Do Helmet Laws Keep People From Riding Bikes?

Wearing a bike helmet is accepted as a gospel truth of bike riding in the U.S. But could mandatory helmet laws actually have the effect of dissuading people from riding bikes?

In studying bike-sharing programs in North America in places including Montreal, Washington and Minneapolis, Susan Shaheen, director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, found that (1) helmet use tended to be lower among riders in bike-sharing programs; (2) the accident rate in the programs was “really low”; (3) people said they were getting more exercise than they had been. As the New York Times Magazine asks, could requirements for cyclists to wear helmets stand in the way of getting people to ride bikes, with all the positive benefits to their health and the environment?

It’s not just that people don’t want to end up with “helmet hair.” According to some studies, insisting that everyone ride with a helmet has the unintended effect of making bike riding seem dangerous and an activity that requires special equipment rather than an everyday activity. As Piet de Jong, a professor in the department of applied finance and actuarial studies at Macquarie University in Sydney, tells the New York Times Magazine, “Pushing helmets really kills cycling and bike-sharing in particular because it promotes a sense of danger that just isn’t justified — in fact, cycling has many health benefits.”

De Jong even says that, if we’re going to insist that people wear helmets while riding bikes, we might as well make them wear helmets while climbing ladders or getting into a bathtub. People get injured even more in those activities, he points out. Cyclists and pedestrians have the same risk of serious injury per mile traveled, according to the European Cyclists’ Federation.

What can make roads safe for cyclists is the creation of a bike culture in urban areas, in which significant numbers of people ride bikes. As New York Times Magazine notes,

Recent experience suggests that if a city wants bike-sharing to really take off, it may have to allow and accept helmet-free riding. A two-year-old bike-sharing program in Melbourne, Australia — where helmet use in mandatory — has only about 150 rides a day, despite the fact that Melbourne is flat, with broad roads and a temperate climate. On the other hand, helmet-lax Dublin — cold, cobbled and hilly — has more than 5,000 daily rides in its young bike-sharing scheme. Mexico City recently repealed a mandatory helmet law to get a bike-sharing scheme off the ground. But here in the United States, the politics are tricky.

I would say “tricky” is an understatement.

In the U.S., riders who go helmetless are seen as taking their life into own hands in a foolhardy and reckless way. I do think that children need to ride with helmets which are indeed required for this age group in most European countries. My now-teenage son Charlie has gone to the emergency room more than once after some spills while riding and there was no question that his helmet kept his head safe from the concrete. He now rides all over New Jersey with his dad and they have had numerous adventures, as drivers here definitely do not think the road is meant for sharing and honk, yell or otherwise indicate their annoyance at finding anything but motor vehicles on the road.

In other words, we’re very far from developing a sense that bikes and their riders should enjoy equal status on the roads and I am curious about ways to change this and create, yes, a bike culture.

Should helmet laws be mandatory for adult cyclists in the U.S.? Could it really be the case that over-insistence on wearing bike helmets is keeping people from cycling?

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Photo by Amsterdamized


Ujivenelson Ujivenelson

I don’t waste my free time that’s why I read the informative things when I got this blog I really enjoyed reading this.

Annetta J.
Annetta J.3 years ago


Dorothy L Robinson
Dorre R.3 years ago

Sorry - there must be a word limit - the last sentence read:
I’m all for prevention – but the evidence suggests that we’ll prevent more ill-health – obesity, diabetes, heart attacks and strokes by encouraging cycling to make it safer by increasing safety in numbers, instead of helmet laws which have the opposite effect.

Dorothy L Robinson
Dorre R.3 years ago

When helmet laws were introduced in Victoria, Australia, surveys at the same 64 sites, each observed for 10 hours, with the same observers at the same time of year, counted 42% fewer children and 29% fewer adults riding bikes.

The pre-law survey counted 1293 teenagers on bikes, of which 272 wore helmets. Post law, there were 670 teenagers, of which 302 wore helmets. That's what happens if the police stop kids and tell them they can't ride bikes unless they wear a helmet. A year on, 623 fewer teenage cyclists were counted, but only 30 more wearing helmets -

US helmet laws don't usually much enforcement, but there are exceptions. Four years after a helmet law in one rural community in Georgia, a small survey found not one of 97 children had a helmet, so police started impounding bikes of children not wearing helmets. The last survey counted 39 children riding, of which 21 wore helmets. It seems that unenforced laws teach children to disobey road safety laws, but enforced laws teach children not to ride.

This was confirmed by an analysis of US hospital data - “(helmet) laws also are associated with decreases in non-head cycling injuries, as well as increases in head injuries from other wheeled sports. Thus, the observed reduction in bicycle-related head injuries may be due to reductions in bicycle riding induced by the laws.”

I’m all for prevent

Chelsey Atkinson
Chelsey A.3 years ago

I never landed on my head before, then again I don't do tricks at the skate park. I understand you would have to wear protective gear for doing tricks, but going for casual bike with family in the park? I don't think so

Pamela W.
Pamela W.3 years ago

When the wearing of seat belts in cars was going to become mandatory, I said I'd give-up driving (due to an accident I'd been involved in, some years previously, which took the roof off the car I was in - I was laying across the seats at the time of impact - with no belt attached). But I still drive and ALWAYS wear my belt !!!! Bikers (motorbikes) wear helmets, professional cyclists wear helmets in certain stages of races ...... PREVENTION IS BETTER THAN CURE and I think it will be a good thing !!

Dorothy L Robinson
Dorre R.3 years ago

Obesity and modern sedentary lifestyles are much greater killers than cycling without a helmet.

If a person gives up cycling because of helmet laws (and many do), he or she is likely to lose 20 times as many years of healthy life from heart attacks or strokes than by continuing to cycle without a helmet.

It's really sad that so many people under-estimate the health benefits of cycling or over-estimate the dangers.

It's also sad that people compare bike helmets to seatbelts in cars. If people gave up driving because of seatbelt laws, they'd be more likely to walk or cycle, generating to health and environmental benefits.

Olivia Lim
Olivia Lim3 years ago

Not to mention that after 5 years the helmet needs to be replaced.

Olivia Lim
Olivia Lim3 years ago

Do seatbelt laws keep people from driving cars? Then why should helmets?

Vicky P.
Vicky P.3 years ago

not sure, it is an inconvience but it's about safety