Weekend musing: The bicycle helmet rears its ugly head

Under our World City Bike program we have for several years now been looking at the yes/no sudden-death helmet issue in the context of public bike projects . If you click here you will find several postings that make an effort to report in a balanced manner (to the extent possible) on the issues, trade-offs and implications of creating legal requirements that force all cyclists to use helmets. An absolutely well-intentioned position which has turned out to be no less than the cold hand of death strangling nascent public bicycle projects in various projects around the world. Pity to spend all that public money on a nice bike sharing system and then find that they are not being widely used while honest citizens add pounds of fat to what should be their lithe frames. In the event, here are a handful of short videos from YouTube that take a pretty good whack at it from several perspectives. Have a look and decide for yourself.

Wikipedia on bike helmets

To get a quck feel for both sides of the helmet debate, Wikipedia gives us a good point of departure. It opens like this:

A bicycle helmet is a helmet intended to be worn while riding a bicycle. They are designed to attenuate impacts to the skull of a cyclist in falls while minimizing side effects such as interference with peripheral vision.[1] There is an active scientific debate, with no consensus, on whether helmets are useful for cyclists in general, and on whether any benefits are outweighed by their disadvantages. The debate on whether helmet use should be enforced by law is intense and occasionally bitter, often based not only on differing interpretations of the academic literature, but also on differing assumptions and interests on the two sides.

Click here for the evidence on each side as per their summary and extensive references.

Now let’s go to the movies:

Helmets save lives

Helmet freedom:

Ask the Dutch (and don’t miss this one.)

Professor Chris Rissel talks helmets

M. Colville-Andersen: Why We Shouldn’t Bike with a Helmet

There are more out there of course and I am sure that some of our readers will add to what you find here. But you probably have other claims on your time this weekend, so we thought that one handful was enough to get this started.

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You may also find some value in our 2008 working paper on this topic which is available here – http://networkdispatches.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/wp3-helmets.pdf. For those in a hurry, here are the main lines of the argument behind the working paper.

Working Paper #3

Should Vancouver require helmets for planned new city bike system

A group brainstorm from World City Bikes


Eric Britton & Associates
The World City Bike collaborative

Dossier Contents
1. Conclusion and Recommendation 2
2. Summary Background 3
3. Some useful reading and references: 4
4. British Columbia Bicycle Helmet Law 5
5. Discussions, recommendations from World City Bike Forum 7

1. Conclusion and Recommendation

1. No. The British Columbia Bicycle Helmet Law (attached) should be amended to provide exemptions for users of the new public bicycle service.

2. If this exception is not made, it is our professional view that the present project as a city-wide PBS implementation will not meet its ambitious objectives that would put it on a par with the best city bike projects in the world, and thus should not be advanced beyond the present pre-study stage.

3. If the law is not amended however, there still are good possibilities for a much smaller, less intensely used shared bike project or demonstration, but at a lower level of ambition than that presently being discussed as a showplace project for Vancouver during the 2010 Winter Olympics. And despite its greatly reduced ambition level such a reduced scale project would, if carefully planned, be useful for the city in its long term program to scale back private car use in the center.

4. Far more important than mandating helmets when t comes to public safety is the matter of securing the conditions of safe cycling in your city. This is a sine quo non for any city bike project, and the means for doing so are well known to bicycle and traffic planners in many places, including in Vancouver. Getting the supporting infrastructure right is the real bottom line for your city, both in terms of ensuring safety and to guarantee the chances for the success of the project.

Eric Britton
Managing Director, EcoPlan International

2. Summary Background

Basically there are two issues here. They need to be sorted out one at a time. First, the more general issue: should cyclists be obliged by law to wear helmets? Second: should “city cyclists (i..e, mainly those who are using the new PBS systems, but also anyone else on a bike in a central area that has made provision for safe cycling) be required to wear helmets.

During the last decade of the last century a slowly growing number of cities and public authorities around the world started to build and expand leisure cycling paths and trails. The greater part of these new facilities were built in areas that did not have a strong bicycling culture and where for many reasons few people actually used bicycles for daily transportation (and those who did often found themselves in high risk situations with mixed traffic the norm).

These expanded leisure facilities naturally brought in more cyclists, with the result that there were more accidents, and these often became news items. As a result in a number of places in North America, Australia/New Zealand and northern Europe well-meant laws were passed mandating helmets for all cyclists. (It being, by the way, a lot cheaper to pass such a law than to make the public investment necessary to ensure safe cycling for all in and around d the city.)

The case for wearing helmets was largely approved by medical authorities and a number of cycling organizations at the time, on the grounds that a good helmet offers protection from certain types of accidents. If all the assumptions are born out the case for these “partial assessments” looks pretty convincing. Reality however moves in other ways. Once you step outside of the partial assessment assumptions, the real world data is uncertain and ambiguous. (See attached discussions and references)

It only took a few years for other views to emerge. Among other things it was pointed out that (a) not all helmets are actually good enough to provide the needed protection; (b) more often than not they are not properly adjusted to provide this protection; and (c) in any event the clash between cyclist and motor vehicles are of such a level of violence that the helmet is rarely of much help in such cases.

More than that, some studies started to show that mandating helmets actually work to reduced cycling, a finding which is consistent with the observation whereby any additional barrier to using a transportation option works to reduce demand. This brings about corresponding losses in healthy activity, kinder and gentler cities,

Moreover, let us consider what happens in cities with heavy use of cycling for daily transport within the city limits. I offer the examples of cycling in cities across the Netherlands and Denmark, the two main cycling capitals of the world, as well as in the various city bike projects that are coming on line in places like Paris, Barcelona, Lyons and a rapidly growing number of other cities around the world. None of these cities mandate helmets, and if you go out on the street and look you will see few helmets. You will see some and this is, in my view, a wise but entirely personal choice.

3. Some useful reading and references:

• Bicycle helmet research web links – http://www.cycle-helmets.com/links.html
• Entrenchment of Helmet Laws in Australian Road Rules – http://members.tip.net.au/~psvansch/crag/natroad/
• Efficacy of Helmet Wearing For Cyclists – http://members.tip.net.au/~psvansch/crag/natroad/natrd-a.htm
• Australian Helmet Experience – http://www.helmets.org/veloaust.htm
• Advocacy should be based on Evaluation – http://www.bmj.com/cgi/eletters/328/7444/888
• Helmets – Frequently Asked Questions – http://www.magma.ca/~ocbc/hfaq.html#a0
• “The case against cycle helmets and legislation” – http://www.ctcyorkshirehumber.org.uk/campaigns/velo.htm

Organizations that advocate helmet use
• Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute: US organization promoting helmet use .
• Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust: UK-based organization campaigning for a mandatory helmet law for children

Sites critical of cycle helmets
• Cyclists Rights Action Group (Australia )
• The Vehicular Cyclist (Canada)
• Mandatory Bicycle Helmet Law in Western Australia
• Cycling Health (New Zealand)

On the next two pages you will find the text of the British Columbia Bicycle Helmet Law of 1995. It is followed by a number discussions from an international expert group including representatives of cycling associations, statisticians, experts in risk assessment, and public policy analysts. These statements by and large reinforce the main recommendations of the author above.

* For full working paper text click here.

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7 thoughts on “Weekend musing: The bicycle helmet rears its ugly head

  1. I am 67 and have ridden a bike since I was six (and there were no child-sized bikes then in Vancouver).

    I wear a helmet at all times. I have had the helmet save me from head injury twice, neither in a collision with another vehicle, motorized or other. I fell on both occasions, once descending a steep incline, and once when a pedal fell off when I was bearing down on it. I even had it saved me from injury when I fell while walking in my back door, and slipped on slippery wood on my back deck while pivoting.

    One of the main reasons I wear one is that it is the one piece of bike gear I don’t leave behind when I got into stores, and thus automatically communicate to others which mode I used to travel there — Bike pride.

    I just can’t see how the Dutch have not adopted them. I wasn’t impressed by their reasoning.

    • Dear Chris,

      Thanks for those good comments. Your point is well taken and important to consider. It brings two other points to this even older daily cycling mind.

      1. It is my observation that the conditions for daily city cycling within any city that has taken care with safe infrastructure, enforcement, etc. provisions as necessary for safe daily cycling — and this is not the case of course in 99.9% of all cities in North America and indeed most of the rest of the world outside of those European cities which have dealt with these issues over the years – that the actual conditions for the cyclist are VERY different from those that you and others encounter in their still less than perfectly cycling friendly local environment s. But I may be wrong on this.

      2. I have long made the distinction between the tough and worthy commuter and other cyclists who daily brave these unfriendly streets. And for them you point is well taken – you would have to be a bit bananas NOT to have a good helmet firmly planted on your head before getting out into the car wars.

      3. But what is your view about the use of the law to impose helmets on all, even in these more friendly daily transport cycling environments. We still need such laws and enforcement?

      To try to be of some help here I have just now added some of the text of our 2008 working paper in which I have tried to set out my best ideas on the topic. It would be good to have your critical remarks on these as well.


    • Having lived in the Netherlands, I’m wondering how many Dutch people (not cyclists) “bear down” on their pedals. It seems that the Dutch people, sitting upright on their bikes and talking to their friends who are either alongside them on their bikes or on the other end of their mobile phone connection use bicycles very differently to cyclists around the world – who are ‘addicted’ to speed.

      There are steep ramps in the Netherlands where people go very slowly on their bicycles, or walk.

      The Dutch solution seems to be far safer than wearing a helmet and travelling at excessive speeds that are a danger to cyclists and pedestrians – and there is no “Bike pride”.

      Perhaps we should be looking at the design of bikes – many Dutch bikes are very difficult to take to excessive speeds.

  2. Good stuff Eric. Helmet is preferable but until we all start wearing them for walking from A to B perhaps we could relax a little in relation to bikes and get more people cycling

  3. Just a word from the Melbourne Bikeshare scene which is something I believe in and try to support. I try to hire the bikes every week and today used them 6 times. At each station as usual were tourists seeing what its about and I often show them how it works. Almost ALL I talk to mutter about the helmets and dont bother to hire although most I see on them are going without helmets. I dont think anyone has been actually booked yet but the police have sent some walking back with their bikes. I hope Vancouver takes note. Bikeshare schemes and helmet law doesnt mix.
    Peter John Robinson, Melbourne

  4. This is an interesting discussion, I’dl like to share my experience from East Coast of Canada. The most challenging issue I found during my research on evaluating potentials for a public bicycle system in Halifax, Canada, was compulsory helmet law in the city. Most of the survey respondents identified helmet law as number one reason that the PBS will not succeed in the city.
    A previously conducted research in the city revealed that helmet law prevented 1-2% of cyclist head injuries over the years. That is an important number to consider, at the same time, the helmet law prevented a large number of people from cycling on a daily basis. Many people in Halifax received fines of well over $160 for not using a helmet and that one fine was more than enough for them to stop taking their bike around! Without the helmet law, more people would consider taking their bikes out for causal rides to and from work or school. More cyclists on the streets means more safety for them because the motorists will be more aware of them and the city official will have the pressure to install better cycling infrastructure in the city.
    As Eric said it earlier, we should distinguish regular cyclists and causal urban cyclists. Here, I am only talking about casual cyclists that would use the bike only for short distances in the city once or twice a day.

  5. Anything that suggests cycling is dangerous will put people off. Anything which makes cycling more complicated like being forced to wear a helmet will put people off. The safety in number argument seems to hold, so logically everything that discourages cycling increases the danger level for all cyclists. This might put even more people off.

    I’ve long argued against a helmet law and graphically frightening helmet campaigns in Sweden. It should be up to the individual because cycling and cyclists vary. I never wear a helmet on our separated cycle path system but could wear one if I was planning doing some long descents or going off road. At the same time I strongly recommend that the adults I teach to cycle continue to use a helmet for at least their first 1000 hours in the saddle.

    Some people are reckless when cycling, I don’t mean breaking the law as such but in the city centre it’s sensible to slow down and be considerate to others even if you have a separated path if only for your own safety. These reckless people usually seem to wear a helmet, which is good as you can then see them coming. At least in daylight, (the reckless helmet people tend to be bad at remembering lights.)

    Some things I got from the Dutch film, one is that everyone learned at an early age and cycle more or less daily. Combined with the fact that in Holland you really have to try hard to find a downhill that will get you over 50kmh. This makes Dutch cyclist pretty safe even before you factor in the infrastructure. The other was a mention of drinking.

    All the times I have fallen as an adult in a city situation there has been a combination of alcohol and a down hill involved. (Don’t worry I’m not young and feckless any more.) A bar owner should (possibly by law) have to have a few helmets handy for lending purposes. Even someone who refused the offer would get the warning, “you’ve had a few, put a lid on it”
    My conclusion, a helmet is good if you plan to cycle recklessly or cycle drunk or have just learnt to cycle. New cyclists need practise and I believe should get all our encouragement. I’m not sure if we should really be encouraging the others who need a helmet…


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