Bicycle helmets can cushion a fall, save your life

September 18, 1990|By Jean Fain | Jean Fain,Jean Fain is a Boston-based writer. Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Linda Tracy, 34, had put off buying a bicycle helmet for a decade. A daily bicycle commuter and the program manager of the Bicycle Federation of America, a nonprofit organization that promotes bicycle safety, Ms. Tracy paid a lot of lip service to the value of bike helmets.

Tired of hearing of Ms. Tracy's good intentions, her boss finally gave her a helmet. Six weeks later when a fast-moving car slammed into her front wheel, the statistics finally hit home.

Of the more than 1,000 bicycling deaths each year, more than 75 percent are caused by head injuries. Wearing a bike helmet can reduce the risk of head injury by 85 percent.

Ms. Tracy knows she was lucky; the helmet absorbed the impact the crash. "I was knocked out a few minutes," she says. "The helmet saved my life."

"You can be the best bicyclist in the world," she adds, "but you can never predict when you're going to crash. Bike helmets are cheap insurance."

More and more bicyclists, according to Consumer Reports, which reviewed helmets in its May 1990 issue, are following Ms. Tracy's suit. Americans bought about 2 million helmets last year, but still too few are investing in protective headgear. According to one estimate, less than 10 percent of the country's 85 million bicyclists wear helmets.

Two states -- New York and California -- mandate bike passengers under 5 years old wear helmets. And if bicycle safety advocates in Howard County, in Maryland, had gotten their way, bicyclists young and old would all buckle up their chin straps before every ride. The county council passed a law early this summer requiring all bicyclists to don helmets but, after much controversy, amended the ruling to apply only to those 16 and under.

Bicycle safety advocates wince when they think about the unprotected masses.

"What most people don't realize," said John Williams, editor of Bikecentennial's Bicycle Forum, a cycling journal, "is that a fall, regardless of the speed you're traveling, can be fatal."

Or it can cause serious head injury. The impact of a fall from a height of just three feet on a stationary bicycle can cause serious brain damage, enough to kill you.

People also don't realize, Mr. Williams continues, "that the vast majority of cycling deaths do not involve professional racers, but recreational cyclists."

The good news is that helmets are more attractive, less expensive (between $20 and $60) and lighter (the lightest weigh 6 ounces) than ever before. The lighter models are made of polystyrene foam, the material used to pack VCRs and TVs, and are wrapped in colorful Lycra covers.

Some cyclists prefer their polystyrene encased in a plastic fiberglass shell. These helmet models are somewhat heavier but offer protection against sharp objects. Consumer Reports found the no-shell helmets to absorb shock better than their hard-shelled cousins; both, however, provide plenty of protection.

After trying a variety of brands and styles, Consumer Reports concluded that no two heads are alike and, therefore, refrained from deeming one helmet "the best."

Mr. Williams and Edmund Burke, executive editor of Cycling Sciences, a journal of the scientific and medical aspects of biking, offer some tips:

*Buy a helmet approved by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) or the Snell Memorial Foundation. Snell's standards are reputed to be tougher than ANSI's, but both test for impact protection and strap system strength.

*Buy a helmet that fits properly. It should hug the head at the crown, sides, front and back, and shouldn't move when you shake or turn your head.

*Helmets must be replaced after an accident. "They're not made to last years and years," Mr. Burke notes. "Weather, compression, an accident can destroy the integrity of a helmet."

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