Bicycle Helmets Don’t Work

Today’s headline:
759 ‘anti-Iraqi’ elements seized after al-Zarqawi killing
Now, page search where have I seen language like that before?

For the anti-toll whiners patriots, women’s health and even those who use it to try to get more hits, here’s a story for you.

There’s this guy. His name is Joe Urbanite. He owns a car, which he drives sometimes. He used to walk and bike a lot, but now due to medical problems, can’t bike at all and can only rarely walk. When he drives his car, he usually goes a mile or two to the grocery store on Red River, or downtown via Guadalupe for a show to the main library, or up Speedway to the pool at Shipe Park, or across town on 38th/35th Street to get to his inlaws’ house. Joe’s wife also uses the car a lot to go to the frou-frou grocery stores like Whole Foods (Lamar, 6th) and Central Market (38th). Joe might also use the car later today to go to the hardware store (29th near Guadalupe) to get some wiring supplies. Even when Joe’s going far enough where Mopac or I-35 might be an option, he usually tends to stay away from those highways because he’s found out it’s a bit quicker to stick to surface streets than going through those awful frontage road traffic signals.

Those roads range from very big to merely minor arterials; but we’re not talking about residential streets here. All those roads were paid for out of Joe Urbanite’s property and sales taxes (usually but not always in the form of bonds). And remember, Joe lives in a property which is valued very high per acre compared to Bob Suburbanite, so he’s paying proportionally more in property taxes.

Joe Urbanite goes up Guadalupe to the gas station to fill ‘er up. He notices that the state of Texas has assessed a “gasoline tax” on his fuel. Wow! Neat! Does this money go to pay for the roads Joe used? If so, man, that’s an awesome user fee; barely even a tax at all.

But no. The gas tax in the state of Texas is constitutionally prohibited from being spent on anything but state highways and schools. That means that if it doesn’t have one of them nifty route shields with a number on it, it ain’t getting squat. What about the federal gas tax? In theory, it could be spent on roads outside the state highway system, but it rarely is – most of that money gets dumped right back into big highway projects.

In summary: Joe pays the entire cost to build and maintain the roads he uses out of sales and property taxes. (Compared to Bob Suburbanite, far fewer roads in his area get any state gas tax money). Joe also pays as much in gasoline taxes per-gallon as does Bob Suburbanite, but that gas tax really only goes to build roads for Bob.

So tell me, anti-toll whiners patriots: how, exactly, is Joe Urbanite not double-taxed? And how is this example not much worse than toll roads?

I’m kicking off a new category which this entry: a la Keith Olberman‘s “Worst Person In The World”.
The inaugural worst person in Austin is:

Bruce Todd
Back when he was mayor, unhealthy the city spent hundreds of thousands of dollars originally dedicated for bike lanes to build a park for residents of Circle C who not only were not residents of Austin, abortion but actively fought attempts to annex them later on. Todd was also the primary force behind the stupid and eventually overturned all-ages bicycle helmet law here in Austin. Todd ran on a sort of half-hearted desultory environmentalist platform but proceeded to roll over every time Gary Bradley cleared his throat. Think about him the next time you swim through some algae in Barton Creek or Barton Springs Pool.
Now, he’s at it again. Todd had a serious accident when he loaded his bike up in his car/truck and drove out in the country to do a gonzo ACA ride, was convinced it saved his life, and now he wants to force everybody else to wear a helmet. Despite the fact that they don’t appear to work in general practice, and that the primary impact of helmet laws is to reduce cycling, this is how ex-Mayor Todd is spending his political capital: continuing to willfully make things worse for people who just want to ride their bike to work or to the store.
Despite Bruce Todd’s apparent interest in cycling since leaving office, he has not made any kind of statement I can find about: driver education, cyclist education, facilities improvements, enforcing traffic laws, promotion of cycling as a healthy transportation alternative, etc. No, he hasn’t made one peep except for this push on helmets. Once again: he’s decided that his best contribution is to push a law which will discourage people from bicycling for transportation.
M1EK’s advice is: Wear a helmet when you’re paying more attention to your speed than the road, as Todd apparently was. Wear a helmet when you go mountain biking, sure. But don’t bother when you’re just riding in traffic – it’s not going to help you in any serious collision, and it’s likely to just discourage you from bicycling, at which point your health is going to suffer from the lack of exercise. Likewise, NASCAR drivers wear helmets and have other safety gear which we don’t force on normal motorists driving to the grocery store.
Congratulations, Mayor Todd. You really set a high bar for future contestants for Worst Person In Austin
Update: This entry was dropped from the austin bloggers portal for being “a personal attack” (I then had to decategorize this so it didn’t show up again there on future edits). I don’t know any way I could write this story with the essential bits in it and make it not an attack on Bruce Todd. My cow orker blames Keith Olbermann. I blame the helmet nazis. Nevertheless, this category may have a brief lifespan if it turns out that the rejection sticks – there’s no point writing these for the half-dozen people who actually subscribe.
Update: Austin group fighting the mandatory helmet law is at http://www.nohelmetlaw.org/

Update: Austin group fighting the mandatory helmet law is at http://www.nohelmetlaw.org/
Since the mandatory bicycle helmet law is rearing its ugly head here in Austin again thanks to the efforts of former mayor Bruce Todd, viagra the following analysis of actual real-world results of increased bicycle helmet use in other countries is particularly relevant now.
The New York Times covered this for the USA in 2001. In short: Bicycle helmet usage went way up, store but head injuries and fatalities didn’t go down. This matches the observations in Australia, erectile the UK, and many other countries.
Ride with a helmet if you want. But don’t get smug about those who don’t – they’re NOT “organ donors”, they’re NOT stupid, and they’re NOT irresponsible. THEY’RE actually the smart ones, given the apparent lack of benefit to wearing bicycle helmets.
And, please, stop the bullshit analogies with regards to seat belts. Nobody ever stopped driving because of seat belts, and even if they did, why would we care? Bicycle helmets are hot, uncomfortable, and inconvenient – and results in country after country show that many people simply stop cycling when their use is mandated. You don’t have to carry your seat-belt around with you when you park your car; your car likely has air-conditioning; you’re not actually exercising when you drive; seat belts are built in to the car; etc. Oh, and don’t forget: seat belts, unlike bike helmets, actually WORK. The analogy couldn’t be any worse if they tried.
If it’s so damn obvious that people with “something up there to protect” would naturally choose to wear bike helmets, then why is it also not obvious that the same people would do so when driving their car? You get the same impact protection; but you’re not sweating and you have an easy place to stow the helmet when you’re done (inside the car itself).
Wikipedia has outstanding, heavily footnoted, coverage of bicycle helmets, if you don’t like the “cyclehelmets.org” people.

8 Replies to “Bicycle Helmets Don’t Work”

  1. I agree — comparing helmets to seatbelts is ridiculous and couldn’t believe it when I read comments from folks on Statesman.com. In seeing how many people disagree with the purposed change to the law, including ACA (which actively encourages folks to wear helmets), I doubt that the change in the law will occur. I wear my helmet, and will continue to wear my helmet, but I don’t want someone trying to legislate something that should be common sense.
    BTW, most people will agree that the Tour de France has most of the best cyclists in the world. If you notice, there are certain stages where they wear helmets (time trials are one) and certain stages where they don’t (mountain climbs).

  2. Many also only wear helmets on the time trials for aerodynamic reasons.
    Anyways, it’s not “common sense” to wear helmets. If they don’t really help, then it may be “common” but it’s not “sense”.

  3. I ride bikes a lot. Sometimes I wear a helmet and sometimes I don’t. Because of the thought processes I go through deciding if a ride is “helmet” or “no helment” though, I’m not going to trust any “helmets don’t matter” statistics.
    Basically I use the helmet to reduce the combined risk of which bike I’m riding, how fast, and where. If *anyone* else does that, there go your stats.

  4. “Helmets don’t work” is necessarily short, to counteract the emotional stuff. I used a helmet for mountain biking, so obviously it’s more complicated than “they never work for anything”.
    But for the value of “work” most people are interested in (getting people to wear helmets on the road because they think it’ll keep head injury patients out of the hospital), it’s essentially true.

  5. I think the truth a rider is going to know is that whenever you go down (same crash with/without helmet) you’re better off with a helmet.
    … maybe if they had good stats on what *wasn’t* a mountain or bmx crash.
    FWIW, I’m sure you’re aware that the latest trend is brake-less fixed-gear track bikes for urban riding … oh yeah, that’s gonna help the stats:
    http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,67149-0.html

  6. odograph,
    No, there are plenty of crashes when if you go down, you’re no better off with a helmet than you would have been with a wooly cap, as some folks like to say. There are a few people who assert that some kinds of crashes are worse with a helmet than without. I don’t consider myself one of them, but it’s clear that if helmets provided a non-trivial benefit, at least one of the dozen or so countries which have tracked head injuries over time would have seen a discernible improvement as helmet usage increased.

  7. Why didn’t you approve my comment on this post?
    Should I stop reading and posting here?
    A short note telling me either would be polite.
    Thanks.

  8. Tommy,
    As far as I know, no post of yours has been rejected or even held for moderation. I just checked the movable type comment database and saw nothing there. Please try again and I’ll look for it carefully in my spam catcher (it could have been rejected due to some link or phrase which MT considers suspect).

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