The Helmet Debate

Nothing has been more hotly debated or more polarizing than the debate about the merits of mandatory helmet laws.

By Elly Blue

In the cycling arena, nothing has been more hotly debated or more polarizing than the debate about the merits of mandatory helmet laws.

Carla Danley is a former emergency room nurse who has seen her fair share of head injuries. She has also been a daily bicycle rider since 2009 when, at age 50, she moved to Portland, OR, and launched headlong into the city’s vibrant bike scene. In Portland, bicycling verges on the mainstream.

Danley is one of many who choose to wear a helmet every time they ride. “It’s in my marriage contract,” she said. Her husband lost his teenage sister after she was struck by a car while on a cross-Canada bike trip. “One of the things I give him credit for is: when we moved to Oregon, I was like, ‘I’m going to get rid of my car and ride a bike’, and he has always been behind me 100 percent,” she said. “But he is really clear that he wants me to use bike lights at night and have a helmet on all the time. And I’m good with that.”

Across the globe, in Western Australia, Sue Abbott, a 50-year-old mother of four who has cycled for transportation for 46 years, has never worn a bike helmet. Even after 1991 when Australia became the first country to pass a law requiring them for adults and children, she rode helmet-free, an act that soon earned her a stiff ticket.

Abbott emerged victorious last August from a string of court battles over her right to cycle bare-headed in her town of Scone, New South Wales. Aiding her suit was the embattled and contradictory state of scientific research on helmet use.

Since the helmet question is one of the most fiercely debated and polarized issues in transportation bicycling, the question is, which is more important: personal freedom or a precautionary approach that mandates defensive cycling? Should the government step in to enforce head protection or should the onus be on the individual? The science is murky, but the political philosophies in question are sharply delineated.

A Brief History of Helmets and Laws

For much of the history of the bicycle there were no helmets, only protective leather caps occasionally worn by bike racers, motorists, aeronauts, rugby players and mountaineers.

Helmets, as we know them today, did not exist until 1975, when Bell Sports introduced the first polystyrene model to the United States market. First constructed to protect the skull by crushing on impact, there has been little aesthetic or material innovation in their design until recent years.

Now, in North America, fanciful or sleek helmet shells with minimal venting, such as those made by Nutcase and Bern, are becoming popular among utility cyclists. In Europe, the Ribcap – a knit hat with soft inserts that harden on impact – is all the rage for bicycling and skiing.

The first mandatory bicycle helmet laws that went into effect in California in 1987 and New York in 1989 applied only to young children who were passengers on a bike. Since then, laws passed across North America and the world mostly govern children under 16 years of age.

These laws are increasingly contentious. In Tel Aviv, an attempt to repeal existing helmet laws is being fought as fiercely as successful attempts to impose them in Vancouver, WA, which passed an all-ages helmet law last year. Northern Ireland, Chicago, IL, and Minneapolis, MN, are all considering instituting mandatory helmet laws for children under the age of 16. Mexico City may have had the shortest-lived helmet law – it was passed in 2009 and repealed a year later in the face of intense opposition.

A Heady Debate

Pro-helmet advocates compare helmets to seat belts – a commonsense response to a known safety problem. They have at their service a wealth of data. In the US, head trauma is the cause of over half of bicycle-related fatalities, with survival of serious crashes strongly linked to helmet use.

Also to the point, helmet laws have been shown to be more effective than education campaigns at getting helmets on heads.

Opponents of helmet laws see them as a barometer of a society’s regard for personal freedom. They point to research finding that helmets do not in fact protect wearers in the most common types of bicycle crashes, which result in scrapes and other injuries to the arms and legs. In some cases, research shows that helmets might even cause brain injuries as a result of the mechanical twisting effect that occurs upon impact.

Others insist that helmet laws lead to more dangerous bicycling conditions. A British traffic psychologist used sensors to discover that when he biked to work without a helmet, passing drivers gave him more room on the road – though not as much room as when he wore a flowing wig!

Australia experienced a drop in bicycle use after its helmet law came into effect. Commonsense might lead one to believe that this is a good thing, that fewer bicyclists would mean fewer injuries. But studies worldwide have repeatedly shown the opposite to be true: the more people ride bikes, the safer bicycling becomes.

This phenomenon is called “Safety in Numbers.” Its core principle is that people on bikes rely largely on the kindness of strangers for their safety – the ones whizzing past them in their cars. As more people ride, drivers become more skilled, tolerant and aware of the presence of cyclists, making roads safer for people on bikes – and for everyone else, too, for that matter.

The popularity of public bike sharing systems raises another issue around mandatory bicycle helmet laws: how to have both at the same time?

City leaders worldwide are discovering the appeal of self-service kiosks where bicycles can be rented cheaply for short trips. Bike share systems are an affordable way to boost bicycle mode share and safety nearly overnight. But no feasible means has yet been found to incorporate helmets into such schemes, leaving all-ages helmet law cities, such as Vancouver, BC, struggling to find a way to reap the rewards of a public bike system.

The Anti-Helmet League

It isn’t just helmet laws that face growing opposition. Increasingly, helmets themselves have come under fire.

Mikael Colville-Andersen, a cycling advocate and marketing consultant in Denmark, took the cultural battle to the next level in a highly publicized speech called “Why we shouldn’t wear bike helmets.”

In his TEDx talk, viewable on YouTube, Colville-Andersen associates helmets with what he calls a “culture of fear.” Helmet use, he said, sends the message that bicycling is dangerous. We’d laugh at wearing helmets for other daily activities that carry a significant risk of head injury, such as walking, driving, bathing and using stairs. Why, he asked, is bicycling singled out as dangerous?

Debra Rolfe, an American-British urban planning master’s student in Vancouver, BC, agreed. North America’s helmet culture is the worst, she said. “It’s like complete strangers walking up to you and lecturing you about how what you’re eating for lunch is going to kill you.”

“Most societies in the developed world spend far more money on inactivity-related illnesses than they do on trauma care,” she added. “We should be doing everything we possibly can to save lives by getting people to exercise.”

Ultimately, Rolfe calls helmets “an unfortunate distraction from the real major safety issue affecting cyclists: Cars. Whether or not individuals choose to wear bike helmets is irrelevant, but the cycling community in North America spends a huge amount of time debating it, when it could be doing so much more to improve conditions.”

To Helmet or Not to Helmet?

When it comes down to it, the decision about whether or not to don a helmet is often less about scientific studies, political philosophies or even laws, and more about one’s beliefs and sense of safety, or lack thereof, on the road.

Elena Findley-de Regt, 29, a Dutch-American citizen who has lived and cycled in the Netherlands, the US, Spain and, now, the UK, has observed a wide range of helmet customs.

“When in the Netherlands,” she said, “I don’t wear a helmet, never have and wouldn’t dream of it.”

There, she feels that riding is safe, thanks to “very minimal interaction with motor vehicles due to separated bike paths” and a “critical mass of cyclists with generally low overall riding speeds.” And there’s a cultural element. “The Dutch tend to have a pragmatic approach to most things in life – the simplest answer is most likely the best. Fussing with a helmet is an extra, unnecessary step.”

“Philosophically,” she said, “I believe that cycling should be such a normal, integrated part of transportation infrastructure that no special equipment is required.”

But when riding in any other country, she wears a helmet. “This has a lot to do with my confidence in the riding conditions, and especially my trust in other road users to behave appropriately.”

Habitual use and cultural norms, as well as compelling personal stories, influence helmet beliefs. Ellen Jacobson said that her husband, also a fervent helmet advocate, began wearing one only when they became mainstream in the 1980s. She doesn’t recall exactly when he made the transition, but does remember that he began wearing a ski helmet after the highly publicized skiing death of Sunny Bono in 1998.

The 800-pound Gorilla

One perspective that seems capable of bringing about agreement across the fiery lines of the helmet debate is equity.

Ellen Jacobson, who coordinates the Kiwanis Club’s bicycle program in Sparks, NV, is a true helmet believer, having devoted much of the past decade to bicycle safety programs for kids. But she wants to make one thing clear: “I am against having a helmet law in Nevada. Most of the kids who don’t wear helmets are extremely low income. If you fine them, what you’re really doing is taking food off the table. And the fine doesn’t put a helmet on their heads.”

Carla Danley, the former ER nurse, leans instinctively towards supporting an all-ages helmet law. “I think it almost has to be something that’s legislated so that people are fined,” she mused, quickly adding the caveat, “but I’d be concerned about certain populations being targeted more than others.”


It seems we have reached a decisive moment in the history of urban cycling. If the pro helmet faction wins, it’s likely that we will see mandatory helmet laws sweeping across Canada and the US. If, on the other hand, the pro choice group wins, existing helmet laws will soon be abolished, potentially changing the face of cycling in those cities that currently require helmet use by law.

There is a lot riding on this debate, and it’s unlikely to fade into the distance anytime soon.


  • Jaime

    I had a road accident last Sunday, helmet protected me from a serius head injury and now I’m at home writting this comment, no doubt, we must use it!

  • Angus

    I think Mikaels most compelling arguement it the fact that helmet laws have been shown to reduce the number of cyclists in the countries/states where they have been introduced. People who don’t want to wear a helmet simply choose to stop riding, going against what it is that we all in here want which is more people cycling. I live in Denmark but come from New Zealand (Helmet law) I was home recently on holiday and hated having it dictated to me whether I wore a helmet or not. In Denmark I work as a messsenger and wear a helmet, I race in a helmet, and ride in the forest with one on too, but I like the fact that when I am not riding like a madman that I can choose not to wear one. I also like the fact that I can go to the pub in the evening and not have to drag a helmet along with me. I guess in this debate you could say that I am pro choice ;o)

  • Brad

    Yes, the research on brain injury is there and reveals helmet popularity is based more on perception than reality.

    This review on the efficacy of bicycle helmets against brain injury

    describes this research and shows,

    “The testing and design of standard helmets reflect the discredited theory that linear acceleration is the dominant cause of brain injury and to neglect rotation.”

    Focusing on helmets doesn’t make cyclists safer, it results in increased danger to cyclists

  • Eric (sometimes I forget my last name!)

    The question needs to be addressed…..”Will the polystyrene prevent the brain’s sloshing back and forth in the skull…breaking precious neural pathways that we spend our schooldays, careers and lifetimes to form? The parietal, occipital lobes and the corpus callosum are priceless. Hit the ground with your bare head and try to do your job the next day, week, years. It’s been bloody hard.
    Good luck, Eric

  • somegal

    it should be upto me to assess my own risk about wearing or not wearing a helmet. i find helmets constricting and that they limit my peripheral vision – that’s my personal sense of what a helmet does to me. i would never fine you for wearing a helmet if that’s what makes you feel more secure.

  • Thomas L. Bowden Sr.

    I am going to go out on a limb here and say that I am pleased to see more and more people out for casual rides (not racing) without helmets. It tells me that they feel safe (or at least safer) when they ride. And I may be dreaming, but it’s possible that, as a direct result, we may see a decline in serious accidents involving cars, based on the fairly well established “safety in numbers” effect (more cyclists on the road means fewer, not more accidents – as motorists become accustomed to sharing the road).

    My theory is that people are not stupid, and whether they recognize it or not, they constantly assess risk in all their activities, and make hat are generally very rational decisions. That’s why, for example, no one feels vulnerable going to a bar without a helmet, even though walking home from the bar poses a greater risk of traumatic brain injury than cycling in general. Same thing for pedestrians, and even, dare I say, DRIVERS> The reason is that most of the key causative factors in accidents in all these activities are within the control of the individual. The individual can rationally decide, based on their own behavior while cycling, drinking, walking, swimming, whatever, whether or not additional protection is worthwhile.

  • Harvey

    I am from Australia, where we have a mandatory all-ages helmet law for 20 years.
    It has been an unexpected failure at many levels.

    1. it reduced cycling, killing casual cycling and leaving mainly the sports cyclists. Cycling is not popular and seen mostly as week-end activity, not a mode of transport. Cyclists are not popular, they are seen as freaks.

    2. It has made cycling safety worse. The risk of serious death and injuries increased by 50%. This is mainly because helmets increase the risk of accidents, through safety in numbers and risk compensation. Essentially, a 50% increase in accidents cannot be compensated by a thin layer of polystyrene.

    3. It has created a huge animosity among the cyclists, with some sport cyclists who believe that the helmet law vindicates their intolerance of cyclists who prefer not to wear a helmet. The polystyrene hat has become almost a religious fetish, with few people questioning what less than one inch of polystyrene can really do to prevent serious injuries.

    4. This obsession with helmets has taken away the focus from measures that are far more important for cycling safety, like separation from car traffic, motorists behaviour, cyclists skill training, and reducing the risk of accident. Australia is a far more dangerous place to cycle than in Europe where they don’t wear helmets. So why not focus on what works instead?

    The helmet hasn’t worked. It is an embarrassing failure. I would encourage anyone considering supporting to have a good look at what actually happened in real life, rather than relying on theories that seem “obvious”. This topic is far from obvious .

  • Thomas L. Bowden Sr.

    I think the larger problem is that statistics can be so misleading. Frequently you see the claim that in 90% of bicycle fatalities, the rider was not wearing a helmet. This proves nothing. We do not know, for example, what number or percentage would have died anyway from their internal injuries. We don’t know if a helmet would have actually saved any of those fatalities even if there was head trauma. Helmets are physically the equivalent of wearing a bag of popcorn and a tupperware bowl on your head. if that makes you feel safer, be my guest.
    Where statistics fail is when they are used to make individual decisions, or worse, to force decisions on individuals. Remember the hue and cry when the FDA said that breast exams were not useful for women of a certain age? That may have been true statistically, but it was not a solid basis for an individual deciding not to have an exam. Unfortunately, proclamations like that one tend to influence policy and regulation. For example, It’s not hard to imagine insurance companies refusing to cover exams based on such a statistic. But it should be an individual decision.
    Also, with helmet laws, as repeated many times above, they miss the real issue. Safety begins with the rider’s exercise of care. I have not seen any analysis, but I would not be surprised if a cross-tabulation or a regression analysis showed that helmet use was not the dominant variable in crashes and fatalities. Your chance of a fatal or disabling accident is overwhelmingly dominated by how and where you ride.
    So – Thanks to the author for this balanced perspective, and to all the comments, which were for the most part, civil and thoughtful. Sadly, these discussions too often degenerate into name calling and condescending one liners.

  • ch1

    Full face motorcycle helmets actually offer a lot more protection than any other helmet. You can strap them on properly and they stay on your head in a crash. The beanie style motorcycle helmets are illegal. Yet, they are better built than a bicycle helmet. It is impossible to strap on a bicycle helmet properly without choking yourself. So, it will give way in a crash. If you put them on children as explained by the experts, kids tend to slip their fingers underneath the strap and pull on it to make it more comfortable. Then it becomes really loose and ineffective.

    Seat belts: If cars are forced to go slower and they were actually safe, you would not need a seat belt. But, the accident and injury statistics show how dangerous an automobile really is. Not to mention the detrimental effects caused by pollution and sedentary lifestyle that goes along with the auto culture.

    To make an argument about refusing to wear a helmet and not get medical coverage;
    shall we deny treatment to people who smoke, consume alcohol, drugs or unhealthy foods, or refuses to excercise?

  • Brad

    in spite of the fear that is promoted along with helmets (after all, there has to be a perceived need to wear a helmet) cyclists live longer, and healthier lives than the general population.

    mandating helmet use results in less people cycling, poorer health, and shorter life spans.

    mandating helmet use has also resulted in no less injury or fatalities to cyclists to boot

  • Ronald

    After witnessing what happened to my friend Len on Friday cyclists should always wear helmets. It really doesn’t matter if you are going slow or fast either. I for one am totally in favour of mandatory helmet compliance.

    We have mandatory Seat belt laws, motorcycle helmets, mandatory auto insurance, look it would be great if the goverment wasn’t all of our business, but sometimes it is a necessity and we are the government! Oh yes, and mandatory Medical Insurance. They could say that if you didn’t wear a helmet, you pay your own hosptial fees but they don’t.

  • Brad

    Sure there are good reasons not to wear a helmet.

    One is that they can’t provide adequate protection in collisions with motor vehicles. Many people think they can, but they can’t.

    Another is wearing a helmet is a sign that cycling is dangerous. It’s not.

    Another reason is that this perception that cycling is risky, discourages people from riding bikes.

    It’s not that wearing helmets is wrong, it’s more that the attitude about helmets is wrong.

    Wear one if you like but don’t think cycling is more dangerous than it is and don’t think a helmet can do more than it can, and by no means should you disrespect anothers choice to go without a helmet. The safest cyclists in the world don’t use them.

  • Kenzo

    There is simply no good reason NOT to wear a helmet- especially in the US where the car is the unfortunate king. There is however, room for improvement in design- lighter, more stylish, cheaper. Were a bloody helmet and save yourself and your kids!

  • Brad

    if bicycle helmets did prevent deaths or brain damage, that would be a different story, but the sad fact is that reductions of deaths or brain damage to cyclists wearing helmets have not been recorded in spite of the increased use of helmets.

    In the meantime, we should consider what a helmet law is really saying; that you’re better off not cycling at all than cycling without a helmet…

    In BC, this no helmet, no bike rule has some teeth to it. A police officer can not only fine a cyclist for not wearing a helmet, they can seize a bike of a cyclist not wearing a helmet.

    No helmet, no bike. Is this good public policy?

  • Ribs

    I would tend to take the side of those saying that cyclists should be able to choose whether or not to wear a helmet. Personaly,however, I would choose to wear a helmet always. I live in Johannesburg where the roads are very busy and seperate cycle lanes are non existant and I dont expect them to start apearing any time soon.

    Yes accidents may be just that, accidents. But if I am ever in an accident I want the highest chance possible of coming out of that accident alive or not brain damaged. If this means wearing a helmet then thats what I’ll do.

  • Johann Miller

    There is little to add to insight of the many comments already posted.

    I think it’s always worth asking “who benefits?”, when it come to these types of laws. The question is equivalent to “follow the money”. Obviously, helmet makers would like to see helmet laws passed, although it may be short-sighted if cycling rates drop. Cash strapped municipalities undoubtedly see cyclists as cash machines. Politicians love helmet laws! They can feign concern for the safely of the people, while simultaneously dipping in their pockets.

    We do not need new barriers to entry to cycling.

  • Zvi

    Road safety is a complex topic, and it is very difficult to establish cause and effect. An accident is just that, an accident: there usually are many related factors contributing to it. On the other hand, it is clear who will be injured in any collision between a car and a person.

    The problem with mandatory helmet laws is that they permit people to claim that they are doing something to protect cyclists, when in fact they are avoiding the larger issues: how to design safe and convenient facilities for non-motorized travel. Pedestrians and cyclists want the same things as cars: to have quick, safe, and convenient access to their chosen destinations.

    Gas prices are going up for good. We will all need to rethink how much we travel, and how. It is time that we start seriously considering how to invest in a better and more sustainable future.

  • ch1

    From Brad’s comments it seems that the research used and real reasons to enact helmet laws in BC was done in mora, so how can we ask for it to be repealed? It would also be nice to place the onus on the Govt to ensure road safety and proper infrastructure that will make road safe for ALL users. Like Denmark and Holland. Helmets don’t prevent accidents, safe roads does.

  • Brad

    Choice is important and when discussing helmet laws, it’s important to remember that it is an adults right of choice that is being taken away.

    Few, if any pro-choice advocates are arguing that cyclists must remove their helmets but what they are saying is that their right of choice being taken away is wrong.

    For this right to be removed there must be a justified need and effective solution for the designated problem. Short of this, cyclists should be left to their own discretion as to what action they wish to take and not have smothers will forced upon them.

  • Lou Louis

    I Choose to wear a helmet whenever I ride my bike because it is PROVEN fact that a helmet will protect me fromthe MOST frequent types of crashes. Is it going to save me 100%? NO! Just like smoking is no guarantee of getting lung cancer (my GP’s lived to their early 90’s and both were heavy smokers for 70+ years).

    The argument is that a helmet will not save you from a serious crash. Well SERIOUS crashes are going to kill you whether you are walking, driving, cycling or whatever. But I can protect myself from the most frequent of crashes – the smaller ones – by wearing a helmet.

    AND using the Dutch example if not quite fair. In Holland, Denmark etc. the Bike is #1 on the roads. Cars and pedestrians give way to the bike. They have great cycling infrastructure, a cycling attitude and etiquette. Something sorely lacking in N. America.

  • Brad

    Re-reading John’s comments, I was struck by his observations of “questionable helmet research” that negates his perception of the benefits of helmets.

    Having had seen the advance press preceding BCs helmet law, read the bills debate in the legislature, speaking to several key individuals that brought forth the law and now finally reading the minutes, reports, correspondences of the organization formed to lobby for the law, I would say that is the promoters of the helmet law that were exploiting questionable research.

    The only research presented by the group was a single study of questionable validity and the numbers presented by the group were admitted to by the authors to be incorrect. In fact this only study has been admitted by the Snell Foundation to be used as promotion for sales of helmets, not for independent analysis of a helmets effectiveness.

    It seems helmet skeptics base their skepticism on quality research and helmet promotors base their faith in helmets on questionable research

  • Ryan

    IMO it’s quite simple. Make it optional. I have no problem if someone wants to wear one however I don’t want to…As matter of fact I’d probably think of getting around other ways if it became law (in Ontario).

    Many I know in BC would wear a helmet whether it was law or not, however they are strongly against it being mandated.

    Also, my not wanting to wear a helmet has nothing to do with civil liberties. I just see little use in them. Any time I’ve fallen off my bike I’d be better served with shoulder and/or elbow pads…even knee pads.
    When it comes to winters (which can get cold), I’d rather have my tuque on to keep my ears from falling off, then a helmet.

  • Andy Reynolds

    Getting people to wear a piece of expanded foam on their heads requires them to be convinced of two falsehoods: (1) cycling is dangerous, and (2) the piece of foam will protect them in a serious crash.

    Lie #1 scares potential cyclists off their bikes, thus increasing the risk to those who remain, and lie #2 leads to cyclists taking more risks in the mistaken belief that they are well protected.

    It is therefore not ethically defensible to promote either of these perceptions, let alone enshrine them in law.

  • Brad

    Oh, and has the purpose of BCs legislation been achieved?

    No. Even with the reduction of people cycling, and more people wearing helmets than ever before, deaths in fact, increased for the first 3 years following legislation.

    Helmet legislators hedged their bets though. They predicted if legislation would not pass, there would be a reverse of the historical trend of downward fatalities for cyclists; that deaths should increase in the future.

  • Brad

    It would have been good had BC followed trough on the promised funding for a detailed count of cyclists post law, but like the education courses that was a part of the legislation, this funding was pulled after the law was passed, so no counts were available.

    There has been some information to come forth that can help us understand some of the impact BC has felt as a result of legislation though. ICBC shows an immediate, and unprecedented drop of 35% in the amounts of motor vehicle – bicycle collisions immediately after the passing of the law. So unless helmet use has prevented collisions from occurring, there was a drop in cyclists immediately following the implementation of the law.

    There has been a notable increase that has been documented several years post law however, and this may have more to do with police not enforcing the law with as much vigor as it was when the law was first introduced. Stats Canada completed a study that pegged BCs helmet use at 60%, a drop when compared to the study funded by the government post law that showed BCs helmet use at 76% overall. ICBC hold records that show helmet use even lower, at 55%.

    One of the most contentious issues with our legislation involved the stated purpose of the legislation which was to reduce death and serious injury to cyclists. It was reasoned that helmet could help acheive this goal because one, just one study claimed helmet use reduces the chances of head injury by 85%. What few knew at the time was that the 85% figure only applied to children under 5 years old (10 – 14 year olds had a reduction of only 23%) and that the study did not include a single collision with a motor vehicle, and nearly every death or serious injury to a cyclist came from a collision with a motor vehicle.

    So yes, statistics and studies do matter in BC. If police enforced our helmet law today, there would be a significant reduction in the amount of people cycling, just as there was when the law was first passed.

  • John Luton

    The helemt debate has little to do with cycling, more to do with civil liberties. I could live without helmet legislation, but I’m not expending any energy to repeal the laws we have here, and I don’t ride without a helmet.

    Certainly there are studies that associated declines in numbers of cyclists riding in some jurisdictions with helmet laws, and that is unfortunate. I think in some of those places, bicycle use rebounded from the initial drop and I think a more useful analysis would have been, in any event, to assess the change in miles ridden, not just the numbers of cyclists. It is not a positive development to lose the casual cyclists, but most who make a positive choice for cycling will not be dissauded by helmet laws.

    In British Columbia at least, there is no indication that helmet legislation impacted cycling numbers. Participation continues to grow and helmet laws are almost certainly here to stay, notwithstanding the wishful thinking of those who believe the challenges those laws face in other jurisdictions will lead to a repeal in B.C.

    The threats to an unprotected head often may be elevated by speed, but the real damage is the distance of the fall. You can do significant damage falling from a bike at low speed. The acceleration forces on your head can be fatal, and unlike most other activities mentioned in various comments, bicycles are inherently unstable. They do not stand on their own without the gyroscopic effects of forward motion (unless you are good at track stands), so it is more dangerous than walking.

    There are good reasons, many cited, for being skeptical of helmet laws – the health benefits of riding far outweigh the risks and there are certainly problems with helmet laws that will frustrate bike share programs. Fair comment. Still, I find the reliance on questionable health research to bolster the argument is about as credible as the quacks who dismiss links between smoking and cancers. The distinction between fatalities or not is also a little simplistic. You don’t have to die to render yourself impotent in the debate. Hard to argue that your civil liberties have been enhanced by reducing your IQ to the low 20s after a head injury.

    Argue your point on the issue of civil liberties, but the misuse of statistics or the clutching at studies to claim that helmets don’t provide protection will, for the most part, alienate decison makers and others in the community who presumably you want to listen to you. You have to decide whether you want to rant against injustice or advance your cause.

    I’ve had my own crashes and can only contemplate what might have happened to my head without a helmet; I’ve known a few who have died while riding for whom a helmet may have made a difference. I also have known a few cyclists who have had life altering crashes.

    Stick to the civil liberties argument, on most other issues the debate is over.

    John Luton, Victoria, BC

  • Brad

    Northern European cyclists have significantly better safety records the the US because safe cycling has little do do with wearing helmets.

  • Ken

    Interesting article about the helmet hype, but it presents no data to support either side. Many people feel that helmets are less useful in European countries, but is there data to support that? Are head injury rates (per mile or per bicyclist) really lower in Europe than the US?

  • Brad

    I disagree with the authors conclusions. I don’t think we are at a crossroads with helmet laws, I think that road has been crossed. There was a surge of helmet laws passed mostly in the 90’s and that surge has slowed to a trickle largely to the documented results in those areas that enacted them.

    I do agree with idea that perception, rather than fact, is what drives the desire to place a helmet upon a head.

    If people understood that cycling is safe, and if they understood the limitations of a helmet, fewer people would wear them. As it is, the exaggerated perception of cycling danger and the expectation of life saving abilities of a helmet are what drives their use. False assumptions, both

  • David

    Do not fall into the trap of letting the supposed perfect be the enemy of the good. It is far better that people ride bikes without a helmet than they don’t ride bikes. If helmet laws dissuade people from cycling then they are a bad thing. It doesn’t matter that helmets are more totem than protection for any kind of serious crash – if the laws stop people riding bikes then they are bad laws.

  • D. Rand

    Helmet laws are a product of life-style zealots who can’t resist the opportunity to interfere in the lives and habits of others.

  • ch1

    Well done Colin Clarke. This proves why Holland and Denmark DON’T have helmet laws!

  • David

    I recently started biking in San Francisco after a long time living in less bike-friendly places. I assumed that, as in most college towns, helmets would be unpopular with the experienced cyclists but in fact it’s the other way around: as one veteran cyclist explained, “no one wants to be the person that gets killed or injured without a helmet and results in a mandatory helmet law.” I was surprised that nearly everyone seems to wear a helmet, even in parks and on streets closed to auto traffic (!).

    Also, some have pointed out that not wearing a helmet (especially with a nicer bike) might signify that you are riding a stolen bike…

  • Colin Clarke

    The assessment of Australian helmet law shows the outcome was negative for both health and safety.

    The result for New Zealand is very similar. For the USA there are also concerns.

    The UK’s National Children’s Bureau (NCB) provided a detailed review in 2005 stating “the case for helmets is far from sound”, “the benefits of helmets need further investigation before even a policy supporting promotion can be unequivocally supported” and “the case has not yet been convincingly made for compulsory use or promotion of cycle helmets.”

    The ECF (European Cycling Federation) stated “the evidence from Australia and New Zealand suggests that the wearing of helmets might even make cycling more dangerous,” indicating safety was actually reduced. Erke and Elvik (Norwegian researchers) 2007 stated: “There is evidence of increased accident risk per cycling-km for cyclists wearing a helmet. In Australia and New Zealand, the increase is estimated to be around 14 per cent.”

    Data for children shows their safety has been reduced. Robinson 1996 report, Table 5 shows data for children in Victoria. The equivalent number of injuries for pre law level of number of cyclists increased from 897 in 1990 to 1035 in 1992. The increased injury rate was 15%.

    For New South Wales their survey data also showed reduced cycling following legislation in 1991.
    Children counted
    1991 – 6788
    1992 – 4234
    1993 – 3798
    A reduction of 44% occurred.

    Robinson 1996 report, Table 2 shows data for children in NSW. The equivalent number of injuries for pre law level of number of cyclists increased from 1310 in 1991 to 2083 in 1993. Their helmet laws discouraged cycling and reduced children’s safety. The increased injury rate was 59%.

    For New Zealand it was reported “Of particular concern are children and adolescents who have experienced the greatest increase in the risk of cycling injuries despite a substantial decline in the amount of cycling over the past two decades’.

    Police figures for NZ show 9618 tickets were issued in 2010 for not wearing a helmet. In Victoria, Australia they issued more than 19000 in the first 12 months of their law .
    Curnow reporting on Australia concluded, “Compulsion to wear a bicycle helmet is detrimental to public health”.

    Accidental hanging is still occurring among young children who wear bicycle helmets while engaging in activities other than bicycle riding. Worldwide, the toll of deaths has now reached at least 14, with examples in the USA, Canada, Australia and Scandinavia.

    Helmet laws for bicyclists are a mistake.

    Clarke CF, The Case against bicycle helmets and legislation, VeloCity, Munich 2007..

    Curnow WJ, Bicycle helmets and public health in Australia, Health Promotion Journal of Australia, 2008 Apr;19(1):10-15. Gill T, Cycling and Children and Young People – A review, National Children’s Bureau, 2005
    European Cycling Federation. ‘Improving bicycle safety without making helmet use compulsory;
    Brussels, Belgium. 1998.
    Erke A, Elvik R, Making Vision Zero real: Preventing Pedestrian Accidents And Making Them Less Severe, Oslo June 2007. page 28 … 7-nett.pdf
    Robinson DL; Head injuries and bicycle helmet laws; Accid Anal Prev, 28, 4: p 463-475, 1996

  • Frank

    The author gives too little attention to the most important point, and completely ignores the second most important point in this debate.

    The first? Bicycling does NOT cause significant risk of serious head injuries. In the U.S. it causes fewer than 1% of HI fatalties, whereas motoring causes about 50% and walking around the home causes about 40%. And it’s not just because there are few bicyclists. Pedestrians die at more than triple the rate of bicyclists, per mile. (And BTW, head trauma is the cause of over half of _all_ accidental fatalities, not just those of bicyclists.) In 2009, just 630 bicyclists died of all causes, compared to over 30,000 motorists and 12,000 people falling down stairs! Bicycling is simply not very dangerous, despite the fear mongering. It is safer than many other common no-helmet activities, and its benefits (exercise, pollution reduction, etc.) greatly outweigh any tiny risks.

    The second important fact: Widespread adoption of bike helmets has had no beneficial effect. As explained in a July 29, 2001 article in the New York Times (based on data posted at ) head injuries per cyclist did not fall when helmets became heavily promoted and their use soared. Instead, head injuries actually rose significantly. This is probably because bike helmets are certified to protect only gentle impacts less than 13 mph, and then only if the impact is perfectly centered. They cannot work for most serious crashes, and they have not worked in any population that has adopted them widely, even though every person who dents their helmet seems to believe it has saved their life!

    To summarize: Don’t assume bicycling is dangerous, and don’t assume helmets are wonderfully effective. Bicycling is NOT dangerous enough to require helmets, even in non-cycling countries like the U.S. And bike helmets have NOT proven to be effective. They are an ineffective solution to an imaginary problem.

    Promotion of helmets has scared people away from this benign mode of transport. We should let bike helmets and their promotion die the same death as the tall bicycle flippy-flags of the 1970s.

  • Alan Stanley

    I wear a helmet, having one saved me in more than one car/bike accident, as my head hit the pavement. I’ve ridden motorcycles for years also, and have been saved by the helmet, in fact the helmet was ground through the shell and into the padding after a 50 mph slide. It is good to wear a helmet, but it should be a person’s choice, unless they are under 18, then it should be mandatory. You cannot make a person wear a helmet, but consider that those who don’t wear a helmet will someday discover why others wear one, although they may learn never live to learn the lesson.

  • Patrick Morgan

    Helmet laws in New Zealand have been a health and safety disaster.
    Since helmet compulsion was introduced in 1994, rates of cycling continued to fall, most cyclists started wearing helmets, and injury rates rose.
    Is that what we want more of?
    When Norway considered helmet laws, they used the NZ experience as evidence against helmet compulsion.
    If you want more people cycling, resist helmet laws. They are hard to get ride of, so beware.

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