Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Well summer has gone and I'm just getting around to writing another post. To those of you that haven't given up on me, thanks.

We have been doing a bit of traveling this year from Holland, Belgium and Spain to a number of places in Canada and the US.
In most of the places I have been able to get out on the bike and when not riding I have taken a keen interest in the local cyclists. One observation has been the striking difference in helmet use between Holland, for instance and Nova Scotia where helmet use is mandated by law.

The contrast is sharp between the two places. In Holland the drivers are courteous and I never feel at danger in traffic. The only Dutch cyclists wearing helmets are those dressed in Lycra. The average cyclist, of which there are hundreds of thousands, do not wear them. In most Dutch towns the roads are packed with people on bikes. Moms with kids on carriers back and front, office workers in business suits, fashionable women in stilletto heals, teenagers and younger children going back and forth to school and not a helmet to be seen on any of them. They ride calmly, confidently, and safely through the streets, pushing the pedals steadily on their big black Dutch bikes often in howling wind and pouring rain.

In Halifax, Nova Scotia every cyclist, except me, wore a helmet. Halifax is built on a steep hill and yet the downtown bike messengers ride the currently very fashionable 'fixies", track bikes with fixed wheel and no brakes. How they can control the bikes descending the steep hills I do not know. I guess it doesn't matter as they wear helmets. At night many cyclists are seen without lights but again they have their helmets on. Surely enforcing existing laws that mandate brakes and lights would do far more good than introducing another law requiring helmets that is not enforced as I found out. These helmet laws are introduced by 'do good' politicians who have very little, if any, experience of cycling and obviously haven't studied the results of similar laws passed in other jurisdictions. How much better we would all be if they spent their time and energy making cycling safer for us all by putting money and energy into educating cyclists how to ride safely and teaching drivers that a bike is a proper vehicle. A helmet will never prevent an accident. Use of brakes and lights certainly could.

I wonder what the North American helmet zealots think of all those Dutch cyclists riding without helmets. The way they talk one would think that a vast proportion of the Dutch population would have been killed off long ago . Well they haven't. Maybe it is because they ride sensibly on properly fitted bikes equipped with brakes and lights and that they observe all traffic laws. The have grown up riding bikes where cycling is an integrated part of the infrastructure and they keep much healthier because of it.

At a school close to where I live, each spring a large sign is hung over the front of the building. "Cycle safely - wear a helmet" it instructs. I am sure that that is the only cycling instruction the students receive as I see many of them riding poorly fitted bikes with complete disregard for laws and safety. How much better it would be if they were given safe cycling instruction and bikes were considered vehicles and not toys.

In Ontario The law requires those under eighteen years to wear a helmet. This discourages them from cycling. Few trendy teenagers want to be seen in a helmet. It has been proven that the health giving effects of cycling far outweigh the risks of injuries prevented by helmets. Our efforts should be directed into instructing and encouraging them to cycle safely.

The subject of helmets seems to get people all worked up. If there are still a few of you out there reading this blog maybe we will get some comments.


mc. said...

Misguided, but well-meaning, fear + the idea of 'change' via the external begets much simplistic, overarching foolishness. I don't enjoy getting the condescending 'helmet lecture' or humouring those that feel they are entitled to a lengthy, pragmatic justification of 'why' either when I would like to ride in peace.

Thanks Mike.

Krys Hines said...

Ha! Great post! Now stop fooling around and get back to working on my racks. Thinking of all the folks on fixies I recall a trip up Mt. Royal recently where I came across a hipster/messenger type at the top with a helmet but no brakes...I was aboot to say something, but I rolled away from him while he tried to control his momentum down the mountain. Ta! K

Anonymous said...

I never wear a helmet. I also never wear lycra or neon yellow windbreakers. I do cringe at the thought of being hit by a car, but I won't let fear dictate how I dress when I ride. Of course, riding in traffic in a city like Amsterdam, you aren't really exposed to cars traveling that fast. Where I live, It's not unusual to be passed by a car driving 65 miles an hour. This means I'm ride defensively, I'm always alert and I choose my routes carefully to avoid the worst traffic. I've been riding a bike on and off my entire life (I'm now 35) and I've only had one accident where I fell from my bike - that being when I was 12 and was jumping BMX bikes. Oh, and I wasn't wearing a helmet. I spent a summer in Copenhagen recently and similar to your experience in Holland, I rode among thousands of cyclists every day and almost never saw a single helmet. The Danish minister of transportation informed us that only one cyclist in Denmark had been killed in 2007 while riding - and this was when he was struck by a car. And this is in a country where 40% of the people ride regularly and a higher percentage ride occasionally.
Thanks for the post, it's refreshing to see people making decisions based on experience and common sense instead of social pressure and/or fear.

ScottM said...

I've always wondered if there were many "true" helmet studies out there that really looked at added safety benefits versus lights, fit, traffic conditions, etc.

rigtenzin said...

I rely on good riding habits to keep me safe on my bike, not my helmet. The helmet may help reduce my injuries if I fall, but that's about it. Sheldon Brown referred to helmets as a plastic hats. I think that puts the helmet's value into perspective.

Bloggo said...

Now you've done it! Beware the helmet Nazis. They will nominate you for a Darwin award, say you are poorly educated and too dumb to know any better, propose your health insurance be taken away, etc, etc.

Anonymous said...

Cheers. Since a trip to Amsterdam, I have worn a helmet even less, and barely at all this whole summer. I never once was yelled at, but my partner - blond female - was accosted regularly by the helmet lovers when not wearing hers. I often do wear one, especially in wet, dark conditions, but I love the feeling and freedom of not having to wear it. Fortunately, a recent attempt at a helmet law here in Oregon was shot down.

Unknown said...

My helmet is so much a habit that I wouldn't jump on my bike without first buckling it on my head. However, I too have ridden in The Netherlands and been among the minority with a helmet. The general climate in that area seems to reject making too many rules and just ride and act responsibly. Your blog is interesting and thoughtful.

OAP said...

Great post nice to have you back! Only 2% of us north Americans bike regularly so it's no wonder that the cycling laws are either misguided or not enforced. Better education for cyclists would be great... but should it go as far as a cycling "permit"? Or making lights mandatory, like in Germany? Perhaps. The problem remains that we are an exception on the roads, unlike in Europe. Thus here it's rather inconsequential whether we ride recklessly or not, and whether motorists ignore us. Helmets won't change that.

In any case, I view helmets as a patchkit & pump or low gears: I have them in order not to use them :) Which means I don't always have them.

Rafal Gwozdz said...

You know, I would love to ride without a helmet. I'd then be able to ride sporting a nice toque. The thing is though, is that even if I ride as carefully, skillfully and responsibly as possible, I can still be hit by an idiotic or drunk driver, or both, from behind, in broad daylight, doing 80km/h and have a bad concussion and broken back. Just like it happened in 2004. I believe that if I didn't wear my helmet then, I'd be pushing up daises and never get to meet my daughter. I'm not saying that helmets are the one and only answer to bicycle safety, but with the "wonderful" road culture we have to content with in North America, there is a good chance that you will eventually be hit by a car. When it does happen, I think it would be better to have a helmet on.

By the way, Mike, I have buckets of respect and admiration for you and I'm kicking myself for not ordering a Mariposa bike from you when you were still building them.

Anonymous said...

I've always worn a helmet, I wish I didn't but, alas I'm on blood thinners and if I'm ever in an accident where there's head injures I'd be toast.

Anonymous said...

I would love one of you to tell me why I shouldn't wear a helmet? Or why a helmet is a bad thing? I don't quite get what all the fuss is about. It's a helmet. It protects your head. I have never had to think much about that one.........

Anonymous said...

Hello Mike!

The last time I saw you was when you sold me an ALAN frame at the old shop in the early 80s. Great that you're still riding! About the helmet debate; I ride a *real* bike -- a Victory Penny Farthing with a 52" wheel. Yes, fixed gear, no brakes and a great view. My opinion is that anyone that rides one of these without a helmet is nuts and simply looking for trouble. I have been riding them for 30 years and have had 1 header. Without the helmet, I wouldn't be here writing this letter. I ride 52 KM a day, 5 days a week, rain or shine (I commute from Oakville to Hamilton). On the Penny I wear an equestrian helmet. On my Trek T1 fixed I wear a BMX helmet. For me the helmet deal has never been a problem because I graduated to bicycles from motorcyles so a bike helmet is no big deal for me to wear. Do they help, sure they do. Let me bang your head only once with a dead-blow hammer without and with a bike helmet and let's see which blow kills you. My best friend is a Pathologist at McMaster hospital and he says bike riders involved in accidents without helmets make the best organ donors! Just my 2 cents.

Have a great retirement Mike

Cheers, Nick

fred said...

Well I have to add my Penny Farthing's worth. Very well written and presented, Mike!

Wearing a helmet is an option. No one blames anyone for doing so, well, none involved in this discussion, anyway. If you wish to wear one, fine.

But be aware!

In Ontario (and most other provinces)...there are *NO* regulations for eyeglass safety! NONE!

I have had discussions with the Ontario professional body for Optometrists and they are livid that no one in the Ontario Gov't has contacted them for their *professional* opinion on the matter.

Those who quote the medical literature had best dig a little deeper.

If I had been wearing a helmet during my last major accident some twenty years back, I would have lost an eye.

How do I manage to project that?
Because as it was, my "unbreakable" eyeglasses were dug out of my forehead. Sounds awful, right? No....if I had been wearing a helmet, the "plastic unbreakable lenses" which shatter into razor sharp shards, would have not moved from off of my foreface, and impacted into the eye-sockets. I still have the scar from the stitches where they were dug out of the skull. Far better that than their being dug out of my eyeballs.

During the last Cunningham 'moral-fest' at the Ontario legislature, I contacted the clerk in charge of shepherding the ostensible Bill through the house. I got the clerk in touch with the Ontario Optometrists Assoc...and the Bill was stopped.

Figure it out folks, *especially* those that like to quote the "medical studies". The studies are incomplete and misleading when applied by do-gooders and those who think they know best.

I think we should have laws mandating that those who don't think have to wear prophylactics during sex.

How's that for imposing my thoughts on you?

Whatever, after that major accident, (and my purchase of the most wonderful frame I've ever had, subsequently determined to be a Holdsworth, from Mike at his Front St location, re-issued under the Alcyon name (I took it to France, the UK, southern California and all over Ontario until the frame fatigued and cracked)...I started wearing a helmet.

It almost got me killed.


Because of another factor so many do-gooders have no idea on. My eyes aren't the best, albeit with corrective lenses, they are certainly good enough. But the auditory senses in many people with less than perfect vision makes up for that. I design and build audio amplifiers and speaker systems. My auditory senses are atuned acutely to what is referred to as 'phase nuance'...the ability to determine image and placement of sound by perceiving the phase information contained within that stream of audio to the brain.

For realism of sound reproduction, it is one of *the* most important facets to capture if one is accurately re-create captured audio.'s how that impacts on imaging as a cyclist:

Imagine passing a stream of parked cars as you are cycling down an avenue. Close your eyes (not that I recommend that, we are talking figuratively here) and you can perceive when you are passing each parked car by the change in the *ambient field*. That encompasses time of reflected sound, phase angle and a slew of other nuances I won't even begin to discuss in this blog.

You all can recognize the phenomenon...or so I should hope.

You are, effectively, using *sonar* to determine proximity of objects.

What happens when you put on a helmet?

The *ambient field* is no longer cogent or decipherable. Your sonar becomes ineffective.

Now...studies, which I cannot cite at this moment, show that the brain can be reprogrammed to rewire for the intrusion into the ambient field, but it is always compromised and of far less a quality and ability compared to the unencumbered ear.

The design of the ear lobe is no accident. People who lose a portion of their lobe lose their ability to determine direction from the phase information the sound they receive.

You've all seen it happen. An explosion in the distance. Most everyone turns to the direction it came from.

How does that happen? Think about it.

And don't lecture to me on what the "Health Experts" say. Most of them have no expertise *what-so-ever* in Psycho-Acoustics. Most are well-meaning but misguided emergency-room doctors.

It is no mistake that the British Medical Association came out against mandated helmet use. They have studied it in greater detail than the knee-jerk "we know besters".

So how did a helmet almost get me killed or very badly injured?

Shortly (days) after my starting to wear a helmet in the misguided belief it would improve safety, I was stopped at the northbound light on Parliament at Front. I had stopped in a hurry as the helmet was distracting me. I usually put down my left leg, not my right, but I had used my right leg in haste in this instance.

So I switch them, and as I'm looking down to flick on my toe trap on the right foot, I see this Greyhound bus pouncing, diving as he is appliying his brakes behind me. The *eyes in the back of my head* (my ears) were not working! The helmet had rendered them numb!

I jumped out of the way as the bus skidded into the intersection.

That was the last time I wore a helmet.

God damn it.....

Mike writes:
[How they can control the bikes descending the steep hills I do not know. I guess it doesn't matter as they wear helmets. ]
lol...I always mutter as I watch the idiots with helmets on changing lanes without looking: "A lot of good that helmet does when a ten-wheeler rolls over them".

Wear a helmet if you wish. On a track or in a competetive pack, I'd wear one! It all comes down to the perceived odds.

If you play ice-hockey, you probably wish to do so, but if you are pleasure skating, you don't.

But on a back-country road, where you are aware of all around you?...c'mon!

Studies have shown that more *car-drivers* would be helped by wearing helmets than cyclists! Where is the imposed legislation to doing so?

It is, of course, ridiculous. Now juxtapose that to cyclists.

If you wish to wear one...fine. That is completely your choice.

But don't tout the "medical literature" unless you tout it all.

For a very start, consider that those glasses on your face won't fly off in an accident if they are strapped to your face, and then consider what happens as the lens break into razor sharp shards as they are forced into your eye-sockets.

Ironically, Ontario *does* mandate safety standards for glasses *on the job* under Occupational and Health Standards.

Cunningham et al should stick to birth control issues.

Anyone doubt my claims? Phone the Ontario Optometrist's Assoc. They need your help in mandating safety standards in Ontario.

They've been trying for decades!

fred said...

Further reading of Mike's excellent blog has me reading at the site.


Btw, a small detail to clarify re my piro post: The "clerk" referred to is the "Committee Clerk" for the proposed legislation at the time. We're talking roughly three years ago.

A dread has swept over me though, that perhaps some idiot is trying to impose skull torture yet again. I truly hope we are discussing past tense here, and not something new on the table.

I am forwarding this to my on-line chess partner who is a secondary school teacher, and monster distance cyclist in Australia. Hopefully he will add comment.

A second point:

In my estimation, and that of quite a few others, the number one safety wear for cyclists?

Padded gloves. I can't ride without them, they have become fixtures on my hands. You take a tumble, the chance of involving your head is small, but you will almost inevitably involve your hands!

I wonder if they will mandate the use of gloves? After-all, we can't have cyclists unable to pick their own azzes now, can we? And needless to say, finger-pointing becomes difficult and a real cost to society if those fingers are injured.

Rofl...I'm being sarcastic, of course, but hand protection isn't just for accidents, the nerves are severely impacted by road roughness. This first appeared in the medical literature and categorized by a neurosurgeon who was losing sensation in his fingers as a result of cycling.

On the subject of ergonomics, btw, the NYTimes ran an excellent article, still non-subscriber, at:

A post script: If Nova Scotia doesn't have mandated specifications for eyeglass safety, I suggest Nova Scotians have recourse under the Federal Charter of Rights to overturn the helmet law. It puts their safety in jeopardy, illegal under the Charter.

I would *certainly* undertake initiating action of the kind if a Helmet Law is mandated here. As it stands, it would seem the Ontario Children's Helmet Law is flawed in that respect, but some things are best left unchallenged. Children are not responsible for their own behaviour under Law.

Strapping unsafe eyeglasses to your child's face should raise some concerns, however.


Anonymous said...

Hmmm, interesting thoughts.
Here in Australia - well Victoria at least - helmets have been mandatory for as long as I can remember. When I get on my bike without one feel strangely naked.
That being said, I often see a lot of people on the many bike tracks around Melbourne not riding with a helmet. Bizarrely, parents often will ride without a helmet and yet expect their kids to use one - not sure what that's teaching.

I'm not sure about research into the effectiveness of helmets, but as a secondary physics teacher I often use the hard compressed foam used in bike helmets in experiments with my students - we attempt to build protective systems for eggs. Now of course, the human skull is not as brittle as an egg, but I'm particularly interested in keeping what's in mine safe, and the foam in helmets works pretty damn well to protect our eggs.
I'll stick with it on my head too.

I like Seinfeld's line - 'The only thing dumber than the helmet is the helmet law, the point of which is to protect a brain that is functioning so poorly, it’s not even trying to stop the cracking of the head that it’s in…'

fred said...

Ah...but Andrew:

Does Victoria mandate eyeglass safety? What happens to those eggs if there are two sheets of glass strapped to them that can't fly off in the event of traumatic impact?

(I must now make my chess-move on-line to derail his next move)

Anonymous said...

No, of course there's no eyeglass laws. I guess there's a point at which protective laws become ridiculous.
We mandate seat belts in cars for example, but could prevent most crashes by simply enforcing a speed limit of 10km/hr. Which would make driving just about pointless.
To be honest, I'm not fussed if there are helmet laws or not - I'd wear one anyway and encourage my kids and my students to do the same. Actually when I take students outdoors (as I do a fair bit) skiing, climbing, cycling, and surfing,I expect that they wear helmets at all times during these activities. (The helmets serve a double bonus of making it easy to identify my students quickly and easily - especially on a crowded surf break or a ski slope.)
Of course my glasses could be dangerous, so could my shoelaces I suppose. We draw a line I suppose on things that can be done and things that aren't practical. The line is a bit grey at times perhaps and a bit moveable. But I'm happy with drawing one at helmets.

fred said...


Excellent answer, even if we don't fully agree. You are allowing for the freedom of choice for grown adults. I don't think anyone disagrees with the wisdom of having children wearing helmets. If I had children, I'd certainly have them wear helmets on the roads or in activity where they are unlikely to use best judgement.

There is also no debate as to the *effectiveness* of a well designed helmet being better than no helmet in the case of a direct 'head-on' impact.

The debate revolves around arriving at that eventuality. How is it possible that the Danes and Dutch have such a low incidence when most of them don't wear helmets?

There is a very good question as to where the onus of safety lies (lays?).

As to the eyeglass laws in this stated earlier, many advanced nation jurisdictions *do* state minimum specs for specs...and in the case of Cdn Law, a helmet law would have to ensure *overall* safety of the individual, or be contrary to the Federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which specifically states that a law that endangers health is in violation of the code.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what Denmark and the Netherlands are like,but I'm guessing there's a much bigger bike culture and so an acceptance of bikes on the road. That's not really the case here - you take your like in your hands anytime you go out onto the roads. Anything to help tip the balance your way is a good thing.
Not sure about the glasses thing - I'll have to look into it a bit more.