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.