The Great Bicycle Helmet Debate: Do Helmets Protect Your Melon in a Crash or Do They Do More Harm Than Good? How The Debate Works
If you’ve watched Outrageous Acts of Science on the Science Channel (Discovery’s Baby) and you saw the episode where the dude tosses a bowling ball in the air, above his head, and it comes down breaking a stack of plates sitting on his melon, you know he walks away from that unscathed. The physics behind it go like this: If you were to just throw a bowling ball in the air and let it hit your noggin, you’re pretty much screwed. On the other hand, because the fella had that stack of plates on his dome, when the bowling ball hit the plates, it had more time to slow down (even if it was milliseconds) and the nutty guy walked away unscathed.
On the other hand, there are statistics out there that are reported to show head trauma increases when mandatory bicycle helmet laws are passed on enacted. In fact, there’s a whole movement based on statistics, or mathematical equations, to back up the notion that people are safer not wearing a helmet.
Now, as far as I’m concerned, I ride with a lot of other cyclists, at high rates of speed and we make use of a draft. Think NASCAR, but on bicycles. On a typical Tuesday night, we’ll hit upwards of 30 mph, on flat roads (meaning no help from gravity) and without a tailwind. When we’re hitting those speeds, we’ve got maybe six inches (15 cm) to 18 inches (45 cm) between our tires. In short, if someone in front of us goes down, we’re going down too. Now these accidents are rare but two of my very close friends were in accidents like that and had to either get stitched up or spent time in a hospital recovering from such accidents. In other words, I’d rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it. Another friend of mine, a man who has been building and riding bikes for more than four decades, decided to see just how far he could go without taking a drink on the bike. The answer was 38 miles. We know this because he passed out, literally, while he was pedaling and fell over. He split his helmet in two by knocking his melon on the pavement (think of that fella who landed a bowling ball on a stack of plates on top of his head). He walked away from that with a black eye and a bruised ego (and a bruised rib or two as well).
My personal experience aside though, are helmets more dangerous for a bicyclist than no melon protection at all?
In short, the way the debate works is pretty simple: If people aren’t wearing helmets, they will use more caution. With a dome protector on, they’re more likely to ride erratically because they mistakenly believe they’re “safe”. Another way to look at this would be with cars. It’s said that seat belts and air bags have increased the severity of car accidents because motorists “feel” invincible. They drive more erratically and therefore find themselves in increasingly severe accidents. Follow me so far? Well, by the logic of the “no helmet” crowd, the way to make cars safer would be to remove the airbag from the steering column and mount a 4″ long knife blade in its place that points directly at the motorist. Sure you’d have to be very careful when reaching for your latte, but how many people do you think would still text while driving with that blade staring at them? You’d virtually end speeding overnight. Drunk drivers would call a cab and let their driver get stabbed rather than attempt a drunken dive home. Overnight, car accidents would fall precipitously. Who would risk being impaled by their own steering column?! It’s the same idea as not wearing a helmet. You’re more likely to become a vegetable or require a diaper change for the rest of your life if you don’t wear a helmet so you’re more likely to ride safer. It’s that simple – though they’ll never come out and explain it like this because common sense folks who ride responsibly anyway would respond with, “you’re freaking nuts“.
That’s not quite the end of the discussion though. See, there are questions of torsional or rotational injuries that the anti-helmet folks say increases with wearing a helmet. I’m a common sense guy though and I know the painted surface of my dome protector will slide on macadam a lot better than my head, so I’ll take my chances thank you very much.
Last Friday, my wife and I were out on our normal Friday lunch ride and we were sitting down to our lunches at the local Wendy’s. An older gentleman came up to us and admired my bike (it happens a lot):
Anywho, this old fella comes up to us and after commenting about how utterly spectacular my bike is, says “I really like that you guys have those helmets right there. I used to work for the Sheriff’s Paramedic Division and I used to see people with fractured skulls all of the time. You see, a doctor explained it once that your head is about the consistency of a watermelon. You drop that on the ground and bad things happen – and I’ve seen the X-rays… The whole skull is spider webbed.”
Now, I respect anyone’s right to decide against wearing a helmet as long as they don’t whine about the consequences. I also don’t support helmet laws because I think the government has their hands full enough just trying to balance a damned budget. On the other hand, when it comes to my melon, you can bet your ass it’ll have a helmet on it whilst I’m atop my bike. I’d rather have a piece of foam between my head and the pavement than some statistics (statistics that can be skewed to mean anything, lest we all have forgotten our first day in Statistics 101).
Rarely has there been such a perfect night for a Tuesday night club ride. This is not an exaggeration.
Light, wispy clouds, not near enough to block the sun’s warmth. 63 perfect degrees and maybe a 5 mph wind out of the north, not that such a pittance mattered though – we’re used to winds in the 15-20 mph range. My new Affable Hammers kit was a no-brainer (as it was for two-thirds of the guys riding last night). In addition, I decided on arm warmers, and God Bless America, no knee warmers. No vests, no full finger gloves, no hats under the dome protector, no long sleeve jerseys… And I broke a sweat.
The seven mile warmup was fast, right out of the gate. 20-22 mph the whole way, even into the breeze. We tacked on a few laps around the block to keep the legs warm, bringing the warmup to 8.8 miles
It turned out that everyone who showed up and bought a club kit, wore it. The Hammers were out in force – and we were lookin’ good. We got rolling promptly at 6 pm and once we formed up, it was on. Once we tipped 23 mph, we never looked back except to stop for traffic at the necessary intersections.
Once we hit the infamous Shipman Road, with a crossing tailwind, that was ramped up to the neighborhood of 26 and climbed. Within two miles we were bumping uglies with 30 mph. 30. It would be ten miles before we saw anything in the low twenties again (and that was due to hills.
I’ve made it quite clear that I don’t like hiding in the group, I do my part or I flame out trying. However, I’ve decided to modify that thinking. We have an intersection three miles before the first real hills on the route. No matter where I am, when we hit that intersection I take what I call a ‘strategic fall back’. I take the turn wide and simply let everyone go buy, until I can find a hole about 2/3’s of the way to the back… If I do this, I’m well rested and prepared once the hills start. We climb ridiculously fast, so if you’re not ready, you’re in trouble.
So we made it through the first four big sets of hills and something surprising occurred to me… Leading up to the hill where we always get dropped (it’s a gut wrencher – steep and about a quarter-mile long), I had enough gas in the tank to keep going. It was the first time ever. I saw the attack come, I saw the leaders go, and I sat up and let them. I second-guessed that decision a half-dozen times since last night. In the end, I told several of my friends that I was dropping at that hill so we could form up and head back so I did as I said I would. In the future, I’ll refrain from making that promise I think.
My BCB, Mike, couldn’t make it because he was sick, Brad was farming, so that left Chuck, Phill and a couple of others. Unfortunately, the pace in the first 20 miles was so fast, guys were scattered to the wind and I was in the lead. I soft-pedaled and waited for two guys (who should have been Phill and Chuck)… When they caught up, after about a mile, I set the pace, and it was fast – we’d climbed two more decent hills and had a two-mile mild downhill (just shy of level, but enough to maintain a decent speed without killing oneself) leading into town and we always make the best of it, speeds generally ranged between 24 and 26 mph. After just three miles or so, we’d dropped the third guy and it was just Phill and I. Now, the shortcut that we take cuts off about three miles from the racer’s route. We always blow a couple of minutes trying to form up while the others are hammering down the road at 24-28 mph. By the time we’re lined up, we’ve lost a mile to them… That gives us about a five minute advantage when it’s all said and done. Our goal is to not get caught – If anyone’s done it with only two guys, I can’t remember hearing about it. Still, that’s the goal so we kept our feet on the gas, so to speak.
With two guys, especially Phill and I, getting the timing right with who will lead, when and how fast, gets tricky. Phill has more of an upright setup on his bike while I’m slammed as low as I can go. He doesn’t get the same draft off of me as I do him, so he doesn’t get to recover like I do. This means I have to spend more time up front if we are going to make it. I have no idea how fast we were going, I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to it. That said, when I did take a glance, it was usually between 22 & 24. I gave it absolutely everything I had and so did Phill. We had our timing down perfect within a mile and every time the leader started to fade, the guy in back would come around and keep hammering. Neither one of us rode out of the drops in the last eight miles, we kept the hammer down the whole way… No rest for the weary.
We rode as if we were being whipped, knowing the racers would catch us if we rested even for a minute. Sweat poured down my face and dripped off the tip of my nose. I wouldn’t even take the time to wipe it off, couldn’t. We’d fallen off the lead group with a 22 mph average (a lot of traffic last night meant a lot of stops and a terrible average)… When we crossed the city limit sign, we’d only lost a half mile an hour off of that – with only two guys. We beat the lead group back by more than two minutes. We were packing our stuff up when they pulled into the parking lot. We ended up with a 21.5 mph average, one of our better averages from last year with four or five guys sharing the work. It was one heck of an effort and a fine Tuesday night ride.
Thank God, Spring finally decided to show up!