Rather than mandating helmet use for cyclists, we should be pushing for safer streets for cyclists (and by extension, pedestrians).
By Sean Burak
Published July 06, 2011
When a cyclist is involved in a collision with a motor vehicle, the media usually report on whether or not the cyclist was wearing a helmet. While this can be an important piece of the story, it often happens that a non-helmeted cyclist suffers injuries to parts of the body other than the head, but the report still discusses the rider's lack of a helmet.
These stories sometimes turn the incident into an opportunity to interview police on their stance on helmet use - always resulting an a stern admonition to cyclists to "always wear your helmet".
It is tempting to compare helmets to seatbelts. Why not mandate helmet use, as we did with safety belts for cars? But there are some important differences.
Seatbelts have been proven to help rather than hinder in almost every collision situation. There was some backlash against seatbelts initially, by people who were concerned about being trapped in a burning car, but studies and real world data have shown that the benefit of seatbelt use vastly outweighs the slight possibility of being in a situation where it is a drawback.
The bike helmet story is much less straightforward. The tests under which helmets are certified are very simple straight-on-the-noggin bumps (read this great comprehensive summary of helmet testing procedures).
Glancing blows, neck twisting, and whiplash style impacts are not tested for, and independent tests have shown that a helmet could worsen concussions in many types of falls, especially when the fall causes rotation of the head.
Beyond that, helmet testing procedures show that the devices are not designed to reduce injury in collisions involving other vehicles. In other words, they are designed, tested, and certified solely to protect you from falling straight into onto a flat surface, at low speed, with no other vehicle involved.
The simple fact is that helmets are a red herring when it comes to cyclist safety, when riding at normal speeds in mixed traffic.
Beyond the chance of a helmet actually causing physical injury (and I freely admit that it is just a chance), there is a huge social detriment to the stigma of helmet use - and this is not just a chance, it is real. It is made much worse when helmet use is mandated by the government.
First, helmet use perpetuates the false idea that cycling itself is inherently dangerous. In reality, it is no more dangerous than walking or taking a shower, and is safer than driving. Head injury statistics show that cyclists are not especially at risk.
A study from 2003-2004 shows that there were 16,811 admissions to hospital for head injuries in Canada. Only 815 of these were cycling related - less than 5%.
Cause of Head Injury Hospitalizations, 2003-2004
The greatest number (7,637 or 45%) were from falls, followed by motor vehicle collisions (5,970 or 35%) and assault by another person (1,734 or 10%).
The real danger to cyclists is not hitting your head, it's getting hit by a car.
Rather than mandating helmet use for cyclists, we should be pushing for safer streets for cyclists (and by extension, pedestrians). This could be as simple as changing the laws, but should be accompanied by physical changes to our roads as well.
Rather than putting the onus on cyclists to wear protective gear to prevent injury from a collision, we should be passing laws that put more responsibility on drivers to avoid the collisions in the first place.
The current approach is akin to mandatory bulletproof vest laws in lieu of gun control laws. It just makes no sense.
Here are some simple ideas that could be implemented at a low cost:
Increase sentences for drivers at fault in collisions with cyclists - this can include larger fines, license suspensions and even jail time.
Higher fines for driving infractions in the presence of cyclists (similar to "speed fines doubled in construction zones with workers present" or "community safety zone, fines increased". All infractions should be considered more severe when a car is within a certain distance of a cyclist.
A minimum passing distance law - three feet for passing cyclists.
All of these are easy, law based solutions that do not require changing physical infrastructure nor special gear requirements for vulnerable road users.
Keep in mind, also, that cars come with seatbelts (and headlights, and horns, etc). For cyclists, every step toward safety is at additional retail cost.
Bike helmets are big business. Where does the majority of your $70 go to when you purchase a styrofoam hat from a bike shop which contains the same material as a $5 foam cooler? How much of this is R&D and how much is profit? Why does no one ask these questions?
Blind faith in bike helmets is dangerous.
Be careful out there!
Mikael Colville-Andersen explains to TEDx Copenhagen why we shouldn't bike with a helmet:
"Any livable city worth its salt will feature bicycles, great numbers of bicycles on the urban landscape."