BIKE HELMETS – an on again off again argument

Before the 'incident' - this man is invulnerable

After - not so confident, but note that hair remains undamaged. Helmet at work?

I’ve heard the most contentious issues on the internet at the moment are burka bans, gun control, gay adoption…and mandatory bike helmet laws.

I’ve decided to bite the bullet, grit my teeth and step up to the plate and into the minefield…

There was a very good article in the Sydney Morning Herald about the pros and cons of wearing bike helmets:

The argument goes that while wearing a helmet may prevent serious injuries in individual cases, the need to wear one discourages many potential riders from getting out on the bikes at all, thus losing potential health benefits.

I always wear my helmet in Australia because it’s compulsory, and would feel naked and vulnerable without it. In Holland, Belgium and Denmark, I do as the Romans do, and usually ride with the wind and rain in my hair.

Mevrouw T, a native of Amsterdam, objects to helmet wearing in Sydney. It makes her feel hot and uncomfortable and messes up her hair. She rides every day in Holland, but in Australia often avoids the bike because of the helmet business.

In years of riding I’ve had numerous minor falls, and only once landed on my helmet – (mostly my fault, failing to spot a pothole on downhill run on Great Victorian Bike Ride). My face was on the bitumen before I could even get a hand to the road, and the front edge of my helmet took much of the blow. As the surgeon in the article suggests, it probably it saved me from more extensive external injuries, but whether it prevented serious brain injury is debatable.

In Holland, anyone wearing a helmet is seen not so much as a chicken, but as a show-off. Helmets are for people who fancy themselves as Tour de France riders. They are compulsory for races and for organised group rides, but if you wear one while doing the shopping, expect some strange looks.

Last year I checked the figures on Dutch cycling deaths. Around 50 a year. That’s 50 too many of course, but a very low figure compared to the number of deaths in cars, and tiny when one considers that most of the population cycles regularly and, according to some surveys, nearly half of all trips are made on the bike.

It’s safer to ride there because the infrastructure is better – separated cycle paths, traffic signals for bikes and bike lanes on most major roads. The sheer number of riders also helps. Drivers expect there will be cyclists everywhere and know that they have priority.

So where do I stand on the issue? Until Australia gets safer cycling infrastructure I’ll keep my hard hat on while riding here. But in the interests of encouraging more cycling, I’d let those who prefer to ride without one take their chances.

STOP PRESS: Thank you, Paola Totaro for your article about cycling in Amsterdam!


Filed under Cycling, Sport

21 responses to “BIKE HELMETS – an on again off again argument

  1. Oh, darn, Richard. That does look like a nasty fall, but I’m glad your hair is okay – als je haar maar goed zit 😉 – and I’m confident that a flashy helmet like that protected your brain well. At least your sense of humor didn’t suffer, that’s for sure!

    • Mina, some would say a few knocks to my brain would make little difference. But the fall did do some damage to my confidence, and I’m trying not to repeat the experience.

      Most riders who saw me afterwards began the conversation with ‘Ooh mate, how’s your bike?’

  2. Any piece of gear which helps prevent daylight from reaching my brain is a good thing, in my view. I always wear a helmet, although I agree that legislating the practice may not be the best policy.

    • Thanks MSJ2,

      It was interesting to see the voting on the (unscientific, straw) poll that followed that article. After 5000+ votes the score was exactly 50% in favour of compulsory helmets, 50% against.

      Most cyclists who commented said they’d only ride with a helmet on, at least until we have safer cycle routes, and there was even some support (only slightly tongue-in-cheek) for making helmets compulsory for car drivers and passengers too.

  3. Good idea to wear the helmet Richard. My son who travels to work by bike was clipped by a car this week moving in the same direction. He suffered concussion but I’d hate to think of what would have happened had he not been wearing his helmet. The driver gave a false name and address but that was the worst of it thank goodness! Best wishes, Therese Waddell

    • Ooh, good that your son’s okay, Therese. How’s his bike? (sorry that was a bad cycling joke)

      Curiously, I’ve now been referred to a couple of articles quoting the WA experience as an argument AGAINST mandatory helmet laws. The study seems to show that when WA made helmets compulsory in 1992, the first state to do so, cycling went down and injuries went up.

      Any explanation for this?

      • Amy Joscelyne

        Hi Richard,

        I enjoy catching up with your writing when I can and I find this an interesting topic (as are your posts about YB).

        I recall reading that one explanation for this finding is that driver behaviour changes in response to cyclists wearing helmets, I found this quote/reference:

        “A study published in the March 2007 issue of Accident Analysis & Prevention stated that drivers drove an average of 8.5 cm closer, and came within 1 meter 23% more often, when a cyclist was wearing a helmet. ”

        Also, there has been some suggestion that cyclists may engage in more risky behaviour when they’re wearing helmets because they feel invincible.


      • Thanks, Amy. I certainly don’t want any more cars 8.5cm closer to me. Do you think if I put some eyes on the back of the helmet they’d repel motorists the way they’re supposed to repel swooping magpies? My helmet is staying on anyway.

      • Peter

        I believe its called the power law.
        When the number of cyclists goes up the number of injuries per cyclist goes down.
        It is well attested to everywhere.

      • Yes, that makes good sense Peter. In Holland (where I live a lot of the year) bicycle deaths are about 50 a year. That’s 50 too many of course, but it’s tiny in relation to the millions of Dutch cycle trips each day, and tiny in relation to their own car fatality statistics.

  4. Italy has a fairly casual attitude to helmets. The way everyone drives here I think I would wear a chainmail suit as well as the helmet. I am doing the practical part of my driver’s licence tomorrow so with a bit of luck I will be on the roads avoiding bikes.

    • Debra, I was planning to do some bike riding in Italy next year, so the chain mail is a good tip. I presume Ivan Basso wears his under his Liquigas jersey. Good luck with the driving test, though from my brief terrifying experience of driving in Italy, the rules are not very strict; any fool can get a licence and thousands apparently have!

  5. iain

    Hello Richard, In Spain everyone wears a helmet, although I am not sure it is compulsory. As the cars seem to travel little more than 8.5cm apart even at high speed it looks suicidal to cycle without one. The infrastructure is not particularly good either and the Spanish are pretty fast even on cycles (viz Contador Indurain etc.). I usually stick to the evening paseo or the golf course. Of course you could be struck on the head by a golf ball. Perish the thought of having to play with helmets !

  6. Richard, in regards to helmets, Japan resembles Amsterdam in some regards. I don’t know the statistics for number of trips and bicycle deaths but helmets are not compulsory here and few people wear them. It is becoming more common as cycling as recreation becomes more fashionable. Still, it is mostly middle-aged men on cross and road bikes wearing helmets and not young people, senior citizens and housewives on city bikes. It has become more common for mothers to put helmets on their toddlers in the child seat but they, themselves, do not wear them. Wearing a helmet saved my life so I wear one most of the time and my six year old son will wear when when he is riding with me (but not when he is a passenger on his mother’s mamachari). If I tried to force his older sisters to wear a helmet they would either stop riding a bike or disobey me. There needs to be more aggressive safety education. Perhaps, showing young kids and parents pictures of head injuries would sway their opinion. They show auto accident victims to young drivers to impress upon them need for wearing seat belt. I always felt more graphic demonstrations would be more effective. For example, painting a face on a cantaloupe propped up on a bicycle and then running over that bicycle and melon in front of grade school kids and their parents. This is your head… This is your head when it meets Mr. Bumper.

    For me, as long as there are cars on the road I will where a helmet. Cars have aluminum and steel fenders and bumpers. Bicycle riders only have skin, muscle and bone to protect them.

    • Thanks, TTW. It’s nice to get some international perspectives on this. Now that we have mandatory laws in Australia it would be a brave politician who would remove them – the next head injury would be the next headline. The political fallout could be fatal. Pardon the puns!

      With older kids, as you obviously know, safety is always going to be a lower priority than looking cool to your friends. Once kids love their lycra, the helmet will follow.

      I can’t claim to be immune from peer pressure myself. In Holland I only don the helmet for a serious, fast out-of-town ride. If I wore one during a gentle spin with my bare-headed friends I’d feel like a, um…does the word ‘dork’ mean anything to you?

  7. Sorry to hear about your fall, Richard. It looks nasty. Was that recent?

    I suppose I’d be OK about people over the age of 18 not wearing helmets if they would also agree to pay their medical bills in case of head injury, and not expect Medicare to cover it. That would be taking full responsibility for their actions.

    • Ride2Wk

      Stephen, save that silly “no helmet no Medicare” argument for the USA. I’ve had a broken back from snow boarding and stitches in my face from hang gliding? Should I not have been treated by the public system because they were considered dangerous sports and it was my own fault?

      By your argument, how about Medicare not cover obese people if they eat fatty food and don’t exercise? As a fit cyclist who is not likely to become obese or suffer a heart attack, perhaps I should argue that car drivers shouldn’t be covered by Medicare if they crash – their own fault for driving. Or if they get fat or suffer heart problems because they don’t exercise? In fact we should charge drivers a higher Medicare levy because they are more likely to cause extra cost on the health system and because cars cause air pollution related ilness in places like Sydney that kills 5x as many people as car crashes!

      Stephen, the benefits of cycling so outweigh the risk of cycling injuries with or without a helmet that your comment is just nonsense.

      Finally, an “Esky lid” only reduces the chance of serious head injury a small amount. I recently cracked a good, fairly new helmet in a low impact roll on soft grass that would in no way have hurt my head if I didn’t have the helmet on.

      Wear a helmet if makes you feel more secure, but please don’t suggest that Medicare is not available to people without helmets. It’s already bad enough that insurance companies will use it as an excuse to get out of making insurance payments even when the cyclist was in no way at fault.

  8. Stephen, this time they gave me free stitches because I’d been good and had my helmet on. And it was long enough ago so the scars are fading, leaving only the confidence slightly dented.

    The ‘no lid, no cover’ policy has some merits…perhaps it could be combined with a law charging smokers for their lung transplants?

    • Yes, and obese people for their lap bands. (Oh no, we already do that, don’t we!) Talking about taking responsibility for your actions, though, what I don’t get is why gay peoples feel they have a ‘right’ to have children.

      • Whoo – I’ll let that one go through to the keeper, Stephen! Best to save gay rights discussion for my future controversial blog post on abortion, atheism and the right to shoot things for fun.

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