What Can We Learn From the Bike Helmet Paradox?

In my neighbourhood I'm affectionately known as crazy because my family and I ride our bikes everywhere - so crazy that I get into the local paper just for riding to work:)

This photo of me appeared in our municipal newspaper. In my neighbourhood I’m affectionately known as crazy because my family and I ride our bikes everywhere – so insane that I get into the local paper just for riding to work:)

A few questions to begin.

You would agree that people, especially children, should wear helmets when riding a bike, yes? Why am I even asking? If your eyes are on this blog, you’re likely an educator, parent, or both; it’s kind of our thing to be in favour of this stuff. Now be honest: do you hate the way bike helmets mess up your hair? What about the way they look and feel? Could be designed better, you say? Well, guess what, researchers have discovered something counter intuitive but logical.

In most Western nations, bike helmets are mandated by law. Statistically, we have seen an overall decrease in bike-related head injuries that can directly be correlated to these trends. This data should support the rationale behind bike helmet legislation. Except for the fact that there are other correlations:

  • Many people admit they dislike biking because wearing a helmet is uncomfortable, inconvenient, and unattractive.
  • The type of injuries bike helmets are designed to prevent rarely occur.
  • The fervour with which bike helmets have been mandated is not matched in any way with similar infrastructure (safer lanes, reduced speeds in urban areas etc.) that makes cycling significantly safer than helmets do.
  • People ride their bikes (an incredibly healthy activity) far less than ever.

What does this mean, and what analogies can we make to other initiatives in education?

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10 thoughts on “What Can We Learn From the Bike Helmet Paradox?

  1. I know that we don’t live far from each other (I think you’re North of Toronto, no?), but I think we actually live in different worlds. Here, bikers (like me) are a whole lot more normal. They’re disliked a whole lot for reasons of bad riding habits and jealousy from drivers (stuck in cars that aren’t moving) BUUUT it’s more normal than crazy.

    Which might also fit into the analogy you’re building… context, location/community. Both will shape views.

    In case of the helmet, I can tell you that when I grew up in a small town outside Ottawa (and still now when I visit my parents) I felt safe and good without a helmet. Here in Toronto, it’s mandatory gear for me. I have had some bad spills and I really think that my helmet has saved my life (more than once). Drivers come closer here. You have to peddle harder here.

    Education might be the same. There are times and places when people can take a gentle ride through their learning. They’re safe to make mistakes and wipe out in their learning; no helmet required. Other times require prudence and quick thinking to resolve problems.

    I really hope that I provide both for my students. A safe place to grow, and opportunities to take risks and wipeout. When I want my twos to try something new I reassure them a bit, but I also say to them “no chickens; no babies”. It’s one of our mantras.

    • Isn’t it funny how different perceptions can be about biking across Steeles Avenue? I’m always shocked by the differences.

      When I read the research it blew my mind. I’d never really thought about bike helmet promotion as anything but a positive thing, but the evidence in the study really makes us question it. The main thing it seems to suggest for me is that we are of creating life long cyclists in our hyper safe era. I worry about that.

      Also, I just happened to read the study the day before the ‘Facebook Assembly’ took place in our school…

      • HAHAHAHA! We had an assembly for our intermediates and twitter. I WISH I could have run it, but I’m a primary guy these days. I don’t think it was really my place.

        The long and short was that kids were all told to lock their accounts.

        It took a lot of self control to not scream out “what’s the point of having it then!!!”.

        Kind of happy I got to miss that assembly.

      • Me too. Luckily I missed it. All my students said it was the worst ever. My daughter told me it was “boring and dumb”.

  2. In London, cyclists feel a lot safer not wearing helmets as cars and buses are more careful around them. They’re given more space and consideration because they’re doing something risky – I see this in education all the time! Jx

  3. I wonder if this is a case of perceived v. real risk. A helmet may very well reduce head injuries by some %. But head injuries, as a percentage of bike trips taken, is staggeringly low. So probably (as a previous commentator mentioned) location is more important. I cycle around Barrie without one, but if I was navigating Yonge and Dundas I might like one :-)

    As for a link to education… it shows the importance of being able to “read” data by thinking about context, creator and audience.

  4. I was thinking about this post, and then came across this from BigThink, and I had to share it. It solves the bad hair problem anyway. http://bigthink.com/design-for-good/yes-for-real-its-an-invisible-bicycle-helmet-and-it-is-awesome.

    I wear a helmet – I was forced off the road in small-town Ontario during my university years, and ended up passing out shortly thereafter. Have worn one ever since. Was an absolute necessity during my Ottawa time. I wouldn’t send my kids out without one.

    • Hey I remember you posting that before! Love it.

      I wear a helmet too, and I absolutely insist on my own and all other kids wear a helmet too. That’s why I was so intrigued by the research.

  5. Although I love this post and I even tweeted it out, I have to say that Phoenix is very bike-unfriendly. Twice, a helmet made a huge difference for me. The first time involved getting hit and flying into a power pole. I’m pretty sure I still got a concussion, but I think the helmet saved my life. The second involved having a beer bottle thrown at me (smashed into my helmet and shattered) for no reason.

    • I’ve had a handful of moments with my own kids where I watched a fall off a bike, skates, or rollerblades and thought, “Man, that helmet just saved him/her.” I’m absolutely a proponent of helmets.

      Reading the study really made me wonder about the macro, not micro, impact of such policies and legislation. In the suburbs where I live, I definitely notice people, especially kids, biking and skateboarding far less than ever. And, although my mind gets dizzy with cognitive dissonance when thinking about it, I wonder if it’s education or legislation that we need.

      Basically, I’m confused in a good way, and I want to leave open the possibility that something I think is important for my own children, might not be the best policy for a whole community.

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