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Bike Accidents Without Helmets: Why Some Cyclists Don’t Wear a Helmet

Most people riding bikes today have heard it again and again: the best way to protect your head is to wear a helmet while biking, and that riding your bike without a helmet is ridiculously dangerous. And — while we respect individual adults’ decisions regarding helmet use for themselves — having seen the heartbreaking impacts of head injuries on cyclists’ lives, here at Bay Area Bicycle Law we highly recommend that you wear a helmet while riding a bicycle.

And we all know why. Bike accidents without helmets are far more likely to result in death or brain trauma than ones where the cyclist’s head was properly protected. In 2014, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, over 60% of deaths in bicycle crashes were people who were NOT wearing a helmet. In several other regional studies, that percentage has been shown to be as high as 97%. (Study after study confirms that helmets reduce head injury severity).

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety also reports that “helmet use has been estimated to reduce the odds of head injury by 50 percent, and the odds of head, face, or neck injury by 33 percent.”

And yet, millions of people (more than half of all cyclists) choose not to wear a helmet when they head out on the road. Why do most cyclists still make this choice, if bike accidents without helmets are proven to be so much more dangerous?

The legal argument for helmets

As a legal matter, it is a good idea to wear a helmet.  Because there is a general expectation in our society that cyclists wear a helmet, if you are ever in a crash in which you are not wearing a helmet, the insurance company (or judge or jury, if you were to take it to court) may put blame on you for not wearing a helmet, even if you did nothing to contribute to the initial collision.  

For example, depending on the circumstances, the insurance company might unilaterally decide that you were 50% at fault in a crash in which you weren’t wearing a helmet, even if you were obeying all traffic laws and the driver was at fault for doing something such as running a red light, thus reducing your compensation by 50%. 

Depending on the circumstances, this reduction might be across the board, reducing your compensation for medical expenses by 50%, your compensation for lost wages by 50%, your pain and suffering compensation by 50%, etc.  

The statistical argument “against” helmets (or “helmets for all, including non-cyclists”!)

If you see a cyclist riding without a helmet, you probably think they’re crazy or reckless. But statistically, they may not be as crazy as you think, or at least, not more crazy than most other folks on the road not wearing a helmet.

You are actually LESS likely to get a serious head trauma injury on your bike than you are when you are simply walking around town or even riding in a car. Sound crazy? It is true.

According to a 1996 study, this is how head injury risk breaks down based on type of transportation:

Risk of head injury per million hours travelled

  • Cyclist: 0.41
  • Pedestrian: 0.80
  • Motor vehicle occupant: 0.46
  • Motorcyclist: 7.66

As you can see, motorcyclists, pedestrians, and even people in cars are more likely to suffer head injury when travelling. But no one wears a helmet in the car, or on a walk.

So if we are reckless enough to walk or ride around without a helmet in these situations where we are statistically more likely to sustain a head injury, then is it really worse to not wear a bicycle helmet when riding a bike?

Personal reasons for risking bike accidents without helmets

Many people who don’t wear a helmet while biking have what they consider to be a good reason not to.

Some say they are uncomfortable. Some don’t like having their hair squished down on their way to their destination. Some say it reduces their ability to see around them. Some (especially children and teens) say that wearing a helmet makes them look uncool.

There are even studies that show that drivers behave more recklessly when passing a cyclist who is wearing a helmet versus when they are passing one without a helmet.

Still more people who don’t wear a helmet while biking do so simply because they think they don’t need to, or they don’t know how serious the ramifications of not wearing a helmet can be.

Some people also say that bike helmets aren’t safe enough. After all, people still die in bike crashes every year who were wearing helmets. It is not a foolproof safeguard against death or serious injury.

Why you should wear a helmet while biking every time

Statistics and personal preferences aside, your brain is your brain. You need it.

Just because there is a bit of cognitive dissonance with the statistics regarding head trauma in pedestrians, cyclists, and cars that we mentioned above, does not mean it is worth it to risk bike accidents without helmets. Maybe pedestrians and car drivers should be wearing helmets too, but just because they don’t doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t either. Your brain is precious cargo.

Just because your helmet isn’t perfect doesn’t mean it can’t do a pretty remarkable job protecting you from death and serious trauma. Yes, you could still die even when wearing your helmet, but it is far, far less likely than if you weren’t. Not to mention the fact that surviving a crash without serious brain trauma is far, far preferable than surviving with serious brain trauma.

If you don’t like how your helmet looks, or how it makes your hair look, or anything else — it is worth your time to find solutions that work for you instead of skipping the helmet.

And, hoping that a driver will be more careful when passing you just because you’re not going to wear a helmet while biking is not a very effective insurance policy. Being hit by a car is far from the only way to be seriously injured on your bike — plus there is no guarantee that a driver will be cautious with you.. Better to be protected than unprotected.

Plus, if you are in a crash and decide to pursue a case against a driver who hit you, a judge or jury may take into account the fact that you were not wearing a helmet as a deciding factor in your negligence that contributed to the crash occurring (even if it’s not against the law to ride without a helmet in your state). That means you may be awarded a smaller settlement or verdict for your injuries, even if you were not otherwise at fault for the crash.

If you need more convincing, just look at a few more statistics about bike accidents without helmets:

  • Helmets don’t just protect your brain; they also protect your face. One study found that “riders with helmets also had 31 percent lower odds of facial fractures. The upper part of the face, particularly around the eyes, was most protected. “
  • 26,000 children and adolescents are treated in emergency rooms for traumatic brain injuries due to bicycle-related accidents every year.
  • Cycling injuries account for nearly double the amount of traumatic head injuries caused by football every year (85,000 vs 46,000). With more than 50% of cyclists not wearing helmets, this is not surprising!

And if you’ve been injured in a bike crash — with or without a helmet — call Bay Area Bicycle Law for a free, no obligation consultation. You will speak with an experienced bicycle accident attorney, who can help you with next-steps, whether or not you wish to pursue a personal injury lawsuit.