Mandatory Bike Helmet Laws Could Make Streets Less Safe

NOTE: This is a guest post from Paul Mackie who blogs and leads strategic communications for Mobility Lab and its partners. This post was originally published on Mobility Lab’s blog.

The research tells us that mandatory bicycle helmet laws are, perhaps counter-intuitively, a very bad idea when the hope is to increase bicycle ridership – and, along with it, multi-model transportation and commuting options – in the United States.

Since their inception, mandatory helmet laws have sunk bike ridership rates in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. So with such a proposal becoming a serious possibility in Maryland, this year’s expansion of Capital Bikeshare into the state could suffer greatly or even fail.

The Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation found that after such laws were introduced:

In Australia:
- Australian Capital Territory – Cycle use fell 33 percent on weekdays, 50 percent on weekends.

- New South Wales – Child cyclists 21 percent more likely to suffer death or serious injury. Cycle use fell 36 percent to 44 percent (but 90 percent among girl teenagers in Sydney).

- Northern Territory – Cycle use: fell 22 percent to 50 percent.

- Queensland – Cycle use fell 22 percent to 30 percent.

- South Australia – Cycle use fell approximately 38 percent.

- Victoria – Cycle use fell 36 percent to 46 percent.

- Western Australia – Cycle use fell 30 percent to 50 percent.

In Canada:
- Nova Scotia – Cycle use fell 40 percent to 60 percent; greatest fall was among teenagers.

In New Zealand:
- Cycle use fell approximately 22 percent.

In all cases, bike ridership decreased but safety did not. In other words, since I regularly ride my bike from my home in Maryland to my office in Virginia, I would in fact be putting myself most at risk on the portions of my ride in Maryland. That doesn’t seem like a very positive message for the state to send.

The counter argument is mostly anecdotal: “I see all these cyclists riding without helmets on. It’s so dangerous! I must protect their heads.”

I am sure the people and legislators who put those anecdotes forward mean well. And I certainly encourage people to wear helmets. But sometimes – like with a spontaneous decision to hop on Capital Bikeshare for several blocks – a law is just unnecessary. It would prevent those spontaneous rides from happening, and those lost spontaneous rides will clog our streets even worse with unnecessary car trips. Furthermore, the research shows that the more bicyclists on the street, the more visible they become to everyone, and the safer everyone is. Indeed, mandatory bike-helmet laws will have the reverse effect of making cycling less safe.

For more, see the Washington Area Bicyclist Association’s excellent statement on this topic.


Related Stories:

Do Helmet Laws Keep People From Riding Bikes?

Bikes Can Save Us

Uruguayan Government Gives Out Bikes in Exchange For Guns


Photo by M.V. Jantzen (Michael Schade) courtesy of Mobility Lab


Ujivenelson Ujivenelson
Past Member 2 years ago

These are truly amongst the wonderful informative blogs.

JOSE Honr5 years ago

A helmet would save us. Thanks.

Laurence L.
laurence h5 years ago

Totally agree!

Laura Saxon
.5 years ago

I always wear a helmete.

Christine W.
Christine W5 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Ken H.
Ken H5 years ago

@ Great White........I actually live in the great white north of Canada.I bike in weather down to -50 degrees cel.i drive on uneven sheer ice,through snow drifts,over frozen tire tracks,in blinding ice fog etc.....I dont wear a helmet,i do have safety lites.I rarely drive on the road as they dont clear to the edge,i drive on bike paths along road or on the side of i dont run over people,nor go fast past them.When i was a kid we would actually run over ea. other playing bike tag,we got hurt but we were ok.In my 20's i use to pretend my 10 speed was a racing bike and would dip it low to the pavement like they did in corners,when it was wet out that bike lost traction and i went down hard at speed,bleeding and limping but otherwise ok.

I dont get all these near death experiences,and i would of died without my trusty accidents happen,but i think some of those folks should stick to horses or buses.And all this worry bout paying for brains leaking out of run over bout all the time/energy/money spent on folks who crash into other folks with vehicles?Theres always a crash,what about those folks,some of them dont even have insurance,some not even a lic.And those beanbag helmets is that suppose to be a joke,if the law was serious you would need to wear a BMX or Motocross helmet that protechs your head/neck/face.

Stephen S.
Stephen L5 years ago

I won't change my habits, Lori Ann. I will continue to not wear a helmet unless, of course, the cops are looking.

Lori Ann Hone
Lori Hone5 years ago

Lets hope people don't change their riding habits just because the have to wear a helmet.

Malgorzata Zmuda
Malgorzata Z5 years ago

Ja uważam, że jazda w kasku jest bezpieczniejsza przynajmniej u dzieci.

Anders D.
Anders Davidsen5 years ago

Less bikers on the road would only help clima changes.. actually it´s stupid to make a law like this.. people should be free to have their own choices in life when it comes to things like this