Various kinds of safety equipment exist for cyclists--knee and elbow pads, reflective vests, ankle biters (velcro straps used to wrap pants legs tight so they don't get caught in the chain), etc. However, the single most important piece of equipment to ensure safety while riding a bicycle is a helmet. The advantages of wearing a helmet far outweigh any disadvantages, such as discomfort. However, there are still pros and cons, and knowing them will help cyclists make decisions concerning helmet use.
In terms of safety, bike helmets are the most important piece of equipment that a cyclist can use. Indeed, safety is the primary reason why bike helmets were invented in the first place! In a survey conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and cited by the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, 91 percent of all cyclists killed in traffic accidents in 2008 were not wearing helmets; 8 percent were wearing helmets. According to this statistic, wearing a helmet makes survival of a traffic accident nine times more likely than not wearing a helmet.
The advantages of bike helmets go beyond safety. Because of the proven effectiveness of bike helmets in preventing fatal injuries to cyclists, many states have now made the use of bike helmets a legal requirement for cyclists. Some states, like Arizona and North Carolina, require all cyclists under age 16 to wear a helmet; others, like Washington State, require all cyclists to wear helmets regardless of age. Not wearing helmets in these states can lead to fines, as well as mandatory purchase of a helmet.
A major disadvantage of wearing a helmet is that it can be uncomfortable, especially for people with long hair. Modern helmets have foam and padded chin straps to help offset discomfort, but it can still be irritating to wear a bike helmet. This is especially true in summer months, when many recreational bikers choose to ride their bicycles.
Another drawback of bike helmets is that some consider them to be unfashionable. Older bike helmets especially are large and unwieldy. Newer models are made to look sleeker and not as bulky; many are also painted with zany colors and designs to make helmets look cool. Even so, helmets are not the most fashionable items in the world. They also crush the rider's hair, which will ruin any hairstyling done ahead of time.