6 reasons bicycle helmets shouldn’t be any government’s policy

Bicycle helmets are one of the most debated elements of cycling safety, but here’s 6 reasons bicycle helmets shouldn’t be any government’s policy:

This article is not about personal use of helmets, it’s about public policy and what governments and other state bodies focus on and spend money on. If you want to wear a helmet or get your child to wear one, please do so. Public policy, however, should be based on facts.

1. Countries with lower helmet wearing rates have fewer cycling-related deaths

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As the above graph from cyclehelmets.org shows, if we’re really worryed about decreasing the amount of cycling-related deaths, helmets arent a good place to look.

The Netherlands have the lowest level of helmet wearing and a very high level of cycling, but a low level of deaths per km traveled by bicycle. The response to this is usually something along the lines of “but we don’t have their segregated cycle paths”…  sure, but helmet policies have not been successful so-far, so maybe it’s time to start to copy the Netherlands and build more segregated cycle routes of their standards? 

Public policy should take emotions into account, but, at the end of the day, it needs to follow what’s proven to be effective — the research behind helmets is often problematic and sometimes contradictory, while effectiveness of Dutch-like street and road design is proven at a population-level.

2. Helmets don’t prevent concussion

From articles to comment sections to Facebook, you’ll find loads of stories that “a helmet saved my life“, but maybe more worrying are the claims that the helmet was so good it stopped all injury. The problem is that we have come across more than a few examples of where people were challenged in close-knit communities, where their peers advised them to seek medical attention, and where they reported back that they had a concussion without knowing it.

As outlined in this recent Ted Talk video, helmets don’t prevent concussions. But the fact helmets cannot prevent concussions is not new — for example, have a look at this 2012 Scientific American article: “Why Don’t Helmets Prevent Concussions?” 

At a very basic level: The outside shell of a helmet can’t stop the brain bouncing or stretching around inside a person’s skull after an impact.

3. Helmet promotion can mean less cycling

Mandatory helmets law in Australia are linked with a fall in the numbers of people cycling and this effect is proven because it happened first in Australian states which first introduce local helmet laws and followed country-wide when the law was expanded.

As the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation states: “The average for all states with enforced laws at the time of the 1991 census was a reversal of the trend of increasing percentages of people cycling to work. In contrast, the percentage cycling to work in states with no enforced helmet laws continued to increase, the sharp decline occurring only in the 1996 census, when helmet laws were enforced throughout Australia.”

But beyond mandtory laws, there’s also some signs — even if only tentative — that promotion without a law can slow or even decrease the numbers of people cycling. Strong helmet promotion by Denmark authorities was claimed to be the reason why the percentage of Copenhagen residents who cycle fell from 37% to 35% between 2008 and 2010.

While it is tentative in one respect,  it is well known that that many teenagers, particularly teenage girls, have issues with wearing helmets. This is shown across countries and forms part of official  feedback to Irish smarter travel programmes which look at getting more people walking and cycling. 

It is not unreasonable to believe this effect goes beyond teenagers (for example, there’s many stories online of non-cycling partners getting their partners to wear helmets). But is it all fashion and convenience above safety? Not when the effectiveness of helmets is so questionable.

4. Extra injuries can be caused by helmets

Speaking about research funded by the Irish Road Safety Authority, the head of the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at UCD, Professor Michael Gilchrist, said that “in some cases you can get increased angular accelerations wearing a helmet”. In a paper Gilchrist wrote: “There are many studies linking head angular acceleration with brain injuries, especially diffuse axonal injury, as this is caused primarily by head angular acceleration”

There’s also UK research showing drivers passing cyclists do so closer when the cyclist is wearing a helmet, although this is disputed by pro-helmet researchers.

And there’s what’s called “risk compensation”, or as one study put it: “increased cycling speed and decreased risk perception in a helmet-on compared to a helmet-off condition among cyclists used to wearing helmets.” This, like much of helmet research on both sides, is also disputed.

5. Too many issues with pro-helmet research

The problems with pro-helmet research are numerous — including low sample sizes, not taking population growth into account, and publication bias and time-trend bias — but possibly the largest problem with the research is bunching all sorts cycling and conditions together. 

Cycling in fast traffic isn’t the same as cycling with limited or no traffic and downhill mountain biking isn’t the same as cycling to the shop… so how these be comparable at all? That’s not something a larger percentage of pro-cycling research can overcome.

6. Helmets are a distraction from a real debate on safe cycling

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IMAGE: Cycling in Amsterdam is an “everyday thing that people can do in everyday clothes whether you are eight or 80 years old”

This is best left to Chris Boardman to explain. Boardman had to defend himself after appearing on BBC, he wrote: “the reaction to my riding a bicycle in normal clothing, looking like a normal person was greeted by some with cries of horror” and said this was “understandable and unfortunate because it obscures what I believe are the real issues.”

“I understand why people wish to use them. But these actions seek to deal with an effect. I want to focus the debate on the cause and campaign for things that will really make cycling safe. That is why I won’t promote high vis and helmets; I won’t let the debate be drawn onto a topic that isn’t even in the top 10 things that will really keep people who want to cycle safe,” said Boardman.

He added: “I want cycling in the UK to be like it is in Utrecht or Copenhagen and more recently New York City – an everyday thing that people can do in everyday clothes whether you are eight or 80 years old. I want cycling to be a normal thing that normal people do in normal clothes. Is that wrong?”

3 Comments

  1. But this is exactly the sort of low cost, quick fix that [non-cycling] decision makers dream of! How could we possibly deny them this opportunity?
    Here’s an interesting study which some of you may not be aware of http://www.drianwalker.com/overtaking/overtakingprobrief.pdf

  2. Your first point is invalid because of the many significant confounding factors. point 5 (and point3) is invalid because there’s too many issues with helmet wearing research in general, that bath study is almost anecdotal.

  3. @Other Paul: What are these many significant confounding factors? Do you even have a sample of the main ones?

    What exactly is wrong with point 5?

    And what exactly is wrong with point 3?

    And that still leaves us with three other points.

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