Why bike helmets shouldn't be compulsory / by Tom Oliver Payne

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Decades of car dominance have made our streets congested, polluted and ugly. While some cities are now quickly embracing the bike, others have been slow. Helmet campaigns and legislation have been major obstructions to change. To get people moving on two wheels we must finally abandon our 'culture of fear'.

Since the 1960s we have been obsessed with the car. Our children are taught from a young age that they can’t walk down the street without being in fear of traffic, our weekly shopping trips revolve around finding car spaces and our economies are obsessed with the fluctuations in the price of petrol. All of this has taken its toll; our urban environments have become increasingly congested, polluted and sterile places.

Today, we have hit breaking point. Urban authorities are eagerly racing to create more bike-friendly cities in order to relieve pressure on transport networks and the natural environment. The New York Times recently posed the question, ”Have we passed peak driving?” It concluded that America’s cultural love affair with the car has “cooled”. But while North America is seeing cycling progress, momentum remains relatively slow.

As governments across the globe invest heavily into bike share schemes, ride-to-work programs, bike paths and other cycle infrastructure, there remains a major obstruction in the way of mass cycling commuting: fear. Helmetcampaigns and, in some countries, legislation, have acted to scare potential cyclists away from our most efficient and arguably, intelligent mode of transport.

The idea of helmet laws may seem absurd to some, but legislation remains in place across Australia, North America and some European and Middle Eastern cities. In countries like Denmark where helmets are not compulsory, new helmet campaigns have also scared people away from cycling. In 2007/2008, soon after the release of the first campaign, bike sales dropped for their first time in decades.

The introduction of bike share schemes have made helmet legislation a hot topic. Many cities are unwilling to invest in bike share systems because of helmet laws. Supplying helmets with each bike is a big ask for the operator; and it can also raise serious hygiene issues.

Some cities are trialling helmet vending machines. Most seem to be proving a failure. Not only does purchasing a helmet have terrible impacts on the environment, but the idea of buying a helmet for an unplanned cycle trip completely undermines the spontaneity of using a bike share system in the first place.

 Me in Copenhagen, Denmark. Riding is safe here because just about everyone is on a bike! 

Me in Copenhagen, Denmark. Riding is safe here because just about everyone is on a bike! 

While I have previously ‘sat on the fence’ in regards to helmet campaigns and legislation, a TED talk by the famous Mikael Colville Andersen finally swayed me. Mikael makes several substantial arguments in his TED talk (below), identifying that:

  1. Our culture of fear has made us a “bubble wrap society” with an obsession with safety equipment.
  2. Scientifically, helmets do not have a good safety record. Some studies actually indicate that your risk of brain injury is actually higher when you’re wearing a helmet. If the helmet were a medical vaccine, there is no way it would be approved with current scientific results.
  3. The health benefits of cycling are 20 times greater than the risks. We should be doing everything possible to promote commuter cycling.
  4. Helmets are a very lucrative business. Manufacturers and insurance companies campaign for helmets for their own financial benefit.
  5. Additionally, the automobile industry is one of the main promoters of bicycle helmets because cycling is a major threat to car sales.
  6. Promoting helmets and ‘culture of fear’ ultimately leads to less people riding bikes and therefore losing ‘safety in numbers’

I find the last point made here incredibly interesting. ‘Safety in numbers’is the idea that cycling becomes safer as more people do it. In order to increase this mass behaviour, it must be made as comfortable and as accessible as possible. Bike helmet laws remain a major barrier to gaining these numbers. Rather than making cycling safer, it’s more likely that helmets actually have a perverse effect by increasing serious injury rates among those few who continue to cycle.

Yes, there is some evidence that helmets can physically protect cyclists, but this does not mean that their use should be compulsory. While 1.2 million people are killed in private vehicles per year, helmet laws will never be enforced for motorists; there is too much at stake for the multi-billion dollar car industry. If the car industry has too much to lose, can we really afford to lose the societal benefits that cycling brings to health, transport and the environment?

For too long, fear has been the feeling that has controlled the public. I for one, have had enough of having my every outdoor movement controlled by the roads and traffic that surround me. It’s finally time to shift the responsibility away from the most vulnerable road users, and deal with the problem at the root—that is, with the cars.

Feature image courtesy Flickr/byronv2.