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Bike Blog: Do Helmets Make People Want to Kill You?

This is the first in a series of posts on the Bike Blog’s Bike Fears – those niggling questions that we try to avoid every time we mount that two-wheeler and ride into battle (or traffic). We start with this one: Do Helmets Make People Want to Kill You?

They’re annoying. They’re funny-looking; they’re expensive; they’re heavy and sweaty and those damn straps are always pinching on your chin. It just can’t be denied – bike helmets are a bummer.

The Bike Blog wears one, most of the time. I don’t like it, but I enjoy life and having my head intact, and if I got clobbered one day and could dance no more, what would my dear mother think? So I suck it up and try to wear a helmet.

Still, living in a rough part of town, I just can’t shake the feeling that wearing a helmet actually makes life more dangerous – that it inspires in certain people a deep and instantaneous hatred of me (who among us is immune from these biases? I’ve slurred spandex from time to time. I regret it -- sometimes).

Do helmets actually put you at greater risk? Apparently, there’s some science that says yes.

That’s according to a study by Ian Walker, a psychologist at the University of Bath in Merry Old England. Walker rides his bike to work every day, and he decided to find out if wearing his helmet affected the cars that rode by him. He fitted an ultrasonic sensor to his bike (let’s hope we don’t have to start buying those now) and measured the distance of each car that passed him, alternating each ride between going helmeted and bare-headed.

Walker’s results indicated that vehicles drove closer to him when he was wearing a helmet than when he went without one – about three and a half inches closer, to be precise. He claims that during his study, and while wearing a helmet, he was struck by a bus and a lorry – that’s “English” for a truck.

Are we liberated from helmets, then? Maybe, maybe not. There’s been plenty of criticism of Walker’s conclusions, including this blog post from Consumer Reports which points out a study from New York indicating that about 97 percent of bike fatalities between 1996 and 2005 were bikers who weren’t wearing helmets, and a vast majority of those cases were head wounds. On the other hand, the same study doesn’t indicate what percentage of bikers who don’t die wear helmets, either – in other words, maybe 97 percent of New Yorkers don’t wear helmets at all. Seems high, though.

Here’s an interesting online discussion on the subject from the blog at Columbia University’s Statistics department, in which Walker himself weighs in at one point.

One last thought: this Walker got hit by both a bus AND a truck while wearing his helmet? Sounds like he might not be the greatest bicyclist in the first place. -- Isaiah Thompson

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