I "retired" my favorite bike helmet yesterday afternoon (Tuesday, and Earth Day) while riding home from work. My commute route, through an area of Burns Park that had been flooded for a couple of weeks due to high river levels, was A-okay going in to work, but a sharp little afternoon thundershower got all the deposited silt stirred up again. The main lesson I learned is that you shouldn't try to bunny-hop a blown-down limb when there's about an inch of slick goopy mud on the trail, even if you're riding your otherwise magical green 29er. I tucked and rolled, but still FELT that smack on the left side of my head. Fortunately my helmet -- a nearly three-year old Giro Atmos -- took the lickin', and I kept on tickin'... at least after getting up and taking inventory to be sure all the parts were still working. I was a muddy mess, and the left elbow was a little gimpy for the next 24 hours, but that helmet did its job honorably.
That makes at least three helmets that I’ve gone through in a little more than 6 years since I got back into cycling (and concurrently, started wearing a bike helmet). One ended its career when I was still learning some my limits and took a corner a little too fast in wet road conditions, and went down on the pavement. Another was retired late last summer when I got squeezed out of the lane by a speeding UPS truck. In each case, it was one of those situations where you see yourself as “just riding along” when suddenly circumstances get a little bit out of control.
Arkansas is one of the 31 states that doesn't have any sort of law requiring bike helmets for riders of any age, and none of our cities has a helmet ordinance, either. (We do require motorcycle helmets for riders younger than 18 years.) Jim Lendall, a former state representative and registered nurse, tried mightily each legislative session to get some sort of law in place, but was voted down each time.
I read a lot of accident reports and news stories involving cycling crashes (see BikeJournal.com and one of the things that reporters and cops always jump on is whether or not the cyclist involved was wearing a bike helmet. Doesn’t matter whether the cyclist in question was struck down and run over by a loaded dump truck blowing thru the school zone at ~50 mph (yes, it happened the week before last), he should have been wearing a helmet.
Gentle friends, a bike helmet isn’t going to help much in case you get hit by a dump truck, or another motor vehicle for that matter. The helmets are only designed to help protect your noggin in a simple fall… for what it’s worth, the CPSC tests these helmets in impacts up to 14 mph. Car-bike collisions are for the most part beyond the simple capacity of a helmet, but even in these cases, every little bit of protection helps.
In a previous life, I was an artillery forward observer serving an armor (tank) battalion at Fort Polk, LA. Having first worked with an infantry battalion, I was impressed with the massive amount of armor plate and firepower the tankers brought to the game… much different than our steel pot helmets and BDU shirts. I soon learned though, that all that armor attracts attention, and nearly everyone on the battlefield is hankering to take a shot at a tank. The wise tanker uses the earth as his real armor, seeking to keep the bulk of his fighting machine protected behind small crests and fold in the earth, and the anti-tank round has to go thru a lot of dirt before it really challenges your armor.
Your bike helmet, along with your glasses and gloves, are your last line of protection for when the situation slips beyond your control. A cyclist’s real armor is his wits – using your smarts and situational awareness to keep himself (or herself) out of troublesome spots in the first place. One of the slides I use in the Road I course discusses these “Layers of Safety” like this:
1. Control Your Bike: Don’t fall or collide with others.
2. Follow the Rules: Don’t cause traffic crashes.
3. Lane Positioning: Discourage the mistakes of others.
4. Avoidance: Avoid the mistakes of others.
5. Passive Safety: Wear a helmet and gloves to help you survive a crash.
I see lots of folks out on the local streets and trails who don’t wear bike helmets. I even see some of the local CARVE guys (our most prominent local racing team) out noodling around on the trail in full kit, sans helmet, trying to look “cool” like the pros, I guess.
For what it’s worth, the pro riders now have to wear their helmets from start to finish during a race, to include the final climbs in the mountain stages. It’s not only for their safety, but to set an example for other cyclists who see them playing in the top levels of our sport. Likewise, younger, newer riders look to us old guys for an example, and kids – the real future of our sport – look to us in the same manner.
Your brain can’t heal itself when it gets hurt. The damage from a concussion is cumulative, and affects you the rest of your life. Your helmet may not wholly protect you in a catastrophic crash with a dump truck or UPS van, but it can come through to save who you are in the smaller, routine thumps and bumps we’re most likely to encounter out on the roads and trails. I like y’all just the way you are – don’t let a traumatic brain injury rob you of your life, or the personality that makes you the unique creature that’s really you.
Me, with my usual luck and a number of crashed helmets, I’m a believer. Helmets really do save lives… yours and the life quality of those who love you.