The issue of mandatory bike helmet laws is controversial, to say the least. Some are vigorously in favor; others oppose them furiously. A research study out of New Zealand suggests that the opposition may be right. What do you think? Read on before you answer …
Bike Helmets are a Divisive Issue
Many people are infuriated by mandatory bike helmet laws. Others argue that mandatory bike helmet laws are a no-brainer: cyclists should be forced to wear bike helmets, just as motorists are forced to wear seat belts. Like motorists, cyclists are too stupid to know how to be safe, so we must have laws to force them to be safe.
Anecdotal Evidence of the Benefits of Bike Helmets
Certainly when Mrs. Average Joe Cyclist had an accident on her bike, she was very sure that her bike helmet had protected her from serious injury, as she reported in this post. However, this is one person’s experience, and so does not prove anything (even if she is my wife, and therefore always right!)
But it’s not just Maggie. If you spend any time with any group of cyclists, one of them will invariably tell you a similar story of how they were saved by their helmet.
What About when You are Cycling in the Middle of Nowhere?
And any time I publish a photo of someone on a bike without a helmet, I get a flurry of angry emails. Even if the person in the photo is cycling in a park, and is clearly old enough to make their own decisions. All of those people who respond so angrily, obviously feel very strongly that helmets should be mandatory for anyone on a bike, anywhere, under any circumstances. I am not that sure.
In fact, nowadays, when we are cycling in places where we feel safe, we don’t wear bike helmets. Such as when we are cycling on the peaceful bike trails of Whistler.
We, and our friends, also don’t wear bike helmets when we are biking on the almost-car-free dirt roads on a ranch.
Seat Belts are a No-Brainer – Bike Helmets, Not So Much
With seat belts, there cannot really be any arguments. Seat belt legislation has dramatically decreased death and serious injury in motor vehicle accidents. Research indicates that seat belts prevent more than 10,000 deaths per year in the USA alone. (Source: Association for Safe International Travel.)
With bike helmet laws, the evidence is less clear. For a start, bike helmets only protect your head, and most cyclist fatalities are caused by multiple organ damage.
Unintended Negative Consequences of Bike Helmet Laws
Also, there are strong arguments that mandatory bike helmet laws lead to less cycling, which in the long-term, big picture is more damaging to the general health of the population than a few accidents in which the cyclist is not wearing a helmet.
The Netherlands Conumdrum
Also, it is notable that the Netherlands has the lowest rate of head and brain injuries from cycling in the world – and it also has the lowest rate of bike helmet use. While most people in the Netherlands ride bikes every day, almost no one wears helmets. Even toddlers and small children do not wear bike helmets.
The point is that cyclists in the Netherlans have safe, separate bike lanes, so they are not exposed to the danger of cars. As has been pointed out, it would make more sense to wear a bike helmet while driving a car in the USA, than to wear a bike helmet while riding a bike in the Netherlands. This is because your risk of an accident per car trip in the USA is much higher than your risk of an accident per bike trip in the Netherlands.
Here’s a quote from a great post about why the Dutch don’t wear bike helmets:
“Once you separate out bikes from cars, people don’t tend to just spontaneously fall off. Thus you’re no more in need of a bike helmet than you are in need of a walking helmet.”
Lessons from New Zealand
Meanwhile, in New Zealand … a study published in the New Zealand Medical Journal comes down very clearly on the side of those who oppose mandatory bike helmet laws.
New Zealand introduced mandatory bike helmet laws in January 1994, following the example of Australia. This gave researchers an unusual opportunity to study the “before and after” of mandatory bike helmet laws. They examined data from 1898 to 2009 on walking, cycling, and fatalities.
Findings about the impacts of mandatory bike helmet laws
Following the introduction of mandatory bike helmet laws in New Zealand, the researchers found that:
- Cycling decreased by a massive 51%, while the risk of injury to cyclists per hour increased by between 20 and 32%.
- At the same time, the decrease in cycling hours was so dramatic that it probably contributed to up to 53 premature deaths per year (caused by not exercising).
- Most cyclists killed by cars cannot be saved by bike helmets, because the fatal injuries affected the entire body, not just the head.
- Also, thousands of New Zealanders are fined every year for not wearing a helmet.
- Cyclists who are involved in accidents while not wearing a helmet may be discriminated against by the legal system and get less accident compensation. In case you think that’s not a big deal – read this story about a speeding motorist who killed a 14-year-old boy on a bike by mowing him down, and then sued the grieving parents because the dead boy was not wearing a bike helmet.
- The law has led to more use of cars, which in turn leads to more environmental harm (and secondary harm to human beings).
- Finally, the mandatory bike helmet laws are contrary to human rights, because they force people to do something that has not been proven to be a good thing in terms of overall safety.
Even So … We Still Wear Bike Helmets in Traffic
Despite all this evidence, we continue to wear bike helmets in traffic. Mrs. Average Joe Cyclist continues to wear her stylish Yakkay helmet (which she reviewed here) most of the time. and I continue to wear various bike helmets most of the time.
We both feel safer wearing helmets, and would continue to wear them even if we lived in a place that did not have mandatory bike helmet laws. Except if we were somewhere where there was decent cycling infrastructure everywhere!
But That Does NOT Mean YOU Have to Wear a Helmet …
BUT just because we choose to wear helmets, that does not mean that we think that everyone else should be forced to wear bike helmets. Especially if it means that it halves the number of people cycling! After all, other research has proven that the more cyclists there are, the safer it is to cycle.
Plus, as the helmetless Dutch point out, “for each year of life lost to bicycle crashes in the Netherlands, 25 years are gained from better health because of the exercise.” (Source: Treehugger)
What we Actually Need is Safe Cycling Infrastructure
Personally I think that forcing cyclists to wear helmets while not providing safe infrastructure is like refusing to provide sidewalks, forcing pedestrians to share lanes with cars and buses (as is done with cyclists), AND then adding insult to injury by forcing pedestrians to wear pedestrian helmets “for their own protection.”
We hardly ever wore bike helmets while we were cycling in Montreal but we felt safe, because the cycling infrastructure there is so excellent. We strongly support separated bike lanes – as reported here, they keep cyclists safe in more ways than one!
Cycling in Paris
We also noticed when we were in Paris that almost no adults wear bike helmets, ever. Yet they cycle casually through heavy traffic, and on sidewalks too, apparently without a care in the world. We cycled all over Paris and never felt unsafe. We were told that the cultural and legal approach is to treat cyclists like pedestrians.
I wish Canada was more like that, instead of treating a normal activity like cycling as if it is a dangerous sport. I wrote about that in my post “Make Cycling Normal Again – What we Learned from Cycling in Paris.”
The Difference between Seat Belt Legislation and Mandatory Bike Helmet Laws
Perhaps a key difference between seat belt legislation and mandatory bike helmet laws is that people will not quit driving just because they are forced to wear seat belts; on the other hand, it seems that up to half of potential cyclists will choose not to cycle if they are forced to wear helmets. And really, would it be a bad thing if seat belt legislation caused 50% of drivers to leave their cars at home? Imagine how that would help with traffic congestion!
Should You Wear a Helmet while Driving?
Finally, there is this disturbing thought. You are much more likely to be seriously injured or killed in a car than on a bike. Every single day, one thousand people under the age of 25 die in a car crash. In fact, the leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 29 is car crashes. (Source: Association for Safe International Travel.)
But when was the last time you saw a young driver wearing a helmet in a car? Or parents strapping helmets onto their kids’ heads after they strapped them into their car seats? It just doesn’t happen, even though we all know how incredibly dangerous driving is. After all, wearing helmets while driving would create the perception that driving is dangerous, wouldn’t it?
And it would make it harder for us to keep ignoring the fact that the single greatest killer of our children and young people is motor vehicle accidents – not bike accidents! It might even force us to reevaluate whether the convenience of cars is really worth the ongoing slaughter of the innocents …
Bike helmet laws have serious unintended consequences, yet they do not necessarily save lives. On the other hand, riding a bike has enormous health benefits, whether you are wearing a helmet or not. Because this issue is so complex, perhaps it is best if adults get to make their own decisions about it.
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