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baltimoresun.com

Bike helmets should be optional

7:30 AM EST, February 21, 2013

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Having ridden bicycles since childhood, I prefer not to wear a bicycle helmet ("The bike helmet debate," Feb. 16. However, I would not want to discourage a rider who feels more secure in wearing one.

Having also ridden motorcycles, and being a believer in the use of standard full head helmets while riding them, I can say there is a major difference in the level of safety provided by the two vastly different types of helmets. If I believed a helmet should be worn while riding a bicycle, I would use the motorcycle type.

The bike helmets being advocated are flimsily constructed by comparison. They were developed by the bicycle racing industry, and — along with wraparound mirrored sunglasses and kaleidoscopically colored spandex unitards — give that testosterone-charged appearance so desperately desired by bicycle marketers.

In spite of the fact that motorcycle-type helmets offer much greater protection, it's interesting to note that their use has not been advocated in the bicycle racing world, or in discussions of bicycle safety in general.

It is not uncommon to read about serious injuries or deaths as a result of bicycle accidents even though the rider was wearing a helmet. In some cases the helmet simply cracked or slipped out of place due to it not being strapped on tightly enough.

In other cases, the rider was annihilated by in a collision with a car or truck. Bicycling will always carry a certain degree of risk, and protecting only the top of one's head is not a rational prescription for safe riding.

Bicycle riding comes in all sizes and shapes, from cross country riding and racing to simply expediting movement across a few city blocks. It occurs in cold weather, where the bird's nest helmet requires the use of a hat underneath for warmth (and renders the helmet useless due to improper fit), and during warm weather, when the head band becomes wet with sweat.

For quick in-town jaunts or short leisure rides, the inconvenience of the helmet makes it a non-starter for one who has ridden a lifetime without one. For a lengthy road ride in traffic lanes, or a race, I would opt for the protection of a standard, full-head, motorcycle-type helmet.

Nor is there much in the way of definitive statistics regarding the safety of bicycle helmet use — what types of accidents are they most effective in, what are the fatality rates for users versus nonusers, what percentage of bicycle accidents involve head injuries as opposed to abrasions or broken bones. We in the U.S. should pay attention to what people in the Netherlands do; they are the most prolific riders on the planet, and they're not clamoring for helmets.

Intuition would suggest a better approach to bike safety lies in simple common sense precautions, such as avoiding heavily trafficked roads, better training of drivers to watch for bikes and more bicycle lanes in cities. Bicycle riders really don't need another poorly conceived government mandate jammed down our throats.

Gary Moyer, Baltimore City

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