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Why strongly encouraging or legally enforcing bike helmets is not necesserily a good idea

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.





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9 Comment on this post

  1. “Is there something special about head injuries that result from bike crashes? “

    Why, yes, there is. You dismissed it too easily without study. It turns out that the thing that limits the size of a species’ brain is their top running speed. The brain is sized so that if you fall when running as fast as you can, your brain is not heavy enough to be knocked loose from its moorings. When you fall from a bicycle you may be going faster than your top running speed, and your brain can rip away from the inside of your skull from the impact. So extra protection may, indeed, be warranted.
    Isn’t it interesting to contemplate that our relatively slow running ability is what allows us to have our “big brain”?

    1. Thanks for your reply, Kim. I agree with what you say, but I’m not convinced (yet) that there is something special about head injuries from bike crashes compared to head injuries as a result from falls (often from high objects) on playgrounds.

  2. Given the environment we have to cycle in (in the UK) I’m not against bike helmets. An attempt to cycle say in London or Manchester would, of course, reinforce your point about the environment being one of the problems in this country. However, from a regulatory viewpoint, it is much easier (and cheaper) to shift the responsibility to the individual cyclist rather than to have to change the road systems. With the current emphasis in government on low-cost regulation, I am not convinced that there is the political will to do as you suggest. In addition, the cynic in me thinks that industry is only to happy to promote the view that various accessories are necessary to keep us safe (after all they will sell more).

    On the point in your last sentence: I don’t think that wearing bike helmets necessarily discourages those (who want to) in this country from cycling. Unlike your example of Belgium it isn’t uncool and I don’t think people are too fussed about their hair (when weighed against the possibility of being ploughed down by a Manchester bus, for example), but I do think that the general lack of a cycling-friendly environment does. Which goes back to your main point about needing to change the environment.

    1. Thanks very much for your reply M. I agree that from a regulatory point of view it is easier and cheaper to shift the responsibility to the individual cyclists. But there just seems to be something very wrong with that. I do think that it may take away incentives to make the bike environment safer. Here in Ghent cyclists rule, which is sometimes annoying for drivers (as cyclists do tend take over the road and determine the rules…). But on the other hand it makes drivers more careful – they always (well, almost always) seem to take into account that there could be a cyclist nearby…In the UK, cyclists are really considered second tier, I feel. Guess that’s what is bothering me. I’m not against cyclists deciding to wear a helmet in bike-unfriendly cities, but I do think there is something wrong with governments treating not wearing helmets like smoking cigarettes – it’s not that cycling is inherently dangerous. It seems to really make it easy for governments to minimize their responsibility for providing a bike-friendly environment, and in encouraging more people to bike (some research also suggests that a result of enforcing/strongly encouraging helmets is that people who didn’t grow up biking, may never start biking because they perceive it as too dangerous).
      Figures about whether making bike helmets compulsory reduces the number of cyclists vary – apparently in Australia it reduced the number of cyclists, but not in some jurisdiction in Canada. But then, making playground helmets compulsory may not reduce the number of children playing on a playground in all countries either – still we would think there’s something seriously wrong with making playground helmets compulsory…

      1. “Thanks very much for your reply M. I agree that from a regulatory point of view it is easier and cheaper to shift the responsibility to the individual cyclists. But there just seems to be something very wrong with that.”

        Completely disagree. If your vehicle has safety issues, I would expect your vehicle/the way you are licensed to operate that vehicle to be regulated. I don’t see why cyclists should be treated any differently from anyone else in this regard. It strikes me as no different from the seatbelt argument. The basic argument behind both are identical – if you have an accident, your odds of survival/recovery are way higher if you do this fairly simple, low cost thing. As for completely re-regulating the road system for cyclists’ benefit… I doubt that would pass any sane cost-benefit test (which you basically admit, but are clearly irritated by).

        ” it’s not that cycling is inherently dangerous.”

        Done wrong, pretty much everything is inherently dangerous. We’re just treating cyclists the way we treat other road users. We make them take steps to ensure their safety in the event of an accident, too.

        “still we would think there’s something seriously wrong with making playground helmets compulsory…”

        In various countries govts have replaced the ground or concrete with softer material, in the name of safety. My guess is that because playgrounds are (a) small (b) stationary it’s more efficient to regulate the ground than the people playing on it. Different story with very long bits of road (though crash barriers are an analogue), where it’s far cheaper to regulate the vehicle/user than the road.

        “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. ”

        Neutral on the idea that cities should be more bike-friendly. But I find the idea that drivers need to adapt because of cyclists’ risk choices very dubious. This sort of attitude strikes me as one reason why pedestrians and car drivers tend to unite in their antipathy towards cyclists: we don’t accept that you guys are somehow privileged as road users, and should get a free pass on looking out for your own safety, while we have to look out for our safety AND yours. Another reason pedestrians and car users often find cyclists irritating boils down to velocity: from a car’s perspective, a pedestrian can safely be assumed to be a stationary object, while cyclists travel at an inconvenient speed; from a pedestrian’s perspective, cars buzz up and down roads rapidly (and don’t usually share the same space) so waiting on them comes at small cost. Cyclists travel at inconvenient speeds, often unpredictably and in close proximity to pedestrians and the costs of negotiating your way around them are usually higher (and cyclists run red lights, cycle on the footpath, etc… all of which you can witness in any given half hour period on South Parks Road… seriously, watch how cyclists behave in Oxford for a couple of hours and then tell us why everyone else should be more responsible for your safety than you are…)

        “We should not forget that discouraging people from cycling (by requiring them to wear a helmet) also has significant costs.”

        Like using public transport?

  3. I read this article couple of months ago 🙂

    “People die trying to look cool. Vanity is the sad reason why people don’t wear bike helmets. So two Swedish women set out to invent “the invisible bicycle helmet”, They’ve succeeded, and the end product isn’t a made of clear plexiglass and there’s no lightbending-stealth technology. In fact it’s not really a helmet at all.”

  4. Helmets do far more harm than good:

    Do five minutes of google before posting.

    …The helmet he was wearing did not protect his neck and he was paralysed from the neck down. Two years later, Philip has regained enough movement and strength in his arms to use a manual wheelchair. He has also gained some perspective. With the helmet he felt protected enough to ride off-road on a challenging trail. In hindsight, perhaps too safe. “It didn’t cross my mind that this could happen,” said Philip, now 17. “I definitely felt safe. I wouldn’t do something like that without a helmet.”

    I’d say that if the effects of helmets on injuries is so small that the best attempts to measure it have failed, that it does not exist. There was certainly no 85% decrease in injuries which is the claim that can be found in many, many places.

    “Rotational injuries from sports helmets are a recognised problem: “The use of helmets increases the size and mass of the head. This may result in an increase in brain injury by a number of mechanisms. Blows that would have been glancing become more solid and thus transmit increased rotational force to the brain. These forces result in shearing stresses on neurones which may result in concussion and other forms of brain injury.” Experiments on monkeys show that rotational forces cause much more severe brain injuries than linear forces.”

    “Because of the difficulty finding adults who crashed or fell off their bikes, 86% of the community controls (CC) were children under 15.[2] At the time, a large observational survey in Seattle showed that 3.2% of child cyclists wore helmets, compared to 21.1% of children in the CC group.[3]

    Also, mandatory helmet laws have no effect on injuries at all:

    There was no decline in overall cyclist hospital admissions despite the traffic surveys showing a ~30% decline in cyclists on the roads (more than 50% reduction in schoolchildren cycling from 1991 to 1996).

    “As Robinson shows, there is solid reason to doubt the likely benefits of the monomaniacal focus on cycle helmets which currently dominates much “cycle safety” policy, and genuine cause for concern as to the effects of the relentless portrayal of cycling as dangerous which underpins helmet promotion.”

  5. Yes, that’s my understanding too. Speaking as someone who has cycled in the UK and now rides in Australia and New Zealand, it is irritating to be compelled to wear a helmet. I always chose to in the UK because of where I rode, but there are places here where they are not needed. The strong paternalism of the Australian and New Zealand laws is not warranted given both the risk of cycling but also because, as Fred points out, the evidence in favour of helmet use is patchy at best. Motorcyle helmets developed to the point where the cushioning and impact protection was about as good as it could. In more recent years the bulk of effort has gone into designing them so they don’t grip on the ground and break the motorocyclist’s neck: head injuries are not the only way to mess yourself up. Cycle helmets typically have bits sticking out at the back and it might be that they increase the chance of you breaking your neck. At this time of year the magpie’s are nesting in Australia and I am convinced that a helmet increases the likelihood that they will try to land on your head!

  6. Hmmm.. If I may add… In the US, we play American Football, which is particularly violent… but the players wear these massive helmets. The helmets give players incentives to take larger risks and hit one another much harder than if they weren’t wearing helmets. As a result, professional players suffer more concussions than the time when only a leather skullcap was worn for protection, since they took fewer risks. Bicycle riding might be similar. Wearing a helmet, riders might be prone to riding their bicycles more dangerously, believing their helmets would keep them safe in the event of an accident.

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