Should we have cycle helmet legislation? NOT the same question as “should we wear helmets”!

I’m writing this here because I seem to be writing something like it often recently thanks to Aaron Keown’s comments in the media recently!

All other things being equal, I agree, it is better to wear a helmet when cycling than when not. However, I’m much more doubtful about making it compulsory, although it may be OK to make it compulsory for kids to wear them.

When cycle helmet legislation came in in NZ,
1) Most cyclists were already wearing helmets (they had to be before it was possible to bring in). I was one of them.
2) Cyclist numbers dropped significantly after it came in. Figures across the world show that making cycle helmet wearing compulsory leads to drops of about 33% in cyclist numbers. Having fewer cyclists on the road makes it more dangerous on a per cyclist basis (lots of research to support this).

Research into the benefits of cycle helmet legislation in relation to head injuries is inconclusive – in some places they seem to be worse after the legislation is brought in and in some they are better but all studies (both +ve and -ve) have been questioned …But it’s not conclusively great!

Fewer people cycling means fewer health benefits from having the regular exercise and actually, I’m suspect that the fewer children and teenagers riding bikes, the less experience they have on roads and so when they come to drive cars, they don’t have the same judgement – these are costs that are never included in these analyses.

One might also argue that because we have a law requiring cycle helmets to be worn, cycling is likely to be seen as more dangerous than other activities, when in fact it is safer than most. This will make it more likely that because cycling is seen as dangerous, fewer people will do it or will let their kids do it.

It’s also quite clear that many people take more risks when wearing safety gear – so NZ rugby players get no more injuries than American Football players despite wearing a lot less protective gear. Certainly that came though in my research with mountain bikers some years ago.

Requiring cycle helmets also makes the idea of public cycle hire schemes like those seen overseas much less attractive (would you want to wear a helmet that has had lots of different wearers?)

Also, if we are really worried about preventing head injuries, we should be wearing helmets in cars, on skis and in lots of other places where it is not done but there are more injuries occurring.

So yes by all means wear a cycle helmet, encourage others to do so and make your kids wear them. But the arguments for making it compulsory are not that strongly supported by empirical research. Because human behaviour is not straightforward, all other things are NOT equal.

At a community level or a NZ level, there may be more benefits in not having cycle helmet legislation even though there are benefits of wearing one at an individual level. I’ve just replaced mine after my old one saved me from a good head bang a few weeks back

5 thoughts on “Should we have cycle helmet legislation? NOT the same question as “should we wear helmets”!”

  1. Great common sense post that teases out some of the factors that people often subconsciously confound. Thanks and keep up the good work!

  2. “Figures across the world show that making cycle helmet wearing compulsory leads to drops of about 33% in cyclist numbers. ” Most of these studies simply compare cycling rates before and after helmet legislation, ignoring other factors such as cheaper cars, increasingly congested roads, etc.

    In contrast, a Canadian study compared ridership in different provinces, which had different legislation, thus isolating the effect of the helmet laws. They concluded that “Helmet legislation is not associated with changes in ridership”

    Dennis, J., Potter, B., Ramsay, T., & Zarychanski, R. (2010). The effects of provincial bicycle helmet legislation on helmet use and bicycle ridership in canada. Injury Prevention : Journal of the International Society for Child and Adolescent Injury Prevention, 16(4), 219-224

  3. Nicely summed-up. I’m surprised you haven’t been bombarded with opinion for daring to mention the subject!

    “Most cyclists were already wearing helmets”, is that really true, did they get popular in the 80s?

    I was born in 1966 and was a regular cyclist from 1971 to 1982 (before picking it up again in 1993) and I don’t recall even seeing a “cycle” helmet as a young man.

  4. Antoine: yes I’d agree (almost) no-one was using cycle helmets in the 1980s but by 1994 when the legislation came in, a lot were. I started wearing mine at least some of the time in the early 90s, when it became more common to see cyclists in helmets.

    Alistair – thanks – I haven’t seen that study – it would be good to see it repeated – say in Australia.

    I still think that if we are really serious about cycle (and pedestrian) safety we would be working on things that Clearly make a difference like slower speeds in urban areas etc. I just don’t think that the evidence FOR helmet legislation is in any way conclusive. We’d be better putting our efforts into measures that are.

  5. Another keen cyclist here in the era when the law came in, almost no one wore helmets, it certainly wasn’t on our radar and most of us were very annoyed that we would have to wear these horribly dorky things that were available in those days….

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