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:
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.
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.
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.
Bicycle 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.
Here’s data from 68 cities in California showing the strong correlation between safety and the number of cyclists:
Injury Prevention, Jacobsen
Here’s a comparison of the US and different European counties:
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.