Tuesday, 15 December 2015


Bike helmets are a contentious issue for many people. Lots of people want them to be worn by cyclists, lots of people don't want them. Let's break it down.

A bicycle helmet has a hard shell with a solid foam base underneath and straps to keep it on while riding. There are a lot of different types, shapes, colours, lots of childrens helmets have something Hello Kitty or Spiderman on it. There are a number for different types of helmets for different sports. Helmets used by racing cyclists tend to have a more streamlined shape, and no holes in the top for example.

With all these options, why don't the Dutch, and for that matter most of the world believe it not (the US is big, but 320 million compared with a 7.2 billion human population, that's not that big. China alone is larger than the population that ordinarily wears helmets), wear bike helmets? It's for the most part, mainly English countries, IE Canada, the US, UK, Oz and Kiwiland (New Zealand), that do most of the effort promoting helmet use among cyclists. A few other countries might be doing this to, maybe France, I don't know, I've never been to France, but if you do live in a country that is not English speaking and promotes helmets, or know of one that does, where there is a social pressure or pressure from a governmental department to wear a helmet, let the blog know in the comment section.

Here is why the Dutch don't wear helmets and never adopted it as a way of trying to reduce head injuries:

Because they remove the sources of danger to cyclists. Cars and motor vehicles, and also have began to remove anything and everything you could hit while riding a bike. The curbs for example on modern cycle paths are usually angled. Bollards, if they must exist, are usually striped, same with the rising triangles that Den Bosch and other cities use sometimes (https://youtu.be/Okb63flApDY?t=55s). Poles are kept several decimetres away from either side of the cycle track, and grass or hedges are used where possible as a separation from motorized traffic, which even though it's not the primary intent, it provides a softer landing pad if you fall over. A basic rule about collisions is that regardless of what you do afterward, fines, arrest, driver liability, helmets, they are all useless when a collision doesn't happen.

And even the collisions that do happen mostly do not affect heads. And even of those people, only some will have had the injury in a place where a helmet might be capable of preventing or minimizing damage. Top of the head? Covered. Chin? Not so much. And helmets can only do so much. If you were doored and it hit you on the side of the hear over your ear, and wore a helmet, and fell over into an active lane of traffic, and the traffic doesn't have the time to react, well, not a good outcome, and wearing a helmet probably wouldn't have made a difference. The helmets are also designed for an impact speed of about 12.5 km/h. That's a pretty low speed for a cyclist. By this I mean normal riding speed, not average speed, which can be slowed by traffic lights and stop signs and needing to yield and also turning. Most people can and often do ride at 25 km/h or so on a normal flat surface, even on an omafiets. That doesn't mean a helmet will only be half as effective, it is a quarter as effective because of the rule that doubling speed will quadruple kinetic energy. A crash at 30 km/h vs 60 km/h means the 60 km/h crash will be 4 times as worse.

I know what you might be thinking. Even if it might be useful for only a small number of people, it would still be worth it right? Well, what about the fact that when the helmet laws and helmet promotion occurs, the rate of cycling drops dramatically. Even in the Netherlands when some advocacy group thought that helmets would be worthwhile to put out a large PR campaign to promote them, the cycling rate went down because people felt like our roads are suddenly becoming so dangerous that we need helmets to protect ourselves, but also that if they are dangerous to our heads they are also dangerous to the rest of our bodies, and thus shouldn't cycle. Why do I have a suspicion that this PR campaign was funded by a car sales company? Even doctors in the Netherlands for the most part agree that helmets do more harm than good. The health benefits of cycling greatly decreases your chance of getting illness and greatly postpones death (we don't know how to extend life indefinitely), and especially moves the illness and death away from the road where crashes would make people fear cycling or walking.

The actual number of people who die by cycling in the US was in 2008, 716. Obviously it would be a good idea to get the number down. Almost all of those deaths would be prevented by having the type of roads the Dutch have. And getting the modal share up to something like 5-60% depending on the area couldn't hurt. After all, you can't have collisions with cars, if you don't have cars. And it would also be worth getting rid of street clutter too, perhaps by having a rule that in urban areas you can't park on a street unless it says otherwise, which you could hit. It is literally safer to cycle without a helmet than it is to walk down staircases by the way, and much safer than driving is by the way and that's deemed safe for the most part.

If we are going to be promoting helmets, shouldn't we also be fair and make car drivers and the passengers wear them, because head injuries do affect a measurable number of car crashes. Wouldn't the world be safer by promoting driving helmets in ordinary cars and trucks? After all, the Formula 1 racers do it so why not the ordinary motorist and his/her passengers (this is satire, but is exactly what many people do when they associate the racing cyclists or cyclists on mountain trails or BMX with the people who just want to get from A to B in a relaxed way safely and at a good speed with as few stops as possible. On a more serious note, BMX and riding on dirt trails on hills is slower and involves more reasons to fall over and hit your head which can't be engineered out, what would mountain biking be without trees on the side or rocks on the ground, and I have a feeling like this is the kind of riding many studies point to to make the argument for bike helmets for all cyclists?).

And why are we wasting time and money on promoting helmets when we could instead be building the cycle tracks, sometimes bike lanes and 30 km/h low volume zones, plus the intersections that connect them, to remove the sources of danger that would cause the crash? For all the time we've been promoting helmets and wide curb lanes for cyclists, we've never actually made cycling any better. It's just as hostile to cycle as it was 30 years ago. John Forrester (vehicular cyclist advocate, opposes separate cycle paths) gets some of the blame, but so does campaigning for things that won't work. You can be hopeful about experiments, but if they turn out to be duds, we should stop it. Would Health Canada approve a drug if the experiments and trials didn't show any aid and did show detriments? Would anyone continue a failing experiment in any other context?

Helmets, especially laws obligating their use, creates an added level of complexity. Right now on Dec 15 it's fairly cold out, though if the ice and snow was cleared then I would be OK riding. But it is much harder to wear a hat that I would use to protect my face (if anyone knows how to stop corrective lenses, IE glasses, from fogging up if you cover your nose when riding a bike, or anything else for that matter, please let me know, and also if you know whether it would work under a bike helmet) if I have to use a helmet, which by the way I do. Those under 18 are prohibited from riding a bicycle unless they have a helmet on them. It's an extra expense, you can easily spend over $35 on a helmet, and it adds more complexity. I once forgot my helmet and was worried. Not that I was going to get hurt, but because I was worried about any police who might want to fine me. Same thing I feel about stop signs and the obligation to stop before turning right on red by the way.

Removing the source of danger would make it statistically safer. To give you an idea about how much that change is needed, which of the following would you volunteer for on the sole basis of which is less dangerous? Soldier in Afghanistan during the Canadian mission there, or a road user back home. Most people would think that the latter is better but apparently, the number of deaths each year is about 3000. Over the entire CAF mission to Afghanistan, 159 soliders died, since 2002. An average of 12.23 deaths per year. 27 of those weren't caused by an enemy. We consider that honourable (as we should), but pay very little attention to the enormous number of road fatalities back home. Every day on average 8.2 occur every single day by road death in Canada. Const Daniel Woodall's funeral and death was one of the most reported about in the year as just another example of where scary forms of death, gunshot, is considered more dangerous than the other things we have. Cars. And trucks too. A helmet makes no difference in reducing the number of collisions that happen.  I recommend watching this video, by the guy from Copenhaganize, Mikael Anderson. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07o-TASvIxY.

We scare people by encouraging and especially requiring helmets to be worn when cycling. Removing that fear about riding without a helmet is going to take time, it needs changing of laws, it needs changing of policies, and especially, building safe roads and fietspads for cycling, but the most basic thing we can start with in this regard is removing the legal obligation if you do have laws in your community or government and repealing policies aimed at promoting cycling helmets, and especially not permitting policies by government organizations like the health department, cycling guides put out by cities and towns, and when governments make artists renderings or are picking photos to use when showing cyclists, show those without helmets. It makes a huge difference. It is beginning to go away in some areas, when I visited Vancouver this year (I really wished I bikes around, but parents ever fearful of strangers and traffic, wouldn't let me go when I was feeling fine and I got sick on the days when my parents were ready to ride with me), and took a look at Burrard St and Cornwall Avenue, and I saw with my own eyes the closest North America or any place outside of Central/Northern Europe a protected intersection with very nearly all the details right. A minor issue with where a single stopping bar was placed and the lack of a corner refuge curbed island in one corner, but it felt genuinely safe to walk around, I didn't need to check for cars, as they were held by a red signal and it was obeyed, cyclists and separated in space, with marked crossings for pedestrians. And a good sign was that at least something like 20% of people were without helmets, maybe over 50%, and the police weren't too worried. They have a helmet law affecting adults and children too. Good progress, let's keep it up around the world!

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