Preceding part: 1985 report                    Cyclops USA home page


Brain Bucket Bash:  The big decision

The adoption of a strong helmet rule was aided by timely misfortune

I was not at all certain that the USCF Board would adopt stronger helmet standards in 1985, but several events changed the political climate enough to make it happen.  Unfortunately, the specific rule that was adopted was rather badly screwed up.


At about the time my report was released, SkidLid was sued by one of its former customers who had been badly injured.  SkidLid’s insurance company consequently boosted the premiums by about 500% and the company was forced to go out of business.  This couldn’t have happened to a more deserving outfit.


This meant that I would no longer have to deal with SkidLid’s coordinated attempts at obstructing the development and use of helmet standards.  On the other hand, I was no longer on the Board, so I could not directly argue the case.  I was able to continue harassing the Board in writing with the help of USCF Director Tom Nee, who kindly distributed copies of Cyclops USA at Board meetings.


There were signs that the directors were beginning to pay attention to this issue.  For one thing, insurance rates were shooting up, as I had predicted.  I confess that I did not foresee the magnitude of the insurance crisis that would strike in the Spring of 1986, but it did not take deep thought to figure out that insurance companies could not continue to pay millions of dollars in settlements indefinitely while collecting premiums that were a small fraction of that amount.


Shortly after I released the July 1985 helmet report, another incident tragically underscored the message I was trying to get across.  A rider wearing a leather helmet and competing in a sprint race at the Encino Velodrome near Los Angeles fell and died from the resulting head injury.


In the legislative meeting of the Board several weeks later, Director Chuck Pranke reportedly gave a heart-rending account of the death of his good friend in this velodrome accident.  According to other informants, Pranke actually barely knew the victim.  In any case, his dramatic account helped get the helmet rule passed.


Prouty now argued in favor of adopting the new rule.  As recounted in his book, the Board voted 21 to 4 in favor of the new helmet standard.  This was a complete reversal from the preceding year, but for understandable reasons Prouty’s book doesn’t mention that. Voxland was one of the four “Nays,” playing diehard to the end.


Unfortunately, instead of adopting a rule similar to the one that I had proposed earlier, they had new legislation drafted by a lawyer who knew very little about bicycle helmets and wrote the rule in such a way that no helmet on the market met it!  The new rule said that the helmet must be “clearly labeled by manufacturer of such helmet with a label, approved by ANSI and/or Snell Memorial Foundation, establishing that such helmet meets such standards.”  This overlooked the fact that ANSI is a standards organization only and does not approve either helmets or labels.  Helmets then on the market that met the Snell standard had their labels inside, where they were invisible when worn.


As soon as I saw the new rule, I brought these problems to the attention of the USCF officers and recommended that they be repaired before the new Rule Books were issued.  Fortunately, there was a Board meeting planned for mid-December at which this could be done.


Meanwhile, some directors got cold feet about this rule change.  For example, after talking to some riders Rich DeGarmo wrote a panicky memo to the Board advocating immediate reversal of the helmet rule.  This was not atypical – Richard usually moves in whichever direction the wind is blowing, like many successful “leaders.”


The meeting of the Board in December 1985 was a stand-off on this issue: they decided to do nothing.  Prouty and Technical Chairman Seubert later applied a band-aid to the helmet labeling blunder – they issued a memo waiving this requirement until June 1.  They also apparently feared massive resistance and issued various threats regarding what would happen to anyone who refused to go along with the new rule.[1]


Getting it right

After trying and failing to get the USCF administration to take responsibility for providing a rational helmet rule, I brought the problem to the attention of the membership via letters to Velo-news, pointing out that the new rule apparently required that riders who had been sensible enough to buy a good helmet earlier now had to buy another one, just to meet the helmet labeling requirement.


The administration responded by telling riders that they could send certain helmets back to the manufacturer to get a new label applied.  They did not explain what the rider was supposed to wear during the period when his helmet was off being labeled.


In disgust, I finally wrote another letter to Velo-news describing how riders with unlabeled helmets that met the standard could legally get around the labeling requirement by taking advantage of the poor wording of the helmet rule.  This advice was apparently widely appreciated, but it elicited a counterattack.


Paul Therrio, a cycling gadfly and former USCF director, wrote a letter to Velo-news accusing me of fraud and other nefarious practices.  I had gotten used to being attacked and wouldn’t have minded if I had been permitted to respond, but Velo-news uncharitably published the letter without warning in the middle of the 1986 Board elections, in which I was a candidate.  They printed my refutation in the issue just after the election, which was of course too late.  When the results came in, I found that I had lost by a single vote!


The first time that I officiated at a Category 1-2 race that year, the riders staged a protest against the new helmet rule – when I blew the whistle for the start, they stayed at the line for awhile before departing.  I found this more amusing than perturbing and they gave it up after two races.  Despite the protest, I noted that they all wore proper helmets.


In fact, despite dire predictions of massive resistance, the transition to the new helmet rule was made by the riders with almost no problems at all.  Once the officials learned what the approved helmets looked like, it was very easy for them to spot any nonconformists on the starting line.  There was no need to check labels.


Within two months there was 100% compliance and no more grumbling.  Within a year, the example set by the racers had rubbed off on the general public – almost nobody wore leather helmets anymore, though many people still ignorantly rode without a helmet.  While I had the impression all along that the public was influenced by what the racers wear, I was surprised at how quickly this influence exerted itself.


Later that year I sent a proposed fix of the helmet rule to the Legislation Chairman for inclusion in the 1986 legislative agenda.  He ignored it, which left the same irrational labeling requirements in the book.  Fortunately, nobody was enforcing them.


I finally got back on the Board in 1987 and promptly got the absurd wording in the helmet rule fixed, though it no longer mattered much.


Not the end of the story

The ANSI Z90 committee is now engaged in modifying their helmet standard in several ways, including an increase in drop height from 1 meter to 1.5 for key impact tests.  This will improve minimum protection and bring the ANSI standard closer to that of Snell.  The revised ANSI standard is unlikely to be released before next year, which means that it probably could not be adopted by the USCF before 1991.  I have joined the ANSI helmet committee to aid in the review process.


There are reportedly 6 countries besides the U.S. that now have bicycle helmet standards (Australia, Britain, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, and Sweden), and Canada is about to release one.[2]  The USCF is apparently the only cycling federation that has adopted a strong helmet rule so far, but that is likely to change soon.


The UCI Executive Committee recently adopted a resolution calling for the use of safety helmets in all international races, including pro races, in1991.  This change is long overdue, but I frankly didn’t expect it to happen this soon.


Unfortunately, the UCI plan does not include a specific helmet standard, which is likely to be a stumbling block inasmuch as the various national standards are all different from one another and there is no international standard yet.  I fear that the combination of nationalistic competitiveness and the inertia of deadheads who resist all changes may yet succeed in delaying or preventing the UCI from completing this important transition.


The best solution, I think, would be to get the International Standards Organization (ISO) to establish a standard, which UCI could then adopt.  Work on such a standard has started, but it is unlikely to be completed before 1991, which is too late for the current UCI schedule.  I have called the attention of the U.S. representative to the ISO helmet committee for the need to push for an international standard as quickly as possible.



Summary to date

Many people seem to think that the adoption of a strong helmet rule by the USCF was a sudden and capricious act.  In fact, it was the product of a technical and political struggle that spanned more than 20 years, beginning with Art Friskel’s advocacy.


Those who effected this change did not go unscathed – it is not fun to be ignored, rejected, or abused by those who do not take the time to examine the issues carefully or who resist all changes. I was not bothered as much by people who proposed alternative courses of action for dealing with the problem as by the reactionaries who denied there was a problem.


Organizational stability is generally more comfortable for the members than perpetual change, but there is such a thing as being too stable.  There are many situations that are better characterized by the slogan “Adapt or die!” and the cycling helmet issue seems to be one of them.  Indeed, that admonition applies to the helmet issue for both individual riders and racing organizations and not even the powerful International Cycling Union is exempt.


I sometimes wonder why I got into this mess, given that there were few personal rewards along the way and no assurances of the outcome until we got there.  Perhaps one reason that I stuck it out was that when “push came to shove,” I got more pleasure from being right that from “winning.”  Besides, if I was not such a persistently righteous bastard I would not be in a position now to write a long story about how “I told you so!”


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[1] D. Prouty & E. Seubert, “Enforcement of New Helmet Rule,” USCF memo, January 31, 1986.

[2] “A comparison of bicycle helmet standards,” BHSI DOC #185, Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, Arlington, VA, June 16, 1989.