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 Mexico City recently repealed a mandatory helmet law to get a bike-sharing scheme off the ground.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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