Health & Medicine

Attention bicyclists: Put on a helmet and save your life

Riding a bicycle without wearing a properly fitted helmet is stupid. Anyone who does so is tempting fate, risking a potentially life-changing disaster.
Riding a bicycle without wearing a properly fitted helmet is stupid. Anyone who does so is tempting fate, risking a potentially life-changing disaster. TMS

Riding a bicycle without wearing a properly fitted helmet is stupid. Anyone who does so is tempting fate, risking a potentially life-changing disaster.

Even a careful cyclist is likely to crash once every 4,500 miles. One statistic reported by New York for cyclists stands out: 97 percent of cycling deaths and 87 percent of serious injuries occurred to people who were not wearing helmets.

Head injuries account for three-fourths of the 700 bicycle deaths that occur each year nationwide, and helmets can prevent or reduce the severity of these injuries in two-thirds of cases, according to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, a nonprofit based in Arlington, Va. This protection holds even in crashes with motor vehicles, researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle reported as long ago as 2000, a statistic verified many times since.

There are laws requiring young cyclists to wear helmets in 21 states and Washington, and at least 200 localities, but few laws cover adult riders.

There are many reasons that keep people from wearing helmets. One of the most frequent excuses: “I’m only going to the store (or the gym).” Yet, as with car accidents, the majority of bike accidents happen close to home, and not necessarily in traffic or at high speeds. Even low-speed falls on a bike trail can scramble brains.

“A very low-speed fall can be just as dangerous as a fall at higher speeds,” said Randy Swart, director of the consumer-funded Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute. “All it takes is gravity — the distance to the ground — to cause a head injury.”

The helmet must be positioned properly to work. If the helmet sits too far back on the head, it will not protect the most vulnerable part of the brain in a hard fall, especially if the skull fractures. When the straps are too loose, the helmet will fly off in a fall and offer no protection whatsoever.

The helmet should sit on the head straight, front to back, and not move when you shake your head. The straps extending from the helmet to the chin strap should each form a V right under the ears.

“A bike helmet is a like a seat belt: It should feel snug, not tight, when you first put it on, but when you start riding, you should be able to forget all about it,” Swart said.

Inexpensive helmets perform just as well as expensive ones, Swart said. His organization had three cheap helmets ($15 to $20 range) tested along with three expensive” ones ($150 or more) and, he said, “their performance level was almost identical.”

So if you’re not overly concerned about fashion or brand names, you can feel confident buying inexpensive helmets for every rider in the family at a chain or big-box store, he said. They all must meet standards set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Now, don that helmet, enjoy the ride and come home safe and sound.

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