NYT farts in Bike Church

To Encourage Biking, Cities Lose the Helmets

One common denominator of successful bike programs around the world -- from Paris to Barcelona to Guangzhou -- is that almost no one wears a helmet, and there is no pressure to do so.

In the United States the notion that bike helmets promote health and safety by preventing head injuries is taken as pretty near God's truth. Un-helmeted cyclists are regarded as irresponsible, like people who smoke. Cities are aggressive in helmet promotion.

But many European health experts have taken a very different view: Yes, there are studies that show that if you fall off a bicycle at a certain speed and hit your head, a helmet can reduce your risk of serious head injury. But such falls off bikes are rare -- exceedingly so in mature urban cycling systems.

On the other hand, many researchers say, if you force or pressure people to wear helmets, you discourage them from riding bicycles. That means more obesity, heart disease and diabetes. And -- Catch-22 -- a result is fewer ordinary cyclists on the road, which makes it harder to develop a safe bicycling network. The safest biking cities are places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where middle-aged commuters are mainstay riders and the fraction of adults in helmets is minuscule.

"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," says Piet de Jong, a professor in the department of applied finance and actuarial studies at Macquarie University in Sydney. He studied the issue with mathematical modeling, and concludes that the benefits may outweigh the risks by 20 to 1.

He adds: "Statistically, if we wear helmets for cycling, maybe we should wear helmets when we climb ladders or get into a bath, because there are lots more injuries during those activities." The European Cyclists' Federation says that bicyclists in its domain have the same risk of serious injury as pedestrians per mile traveled.


49 Responses:

  1. Will Sargent says:

    I really like this paragraph:

    "Before you hit the comment button and tell me that you know someone whose life was probably saved by a bike helmet, I know someone, too. I also know someone who believes his life was saved by getting a blood test for prostate specific antigen, detecting prostate cancer. But is that sense of salvation actually justified, for the individual or society?"

    So there's four groups here:

    People who don't have accidents and don't have helmets. They live.
    People who don't have accidents and have helmets. They live.
    People who have accidents and have helmets. They live.
    People who have accidents and don't have helmets because it's too much work and they don't want to look geeky. They get to be organ donors.

    I don't see a problem here.

    • Will Sargent says:

      Also, surprised the writer didn't directly address the "why wear seatbelts then" argument.

      • Ben says:

        A human life is not infinitely valuable. Seatbelts have a positive ROI. Bicycle helmets don't always.

        Your four categories completely ignore the category of people dying 20 years early because they don't bicycle because of all of the paraphernalia that seems required

        • Eric TF Bat says:

          That's OK. I'm fine with vain and stupid people dying early. Still a win-win.

          • Chris says:

            It's not the vanity aspect, but the feeling that "this is a dangerous activity" that mandating helmets brings with it. I appreciate the asshole slant you bring to this though.

          • suitifiable says:

            That's because you're a misanthropic neckbeard who views the world the same way he did when he was 14.

      • antabakaYT says:

        Probably because that's a different ballgame at entirely different speeds.
        But maybe we should entice car drivers to wear safety helmets, too?

        • Eric TF Bat says:

          At the speeds cars crash, the only advantage helmets confer is enabling the paramedic to identify which end of the meat soup was the driver's head.

      • Why to wear a seatbelt, in 4 bytes: F=ma

    • jso says:

      People who have accidents and have helmets. They live.

      There's a fifth group: People who have accidents and have helmets. They get to be organ donors as well, depending on the scenario.

    • I think you forgot to read the article dude

    • Actually the groups are:
      People who don't have accidents and don't have helmets. They live.
      People who don't have accidents and have helmets. They live. There's some evidence the helmet increases the risk they do have an accident, but nothing conclusive.
      People who have accidents and have helmets. Some of them live, some of them die, the helmet doesn't make much difference. There's speculation about exactly why, but nothing conclusive beyond the obvious that a little foam designed to protect against relatively low speed impacts doesn't help much when you are hit by a ton of fast moving metal.
      People who have accidents and don't have helmets, either because it's too much work and they don't want to look geeky, or because they've read the research and know they don't help much. Some of them live, some of them die, the helmet doesn't make much difference.

      Population studies consistently show helmets don't help significantly. Either most of the many people with "a helmet saved my life" story would have lived anyway, or they are having accidents they wouldn't have had without a helmet.

  2. In most of Australia, it is illegal to ride a bicycle without a helmet. The police aggressively enforce this law, handing out fines. It's commonly believed that the law's not there to protect cyclists but to protect motorists from being inconvenienced by the presence of too many casual cyclists, by making cycling an activity that requires considerable commitment. (Elections in Australia are typically decided by outer suburban seats, which are heavily car-dependent.)

    They introduced a bike rental scheme in Melbourne (based on the Montréal Bixi system) a few years ago, and uptake was very low due to nobody, oddly enough, carrying a helmet with them when they're likely to want to rent a bike. As scrapping the helmet law is politically infeasible, the state introduced heavily subsidised helmets for sale in shops, undoubtedly creating a layer of bike helmets in the state's landfills which will puzzle archaeologists in centuries to come. The scheme is still poorly utilised compared to those in London, Paris and such.

    • Karellen says:

      Why did the people who rented bikes not also rent out bike helmets?

      • Nick Lamb says:

        Because (enough) people will ride a rented bicycle that has an unexplained dirty mark on the side, but they won't wear a rented bicycle helmet that has somebody else's hair and hair grease on it. So now you're in the bicycle helmet sanitising business. And when you ask the successful cities "So how did you cope?" they laugh and tell you that your law is crazy and they don't give out helmets.

        • Adding helmet rental infrastructure to the stations (even without sanitisation facilities) would be prohibitive. The rental stations are just arrays of automated bike locks with one console for unlocking a bike. The simplest possible case, a helmet vending machine which only sells new helmets, would add a lot of expense to the sites. Keeping the machine stocked would be another problem (apparently the 7/11s which sell subsidised helmets are more often than not out of stock, despite the scheme not being massively popular). If you want to make it a helmet rental scheme, where users can return helmets and get a deposit back, that'd add even more infrastructure to each station (dropping your bike off and going on foot to the helmet return depot would be no fun). In short, it's not even remotely workable.

          Helmet wearing should be a personal choice; by all means, encourage people to wear helmets, but don't require them to do so. The fact that it isn't suggests that the law is there for the benefit of motorists, not cyclists.

          • gryazi says:

            I recall seeing some "local guy makes good" human interest story about an Indonesian(?) dude who hit it big by inventing an automatic helmet cleaning system for motorcycle/scooter helmets - which are perhaps more clearly beneficial in their traffic environment and also apparently skank up instantly due to their climate.

            Drop your helmet off when you go to the mall/airport/wherever a booth is set up, pay a token fee a-la dry cleaning, pick up clean sanitized helmet in something like 15 minutes. So the technology exists FWIW, but integrating it culturally and into the particular scheme, maybe not so much.

            [I dislike the way bike helmets contribute to that weird observed dehumanizing/cyclist-must-know-what-he's-doing effect that causes drivers to get closer, but I also smacked my head into a B-pillar once as a car pilot in an accident, so I'm torn - bike helmets always fit like crap and barely seem to protect anything, but I'm all in favor of automotive curtain airbags now that they're cheap, because that 'just took a virtual brick to the side of the head' feeling is no fun even without the addition of road rash or hood ornaments.]

  3. I primarily bike, and I wear a helmet. I have had a few accidents: slipping on a wet manhole cover, getting hit by a suddenly-opened door, having faulty brakes and going over my handlebars. Never once have I hit the ground with the portion of my head that the helmet covers.

    So I buy the argument.

    Seatbelts on the other hand can prevent secondary collisions due to the fact that they hold the driver in place so that he or she can keep steering/braking the car. You can't do that if you're shot through the windshield or ragdolled into the back seat.

    • The main reason people die when not wearing a seatbelt in a car accident is because of the hard parts in the car: the steering column and the A pillers. Being launched through the windshield is unpleasant enough, having your skull caved in by the pillar that keeps the roof on will really put a crimp on your plans to live.

  4. 8d5c97040d64 says:

    Nobody in Japan or the Netherlands wears helmets, and they all bike. Everybody cruises around slowly on grandma bikes with one hand holding an umbrella while wearing suits. They don't seem to die on a regular basis, to my knowledge.

    • Peter Hollo says:

      And that's part of the point - different cities have different geographies & topologies as well as different car and bike cultures. You can't cycle around Sydney on grandma bikes holding an umbrella - it's too hilly, the streets are too inconsistently wide and narrow, and the cars are not used to having to give way to cyclists. All of which have different solutions or no solution.
      In my estimation, it would be dangerous to cycle around Sydney without a helmet - the way you ought to cycle around Sydney anyway. But if they want to relax the laws, well sure go ahead. I'll just (probably) choose to still wear a helmet.

      • 8d5c97040d64 says:

        Well the point is the car culture thing, like you said. Most US cities within the pre-1940s ring are perfectly amenable to a cycling culture, and that's actually a lot of population and urban space. They're dense enough and traffic is often low speed enough. The only problem is sharing the road with crazy drivers.

        The drivers in the US are crazy because so many of them are boomers and silent generation types who have known nothing but suburbia and car culture in their lives. I guess as oil inevitably climbs in price and boomers die this is a self correcting problem.

        I've cycled regularly in a few US cities and had no major problems. But I'm also suicidal and drive a motorcycle and don't own a car. It's currently crazy to suggest to normal people due to the risk of getting creamed if you're not on your toes. Hell, as far as I can tell most people don't manage to go five years without getting in a car accident of some variety. If there were a lot more cyclists I think they'd just be picking them off on regular basis.

    • I was just in Amsterdam, and was amazed at how everyone bikes like maniacs there - not that they were reckless, but how fast they moved.

      And yes, no one was wearing helmets. Not one person.

  5. Mhoye says:

    "But such falls off bikes are rare — exceedingly so in mature urban cycling systems", as though we have anything even vaguely like that in North America.

  6. aerique says:

    If there's one way to spot a foreigner on a bike here in the Netherlands it's by them wearing helmets.

    • k3ninho says:

      I'd love to have segregated tarmac for bikes and wider portion of the population as cyclists. For where I have to ride, a lid is optional - but among the traffic I would ride in, you won't find without my helmet. The arguments about mandating bike helmets, as in this article, make sense if looking good is more import than being safe in a dangerous place. And if you're lucky to be riding in a safe place, chapeau.

      • aerique says:

        Yeah, given there is a good cycling infrastructure and other participants are used to many cyclists in traffic it makes no sense to mandate helmets.

        In my former job I cycled 10km to work... good times and no need to go to a fitness club.

      • mikeash says:

        Why do you ride in such dangerous traffic, with or without a helmet? A helmet may increase your odds of survival, but it's just an increase in the odds, not a guarantee.

        The weirdest thing in this debate is helmet-wearers decrying non-wearers for being vain and foolhardy, while simultaneously bragging about the dangerous conditions they go riding in. I can't figure it out; are you concerned about safety, or not?!

  7. Sheilagh says:

    What's your current bike replacement cost? I'm recalling it in the $300 range, maybe? This'd be more than half that, but it seems to be a neat newish bike technology:

  8. Dave Page says:

    If I remember rightly, Europe-wide accident statistics show that there's no net benefit to cycle helmet wearing - many accidents that would cause fatal head injuries without a helmet merely cause a fatal neck injury with one.

    I do agree with the point about making the roads seem more dangerous than they actually are. I cycle in a big city, without a helmet. While I do exercise some common sense in preferring quieter roads with cycle paths to busy rush-hour traffic, I also avoid darting in and out of parked cars to stay as close to the kerb as possible, which makes me much harder to see and predict, and give myself enough room to manoeuvre even if it means taking up more road space. I'm sure this irritates some drivers, but I'm equally sure it makes me safer.

  9. Matt Kenworthy says:

    The article is missing two points about biking in America versus the Netherlands. Firstly, there are dedicated separate bike lanes along nearly all roads in the Netherlands, so most of the time you are not next to car traffic flow. Roundabouts and traffic light crossings integrate the separate bike lanes very well.

    Secondly, for the Netherlands at least, if there is a collision between a bicyclist and car, then the car is automatically responsible and pays for it, apart from the most obvious cases where the bicyclist was fully responsible. This makes drivers very bike aware in the Netherlands.

    I cycled in Tucson, AZ, for eight years with a bike helmet, and have been cycling for over two years in the Netherlands without a bike helmet. I definitely feel safer on the roads in the Netherlands than in America.

    Dutch car drivers are far more aware of bikes than their American counterparts - for that reason I always wear a bike helmet when I'm in the States.

  10. piku says:

    I cycle in the UK. What's our law concerning helmets, apart from "you probably should"? I've cycled past police men on bikes and they've not done anything except cycle past me in bright yellow jackets and helmets - possibly feeling a bit daft.

    I am amused though by people who wear them on their handlebars, in their bags or on their heads without clipping the chin strap up. It's like The Helmet is a magic charm and so long as you have one, accidents won't happen.

    Then your chain snaps and you clang your balls on the crossbar, which no amount of polystyrene will protect you from.

    • Nick Lamb says:

      There is no legal requirement to wear a bicycle helmet in the UK. If you feel safer wearing a helmet, by all means do so. The police are wearing helmets, but then the police are also usually seen with stab vests, handcuffs and personal cameras. All of those things are legal for you to have but most people don't.

  11. Christof says:

    Here in Barcelona we have a very successful bicycle rental scheme, similar to the ones in Paris, London or Melbourne called bicing.

    So far the law states that you only have to wear a bicycle helmet when leaving the city limits, but the plan is to introduce a new law to enforce it whenever using a bicycle. My prediction is that this will kill the bicing system.

    I wear a helmet whenever I go cycling with my own bicycles, but the use of a bicycle sharing system is usually a in the moment decision and there won't be a helmet around. I use it for short trips instead of bus or metro. It is because it isn't safe to lock my bicycle in the city or because I just have to move quickly a couple of blocks.

    This new law is introduced together with some other laws restricting the use of bicycles in the city, so it looks to me very much like it is more about the motorists and pedestrians than the safety of cyclists.

    • MJH says:

      Christof: my experience of Bicing is that one has more to fear from the wretched bikes themselves than any traffic.

      • Christof says:

        Very true, on the other hand I have been tempted to bring a helmet before getting into a taxi or an hazard suit for the metro.

  12. andrew says:

    Or, we could force the fuckers to wear helmets, and also full body armour, preferably in Star Wars stormtrooper mode, in order to discourage them. Maybe it's different in the US, but here in New Zealand we get cyclists running red lights pretty much all the time. I've almost been run down several times by cyclists driving through a red light, when I, as a pedestrian, was crossing the road at a green light, and got shouted at because I should "fucking look out". Also, I don't know how it is in the US, but here we have these quaint things called "pedestrian crossings". Which apply to cars, who stop as required by the law, to let people across the road, but not to cyclists, especially in packs, who don't even slow down, but do have enough breath left to yell "get out of the fucking way".

    Cyclists. Wipe them all out. Even the younglings.

    • Eric TF Bat says:

      The ideal situation would be to allow penalty-free hunting and killing of anyone in bike shorts. Normal human-being pants = casual cyclist = probably not a smug, self-satisfied git. Bike shorts = ugly evil smug wanker. It's a good simple rule that I think could be put into law without anyone really minding.

      • andrew says:

        Outstanding suggestion. I definitely agree that we should allow penalty-free hunting and killing of anyone in bike shorts. Or indeed, anyone on a bike. I'm yet to be convinced that everyone in bike shorts is an ugly evil smug wanker. Although there is no doubt that I am a smug, self-satisfied git

    • Paul says:

      IIRC, the Netherlands law says that the heaviest vehicle is automatically responsible. This means that a bike hitting a pedestrian is also automatically in the wrong.

      As a cyclist, I strongly dislike it when other cyclists run red lights or are otherwise irresponsible arseholes as it not only makes the road less safe for everyone but also makes the lives of the majority more difficult.

      Quite frankly, this problem is best dealt with through a law enforcement blitz, not by makin everyone pay for the stupidity of a few.

    • Paul says:

      IIRC, the Netherlands law says that the heaviest vehicle is automatically responsible. This means that a bike hitting a pedestrian is also automatically in the wrong.

      As a cyclist, I strongly dislike it when other cyclists run red lights or are otherwise irresponsible arseholes as it not only makes the road less safe for everyone but also makes the lives of the majority more difficult.

      Quite frankly, this problem is best dealt with through a law enforcement blitz, not by making everyone pay for the stupidity of a few.

    • Hex says:

      I was wondering when we'd get the first "b-b-b-but cyclists jump red lights!" comment. Surprised it took that long.

      Do you have equal time to complain about bad drivers on articles about driving?

      • andrew says:

        Where I live, cyclists are far far worse about this than car drivers. Although I'll grant you that bus drivers are a different matter.