We must scrap helmet laws to encourage and improve cycling

Many consider cycling to be dangerous. While riding quickly on the open road, sometimes difficult to see, cyclists are exposed to the world. One poor decision by a driver or cyclist could result in a serious accident. Good thing they wear helmets, right? Maybe not.

Copenhagen, Amsterdam, New York City, London, Paris, and countless other major cities have one thing in common: cyclists are not required to wear helmets. The result? Increased cycling activity, successful bike-share programs, and improved safety and infrastructure.

Helmet laws remain a significant barrier for cycling adoption. Vancouver’s proposed bike-share program has been stalled for years over the somewhat laughable concept of a helmet vending machine. Such a program is logistically difficult due to the required space, helmet sanitation, stock and replacement.

As a result, expected costs are far greater than they would be otherwise. The cities with successful programs found that mandatory use of helmets would severely limit participation in their bike-share programs. Both tourists and locals find it either too difficult to carry a helmet or balk at the idea of sharing one.

Our helmet laws have caused Vancouver’s proposed bike-share program to be declared dead before arrival, not too different from Melbourne’s results, where its use rates for bike-share programs are half of the target projections. Some cities, such as Victoria, even offered free helmets in an effort to boost their bike-share use rates. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work.

Both tourists and locals find it either too difficult to carry a helmet, or question the idea of sharing one.

But what about that vulnerable cyclist who shares the road with large, heavy vehicles? Won’t a helmet keep them safe?

Studies on helmet use and injury prevention have continually found one thing: helmets have no discernible effect on reducing cycling injuries or fatalities.

One Canadian-focused study conducted by the University of Toronto’s School of Public Health found no link between helmet use and reduced hospital admissions for cycling injuries. In the event of minor cycling accidents, the head is not often a point of contact; when major accidents occur that do involve the head, the force is usually great enough that a helmet is near useless.

Removing helmet laws will start a positive feedback loop that will improve cycling safety to a far greater extent than mandatory helmet use. If we rescind our helmet laws, more cyclists will be on the road, and when it comes to cycling, there is safety in numbers. The increase in cyclists will raise demand for more bike lanes and driver education. In turn, this will lead to increased perceived safety and visibility of cycling, thereby attracting more cyclists.

Our focus on helmets is backwards; not only does it prevent potential cyclists from riding their bikes, it also removes emphasis from injury prevention in the first place. Instead of working to stop accidents, we are working to reduce head injuries while allowing the rest of the body to be seriously injured in an accident. The focus on helmets also shifts blame to the victim, similar to the broken logic that victims of sexual abuse are at fault if they dress in suggestive clothing.

If you look at the countless studies and real-world examples, I can’t help but hold a strong opinion that modernizing our bike laws is the best way to increase cyclist safety, public health, and the number of cyclists in our cities. This entails making helmets optional — not mandatory — and constructing more bike lanes while increasing efforts to educate drivers.

If we do this, maybe we can finally launch that bike-share program we’ve been long awaiting.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Absolutely right – wearing a helmet makes sense if cycling is practised as a sport – but helmet wearing is quite unnatural in the context of simply travelling from A to B on a bike. The biggest supporters of mandatory helmet legislation are Lycra-clad sports cyclists and people who don’t want to see more bikes on the road.

    • I realize it has become somewhat fashionable to deride “Lycra-clad sports cyclists” in recent years (and some of it is deserved), but this comment just crosses the bounds of reason and history. Sports cyclists for years opposed mandatory helmets. They add weight and reduce the ability of the head to cool itself, which, given how much energy these guys can put out, is a non-trivial concern.

      Indeed for several years in the Tour de France, even after helmets were made mandatory, there remained an exemption on their use on the last climb of a summit-ending stage (the reasoning being that high-speed falls were unlikely but overheating – and passing out – was a real concern).

      Opposition to mandatory helmet laws is about the one area where cyclists from across the spectrum are in agreement.

      The biggest supporters of mandatory helmet legislation have been doctors (especially ER), general safety advocates, organizers of events (and/or their lawyers) and much of the motoring lobby.

      • I did not intend to say that all sports cyclists support mandatory helmets. Indeed, here in Spain, the association of professional cyclists has always been vehemently opposed to mandatory helmets because such legislation is proven to reduce the number of cyclists. However, in my experience, many sports cyclists see helmets as a mark of distinction (often fuelled by advertising) and cannot resist a prudish ‘tut-tut’ at any displays of above-shoulder nudity from other passing cyclists.

  2. That’s not going to happen.
    In the GVRD there’s plenty of steep hills where bicycles can (and often do) exceed 60km/h. A fall at such speed is really dangerous.
    Those who say the bicycle helmets are not protecting in case of accidents are also right. Those mushroom shaped “items” need to comply to protection standards the same way motorcycle helmets do.