Due to some recent tragic bike/ automobile collisions, bikes and bike helmets have been in the news lately and as a result certain perspectives are being vocalized both for and against helmet use by bicyclists. As if I need to state my position after this many years of writing this column, not to mention being an active supporter of the Brain Injury Association of Oregon, I encourage anyone who rides a bike to wear a helmet whenever and wherever they do so. No surprise there.
One of the most widely reported incidents involved one of our local sports stars. When ex-Oregon Duck quarterback Joey Harrington stepped onto the gridiron for any game, he always did so with a helmet strapped to his head, a requirement in any competitive football league. On July 31, 2011, Harrington made a similar decision when he jumped on his bike and began his ride which eventually had him riding up SE Foster Road where he was hit by a negligent motorist. Harrington ended up in the hospital with serious injuries, but he credits wearing his helmet with saving his life.
Other recent stories can be found where riders have also credited their helmets with saving their lives. Unfortunately, other stories are available where the rider who was not wearing a helmet died of head trauma.
In my household, I take these stories as an opportunity to discuss the benefits of wearing a helmet with my young daughters. It is a parental duty, I feel, to give them information that I hope leads to their better decision making, and with the hope that they will incorporate this information into their own decisions when they are adults.
And it is the word “decide” (as in what “decision” did the cyclist make with regard to helmet use) that has caused a minor controversy among Portland’s cycling community.
On August 12, 2011 an Oregonian reporter named Joseph Rose wrote an article, or almost an opinion piece,
regarding bike helmet use. It is entitled “Joey Harrington Crash in Portland Shows Benefit of Wearing Bike Helmets, but Some Riders Aren’t Persuaded.” Rose writes that “On July 31, no one was paying the 33-year-old former quarterback millions to wear his bike helmet. No league required it. It was just sensible, grownup – something role models do. And it might have saved his life.”
Rose cites data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety which shows that 10,998 bike riders were killed on the nation’s roads between 1994 and 2008, and that a whopping 93% of those deceased riders were not wearing helmets. He also quotes Harrington’s OHSU trauma surgeon, Dr. John Mayberry, who states that “I’m certain that he would have been brought in here with severe head injuries” if Harrington had not been wearing his helmet.
Rose explains how he, Joseph Rose, crashed his bike in college, without a helmet, while riding his bike at high speeds, and that he lost consciousness, bled and lost part of his memory for several hours. It is this personal experience, at least in part, that led Rose to support helmet use for all bike riders. This experience caused him to “decide” to support helmet
use for bike riders. But if you think this is how everyone has “decided” with regard to the issue of helmet use you’d be dead wrong.
Mr. Rose’s article directed readers to the Portlandize blog of “local bike activist Dave Feucht” who posted a blog entry entitled “Why I don’t Wear a Helmet.” Mr. Feucht writes about his decision not to
wear a helmet and includes the following statements:
Firstly, I am not anti-helmet. I don’t hate people who wear helmets, or think they are stupid, or childish. I think many of them make a perfectly rational decision to wear a helmet at least some of the time they are on a bike, and I believe that is their free choice, and I trust them to make a decision based on their own set of circumstances, as I would expect them to do for me.
(Helmets) are unlikely to substantially help in an impact with a car, especially since you are then more likely to have multiple impacts (with the car, and then the ground, for instance). Because of this, I don’t feel the need to wear a helmet to protect my head in case of a collision with an automobile, as, given the forces involved, even if I were to hit my head, it seems to me that the helmet would be unlikely to make a significant difference. In the case I were to get hit by a car, I am at least as likely to suffer from broken bones, internal injuries, and
lacerations over my body anyway.
A helmet only does any good if you crash, go down hard, and hit your head.
I think a big part of the decision for me is that, yes, a helmet will probably reduce your overall likelihood of injury – but the likelihood of any kind of major injury (speaking with regard to my own personal case specifically) is so small in the first place, it doesn’t make that much difference.
It would be like wearing a helmet while walking up and down stairs. Will it reduce your chances of a head injury, if you fall down the stairs? Almost certainly. What are the chances of you falling down the stairs and hitting your head hard enough to give yourself a major head injury? Not all that high. Low enough that most of us choose not to wear a helmet while climbing or descending stairs. It does happen, yes. But it is not risky enough to be worth taking precautions, over and above paying attention to where you are walking.
So, I’ve kind of come to an “eh, whatever” stance regarding helmets. I would rather just not talk about them at all, to be honest.
Anyway, all I’m trying to say here, is inform yourself, and then make a decision based on what you are comfortable with.
I have informed myself, as Mr. Feucht suggests, but my conclusions are almost opposite of his. I do not have an “eh, whatever” stance regarding helmets probably because I know too well the devastating effects of a traumatic brain injury and the effectiveness of helmets in preventing those injuries. While I hope that I won’t fall from my bike and hit my head (again), I won’t assume that I never will. When I place this information on the imaginary scale in my mind, it falls to the side of being better safe than sorry, especially when the “sorry” part of the scale is living with, or dying from a TBI. And after what happened to him on Foster Road, I have a strong suspicion that Joey Harrington would agree with me on this point as well.
David Kracke is an attorney with the law firm of Nichols & Associates in Portland. Nichols & Associates has been representing brain injured individuals for over twenty two years. Mr. Kracke is available for consultation at (503) 224-3018.