Natalie Barrett

Natalie Barrett

Helmet use may seem like an obvious decision to prevent head injuries while cycling, but there are many who contend that helmets may actually increase the likelihood of cyclist injuries on the road.

There are several thought patterns here, and I’ll do my best to explain most of them.

First, helmets may inflate the riders sense of security and encourage them to ride in areas that may be less safe, or take more risks while riding. In insurance terms, it’s called the moral hazard: when you’re covered by an insurance policy (in this case a helmet), you tend to take more risks.

“People tend to engage in risky behavior when they are protected,” said Robert Hartwig, chief economist for the Insurance Information Institute in a New York Times article. “It’s a ubiquitous human trait.”

This may also have an effect on vehicle drivers. It is possible that vehicle operators may drive closer and engage in riskier driving habits when helmets are worn. I find this argument less than compelling because it has yet to be tested for its validity. Without data, we cannot determine its veracity.

Second, if helmets are so helpful, why don’t we expect this of pedestrians and vehicle drivers and not just cyclists? It is true that more pedestrians and vehicle drivers experience head injuries in accidents than bicyclists.

However, this argument seems to fall flat when taking into consideration the amount of drivers on the road and amount of elderly pedestrians vs. actual cyclists. This argument seems to be more of an appeal to frustration than an actual appeal to data and results.

Third, no one likes to wear helmets, so enforcing mandatory helmets actually creates a consequence of fewer cyclists on the road, according to an Australian study. While less cyclists makes the road riskier for everyone, it does not prove to be a convincing reason to not wear a helmet. This may be an unintended and unfortunate consequence, but it doesn’t negate the obvious benefits of helmet use.

Fourth, helmets do not equal safe cycling. Just because you are wearing a helmet, does not mean you are following traffic laws, using proper signalling or following safe cycling practices. We can agree that safety is a not just something you wear.

Now let’s get to the reasons why you should wear a helmet.

Plain and simple, helmets reduce your risks of a serious brain injury by nearly 70 percent, according to "Bicycle injuries and helmet use: a systematic review and meta-analysis." Your cognitive ability and your life are worth protecting; these stakes are incredibly high.

The study also found that helmets reduce the chance of a fatal head injury by 65 percent. A serious accident will alter the course of your life and protection is worthwhile.

It’s the law for kids. The California Vehicle Code (CVC 21212) says that any person under the age of 18 must wear a helmet while riding a bike, including children in seats and trailers. Children and youth are more likely to die from injuries resulting from an accident.

Wearing helmets sets a good example for children and youth around us.

A Committee on Injury and Poison Prevention study found between 90 to 100 percent of children wore a helmet when an accompanying parent donned a helmet also. Do it for the kids, because they are watching.

Helmets often help riders to be seen. They can have reflectors, lights or bright colors that are more likely to alert drivers of your presence.

Our community recently suffered the loss of 55-year-old Nick Cepeda last week as he was riding his bike. All of us in the bicycling community are mourning for him and his family.

These stakes are real. Losing someone or suffering a brain injury alters your life and the lives of your loved ones. Putting on a helmet and learning bicycle safety should not take long, but the value is tremendous.

It’s not fun, but I do it because I know it sets a good example for my kids and drastically improves my chances of survival in a crash. We’re going to be snapping on those helmets for the time being simply because of this one statistic that is worth repeating: helmets reduce the chance of a fatal head injury by 65 percent.

Natalie Barrett is a mother of three, bicycling advocate and communications manager at Bike Bakersfield.