Worcester, Mass.
August 13, 1995

Use your head: Wear a helmet

By Lynne Tolman

   Rebecca and Paul Cooke of Boylston have had some bad days on bikes this year, but a common-sense precaution kept their mishaps from becoming tragedies.

   The Cookes race for the UMassters, an amateur team based at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester, where Paul Cooke, 38, is an anesthesiologist. His wife, 35, is an engineer with Commonwealth Gas Co. in Southboro.

   The couple was winding up an easy training ride when a truck pulling out from a side street caught them by surprise. Paul hit the brakes, and Rebecca, right on his wheel, slammed her brakes too hard. Over the handlebars she went, head first.

   She suffered a mild concussion and some scrapes but was able to ride home. "The helmet was scraped, so it was obvious the helmet took the impact instead of my head," she said.

   Her husband's brush with the pavement came during a spring race in Plymouth. Wheels overlapped, and he lost his balance. His helmet had a big crack in the polystyrene foam liner, but his head was not injured.

   Under the helmet maker's crash replacement policy, both Cookes traded their damaged lids for new helemts, paying only a modest shipping and handling fee.

   "It's crazy not to wear a helmet," Rebecca Cooke said. "They make them so light, and the vents actually channel air to your head for cooling."

   That ought to be the last word on the subject. But resistance to helmets persists, especially among European racers, whose traditions trickle down to the cycling masses worldwide. When Motorola rider Fabio Casartelli died in a mountain crash during the Tour de France last month, the Tour's senior doctor said a helmet wouldn't have saved him because the fatal blow was to a part of the head that a helmet doesn't cover.

   However, the forensic doctor who examined the body told The Sunday Times of London that the impact was to the top of the skull, and with a hard helmet, "some injuries could have been avoided."

   Wearing a helmet reduces a cyclist's risk of head injury by 85 percent, according to a study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1989.

   Nonetheless, Hein Verbruggen, president of the International Cycling Union (UCI), told Italy's Gazzetta dello Sport after the Tour de France, "Even on this occasion, the UCI has decided not to change its position: Forcing athletes to wear a helmet would be ridiculous in certain situations."

   The UCI had imposed a helmet rule for the Tour in 1991, but riders rebelled and the UCI backed down.

   Without Verbruggen's leadership, it is unlikely the Tour's policy on helmets will change soon, said Les Earnest, a board member of the U.S. Cycling Federation, which has required racers to wear helmets since 1986.

   Only a few other countries require helmets for racers: Belgium and the Netherlands for the pros, the United Kingdom for amateurs, Australia for both. Some racers still use "leather hairnets," which consist of lightly padded straps that offer hardly any protection.

   A common excuse for not wearing helmets is that they are too hot. However, lab tests show that helmets are actually cooler than the cloth caps many pro racers wear, according to Phil Graitcer, director of the World Health Organization's helmet initiative.

   Most bike crashes aren't "head-on at 55 mph" like Casartelli's, Graitcer said, but that accident points up that "you need to wear a helmet all the time, not just in traffic." Graitcer said 80 percent of bike crashes do not involve cars; it's just one or more cyclists meeting the ground.

   Casartelli's death prompted the U.S. Product Safety Commission to issue a press release urging all cyclists to wear helmets "no matter what their age or level of skill." An estimated 600,000 bicycle-related injuries were treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms last yera, about a third of them injuries to the head or face, according to the commission's chairman, Ann Brown.

   The United States logs more than 700 cycling deaths each year, with the highest death rate among 10- to 14-year-olds.

   Americans seem most comfortable insisting on helmets when it comes to children. Thirteen states, including Massachusetts, have passed laws requiring children on bikes to wear helmets, and cities or counties in a half-dozen other states have done the same. A few counties have such laws for cyclists of all ages, as do Australia, New Zealand and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and British Columbia.

   For cyclists with any gray matter to protect, donning a helmet just makes sense, said Dr. Thomas F. Breen, an orthopedist at UMass who's team doctor for the Saturn pro squad and rides with the UMassters. It becomes second nature, like wearing a seat belt in the car, he said. "I hate to say it, but it's a no-brainer."

New Jersey under 14 July 1, 1992
Georgia under 16 July 1, 1993
Connecticut under 12 Oct. 1, 1993
Tennessee under 12 Jan. 1, 1994
California under 18 Jan. 1, 1994
Massachusetts under 13 March 8, 1994
New York under 14 June 1, 1994
Oregon under 16 July 1, 1994
Pennsylvania under 12 March 1, 1995
Alabama under 16 Sept. 19, 1995
Maryland under 16 April 1, 1996
Delaware under 16 April 1, 1996
Rhode Island under 8 July 1, 1996
For updated information, visit

Lynne Tolman's bicycling column archives
Lynne Tolman's home page