what it generally becomes. Anyway, keep up the good work; your blog is largely riot-free and a good read.

I’m not buying that study, simply because there’s no control for selection effects.  An inclination to bike more safely might lead someone to also wear a helmet.  The other problem is that there IS that study in Australia, and it’s not a bad one.  They passed a helmet law, cycling went down, but harm per cyclist did not.  You can slice and dice that any way you want (perhaps the helmet law was least obeyed by the most careless cyclists—another selection effect— so can you really fault the law?), but they measured the outcome and the results were not favorable.  Why would you expect a different outcome in Canada?  Given health benefits of cycling (which are far larger than crash risks) the helmet law in Australia probably led to a net increase in deaths, but in a diffuse way unlikely to attract the attention of the coroner.

And understand, if the benefit:risk ratio is 10:1 (one estimate by Mayer Hillman), then a 1% decrease in cycling cancels out a 10% decrease in crash fatalities.  A 10% decrease in cycling cancels out the complete elimination of crash fatalities.

I also object to the idea that cyclists have to be told how responsible they must be for their own safety.  Yes, we bike in a world populated by careless people in cars, almost everyone on a bicycle is well aware of that.  But phrased as it was above gives the impression that it is somehow our fault if we are harmed by some careless person, if we failed to take the maximum steps to protect ourselves.  No, no, no.  If I wander down the street swinging a machete, of course people are going to stay away and dodge and duck, but they’re not “responsible for their safety” in the presence of a machete-wielding lunatic.  We have no problem in that situation identifying the source of the danger.

Note that there is one place that helmets could be worn that would decrease head injuries, that would not give people sweaty heads, and would not discourage people from getting exercise.  That would be in cars.  Why isn’t anyone talking about doing something about this?

Well let’s see, check this news: “helmet use in Canada is highest in provinces where it’s mandatory for cyclists.”

All the Helmet Haters got is that one f’ing Australian study and beat that drum constantly. Read my post again, so it’s clear, we’re not about helmet laws and support choices, but speak up with disinformation is used to repeal those laws. The height of the propaganda is insisting there’s a helmet conspiracy, that fear is used, and that helmets are actually unsafe.

But that one Australian study is a big one, isn’t it?  Same population, they were able to measure amount of cycling (it went down) and cycling deaths.  No issues with a biased sample there, like you get with only looking at deaths.

To refute it, you need another study of similar quality, and I think that is lacking.  Merely measuring the percentage of helmet use doesn’t tell you how that was obtained; of the pre-helmet-law population, it does not tell you how many decided to obey the law and continue biking, and how many elected to bike less.  Those are both ways to get a higher percentage of helmet wearing, but it takes very few people deciding to quit cycling to result in a net LOSS of life.

It is very likely that an individual decreases their crash injury/death risk by wearing a helmet; I am not arguing that.  This is a public health argument; people are discouraged from cycling by helmet hair, by sweaty head, by the mere inconvenience of an additional unfashionable article of clothing (mine often yanks my glasses off when I remove it), and by the subtle reminder of “risk” (out of all proportion to actual risk, mind you) that helmet laws and helmet shaming can easily have a net negative effect on public health.

And again:  helmets in cars.  Look at the statistics.  Auto accidents loom large as a cause of serious head injuries, and as a cause of deaths of children.  Sweaty head, not a problem.  No public health risk if people are discouraged from driving.  It would save far more lives than helmet use in bicycles.  If we’re going to propose helmets for safety, that’s the rational place to propose it first, and most vigorously.

The second anyone says helmets aren’t safe, we’ve got nothing else to talk about. I’ve asked the Ize blogs and they’re followers when was the last time a friend, colleague, or someone they knew from someone else died. I’ve seen blood pouring from heads on the road, picked up colleagues form the road that hit curbs and know for an absolute fact that a helmet saved their lives. As I wrote in this post, I believe in choice, but any claim to repeal laws by saying helmets don’t matter is an absolute lie and I will speak up as I’ve done here. Just this week, the Comptroller of NYC asked if the city was serious about safety. They’re putting 10K bikes on the streets in a notoriously unsafe for cyclists city.

I did not day that “helmets aren’t safe”, so I don’t really know what you’re talking about or who you think you are replying to (talking to a nonexistent person, indeed, you should have nothing to talk about).

I said that helmet laws and helmet shaming are a public health fiasco, because not riding a bicycle (not getting exercise) is extremely unsafe, at least 10x (from some figures) as the crash risk from riding a bicycle.  Any “safety” measure that discourages more than 10% of potential cyclists from riding their bikes leads to a net loss of life, even if it is beneficial to those individuals who continue biking with the safety measure.  Group effects and individual effects are not the same here.  It is utterly consistent to oppose helmet laws and helmet shaming, while also choosing to wear a helmet one’s own self; both lead to a net reduction in early deaths and serious injuries.

And surely you know that “seen blood pouring from heads” is not a statistic, no matter how indelibly it is etched in your memory.  The big killers are non-spectacular ho-hum stuff like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, all of which are more-or-less reduced by getting more exercise.

If you were looking for a statistic, I recently stumbled across an interesting one from the safest country for cycling in the world (so they, not us, are the safety experts, right?).  0.5% of Dutch cyclists wear helmets.  Of those cyclists who show up injured at Dutch hospitals seeking care, 26% were wearing a helmet at the time of the injury.  ( )  What would you conclude from this?  “Just one (more) study”?  “Helmets cause crashes”?  Or a huge selection effect?

I think it’s likely to be selection effect—cyclists who know that they’ll be riding fast (racing, training, mountain biking) take precautions because they know (correctly, it turns out) that they are at higher risk of crashes.  And in the -ize blogs, selection effects could also be at work—do those people go on fast rides?  Perhaps they are more like the 0.5% of Dutch cyclist who wear helmets (i.e., proven to be 26x more accident-prone) than the 99.5% who do not (safest cyclists in the world).

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