1. Public remarks, “Why A Bicycle Helmet Law Would Be Absurd”.

     2. Coments on newsstory, “Paradoxes of the Bicycle Safety Helmet”.

     3. New York Times article — commented on in #2 — “A Bicycling Mystery: Head Injuries Piling Up”.


Patrick Gunkel Gunkel’s Collected Works


Law and government.

(Remarks submitted to a public hearing.)




Patrick Gunkel


     There is no reason to believe that a public hearing such as this will accurately reflect the ratio of views of the electorate itself.  Indeed, the probability is that it will not.  On the other hand, owners of bicycle shops that peddle safety helmets have the strongest possible reason to attend, and to speak with deceptive force, due to the enormous windfall profits that would result from passage of a helmet law.

     Over the past few weeks I have mentioned the proposed law to a number of my neighbors and asked how they felt about it.  Only a small minority of Austinians seem to have even heard of the proposal.  But once the concept is explained to them, I find that, among neighbors who actually ride bikes, fewer than 20% would approve of any law mandating the wearing of helmets by cyclists!  The fact that the City Council is even contemplating such a law shocks and outrages many persons.




     Statistical evidence that may be cited in support of bicycle helmet laws is apt to be misleading for a variety of reasons, and in any case is no substitute for good judgment in this matter.

     To illustrate, studies which purport to show a lesser rate and severity of head injuries in the subgroup of cyclists who voluntarily wear helmets, may in reality simply demonstrate what one would expect in the first place:  that those who are cautious and skillful riders — and who suffer less injury as a result — are also more apt to buy and wear helmets.  This indirect correlation can wildly distort such statistics!

     Nor need statistical studies of changes in accident rates after the passage of helmet laws be reliable.  For example, there is apt to be a transient effect, as the new helmets temporarily make cyclists more safety conscious.

     Every scientist will attest to the extreme difficulty and complexity of proving almost any proposal through statistical studies, and to the ease with which statistics can be corrupted (and are regularly corrupted) through the bias of investigators and those who cite statistical data second- or thirdhand, even in defense of opposite contentions.




     There is a great deal of irony in the city hatching such a frivolity as a bicycle helmet law even while it blindly neglects the deadly hazards of gutters that have migrated an inch or two above or below street level, of street surfaces seemingly designed to upend irrelevant bicycles, of pavings dropping off suddenly into perilous holes and canyons, of bridge sidings thrown abruptly in the way of unwarned cyclists on convergent lanes, and of autoists seemingly educated in the churlish philosophy that bikers are simply vermin to be honked and squeezed off the road.




     Nomocracy — or reliance on legal machinery to govern society — is an admirable concept, but in practice such a system has its costs, limitations, and risks, and can easily be taken to excess.  Proponents of a bicycle helmet law perhaps need to be reminded of several nomocratic fallacies:  The fallacy that there can be a law for every problem and need.  The fallacy that a mechanical system of laws can equal or supersede intuitive judgment, common sense, or the massive, pluralistic intelligence of free individuals making contextual and circumstantial observations and decisions.  The fallacy that laws have no cost, either economic or spiritual.

     We all need to be wary of those monomaniacs in government who, for ideological, opportunistic, or professional reasons, are only able to see the world in peculiar, narrow, obsessive ways, who are blind and deaf to every other element and aspect of reality, and yet who are often amazingly skilled at transmitting their injurious obsessions and warped perspectives to a public untutored in the psychopathology of monomania.

     Actually the political logic of many contemporary legislators and civil servants is clear:

     The public is a child that would be frightened and stupidly resistant if confronted outright with the (assumed) need for certain revolutions in law and behavior.  Hence the political illuminati must benevolently trick the ignorant public into submitting to the very same revolutions cleverly introduced via a multitude of tiny-but-cumulative, indirect, disguised, baited, and perhaps carefully planned steps.

     It is not hard to foresee what such logic might lead to in the present instance, with the safety helmets for cyclists insidiously followed by the municipal licensing of all bikers, the restriction of bikers to an ever diminishing percentage of roads and to certain exceptional streets, and the ultimate prohibition of cycling as a marginal and technologically passé recreation of kids and eccentrics (although exercise bikes might be exempted).

     Yet why should parentalistic government stop there, when even more lives would be saved by ordering the public to don helmets in cars, as pedestrians, in showers, during domestic disputes, and in frail old age?  Perhaps people should wear spacesuits, or at least reflective paint?  Maybe seat belts at the dinner table are even now worth considering?


Motorbikes Vs.  Footbikes


     The treating of motor cyclists as something other than adults by forcing them to wear helmets, is a separate issue, but its argumentative use to legitimate the forcible helmeting of the foot cyclist, by analogy, is especially open to question.

     The bicyclist tracks the side of the road, not the center for which all motorists compete.

     The foot and motor bike involve very different average and maximal velocity regimes, with little overlap.  Yet the mathematical laws governing how kinetic energy, destructive energy, mortality, fatality, and perceptual impairment increase with velocity are geometric, not arithmetic, laws; so the higher velocities of the motor bike are vastly more dangerous.  True, even the slowest bicyclist can be hit by a car; but so can the pedestrian.

     Presumably it is largely due to such mathematical power laws that total governmental expenditures in this country for the obligatory care of cyclists incapacitated for life by head injury are (relatively speaking) almost nil.

     Motorbikers are far more apt to brave the night than footbikers, yet the nearby things which footbikers must see to travel safely at night are far more discernible at that time than the distant cues required by the motorbiker.

     Footbikes are more apt than motorbikes to be used on dirt trails, jogging paths, sidewalks, and lawns, where presumably a helmet law would not apply.  But since access thereto will generally be gotten via a road, a helmet will have to be carried about in any case.  Theft, or the intolerable nuisance of a second — even less dependable — lock, will necessitate carrying helmets into stores and other places.


The Problem of Enforcement


     Children would never observe a dichotomy between lawns and sidewalks versus streets, so the proposed helmet law would be just another law that taught kids to break and scoff at the Law.

     Enforcement of such an ordinance would be a nightmare, or simply impossible.  Only a few squad cars are on the streets of Austin at a given instant.  Imagine how those already overtaxed resources would be squandered through the need to ticket children.  Would three-year-olds with tricycles — as well as adult cyclists — be required to carry licenses at all times?  Would mothers have to bring their toddlers to traffic court?  Or to jail after the third or twenty-seventh offense?  Would cops have to chase after adolescents fleeing behind houses?

     Only a madman would embrace such consequences, or a quixotic councilor overlook them.


The Real Crime


     However, the really heinous things about the proposed ordinance are of a subtler and more philosophical nature.

     The effect of such arrogant legislation is to force all of us poor, sorry, long-suffering citizens into a Procrustean bed at the behest of a few bureaucratic monkeys — divinely inspired and unctuous with compassion — who would tell us how to brush our teeth, dress, dot our i’s.

     It is not our fault that we are all so undisciplined and uneducated — human beings are born backward and helpless, after all — but it would be the city’s fault if it did not supply the missing ingredients from without, through the cudgel of criminal penalties.


     For me, a 44-year-old adult living in a country founded as a repudiation of paternalism, what the bicycle primarily represents is a symbol:  a symbol of freedom, of untrammeled individuality, of self-sufficiency and simplicity, of grace of movement, of nakedness before nature, of nature naked, of a personal joy not the concern of any other human being, and of an experience still virgin, elementary, spiritual.

     No other conveyance exposes one so directly and completely to the great outdoors.  To no other vehicle is the world so open and intimate.  The bicycle is sacred, a symbol of personal sovereignty, and it should remain untouched by the feverish, intrusive paws of government.  Alas, nowadays it is about the only thing one has wholly to oneself.

     In contemplating the council’s proposed law, I found myself recalling some remarks of the great Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1875-1961):




     When I visited the United States for the first time, I was much astonished to see that there were no barriers at the railway crossings and no protective hedges alongside the railway track.  In the remoter districts the line was actually used as a foot-path.  When I voiced my astonishment about this, I was informed, “Only an idiot could fail to see that trains pass along the line at forty to a hundred miles an hour!” Another thing that struck me is that nothing is verboten; instead, one is merely “not allowed” to do something, or one is politely requested:  “Please don’t——.”

     These impressions, and others like them, reduced themselves to the discovery that in America civic life appeals to the intelligence and expects an intelligent response, whereas in Europe it plans for stupidity.  America fosters and looks forward to intelligence; Europe looks back to see whether the dumb ones are also coming along.  Europe is forever crying that bossy and officious “Verboten!” into our ears, whereas America addresses herself to people’s common sense.




     I should stress to the City Council that Jung was praising Americans.




     In the seemingly unlikely event that the City Council arrogantly passes a law making it a crime for an adult cyclist to peddle about Austin unhelmeted, my own response will either be to ignore such an ordinance altogether, as unjust and meddlesome, or to resign myself to the imperatives of that council of fools by abandoning my bicycle to the imperatives of the dumpster.

     In either case, I hardly think I will be alone.




     • At best — for the advocates of a helmet law — it is as though about half (of us) were for, and about half against, such a law.  But note that those for it are free to comply with their sense of the appropriate by wearing a helmet themselves, whereas those opposed are to be forced to wear a helmet as well, as an additional gratification to be given to the proponents of the law.  Thus one group IN ESSENCE seeks a DOUBLE POWER through the obnoxious act of overriding the (often passionate) wish of another group of approximately equal size to merely be self-regulating.

     Yet in reality, those opposed to the law seem to far outnumber those who favor it.

     An even more precise way to visualize the logic of the situation is:  There is a city inhabited by just the two of us.  You wear a helmet by choice.  But you insist I wear one, too!


     • Advocates of a bicycle helmet law sometimes argue that, since government is obliged to pay the costs of caring for cyclists institutionalized for life as a result of mental incapacitation, this public burden gives government the right — or obligation — to act to reduce communal liabilities by mandating helmets that can help to prevent such injuries.  One answer to this argument has been mentioned already — the de facto tininess of that bicycle burden in the U.S.!  But such a forensically panacean excuse for a helmet law would be equally applicable to accidents at home — or anywhere — which create a need for special institutional care at taxpayers’ expense.


     • Persons who by chance happen to know someone who has been seriously injured or traumatized by a bicycle accident, may need to be gently reminded that the making of laws should have nothing whatever to do with exceptional experience or events near in time.


     • It seems odd that the proposed helmet ordinance is to be introduced per saltum, in the absence of any earlier law applying just to juveniles.  After all, most bicycle head injuries occur in kids, and children are usually considered more precious, they are more careless, and their legal rights are more alienable than those of adults.  Extensions of the Law — where they occur at all — should occur gradually, via intermediate stages.


     • I called Bicycle Sport Shop in Austin and found that helmets there start at $43 with tax, which is 36% as much as my entire bike cost (new) in 1989.


     • A helmet worn in summer heat can be both uncomfortable and unhealthy.


     • A bicycle helmet subtracts from the dignity of an adult, even when it is worn voluntarily.  In my opinion it also has a cosmetic (esthetic) cost, in that a cyclist whose head is uncovered looks more innocent, free, attractive, and interesting to other persons.  (Even strollers like looking at cyclists.)


     • Although initially a bicycle helmet ordinance would presumably only mandate the wearing of light helmets, it might later be toughened to require footbikers to wear motorbike helmets.  But for a footbiker a helmet that covered the ears could actually reduce safety, by depriving the wearer of invaluable auditory cues (which a motorbike’s roar might mask).


     • A friend to whom I mentioned the proposed ordinance, remarked that his grandmother had just broken her hip through a fall, but that she would probably have avoided this injury if she had been wearing some sort of body armor (a “hip helmet”).  His real point, however, was that a mandatory helmet law would simply be equivalent to thousands of other protective requirements which might be mandated instead or in addition, just as deservedly and just as foolishly.


     • Would the City ultimately require that bicyclists take vision tests and wear their eyeglasses?  That bicycles be subject to annual inspections?


     • A mandatory helmet law in Austin would create problems at the city limits for cyclists from outside Austin touching or crossing the boundary and for Austinites leaving the city, problems having to do with ignorance of the law, positional uncertainties, the need to buy a helmet even if one planned to visit the city just once, and the ragged and sometimes disconnected nature of the city’s perimeter.


Patrick Gunkel Gunkel’s Collected Works

2001 July 29

Neuropsychology, Social psychology

Bicycle safety helmet

Possible paradoxical dangers in wearing.

(Remarks inspired by a newspaper article; see APPENDIX.)




     I found the below newsstory, “A Bicycling Mystery: Head Injuries Piling Up”, to be more than a little amusing, in view of what I had had to say in “Why A Bicycle Helmet Law Would Be Absurd”, a lengthy statement or essay that I prepared around 1988 for a public hearing on the question of whether bicycle helmets ought to be made mandatory in Austin, Texas.

     There was evidence even then, as I had remarked, that such laws might be ineffectual in preventing or reducing bicycle deaths and injuries.

     Moreover, I pointed out that bicycle helmets might also have a paradoxical tendency to INCREASE injuries, for several reasons, but especially because they would tend to reduce the brain’s consciousness and acuity of perception of — and indeed, its care and concern about — the external world, especially to the side and rear of head and bike.  There are many reasons for this, and many are extremely subtle and technical.

     But let me note here that helmets inevitably alter the geometry of HEARING, in part because they mask the rear and rear sides, in a way that is utterly abnormal, and in good part incompensable by our more or less fixed evolutionary neuropsychology.  This might not seem important, but I long ago realized that I bicycle about one-half with my ears.

     This came to me most forcefully when, as a result of an ear infection when I was living in Canada in 1994, I temporarily lost my hearing.  Suddenly I was profoundly disoriented and clumsy on the street, on my bike, couldn’t integrate well and fluidly my picture of my surroundings and the movement within it, and the timing of my own actions therewith, and as a consequence I was extremely anxious for my safety.

     The reality is that, when I am cycling, my ears are my rearward eyes.  I virtually never need to look to see if a car is coming along to my side or from my rear when I turn into a street or am moving along a road (except, that is, as a DEMONSTRATIVE social courtesy to a motorist, who needs to be reassurred); I can SEE it auditorily at once, its distance and roughly its speed, or even acceleration, and its size, as well as the angle it may have, and I do this instantly (in a fraction of a second), automatically, reliably, and efficienctly.  This auricular reliance is not the result of bravado or carelessness.

     On the contrary, I am, in part as a neuroscientist, acutely conscious of, and wary because of, the dangers of the road and of the masses and momenta of, and brutal threats constantly posed by, cars and trucks, and the psychological, moral, and behavioral dispersion to be expected in the hundreds of thousands of human types who pass me by on the roadside annually, in their turbulent streams and rivers.  In fact, it simply amazes me that bicyclists aren’t killed and hauled away by the truckloads.


     A very different kind of suspicion I have about bicycle helmets has to do with ATTITUDINAL effects from the wearing of helmets.  That they can induce a certain smugness or false sense of safety in those who wear them is obvious enough, but there are more subtle possibilities as well.

     A helmet may not only reduce the amplitudinal spherical isotropy of normal hearing, but literally, albeit largely subconsciously, distort its subjective or mentally calculated shape, in part because of the helmet’s reflective surfaces near the ear, but also in part because the amplitudinal anisotropy is apt to cause a compensatory warping of the still free lateral and forward auditory field, or ‘the way the brain thinks about it’ and reacts to kaleidoscopic events, needs, and possibilities within it.  (There is no need for a helmet to cover the ears for it to have these detrimental effects on auditory perception.)

     Similar distortions, moreover, can be produced by the MERE PRESENCE of the object represented by the helmet on the head as well, since the brain invests part of its consciousness in the abnormal and intrusive — heavy, gravitationally and inertially off-center, tactile, and pre-visualized — object’s constant contemplation, and this is, not just distracting, but apt to once again be something that distorts the way the world is EFFECTIVELY SEEN, and practically responded to.  (Again, this is a case that requires the sophisticated technical knowledge of a student of the brain to be fully or at all appreciated.)

     There is the additional, seemingly bizarre, but after all — to any close observer of human beings and their social psychology — not unreasonable, possibility that those who wear bike helmets incur an attitudinal risk WITHOUT, and, at least in a sense, through no fault of their own.  The truth is that, especially in contemporary American society, there is a queer animalic — and to some extent age and social stratification — rivalry, and a broader enmity, between those who ride bicycles and those who drive cars and trucks, on one and the same street at one and the same time.  In short, many motorists — I have been told and I intuitively and rationally believe — hate cyclists.

     They may variously regard them with amused contempt; resentment at their marginal presence and over their marginal intrusions on the motorist’s field of view and surface of rolling confinement; annoyance at the mutual risks and need for mutual attentions they cause; the instinctive arrogance or indifference of a larger beast toward a much smaller, weaker, and less numerous creature or species; disdain for the almost flamboyant, punkish, Mardi Gras, effeminate, or adolescent high-tech fluorescent sports clothes and other bodily accouterments specially designed for bicyclists that are now so often worn; anger over the occasional greater freedoms, ease, and pleasures of the bicycler and his ‘equal rights’ under the law (especially where the motorist finds himself by contrast stuck — unfairly and cruelly deprived of his usual greatly superior speed, and rightful eminence, in view of all the stuff in his car and the orders of magnitude greater cost or economic value of his AUTOMOBILE — in a crawling column of other plain and ordinary cars); misgeneralized or hysteretic perception of those who ride on bicycles as being mere or troublesome or privileged juveniles; or, in certain cases, an exaggerated anger over the occasional dangerous antics or aggressive or heedless trespasses of a minority of bikers or the rare but inevitable idiot.

     All this was a necessary, if unforgivable, preamble to my mentioning the odd attitudinal risk of the biker with a helmet that I thought I should include here as well, as a speculative hunch, even though it may make only a modest contribution to the rising accident and injury statistics.

     I think that all the fancy and almost outrageous clothes of today’s bicyclists, and now the addition of the, aspectually, almost impertinent helmet, may prompt some drivers, especially ones with certain kinds of personalities, to be abnormally aggressive, or even deliberately careless, and certainly lamentably forgetful, with respect to these “cute, princely, and execrable” cyclists who so decorate themselves and now even flaunt helmets.

     Indeed, I would guess that a great MANY of those who would indulge in the wearing of such lepidopteran garb (I omit the nerdy helmets) do in fact ride about with attitudes of mock superiority, disdain, or even deity that are bound to be felt as outrageous by many motorists, and that do at times lead to fateful transgressions by both the cyclists and the motorists — motorists whose awareness averages and confuses all times and places in its emotional residues and behavioral translations.

     My last point, among my remarks, was admittedly a small one to have had to elaborate on at such length, simply because of what it might have to say about the complexity and curiosity of human beings.


     Here is the newsstory, then, which, placed upon the matte of what I have just written, may now be seen in a somewhat different light.


                    — Patrick Gunkel




APPENDIX (story commented on above):


New York Times, 2001 July 29.


• “A Bicycling Mystery: Head Injuries Piling Up”




     Millions of parents take it as an article of faith that putting a bicycle helmet on their children, or themselves, will help keep them out of harm’s way.

     But new data on bicycle accidents raises questions about that.  The number of head injuries has increased 10 percent since 1991, even as bicycle helmet use has risen sharply, according to figures compiled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.  But given that ridership has declined over the same period, the rate of head injuries per active cyclist has increased 51 percent just as bicycle helmets have become widespread.

     What is going on here?  No one is very sure, but safety experts stress that while helmets do not prevent accidents from happening, they are extremely effective at reducing the severity of head injuries when they do occur.  Almost no one suggests that riders should stop wearing helmets, which researchers have found can reduce the severity of brain injuries by as much as 88 percent.

     Still, with fewer people riding bicycles, experts are mystified as to why injuries are on the rise.  “It’s puzzling to me that we can’t find the benefit of bike helmets here,” said Ronald L.  Medford, the assistant executive director of the safety commission’s hazard identification office.

     Some cycling advocates contend that rising numbers of aggressive drivers are at fault, while others suggest that many riders wear helmets improperly and do not know the rules of the road.  Some transportation engineers say there are not enough safe places to ride.

     Many specialists in risk analysis argue that something else is in play.  They believe that the increased use of bike helmets may have had an unintended consequence: riders may feel an inflated sense of security and take more risks.

     In August 1999, Philip Dunham, then 15, was riding his mountain bike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and went over a jump on a trail.  As he did, his back tire kicked up, the bike flipped over and he landed on his head.  The helmet he was wearing did not protect his neck; he was paralyzed from the neck down.

     Two years later, Philip has regained enough movement and strength in his arms to use a manual wheelchair.  He has also gained some perspective.  With the helmet he felt protected enough to ride off-road on a challenging trail, in hindsight perhaps too safe.

     “It didn’t cross my mind that this could happen,” said Philip, now 17.  “I definitely felt safe.  I wouldn’t do something like that without a helmet.”

     In the last nine years, 19 state legislatures have passed mandatory helmet laws.  Today, such statutes cover 49 percent of American children under 15.

     And even some professionals have embraced helmets.  While a majority of the riders in the Tour de France have worn helmets infrequently, Lance Armstrong, the American cyclist favored to win the race today, wore a helmet through most of the race.

     Altogether, about half of all riders use bike helmets today, compared with fewer than 18 percent a decade ago, the first year the safety commission examined helmet use.

     During the same period, overall bicycle use has declined about 21 percent as participation in in-line skating, skateboarding and other sports has increased, according to the National Sporting Goods Association, which conducts an annual survey of participation in different sports.  Off-road mountain biking is often considered more risky than ordinary bicycling, but it is unlikely to account for the recent increase in bicyclists’ head injuries.  Participation in off-road mountain biking has declined 18 percent since 1998, the association said.

     Even so, bicyclists suffered 73,750 head injuries last year, compared with 66,820 in 1991, according to the safety commission’s national injury surveillance system, with the sharpest increase coming in the last three years.  Children’s head injuries declined until the mid-1990’s, but they have risen sharply since then and now stand near their 1991 levels even with fewer children riding bikes.

     The safety commission is now investigating why head injuries have been increasing.  Officials hope that by examining emergency room reports more closely and interviewing crash victims, they can find out if more of the injuries are relatively minor, and how many people suffered head injuries while wearing helmets.  Some bicycling advocates have questioned the statistics on participation in bicycling, and the commission plans to re-examine those as well.

     Dr. Richard A.  Schieber, a childhood injury prevention specialist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the leader of a national bicycle safety initiative, said public health officials were realizing that in addition to promoting helmet use, safety officials must teach good riding skills, promote good driving practices and create safer places for people to ride.

     “We have moved the conversation from bicycle helmet use to bicycle safety,” Dr. Schieber said.  “Thank God that the public health world is understanding there is more to bicycle safety than helmets.”

     Promoting bicycle helmets without teaching riders about traffic laws or safe riding practices can encourage a false sense of security, according to several risk experts.  Helmets may create a sort of daredevil effect, making cyclists feel so safe that they ride faster and take more chances, said Mayer Hillman, a senior fellow emeritus at the Policy Studies Institute in London.

     “You would be well advised to wear a helmet provided you could persuade yourself it is of little use,” Dr. Hillman said.

     One parallel, risk experts said, is anti-lock brakes.  When they were introduced in the 1980’s, they were supposed to reduce accidents, but government and industry studies in the mid-1990’s showed that as drivers realized their brakes were more effective they started driving faster, and some accident rates rose.

     Insurance companies have long been familiar with the phenomenon, which they call moral hazard.  Once someone is covered by an insurance policy there is a natural tendency for that person to take more risks.  Companies with workers’ compensation insurance, for instance, have little incentive to make their workplaces safer.  To counter such moral hazard, insurers may give discounts to companies that reduce hazardous conditions in their factories, said Robert Hartwig, chief economist for the Insurance Information Institute.

     “People tend to engage in risky behavior when they are protected,” he said.  “It’s a ubiquitous human trait.”

     Even cyclists who discount the daredevil effect admit that they may ride faster on more dangerous streets when they are wearing their helmets.

     On May 5, Noah Budnick, a 24- year-old New York resident, was wearing a helmet and cycling on Avenue B in Manhattan when he had to pull out from the side of the street to avoid a double-parked car and a taxicab idling behind it.  As he moved to the left, the cab pulled out, striking Mr.  Budnick.  He broke his fall with his hands and did not hit his head on the ground, but the accident left him with a deep cut on his leg and a badly strained knee.

     Although the cab was at fault for the accident, Mr.  Budnick said, if he had been riding more slowly he might not have had the accident.

     “I probably would have ridden more cautiously and less aggressively without the helmet,” he said.  “I don’t know if I would ride in Manhattan at the speed I was going.”

     Still, many cycling advocates contend that it is not bicyclists but drivers who are more reckless.  Distractions like cell phones have made drivers less attentive, they say, and congestion is making roads more dangerous for cyclists.  They also believe that some drivers of sport utility vehicles and other trucks simply drive too close to cyclists.

     Brendan Batson, a 16-year-old high school sophomore in central Maine, had been knocked off the road twice by drivers, so as he entered the home stretch of a 60-mile ride on May 26, he was wearing his helmet.  But as he passed through Norridgewock, Me., riding along the shoulder of a rural highway, a pickup truck struck him from behind.  It hit Brendan with enough force to rip the helmet from his head, the straps gouging his face before tearing off.  Brendan was dragged along the road, past a friend he was cycling with, then thrown to the side.  He was killed instantly.

     It is difficult to show statistically that drivers have become more reckless in the last decade.  The percentage of fatal bicycle accidents that involved cars has declined, falling from 87 percent in 1991 to 83 percent in 1998, according to the C.D.C.

     Thom Parks, a vice president in charge of safety for the helmet maker Bell Sports, said safety standards could be upgraded and helmets could be designed to meet them.  But that would make helmets heavier, bulkier and less comfortable.  “There are limits to what a consumer would accept,” Mr.  Parks said, adding that if helmets became bigger, fewer people might wear them.

     Dr. James P.  Kelly, a neurologist and a concussion expert at Northwestern University Medical School, said that even as helmets were currently designed, patients who were wearing them when they were injured were much better off than those who were not.

     “Bicycle helmet technology is the best we have for protecting the brain,” Dr. Kelly said.  “The helmets serve the function of an air bag.”

     But the most effective way to reduce severe head injuries may be to decrease the number of accidents in the first place.

     “Over the past several decades, society has come to equate safety with helmets,” said Charles Komanoff, the co-founder of Right of Way, an organization that promotes the rights of cyclists and pedestrians.  “But wearing a helmet does not prevent crashes.”