Bike riders of a certain age can think back and remember how simple it all used to be. As a kid, riding meant freedom. You just hopped on your bike and took off with your friends. No helmet and no thoughts of bike safety equipment beyond a pair of metal cuffs to keep your pants from catching in the chain.
As with many things, from driving to organized sports, our approach to bike safety has evolved over the years. You can see these changes reflected in child helmet laws, designated bike lanes, and the range of bike safety products on the market.
Today, with more cars on the road and more distracted drivers behind the wheel (you with the smart phone—I’m talking to you!) it’s especially important to choose the right protective gear for bicycling before you hit the road.
“If you do nothing else, wear a helmet,” recommends Tom Kalina, MS, OTR/L, CDRS, an experienced cyclist and advanced clinical specialist with the Driver Rehab Program at Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital, part of Main Line Health, who has treated many patients with head injuries.
“It’s so important. A bike accident will not always involve a collision with a car. Through no fault of your own, you can fall. You hit a pothole. A dog comes running at you. A car causes you to swerve into a mailbox. The fact is, you can’t always control what is going to happen when you are on a bike,” he says.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), helmets are the single most effective piece of safety equipment for riders of all ages, if you crash. And while Pennsylvania law mandates helmets for all riders under the age of 12, it’s not just kids who need to wear them. The NHTSA reports that middle-age adults represent the average age of bicycle riders killed and injured. And while your odds of being involved in a serious fall may be low, it only takes one bad incident to experience a catastrophic brain injury.
“In all the years and thousands of miles I have ridden, my helmet has saved me maybe three times. But those three times, I was really glad I was wearing it. You never know when a life-changing fall can occur, and your chances of emerging without permanent damage are so much better with a helmet than taking your chances without one,” adds Kalina.
Choosing a helmet
Helmets come in a range of styles to suit a variety of riders. There are sleek models designed for aerodynamics and more cushioned helmets for better comfort, with prices to fit many budgets. Keep the following tips in mind when buying a helmet:
- Look for the quality seal—Bike helmets sold in the U.S. must meet quality standards issued by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Check for the certification label inside the helmet to be sure.
- Allow for ventilation—Cycling will make you sweat, so a style that enables airflow can help protect you from overheating. Skateboard helmets often lack the same ventilation as bike helmets.
- Make sure it fits properly—If a helmet is too big or sits on your head incorrectly, it will not protect you in a fall. Always buckle the chin strap and follow these guidelines (PDF) from the NHTSA to ensure a correct fit. A good bike shop can also get you properly fitted.
After a helmet, the next item on your bicycle safety checklist should be reflective gear to make you more visible to drivers. According to the NHTSA, regardless of the season, bicyclist deaths occur most often between 6:00 pm and 9:00 pm. Stores and online merchants that sell bicycle riding accessories offer a variety of items to enhance your visibility, including:
- Blinking lights that attach to the back of your bike, your helmet or under the saddle
- White lights for the front of your bike
- Reflective devices and LED lights for your bike’s rear, front, pedals and spokes
Your clothing also counts as bicycle protective gear. During the day, choose bright or neon clothing to help you stand out. In the evening, wear fabrics that reflect light, or wear belts, shoe clips, armbands or other gear that lights up.
More do’s and don’ts
In addition to the biking equipment listed above, here are a few more do’s and don’ts that can make your ride safer:
- Do wear glasses to protect your eyes from debris
- Do stay aware of blind spots on cars
- Do watch for car doors opening into your lane
- Do ride predictably so drivers can anticipate your moves
- Don’t wear earbuds, which can reduce your ability to detect danger
- Don’t text and ride
- Don’t assume that drivers can see you
- Don’t lock your shoes into your pedals unless you are an experienced rider
On the hunt for a new helmet? Main Line Health offers low-cost/high-quality bike helmets and BMX or skating helmets for only $10.00 per helmet.
Main Line Health serves patients at hospitals and health centers throughout the western suburbs of Philadelphia. To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.