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37.8 % of all statistics are made up on the spot by the 26.9% of statisticians who are in the ball park when they should be back at the office gathering facts to back up their statistics.

I can vouch for the validity of those figures because I just made them up. Whether or not you find that funny will depend on your falling into the 49.3% of people who are skeptical over statistics.

The thing that makes something funny is when a statement contains a modicum of truth, and the point here is that some of us are skeptical of certain statistics. Whether we buy into them depends on our opinions to begin with.

Here is one I see all the time:

 “Wearing a bike helmet is estimated to reduce head injury risk by 85 percent.” 

I’m not sure where this one started, but it has been around for thirty years or more and I’m assuming that originally it had some other statistics and solid data to back up that figure.

It has been repeated over, and over again so many times, that it is now stated as fact without reference to the original study. When you analyze the 85% all it does is reinforce a person’s view that bike helmets are a good idea, only if that person held that view to begin with.

Without the original study and the data to back it up, 85% is as meaningless a number as the ones I made up at the start of this piece. Like many statistics, the number is big enough that it sounds good, but not too big. This makes it believable if you don't give it too much thought. I think this has given this particular statistic its longevity.

I don’t even know any more if wearing a helmet is supposed to reduce injury by 85% or does it reduce death by 85%? People have accidents with and without helmets, some are injured and some die, but can anyone prove to me that it is even close to 85% survivor and 15% casualty rate.

Debates about helmet use can become as passionate as any religious or political debates. One argument is that helmets make cycling appear more dangerous than it really is. Around 800 cyclists are killed each year on US streets and highways. (A little over 2 per day.) A small number compared to the 100 or more people who die each day in automobiles. (These are statistics that a simple Google search will confirm.)

Of course far more people drive cars than ride bikes, but even so in a country with a population well over 300 million, slightly more than two cycling deaths a day is not what I would label a dangerous activity. Unfortunately, the general population does not see it this way.

Jurors in civil cases often have a bias against cyclists. They view cycling on the public highways as a highly dangerous practice, and when people are perceived to engage in dangerous activities, juries tend to place some of the blame on the participant. This has a direct effect on the amount of compensation they award.

By voluntarily wearing a helmet you at least appear to a jury or an insurance adjuster to be someone who takes responsibility for their safety. They cannot award you less with the argument that you didn’t wear a helmet, therefore you contributed to your own injuries.

Unfortunately the 85% helmet statistic gives legislators fuel to press for mandatory helmet use for cyclists. While many more people die each year from a simple trip or slip and fall than from cycling related accidents.

During the bike-boom years of the 1970s, helmet manufacturers in the US saw an opportunity, and American cyclists being equipment conscious, accepted the helmet. It was however, decades later before the rest of the world followed suit. Even today the helmet is only accepted by cycling enthusiasts, not the general public.

Far more pedestrians and car drivers die each day from head injuries, yet no one suggests they should wear head protection. Maybe upon waking each morning we should place a helmet on our head before we even put slippers on our feet, not removing it until we return to bed that evening. Viewed in this light it makes the whole issue somewhat ludicrous.

Making helmets mandatory only re-enforces the general public’s view that cycling is dangerous. I still maintain that wearing a helmet should be a personal choice, making them mandatory stops some from taking up cycling in the first place.

Most start riding a bike without a helmet, a few will become serious and eventually buy a better bike and all the equipment that goes with it, which will probably include a helmet.

To sum up I wear a helmet because it offers some protection. I don’t believe it is even close to 85%, but wearing one can’t hurt. I may hit a pot hole and fall on my head, in which case my helmet may save me from serious injury. But a crash involving a motor vehicle? The best way to avoid injury there is to ride defensively and circumvent the collision altogether.


First posted in 2014. Accident figures have been updated to reflect today’s trends.

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Reader Comments (16)

There were some worrying stats published this summer, showing that wearing a bicycle helmet is really unsafe -- considering that the country with the highest percentage of helmet wearers also suffered most fatalities.


October 8, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterijsbrand

I suspect it is not the helmet itself that makes cycling in the US unsafe, but America's love of the automobile, and the shockingly poor driving standards.

October 8, 2018 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

There is no evidence that wearing a helmet reduces the risk of serious injury or death. Unlike motorcycle helmets they are not designed to withstand the forces that are likely to occur in a motor vehicle collision, but rather to reduce the risk of concussion in a straight line vertical fall to the floor from standing. They are as useful for pedestrians as cyclists, yet we don't see people demanding that people where a walking helmet.

Population studies (the only way of validating whether an intervention - in this case cycle helmets - are effective or not) have not shown this to be the case.

Taking Australia, mandatory helmet laws were introduced in the 1990s, yet subsequently to that the number of road deaths of cyclists has remained the same, despite 30-50% fewer people cycling.

Some studies in the UK have shown that drivers give significantly more space to cyclists who don't wear helmets - the prevailing theory being because they feel the cyclist is protected.

The evidence from cycling countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium is that increasing the number of cyclists on the road and improving infrastructure have the greatest effect in reducing fatalities and injuries as drivers are more aware of them and more likely to be a cyclist themselves, and cyclists are less likely to be placed in a position of conflict with motor vehicles.

It's a fascinating subject, which unfortunately gets very little airtime in the media beyond "helmet gooood, no helmet baaaaad".

October 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSimon Chambers

Percentages like these are indeed often confusing. But the statistic is not giving you an absolute percentage of head injuries, it's giving you a reduction of injuries. Nowhere does it indicate what percentage of accidents have head injuries. Let's say 1 in 5 accidents (without a helmet) will give you a head injury. That's 20%. According to this statistic, wearing a helmet would reduce that percentage to 3% (20% - 85% x 20%).

So if 100 people crash without a helmet, then about 20 of them will have head injuries. If 100 people crash with a helmet, then about 3 will have head injuries.

Of course riding a road bike on a road with traffic going 20 mph will produce more accidents than riding a cruiser on a bike path going 10 mph. So weigh your risk accordingly.

October 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJohn K.

99.99% of people involved in auto fatalities were not wearing a helmet....The solution is rather obvious.

October 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBill K

Short version:

1.Bicyclists (and bicycling trips) have different risk profiles. Bicyclists are pretty good a picking which ones will benefit from helmet use (hello downhill MTB) and where it won''t (that short trip to the shops, school or trains station)

2. Helmet LAWS have universally failed to have any statistical effect on cyclist injury rates. See the editorial in the BMJ Jun 2013 (Goldacre, B. and Spiegelhalter, D., 2013. Bicycle helmets and the law. BMJ (Clinical research ed), 346, p.f3817). for the best summary I've seen to date

3. Helmet LAWS are now clearly implicated (along with bad road design and worse driver attitudes) as a major barrier to cycling, particularly as casual transport. See The National Heart Foundation and the Cycling Promotion Fund "Riding a Bike for Transport 2011 Survey Findings" 2013 and Bicycle Network Australia "Mandatory helmet law public survey summary" November 2017

4. The leading cause of cyclist injury is car driver behaviour. Not cyclist PPE use.

Where helmet lawa have been introduced those cyclists who already wore a helmet kept riding; those who did not stopped riding.

October 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterConrad Drake

Where helmet laws have been introduced those cyclists who already wore a helmet kept riding; those who did not stopped riding.

Maybe this is the real reason for some of the helment laws.

October 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTonyP

I have only ever crashed bikes when no cars were involved.
These days I do not ride anywhere there is traffic, trails only.
I also wear a helmet, primarily out of concern of head injury from a fall or running into a fixed object.

October 9, 2018 | Unregistered Commenteredstainless

Like you Dave, I rode and raced for years in England, crashed many, many times One time, in a massed start race at, Long Lawford Aerodrome, finished second by inches with TWO broken wrists. Went over the bars, NEVER EVER WORE A HELMET The only helmet I had, was called a crash hat, made of leather stips, for track races WORTHLESS!!!! In fact up to a very few years ago, I did not wear a helmet. I am now almost 86, riding all my life and I am still alive and riding, with 4k so far this year. BUT I guess something IS better than nothing????? LUCKY???? I will probably die, tripping over my own feet and falling on my noggin, at home!!!!

October 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAnthony J Crump

Helmets perform an invaluable function, it is where the mirror
is attached. In my little corner of the world, helmet mirrors are common,
thanks to Chuck Harris.
Helmets are also store sunglasses, and hold blinky lights
so the cars have something to aim at.

October 9, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterscottg

"and where it won''t (that short trip to the shops, school or trains station)"

"There is no evidence that wearing a helmet reduces the risk of serious injury or death"

To suggest that a helmet won't benefit is nonsense. It's just as easy to hit a pothole or a dog or get doored on a short ride as a long one. Likewise the suggestion that severe abrasions of the head on pavement might not result in serious injury.

October 9, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterayjaydee

Here’s an explanation of the origin of the 85% myth


October 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBrad

A very positive view on cycling and how the Dutch created a helmet -free culture:


October 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJack

As a young adult that lost an eight year old cousin to a cycling (brain stem) injury that ER physicians claimed would have been prevented by a helmet, I suppose my wearing of a helmet is biased. At the time, my uncle could not locate his son’s helmet, and they rode anyway.

Regardless of the validity of this admittedly anecdotal claim, I wear a helmet because I know I am not the most coordinated fellow, and prone to bumping into things. Once, I managed to hit my helmeted head on a downhill 20 years ago, about five years after burying my cousin. Ended up with a slight concussion and mangled helmet, so I have stuck with a helmet since then. I have taken a few spills since then, either to avoid a motorist or the coordination issue. Some of these have resulted in my helmet making contact with the road surface, which saved me from some skull road rash at minimum

Even if the statistics are mangled or outright false, some protection is better than none I assume. As others point out, it also gives a spot for lights and reflective bits (MTB visors are also a great thing for rain, wind, and bright light protection).

So I wear a helmet. If it protects me, great. I certainly don’t see how it causes me to be less safe, as I am not a racer, just a recreational cyclist and heavy commuter. And it makes the wife happy.

October 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterFred

Mr. Álvaro Neil has ridden around the word twice during 15 years, non-stop, and he says: "the bike mirror saves more lives than any helmet".

October 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAlexander López

@John K who said, “Of course riding a road bike on a road with traffic going 20 mph will produce more accidents than riding a cruiser on a bike path going 10 mph. So weigh your risk accordingly.”

My experience (this is an anecdote and not data) is that multi-use paths are more dangerous for cycling than well-chosen surface streets. Once you dodge the dog walkers, roller blades, children, and social cyclists riding 2-abreast, you must still contend with a 15mph speed limit. No thank you.

Like Dave, I share a skepticism towards the Magic Foam Hat. Because insurance adjusters and juries view the absence of a helmet as a contributing factor towards injury in any in any car/cyclist collision (please do not use the word accident), physics be damned, I could be persuaded to wear a helmet for the benefit of my next-of-kin.

I think 2 simple changes would reduce the risk of car/cyclist collisions significantly (pick the percentage of your choice): (1) allow cyclists to take the full lane; do not marginalize us to the gutter; and (2) require drivers to face criminal charges for the injury or death of a cyclist, too many are excused by police and prosecutors.

How is it possible to get a ticket for careless driving when a cyclist is dead in the street? I don’t care about cycling infrastructure, I want the cycling organizations and media to push for real reforms that will make our 2wheeled journeys quite a bit safer.


November 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAlgae

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