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Home » Cycling » 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

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


April 2015

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):
IMG_5168Anywho, 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).


  1. Thomas Clayton says:

    Hey Jim. I figure I have rode over 75,000 miles on a road bike (not counting childhood years) so far in my life. When I first started adult riding in college (1984), it was very “uncool” to wear a helmet, so I did not. Back then they huge Bell helmets that made one’s head sweat so much, it looked like they had showered. Any case, I’ve had one bad crash in my life and it was when I was not wearing a helmet, Hit a pothole, descending a hill, slid on my side and hit a guardrail post with my head so hard it spun me in circles. I still have the scar on my forehead today.
    Also as a related side; Today I was at busy intersection waiting for the light to turn green. Next to me, in his car, was an elderly man looking to make a right on red. I saw him turn and look left into the oncoming traffic and was sure he saw the woman in the SUV full of kids about to enter the intersection. But! He pulled out anyway! She was just able to avoid a collision and looked to me in disbelief. I shrugged and shook my head. The moral – even if you do everything possible to be safe, that does not mean someone, something else might effect your statistics. I won’t ride with anyone with so little sense in their melon not to protect it best as one can.

    • bgddyjim says:

      My God Thomas! You have to be one of the luckiest guys walking this planet for that the fall didn’t kill you, let alone the guard rail!

      And someone tell me why they don’t have a mandatory road test for elderly folks every five years so they can keep their license…

      Glad you’re okay, brother. And thanks for giving me two more irrefutable reasons for wearing a dome protector… And anyone else who wanders down to the comments.

  2. PedalWORKS says:

    After a long swim workout, I was standing in the change room after showering. I fainted (for some reason) and fell to the ground, hit my head on the floor, and knocked myself out. An ambulance was called and I was wished away to the hospital. I was diagnosed with a “mild” concussion, and had symptoms for over a year. It wasn’t pleasant. I can’t imagine what it might feel like if I hit my head at high speed. Needless to say, I wear a bike helmet.

  3. EpicGran says:

    Absolutely helmets on! Have had my share of falls on some rocky ground and it would have been much uglier without a helmet!

  4. Nice article. Skipping away with the wearing/not wearing of helmet debate..I liked your line – I would rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it..although (getting out of the helmet thing) in general context I believe the conversely, as happy are those who need it and not have it than have it and not need it:)

  5. ekels22 says:

    In my recent crash due to a pothole My helmet hit hard. Afterwards I felt bad that I used to risk riding without a helmet. No warning at all in the crash I just had. I was riding next thing I knew I felt my face smashing the ground. My right wrist is broke and left hand requires surgery also. I sent pictures of the potholes and defects in the road to the city engineer of Trenton. I explained my injuries and what happened. No reply back not even one asking how I was doing. I also wanted to get those potholes fixed or at least a warning put up. I hired a lawyer who is also a cyclist. Because of what happened I want to try to get Government more aware about keeping roads safe for cyclist also. In a car you might have to replace wheel and tire. On a bike you have to repair the cyclist.

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