Puzzling Increase in Head Injuries

By Ellen Kuwana
Neuroscience for Kids Staff Writer
August 11, 2001

More people than ever are wearing helmets when they ride their bicycles. You might think that more people wearing helmets would mean fewer head injuries...but according to a story in the New York Times (July 29, 2001) you would be wrong! Why has the number of head injuries gone up over the past decade?

Helmet use has increased from 18% to about 50% in the past decade, yet head injuries have increased (see the graph on the right). Are more people getting hurt because more people are riding bikes? A good guess, but bicycle riding has declined by about 23% in the past decade, with the increasing popularity of in-line skating, skateboarding, and scooter riding.

So what explains the increase in head injuries? Among the possible reasons:

  • helmets worn improperly
  • increased number of drivers on the roads
  • decreased knowledge of rules of the road/safe riding procedures
  • helmeted riders feel safer and thus take more risks.

People still get hurt in car crashes, even those wearing seatbelts. Likewise, a bicycle helmet does not guarantee your safety in an accident. So should you bother wearing a helmet? YES! Wearing a helmet will help protect you against major injuries; bike helmets prevent 69-88% of serious head or brain injuries (Gilchrist et al., Pediatrics, 106:6-9, 2000). Helmets, like seatbelts in a car, definitely help protect your brain.

Did you know?

Photo courtesy of Graham Watson

Think A Helmet Slows You Down?

Cycling superstar Lance Armstrong, the only American three-time winner of the Tour de France, wore a helmet for most of the race. Many of the other riders did not. The victory at the 2001 race was his third consecutive win.

Armstrong also beat advanced testicular cancer, which was diagnosed in 1996. The cancer had spread to his lungs and brain. He was given a 50/50 chance of survival, and endured surgeries and chemotherapy. A year and a half later, he was racing again. He has said, "...with what I've been through, why would I go and mess with my health or my body."


  1. "A Bicycling Mystery: Head Injuries Piling Up," by Julian Barnes, The New York Times, July 29, 2001.
  2. How to Fit a Bicycle Helmet Properly
  3. Neuroscience for Kids on Bicycle Safety

GO TO: Neuroscience In The News Explore the Nervous System Table of Contents

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