To wear a helmet or not? That is a good question

DETROIT—A study published this week by a group of Boston doctors looked at helmet use among riders in bike share programs and concluded that about 80 percent of riders in these programs don’t wear helmets.

Gasp!

The lead author of the study, released by the Beth Israel Deconess Medical Center, sounded fairly alarmist in his comments about the research.

“Head injury accounts for about a third of all bicycle injuries and about three-quarters of bicycle related deaths, so these are some pretty shocking numbers,” says emergency medicine physician Christopher Fischer, MD.

Detroit doesn’t have a bike share program – yet. With plans for a small one this summer and perhaps a bigger one next year, the conversation about safety in such efforts should take place.

Let’s start with one fault of the research that Fischer cites: We don’t know what overall share of bike injuries or accidents are from bike share program riders.

Head injury accounts for about a third of all bicycle injuries and about three-quarters of bicycle related deaths ..." ~Christopher Fischer, MD.

As cyclists using these bikes are GENERALLY going relatively short distances and not riding in packs, it would suggest their injury risk is lower.

That’s not to ignore that the study raises a worthy point: bike safety is worth thinking about, talking about and aiming for.

But to imply the overall benefit of bike sharing falls off because helmets aren’t strapped to every participants’ melon seems to be a bit overcautious. It’s certainly worse for anyone’s overall health, on average, to use not having a helmet as an excuse to not get exercise.

So here’s some balanced perspective on the issue: would a helmet help protect your head from injury IF you are hit or fall off your bike? Probably.

Should not having a helmet stop you from cycling? Absolutely not, unless wearing one is required on a group ride. Then you should follow the rules and wear one for safety anyway, since being with several riders in close proximity takes your cycling safety somewhat out of your span of control.

For some other thoughts we checked in with some of Detroit’s bike share and rental sites to see what leaders had to say about the helmet issue.

At Wayne State University, Lisa Nuszkowski, a senior project coordinator for economic development, is helping coordinate the beginning work toward a bike share program. With just a few meetings having been held and plans for a feasibility study to be completed this year, the bike share program would start in 2013 at the earliest, she says.

But safety is already part of the early planning as Nuszkowski researches other city’s programs to help determine what Detroit’s could look like.

“Safety is definitely a consideration,” she says, “but in most cases, helmets are not there with the bikes” when people rent them.

Other city’s programs offer discounts on safety equipment like helmets when participants register online, she says. And the bikes themselves have front and rear lights, bells and sturdy construction to help protect riders from injury.

“But there’s no way to have helmets there for people,” Nuszkowski says.

At Fender Bender, a small bike share program that will launch this summer in conjunction with the Allied Media Conference, riders who borrow bikes will be required to wear helmets and use lights when riding at night.

“The only barrier would be the people who wear their hair natural and have a style that a helmet may not fit over,” says Sarah Sidelko, one of Fender Bender’s four founders. “We might have to find an alternative.”

Sidelko, a longtime rider herself, didn’t wear a helmet until a year ago.

“I’ve done hundreds of miles of biking with no helmet. I just wasn’t thinking. I think more than anything I was in the moment, getting on my bike and just going. There was nothing to enforce wearing it or stop me from not wearing it,” she says. “Now my feelings are pretty simple. I think everyone should wear a bike helmet.”

What changed her mind was leading rides for newer riders and wanting to be a good role model.

“I’ve always been a big advocate of safety: using the road properly, sharing space properly, hand signals, riding with traffic,” she says.

Just this week she was riding and was nearly hit by a car speeding around a corner. After narrowly missing being hit, she stopped to collect herself and envisioned herself hit by the car, bouncing off its roof and landing on the ground.

“I’m glad I was wearing my helmet,” she says.

At the Wheelhouse, the bicycle shop, located at Rivard Park on Detroit’s RiverWalk, free helmets are provided with rented bikes, says co-owner Kelli Cavanaugh.

“It’s not required under Michigan law so it’s not mandatory that adults wear them, but I’d say most people accept them,” she says.

Children and youth younger than 18 must wear helmets, and riders participating in the Wheelhouse’s numerous tours must wear helmets as well for liability reasons, Cavanaugh says.

“I truly believe that bicycling is not inherently dangerous, and this great fear about it is a very American mentality. If you watch the news, you’ll be scared to death to go to the corner store,” she says. “Getting on a bike is not just taking your life in your own hands. You’re doing something millions of people have done for over a century.”

Not sure how to fit a helmet properly? Check out Mayo Clinic's 'helmet dos and don'ts'

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