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Bike helmet clash

To wear one or not—that is the biker's question

(RedEye illustration )
June 20, 2012|By Mick Swasko, RedEye

Aaron Szumny has been cut off by reckless drivers and scraped up by a car door flung in his path. He has seen fellow bikers be just as careless as other drivers, and inexperienced riders create hazards on Chicago roads.

Despite the dangers, the lifelong rider, who currently is on a break from cycling, doesn't wear a helmet when he rides.

"I feel like it restricts my vision," said Szumny, 30, of Wicker Park. And in a city with no law requiring helmets for cyclists, he certainly isn't the only one to skip out on headgear.

In fact, the debate over whether to wear a helmet while riding is constant in the city. Advocates point to recent research that suggests helmets can be a line of defense against serious head injuries, but others question those claims. Opponents say riders might be worse off with the headgear because it can give a person a false sense of security.

In Chicago—recently ranked the fifth-most bike-friendly city in the country by Bicycling Magazine—the helmet wars are as feisty as ever.

"In general, every year with more bike advocacy going on out there, people are getting more in tune with how important it is to wear a helmet," said Dino Rizzo, who has worked at Village Cycle Center in Old Town for 10 years. "People are starting to realize they are starting to save lives."

On the other end are people like Frank Krygowski, a retired professor of mechanical engineering at Youngstown State University in Ohio, who say cycling is no more dangerous than walking or driving—and it's not like anyone is regularly wearing a helmet for those activities. Krygowski is affiliated with the Bike Helmet Research Foundation, a clearinghouse for cyclists who doubt research that points to the effectiveness of helmets.

"Biking is amazingly safe even as incompetently as most people do it," he said, adding that laws requiring the use of helmets, or campaigns that advocate for the use of helmets, stigmatize cycling as overly dangerous.

In 2010—the latest year finalized data is available—there were 1,643 accidents involving bikes and cars in Chicago, including 1,579 injuries and five fatalities. Of the injuries, 148 were considered serious, incapacitating the biker from walking or continuing activities as before the incident occurred.

Research on the effectiveness of biking helmets goes way back, and it has fueled the helmet wars for a long time. A widely cited study in the 1989 New England Journal of Medicine found that helmets reduced the risk of brain injury by 85 percent. More recent reviews, such as a 2009 study in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, an online database of healthcare research, put the effectiveness of helmets between 63 percent and 85 percent.

But not all the research is so rosy. A 2011 paper published in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention criticized the more recent findings of the Cochrane report and other similar research, saying the protective benefits of helmets are reduced when certain research biases are taken into account. Critics also point to a New York Times report that found the incidence of head injuries climbed 10 percent between 1991 and 2001—a period of time when bike helmet use actually became more common in the U.S.

Chicagoland's Active Transportation Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group for bicycling, walking and public transit, says the benefits of helmets outweigh risks that some have cited, marketing and communications director Ethan Spotts said.

"There's more stats and research that point to helmets being a safer choice," he said.

Still, the alliance is opposed to mandatory helmet laws in Chicago because they have the potential to discourage people from biking. Wearing a helmet should be a personal choice, Spotts said.

Beyond the arguments over the effectiveness of helmets, legal issues complicate the debate. If all bikers were required to wear helmets, the argument goes, they would open themselves up to liability in the event of a collision. A biker who isn't at fault in a collision could lose out on money that would have been due to him if he had been wearing a helmet.

Jim Freeman, a Chicago lawyer whose clientele is almost exclusively cyclists, points to a rarely enforced measure that requires riders to use headlights at night as an example. No matter how at fault a driver may be in a given accident, Freeman said, if a cyclist does not have proper bike lighting, that can be used against him or her in court.

"The only time you see [the headlight requirement] enforced is when drivers use it against a cyclist," he said.

Some bikers remain in the middle. Julie Hochstadter, director of Chicago online cycling community thechainlink.org, said the issue of wearing helmets ignites passionate arguments on both sides. While she supports wearing helmets while biking, she said it is a constant point of contention in the Chicago biking community.

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