Is it better to wear a helmet or bike with a pack?

June 19, 2014

While it may seem to be a question out of the “Would you rather…?” game, it’s a query that poses important safety implications: Is it more dangerous to bike helmetless in a city packed with cyclists, or to ride, donning a helmet, as a single cyclist on a lonely route?

Bikers and safety advocates have different approaches to quantifying safety, but a common argument is that cities with a large population of bikers are more attuned to bikers — the city’s motorists are more aware of bikers’ presence, and safety regulations are often already in place to protect bikers. On rural routes, conversely, cyclists are often unexpected sharers of the road.

Bike with helmet hanging from handlebars

Would you rather be a lone, helmeted bicyclist, or a helmetless one on a route packed with other bikes? The answer isn’t obvious. From Powerslidewelovetoskate.

But is there ever a truly good time to leave your helmet at home? Research into rural versus urban bike safety provides a wealth of information, but few conclusive answers to a complicated question. Let’s start by looking at the research in favor of the helmetless urban biker scenario:

More bikers translate into greater safety: The more cyclists in a given state, the less likely a cyclist is to be killed. As USA Today reports, recent research from the League of American Bicyclists, which also draws on NHTSA data, shows that the countrywide fatality rate was 8.6 biker deaths per 10,000 regular commuters from 2008 to 2012. In addition — with the exception of the state of Florida — “higher than average” bike commuting rates resulted in a lowered fatality risk in all states.

Bike-sharing cities are host to fewer injuries: A new study, Public Bicycle Share Programs and Head Injuries, reveals that in five cities with offering a bike sharing program, head injuries and injuries of all kinds were reduced more than in those cities sans bike sharing programs. (Check out this interesting graph, provided by Teschke via Streetsblog.) There’s more good news: The total “moderate to severe” head injuries declined in those bike-sharing cities by 27%, from 162 to 119 per year.

Slower vehicle speeds improve biker safety: A FHWA study, Factors Contributing to Pedestrian and Bicycle Crashes on Rural Highways, found that, in a comparison of rural and urban crashes, nine percent of bike crashes involving vehicles at speeds of 41-60 mph occurred in urban areas, while a whopping 47 percent occurred in rural areas. Traffic and other obstacles result in lowered vehicle speeds in urban areas, which in turn impact biker safety.

Now, a glance at the evidence in favor of the helmet-donning, lone-road biker:

Most crashes occur on urban arterial roads. An insightful League of American Bicyclists study examined fatal traffic crashes involving cyclists over a 12-month period. “High-speed urban and suburban arterial streets with no provisions for bicyclists are an over-represented location — representing 56% of all bicyclist fatalities,” notes the League.

Lack of helmets is a factor in biker deaths: In 2009, 91 percent of bikers killed were not reported to have been wearing helmets, according to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, an advocacy group.

Studies prove that helmets impact brain safety: Helmets deliver a 66 to 88 percent reduction in the “risk of head, brain and severe brain injury for all ages of bicyclists,” reports one study. “Helmets provide equal levels of protection for crashes involving motor vehicles (69%) and crashes from all other causes (68%).”

Head injuries rise in bike-sharing cities, in one study:  Head injuries increased from 42 to 50 percent after bike sharing programs were introduced in certain cities, according to the Public Bicycle Share Programs and Head Injuries study. “Bike-share programs should place greater importance on providing helmets so riders can reap the health benefits of cycling without putting themselves at greater risk for injury,” says Janessa Graves, who ran the study .

Bikers should consider the limitations of their environment; namely, as the FHWA study notes, how crashes differ from urban to urban environments. Helmet or no helmet, the prevailing kind of rural crashes occur when bikers turn or merge into a driver’s path. In cities, the most common crashes occur when drivers fail to yield; bikers don’t yield mid-block, or bikers don’t yield at an intersection. (Another interesting finding: Rural crash types tend to occur mid-block, while urban crashes tend to occur at intersections.)

So, do the benefits of one scenario outweigh those of the other? It’s impossible to say, and it’s unlikely that many will be forced to choose between biking in a pack of helmetless urban cyclists or biking solo, headgear tightly fastened, down a rural road. The official NHTSA stance is simple: “All bicyclists should wear properly fitted bicycle helmets every time they ride. A helmet is the single most effective way to prevent head injury resulting from a bicycle crash.”

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Category: Bicycles, Road safety

About the Author ()

Katy is a writer, reporter and editor who, in addition to writing for RoadTrafficSigns, has worked with the United Nations Development Programme, Hamptons magazine, Hearst Corporation, The Daily Mail, People Magazine, and a variety of other publications and nonprofits. After graduating with honors from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2011, and distinctions on her thesis and in the consumer journalism seminar, she moved to Milan, Italy. In Italy, she worked as a writer and consultant for an international magazine, editing and translating text and reporting on such events as the Salone Internazionale del Mobile, the annual design fair. A born and raised New Yorker, she has lived in three of five boroughs, relying quite a bit on public transport until getting her driver's license at the admittedly belated age of 21.

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