Cycling empiricism

The snow has cleared here, for the fourth and (I hope) final time this spring. Flowers are blooming, leaves are greening, and those like me who take a break from cycling during the winter are getting back into it.

So I was intrigued to see an article at the excellent Science-Based Medicine site titled “Do Helmets Prevent Head Injuries?“. In it, Dr. Harriet Hall examines the evidence for the actual benefits of cycling helmets.

I’ve seen the controversy before. On the one hand, the physics and physiology seem to obviously favour wearing a helmet. On the other hand, questions of population self-selection, risk perception and compensation behaviour can push the evidence in the other direction. And any halfway-conscious Internet denizen can find passionate arguments both for and against the use of bicycle helmets. (Interestingly, sites about kids promote helmet use, while pages I found about helmet use in general are almost all either neutral or against helmet use.)

Dr. Hall’s conclusion from the actual evidence is that “the science of protection is clear: helmets offer a significant benefit.”

That sounds clear enough to me. Keep in mind (my fellow cyclists and would-be cyclists) that many of the “dangers” of helmet use are easily overcome through awareness. For example, people tend to take more risks when they think they are protected. So, wear your helmet but remember that you are still vulnerable, and those cars still outweigh you many times over.

On the other hand, she notes that “The advisability of helmet laws is an entirely different question.” Too many social and other factors prevent us from being able to draw a clear line between requiring people to have helmets and any net benefit or harm. That’s fine by me. My general position (like that of most people who value individual liberty) is that we should not force people to do something unless we have a really good idea that it will produce good and prevent harm, and we know that there is no reasonable way to produce that good or prevent that harm without restricting people’s freedom.

So get out there and ride a bike. Wear a helmet. Encourage your kids and friends to wear helmets. But don’t use the law to force people to wear helmets.

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