John Stossel's got a segment on 20/20 tonight (you can preview it here) about the unintended consequences of helmet use.
There are really two issues here.
- Is a bike rider any safer when they wear a helmet?
- Does society benefit when helmets are mandated?
Let's take a look at the argument behind point number one:
While there is little doubt that your head is much better protected when you are in an accident, it turns out that you may be more likely to get in an accident due to your helmet use. For two reasons, 1) cars tend to pass you more closely when you are wearing a helmet vs. when you go without, and 2) you tend to feel more invincible and therefore take more risks. The main problem I have with these arguments is that I have yet to see any data that shows these behaviors in fact do lead to more accidents - only that one would assume that they do. Then again I haven't poured over the reports from whence they've come either.
I may be the only lunatic that thinks this way, but it reminds me of an argument I have with myself regarding the safety of multi-engine jet planes (hey, I'm a frequent traveler - what can I say). Anyway, it's about whether it is safer to fly in a two engine plane vs. one with four engines. On the one hand, when riding in a four engine plane, if one of the engines should fail there are three others to get you to safety. On the other hand, you are more likely to have a problem with one of the engines than you are with a two engine plane.
Regarding issue number two:
Apparently the data shows that as we mandate the use of helmets participation in cycling goes down. As a result, the unintended consequence is more out of shape people that end up having heart attacks and die early. To me as a layman, this is a no brainer. I believe that not only are there fewer cyclists over time when helmet use is mandatory, but of those that do still cycle, they likely do so at a reduced rate. The hassle factor. I'm very much in the "take personal responsibility" camp here on this one.
So what's the bottom line here? I know that I always wear a helmet when I do serious cycling. I always make my kids wear helmets no matter what. But, I don't wear a helmet when I tool around the neighborhood or when I ride to the community pool (yes, I'm a hypocrite, I know). I can understand the hassle factor.