Guns or butter, Bread and butter, Bread and roses, Guns ‘n’ roses

When I was growing up, playing with (toy) guns was daily reality. I had a pair of six-shooters, a white hat, cowboy boots, and spurs that jingle, jangle, jingle. Later I got a Fanner 50, then a Rifleman rifle.

We usually shot imaginary bad guys. The TV shows we watched (Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp) didn’t involve shooting Indians. The bad guys were usually white settlers like us.

We didn’t usually shoot each other, as that involved too much argument/negotiation – “I got you!” “No, you missed!” “Did not!” “Well, you just winged me!” Then I’d have to pull out my red bandana, fold it into a sling, tie the knot with my teeth, and play one-handed for a while.

Our parents gave us weapons for Easter. My sister and I in a gunfight.

We had a backyard shack that served as a hideout, fort, or saloon to fit the scene we enacted. We were too young to realize that Miss Kitty was a madam and all those saloon girls were prostitutes, so they didn’t figure in our adventures.

When we went to the doctor and got a shot, we’d wear a sling and pretend we’d been shot in the arm. If it didn’t actually hurt (only tetanus shots hurt), we’d punch each other in the arm to make it hurt so it felt more real.

I also had an M1 with wooden stock, steel barrel, and rubber bayonet. The next door neighbor dug a foxhole in his garden so we could hide out to shoot Germans. We threw dirt clods as grenades. Our WW II education was mostly from the TV show “Combat!”, which took place in Europe, so we never fought the Japanese. I had a helmet and olive drab fatigues.

Most of my toy guns were cap guns for realistic noises. Since caps cost money, we usually made noises with our mouths instead. Caps were a special treat. The kids who could make the best shooting sounds were admired. My M1 replica had a metal strip in it so, when you pulled the trigger, it made a clicking sound like a dog training clicker. This meant no money need be spent on caps and we could save our mouth noises for exploding grenades. As for shooting real projectiles, I had a pump action gun that shot ping pong balls and a dart gun that shot ducks on a rotating tripod. While I inherited a couple of BB guns from older sibs, I hardly ever shot them. They tell me that dad set up a range in the dining room of our old house and they shot there. We moved out of that house when I was a year old and the new house didn’t have an acceptable shooting gallery. The back yard was forbidden for that.

When I became a conscientious objector and met with a draft counselor, he asked about my history with guns and if I’d thought about what I would do if I had children. We discussed how kids can make a gun out of anything, so forbidding toy guns may just drive gun play underground. He told me of a family that treated their house like a saloon in some of the old westerns, where you had to check your guns at the door. That way their kids, and all the neighborhood kids, would be a bit more conscious, but firearms could still be incorporated into their play. When the time came, my kids had little interest in playing with guns.

Real guns

Real guns didn’t enter my life until later. My best childhood friend moved away. I went to visit him and we went outside with a BB gun – he and I and his neighbor. The neighbor shot a songbird. We saw it fall from the tree; all of us astonished that he’d hit it. As we bent over the dead bird with one missing eye (an amazing shot), I felt sad. The excitement of hitting something was replaced by the realization of the senselessness of it. We had killed without reason. I did not enjoy the rest of the visit.

When I was 18 I worked a job with overnight shifts. I was in the office with one other person. Just before quitting time, several things happened in close succession. I felt the heat of something passing closely over my forearm. I felt the sting of bits of plaster striking my arm from the wall just behind me. I heard a gunshot. I saw my co-worker, .32 caliber revolver in hand, with a shocked look on his face. I looked at the hole in the wall and realized he missed me by about an inch. I hadn’t known he was armed.

Later that same day we were hanging out at someone’s house, drowsy after our sleepless night. I was reading. I was roused by the sound of a gunshot. I looked up and saw an acquaintance with a neat little hole in his chest, just to the left of center. A shocked look was on his face, matched by the look on the face of the person facing him with a gun in her hand. She later told me she pointed it at me first but, since I didn’t look up, she turned and aimed at R as he came through the doorway. That got a better reaction.

R headed straight for the stairs and down to the street. I caught up with him and a voice from behind yelled, “Make him lie down and wait for the ambulance!” I soon heard sirens. When I asked where he was going, he said he knew where my car was parked, so he was walking to my car, figuring I would follow him there and drive him to the hospital.

After exploratory surgery and removal of the bullet, he returned to his parents’ home in another state to recuperate. He was recovering slowly, since they had cut open his ribs to trace the bullet’s path to check for damage. (It had grazed his aorta and punctured his lung in several places as it rattled around inside him, bouncing off ribs both front and rear.) I moved out of state and it was much later that I learned no one had been charged in the shooting. The shooter was a minor, as was the victim. The weapon owner was a paid informant for the police and FBI, so she was not charged. The person who had nearly shot me that morning was also a paid informant, so he was also not charged (having been the person who left a loaded weapon accessible to minors). It seems the lack of charges should have blown their covers, but I wasn’t around so I don’t know how they explained that. The upshot is that people being paid to keep track of potential violence on the left and in the anti-war movement (this being 1971) were actually responsible for the only violence that affected me personally.

A year or two later I was at the home of another acquaintance who wanted to show me something he had just gotten. It was a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol. I started to shake. He removed the magazine, inspected the weapon, then tried to hand it to me. I left instead.

Another year went by. I was at a friend’s house and we were in the backyard. Over the fence I saw folks in the next backyard. One was the former co-worker from above. He had a firearm in hand. I told my friend I was going inside and would explain when we got there. I did not want him to see and greet me, thinking I was his friend, nor did I want to witness another “accident”.

So that’s one reason I’m not a big fan of firearms or unfettered access to them. [For those who would recoil if I were to compare the requirements to operate a car vs operate a firearm, by pointing to the second amendment to the Constitution, let me just emphasize the beginning of that amendment, the part that people conveniently ignore: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”] As for whether toy guns inure us to violence and lead to real violence later on, I’ll leave that to someone else to figure out. Didn’t work that way with me.

TV Violence

is another topic too big for me, but we’ll touch on it anyway. I am currently studying the history of the cold war with Professor Alfred McCoy. We’re looking at the CIA’s change from gathering intelligence (its original mission under President Truman) to covert operations (under Director Allen Dulles during the Eisenhower and Kennedy presidencies). Lest you beatify the Kennedy brothers (President Jack and AG Bobby), it was on their watch that the CIA expanded its covert ops – from 170 major operations in 8 years under Eisenhower to 163 of them in 3 years under the Kennedys. See “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA” by Tim Weiner (2007).

It was in this environment that we were greeted with the TV show “Mission: Impossible” in 1966. The IMF (Impossible Missions Force) was a covert operation that took down enemy governments in the way the real CIA took down elected governments in Greece, Guatemala, Iran, the Congo, and Chile; and attempted for years to overthrow the Cuban government, including multiple plots to assassinate Fidel Castro (with poisons in his food, exploding cigars, prostitute assassins, a Mafia hit order, etc), not to mention an armed invasion.

In 2001 (the year of the World Trade Center bombing), when the US needed to justify torture, “extraordinary rendition” (kidnapping for the purpose of torture to be carried out in secret sites), and “enhanced interrogation techniques” (torture), we were presented with the TV series “24”. The premise was a fascinating one – a series that took place in real time – each of 24 one hour episodes covered one hour of a single day. Each season used the “ticking time bomb scenario”. This is a philosophical/moral question in which you are asked, “If a person has knowledge of an imminent threat and will only give up the information if tortured, is torture justified?” You can probably guess the show’s answer. There is one glaring problem in the scenario: torture doesn’t work. People who are tortured will tell interrogators what they think said torturers want to hear in order to stop the torture. Truth has little to do with it. This has been covered extensively by Professor McCoy in works such as “A Question of Torture : CIA interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror” (2006) and “Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation” (2012).

When we are greeted with real news footage of police killing people during traffic stops, TV responds with more cop shows than I can name or count, showing officers as always the good guys, looking out for Special Victims and going the extra mile to stop the bad guys, using the latest technology. Any time they use violence, it is justified. There is the occasional “bad apple” to make a plot point, but he is quickly rooted out by the good guys. If real cops shot as many people as TV cops do…

TV police shows have the subtle side effect of normalizing what we see. Every week on every show, bad things happen and the police save us. Soon we start to see the world that way. Bad things happen every day. We begin to think that violent crime is much more prevalent than it actually is. We welcome intrusion into our private lives to protect us from that violent crime. We think the police always shoot the right person. The charged are always convicted, the convicted are always guilty. We like to think we are too sophisticated to be fooled by this but the statistics tell a different story. Per the University of Michigan School of Law, more than 3200 previously-convicted people have been exonerated since 1989. (The Innocence Project was founded in 1992.) 134 of them had been sentenced to death.

What we see from the two graphs above is that crime (both property crime and violent crime) has been on a downswing for the past 30 years, while we believe that crime is on the upswing – with the caveat that we tend to believe crime is up nationally, but not so much where we live. That certainly looks like TV is working. By showcasing crime, we believe that crime is on the increase and, therefore, increasing surveillance and policing is a good thing. It also shows that we have some knowledge of where we live and we know that what we believe isn’t true in our own lives – or that we think we live in a great city and the rest of the country is going to hell in a handbasket.

And, of course, TV cops solve all crimes. The same Pew study shows that fewer than half of all crimes are reported, and fewer than half of those reported are solved.

Just in case you didn’t know why “Bread and Roses” was in there with those other phrases.


We’ve hinted about this topic for a while. Let’s get down to brass tacks and talk about frostbite. Remember I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV. Nothing in this blog should take the place of adequate medical care.

As usual, we’ll start with a story. I was 13. It was a Sunday morning in January, about 5 AM. The temperature was about -15 F (-26 C) with a 20 mph wind (windchill about -40). [While we didn’t know about windchill in those days, and I’ve been known to pooh-pooh it, it is a real factor when it comes to freezing flesh.] I was heavily laden with newspapers and stopping at the first house. The bike was too heavy to make it up the steep driveway, so I parked at the foot of the hill and jogged up with the paper. At the front door I heard a crash. I turned and looked down the hill to see my bike tipped over and newspapers flying about. I ran down and hastened to pick up papers, trying to stuff them back together. With heavy mittens I didn’t have the needed dexterity so I tossed the mittens aside and worked frantically against time and the wind. I’d gotten all 109 remaining papers back together (not all had blown apart) and reloaded on the bike. No more pages were flying around. I noticed my fingers weren’t cold, but they were stiff. I bit one and didn’t feel anything. Under the streetlight they looked white (and I don’t mean Caucasian, I mean really white).

With a couple of hours of outdoor work ahead of me I knew I had to do something or lose my fingers. I found a house with lights on and rang the bell. They knew me as their paperboy, but they also knew my older brothers from when we lived in this neighborhood (as tenants of the person whose house I’d been delivering to when this happened).

They invited me in and let me call my parents for a ride, then I went into the bathroom to thaw my fingers under running water. The pain was excruciating as blood returned to my fingertips – but I kept all my fingers and I delivered all of the papers on time – the next 100 or so from the back of a car. Fast-forward 35 years and I found myself working in a burn unit, treating people with frostbite.

Windchill is definitely a factor with exposed skin. Wednesday it was -12 degrees F (-24 C). It was calm so there was no windchill. I rode to work at 15 mph so, relative to me, there was a 15 mph headwind and therefore a windchill of -35 degrees. If you ride in winter, remember it is always windy.

What do you do for frostbite? The most important step is prevention. When it is really cold, cover all skin. The Cleveland Clinic says 10 minutes at -10 F is long enough to get frostbite. Wear mittens, not gloves. Your fingers help to keep each other warm. If they still get cold, you can make a fist inside of the mitten. A bit of anatomy will help that make sense.

Image from the Journal of Personalized Medicine.

The main takeaways from the picture are: 1) the blood supply to your hand (like your brain) is redundant. Notice that the radial and ulnar arteries join to form an arch and the blood supply to your fingers comes off of that arch. Thus, even if one artery is injured, your fingers get blood; 2) there are two arches – a superficial and deep arch. (Okay, three in this image, including the unlabeled one – I’ve never seen that third arch depicted and I haven’t dissected a palm lately to look for it. If I do, I’ll post an update.) This gives further redundancy; 3) the arteries to your fingers run up the sides. If your fingers are separated in gloves, more surface area is exposed to allow more heat to escape. Conversely, if your fingers are touching, they keep each other warm. Also, the pads at the tip are the last place to get blood – the vessels are pretty small by that point; 4) due to the multiple vessels running through your palm, if you tuck your fingers into a fist, the tips are warmed by the palmar blood.

As an experiment this week, I wore my big mitten from Empire Wool and Canvas Co on one hand. On the other I wore various liners under the mitten: 1) a thin polyester biking liner glove; 2) a full-fingered insulated biking glove [a spring and fall glove]; 3) a nitrile exam glove. While a glove was handy when I had to work locks and keys and mount a pannier, the mitten alone was warmer while riding. When my fingers got cold I had enough space inside to make a fist and warm them up. They warmed quickly due to direct skin-to-skin contact.

[An aside here: Clearly, the brain and the hand are important structures in humans. With the Circle of Willis in the brain and the palmar arches in the hand providing redundant blood supplies, our bodies have gone to great lengths to protect these structures. Think about that. Discuss among yourselves.]

Toes are also subject to frostbite. I could argue that they are easier to live without, but instead I’ll argue that you should protect them. Wool socks, liner socks if it’s really cold (I use silk for less bulk), and warm boots are essential. The longer you are out, the greater your chances of losing parts. Consider hand and foot warmers (battery-powered, or chemical pads that release heat when exposed to air).

You’re out in the cold. You notice your fingertips are getting cold. DO something! Get inside if possible. Move (your body in general, your hands and feet in particular). Get your hands out of the wind. Make fists. Stick your hands in your pockets (with mittens on if possible) or in your armpits (without mittens). (Zip your jacket back up to preserve core heat.)

Did you fail to do any of those and your fingers stopped feeling cold? Did they stop feeling anything? If you squeeze your fingertip, is it hard and you don’t feel it? Are your fingers stiff? Warm them up!

Do NOT rub snow on them. Do NOT run hot or cold water on them. You are trying to rewarm them to body temperature. Use water about that temperature. Feel it with an unfrozen body part (like an elbow or another person’s hand), because your frozen fingers can’t tell how warm it is and you don’t want to burn them on top of the frostbite.

When the skin has turned white and the tissue has frozen, there is no blood supply. The tissue will die if not rewarmed. As it rewarms, it will hurt. Deep frostbite can cause lasting damage. If in doubt, get to a doctor, preferably a regional burn center.

Deep frostbite will blister. The skin will turn purple. It will look like a bad bruise. That is essentially what you have – damaged and leaky capillaries that allow blood to flow into the interstitial spaces and cause the skin to look purple; clots that prevent flow into and out of small vessels. From there, one of two things happens: either it slowly returns to normal color, or it turns black, mummifies, and eventually falls off (which is known as auto-amputation). I am not going to include pictures of any of this. If you really want to see that, Dr Google will show you pictures of what happens when you get deep frostbite. Suffice to say that I have worked with people with fingers that were amputated at the first joint, leaving nubs (which can be surprisingly functional, but I don’t recommend you try it), and with people who lost their fingers (and legs, for that matter) entirely. I’ve seen it so you don’t have to.

Deep frostbite requires a doctor’s care – in a hospital. For the first 72 hours we encourage the patient to move their fingers actively but, unlike burns, we don’t move them passively – that could cause further damage to deep tissues. After initial warming, the fingers will have to rewarm from the inside out. Medications can improve circulation and re-establish blood supply before tissue dies (like the treatment to cerebral arteries after a stroke, or in the lungs after a pulmonary embolism). The body will scavenge dead tissue. That process can cause further complications that you can’t manage by yourself.

Your fingers may stay purple for a while. The doctor will wait for them to “declare themselves”. It is not always clear what tissue will survive and what is dead.

Doctors do not want to amputate fingers that are only “mostly dead”. They don’t want to amputate dead fingers but leave some dead parts behind. They also don’t want to amputate too far and take parts that will heal. Once the fingers have “declared themselves” they will take the dead part and cut back to healthy, bleeding tissue so the residual limb will heal. Then the therapist will work with you to help regain function with partial fingers, help you learn to compensate for what is lost, and help reshape the residual fingers.

Obviously, you don’t want to have first-hand knowledge of most of this. That’s what I’m here for – to convince you to care for your body and keep all the parts.

MAYCO – “Hope for Humanity”

I am off the bike this week, except for commuting, due to what may be a broken big toe. I say “may be”, because the treatment for a break or a soft tissue injury is the same. Without x-ray vision, I don’t know which it is. I haven’t found a good reason to pay for a doctor’s visit and an x-ray. If broken, pain and tenderness to palpation say it may be in two places. (The bike had nothing to do with the injury. Many have asked.)

The usual treatment is “weight bearing as tolerated”, meaning you walk on it as long as you can stand the pain, and a “post-op shoe” or other hard-soled shoe to minimize the bending of your toe when you walk (since you naturally push off on your big toe, stressing it with every step). Walking hurts more than riding a bike.

I splint broken fingers and other body parts – why not a big toe? So I devised this toe splint, which seems to be working. It fits (snugly) in a shoe, but feels better barefoot – which is true of life in general. The second toe is taped to prevent abrasion from the casting material – a semi-rigid material called “Orficast”, which looks like a roll of tape and is moldable, hardening after being soaked in warm water. While I walk a little funny since the toe won’t bend, it hurts a lot less. I gave up the cane yesterday.

Since I’m not writing about biking, I offer this post-mortem on a remarkable institution which would have marked its tenth anniversary last summer, were it not for a pandemic.

A 15 year old musician wanted to be an orchestral conductor. He looked around and found that, in the US, there were no undergraduate conducting programs. To realize his dream he would not only have to finish high school, but also get an undergraduate degree – then he could try conducting if he could get one of the coveted spots in a Master’s program in conducting. He discerned there was another way. He could start an orchestra.

With no funds, and being too young to form a not-for-profit corporation with which to fund it, ingenuity was the only recourse. He recognized that there were no opportunities for young musicians to play chamber orchestra repertoire, so he formed a chamber orchestra. He recruited musicians from WYSO (the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra) and the University of Wisconsin School of Music. He envisioned it as a mentoring program, so paired college music majors with high school students as stand partners. Over the years, he added workshops in historically-informed performance practice with local professional musicians. He enlisted faculty members (including members of the Pro Arte Quartet, the world’s oldest consistently-performing string quartet) to appear as soloists, so the student musicians could have the experience of performing with professionals. He developed a conducting apprenticeship program so other young musicians could get podium time during rehearsals and performance before an audience. He mobilized conductors to mentor him, found summer training programs, and served an apprenticeship with the Madison Opera Company – their first-ever conducting apprentice. World premieres and supporting young composers were an integral part of MAYCO, with a newly-commissioned work nearly every year. (2015 saw the US premiere of British composer Cecilia McDowall’s “Rain, Steam, and Speed”.) Eventually he partnered with an arts funding organization to provide a means by which donors could help fund the orchestra.

Joseph Mallord William Turner Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway 1844 Oil on canvas, 91 x 121.8 cm Turner Bequest, 1856 NG538
Jerry Hui, composer of “Glacies”

Partnerships were negotiated with WYSO and the university (and later, churches and an art gallery) to secure rehearsal and performance spaces, as well as use of larger instruments (e.g. percussion and piano). The orchestra performed on the Sunday Afternoon Live at the Chazen performance series. (Scroll down to August 5, 2018 on the Chazen Facebook page to hear a few seconds of the sound check for the performance we listened to online in a Tim Horton’s in Niagara Falls on that date.)

A series of top-drawer university violinists served as concertmaster until the conductor married the last concertmaster and they became co-artistic directors.

Little did the founder know at the time, but starting musical organizations as a teen ran in the family. His aunt’s brother, George Shangrow, founded the Seattle Chamber Singers at 18 and directed them until his death at the age of 59. That was never the plan for MAYCO, which started as a program to run until he went off to college. Then he thought about how to run it virtually while away at school, returning for the summer performance season. Since it was conceived as an organization run entirely by and for youth, it was going to end some time unless the founder became Peter Pan. It did, in fact, hold a “Finale” performance in 2016, before returning for an “Encore” in 2017. Due to an offer he could not refuse, he stayed in town for his undergraduate music performance degree and continued the orchestra until it was struck down by the pandemic.

George Shangrow, from the Orchestra Seattle website
MAYCO Co-Artistic Directors Thalia Coombs and Mikko Rankin Utevsky

The late John Barker, classical music critic and Professor of Medieval Studies, gets the last word: “Hope for humanity is not always easy to conjure up these days. But last Friday night at Music Hall, on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, brought me a genuine dollop of it, thanks to the concert by the Madison Area Youth Chamber OrchestraThe MAYCO players brought it [Shostakovitch’s Ninth Symphony] off with real flair, under Utevsky’s amazingly expert direction. (And, by the way, he is a splendid writer as well, as his notes for the program booklet demonstrated.)That our area alone could produce such talent is what has stirred my hope for humanity.” (Excerpted from The Well-Tempered Ear)

Poster for the concert reviewed by Barker above. Poster design, photo, and feet by Mikko Rankin Utevsky

Helmet? Hell yes!

Bicycling magazine recently republished an article with the clickbait headline “It’s Okay If You Don’t Wear a Bike Helmet”. Clearly, the implication was that helmets are not really very useful.

The article went on to talk about safer bicycling infrastructure – but it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. Should we stop designing crumple zones into cars because we shouldn’t crash them in the first place? Should we toss out airbags, seatbelts, and carseats for kids? None of those are useful when nothing goes wrong. We work for the best and plan for the worst.

What does the evidence say about helmets? And how good is that evidence? A quick review: when we look at evidence, we consider “levels of evidence”. Different authors define those differently but, generally speaking, the highest level of evidence is a systematic review of randomized controlled trials (Meaning, for the non-scientists among you: looking at not just one, but many studies of the same phenomenon; and not just observing what happens in retrospect, but planning a test, assigning people randomly to groups, and looking at what you are studying in relation to a control group. A few definitions: randomized – people are assigned to one of two or more groups randomly, so that the groups should look the same; double blind – neither the participant nor the observer knows which group the participant is in; placebo-controlled – the group that doesn’t get the test intervention gets something that looks the same but should have no direct effect on the condition studied.) Expert opinion is the other end of that scale.

Randomized controlled trials are not always possible. The article “Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials” (Smith & Pell, British Medical Journal, 2003) points out the difficulty of testing some hypotheses. They concluded:

“As with many interventions intended to prevent ill health, the effectiveness of parachutes has not been subjected to rigorous evaluation by using randomised controlled trials. Advocates of evidence based medicine have criticised the adoption of interventions evaluated by using only observational data. We think that everyone might benefit if the most radical protagonists of evidence based medicine organised and participated in a double blind, randomised, placebo controlled, crossover trial of the parachute.” (Smith & Pell 2003)

Further, Yeh, et al (BMJ,2018) in the PARACHUTE trial, conducted a randomized (but not blinded) study of parachute use in “Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma when jumping from aircraft: randomized controlled trial”. Their outcome measures were death and ISS (Injury Severity Score). Come to my workshop for an explanation of ISS. They concluded:

“Parachute use did not reduce death or major traumatic injury when jumping from aircraft in the first randomized evaluation of this intervention. However, the trial was only able to enroll participants on small stationary aircraft on the ground, suggesting cautious extrapolation to high altitude jumps. When beliefs regarding the effectiveness of an intervention exist in the community, randomized trials might selectively enroll individuals with a lower perceived likelihood of benefit, thus diminishing the applicability of the results to clinical practice.” (Yeh, et al, 2018)

We can extrapolate from the above studies that we cannot conduct an RCT (Randomized Controlled Trial) to truly test the efficacy of bike helmets. We can also conclude that careful reading is important, lest we draw the wrong conclusions, or accept the conclusions drawn in articles in the popular press about the study .

So what do we have? Olivier and Creighton, writing in the International Journal of Epidemiology (2016), reviewed thousands of studies. 40 met the inclusion criteria and were included in a meta-analysis, with data from >64,000 injured bicyclists. For those who only like to read abstracts, we’ll cut to the chase:

“Bicycle helmet use was associated with reduced odds of head injury, serious head injury, facial injury and fatal head injury. The reduction was greater for serious or fatal head injury. Neck injury was rare and not associated with helmet use. These re- sults support the use of strategies to increase the uptake of bicycle helmets as part of a comprehensive cycling safety plan.” (Olivier & Creighton, International journal of Epidemiology , 2016).

For a few nuggets from that study: “In a recent Australian study of linked police and hospital data for cyclists in motor vehicle collisions, 34% of hospital-admitted cyclists had a head injury and 15% had a serious head injury.2 In a coroner’s review of cycling fatalities in Canada, 55% of deaths were caused by head injuries.3” Also note that “neck injury was rare and not associated with helmet use.” One of the objections to helmets I have seen raised (by both bicyclists and motorcyclists) is that they think they increase the risk of neck injury. Olivier and Creighton found no such correlation.

Looking at individual studies cited, the risk reduction for head injury attributable to wearing a helmet was 85% in one study and about 30% in another (though 70% for severe injury as assessed by the AIS (Abbreviated Injury Scale). Come to my workshop for an explanation of the AIS.

The argument is often made (and is made in the Bicycling article) that wearing a helmet leads to riskier behavior. This is a phenomenon actually studied with all safety devices. Some studies assert “reduced cognitive control” while wearing a helmet. Several of these analyze the behaviors of subjects playing computer games, in which the “risk” is theoretical in the context of playing a game. One which did look at bicycling behaviors noted that male cyclists rode at a slightly higher speed when wearing a helmet. This was not true of female cyclists. It should be noted that the helmeted riders rode at 19.2 km/h (a whopping 11.9 mph) compared to 16.8 km/h (10.4 mph) and that anyone who had previously worn a bike helmet was excluded from the study.

Anecdotal evidence is at the bottom of most evidentiary scales, if included at all. Your author once crashed at about 1 mph (stopping at a stop sign, hitting a patch of ice with front wheel, and falling to the left side, striking the head). It happened so fast that I remember hearing my head bounce off the pavement at about the same time that I realized I was going down. The impact cracked the helmet but caused no ill effects. It was only after trying to get up (and slipping) that I was aware of the ice. The speed of travel did not appear to mitigate the effect. It might be noted that crashing at a higher speed could result in reducing the direct impact of head to pavement (as you could hit it sliding, rather than directly, and the head might not be the first body part to hit). Think about falling directly onto pavement on your head at zero speed. Does that sound harmless?

I grew up in the pre-helmet era. (Truth be told, I remember the first time we got a car with seat belts, and I also remember children’s car seats as being entertainment devices, not safety devices. Our car seats were made of aluminum, lightly padded and covered in vinyl. The belt was a ¾ inch wide vinyl strap. There was a steering wheel with a horn button.)

I moved to California as an adult in 1984. Some people wore helmets out there. Virtually no one did when I left Wisconsin, but they were widespread when I returned. (Let’s just agree to dispense with the “I didn’t have ‘x’ when I was a kid, and I survived…” argument. See paragraph two.)

The first helmets were essentially leather “hairnets” worn by some bike racers. The first consumer bike helmets were hot and heavy. They were worn only by nerds. The Bell V-1 Pro, introduced in the mid-80s, was the first helmet that offered protection and caught on widely (and note that it looks like a sturdier version of the leather hairnet – that was not an accident).

I was riding in the mountains when I came up on a downhill turn, sharper than it first appeared. My bike was in need of a headset at the time, so it chattered under hard braking. I scared myself on that turn and went straight to a bike shop. I dropped off the bike for a new headset and bought a Bell V-1 Pro. I have not ridden without a helmet since then.

Who am I to pontificate about helmet use? So far, I’d say there has been less pontificating and more reviewing evidence. That being said, it is probably clear by now that I come down in favor of helmets. (Especially if you read the title.) We have discussed infrastructure and safety here before. (And will again in a post very soon – written before this one but awaiting final revisions.) Not crashing is better than crashing. Prevention beats mitigation; but we will never prevent 100% of crashes and if you’re the one crashing, despite your best efforts, you might want that mitigation. Very few of us expect to crash. But that’s how I make my living.

I have spent the past 20+ years working in a large teaching hospital. I have spent most of those in a Level 1 Trauma Center. While some people plan to be in a hospital (for elective surgeries) or spend a lot of time in them (for management of chronic conditions), most of the people I work with had no intention of winding up under my care. I have learned, over the years, what injuries are likely to result with and without lap belts, shoulder belts, and airbags. And I learned why school bus drivers used to yell at you to keep your hands inside the bus. I have seen the arms that got trapped under cars and dragged along the pavement, and helped those folks with their rehab. (I no longer rest my arm on the windowsill when I drive, but that’s just me.) I know what you’re likely to break falling from a ladder, the difference in what young and old people tend to break in similar falls. I also have seen that people without helmets tend to have worse head injuries than those with helmets, that other injuries are pretty similar (mostly clavicle and rib fractures), and that those with head injuries tend to fare worse in both the short- and long-term.

We can also look at it from a business perspective – a risk/benefit analysis.
*Risk of not wearing a helmet – brain injury, death. Benefit of not wearing a helmet – better hair or the feeling of the breeze in your hair (probably not both).
*Risk of wearing a helmet – matted hair or not looking cool. (Some would argue that you have a greater chance of doing something stupid, but I’d say alcohol is the hands-down winner for that risk.) Benefit of wearing a helmet – reduced chance of head injury, bigger reduction in the risk of serious head injury or death.
You may consider other risks and benefits, but I think it would be hard to come to a different conclusion.

While we’re at it, how often do you see families out together; the kids are wearing helmets, the parents are not? What message does that send to the kids? The way I see it, you are telling your children “helmets are kids’ stuff.” We know most kids want to feel grown up and many want to be like their parents. You can bet that, as soon as possible, kids will ditch the helmet to feel grown up. I see many middle school kids using helmets as handlebar decorations. If you are a parent and ride a bike, think about helmets – are you putting helmets on your kids because other parents might yell at you if you don’t? Are you doing it because you think helmets will make them safer? If the latter, then why don’t helmets make you safer? If the former, why don’t you have the guts to stand up for your convictions? (And exactly what are those convictions? Do you think you are battling courageously the nanny state?)

So you can take my word for it as an expert, or as someone who has personally experienced crashing and hitting my head, or you can read the literature. In all cases, I think you’ll find that you’re better off with a helmet than without. (And maybe you’ll find one story of someone who was somehow injured by wearing a helmet. An early argument against seatbelts in cars was that you would get trapped in a burning car and die because you wore a seatbelt. Yes, that has happened; but less frequently than people have been thrown from cars – through the windshield, a window, the sunroof – and killed because they weren’t wearing a seatbelt; which is not to mention the multitude of injuries sustained by those flying around in a rolling car even if they don’t fly out through an opening.) Since most of you will not crash and hit your head, you can play the odds if you choose; but then we’d have to look at the public health consequences and the societal costs of your choice. That would be fodder for another post.

(Complete citations available on request – but you oughta be able to find the articles if you try, and have access to PubMed.)