Do Helmet Laws Make Biking Less Safe?

December 13th, 2009 by hughillustration

With more and more bicyclists hitting the streets every day, we should probably pass some sort of law requiring helmets, right? An article in Next American City Magazine questions this logic, pointing out that helmet laws decrease bike ridership — either because it leads people to think cycling is dangerous or, more likely, because fashion conscious cyclists won’t be seen dead in one — and this decrease in ridership makes things increasingly less safe for bikers.

But the results [of a helmet law in Western Australia] were disastrous. According to the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation, immediately after the law went into effect, the state of Victoria, where cycling rates had been increasing dramatically over the previous 15 years, saw a 36 percent decrease in ridership. For every one teenager who began to wear a helmet, more than 10 others abandoned their bicycles. While 80 percent of Western Australian children walked or biked to school in 1977, that rate has plummeted to a measly 5 percent in 2009.

What’s more, when the Victoria helmet law took such a hefty chunk out of cycling rates, it ended up paradoxically decreasing cyclist safety. This is because one of the biggest determining factors of bicycle safety is not protective wear, but the number of other cyclists out on the road. In 2003 health consultant Peter Jacobsen published a widely read report that tracked this trend across such disparate locales as California, Denmark and the U.K. Even when cities within the same country or state were compared, the results bore out this fact.

One of the primary reasons helmet laws depress ridership is that they seem to imply that cycling is a dangerous activity. But this is not the case. According to a study published in 2006 by the British Medical Journal, cycling is not significantly more dangerous than either walking or driving. The study estimates that on average it takes 8,000 years of normal cycling to produce a serious head injury, and it takes 22,000 years to produce one death.

I definitely see why people wear helmets, though. Imagine if you had to transport a hard-drive full of your entire life’s files and memories — the only copies of all your artwork and photos and music and finances. Wouldn’t you put it in a protective case before bicycling across town? In any case, the argument here is not against helmets per se, but against helmet laws.

I remember reading about the Jacobsen study mentioned here years ago when it came out, which made the incredibly sane argument that the more people walk or bike, the more safe it is to walk or bike. Here’s a link to the abstract of the study, and you can get the PDF version of the whole thing there if you’re interested.

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3 Responses to “Do Helmet Laws Make Biking Less Safe?”

  1. random says:

    One thing that I’ve noticed in reading about helmet laws online is that there seems to be a rabid (and, to me, inexplicable) population of folks who see helmet laws as just a step away from complete fascist domination of the citizenry, and they always seem to cite studies that seem to have a weird hidden agenda (like that one by the “Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation,” which if you google them they are clearly advocates against helmet laws).

    Personally I think helmet laws would probably be a good idea (because it would destigmatise helmet use among beginners), but if people don’t wear helmets I really don’t care that much.

  2. ozzmosis says:

    From Bicycle Victoria’s web site: “Bicycle helmets became compulsory in Victoria on 1 July 1990.”

    My gut feeling – just from my own experience going to school in Melbourne in the ’90s – is that many children stopped cycling to school in Victoria after helmet laws were brought in because your average helmet at the time weighed too much and had poor airflow. They were also pretty ugly compared to what you can get today. Particularly the “Stackhats” from the mid ’80s.

    Before 1990, some schools required their students wear a helmet if they were cycling to school. If you were caught without one before or after school you might suffer some sort of punishment (detention, etc). Weekends were your own responsibility.

    These days I don’t think helmets are really much of a problem for children. Bikes aimed at children are generally a lot better than back in 1990, too – eg. mountain bikes with suspension and plenty of gears. I think the issue is really just that there is much more motor traffic on the roads, and kids don’t have many safe places to ride, and their parents know that. Many parents don’t want to cycle with their kids. School teachers don’t want to be seen encouraging potentially unsafe activity, so we now have whole generations of people who are missing out. Probably many more children now that have never learnt to ride a bike now than there were in the late ’70s. A bit sad really.

    – ozz