Do helmets prevent injury, or do they enable us to act more recklessly?
Head injuries and head protection are dominating the sports landscape with the recent spate of concussions in the National Hockey League. But even when we're biking on our own or playing any sort of contact sport, what do helmets do to protect us? Science reporter Anne McIlroy, concussion expert Dr. Charles Tator and risk behaviour expert Dr. Gerald Wilde took your questions and comments on the much-debated topic.
Anne McIlroy is the science reporter at the Globe and Mail. Before joining the Globe in 1996, she covered science and the environment for Southam News and the Ottawa Citizen, where she began her career in 1985.
Dr. Charles Tator is a concussion and brain injury expert at Toronto Western Hospital advocating for stronger regulations around head shots in hockey.
Dr. Gerald J.S. Wilde is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Queen's University in Kingston and the author of Target Risk 2. His teaching and research interests include ergonomic psychology, skill acquisition, mass media messages and behaviour change, human behaviour in transportation, and the psychology of risk taking.
Below is the edited text from the live discussion
Cliff Lee - The Globe and Mail: Hi everyone - thanks for joining us today. We'll be getting started in a few minutes with science reporter Anne McIlroy, concussion expert Dr. Charles Tator and risk behaviour expert Dr. Gerald Wilde. Please feel free to leave your questions and comments and we will try to get through all of them!
Sam: What are the differences between a good helmet and a bad helmet?
Anne McIlroy: I'd like to ask Dr. Tator if I should warn my daughter that a helmet doesn't mean she doesn't have to think about safety on the rink or on her bike. Also, as I understand it in hockey, helmets protect against catastrophic injuries, but not concussiosn. Dr. Tator, can you elaborate on that?
Gerry Wilde: Comment on Sam's comment. How do you define "good"? Better protection, less of a nuisance to wear, what?
Charles Tator: Safety is multifactorial which means that the helmet is only one aspect of being safe on a bicycle. A good helmet fits well without sliding from side to side or back and forth on the head, and has a strap that holds the helmet firmly on the head. Only one finger breadth between chin and strap.
Charles Tator: A bicycle helmet should not be worn for hockey or skating, and so each activity requires a specific helmet. Although some helmets such as hockey helmets are good for more than one activity. See our website for more information on which helmet for which sport. www.thinkfirst.ca
Charles Tator: A good helmet lasts only about three seasons, and then should be discarded. The padding can wear out and provide less protection.
Anne McIlroy: Are bike helmets o.k if they have been dropped on the ground a few times?
Charles Tator: After a drop on the ground a bike helmet should be inspected for cracks, and damage to the padding, and probably does not have to be discarded. However, after a drop of a helmet on cement, throw the helmet away.
Christopher Miller: I understand that there is increased risk in certain rough and high contact sports and this justifies using helmets (but why in Canadian football and not in rugby or soccer, one wonders?). However, I have yet to see a reasoned argument for why simple low velocity transportation like cycling should require a helmet. People slip and fall on sidewalks, staircases, ladders and hit their heads no less than people on bikes. Resulting head injuries in both cases span the gamut from trauma to simple scrapes and cuts, and these are normally not distinguished in the statistics I have seen. If you are hit by a car while walking across the road, the physics of the result are not appreciably different, and if you are hit by a car at high speed, it is well established that wearable bike helmets are not designed to attenuate serious trauma at that impact speed. It is also often pointed out that head trauma makes up a far from insignificant proportion of serious injuries and deaths in automobile crashes. Yet for bikes, we have the example of the safest cycling nation in the world, the Netherlands, where anyone wearing a cycling helmet is as likely as not a visitor from an English-speaking country. My question in relation to all this is whether there are *any* studies that actually account for possible safety effects of helmet use versus non-use across different everyday activities like cycle transportation, crossing streets (at intersections or elsewhere) etc, and not just cycling?
Charles Tator: The Netherlands is not Canada. There, motorists are bike-aware, and in Canada, they are not.