Comments on a 2001 Article in the NY Times
Summary: This 2001 article in the New York Times shows how bad data result in bad conclusions when
poorly researched by the media and exploited for shock value.
The July 29, 2001 Sunday New York Times
had an article on its front page by Julian E. Barnes on helmets. CNN also
ran the item, and it was syndicated to other newspapers. We have been dealing with its myths for years.
The article is headlined "A Bicycling Mystery: Head Injuries Piling Up." Its theme is that head injuries per active
cyclist have increased 51 per cent in the US despite increased helmet use and less bicycle use. The tone is that helmets
should have prevented this if they were as effective as advocates claim they are. If you are willing to sign up for their
website access you can read it on the Times web
. They will not permit us to post it here.
The article may be designed as what Internet flamers would call "a troll" - - something to stir up reaction and provoke
For starters, we as helmet advocates would indeed like to see bicycling head injuries go away with helmet use. We are
concerned that they have not been lowered more. But the article's tone is that helmets are widely used and have failed to
reduce the rate of head injuries, dismissing the other factors involved with a light touch. This is not a balanced
article. But then it is not unusual to find that in a newspaper article when you are familiar with the subject
The reporter accepted without question the CPSC contention that half of US bicycle riders wear helmets. He also focused
on injuries rather than deaths. Anyone familiar with both sets of statistics should realize that CPSC's numbers are
wishful thinking, and that injury stats have always been much less reliable than death counts. A lot less than 50 per
cent of US cyclists are using helmets. (North Carolina's actual head count showed 17 per cent state wide.) The Insurance
Institute for Highway Safety reports that 98 per cent of the cyclists killed in 1999 were not wearing helmets. (That
number is suspect, to say the least, since an analysis of the data by Riley Geary indicates it actually might show that
only 2 per cent definitely had helmets on and for the rest we don't really know.) There were 746 bicyclists killed in
crashes with motor vehicles in 1999. This is 1 percent fewer than in 1998 and down 26 percent since 1975. (CPSC still
cites 900 as the annual toll.) But to judge the effectiveness of helmets based on numbers like these -- negative or
positive -- is to ignore a hundred other factors that affect the safety of cyclists on the roads. We have no idea where
the 51 per cent increase in head injuries per active cyclist comes from, but ask any long-term cyclist and they will tell
you it is not correct from their simple observation. It would be massively evident if it were correct.
Any trend in the rate of head injuries reported should be matched with accurate exposure data on how many miles are being
cycled, a key statistic we have never had. The author concludes somehow that the increase in off-road riding is not
likely to be adding to the head injury numbers, even though most cyclists who do both know that per mile there are more
crashes and more injuries of all kinds in off-road cycling than road cycling. Again, we lack the exposure data we need.
The article brushes lightly by the fact that traffic has made US roads more dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians. That
is a fact of life for every cyclist who uses roads. Did anyone expect helmets to compensate for that? Statistics are
dependent on those who gather them, and the recognition of mild traumatic brain injury has advanced considerably in the
last ten years, probably affecting the number of head injuries reported. Other factors that have changed on the roads
include the popularity of SUV's, whose height and bulk probably would contribute to more cyclist and pedestrian head
The article also attempts with examples and quotes from experts to convince the reader that helmeted cyclists take more
risks because they think they are protected. While there may be some riders like that, we believe that most riders
understand that their arms, legs, faces, torsos and other body parts not covered by a helmet are not protected from
anything by the helmet on their heads. They do not compensate for the risk because they do not believe that a helmet
removes much of the risk of pain and suffering from a crash. If we were talking about full body armor there might be some
additional risk taking, but helmets obviously do not keep the rider's most tender parts intact. That raises a question
about the article. The riders quoted had injured necks, legs or knees, and were quoted as blaming their helmets for
making them feel safe and by implication causing the injury. We do not know what kind of people were quoted, or in what
context they made their remarks, but they just do not ring true to us as a representation of general attitudes among
cyclists. We do not believe that bicycle helmets give a false sense of security, any more than seat belts, air bags,
motorcycle helmets, smoke detectors, steel-toed boots or child safety seats do. Anti lock brakes on cars are cited as a
parallel by one of the experts, even though crashes related to them are generally due to drivers not realizing that they
require a very different braking action in a panic stop. From the quote it appears that this expert thinks people drive
faster because of their anti lock brakes, and would be driving slower and having fewer crashes if they did not have them.
In another example the article describes a rider hit by a pickup truck on a highway. His helmet was knocked off his head
by the force of the impact and did not prevent his death. There is a debate going on in the injury prevention community
about risk compensation and bicycle helmets, with each side unable to prove its case conclusively with the available
data, but insisting that the burden of proof falls on the other side.
Helmet promotion at the current level has not reached the majority of US riders. For that reason alone it will not cause
head injuries to go away. And it should be evident that bicycle helmets will not prevent injuries to other body parts, or
prevent death when hit by a truck at highway speeds. Those are straw men. But helmets do protect their wearers in an
amazing number of crashes. (We have posted some crash stories
illustrating that.) They reduce
deaths and injuries case by case, no matter how a given set of poorly-defined statistics may appear. We have always
supported the full-environment approach to bicycle safety, with helmets as one useful tool, but this article attempts to
turn that approach into evidence that helmets are not working. The lack of balance and perspective should be evident
In short, this article may be a troll, it plays on the fact that cyclists' head injuries have not disappeared following
our helmet promotion efforts so far, and it will be quoted in internet helmet wars for the next decade. It was not an
admirable piece of journalism, and the Times
should know better. Maybe they do.
To understand how we fit helmets as a tool into the broader context of promoting bicycle safety, please see this page on
the National Strategies for
Advancing Bicycle Safety
. We are members of the Steering Committee that produced the final strategies document.
Check out this page for a look at the CPSC data the NY Times used
. The numbers for kids under
15 are not statistically significant, and all head injuries are lumped together, so a cut chin needing stitches counted
as a "head injury." There is no way to separate out the injuries that helmets should mitigate.
Here is another comment by John Sabelli
, a veteran in the hockey helmet field.
John Allen has published an extensive analysis of the data problems
in the CPSC study
on his website.
Postscript: In the years following publication of this article, editorial problems at the New York Times became well
known. The article should be viewed in that context. But here is an excellent article in the
in more recent times.