Bicycle Helmet Use in Minneapolis and Suburbs, 2015-2016

October 19, 2016 at 1:54 am | Posted in Bicycling | Leave a comment
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Here are the results of a research project documenting bicycle helmet use in the Twin Cities in 2015-2016. This isn’t met to be comprehensive, but to give some idea of helmet usage in different areas as well as a brief history.

A History of Riding Helmets

Advocacy for wearing bicycle helmets is almost as old as bicycles themselves. In the 1880s bicycle clubs began to advocate for the use of helmets. Eventually racers began to use helmets, first leather type pith helmets, then leather ring type “hairnet” helmets, but it was unknown in casual bicycling.

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Leather Hairnet Helmet

The first thing resembling a modern bicycle helmet was put out by Bell Sports in 1975, the Bell Biker, and was a modification of motorsports helmets, made of polystyrene foam with a hard lexan shell. These continued to evolve to the early 1990s (most noticably replacing the act of threading the chinstrap through rings with a quicker to use buckle).

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1980s-early 1990s hard shell helmets

Hardshell helmets have stuck around in a way, they’re now “skate style” helmets. The skate standard calls for limited multiple impact proection; some of these are skateboard only, some are dual-certified, and despite looking like skate helmets some are bicycle only. Like the earlier hardshell helmets they’re hot and heavy for bicycle use but they do provide an alternative design.

They’ve also morphed into “Urban” helmets, like Bern

Another neat idea, and R2D2 helmet

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R2D2 Helmet

From the UK are Yakkay brand helmets, which are hard shell helmets with a decorative cloth cap on them. It seems they’d be unbelievably hot, but I guess it’s worth it to make it not look like you’re wearing a riding helmet.

Late 1980s: Soft Shell Helmets

In the late 1980s came improvements that negated the need for a hard, heavy outer shell. One of the first, the Bell Ovation, had a soft lightweight shell, but more commonly they had no shell at all. Most of them had a Lycra cover to make it look like you weren’t wearing a picnic cooler and to provide a bit of protection from handling damage. Unfortunately in practice these tended to shatter into pieces and scatter at the first impact leaving the user vulnerable to further impacts. Manufacturers experimented with a wire mesh, but ultimately returned to soft shells. The color of the foam eventually generally changed from white to black to reduce the “picnic cooler” or “mushroom-head” aesthetic.

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Ovation and the shell-less helmets that followed

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Early Soft shell helmets, shell taped to liner

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Old Shell-less helmets with black foam, Rottnest Island Australia

Late 1990s: In-Mold Shell.

In the early 1990s came another innovation, injection molding the foam into the shell, rather than manufacturing them separately and then taping them together. Initially it meant the front strap or strap anchors were exposed, but later on they figured out how to make them recessed. Of course the trend towards  models with more an more vents came out.

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In-Mold Helmets.

In the mean time, an occipatal lobe retainer became standard, this is the strap that runs across the back of the head, and later ring fit systems, where you tighten a fastener on the retainer, enable one size fits most helmets.

Later Refinements:

With the advent of ring stabilizers, the dilema “where do you put your pony tail” comes up. (Most helmets don’t curve up like the one above). Specialized has ones that do, they call it the “Hairport”.

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Specialized “Hairport”

Another refinement is Bell’s “True-Fit technology, which eliminates the long, error prone, and often skipped process of trying to adjust the straps to get a helmet to sit right on a head. Specialized and Uvex now have similar systems.

Recently MIPS helmets have come out. One of the criticisms of helmets is they can increase the torque applied to the head in the event of a crash, MIPS is basically a layer of slick plastic that allows some slippage between the head and the helmet.

Selecting a Riding Helmet

So with all these advances in technology, is your new $200 helmet safer than your old on from the 1990s? Probably not.  There’s been various safety standards at different times and place,s but there’s been no real-world differences noted since the adoption of the ANSI standard in the late 1980s. No manufacturer is going to come out with a design that is “50% safer than brand “X”, for a number of reasons.

  1. The things that would make a helmet safer, namely thicker foam and fewer vents, would make it less marketable
  2. This would expose them to potential liability
  3. The safety tests performed are go/no go tests, there’s no standardized tests to say a helmet exceeds them by X percent, and it would be even harder to say that they were X percent safer in the real world.

If you look online for recommendations, there’s a lot of push by the helmet manufacturers to buy the most expensive helmet possible (and note they never say “safer”, they say “better ventilated; more stylistic, whatever). Meanwhile the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute (actually one guy who’s been advocating for helmets since the early 1990s) has the following suggestions:

You want a smoothly rounded outer shell, with no sharp ribs or snag points. Excessive vents mean less foam contacting your head, and that could concentrate force on one point… Skinny straps are less comfortable. Dark helmets are hard for motorists to see. Rigid visors can snag or shatter in a fall. Helmet standards do not address these problems–it’s up to you!

Unfortunately this results in the type of foam picnic cooler bicycle helmet that would, as the Onion notes, protect against bicycle helmet inspired beatings. Some of these recommendations would seem to make sense, but the safer helmet is one that would actually be worn, and there’s been to my knowledge no objective studies of these contentions.

And despite the “one size fits all claims”, there is a wild difference in how well helmets fit. The usual advice is that Bell fits round heads and Giro fits oval heads, but there’s more nuance than that. BHSI found the Tru-Fit worked less well than traditional systems, but others have found the opposite.

The Helmet Controversy

But should a riding helmet by mandatory, or even worn in the first place? Everyone points to the original study saying they reduce head injuries by 85%, or tell stories about how a helmet “saved their life” without any actual evidence. So it’s time to look at some of the controversy:

The original study itself may not be definative. Helmet promoters a repeat a 1990 Seattle study that helmets reduce the risk of head injury by 85% ad-nauseum, but followup studies are not so conclusive. In fact the CDC and NHTSA have withdrawn their support of the study The main criticism, besides being a single source that hasn’t been repeated, is that it doesn’t take into account some of the other variables described below. The authors themselves have revised their number to 69%, which still isn’t borne by real-world experience.

There are direct technical drawbacks. A helmeted head is much bigger than a un-helmeted one, which may lead to head contact that might not occur otherwise, and the torque that can be created is bigger. The trend towards smoother rounded helmets and the use of slick plastic lining in some of the newer ones, “MIPS” helps mitigate this, but it is still a problems.

It’s a distraction from the real issue, that the best way to be safe is not to crash. Again, the best crash is one that never happens, not one that you attempt to mitigate with a helmet. People think that if they convince people to put on a helmet they’ve done good, without addressing the much, much,  more important issues of safe riding skills and infrastructure design. Helmets are next to useless in bicycle vs car crashes, and motorists drive more aggressively when they see a bicyclist wearing a helmet. One guy from the UK measured this and found motorists get 8.5 cm closer to a bicycle when the rider is wearing a helmet

Risk Compensation may cancel out any direct benefits. Of course seat belts have this effect too, but in that case the direct safety benefit overwhelms any risk compensation, and overall motor vehicle safety trends bear that out. That’s not so clear with riding helmets, and safety trends are inconclusive. One study went so far as to objectively measure risk taking while wearing helmets. Anecdotally, the time as a motorist I had to do a panic stop to avoid hitting a teenage boy that had run a stop sign onto a major street, he was wearing a helmet.

The “dork factor” and discomfort leads to a decline in bicycling, which increase societal health costs and makes things more dangerous for all bicyclist. When Australia introduced mandatory helmet laws,  in the early 1990s, cycling trips declined by 30-40 per cent overall, and up to 80 per cent in some demographic groups, such as teenage girls. Simply put, bicycle helmets tend to be hot and uncomfortable, and produce the dreaded “helmet hair” as well as looking bad, and for some people it’s not worth it to ride if they have to wear one. Once of the best way to make bicycling safer is to make more bicyclists, so motorists get used to seeing them around.

From my pictures above it’s obvious helmets have come a long way in comfort, but some of the more expensive lighter and better ventilated ones cost as much as a department store bicycle so it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to have one that expensive. So the ones you find at Wal-Mart or at helmet giveways aren’t so nice. Here’s a helmet giveway from New York. The fancy graphics tend to disguise the fact that these would have been considered average ventilation… for 15 years ago.

I’ll also point out theirs a snob factor in certain elements of bicycling in the US too. When I still had a cheap department store bicycle one a guy on probably $1000 mountain bike stopped me and told me how lousy it was and I needed to upgrade. And when I was looking to buy a decent bicycle, at a store on Snelling in St. Paul,  as a guy with long hair maybe I didn’t look like the type that had $700 in his pocket to spend on a road bicycle. So I walked out of a St. Paul store after all three clerks spent 45 minutes helping a middle class looking family buy a helmet for their kid while ignoring me. To put it visually, suppose we make a comparison of stereotypical bicycling in the Netherlands vs the US…

The “Build it for Isabella” program encourages bicycle infrastructure design to be accessible to all. But the perception of bicycling needs to be more accessible too. For now Isabella wears her riding helmet, but will she keep bicycling as she gets older and has other options to get around?

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This isn’t to fault people that make the decision to wear a helmet and bicycle clothing. After all we make decisions all the time that increase our personal safety and comfort to the detriment of the rest of society, say buying an SUV because it’s comfortable and safe rather than a small electric car. I’m just pointing out that this is an issue. Bicycling culture needs to be as accessible as bicycling infrastructure.

Helmet use is generally incompatible with bike sharing. Look at this chart.

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Minneapolis may be towards the bottom because the climate is considerably harsher than the other cities and bicycling less established, but the bottom two cities have mandatory helmet laws and the rest do not. Rental or “disposable” helmet vending machines have been invented in response, but beyond discouraging usage this adds to the expense and complexity of running the programs.

A reasonable conclusion for all this is that as an individual you might be safer in a helmet provided it does not induce you to ride less safely in other respects, but the benefits are not as great as portrayed, and since all of life involves risk of some sort, and the risk of bicycling isn’t that great, riding helmet use should be an individual choice rather than forced to by laws or societal pressure. (And in case you’re wondering, despite my esoteric interest I rarely do myself; after looking at the risks and benefits I usually only do when on crushed limestone trails).

Finally the Statistics: Bicycle Helmet Use in Minnesota

So, with that said, here’s the data on riding helmet use in Minnesota. I’m not going to even attempt to say “X” percent use helmets, because there’s so many differences depending on age and location, so I’ll merely present it.

First adult helmet use on the Minneapolis off-road paths (that I term the “parkways”): Minnehaha, Calhoun, Harriet, Isles, and the Greenway, primarly during prime bicycling hours and weather.

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Bicycle Helmet Use: Minneapolis Parkways, All Adults

One thing I noticed is that helmet use drops like a rock at dusk when the traffic thins out. My theory is the people that have made it a destination trip have gone and it’s more locals.

Second, the Minneapolis Parkways broken down by age and gender.

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Bicycle Helmet Use, Minneapolis Parkways, Breakdown by Age and Gender

I did this several years ago (and appear to have lost the data), but I recall there was a much more significant difference between men and women; at the time men were around 50% while women were about the same at 60%.

Now the Minneapolis Parkways in comparison to other areas. “City Streets” are areas not on or immediately adjacent to the parkways in Minneapolis and St Paul (but note I have no reason to go to the poorer areas of town), “Inner Streets” are suburbs with grids, mostly East Bloomington. “Outer Streets” are suburbs with twisty streets and usually bicycle paths along the main roads, mainly Eden Prairie and Shakopee.

One observation is the helmet use varies widely in different neighborhoods of Minneapolis, being highest in say the southwest, and lowest in the poorer areas (which I normally stay out of so don’t have meaningful comparative data).

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Bicycle Helmet Use in Minnesota- All Areas

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Bicycle Helmet Use broken down by age an gender

Helmets for Inline Skating: Also on the charts are use by inline skaters.After some talk of developing an inline skating standard, they decided just to use the existing bicycle helmet standard. Inline skaters may be better served by those helmets that provide more rear protection like skate-style helmets and a few mountain bike helmets, but these tend to be less ventilated then would be ideal for the slow speeds and intense, continuous work of skating.

Nice Ride: As I noted above, helmet use is difficult with bicycle sharing, and the statistic seem to confirm that. I think these may be too high even as my first count included a large group of men riding together with helmets, something I didn’t see for the entire rest of the summer.

Bicycle Riding by Gender

Maybe if you’re not interested in helmet use, you might be in the total of men vs women bicycling. I counted 839 men and only 540 women. You could probably speculate endlessly on the reasons for the difference, but I’ll leave that to other. I’m just a transportation geek interested in some of the more oddball elements sharing my findings.

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Images and text Copyright 2016 by Monte Castleman, All Rights Reserved, except for hotlinked images or those licensed under Creative Commons as noted.

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