Neurosurgeon Wrong About Bike Helmets

On Friday, Dr. Henry Marsh, a prominent English neurosurgeon said, "I see lots of people in bike accidents and these flimsy little helmets don't help." He said this during an interview with Ian McEwan about his Marsh's book Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery as reported in an article in The Telegraph.

What I find most interesting about the articles quoting Dr. Marsh is how much factual context the journalists place around his statement, but how little additional insight is gained from those facts.

For instance, the Telegraph article says:

Research conducted by Dr Ian Walker, a professor of traffic psychology at the University of Bath, showed that motorists drove around 8cm {3.1 inches} closer when overtaking cyclists with helmets.

He suggested that drivers think helmeted cyclists are more sensible, predicable and experienced, so therefore the driver doesn't need to give them much space when overtaking.

Non-helmeted cyclists, especially non helmeted "women" are less predictable and experienced, according to this study and so motorists give them more room.

But including this research in the article about Dr. Marsh's statement implies that the source of most injury accidents during cycling is car-bike collisions on public roads.

I've ridden a bike for many years myself, and made the switch to wearing a helmet all the time years ago. My reaction when I read Dr. Marsh's quote was that I could understand why a neurosurgeon would think that, because he mainly sees people who have serious head injuries to begin with. But how many head injuries are totally avoided during cycling by having some sort of protection on the head? How many eye injuries are avoided by wearing shatterproof eyewear?

Surgeons are opinionated and decisive people by either by nature or training. So, nobody should be surprised that he takes a strong position about things he thinks about. The issue is whether people should take his opinion about the protective properties of bike helmets as advice on safety practices during extercise.

I wouldn't change my behavior because of what he said. I still recommend cycling helmets to my friends and relatives and demand that my kids wear them. And I think you should too.