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Turbans can reduce the risk of head injuries in cyclists but not “as effective as helmets”, study finds

Researchers found the traditional Sikh headgear also offers “superior” protection compared to conventional bike helmets in some scenarios

The style of turban worn can greatly affect the impact of a head injury amongst Sikh cyclists, and while not always "as effective" as a bike helmet, it can offer "superior" protection in some cases too, a study has shown.

Motivated by the lack of research on the safety of Sikh cyclists and how their turbans can mitigate head injuries in case of an accident or a collision, a team of scientists from Imperial College London and the Sikh Scientists Network have published a paper in the Annals of Biomedical Engineering, studying the effects of a turban in detail.

A turban is a traditional headwear, often worn by people from many regions in Asia, including the Indian subcontinent and even the Middle East, but it is most commonly seen as an essential piece of clothing amongst the male followers of the Sikh religion.

Sikhs are, therefore, exempt from wearing helmets when riding motorbikes in several countries where it is a legal requirement, including the UK. Even in Australia, where helmets are mandatory for cyclists, four of the six states, namely Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia, allow Sikhs to ride a cycle without a helmet.

> Sikh cyclist in Australia wins right not to have to wear a helmet

To test their effectiveness, the researchers wrapped five different styles of turbans, distinguished by two wrapping styles and two different fabrics with size variation, on to the heads of crash test dummies and subjected them to cycling-style crashes, comparing the findings of injury risk with conventional cycle helmets and with bare heads.

They found that turbans greatly reduced the risk of skull fractures in areas covered with a thick layer of fabric, compared to bare heads. However, the chief factor affecting the risk of head injury was the style of the turban.

For impacts to the front of the head, the 10-foot (three metres) long Dastaar turban style reduced impact force by 23 per cent compared with the worst-performing turban style. For impacts to the side of the head, the 32-foot (9.7 metres) Dumalla turban style performed the best, with a 59 per cent reduction in the force.

Efficacy of turban styles in preventing head injuries in cycling-style crashes

Efficacy of turban styles in preventing head injuries in cycling-style crashes

They also found that although the risk of skull fractures and brain injuries was higher with all turbans than conventional bicycle helmets, the risk might be reduced by placing energy absorbing materials between the layers of the fabric, or reducing the friction between the layers of fabric.

> Swedish company Hövding unveils "airbag cycle helmet"

The team concluded: "Overall, while helmets generally offer better performance than turbans, certain turbans displayed comparable or even superior performance in one or more injury metrics."

Dr Gurpreet Singh, from the Sikh Scientists Network and Imperial College’s Department of Materials, said: "Our findings show that simple Sikh turbans have the potential to mitigate head impacts.

"This provides important evidence that we hope will point the wider scientific community to invest in the best headgear fabrics to absorb shock, which indeed will open commercial markets to people from all walks of life that deal with concussions and head impacts."

Ruth Purdie OBE, Chief Executive of The Road Safety Trust, which funded the research, said: "Cyclists are classed as vulnerable road users, and therefore it is important to think about different ways to improve their safety. 

"The findings of this study could really support Sikh cyclists and help reduce their risks of head injury."

Adwitiya joined road.cc in 2023 as a news writer after graduating with a masters in journalism from Cardiff University. His dissertation focused on active travel, which soon threw him into the deep end of covering everything related to the two-wheeled tool, and now cycling is as big a part of his life as guitars and football. He has previously covered local and national politics for Voice Wales, and also likes to writes about science, tech and the environment, if he can find the time. Living right next to the Taff trail in the Welsh capital, you can find him trying to tackle the brutal climbs in the valleys.

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17 comments

Avatar
fixit | 3 weeks ago
1 like

come on now, what is this again!?

Avatar
eburtthebike | 3 weeks ago
5 likes

This just came up on FB:

 

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Troon | 3 weeks ago
4 likes

This study appears to have missed the potential significant contribution of a substantial layer of tightly-bound hair between the cloth of the turban and the head. Sikhism forbids cutting hair, so they usually have quite a lot of it under the turban.

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chrisonabike | 3 weeks ago
1 like

Maybe this is useful in putting one of these "debates" in perspective*?  If we widen the research?

It's very rare these days that I wear a helmet on my city bike rides **.  OTOH I've often got a wooly hat on.  Then again, my hair's minimal.

Table with headgear / hair thicknesses and how close the minimum cycle helmet standard is?  (Yes helmet vendors - "but we exceed the standards" - but not sure we've an agreed measure to judge that by).

Perhaps I could get e.g. 90% of the protection of a helmet by simply growing dreads to go under my bobble hat?  (Not that I'd have the patience or inclination).

* Obviously I'm kidding...

** Habit, likely from being able to enjoy some spaces competely separated from motor traffic.  Probably on shopping trips I'm actually often at a speed where a helmet would be most likely to be effective e.g. at close to "falling over while static".

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chrisonabike replied to chrisonabike | 3 weeks ago
3 likes

For weight weenies of course there's this.  For the recyclers you could likely do something similar with spare inner tubes.

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brooksby replied to chrisonabike | 3 weeks ago
1 like

What about those olde-fashioned hairnet style head protectors - stuffed leather, IIRC - which were used before plastic helmets became the norm?

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cyclisto replied to chrisonabike | 3 weeks ago
1 like

Why do this monstrosity when you can spend just 150 euros for a balloon?

https://www.bikeradar.com/news/inflabi-helmet

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chrisonabike replied to chrisonabike | 3 weeks ago
0 likes

Thinking now - what about including judicial wigs and policemen's helmets in a study?  You might get some additional protection from the "moral" factor?  On second thoughts, for a number of drivers that might go the other way of course...

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cyclisto | 3 weeks ago
2 likes

Wow, very surprising results. I never believed that putting something bulky and soft in your head would make it hurt less when hit.

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Steve K | 3 weeks ago
3 likes

Given - I assume - turbans do not have the same negative impacts that a helmet can in terms of increasing the likelihood of a crash, I take it that this means that overall turbans are better than helmets?

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ROOTminus1 replied to Steve K | 3 weeks ago
2 likes
Steve K wrote:

Given - I assume - turbans do not have the same negative impacts that a helmet can in terms of increasing the likelihood of a crash, I take it that this means that overall turbans are better than helmets?

I'd be interested to see research into the causality of wearing a helmet increasing the likelihood of a crash.
The only mechanism I can think of is that by wearing a helmet you're more likely to be targeted by vindictive road users, but that is sadly grossly outweighed by being on the road on a bike, headgear or not.

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OnYerBike replied to ROOTminus1 | 3 weeks ago
2 likes

Probably the main study on this topic (which I am aware of anyway) is by Ian Walker - summarised here (with link to full article): https://helmets.org/walkerstudy.htm 

There have been other studies looking at "risk compensation" among cyclists as a result of helmet wearing - a good summary is here https://www.cyclinguk.org/sites/default/files/document/2020/01/helmets-e... (page 19) or you can just google. Overall I would say there is some evidence for short-term risk compensation, but little evidence that it persists long enough to make an appreciable difference to overall risk of crashing. 

Avatar
Steve K replied to OnYerBike | 3 weeks ago
1 like
OnYerBike wrote:

Probably the main study on this topic (which I am aware of anyway) is by Ian Walker - summarised here (with link to full article): https://helmets.org/walkerstudy.htm 

There have been other studies looking at "risk compensation" among cyclists as a result of helmet wearing - a good summary is here https://www.cyclinguk.org/sites/default/files/document/2020/01/helmets-e... (page 19) or you can just google. Overall I would say there is some evidence for short-term risk compensation, but little evidence that it persists long enough to make an appreciable difference to overall risk of crashing. 

I did think the risk compensation one meant my theory would only work if no-one who wears a turban reads this article.

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cyclisto replied to OnYerBike | 3 weeks ago
1 like
OnYerBike wrote:

 

There have been other studies looking at "risk compensation" among cyclists as a result of helmet wearing - a good summary is here https://www.cyclinguk.org/sites/default/files/document/2020/01/helmets-e... (page 19) or you can just google.

According to the risk compensation theory, then disk brakes and grippy tires must be super dangerous.

Avatar
eburtthebike replied to cyclisto | 3 weeks ago
2 likes
cyclisto wrote:

According to the risk compensation theory, then disk brakes and grippy tires must be super dangerous.

They are.  There are numerous studies into risk compensation, including having two fleets of vehicles, identical except that one had all the available "safety" gear (ASB brakes, air bags, etc) while the other fleet had none.  The expectation was that the first group would have significantly fewer injury collisions, but it had the same rate as the second group, because the drivers used the "safety" improvements as performance benefits, so drove faster, and took more risks.

Risk compensation is a fascinating subject, and should be compulsory for anyone proposing safety measures.  Sadly, most people who do propose them deny the existence of risk compensation, even though it has been proved many times.

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eburtthebike replied to OnYerBike | 3 weeks ago
2 likes
OnYerBike wrote:

Overall I would say there is some evidence for short-term risk compensation, but little evidence that it persists long enough to make an appreciable difference to overall risk of crashing. 

I'm not aware of any research suggesting that risk compensation is a temporary effect, and I haven't seen any proposal for why it should be so.  If you know of any, please post a link.

My own, tiny, experiment seems to suggest that the effect is long-lasting.  My MSc dissertation was on cycle helmets, and I challenged my class mates who rode bikes and wore helmets, to do their normal commute without a helmet.  Some refused to do so, but the ones who did reported that they were much more careful without a helmet, having previously claimed that it would make no difference.

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muhasib replied to ROOTminus1 | 3 weeks ago
2 likes

It's a similar psychology to troops in urban environments being ordered to wear berets instead of helmets as that is felt to be less provocative to locals ill disposed to their presence.

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