Do they matter?
The answer is an overwhelming yes.
Here are just a few numbers from a meta-analysis (i.e., a summary of all existing quantitative research) by Oliver & Creighton (2017) assessing the effectiveness of bicycle helmets in crashes and falls:
51% less likely to experience a head injury
69% less likely to experience a serious head injury
33% less likely to experience a facial injury
And 65% less likely to experience a fatal injury
To boot, other meta-analyses find relatively similar results (Attewell et al., 2001; Elvik, 2011; Høye, 2018).
So yes, bicycle helmets matter.
But recent innovations in bicycle helmet tech have improved their effectiveness a considerable amount.
Here I’m talking about WAVECEL and MIPS (Multi-Directional Impact Protection System).
While these two helmet technologies work in slightly different ways, they essentially soften the impact on the head by separating the helmet and your head from the initial shock.
With a traditional helmet, there is essentially a plastic and foam barrier between your head and what it hits, but your head rotates with the helmet at the same speed (and it’s this initial rotation and acceleration that leads to most head injuries, such as concussions and traumatic brain injuries).
With MIPS and WAVECEL, there is within the helmet a moving liner or collapsible structure, respectively, that decreases this rotation, and ultimately the chance of head injuries (Bliven et al., 2019).
So if you’re in the market for a helmet, I would highly recommend looking out for either MIPS or WAVECEL, with MIPS helmets tending to come in at slightly lower costs because the tech has been around for quite a bit longer.
If you’d like more information about bicycle helmet testing, check out the website for Virginia Tech’s helmet testing lab. They run comprehensive third-party testing on helmets for various sports, including cycling.
Attewell, R. G., Glase, K., & McFadden, M. (2001). Bicycle helmet efficacy: a meta-analysis. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 33(3), 345-352.Chicago
Bliven, E., Rouhier, A., Tsai, S., Willinger, R., Bourdet, N., Deck, C., … & Bottlang, M. (2019). Evaluation of a novel bicycle helmet concept in oblique impact testing. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 124, 58-65.
Elvik, R. (2011). Publication bias and time-trend bias in meta-analysis of bicycle helmet efficacy: a re-analysis of Attewell, Glase and McFadden, 2001. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 43(3), 1245-1251.
Høye, A. (2018). Bicycle helmets–To wear or not to wear? A meta-analyses of the effects of bicycle helmets on injuries. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 117, 85-97.
Olivier, J., & Creighton, P. (2017). Bicycle injuries and helmet use: a systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Epidemiology, 46(1), 278-292.Chicago