What does the act of wearing a cycling helmet imply for your Healthspan or for your Internal Culture? Could it be causing you or result in significant net harm rather than good without you even knowing it?
I’ll talk about cycling and your helmet-wearing first and then swiftly discuss many small topics not cycling related but which are similarly flavoured and be useful for you to think about. So, even if you are not lucky enough to be able to cycle regularly, there is a lot of food for thought if you have, for instance, ever taken out an insurance policy.
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The Essence of my Argument
Am I Qualified to Opine?
1234Puru on 2-Wheelers
1234Puru on Risk-and-Return
A Decision Sciences Approach
1234Cycling with Relevant Head Impact
12341234If You Wear a Helmet
12341234If You do NOT Wear a Helmet
1234All Other Cycling Scenarios
12341234Wearing a Helmet
12341234NOT Wearing a Helmet (intelligently)
1234123412341234For Each Ride
Wrong Assessment of Scenarios and Probabilities
Inflating and Compressing Probabilities
Prevention Before Protection
Better Precision with Protection
It’s NOT the Same as Wearing a Mask
The Internal-External Divide
1234The Put Option
1234123412341234The Hip Fracture
Couch Potato Eating Potato Chips Risk
The Last Mile
I am often chided by well-wishers for not wearing a helmet when I cycle in Mumbai. “People look up to you and might want to follow your example” I’m advised, “so don’t you think you should wear one?” So, I promised myself that I would write and talk about my reasons for cycling without a helmet. I wrote the first draft of this in 2015, and over the last 6 years I have had greater insight into human behaviour, allowing me to present today, what I think, is a more well-rounded set of arguments. I believe this explanation will be more useful to your Internal Culture than any image of me wearing a helmet when cycling.
Alternative Title [top]
The alternative title for this article could well have been “a practical philosophy of risk management for a long Healthspan”.
Upfront Clarification [top]
I am not recommending that you never wear a helmet when you cycle.
I am not recommending that you always wear a helmet when you cycle.
I am recommending that you observe in the previous 2 statements that I am not making any recommendations about the use of helmets when cycling.
I am recommending, very strongly, that you think about why you do certain things and why you don’t do certain other things.
The Essence of my Argument [top]
When we do certain things that give us a sense of safety, we inadvertently change our thoughts, attitude and behaviour towards a multitude of other things. Your experiences, thoughts, attitude and behaviour drive your Internal Culture.
Here is the essence of my argument…
I believe that it is highly likely that, by wearing a helmet, you increase your risk during and between bicycle rides, and for many things in life beyond the bicycle rides.
Am I Qualified to Opine? [top]
Puru on 2-Wheelers [top]
I learned to ride a bicycle a little earlier than most children thanks to my eldest sister having a bicycle. By 2½ I was cycling in the compound of my apartment building. So, I’ve been cycling for 50 years now and I think I remember wearing a helmet only once as an adult to check out how it feels.
I commute by bicycle wherever I can and most regularly in the 2 cities I spend the most time in – Mumbai and London. For instance, in the 3 years (2017-19) before the pandemic annoyed us in 2020, I made 1,648 bicycle trips – a few of them were in Hong Kong, London and Assam, but the vast majority were just for commuting within Mumbai. [You may want to read – How Green are My Movements?]
Since 2005 I have been teaching others how to cycle – children and adults. Adults who have never learned how to cycle, as well as adults who return to cycling after many years and have never learned how to cycle safely on roads. The focus is on the development of skills with the overriding aim of safe cycling.
I have 2 motorcycling licences. The one from India is pretty much just handed out to you if you pay for it. The UK motorcycle licence is of a category that allows you to ride a motorcycle of any (large) power. Interestingly, and somewhat related, the intense training and testing for this back in 1997 made me a better car driver!
I have had my fair share of 2-wheeler accidents. I expect to have more but am always trying to reduce the probability of an incident. I’m planning to cycle to work when I’m 110.
Puru on Risk & Return [top]
Even if you are not part of my inner circle but have been following my published material you will know that I am always on the lookout for protocols to increase the probability of achieving a target return while minimizing the probability of failure or catastrophe. I do this with external wealth, internal wealth and even targets such as race times or race-pacing time targets.
In the domain of external (financial) wealth, I have worked as an actuary, a quantitative portfolio manager, a researcher in risk management (including the area known as ‘extreme risk’) and have taught financial risk management too.
In the area of internal wealth, which is what matters most to me, you will already know that I focus on the goal of “being socially productive at 110” and my daily decisions and actions help me increase the probability of getting there and, conversely, also focus on reducing the risk of not getting there. For those I mentor, my philosophy of planning and execution is the same.
You may find it exciting to view The Indian Jackie Chan.
A Decision Sciences Approach [top]
Cycling with Relevant Head Impact [top]
If You Wear a Helmet – besides not looking very cool, you will protect your head to a very tiny extent. Tiny extent? Yes, you will protect yourself only from very, very specific damage to the head in only very, very specific situations. There are a lot of IF statements connected with AND operators…
if you are to have an incident
if that incident means you are not able to avoid impact with a hard surface
if that impact with a hard surface was going to be with your head
if you end up being unable to prevent the impact to your head
if your helmet does not move off from its position on your head
if the point of contact is the helmet with your head inside it
if the external force hitting the helmet is below a certain threshold
then, and only then,
will you be glad you wore the helmet
This specific outcome is the one you will hear about when someone tells you about how a helmet saved them and why you should wear a helmet. Fair enough! For that, I call the helmet “the rare scenario lifesaver”. However, in all other cases, you will get no value from the helmet. These other cases will make up 99.9% of miles-pedalled that you will ride. OK, that 99.9% was just me making up a number! But it was to make a point. If you ask around, you’ll hear so many stories of people having injuries from cycle rides unrelated to the helmet that was of no use in those instances. [top]
If You do NOT Wear a Helmet – and each and every one of all the above if-statements is true, you will either be dead or in a vegetative state for life. That has some non-zero, but close-to-zero probability. It is what is called “extreme tail risk” and is an event that you definitely want to avoid occurring. So, if that low probability event worries you, please wear a helmet. But, do not stop there. Continue reading to understand how you may also be increasing the risk you face if you mindlessly use this form of protection! [top]
All Other Cycling Scenarios [top]
Wearing the Helmet… [top]
Distorts Reality for You in Potentially Harmful Ways [top]
When you wear a helmet, you feel secure. Note that this is a ‘feeling’. It is not an absolute or objective reality. It is a feeling in the correct general direction i.e., of safety, because you have “the rare scenario lifesaver” strapped around your head. However, there are a great many other scenarios that involve downside risk along with small to massive negative payoffs. That helmet on your head will do nothing to protect you in those scenarios. I repeat – it will do nothing. Nothing, zilch, nada!
Now here is a scary fact. Wearing that helmet changes your behaviour making you do things that increase the probability of negative events for which the helmet will in most scenarios provide NO protection. The “feeling of being protected” that arises from wearing the helmet potentially nudges you to increase your risk. It is observed that when humans ‘wear a seat belt’ or ‘have airbags in car’ or ‘antilock braking’ or ‘are wearing a helmet’ they take greater risks. Risks that will lead to events causing harm to themselves and to others.
There is also the very real phenomenon that when a car, bus or lorry driver sees you with a helmet, they instinctively raise their estimate of you being a skilled rider about whom they need to worry about less as they whiz past within inches of you.
NOT Wearing a Helmet WITH Intelligence… [top]
Creates Possibilities for Enhancing Actual Life Experiences [top]
For each ride: [top]
With no helmet giving you a false sense of security, I hope that:
- you will plan the route of your ride extra carefully
- you will plan the start time of your ride extra carefully
- you will plan the target finish time of your ride extra carefully
- you will dress yourself and your bicycle appropriately to be more visible
- you will make sure your riding protocols (e.g., head position, hand signals) are more visible to other road users
- you will ride with greater awareness for larger vehicles that may wipe you out
- you will ride with greater awareness for other cyclists and pedestrians
- you will develop these skills-based measures of fitness to reduce the likelihood that even if all the points above align against you on a specific ride, you will still reduce the probability of requiring that helmet towards zero.
You will work towards developing an Internal Culture of “I prefer no helmet”. That does not mean you will never wear a helmet. But you will focus on developing and maintaining a state of significantly reducing the requirement for that helmet.
Wrong Assessment of Scenarios and Probabilities [top]
You, like all other humans, including me, assess the range of possible scenarios and their probabilities incorrectly. Brushing that under the carpet with a helmet on the head will be more harmful than helpful.
Inflating and Compressing Probabilities [top]
If wearing a helmet affects you like it affects the typical person wearing a helmet what you end up doing is reducing the probability of very specific events towards zero. However, you also end up inflating the probabilities of all the other negative events. Net-net, you are, quite possibly, worse off in terms of total risk.
If you do not wear a helmet, the thoughts and actions you will have between and during rides will reduce the probability of the events where a helmet would have saved you and you will have reduced the probability of all other negative events too. What to most people appears to be a risk-seeking Internal Culture will have actually reduced your overall risk!
Prevention Before Protection [top]
The best way to experience a long Healthspan, a long and happy life, is to prevent disease. We know that the thousands of modern medications do not cure common diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, dyslipidemia, depression, insomnia (the list is endless) and that, instead, we need to use our lifestyle to prevent disease. Modern medication will not increase your expected Healthspan only your lifespan (with illness). So, preventing accidents is more important than allowing them to happen. Worse still is your increasing the likelihood that the accidents or illnesses occur, as a knock-on effect from the harmful belief that “protection is in place”.
Better Precision with Protection [top]
If you and I go for a walk on Indian roads, you will notice that I automatically walk on the outside, keeping you one-human-layer away from potentially dangerous traffic. This will be the case even if you are a robust young man, but especially if you are female, a child or elderly. This subtle, effective, free-to-you protection that I provide is because I am maternal in nature. The important point to note is that it is context-dependent. I would not worry about this in Hong Kong, where walking on a road is unheard of 😊
What about precision protection when cycling? Whether or not you have a budget constraint, if I were you, and wanted protection, I’d first look to protect the most common organ that gets injured when one has an incident. It also happens to be your largest organ – your skin. Protect your exposed skin by wearing long-sleeves, and definitely invest in a good pair of cycling gloves that you can also use in the gym. The vast majority of incidents involve your skin getting damaged.
Please wear a helmet in addition not instead of the other protection.
It’s NOT the Same as Wearing a Mask [top]
For the last 15 years, East Asian societies have been ahead of the curve relative to the rest of the world in terms of public health, as witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now you too understand that your wearing a mask (somewhat) protects you and the other persons around you from the transmission of a very wide range of pathogens that you cannot see and may not feel the effect of until many hours later. A helmet will protect you, and only you, in very specific situations, and may, as I’ve discussed, actually raise your total risk. [Read: COVID-19 – It is NOT a War Against a Virus]
The Internal-External Divide [top]
Being conscious of what is Internal (consciously reduce the probability of a negative event) vs External (use the helmet to protect the head in rare scenarios) will net-net increase your expected Healthspan. Remember that the helmet will protect you in those very rare scenarios. But when you aggregate all the probabilities in both branches of the tree (Helmet culture vs No-Helmet culture) you will find that the expected payoff from being very conscious of the Internal-External Divide is what will increase your Healthspan.
Financial Health [top]
The Put Option [top]
For those familiar with Derivatives Trading, please be aware now that wearing a Helmet is NOT like buying an American Put Option. The financial Put Option will protect you in all scenarios when the price of the underlying is below the Strike Price, but a helmet, having read what I have said so far, you will have realized does no such thing. The closest analogy would be an option contract that pays out when a very, very narrow price outcome for the underlying security is realized – in all other scenarios you are naked and bare – better cover up more sensibly.
I will write in detail about how I see insurance of various kinds in a future conversation. For today, let’s look at 2 very common patterns of insurance purchasing and resultant behaviour.
Medical Insurance instead of Lifestyle [top]
This is a simple case, again, of attempting to protect rather than prevent. You should drill into your head the fact that reimbursement of your hospital bills cannot be a replacement for a compromised life after an adverse health event like a heart attack. Worse still, I have seen cases where someone was “cleared for an insurance policy” when their health was actually not great at all because the tests done on them were not all the appropriate ones. Makes me wonder what the perverse incentives are – perhaps it is preferable for the insurance company to sell you the insurance (helmet) but then be reluctant to pay up when you have an event that has some medical expenses.
So, we have two potential problems here – being accepted for medical insurance gives you 2 false beliefs
[a] “then my health can’t be that bad”
[b] “I am protected if my lifestyle sucks”.
Bro, you are so wrong!
The Hip Fracture [top]
I’m tired of people telling me that they’re taking calcium supplements or giving them to their mother to prevent hip fractures. Wake up and smell the coffee, please! You get a hip fracture because you fall, not because you didn’t drink enough milk or eat calcium supplements!
Focus on preventing a fall. Focus on the B.S. CRAP.
Life Insurance instead of Critical illness Plus Disability Income Insurance [top]
Remember what I said about humans not being great at assessing scenarios and their probabilities? I have come across numerous people who have Life Insurance but not the insurance they actually need – Critical illness Plus Disability Income Insurance. For someone who has an unhealthy lifestyle, the likelihood of needing the latter type of insurance is significantly higher than the former. It is much more likely that you will not die but live in a feeble state that leaves you without employment and with no labour income.
Couch Potato Eating Potato Chips Risk [top]
I hope you have a greater appreciation for the need to think harder about the risks you are actually exposed to versus the ones you think you face. I’m always amused when a couch potato friend says to me “You’re crazy to cycle everywhere in Mumbai traffic” because I’m thinking to myself “Bro, you’re crazy to have your bum glued to a seat all the time – think about how risky that is”.
[Read: Life can be Good with French Fries]
The Last Mile [top]
Mindfulness is about awareness – self-awareness. Not being aware of the true risks you face and rewards (or penalties) you can expect cannot be overturned with a weekly church visit or an hour on a meditation mat. Every time you feel secure, you should feel uncomfortable, and that should make you think! So many accidents are unrelated to helmet wearing. Most of them can be avoided!
If your life often feels overwhelming and complex, and you would like to be guided in detail to have the best life possible, you know how to reach me.
Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.
I’m not sure if you have already covered it (my attention span is very short :-P), but I think your argument makes a fallacious assumption that the rare occasion of an accident can only be caused by an action you take (or do not). It does not cover the scenario where you don’t wear a helmet, are extra-careful, but due to someone else’s action you suffer an accident. So the argument to NOT wear a helmet because it potentiality changes your behaviour is not a sufficient one.
Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, you are right, your attention is short. I suppose in the time you wrote and the time I took to reply here, a re-read closely would lead you to the correct conclusion that IN ONLY VERY RARE circumstances will a helmet help BUT wearing a helmet DOES INCREASE the probabilities of negative payoff accidents. It may help you to draw a tree diagram quickly to understand this correctly as it includes the product of probabilities as well as payoffs along more than one branch.
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