July 7, 2014

Commentary: Think you don’t need a bike helmet? Wrong

Most people who die in cycling accidents are adults. Wearing a helmet cuts the risk of head injury by 85 percent.

I am not the most graceful person. Sports that require contact between a ball and a club, racquet or bat are not my thing. Learning to ride a bike did not come easily, but I’ve become a pretty good cyclist. City streets, rutted trails – I have navigated all without hospitalization.

But I always wear a helmet when I ride, well aware that I could fall over at any minute.

Last month, my husband and I took a more ambitious ride – 250 miles through Germany and the Czech Republic. The tour, organized by Road Scholar and International Bike Tours, was led by Dirk Broeren, a retired German airplane builder who was, as you might imagine, precise and definite.

Before we got on the bikes, Dirk delivered an extensive safety lecture on all kinds of ways to stay out of trouble.

But he was most emphatic on this point: Nobody rides without a helmet. Company policy. No exceptions.

For the following week, our merry band of 19 cyclists pedaled along the Elbe River, through towns and fields, visiting castles and churches, having a thoroughly wonderful time.

Then came Day 10. We were in a small city just over the Czech border, enjoying a lavish breakfast. We could feel the mood change when a fellow cyclist came over to the table.

He told us there was a family from Texas staying at the hotel who had been summoned by a crisis: A relative on a bike tour had an accident and was in the hospital with a severe head injury. She wasn’t expected to survive.

She had not been wearing a bike helmet, her family said.

I don’t know the details of her accident or whether a helmet would have saved her.

Here’s what I do know:

• According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, using a helmet cuts the risk of a head injury in a bike accident by 85 percent.
• Though bike helmet laws mainly apply only to children, 83 percent of the people who die cycling are older than 20.

I see a lot of cyclists without helmets. I suspect at least some of them are thinking that if they ride on a designated bike trail, or when there’s not much traffic, they’re safe.

But Dirk, who has been leading bike tours through Europe for 20 years, says the top two causes of bike accidents he has seen have nothing to do with cars. Most were caused by one cyclist following another too closely. The second cause: riding too close to a curb.

I know it’s hot outside. I know bike helmets make you feel hotter. But if you had seen that Texas family waiting for their relative to die in a Czech hospital, I suspect you’d gladly sweat a little more to keep your head a lot safer.

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