Boston — A lot of bicyclists have harder heads these days. As more people sling themselves onto bicycle seats as the costs of driving go up, more people realize the importance of safety helmets.
Jim McIlvain, bicycle products manager for the California-based Bell Helmets, says people start wearing helmets "because, unfortunately, they have injured themselves before and realize how dangerous a bike can be."
"Estimates show 68 percent of all bike injuries are to the head," Mr. McIlvain says, "and helmet wearers don't want to take any chances."
Also, says Stuart Krohnengold, assistant manager of the American Youth Hostels (AYH) supplies store in New York, "A lot more people are riding bikes and they feel peer pressure. They see other people with them, so they feel it's part of the gear -- such as expensive jogging shoes for runners."
According to a recent pamphlet published by the Mountain Bicyclsts Association, a Denver-based group that has received Department of Transportation funding for research, there are an estimated 95 million bicycles in the United States. Since 1972 more bikes have been sold than cars. About 19 million bikes are used daily for commuting and trips.
"With all these bikes around," says Mr. McIlvain, "it is easy to understand why helmets are so important."
There are two types of helmets: touring and racing.
The touring helmet offers more protection, but is usually heavier, warmer, and more expensive. The race helmet, made of woven straps of plastic or leather , offers lower protectin, with large areas of the head exposed. But the helmet is cool, light, and, racers claim, better than nothing.
The average helmet buyer, spending about $35, has four main manufacturers to choose from, as well as a handful of local producers.
Manufacturers list the following criteria for selection:
* Protection: Shell construction and padding are the principal factors. The full shell touring helmet is much sturdier than the partial, strappy racing helmet.
The AYH's Mr. Krohnengold says his store sells only Bell and Mountain Safety Research products, because "they are hard-shell helmets -- they don't flex. Some of the other helmets, such as Pro-tec, are all right, too, because, although they are flexible, they have enough padding to absorb a lot more shock."
All helmets are held in place with an adjustable strap. This must be fastened.The helmet is useless unlessit is secure on the head.
* Fit: The helmet should encompass the head snugly -- although not too tightly. It is important to note how much of the head is covered by the helmet. It should end just above the ears, not resting on them (in the words of one misfit helmet wearer, the sound of the wind whistling through the helmet is deafening), or way above them, thus decreasing protection.
* Heat retention: "Wearing a helmet," says Mr. McIlvain, "is always hotter than riding without one. But no one should experience any real discomfort."
Helmets have vents allowing steady air flow around the head. Skidlids, a complex web of Lexan straps which fits over the rider's head, and racing helmets are the coolest.
* Weight: Most cyclists say they get used to their helmets and don't notice the extra weight. Generally, the lighter the helmet, the lower the protection, according to Mr. McIlvain. The Skidlid, for example, is preferred by many riders because, although it offers less protection, it is also lighter.
* Cost: Prices vary from $20 to $50. Expensive does not necessarily mean good. Some of the most expensive helmets are imported racing helmets which may not be as protective as the heavier American touring ones.
Another less-crucial concern is looks. Helmets are not pretty, says Wade Stevens, a faithful helmet wearer in Rochester, N.Y.
"You get a crazed what-is-that-on-your-head look from passing motorists."
Lighter-colored helmets with reflectors or reflecting tape are more visible for day and night riding.
Touring cyclists as well as commuters are serious about their safety. Veronica Wallace is the director of the travel department of the American Youth Hostels, which sponsors a number of bicycle trips zigzagging across North America and Europe. She says, "We recommend [that people on] our tours wear helmets. All our trip leaders wear them, and most of our bikers wear them."
The Vermont Cycling Club will not allow their riders to go out on the road without a helmet. It even sponsors a rental service for those who haven't bought their own.
Helment sales are on the rise. Jim McIlvain says that Bell's 1980 sales are expected to be double those of 1979. And 1979 sales doubled over 1978.
The AYH store has been doing a hearty business, with sales this year running about 15 percent above last year.
Despite the improved sales, however, figures show that only a small number of bicyclists wear helmets. David Carrithers, promotions coordinator for Mountain Safety Research helmets, estimates about 5 percent.
"I just hope people will learn the easy way that wearing them is the smart thing to do," he says.
One Boston bike commuter is not impressed with the idea. "There's so many things that can happen to you when you get thrown off a bike," she says. "What difference is a helmet going to make?"
Her friend nods in agreement. "I ride my bike because of the freedom I feel on it. Bikes are to enjoy, not to worry about."