In Australia and New Zealand wearing bike helmets is compulsory. In the United States, bike helmets are strongly promoted. The message in these countries is clear – not wearing a bike helmet is stupid because it can significantly damage your health. The stigma attached to cycling without a helmet may even be comparable to that attached to smoking cigarettes.
If you crash but were wearing a helmet (properly!), you will be less likely to suffer a head injury. Bike helmets may thus prevent disability and even death in this way. I don’t want to question that. (Though it has been questioned -it has been said that bike helmets give both cyclists and drivers a false feeling of protection resulting in more risk-taking behaviour on both sides; given that most helmets are not worn properly, this could overall be more dangerous than not wearing helmets.)
But, is the fact that bike helmets may reduce head injuries a sufficiently weighty reason to strongly encourage or legally enforce wearing bike helmets?
Perhaps I’m biased. I’m from Belgium – a cycling-friendly country where hardly anyone wears helmets. Why? It’s uncool, it messes up your hair, it’s safe enough to bike here (just reciting reasons people give), it’s impractical, it’s uncomfortable, it’s annoying to have to carry your helmet around when you get to your destination, it spoils the ‘freedom-feeling’ on a bike, etc. No doubt, there are costs to wearing a helmet.
So why should cyclists be required or strongly encouraged to wear helmets? Surely there are many other activities where the risk of head injuries is high? For example, playing in a children’s playground is equally, if not more, dangerous in that respect (other examples are hiking, walking or running at swimming pools, and simply getting into your bath). Is there something special about head injuries that result from bike crashes? Surely we wouldn’t argue for strongly encouraging or making ‘playground helmets’ compulsory (or ‘bath helmets’ – imagine that!). It would be terribly impractical, and uncomfortable for children. It would somehow restrain them in their freedom – it would just make playing on a playground less fun. But the best reason for why we don’t make playground helmets compulsory is that there are alternative ways for reducing the risk of head injuries at playgrounds that have fewer disadvantages. One measure that has increasingly been implemented in various countries is to provide playgrounds with a softer ground. This too helps to prevent head injuries, but without any of the disadvantages playground helmets would have.
So why don’t we do the same for bikes? Obviously, there is an alternative to wearing bike helmets too. We can change the environment and make cities safer for bikes such that fewer crashes will happen. It’s not that biking is intrinsically very dangerous. My daily bike ride to work, at a moderate pace on safe bike paths away from the road is probably not more dangerous than walking on the footpath. (Of course, I’m not implying that it would be unwise to wear a helmet when racing or when going off the road on rocky ground.)
Perhaps one could say that, in bike-friendly cities, cyclists shouldn’t be enforced or strongly encouraged to wear helmets. It’s relatively safe to bike there – like it’s relatively safe to play on a playground with a soft ground. The overall health benefits of biking (better health for the cyclist and less air pollution) outweigh the risk of head injuries. But, one may say, people should surely be legally enforced or strongly encouraged to wear helmets in cities that are currently very bike-unfriendly (like Oxford).
However, I think this is too quick. It may take away incentives to make cities more bike-friendly. It sends the message that it is cyclists that need to adapt, not drivers. We should, however, keep in mind that there is an alternative to enforcing or strongly encouraging bike helmets: it’s making cities bike-friendlier. This may be costly, but it should be seen as a public health and environmental measure. We should not forget that discouraging people from cycling (by requiring them to wear a helmet) also has significant costs.