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Should bike helmets be mandatory?

Bike helmets in New Zealand have been legally required since January,1994. Bike helmets are also compulsory in Australia where they were progressively introduced by the different states in the early 1990s. Wearing a helmet has long seemed natural simply because it was drummed into me from a young age and so the thought of not wearing one never really crossed my mind and as such opposing the requirement to wear one was a bit like suggesting that wearing seat belts shouldn’t be compulsory. However as I’ve looked further into the issue it seems like the story is not so clear cut after all.

I recently came across a very interesting article that strongly opposes mandatory bike helmets – and makes a pretty compelling case. Here are a few snippets from that article:

Stop forcing people to wear bike helmets.

For most bikers, this advice is anathema. The importance of wearing a helmet has been drilled into everyone since childhood. And, it’s true that, as study after study has shown, you’re better off with a helmet if you’re in an accident.

But in the world’s most popular biking cities, particularly in Europe, very few bikers wear helmets. And there are good reasons for that: biking, it turns out, isn’t an especially dangerous form of transportation in terms of head trauma. And the benefits of helmets may be overstated. While they do protect your head during accidents, there’s some evidence that helmets make it more likely you’ll get in an accident in the first place.

Most importantly, requiring helmets deters many normal people from biking in the first place — in Australia, bike commuting rates plummeted when mandatory helmet laws went into effect. And, when there are fewer bikes on the road overall, biking becomes more dangerous.

Of course, if people want to wear helmets they are more than welcome to.

But we should think of helmets as an optional accessory, rather than an absolute requirement — and proposed laws that would mandate all cyclists wear helmets are a bad idea.

It seems that the essential argument against helmets is along the lines the helmet laws generally seem to result in way fewer people cycling – which itself is more dangerous for the remaining cyclists than not wearing a helmet. We do have to be careful in just saying that helmet laws are solely responsible for the decline in cycling rates as in NZ at least the laws coincided with the introduction of cheaper cars.

There’s also the quite good question of why helmets for cycling and not for driving, or walking for that matter? Essentially – is there something particularly dangerous about cycling?

It doesn’t appear so. Back in the early 1990s, Australia collected good data on head injuries for walking, biking, and driving. (This was before the country imposed mandatory helmet laws for bikers.) And what they found was that biking was only slightly more dangerous than walking or driving:

Screen_shot_2014-05-15_at_3.04.49_pm

Obviously, Australia is not the United States, but the two countries have very similar rates of walking, driving, and cycling.

Here’s more recent data, which covers all of Great Britain from 2008 through 2012. It doesn’t distinguish between different causes of death, but again shows that your odds of being killed on a bike or on foot are very similar.

Screen_shot_2014-05-15_at_3.15.28_pm

Similar data has come out of France, the Netherlands, Denmark, and elsewhere.

Again, analyzing US data is tough — no one keeps track of how many miles are biked or walked in the country annually, so it’s hard to convert raw numbers of injuries and deaths into meaningful rates. But on a per trip basis, biking causes more deaths than driving and just slightly more than walking.

In 2012, 1.8 percent of all traffic-related deaths were bicyclists, and 14 percent were pedestrians. Because biking makes up about one percent of all trips taken in the US, and walking about 10.9 percent, both led to a disproportionate number of deaths, compared to cars — but were relatively similar, compared to each other.

So it’s not clear that cycling is a particularly dangerous activity – particularly compared to walking. There’s also other information in the article which questions the extent to which helmet laws appear to reduce head injuries, but what I find particularly interesting is how helmets may actually increase the risk of injury. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly:

In a 2007 study, British researcher Ian Walker rode 200 miles in the cities of Salisbury and Bristol with a sensor strapped to his bike that measured the distance of a total of 2,259 cars that passed him. He wore a helmet about half the time — and found that when he wore it, the cars came about 3.35 inches closer, on average, when passing.

Untitled
Regardless of Walker’s distance from the curb (x axis), cars passed by him more closely when he had his helmet on. Accident Analysis & Prevention, Walker 2007.
The frequency of dangerously-close passes was also much higher when he was wearing the helmet — and the two times he was actually hit during the experiment both came when his helmet was on.
Many people also sugges that wearing a helmet makes cyclists themselves less cautious in their riding, increasing the chance of an accident.

This is unproven, and it’s a difficult topic to research. Comparing real-world accident rates for helmeted and non-helmeted riders risks conflating all sorts of other factors (a rider’s skill, for starters), and trying to do a controlled study in which you force some cyclists to not wear a piece of protective equipment raises ethical issues.
But even if each of these effects just increased the odds of an accident slightly, it wouldn’t take much for that to wipe out the modest benefit of having a helmet on during that accident.

The second reason why helmets may actually make cycling more dangerous comes back to my earlier point about it stigmatising cycling and lowering the level of cycling to such an extent that the roads are much more dangerous for those hardy souls who continue to ride.

Case in point: Between 1986 and 1996, most states in Australia rolled out helmet laws and began fining cyclist who weren’t wearing them. As a result, the percentage of people who biked to work went from 1.68 to 1.24 percent — a decline of over a quarter.

Moreover, these states implemented the laws at slightly different times, and by looking at data from the 1991 and 1996 censuses, you can see the effect of the laws even more clearly.
Screen_shot_2014-05-16_at_9.01.43_amBicycle Helmet Research Foundation

In red states (where laws were in place by 1991), cycling dropped significantly between 1986 and 1991. In blue states (where laws went into place between 1991 and 1996), biking dropped during that same period. (The higher two lines show biking in Australia’s larger capital cities, and the two lower lines in smaller cities and rural areas, but the trends are essentially the same.)

So what’s the problem with taking bikers off the road? It makes biking dramatically more dangerous, easily eclipsing the safety benefit of helmets.

It’s been proven over and over again that the most important predictor of a city or region’s level of safety for bikers is the number of bikers on the road.

Here’s data from 68 cities in California showing the strong correlation between safety and the number of cyclists:

Screen_shot_2014-05-16_at_9.11.53_am

Injury Prevention, Jacobsen
Here’s a comparison of the US and different European counties:

Screen_shot_2014-05-16_at_9.21.39_am

European Cyclists’ Federation

True, it’s hard to disentangle cause and effect here. These cities and countries could be safe because there are more bikers, or there could be more bikers because infrastructure and other factors make biking in them safe. But either way, it’s clear that helmets do not play a major role in ensuring overall biker safety.

This is the key question in my opinion – have cycle helmet laws actually inadvertently made cycling more dangerous – because they appear to have contributed to a significant reduction in the level of cycling over time in places where such laws have been introduced? This appears to be the conclusion from some overseas studies:

In Australia, several different researchers have studied mandatory helmet laws — looking at the lives saved by helmets, the fact that biking is now more dangerous because there are fewer bikes on the road, and the massive health costs of having fewer people biking in a country that’s battling obesity — and concluded they do more harm than good.

Of course it’s not like we’re going to ever ban cycle helmets – but the real question of whether they should be mandatory perhaps requires another look.

61 comments to Should bike helmets be mandatory?

  • Greg N

    It would be interesting to see if mandatory seat belt laws caused a drop in driving when they became mandatory in the 1960s
    But from memory, seat belt laws came in for all new cars made after a certain date, leading to a gradual introduction to the vehicle fleet so the reduction would be well and truly lost in the general driving trends.

    As helmets are not fitted to bikes they became required on a particular date for everyone (like motorcycle helmets did).

    As for bike helmets, there is no doubt they do save some lives, in some circumstances, but the question is, as is being asked here, are the specific benefits of those helmet wearing lives saved, being lost by all the numbers of other people choosing not to cycle as a result?

    That picture posted last week of a school in Australia with the bike stands completely chock full of bikes before helmet laws came in and the after photo showed not a single bike anywhere to be seen.
    That 1 photo tells a thousand stories of unintended consequences as a result of a well intentioned law change.

    And do we also have a 9Jevons?) paradox in play too?
    In that once people don a bike helmet, they become riskier riders as they feel safer with a helmet on?.

    [I recall this was the net effect of Anti-lock brakes, and seat belts and air bags in cars - much of the vaunted safety benefit was lost by drivers with cars with them installed, adopting riskier driving as a result that they "knew" the ALBs and/or Airbags and/or seat belts would save them if they drove too fast, so they did exactly that, meaning the overall safety effect of these things were much reduced when compared to drivers driving without these].
    You see that all the time in SUV drivers – many seem to think 4WD = 4 Wheel brakes = instant stopping on any road condition – so they drive like a maniac.

    I think the jury is really out on compulsory helmets for all.

    Having said that I’d probably still wear one when riding on the road, but on a separated cycle path? Why bother?
    .
    But wouldn’t be the first time a good intentioned safety feature has not worked in the field as planned – undone by people not by the science.

  • Simon

    So many points to make on this issue:
    - the decline of ridership linked to the introduction of helmet laws may be corrolated but it’s far from clear that it’s causative.
    - the compulsary helmets discouraging ridership rhetoric seems overblown to me. Does anyone have good evidence for this?
    - I’m of the view that protecting cyclists from traffic accidents is not best achieved using helmets, as infrastrucutre and road design seem much more crucial, however, helmets do have value in protecting cyclists from head injuries in falls.
    - It seems to me that comparing head injuries in cyclists and walkers is inherently problematic as the cohorts the we would expect to participate in these activities are quite different. Falls in the very elderly and infirm would need to be removed from the walkers stats since we wouldn’t expect these people to be cyclists even in very cycling-friendly places.
    - public health reserach seems to show benefits of cycle helmets at an individual level, but not at a population level. This could be explained by fewer people cycling in compulsary helmet places, negating at a population level the positive effect that wearing helmets has for individual riders, but if this is the case it seems to me not to be an argument for making helmets optional but more an argument for taking other steps to repopularise riding thereby getting both the benefits of increased ridership and protection of individuals.

  • nick1234

    Apart from the reasons discussed here, there’s a more fundamental issue in that there is credible evidence that bike helmets don’t actually work, i.e. .they provide minimal protection from serious head injuries. This is mainly due to the fact that they’re just not up to providing the level of shock protection required (and realistically never could be) and the testing / certification requirements don’t reflect reality. What they are good at is protecting the wearer against cuts and bruises, but unfortunately they are portrayed as preventing serious brain injuries, which they probably don’t.

    Unfortunately it’s hard for people to believe this, as there’s so much anecdotal “evidence” from cyclists saying helmets saved their lives. This is usually based on the fact that they crashed and their helmet broke or sustained visible damage, from which they jump to the conclusion that they would have had a serious injury otherwise. A moment’s thought shows that doesn’t really follow – If I tied an egg to my head and it broke when I crashed, does that mean the egg saved my life?

  • Harvey Specter

    Who knew that walking was so dangerous?!!!!!

    • Greg N

      Who knew that living was so dangerous!

      Makes we want to go back to bed and pull the covers over my head until it all passes..

      • mfwic

        Sorry but sitting more than six hours makes you 40% more likely to die in 15 years than someone who sits less than 3hours so staying in bed is probably even more dangerous!

  • Joel Belsham

    Many injuries and deaths would be prevented if in-car helmets for motorists were mandated. http://www.copenhagenize.com/2010/05/driving-without-dying-helmets-for.html
    This might also solve some congestion problems…

  • I sometimes think this is an overcomplicated discussion, with the risks of correlation and causation being too tricky to un-weave with the data available. This is not an argument that can be won with stats and research – people now ‘know’ riding is dangerous and the evidence does show that helmets prevent head injuries.

    For me, if the roads are busy I wear a helmet, if it’s quiet or I’m on a cycle path I go helmet-less – there is no inherent danger in riding a bicycle, just a matter of risk mitigation. I disagree with the law as it stands (for adults).

    In the end, it’s clear that in places like Copenhagen and Amsterdam you don’t need to wear a helmet because you won’t be hit by something that will kill you, you’re at a safe speed and bike on bike incidents don’t tend to result in head injuries (citation needed). For Auckland, it means that we need to provide safe infrastructure before we consider attempting to repeal the law, show (‘prove’) that it’s safe. It’s only a chicken and egg scenario if we’re assuming a ‘market based’ solution of supply and demand – I’m more a fan of a social goal (or the now dirty ‘engineering’) of reducing obesity/increasing activity, reducing pollution, making streets safer by political will.

    But since we don’t live in a world where that is possible any more, I would suggest someone convinces the police to stop enforcing the law, or open it to interpretation of ‘dangerous activities while not wearing a helmet’ and let the numbers climb while the infrastructure is piece-meal assembled.

  • So this is not published in a peer-reviewed journal, but seems a fairly comprehensive take-down of most of the anti-mandatory helmet arguments.
    PDF of slide show
    article version
    These authors do have form for publishing similar analyses in peer reviewed journals.
    A re-analysis of the data that showed that people passed closer to someone wearing a helmet found that other variables in the data explained most of the variation.

    • Dan

      Thanks for the link to that slideshow, it is a good summary of the pro-helmet argument. One thing that the pro-helmet lobby needs to do, in my view, is to properly quantify the benefit of helmet wearing. Anti-helmet types can easily tell us the costs (discomfort, inconvenience, cost) but the benefits look to me somewhat blurry. I think the main problem is that benefits from helmet wearing are small, so hard to measure.

      • This is hinted at on p.25 of the slideshow. It is possible to go back to the original data here, and it is very clear that the rate of TBI has dropped. Looking at this data, it is striking that
        a) cycling is surprisingly safe
        b) despite the “helmets are not designed for collisions with cars”; cyclists have a higher TBI from crashes not involving cars
        c) TBI is the most common injury (and serious injury) for cyclists in crashes, except for non-serious non-vehicle (where it is second)
        d) the authors are reluctant to conclude that helmet wearing caused the observed drop in TBI, but injuries to other body parts would weakly support that.

    • nick1234

      Interesting presentation. However it avoids answering whether helmets are effective in reducing brain injuries, which is surely meant to be the point. Instead they talk about helmets reducing head injuries or mitigating the risk of head injuries. My understanding is that the head injuries they actually prevent tend to fairly minor, e.g. cuts, but that they are probably poor at protecting against brain injuries.

      • A very significant factor lacking from all this research is a consideration of severity. If you take a dive on a bike and hit your helmeted head on the kerb you are still going to get a head injury. Same way as if you have a car crash wearing a seatbelt you are probably still going to be injured.

        However it is the severity of that injury that is the important factor. A mild concussion counts as one head injury, a brain trauma that leaves a person permanently disabled also counts as one head injury. If we see any effect of helmets reducing head injury it is probably right at the bottom, mild concussions become nothing more than an un-treated headache. It’s the other end that is most interesting, how many helmeted injurees get away with a quick scan and a nights observation in hospital when they might otherwise have been in intensive care?

        • Mike

          Nick R – “how many helmeted injurees get away with a quick scan and a nights observation in hospital when they might otherwise have been in intensive care?” – me for one (though I still had 3 months off work on ACC, despite the helmet).

          Even so, I think for society as a whole is better off if cycling is normalised, and wearing helmets isn’t normal (though in cars perhaps it should be).

      • Actually I would have thought the point to be considering was “has a mandatory helmet-wearing LAW” had a positive effect?”, not “does wearing a helmet have a positive effect?” These are not the same question, yet the two opposing sides to this debate invariably seem to be talking at cross purposes. It’s a bit like saying that wearing sunscreen and a hat outside is a pretty good idea on a sunny day (prevention of melanomas, etc), but disagreeing about making it mandatory to do so (discouragement of outdoor activity, leading to vitamin D deficiency and lack of fitness) – it’s a perfectly consistent viewpoint. It seems however that many people in the helmet debate can’t comprehend the idea that you might think that wearing a helmet is probably advantageous IF you have a crash, but that doesn’t mean you want to make it mandatory.

        • Bryce P

          Thanks Glen. This is the most rational thing I’ve seen written about helmets.

        • Hey Glen – fantastic comment. You are bang on. We seem to get into this fruitless debate about whether or not wearing a lid has any benefit when that is not the real issue. Is the LAW working as intended – I would say no.

          Another negative effect of the law is it can really pit citizen against citizen. I ride my bicycle to and from work in Auckland. I never wear a helmet (in my case I have an exemption, so no laws are being broken).
          There are people that yell and hoot at me for not wearing a helmet. It seems that in NZ, a certain minority feel that it is acceptable to start abusing a perfect stranger because he does not have a piece of foam on top of his head while bicycle riding. It really saddens me sometimes.

          • Nick R

            Don’t feel to put out, people are more than happy to yell and abuse perfect strangers regardless of their vehicle choice!

  • Simon

    For those saying that cycling doesn’t retain some dander when the traffic element is removed, would you say off road mountain biking is completely free from risk? Now obviously that is a particular category of bike riding, but here’s another example: about 10 years ago in my early 20′s I was riding my bike in a quiet residential street, went to mount the curb onto the footpath, caught my front wheel, flipped over the handlebars and head first into the corner of a concrete block wall. I’m convinced that the momentum I took into that crash would have split my skull open had I not been wearing a helmet. Instead I was left with some road rash on my limbs and a deep gouge in the helmet. Job done, new helmet thanks. My conclusion is that helmets have value in protecting cyclists from mistakes independent of interactions with traffic.

  • SteveS

    After reading many anecdotal reports and comments on this subject, I’ve come to the conclusion that helmet use should not be mandated for adult cyclists – the public health benefits of increased cyclist numbers engaging in physical activity outweigh the minor reductions in death and injury severity of crashing while wearing a helmet. I agree that cyclist numbers would rise considerably if helmets weren’t a legal requirement – and it would make bike hire schemes so much more viable.

    Education on risk management should be key here – if you’re an urban warrior riding at speed and mixing it with traffic on a busy road then helmet use should be recommended due to the increased likelihood and severity of a crash – the same as if you’re bombing a trail at the Woodhill mountain bike park. But if you’re cruising a cycle lane in a slow speed environment, the risk is considerably lower.

    I remain to be persuaded on whether kids and teenagers should be legally required to wear helmets as their risk management skills aren’t as well developed – depends a lot on parental supervision.

    But for adults, education and personal choice should be the primary factors, not legal compulsion.

    • Harvey Specter

      Agree with this comment and that of davidjroos above.

      There is a big difference to riding a bike in quiet streets of Omaha compared to K’Road.

      For Kids though, at this stage I would make compulsory, just like booster seats, at least until cycling infrasture improves.

      For mountain biking, it is an ‘extreme sport’ so helmets should also be used, though since this is off-road, technically they aren’t compulsory.

  • TheBigWheel

    Interesting post with plenty of compelling reference material. How about a voting button so we can take a straw poll: “should helmets be mandatory for cyclists?”

    On the evidence presented I would vote “no”..

    ..even though I started to wear one myself in country where it is not a legal requirement. That was because I often felt like I was the only person riding a bicycle, on some pretty mean streets. So I ride around looking like an alien species.

    If only there were enough of us, and/or there was half decent infrastructure (30 k zones, segregated lanes, even painted lanes) I expect I would stop wearing my cycle helmet. Chicken / egg.

  • The most important question that should be asked by pro-helmet people is “why have only four countries on the entire planet made cycle helmets compulsary”? Things identified as safety essentials like car seatbelts are compulsary in pretty much every country after all.

    International research has essentially concluded that there are more benefits to society by NOT having compulsary helmets, in particular the greater uptake in cycling leading to a healthier population.

    A good site to browse…..

    http://www.cycle-helmets.com/

    • Stu Donovan

      100% of research (international and local) has concluded that mandatory parking requirements do more harm than good.

      Make. Rod. Own. Back.

      *Stuart giggles*

      • Not sure of your point, are you saying that cycle helmet laws and mandatory parking requirements should continue despite consesus they are bad things?

        • The point is that whatever is best isn’t always reflected in law, despite the evidence. Case in point is the USA which don’t have seatbelt laws for the most part, despite three decades of extremely conclusive evidence that they should.

          • That’s my point as well, we are better off without a cycle helmet law, so the law should be changed. In the meantime we have to respect the law, so pay a higher price overall by discouraging cycling.

            But what chance of a law change? I can’t see any political party having the slightest inclination in changing it, especially left-leaning ones who love to indulge in nanny-state policies.

          • bbc

            I would guess that JAG would be quite supportive of removing the law, being someone very well versed in cycling and transport in general, but I also think she knows the more important issues are actually getting funding for cycling flowing, rather than getting caught up in an emotive debate about helmets.

            Personally I oppose the law and would choose not to wear one here, however, I’m also not really interested in blowing $180 every time a cop decides to fine me, so generally wear it except when in places like the Domain.

          • Steve D

            @goosoid:

            Yet for some Byzantine reason, the fine is only $50 for riding a motorcycle without a helmet. (Although it does come with 25 demerit points, too).

    • What are the four Geoff? As far as I know it is only two – NZ and Australia. British Columbia has a law but that is not a country.

      Israel scrapped theirs recently because it was recognised that it was reducing the number of people cycling and would also likely make the proposed Tel Aviv bike share scheme unlikely to succeed.

      So is there something that NZ and Australia know that every other country doesnt? I doubt it and we have terrible cycling rates, especially when you remember that Christchurch used to be the second best cycle city in the world and now has a modal share of maybe 3%.

      GlenK has made the most enlightened comment abovce. This isnt about the effectiveness of cycle helmets (for which there is no conclusive evidence) but whether they should be compulsory – very different things.

      And if we do rely on evidence, horse riding and skiing should definitely have compulsory safety gear required:
      http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11195752

  • Stevenz

    Mandatory for everyone under 21 (brain development is essentially finished after 21 year), maybe optional after that. But I think mandatory is a good idea. First – and the reason for the requirement in the first place – is that head trauma is a very severe injury, taking extremely expensive medical care, therapy, often for a lifetime, and lost productivity of that individual. Second, it makes the rider more aware of safety than they otherwise might be. Third, NZ is a really bad place for cycling. Drivers have no respect, the roads are narrow, with steep grades, many tight, blind curves, and unrealistic speed limits. (And lots of visitors who may not be real good at driving on the left.)

    It would be contradictory re NZ policy as well. NZ has a fetish with health and safety. Where I work we have been instructed to not carry our cup of tea down the stairs. There are other things equally ridiculous, but maybe the fetish is justified by the fact that taxpayers are paying for everybody’s health care so whatever injuries can be avoided should be. But head trauma is not ridiculous. And in the case of cycling, motorbiking, or horseback riding, head trauma injuries are eminently avoidable. Not impossible, but a helmet provides a lot of protection. (As a polo player, I’m not allowed on a horse without a helmet. I mean me wearing the helmet, not the horse, though the way I play maybe it should.) An irresponsible cyclist (there are some) shouldn’t be taking up an ICU that is needed by a heart attack or accident victim. Or maybe the health system shouldn’t cover any injuries sustained to the head if a helmet wasn’t worn.

    Cycling in Europe is so much safer because bike lanes are much more common, are very wide, i.e., designed to carry a large volume of cycling traffic, and drivers are very much more accommodating than those in the US or NZ, and they have recognised the bicycle as a legitimate transport mode for a very long time.

    Finally, the thing about the “danger” of wearing a helmet. Hogwash. 3.35 inches closer. I just don’t buy it. First of all, that’s not very much, so measuring that distance between a moving car and a moving bike each going different speeds isn’t easy. Second, I can’t buy that drivers are influenced by whether the rider is wearing a helmet, but if they are it suggests they are paying much closer attention to cyclists than I was willing to give them credit for. Third, well there is no third, that’s plenty.

    And the argument that mandatory helmet laws reduce the number of people cycling, to which I say “so what?” If fire codes reduce the number of buildings being built, my response is the same.

    There is an old quip about car safety – the most dangerous feature on the car is the nut behind the wheel. The cyclist himself has some control over his environment by riding safely, according to traffic laws, and exercising lots of situational awareness. But there is *so much* out of one’s control, why risk it? What is the big…deal about wearing a helmet? The one consolation may be that you won’t have to wear one as you putter around in your electric wheelchair.

    • “And the argument that mandatory helmet laws reduce the number of people cycling, to which I say “so what?””

      The more people cycle, the healthier society is, which lowers our costs in more ways than one.

    • “Cycling in Europe is so much safer because bike lanes are much more common, are very wide” – What do you mean by “Europe”? Do you mean the EU? If so, your statement only applies to a tiny percentage of the population of the EU. Basically, Northern Europe has reasonable cycle infrastructure (other than the the Netherlands and Denmark and maybe Sweden, which have very good infrastructure) but otherwise it is pretty woeful.

      The UK and Ireland, Eastern, Central and southern Europe have almost no good cycle infrastructure. Madrid for example is terrible for cycling. There are the odd exception (small parts of Belgium (but Brussels is terrible), Barcelona, Bordeaux, Pardubice, Cambridge, Munster, Budapest, Vienna) but overall the cycle infrastructure in European cities is not much better than the good parts of North America like Montreal, Vancouver and Portland.

      Overall Europe has a cycle modal share of around 7% (http://www.ecf.com/news/20-cycling-modal-share-by-2020-italys-bicycle-lobby-flexes-its-muscles/) – so about the same as Portland, Oregon (the best Anglophone large city in the world).

      And yet there is not one European country with a helmet law. Why is that?

    • Smink

      That is a vicious cycle then. By keeping bicycle helmets mandatory, the amount of cyclist won’t improve, therefore the pressure to improve infrastructure is minimal. Because the infrastructure is not there, cycling isn’t really very safe, and therefore the helmets are mandatory…
      There is only one way to break the cycle and that is to get more cyclists on the road.There are two ways to do it, improve infrastucture (unlikely to happen) or remove mandatory helmets, which is a real deterrent for people to grab a bicycle.

  • MAMIL, you’re ignoring all the research which says that compulsary head protection for cyclists results in a greater number of deaths in society as a whole. In particular because it discourages cycling which leads to poorer health.

    You’re also ignoring the plummeting cycle rate associated with introduction of helmet laws, which would indicate it is the law, not laziness, that puts people off. I know this is true in my situation, I phased out my cycling after the law was enacted. I found the straps against my ears altered my perception of where traffic was behind me, as even the slightest change in your earlobe position will alter directional sense. This probably explains why cycling accidents increased after the law came into effect. I regard cycling as safer without helmets.

  • Ok so I really have to call into question the claim that walking is as dangerous as cycling. For a start the figures published by NZTA show that cycling is 2.6 times more dangerous (in terms of injury and death) than walking per hour, and 4 times more dangerous per km.

    But more importantly, the data on exposure levels (how long people spend walking/cycling) is very poor, just an estimate of a thumbsuck. The idea that Australia has good exposure data is completely laughable, I review this when I worked for the Monash Injury Research Institute and quite frankly the data is so poor you can’t use it. It’s based on ropey estimates from a self report survey. I imagine the NZTA source is just as ropey.

    So I don’t think you can make that claim either way.

    I also have to critique some of those charts above. Take the one of Californian cities. For a start they are plotting pedestrian modeshare and cycling together. Take out the pedestrians and you get a range from about 1% to 6%, while almost the entire range sits between 1% and 2%. What does that tell us? Not much. It means that there is a huge range of “Relative Risk Index” (whatever that measures!) for cities with the same cycle mode share. We can also see that the lowest relative risk index cities are the ones with the least cycling share! So what, junk data that really doesn’t prove anything either way.

    And the second chart. The UK and Finland have almost identical helmet wearing rates, yet Finland has some four or five times the cycling share. Likewise Germany and Finland, same cycle share, five fold difference in helmet wearing.

    And why are these charts all measuring cycle fatalities? Why exactly? Fatalities are very uncommon, there are hundreds of injurous crashes for every cycle fatality. This is like trying to evaluate the risk of occupational overuse syndrome by recording the number of people who drop dead from typing at a computer. It really misses the point.

    Also the correlation between helmet laws and cycle mode share to work. Ok, interesting numbers, but how can you possibly separate that effect from the much bigger and more obvious correlation between cycling and driving?! The reason we don’t cycle anymore is because cars got cheap, we designed our road network squarely to support cars and only cars, and everyone started owning and driving a car for all of their trips (and started driving their kids to school instead of letting them cycle).
    Helmet laws might have had an effect, I don’t know, but I’m pretty bloody sure that what killed of cycling rates was cheap cars and mass automobility through the 80s and onwards. Cycling rates were already in freefall when the helmet laws were introduced in the early 90s.

    Sorry but these figures are, in my mind, as badly validated as the likes of Demographia and their measures of sprawl and housing affordability. Another case of an advocacy group being very selective in what they present then jumping to huge unsubstantiated conclusions.

    On a personal note, I just don’t see what all the bother about helmets is. For a start who cares if helmets show cycling as dangerous. Cycling is dangerous, to some degree at least. We are perfectly happy to identify driving as a dangerous activity that requires certain behaviours and precautions to mitigate, see the huge amount of attention to vehicle safety, speeding, drink driving campaigns etc. Even with simple fun things like rugby or whatever, we identify there are risks and work to mitigate them. I certainly don’t think we should stop telling kids to warm up gently and avoid spear tackles just because we might want to promote rugby as an entirely safe activity. It’s not, and pretending otherwise isn’t useful.

    So yes, maybe there is safety in numbers, yes we will have a healthier society with more cycling. Great, let’s work to that. But does the irrational demonising of helmets help that, would removing our helmet laws change anything? Why don’t we focus on those things that we already know make a huge and positive impact on cycling rates and safety, thing like bike lanes, cycle infrastructure, safe intersection design. That is what will get people on bikes, that is what will lift the numbers.

    Ask people why they don’t ride in Auckland and the answer “because I have to wear a helmet” isn’t number one on the list, it’s probably not number ten. The reasons people give are about the madness of being a cyclist on the roads soaked with cars and traffic, the lack of space, the lack of protection, no infrastructure, nowhere to park bikes. Is removing helmet laws going to make people suddenly overlook all the main reasons they don’t cycle?

    Going lidless is perhaps the endgame, the goal for when we have a safe roadsharing culture. When we have the cycling infrastructure of the likes of Amsterdam we will get the cycling usage rates of Amsterdam. We should expect to get the usage rates first to justify the investment in infrastructure, and we certainly shouldn’t expect that removing helmet laws will magically give use those high usage rates. Removing the laws isn’t likely to change anything, and it might just result in a few more health issues. So again, I don’t see what all the bother is. Surely there are a dozen things we already know we can do to get more people on bikes before we consider helmet law changes.

    • Nick R

      *shouldn’t*

    • Ross

      Nick R, you state that “the figures published by NZTA show that cycling is 2.6 times more dangerous (in terms of injury and death) than walking per hour, and 4 times more dangerous per km”. Unless I’ve misread, that doesn’t make sense. The walkers would have to travel 1.5 times faster than cyclists on average. Sends unlikely. Can you post a link to the NZTA source data?

    • Ross

      Nick, you state that “the figures published by NZTA show that cycling is 2.6 times more dangerous (in terms of injury and death) than walking per hour, and 4 times more dangerous per km”. Unless I’ve misread, that doesn’t make sense. The walkers would have to travel 1.5 times faster than cyclists on average. Sends unlikely. Can you post a link to the NZTA source data?

    • Stevenz

      Nick, well done!!

  • Ari

    This law has NO impact on whether I choose to rude my bike or not and I imagine many others think the same. I have a bike but haven’t owned a helmet in years. Mind you I don’t cycle on the main roads, just to the park or to the local shop.

    Rise in organic food sales in the US matches the rise in autism rates, so what? Correlation doesn’t prove causation. I see no conclusive evidence to repeal the law. Yes I agree with the notion that there’s safety in numbers and I agree that cycling isn’t nearly as dangerous as it is made out to be, but I disagree that the law is the root of all evil.

    I would be incredibly skeptical about any suggestions that repealing the law would somehow magically stop fat people shoving themselves full of junk food, make people stop smoking or doing drugs, make lazy teenagers suddenly want to lead active lives away from their phones or computers, stop parents driving their lazy kids to school, stop stupid people wasting their lives playing Angry Birds or bring world peace.

    To suggest the law is causing more than a tiny fraction of problem is as bad as suggesting that the lull in traffic growth is because of just high fuel prices. There are bigger factors at play.

    • Sailor Boy

      Well put.

      This is a stupid debate to have imho, we all know that you don’t need a helmet while riding slowly in safe streets, argument over.

      Lets talk about getting some cycle infrastructure; maybe some ideas posted by members with detailedish designs that we can take to AT like Nelson St.

  • Dave B (Wellington)

    RAMBLINGS OF A CYCLIST
    A cyclist since the mid1960′s, most of my riding over the years has been without a helmet and I never had any problem. True, I tended to ride “upright” bicycles with high-ish handlebars rather than drop-handlebar models and I believe this lessened the chance of head-impact in a typical small-scale mishap, even though I would often crouch low for better aerodynamics.

    But since being made to wear a helmet I have been very glad of it on two occasions. Both at low-speed, both serious enough to wreck the helmet, and neither involving another vehicle:

    First, when some idiot undid the quick-release on my front wheel as I popped into a shop. I rode off unawares, but then had to “hump” the front wheel up over a low curb at a minor side-turn. The wheel came off and rolled away. Front forks hit the road and heels over head I went. Probably doing no more than 10Km/h but in an instant my head was hitting the tarmac with scary force. The helmet protected me, although I suffered a badly strained neck.

    Second was totally my own fault. I leaned around to switch on my rear light while still riding. Failed to see a deeply-sunken stormwater-drain until too late (excessive asphalt build-up and drain-cover not raised to compensate – very common in NZ!). Front wheel dropped down onto this and couldn’t climb out. Again before I could react I was on my head again. Felt the soft, cushioned impact afforded by the helmet and shuddered at what would I have suffered without it.

    So although I hate wearing the thing and resented the compulsion when it took effect, I have to say that it has proved its worth for me. But sometimes I think of the little old ladies from my childhood who would regularly cycle down to the corner store for the groceries, where are their equivalents now? Likely driving planet-pounding SUVs to the big-box supermarket, and definitely not riding a bicycle, where a helmet would flatten their hair-do. While compulsory helmett-wearing is only one factor in the social changes that have occurred, it cannot be ruled out as a contributor to a shift away from cycling. For many reasons this is not a desirable outcome.

  • Simon H

    Like a helmet off road, not convinced about its merits on road. Though it does give me somewhere to mount my 1000 lumen head light (geddit?) which works wonders for spotting motorists who would have otherwise pulled out in front of me.

  • Jacques

    I think there’s much more effective ways to make riding (and driving) safer than mandating helmets, by going at the root of most accidents, and most of the damage in accidents: cars. Changing the macho NZ driving culture, making drivers accountable more often for the consequences of their bad driving instead of considering almost all crashes as acts of god, mandating that drivers give 1.5m to cyclists when passing them (as per Tina McCullough’s campaign – http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11187748). And another step could be to change the driver’s license obtention process (http://www.nzta.govt.nz/licence/getting/cars/car-licence.html) to add compulsory driving lessons with a professional instructor, instead of everyone learning driving from their mom or grandpa, along with all the bad habits. At the moment, the only time learners get in contact with a professional instructor is when they are tested.

  • mfwic

    It is odd that cyclists dont like helmets given that they have been wearing weird hats for years. Think the daft looking little plonker hat with the tiny brim usually turned up. Or even those really stupid looking smurf helmets they wear on the track.

    • Um, not sure how this applies to the majority of people biking who have NEVER cycled on a track or in a road race… I can also tell you that wearing (say) a baseball cap or wide-brim hat while riding on a hot sunny day is quite a different feeling than wearing a sturdy bike helmet in the same conditions.

  • Richard Horner

    Our law was enacted without proper consultation and was based on emotion rather than real facts.
    Do cyclists have many head injuries compared to other activities? From my experience of 60 odd years cycling and 31 years racing the answer would be NO.

    Are helmets effective? Many think they are because the smashed helmet following impact looks very dramatic and their thought is ” I would have been worse off without the helmet”. In reality you need a full motorcycle helmet to offer true protection and these are not possible to use on a bicycle.

    We can’t order a particular type of accident and therefore luck plays a big part. From my experiences you can certainly be worse off with a cycle helmet than without. Before the law head impacts in bike crashes were rare but since the law every second fall seems to have helmet contact. The reasons are multiple and some already mentioned.

    My experiences which confirm the negatives of wearing a helmet are as follows :-

    In 1987 I was cycling and was struck from behind by a removal house on a truck. ( I had pulled into a side road entrance to let it pass) The impact injured my back and propelled me into an open drain where my head struck the end of a culvert face first. The second impact smashed my facial bones and I lost half my face. A full facial helmet would have dramatically reduced my injuries. I also cracked a bone in my neck. It is my firm belief that had i been wearing a lightweight plastic cycle helmet it would have snagged on the culvert and caused a greater force on my neck resulting in a complete fracture and either death or tetraplegia.

    In the 1970′s when training I struck a deformity in the road and broke my left arm. I grazed my chin

    In 1985 in a race sprint I hit a similar deformity and my leather helmet came off before impact somehow and I broke my left humorous and grazed my cheek. A plastic helmet would have impacted and shattered in both these crashes causing lacerations to my head?.

    Before the helmet law despite numerous crashes these were the only ones where I had hit my head in any way, then five years ago I had my first fall since 1987 and first wearing a modern helmet. I struck a deformity similar to that in the two previous crashes and surprise I struck my helmet which shattered and plastic shards dug into my forehead. Whilst not concussed the trauma to my head was greater than the previous crashes.

    I have little faith in modern plastic helmets and believe a decent padded leather helmet with modern fittings would provide better impact protection of the type suffered on a bike. The padding would slow down the impact force and thence the ricochet effect to the brain far better than a thin layer of polystyrene which just shatters. None are effective for impact with vehicles and the risk when cycling on a sit up bike is quite remote so personal choice should apply.

  • Jonathan

    I stopped cycling with a helmet three years ago. Apart from the occasional taunt by Auckland motorists at traffic lights, I feel safer as motorists are more conscious of me and provide more distance, plus I’m more hazard-aware without the false sense of security afforded by the helmet.

    With NT in Australia repealing its helmet law, isn’t New Zealand now the only country in the world with a mandatory helmet law?

    • Hey Jonathan,

      I get the same taunts from motorists, pedestrians and even some cyclists! Can be really frustrating at times.

      With regards to NT – I believe they still have a helmet law. But I think they have relaxed the law so that if you are an adult you can ride helmet free as long as you are on a dedicated cycle path or the footpath (in Australia you can legally ride on the footpath).

      So both countries are still the only countries on the planet with a MHL, but Northern Territory got away with relaxing theirs because most of their population were ignoring it anyway, and the cops didn’t really want to spend time trying to enforce the law.

  • Ross

    Here’s some information with quoted sources to inform the discussion:

    http://www.keepeek.com/Digital-Asset-Management/oecd/transport/cycling-health-and-safety_9789282105955-en#page175

    (should be read in the context of the previous page as well)

    In summary, helmet use does decrease head injuries but appears to increase other injuries. The overall health impact of mandating helmet use is negative. In jurisdictions where cycling is relatively safe helmet mandates are likely to have large unintended negative health impacts. In areas where cycling is unsafe helmet mandates will do little to improve safety and only under the most extreme assumptions will societal health improve.

  • An interesting piece… but ultimately it’s throwing together too many flawed arguments/data/research.

    Why did the number of kids riding to school drop? Fear! Introduction of helmet laws drove the perception that cycling was “really” dangerous, this fear drove parents to decide that their kids should be driven to school. Of course that has gone hand-in-hand with an increase in both parents working, so if you are going that way, you may as well drop your children off… so fear drives a drop in cyclists and an increase in congestion. Those who do cycle become fearful due to the increase in traffic and so get their parents to drive them to school and before you know it the bike shed is gone.

    You can also map the increase in both parents working with the access to cheaper cars thanks to the pre-owned import market from Asia. More cars per household ties up the income and then there’s less to spend and contemplation of buying bikes for the kids/family falls away.

    It also trains people that car is good, anything else… not good.

    A pro-safety campaign has it’s best impact if you can link it to fear, then it’ll be effective, however this fear can go beyond the brief and the initial message is lost, as it just becomes about fear. This has driven cycling numbers down, especially school children.

    The helmet laws were introduced to stop people getting serious injuries and prevent deaths, please remember that.

    Yes, it’s clear that European nations with a strong cycling culture have a lower death rate, but those same cities have a higher rate of people slipping on ice in winter and dying than Auckland, so clearly there is a relation to infrastructure/environment, but what it really does when you compare Auckland to Copenhagen is just drive the fear story, so stop it!

    The value in this argument is to use infrastructure changes to encourage cyclists will benefit health, environment and community.

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