Continuing from Part 1


The Brain Bucket Bash:  1985 report

There are many reasons for not wearing a safe helmet

This 1985 report to the United States Cycling Federation Board of Directors recommended helmet safety standards.  [Comments in italics like this were added when this article was published in Cyclops USA in September 1989.]


U.S. Cycling Federation, Inc.

July 28, 1985.


To:      USCF Board of Directors.


From:  Les Earnest, Technical Chairman


Subject: Helmet safety issues.


The Technical Commission/Board of Control has been reviewing helmet safety issues for some time and intensively for the last two years [1] [2].  This is an update of a report that was reviewed by members of the Commission and the Executive Committee in November 1984 and that yielded no adverse remarks.  It is now presented to the whole Board as background for possible amendments to helmet regulations.


The toll

As reported in a recent helmet review article [3], U.S. Government agency estimates that about 500,000 Americans are seriously injured each year in bicycle accidents and more than 1,000 die from their injuries [4].  According to an Australian study, over 80% of all cycling accidental deaths are attributable to head injuries [5].  There appear to be no data on the fraction of fatalities that could have been prevented by wearing a better helmet but based on personal observations I believe that it is more than half.


[A recent study indicates that this estimate was low.  The use of safety helmets results in an 85% reduction in the risk of head injury and an 88% reduction in the risk of brain injury, as reported in a recent study [R.S. Thompson, et al, “A case-control study of the effectiveness of bicycle safety helmets,” New England Journal of Medicine 320:21, May 25, 1989].


On this basis, it appears that something over 400 people are killed each year in this country by being involved in a cycling accident while wearing an inadequate helmet or no helmet.  Licensed bicycle racers account for a comparatively small number of the annual deaths.  I recall hearing of 2 or 3 racers dying in accidents each year for the 14 years that I have been involved in the sport.


Most serious accidents occur in training rather than in racing, because riders spend much more time in training and because most training is done in a less controlled environment than racing.  Given that Federation regulations apply only to races, the USCF lacks jurisdiction over riders most of the time.  On the other hand, most riders use the same equipment in training as in racing, so racing safety regulations tend to carry over to training programs.  Many non-racers follow the lead of racing cyclists in selecting equipment, so the influence of racing organizations is actually much greater than their licensed membership.


The majority of the deaths among both licensed and unlicensed riders are young people.  Of the many more people who are seriously injured but not killed, quite a few have permanent disabilities.  For example, of the seven personal acquaintances of the author who experienced serious head trauma in cycling accidents in the last five years (two of them during races at which he officiated), two died and four more did not fully recover.  Based on direct observations and reliable reports, all of the survivors would have had substantially reduced injuries if they had worn a good helmet.


Not all of the disabilities of those who survive are visible. After physical healing, the personalities of three of the author’s acquaintances are noticeably different.  Another lost her sense of smell and taste. The one survivor who apparently recovered fully subsequently ran for the USCF Board of Directors, which is rather clear evidence of brain damage. And he was elected.


Morbid jokes aside, I am convinced by national accident statistics and by personal observations that most people who ride bicycles are doing so without adequate head protection.


Helmet standards

Here is a brief history of bicycle helmet standards.  When bike racing began in the late 1800’s, there were no helmets, let alone standards.  While helmets were developed rather early, they were not required for bike racing at least into the 1930’s, and professional riders still do not wear helmets in many events.  This macho tradition and the professionals’ delusions of invulnerability unfortunately infect the rest of the sport

By 1947, possibly a bit earlier, the USCF (then called the Amateur Bicycle League of America) required all competitors to wear helmets but without any construction standards. [Though the ABL Rule Book required that a helmet be worn, immediately after this rule was adopted, the League's official periodical began telling riders that this rule would not be enforced by race officials!] The typical helmet consisted of padded leather straps and offered limited impact protection.  In the mid-'70s, plastic helmets appeared that offered good aerodynamics or styling but very little protection.  The USCF regulations included a specification of the maximum distance between straps of the leather helmet (45 mm) and a requirement that straps go on both sides of the ears and under the chin.  These requirements were based on helmet specifications of the International Cycling Union.


While there appears to be increasing acceptance of the better plastic helmets, some of the relatively unsafe plastic helmets are also gaining market share, and the padded-leather-strap helmet (sometimes disparagingly called a “leather hairnet”) remains the most widely used type in bike racing.


As a result of amendments made by the Board of Directors in October 1984, USCF regulations now contain no safety standards at all.  The principal helmet rule reads as follows:

“1I1.  Every rider starting a race shall wear a protective, securely fastened helmet.  It is the rider’s responsibility to select and wear a helmet which offers sufficient protection against head injury and does not restrict the rider’s vision [disqualification for failure to wear a helmet or for removing it during the race].”

In other words, the choice of helmet is strictly up to the rider.


In parallel with these developments in the bike racing community, the Snell Memorial Foundation began developing bicycle helmet testing procedures several years ago, based on their earlier work with motorcycle helmets, and formulated an industrial bike helmet standard [6].  This organization is a non-profit corporation that was founded in 1957 for the purpose of conducting research and establishing standards for helmet safety in various applications.


The Snell work subsequently became the primary input to a standardization effort by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) under its Z90 committee.  ANSI is the primary coordinator of standards activities in the U.S.  The Z90 committee included representatives of various helmet manufacturers and certain cycling organizations, but not the USCF.  The resulting ANSI Standard Z90.4 was completed in the Fall of 1983 [7].


An appeal against this standard was lodged with ANSI by a manufacturer (SkidLid) that had a representative on the committee, but whose products did not meet the standard.  After that appeal was denied, SkidLid lodged a higher level appeal that was also subsequently denied.  The ANSI standard was formally approved in March 1984.





 I advocated the adoption of the ANSI Z90.4 helmet standard by the USCF at the Board of Directors meeting in October 1984.  The overwhelming opposition took one or more of the following positions.

1. Riders should have freedom of choice in helmets – there should be no standards imposed.

2. ANSI standard Z90.4 is unsound.

3. Imposing a helmet standard will increase the USCF’s liability.

4. Helmets that meet the ANSI standard are too hot or heavy, or restrict vision.

5. Only inexperienced riders need good helmets because they crash more frequently.

6. The helmet safety question should be studied more before the USCF takes a position.

In the subsequent sections I shall argue that each of these positions was and is fallacious.



Freedom  of choice

The idea that riders should have freedom of choice in wearing a helmet is very appealing and is, I think, the fundamental issue.  How can one argue with the principle that each person should be able to decide questions of personal safety for themselves?


I agree that individuals generally should be permitted to make informed decisions about all aspects of their lives as long as these decisions do not detrimentally affect the lives of others.  This includes the right of the individual to decide to wear an unsafe helmet or, more directly, to commit suicide.


Unfortunately, the real world is filled with uninformed people whose mistakes must be paid for by others.  As it turns out, the decision by many riders to wear unsafe helmets, whether they have informed themselves about this issue or not, forces others to pay for their foolishness through increased insurance costs, which are reflected in increased licensing fees.  This issue is expanded upon below.


Consider also the analogy of home construction standards.  While the design and construction of houses could be left strictly up to the builders, it is generally recognized that mandatory building codes benefit the homeowner, who is thus assured that the roof is unlikely to collapse and the furnace probably won’t blow up.


There are a number of Federal and state agencies that are concerned with motor vehicle equipment and safety but cycling is still an orphan.  There is general ignorance of helmet safety issues in the bicycle racing community as well as a lot of misinformation in the marketplace.  Most riders, especially adolescents, are much more influenced by peer norms and image issues than by safety considerations.  Given the predominance of “leather hairnets” in bike racing magazines, that is what they buy.


Several people have pointed to the recent reversal of government regulations requiring that motorcyclists wear helmets.  They cite this as evidence that we should not attempt to legislate bicycle helmet standards.  Indeed, there is a lesson to be learned from the motorcycle helmet experience, but it is not the one they think.


Beginning in 1967, the Federal government required the states to enact motorcycle helmet laws as a condition for obtaining Federal highway funds.  During the next decade, motorcycle fatalities decreased by 50%.


In 1976, bowing to pressure from a segment of the motorcycle lobby, Congress revoked the helmet requirement.  In the next three years, 27 states followed suit and the national motorcycle death rate was up 40% by 1983.


A recent study sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded that “the use of a safety helmet is the single most critical factor in the prevention or reduction of head injury” from motorcycle accidents.


There is still another sad lesson from the motorcycle experience.  Based on limited studies of injured motorcyclists who are admitted to hospitals for treatment, about 40% of them are uninsured [8].  (In practice, most of them are treated at the expense of the general taxpayer.  So the motorcyclists “freedom of choice” not only inflicts an enormous cost in misery and lost productivity, but the rest of us get to pick up much of the medical bill.


The medical insurance coverage of bicyclists seems to be similar to that of motorcyclists, as revealed by the USCF’s race accident insurance experience.  The losses attributed to USCF riders who have no primary medical insurance have been grossly larger than their per capita share.  This means that the insured riders are subsidizing the uninsured.


While “freedom of choice” is a fine abstract principle, other important principles intrude and interact in the real world.  While a strict libertarian would say “Let them kill themselves if they choose,” I am concerned about the number who are killing or maiming themselves without quite understanding the issues and who force others to share in their misfortune.



ANSI Z90.4 unsound?

The primary advocates of the view that the ANSI Z90.4 helmet standard is inadequate are employees of SkidLid Manufacturing Company.  This is not surprising in view of the fact that their helmets do not meet this standard.  While their arguments should not be rejected simply because they have a conflict of interest, neither should they be embraced uncritically.


SkidLid President Kevin Montgomery has presented technical arguments against the Z90.4 standard to the USCF Technical Commission [9] and has presented a more general review to the Board of Directors [10].  Mr. Montgomery’s main arguments can be summarized as follows:

1. He has found a researcher at Wayne State University (Dr. Hodgson) who thinks he has a testing procedure that is better than the one specified in the Z90.4 standard [11].

2. The ANSI Z90 committee is biased somehow.

The first point is neither surprising nor damning to the Z90.4 standard.  If the proposed modified testing scheme can be shown to be superior for bicycle helmet testing, it seems likely that its proponent, Dr. Hodgson, will be able to convince the Z90 Committee that it should be included in an improved Z90 standard.


With respect to the second point, Mr. Montgomery’s evaluation of the Z90 Committee has an unprofessional aroma of sour grapes, given that his helmets would likely also flunk any tests based on Hodgson’s theories.


If a helmet manufacturer whose product meets the existing standards were to argue for even tighter standards, then careful consideration should be given to the proposal.  None of the conforming manufacturers appear to be taking that position at present.



Some people are worried that if the USCF imposes a helmet standard and some riders get injured anyway (as they inevitably will), that there will be an increase in the Federation’s liability.  In fact, tighter standards would almost certainly reduce liability as argued below.


It is unfortunate that even though there are many proponents of “freedom of choice,” very few people in this country accept responsibility for the results of their actions.  Riders who are injured in a bike race can usually find a lawyer who will argue that everyone else was at fault – the promoter, the promoting club, the sponsor, the city on whose streets it took place, and the organization that issued the race permit (that’s us).  Other riders are seldom found to be at fault unless they happen to be rich.


The current liability system is irrational and unfair but it is the only one around just now so we have to live with it.  In effect, the Federation is required to provide “stupidity insurance” for all riders whether we like it or not.  Two recent lawsuits that consumed a lot of the author’s time will serve to illustrate this point.


In a 1981 district track championships, the rider who won a certain sprint heat apparently thought that his opponent had fouled him in the home stretch.  (As was later determined, none of the three referees who watched the sprint from different vantage points believed that there had been a foul).  Just past the finish line, the winner veered toward his opponent, shouting and waving his fist.  They collided and fell heavily.


The rider who initiated the altercation was wearing a leather helmet and sustained a concussion.  His opponent received a deep thigh wound.  Both were given first aid and taken to the hospital.  The rider who was attacked subsequently filed suit against the aggressor, whose liability insurance carrier settled out of court.  The aggressor then filed suit against everyone else, including the USCF and a club whose members helped the district representative stage the championships.  His attorney claimed that:

 (1) his opponent should have been disqualified in an earlier round because of foul riding (though none of the race officials thought that there had been a foul)

(2) his opponent should have been disqualified for foul riding in the homestretch and the race should have been stopped instantly at that point by the officials (!), which would have prevented the subsequent altercation from happening;

(3) the head injury caused him to mishandle the management of his bike shop, leading to its financial failure;

(4) his mental dysfunction also led to the breakup of his marriage.


Numerous witnesses had depositions taken over a three year period.  The case went to a trial that lasted two weeks, requiring these same witnesses to take time off work without compensation.  In the end, the jury accepted the nonsensical claims (1) and (2) and awarded the aggressor $29,500 on the grounds that he had suffered a $59,000 loss and he was only half responsible for the incident!  This case conforms to the general principal that in civil suits involving a personal loss, the party that has money pays, no matter what their responsibility or lack thereof.  This is not a formal legal principal but is a perverted product of a system that has been developed to enrich the legal “profession.”


[After this 1985 report was written, the plaintiff appealed the decision and was awarded a new trial. At that point, the insurance company settled with him out of court for $55,000! The lesson that can be drawn from this case seems to be that riders should feel free to beat up other riders who they think are misbehaving. If they accidentally injure themselves in the process, they can recover damages from the Federation.]


The second illustrative case peripherally involved a criterium for a number of USCF classes.  The promoter also held a citizens race the same day on a slightly different course, which was conducted by club members, not USCF officials.  On the fifth circuit of the citizen’s race, an eleven-year-old boy drifted to the side with his head down and ran into a parked truck.  He sustained serious head injuries and went into an apparently permanent coma.


Even though the Federation had not issued a race permit for the citizens race and had no control over it, the conclusion was reached that since it occurred in association with USCF races that the Federation was responsible.  This case cost the USCF’s liability insurance carrier $250,000 plus very substantial legal expenses, including flying another Director and me to Peoria.


A lesson from this case is that the Federation should take responsibility for all bicycle races held in conjunction with USCF events – a position that I have been arguing unsuccessfully before the Board since 1979 – and should impose adequate control and safety regulations for citizen’s races.  Given that the Federation will be sued in any case where a serious accident occurs, it will be much better off to take control of ancillary races and try to ensure that they are run safely.  In does no good to proclaim that they are “not our responsibility.”


The bottom line on liability is that all Federation policies on safety and enforcement sooner or later get translated through the give and take of the legal system into liability insurance premiums.  The USCF is practically constrained to the role of donor, so the goal is not to win but to minimize the losses.  Liability questions can thus be restated concretely as “How much will this change increase or decrease the cumulative cost of liability insurance over time?”


Suppose that tighter helmet standards are adopted and some rider sneaks into a race with an unsafe helmet, then gets clobbered.  In this case, the USCF will be sued just as before and may be in a slightly weaker legal position, inasmuch as the officials should have enforced the helmet standard.  However, it seems obvious that any loss increments experienced from this effect would be more than offset by the reduction in lawsuits attributable to the general use of safer helmets.


Given that a large fraction of all riders who are seriously injured in bike races will sue in any case, the key to reducing liability is to reduce the number of serious injuries.  Adopting and enforcing better helmet standards should reduce the incidence of serious head injuries and this will yield lower insurance premiums in the long run.


Because of recent large liability losses, mostly attributed to head injuries incurred by riders wearing inadequate helmets [12], the Federation’s former liability insurance carrier has refused to renew its policy in 1985.  It has been necessary to pay substantially more for narrower coverage.  The $3.00 increase in Senior riders’ racing licenses in 1985 was specifically earmarked to cover the estimated increase in liability insurance costs.


If the Board would like to see some really large insurance bills in the future, it should continue the present policy of imposing no helmet standards.


ANSI helmets uncomfortable?

It has been asserted that helmets meeting the ANSI standard are too hot, too heavy, or obstruct vision.  While it is possible to construct a helmet that meets the ANSI standard and that also exhibits one or more of these problems, none of these problems is an intrinsic byproduct of meeting the standard.  Indeed, there are helmets available in the market that meet the Z90.4 standard, offer excellent vision, and are quite comfortable.


The Washington Area Bicyclist Association has been testing and reviewing helmets for a number of years in cooperation with the Snell Foundation [13].  Their tests have included the hot and muggy Summer conditions of the Washington D.C. area.  While not all Z90.4 helmets are comfortable under these conditions, there are a number that are.


My personal experience confirms the WABA findings.  I switched to an ANSI standard helmet two years ago and have used it for daily commuting and occasional racing.  Although I am annoyed by the sponge pads that fall out and must be re-glued once in awhile, this helmet has been just as comfortable as my old leather helmet.


[Scientific studies that have since been conducted show no increase in rider temperature when wearing ANSI helmets over riding helmetless, (e.g., see C.V. Gisolfi et al., “Effects of wearing a helmet on thermal balance while cycling in the heat,” The Physician and Sportsmedicine, 16(1), January 1988)].


While those who claim that all ANSI Standard helmets are hotter than nonconforming helmets are clearly misinformed, let me point out that if they were right, it would be another argument in favor of adopting the ANSI standard.  If safe helmets were hotter, then in the interest of safety and fairness, it would be essential to require that all riders wear the safe helmets, since otherwise there would be a competitive advantage in wearing unsafe helmets.


Only novice riders need safe helmets?

Some have argued that only the young or inexperienced riders need to wear ANSI helmets because they crash more frequently.  While it is true that some novice riders crash more frequently than experts, it is also true that everyone who races crashes periodically.  All available evidence indicates that the skulls of Category 1 riders are made of the same material as those of novices.


Aside from the fact that a class distinction of this sort makes no sense on safety grounds, it would also present an unfortunate image to the novice riders.  If elite riders were permitted to ignore safety requirements, then that would become part of the aspirations of those on the way up, with unfortunate consequences.


Those who would argue that elite athletes are less susceptible to cycling accident injuries might benefit from discussions with some former leading riders like National Team Member Alan Kingsbery, who was lucky to live through an altercation with a cement truck during the 1978 USCF National Championships and now can barely walk.  Or Bill Harrison, winner of the Nevada City Classic and other major events, who is still pretty fast on his wheelchair.  Or former world-class rider Jocelyn Lovell of Canada, who has been a quadriplegic for the last couple of years.  Or Eric Allen, who broke the U.S. National Time Trial Record, and a few months later lost a race with a truck; actually, you can’t talk to Eric anymore.


Not even old bureaucrats have been smart enough to beat the odds.  At least two former USCF Directors and District Representatives have been killed in cycling accidents in the last five years.


Needs more study?

A number of people have argued that there should be more study of the helmet safety issues before standards are enacted.  While it is important not to make serious legislative mistakes, it is sometimes better to take a series of steps in the right direction, rather than trying to get it exactly right the first time.  I believe that helmet standards are such a case.


Errors can be costly, but so can inaction.  It would be nice to be able to stop the world while we think this one over but that is rather hard to do.  Another 1,000 or so Americans will die in cycling accidents in 1985,a large portion of them from preventable head injuries.


I am unsympathetic to the claim that there has been insufficient time to examine the issues.  I first pointed out to the Board of Directors the need for tighter helmet standards in a 1981 Board of Control Report [1].  I brought this problem to the attention of the Board continually in the last two years [1] [2], calling for consideration of the ANSI Z90.4 standard.


At the May 1984 meeting of the Board, I expressed interest in adopting the ANSI standard and asked the Board to assign responsibility for careful study of this possibility to a committee.  The Board of Directors assigned it to the Board of Control.  I also offered to provide copies of the proposed standard and other documentation to any directors who were interested.  I received exactly one request, from a Director who later resigned.


To those who would like to think about it a while longer, I recommend keeping a count of the number of racers who have been killed while they have been reflecting on this issue.  They might also interview some of those who have been permanently maimed by head injuries in this time.  For myself, I have seen and heard quite enough.



As shown above, none of the arguments against adopting the ANSI Z90.4 helmet standard stands up under scrutiny.  My impression from talking with a number of people is that the key issue is “freedom of choice.”  While I sympathize with that position from a philosophical standpoint, I believe that the cost of that ideal is far too high.


Aside from the humanitarian argument that we should be trying to minimize injuries to participants in the sport of cycling, it appears that the Federation is experiencing substantial economic losses as a result of its failure to adopt helmet standards.  The major portion of USCF liability losses are the result of preventable head injuries, which are reflected in increased liability insurance rates.


In addition to liability losses, USCF medical insurance rates are being driven up by the same process.  For example, in 1983 and 1984, all claims over $3,000 were the result of head injuries and ran as high as $30,000 each [14].  This loss experience is driving up medical insurance premiums.


The Federation should be willing to spend a significant segment of its income to reduce rider injuries.  Instead, it is paying ever-increasing amounts to subsidize unnecessary deaths and maiming.  It is time to stop underwriting the expenses of those who have a death wish or who are too irrational or uninformed to choose safe equipment.


I hope that in September the Board recognizes its responsibilities and places the ANSI Z90.4 helmet standard in the Racing Rules effective January 1, 1986.



Suggested additional reading

An excellent article by Ed Burke on head injuries and helmet safety will appear in the next two issues of Cycling USA [15].  It includes the comprehensive helmet review compiled by WABA [13].


A thoughtful paper by Randy Swart gives substantial background on helmet comfort and safety standards issues [16].


Next part:  The big decision                    Cyclops USA home page



[1]  L. Earnest, “Board of Control Report,” USCF BoD minutes, April 1981, January & October 1984.


[2]  L. Earnest, “Technical Commission Report,” USCF BoD minutes, January & April 1985.


[3]  Thomas Balderston, “Bicycle Helmets: Which one?,” Bicycling, March 1983.


[4]  Bicycles – Buy Right, Drive Right,” pamphlet by U.S. Product Safety Commission.


[5]  Neil Gillies, “Helmets for Use by Bicycle Riders,” Traffic Accident Research Unit, Dept. of Motor Transport, New SouthWales, Australia, March 1980.


[6]  1984 Standard for Protective Headgear,” Snell Memorial Foundation, P.O. Box 733, Wakefield, RI 02880.


[7]  ANSI Standard Z90.4,” American National Standards Institute, March 1984.


[8] Donald Trunkey, “Trauma” Scientific American, August 1984.


[9] . Kevin Montgomery, letter to L. Earnest, April 26, 1984.


[10] Kevin Montgomery, letter to USCF directors, October 1, 1984.


[11]  R. Hodgson, “Improving Head Crash Protection,” technical note, Wayne State University (undated).


[12]  J. Scott (St. Paul Insurance), letter to A. Gambucci (Tolley-Weidman Insurance Agency) Re: USOC and Miscellaneous Sports Liability Policies, Sept. 19, 1984.


[13]  A Consumer’s Guide to Bicycle Helmets,” pamphlet by Washington Area Bicyclist Association, December 1984 (updated about every six months.)


[14]  E. Seubert (Campbell Brokerage), letter to L. Earnest, 3-14-85.


[15]  Ed Burke, “Head Injury, Helmets, and the Cyclist,” Cycling USA, August 1985 (to appear).


[16]  R. Swart, “Bicycle Helmet Workshop,” paper given at ProBike 84, December 1984.