Some time back I mentioned I don’t wear a helmet all the time. And that I don’t support mandatory helmet laws (MHLs). Over the years these admissions have triggered heated (and, sadly, misinformed) feedback. I wrote this post to explain why I arrived at my conclusions. It’s not a vain preference; my stance is based on sound science and I encourage anyone disturbed by my position, particularly those who get a little abusive in their response, to read the below, do their own research also, and to feel free to point me to legitimate and non-vested science I might have missed.
Update: I have, yes, updated this post March 2019.
There are two separate issues when discussing this topic
…and they shouldn’t be conflated.
The first: Do helmets work?
The second: Do mandatory helmet laws work?
I’ll stress, before you read on: I’m not anti-helmet. I’m against the the mandatory helmet laws here in Australia. In fact, my interest in the topic emerged when I started questioning why Australia and New Zealand are the only countries in the world with all-age enforced MHLs. It seemed odd.
Update: According to Freestyle Cyclists, while New Zealand still has MHLs, the level of enforcement has dropped dramatically – to neglible levels – over the past five years, with national road policing manager, Inspector Peter McKennie saying their focus is on “people not wearing seatbelts, driving while impaired by alcohol, drugs or fatigue”.
Thus, Australia remains the only country in the world bogged down in this mess.
Does the rest of the world not care about the collective noggins of its citizens? Or do they not have them for good reason? Turns out it’s the latter.
If you’d like to read the column I wrote for News Ltd on this matter click here. Note: the headline isn’t mine.
Update: The few other jurisdictions that did have partially enforced laws (most didn’t issue fines) have since repealed or reformed them, including Mexico, Israel, Bosnia-Hertzegovina and Malta.
But let’s discuss the various elements of the two aspects of the argument. Be warned: the issue requires nuanced thinking!!
There’s no conclusive proof helmets save lives or limit injuries. In fact, the opposite.
The “science” on whether helmets actually protect us on an individual basis is very inconclusive and no randomised controlled trials have been done on the safety of bike helmets. The trials that have been done, however, point to the fact they don’t actually save lives. This Canadian one, published in BMJ, is a case in point. Which is part of the reason why the rest of the world don’t have MHLs (although only part of the reason; the main one is explained below). There are so many variables entailed in how this can possibly be so:
Helmets actually cause head rotation in a large number of bike accidents.
Helmets have been shown to prevent injury from “linear speeding”. But the majority of head injuries from bike accidents occur from “angular” accidents caused when the head is rotated. Hmmm. Bill Curnow, President of the Cyclists Rights Action Group in Canberra, reviewed the scientific literature for a 2008 book, Transport Accident Analysis and Prevention. He writes, “Scientific circles had ‘widely discredited’ the theory that linear acceleration is the main cause of brain injury, yet helmet makers had made a huge investment in this theory and designed their helmets accordingly, while ignoring the role of angular acceleration in causing brain injury, due to rotation of the head.
It gets worse.
Soft-shell helmets were approved a while back; they’re more comfortable and airy than previous ones. This is what most people wear these days. But wait for this:
They were approved despite advise that they caused increased rotational forces.
These helmets are tested to impact speeds of only 19.5km/h (the speed of impact of being dropped 1.5m) and to pass they only have to not shatter. If a helmet shatters, of course, it’s failed. As Dr Paul Martin at St Vincents, Sydney: “A helmet smashing into pieces is actually a sign of the helmet failing to work as it should. The foam needs to compress significantly if any forces are to be attenuated. If it cracks or breaks before the foam compresses then it has done nothing to help you. The documents can be read in full at your local state library (the main one is AS/NZS2063 and the testing documents are AS/NZS2512).
The new helmet standards mandate that the straps now have to stretch to allow the helmet to come off after the ‘initial impact’. As Dr Paul says, “How does the helmet ‘know’ if the initial impact is going to be the ‘big one’?”
Helmets that don’t comply with the updated standard are illegal to sell but not illegal to wear (if you can follow that logic) I.e. You might have a helmet that you bought before the updated helmet laws, but you can still wear it… which makes a law forcing people to wear such helmets just a bit ridiculous).
A bicycle helmet will not protect your face…nor your cervical spine.
Which is kind of important.
Helmets make riders – and drivers – less cautious..
…therefore more likely to crash. This is a thread that comes up in a lot of studies – helmet-free riders are defensive riders. Similarly, studies show “risk compensation” kicks in for bike riders. That is, Helmet riders can be more complacent and take more risks. Ditto drivers. One study shows drivers are more considerate of riders without helmets.
If an accident is bad enough to cause brain damage, helmets don’t prevent said brain damage.
This from anaesthetist Dr Paul Martin who encounters many bike accident victims in the trauma unit he works in:
A bicycle helmet will not prevent brain damage if the forces involved are so great that you would sustain brain damage without a helmet. You will certainly prevent superficial injuries but that’s about it. In fact, this is a major reason why they’re good to wear for sport cycling. There is nothing worse than having to abandon a race with a scalp laceration. I do not wear a bicycle helmet most of the time. When competing, I’ll wear one.
Helmet laws make riding more dangerous
OK, so let’s jump to the second issue: the mandatory laws. Do they work?
Well, no. Which is the main reason why other countries around the world have scraped MHLs. Papers have been published in Canada showing no effect on hospitalisation rates for cycling injuries in provinces with helmet laws when compared to provinces without helmet laws. In Australia (Jim Lemon, also of UNSW) showing declines in head injuries to cyclists in NSW following helmet mandation were as a result of decline in participation and other road safety measures introduced at the same time, with no change attributable to helmets. And just last month from California, a hospital based study from the LA district public hospitals showing helmet wearing had no positive impact on reducing head injuries amongst cyclists admitted to hospital following accidents.
In fact, the laws have a negative impact on safety and wellbeing that goes way beyond arguments about “inconvenience”, “curbing of freedom” and bad hair. Folk who go at me on forums and yell at me from their cars, as well as jocular journos on morning shows who mock me (without thinking there might be some nuance and research in the equation), automatically assume I’m just lazy, entitled or vain in my stance. No! The most crucial factor is this:
Helmets deter people from riding.
In fact, studies show they are the #1 deterrent. Bikes account for up to 50% of trips in many European cities and towns. Australia is still stuck on the 1% it has been at for 25 years. As Freestyle Cyclists say, public bike share schemes flourish in Europe and the United States, while Australia plays host to the dud failures in Melbourne and Brisbane, thanks to our helmet laws.
Now you might think that’s a trifle point. No! The impact of so many people not riding a bike is huge. Read on…OK, so we now arrive at this next point:
Regular riders live longer because the health effects of cycling far outweigh the risk of death from crashing.
There is ample data to back this, referring to the fact the cycling fast becomes a very effective form of exercise for many people when they don’t have to wear helmets. Check out this:According to the Australian Heart Foundation mortality from lack of exercise accounts for 16,000 deaths a year. How many people die from bike accidents? 40 a year.Click To Tweet
Less riders on the road means more dangerous bike conditions.
Cities where more people ride are safer…it’s called the Smeed’s law. Look it up. Now, don’t dismiss this point as “too hard” to put in place, arguing, “But Sydney’s roads are not like Amsterdam/Copenhagen/Paris”. With obesity, road congestion, CO2 emissions etc as they are, we must think longterm about this issue. Amsterdam’s cycling conditions are as they are because someone thought longterm and in a nuanced fashion.
While ever helmet laws are the government’s response, other (actually effective) measures are side-lined.
Think about what goes on in this country (and, indeed, on my social forums when I mention the issue). We go feral about people not wearing bike helmets (yell out windows, write horrible things on Instagram posts). And then we go feral over any efforts to build cycle paths or promote campaigns geared at rider awareness, initiatives that actually work (and that see cities like Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Paris safe cycle zones).
Can you see the madness, people?
When helmets are compulsory and folk wear them reluctantly and without commitment, they’re often worn incorrectly.
Not so when people voluntarily wear them, which is always an option, regardless of MHLs.
As I say, all these factors have stacked up for other governments. But not ours.
A peer reviewed study published in March 2014 looking at the costs and benefits of a bicycle helmet law for Germany found:
For Germany, the benefits of a law that obliges cyclists to wear helmets are smaller than the costs. From an aggregated welfare point of view, Germany would therefore lose from introducing such a law.
In December 2013, the final report of the OECD International Transport Forum Working Group on Cycling Safety recommended member countries consider that bicycle helmet laws increase crash risk and discourage cycling participation with negative health and safety consequences. We are a member of the OECD.
Plus the fines don’t work
Plus, seriously, what’s the *real* risk of head injury?
Not nearly as high as the hysteria would have us bludgeoned into believing. In Australia, about 40 people from bike accidents each year, not all of which are from head injuries.
The problem is vulnerability is confused with danger when it comes to bike helmets.
Yes, cyclists are vulnerable. But the danger – the real risk of injury – is minimal.
There are many safety studies that have been done on the issue. This one is a good overview. But a few interesting factoids I’ve collated along the way which might assist you in making up your own mind:
- Cycling is less dangerous than being a pedestrian. Indeed, six times as many pedestrians as cyclists are killed by motor traffic, yet travel surveys show annual mileage walked is only five times that cycled. The proportion of cyclist injuries which are head injuries is essentially the same as the proportion for pedestrians at 30.0 % vs. 30.1 %.
- UK research has pointed out that it takes at least 8000 years of average cycling to produce one clinically severe head injury and 22,000 years for one death.
- In the first 400 days of Dublin’s bike share, 1.3 million trips were made (average duration 16 minutes), equating to 3.7 million kilometres of riding, not one incident. Not one.
Finally, would you wear a helmet in a car? Walking in the street?
This is kind of where the ludicrousness of the MHL logic could take us, if we wanted to be pains in the arses: Do you wear a helmet when in a car? If not, why not? The risk of a serious head injury in a car is much greater than on a bicycle. Ditto walking around town. Should we extend MHLs to everyone leaving the house each day?
You can read a stack more by the Bicycle Network and their full review of MHLs in Australia here. And you can get more involved in things with freestylecyclists.org and follow them on Facebook.
Now that you’ve read all this, and have taken on the more nuanced arguments and science, what are your thoughts?