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« Outrage and bringing about closure | Main | Boise gets new traffic light sensors »

Mandatory Helmets: The Deeper Issue

I am troubled when educated and influential medical people call for the mandatory wearing of bike helmets.

Dr. Ian Gillespie (Right.) President, British Columbia Medical Association is making such a call as reported in the Vancouver Sun.

A man like Dr. Gillespie, because of his position, carries a lot of weight and before you know it, politicians are passing legislation to bring in mandatory helmet laws.

Don’t get me wrong, I wear a helmet and I think they are a good idea. However, my helmet is my last line of defense and my best chance of survival is to avoid an accident in the first place.

I do this by following the rules of the road. I stay alert at all times to potential hazards, and try to avoid mishaps before they occur.

Helmets should be encouraged, but not made mandatory. The moment you force people to wear a helmet, you stop a great many people from riding a bike.

At this time, in this economy, oil dependency, and with rampant obesity, we need more people riding bikes.

Mandatory helmet laws, give the impression that cycling is dangerous. There are far more pedestrians killed than cyclists, and moreover, most pedestrian deaths are from head injury.

The pedestrian is hit below the waist, his head either hits the windshield or some other part of the car; or he is flipped upside-down, thrown high in the air, and lands on the hard pavement, on his head.

There is no push from the medical profession to make helmets mandatory for pedestrians.

Would you want to be forced to wear a helmet while walking around town? Many people feel exactly the same way when forced to do so while riding a bike.

If a cyclist is involved in a serious accident, a head injury is only one of the ways he might be killed or seriously injured. For example, in Jarvis, Ontario, Canada, a 21 year old man was riding home from work on the sidewalk.

An SUV made a left turn into a parking lot and the cyclist ran head first into the passenger side window. The glass shattered, and the unfortunate young man cut a main artery in his neck, and bled to death within minutes.

The fact that he was not wearing a helmet was neither here nor there in this case; it was not a head injury that killed him.

None-the-less, this accident should not have happened. It was daylight; had the cyclist been on the road instead of the sidewalk, the driver of the SUV would have had a better chance of seeing him before turning.

The cyclist, lulled into a false sense of security that riding on the sidewalk gives, was probably oblivious to his surroundings and failed to notice the vehicle turning across his path.

The main problem I have with mandatory bike helmet use is that it detracts from the real issue; it is people driving motor vehicles that kill cyclists and pedestrians.

Over the last hundred years or more, safety legislation has been all about protecting the person in the automobile, giving the occupant such a sense of security that he/she drive their cars as if they are sitting on their living room sofa.

There needs to be a sense of responsibility brought back to driving a car, a looking out for your fellow man and woman; especially those more vulnerable, namely pedestrians and cyclists.

This is what Dr. Ian Gillespie should be pressing for, not mandatory helmets for cyclists.

Because when all is said and done, a little piece of foam polystyrene on a cyclists head will never solve the real issue of cycling death and injury. The one of auto drivers being allowed to drive as they please.

It’s a little bit like allowing everyone to go around firing guns, and then making bulit-proof vests mandatory



Reader Comments (31)

Well stated -- I'm in complete agreement!

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSergio Moretti

That last line is the best argument I have seen on this topic. Thanks Dave!

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermercator

Sorry, Dave but I disagree. The city is encouraging cycling by making it safer by creating more bike lanes and separating cyclists from drivers and pedestrians on bridges and viaducts. The recent provincial law banning driving while using a cellular phone or texting (hands-free is OK) is also making cycling safer.

There is a helmet law in Vancouver which is ignored by many cyclists. I cycle lots and agree that driver education and enforcement is needed. But, I also believe that other cyclists running stop signs and red lights are endangering me by reinforcing the recklessness and unpredictability many drivers think *all* cyclists exhibit.

It's the responsibility of cyclists to do their part by wearing helmets.

I’d argue that young man who died after cutting an artery in his neck may have lived with a helmet. I have a friend that is alive only from wearing a helmet.

Lastly, in a public health care system I believe a cyclists stupidity not to wear a helmet (just as a driver not wearing a seat belt) is not their choice unless they want to opt-out of the cheap treatment they’ll receive.

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEric

No need to be sorry, I expect people to disagree on this one.
I am hoping to get comments from readers in Austrailia, where they have had a mandatory helmet law for a few years now.
They should know if it has brought down cycling deaths or not.

June 28, 2010 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

This is well said Dave, thank you. I'd add that the actual evidence for helmets as a bicycle safety panacea are surprisingly thin. For all the social pressure to wear a helmet you'd think the evidence would be better. I'm a habitual helmet wearer & cheerleader but such evidence is almost nonexistent. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicycle_helmet#Is_cycling_risky_enough_to_require_helmets.3F for many links pro/con.

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Souders

Why stop at a bicycle helmet? A full-face helmet would protect much better.

If you are an adult, you should make your own decision about wearing a helmet. It's nobody's business but yours.

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPaul

I'm on a city Bicycle advisory commission. One thing we are trying to do is to get cyclists from riding the wrong way and off the sidewalks. Wrong way riding is especially dangerous because the cyclist can't see the signs that a drive sees plus is coming from the area, at speed, that is not expected. Side walks present too many crossing points, not to mention the interface with pedestrians and their safety.

We deal with a city ordinance which says you can ride on the sidewalk if you feel it is too dangerous on the road. This hurts the push to get cyclists off the road.

That being said we are also trying to find the best ways to educate motorists. Personally i think a big flaw in the licensing system is the fact that most people never have to keep up with the rules of the road. If not because I moved to different states I would never have taken a second written driving test since 1968. This has to change. States should require a written test with every renewal. Electronically it can be done and more emphasis could be put on bike/ped rights and rules. This would be better than mandatory helmet use laws. Drivers would then think it's okay to buzz they are protected.....

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRalph

Amen Dave!

Ok, you want comments from Australia? Here's mine. I was a kid riding to school when the mandatory helmet laws came in. I was very unimpressed but I'm pretty sure I kept riding, though quite possibly less than before.

There was a dip in the figures when it came to cycling deaths and the introduction of the law, however further study has revealed this to be a result of far less participation (I'm not going to cite references, you can search for them yourself).

I simply could not agree more with your comment:

There needs to be a sense of responsibility brought back to driving a car, a looking out for your fellow man and woman; especially those more vulnerable, namely pedestrians and cyclists.

This would save more lives than all the (in my opinion terrible and mostly impractical) Copenhagen style separated bike paths and helmets in the world. The "A metre matters" http://www.amygillett.org.au/a-metre-matters campaign is good too.

Sadly though, it's far easier to legislate than it is to change people's behaviours, particularly, I suspect in the USA where the way of life is "non negotiable" and you're some kind of unpatriotic traitor if you don't drive the biggest SUV you can't afford to pay for.

Myself personally? I stopped cycling for a long time then got back on a bike as a daily commuter about 5 years ago. I ponied up $70 for a decent helmet from the bike shop (try them all on first) and now I don't give it a second thought. A semi decent helmet will be so comfortable that you'll forget you're even wearing it. They all provide the same level of impact protection, so just get one that's comfortable, quit whining and get on with your life.

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterlemmiwinks

Excellent observations.

And, yes, there does need to be a renewed sense of responsibility among those behind the wheel.

As is, we have an strong sense of entitlement, and little else.

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRider

Of course you are completely correct.

Here in British Columbia our mandatory helmet law was brought in with only one stated objective; to save lives and reduce serious head injuries. Through all three readings nothing else was suggested as a reason for this law. So have serious head injuries to cyclist reduced? Have lives been saved because of this law? You can easily find the numbers but if you are looking to see that 88% reduction in head injuries that was promised with this legislation you will be very disappointed. All that is clear is that mandatory helmet law advocates can produce nothing (other than discredited studies and surveys) to support their continued push to keep this failed law on the books.

After all of these years you would think that the evidence that helmets save lives would be bubbling up all over the place but the best we can do is take at face value all of the "helmet saved my life" stories that abound in greater numbers than actual reported accidents. The real problem for MHL advocates is that the evidence is piling up around the world that not only do these laws come with calculable cost to our governments through increased health-care bills but that helmets themselves may actually be causing cyclists to be less safe than if they rode without them. Yes, look it up (try the British Medical Journal) helmeted cyclist are more likely to get into an accident than un-helmeted cyclists. Now this may not be the fault of the helmet -- it could be any number of things like the type of person who chooses to wear a helmet or more children who are more likely to get into an accident wear helmets -- but you can bet you won't hear helmet advocates mentioning this one.

No matter what you say about the real world numbers or the studies, the fact that regardless of how hard you try, the evidence that helmet laws, or even helmets themselves, actually work simply isn't there and likely won't be any time soon.

It's time to try something else.

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterbentguy

From Australia:
The rate of death and serious head injury to cyclists was not affected by the introduction of mandatory helmet laws, although the rate of minor head injuries (essentially wounds/scrapes) did go down.

What also went down was the number of cyclists, by approximately 30% within a few months of the law coming into effect.

The mandatory helmet laws here are a disaster - there is no safety benefit, and by reducing the number of cyclists there is actually a safety disbenefit, as we get no benefit from the safety-in-numbers effect.

If government was serious about increasing cyclist safety in Australia they would repeal the mandatory helmet law, but the law is popular with the motoring public as it allows them to drive with a reduced sense of care for cyclists who are designated as the dangerous ones.

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAdrian

I agree 100%, as usual. ("Rah Rah Rah! Goooo Dave!")

I love your last line, especially. The more I ride, the more I hate cars.

I live in Japan, and the roads are narrow—most of the roads in my neighborhood date from a time when wheeled vehicles were reportedly illegal so as to make uprisings against the Shogun more difficult. Nevertheless people drive through here in a totally psychotic way.

I was involved in a hit-and-run on Sunday. I'm okay, but my bicycle is totaled. They caught the driver a few hours later.

I ended up on the hood of the car, and I wasn't wearing a helmet. I was lucky, but the real risk—I think—was to my neck, not my head.

It's unfortunate that I wasn't wearing a helmet because if I had been, I could have charged the insurance company for a replacement.

As far as helmet laws reducing riding, I strongly agree. Any impediment to getting on and going will reduce riding. For a while I've had only one bicycle, and it's had crank brothers clipless pedals on it, and my riding has fallen off. If I don't want to worry about the extra pair of shoes, sometimes I don't ride.

Also, that bicycle, which I'm still mourning, didn't have space for fenders. So, there were some days I took the train because I didn't want to mess with the clip-ons. (I couldn't use the front one at all because of toe overlap.)

Carrying the shoes and a helmet is one thing if it's a long ride and you've invested in a cycling oriented backpack, but this is really about the average person. Make them carry a helmet, a fair percentage of them'll skip the ride altogether.

There are a lot of Excellent reasons to wear a helmet: you can raise the claim amount when some idiot tries to turn in front of you (and then later complains to the police that she didn't know what to do to avoid the accident). You can avoid head injuries when ignorant Ohio cops taze you for riding in the road. And in some percentage of actual crashes, you can avoid further injury.

But mandatory, by law? With a fine? Even in a place with socialized medicine, the statistics just don't justify it. There's a risk in everything we do, and driving is much more dangerous than cycling.

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterIra

Another point would be that helmet laws are a barrier to Public Bike Share programs. There is this bike share program in Melbourne(Australia) which does have mandatory helmet laws. But it's only a trial at the moment. Who owns a helmet but not a bike? Several laws prevent hiring out a helmet with the bike.

My point is that mandatory helmet laws are also a barrier to this type of cycling as public transport scheme.

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTimo

Dr. Gillespie seems to support some of your views, too.

"There is little sense in creating a more bike-friendly environment in the city if there is no attention paid to the rules of the road."

Thank you Dave, by making the point that operator behavior is far more important than safety equipmen(t. Not that safety equipment doesn't help too.

Auto drivers are obligated to operate their machines - machines which have a tremendous amount of potential to cause damage - with due care. That why they are regulated so much more. Fewer people manage to accomplish this duty in recent years, it seems.

Many drivers do not realize what destructive power they wield.

When automobile drivers have to wear helmets for their own safety, then I'll concede to mandatory helmet use by cyclists. The public good would benefit more from this as there are more auto drivers getting into accidents.

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRay

It is an issue of freedom. Freedom's one side of the coin. The other is responsibility. You cannot have one without the other and when one is taken away, so is the other. Seatbelts, helmets, both bicycle and motorcycle as well as guns have this in common along with a number of other issues. Americal was founded by individuals who recognized what freedom ment and what responsibilty is. It was a great experiment that is slowly dying.
With every law passed, you would think after 200 years we would have found enough, freedom is taken away in some shape or form. This allows for people to point at others as being responsible instead of them selves.

June 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPHNB

Dave - here in New Zealand we've had a mandatory helmet law for about 20 years here.

It did decrease deaths, but also SUBSTANTIALLY decreased ridership. So in terms of deaths as a percentage of riders or deaths per km ridden, while I only have anaecdotal evidence, I'd say they have both increased even though the actual amount of deaths have decreased.

June 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThe TricksterNZ

Consumption and safety are emotional. Safety and luxury are economic allies to attract engineering which only is economic but is brought back to us through emotional marketing so we will consume it.

I wear a helmet most the time because it is what I have been sold and I bike most of the time because I think I am bold. I am privileged with the freedom to sacrifice my fears.

I wish giant leather hairnets over cars were the convention.

The giant leather hairnet which I place over my car is just imagined. Reality is not the realization of our will so I actually drive a machine that is calibrated to battle other machines. That is a sort of declaration of war and war forgets the innocents.

I am burdened with injustice. In return I want to keep the privilege to choose my way, come what may.

Dave, your pen is mightier to me.

June 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKelly

One point that often gets overlooked is that helmet wearing - at least amongst the youngest riders - often encourgaes irresponsible, unsafe behaviour. In much the same way that car drivers feel cosetted, safe and invulnerable, younger riders often experience similar feelings when they strap on a helmet. Equally, the evidence shows that motorists offer helmet wearers less space when completing an over-taking manouvere; they seem to think that anyone who does not wear a helmet is less experienced and mnore lilkely to lose control of their cycle.

Personally, my two objections to helmets are the very limited protection they offer. Currently, I believe that helmets only offer protection if the impact speed is below fifteen miles an hour. Therefore, they will offer protection in slow speed colisions but what if I am hit from the side by a car travelling at thirty miles an hour - the legal limit in towns and cities where I live? In that case, my head is likely to hit either the car bonnet or the ground at a significantly higher speed and the helmet will be rendered in-effective. Secondly, the most vulnerable part of the head - the temple - is very poorly protected by modern helmet designs that choose to model themselves more on the style of head-gear worn by professional racing cyclists. My ideal would be a helmet that offers the same protection as those worn by motor-cyclists but is this simply incompatible with cycling?

Having said all of this, helmet use has to be a personal choice in my opinion. Making it compulosry will discourage cycle use; parents will increasingly view it as a dangerous activity that they should protect their offspring from and the casual rider will likely be discouraged from using a bike to undertake shorter, more local, rides. This cannot be a good thing can it?

June 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMark B

I doubt if helmets will ever make cyclists as irresponsible as air bags coupled with horsepower. "Trusted experts" dominate derivative trading desks too and this stand by Dr G will only create more difficult problems for cultures that embrace obesity over civility.

Well said Dave and the use of helmets should be determined by the user and not by the ones most likely to be responsible for the most serious injuries to cyclists.

June 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJack

Dave, I agree with you that wearing a helmet while bicycling should be a choice. I also agree with some of the other comments. Here in California we have a mandatory law for those 16 years old and younger. I ride every day and I see plenty of youngsters without helmets. What I find amazing is how many families I see where the youngsters have helmets, yet the parents don't ! Talk about setting a bad example ! The commentor who claims the temple part of the head is not well protected is flat wrong and I'll tell you why. I used to commute 44 miles (round trip) three days a week. One morning I rounded a corner and didn't see the sand on the ground and my front wheel "washed out" from under me throwing me right to the ground. The impact was directly on my left temple as with road rash on my shoulder and hands. I rode back home and cleaned up and drove to work until healed. My helmet saved me that day! For those who feel that the basic road helmets lack protection, I suggest getting one of the full face models used by downhill mountain bikers. The problem is comfort. If you have a short ride this might work well. But on a hot, hard, long ride forget it. I think most people think that modern helmets are uncomfortable. I disagree with that and agree with the commentor who must wear one as modern helmets (when fitted correctly) are light, well ventilated and offer decent protection. No they won't offer much protection from a car hitting you from the side at 30 miles an hour, but what will ? I bet most cars won't offer much either. There is always a risk. But as others have stated, as long as bicyclists ride anyway they please and break laws there will always be the pissed off motorists. As long as pedestrians cross the street against red lights etc... there will always be pissed off bicyclists and motorists. As long as motorists talk on the phone, text or drive like assholes, there will pissed off pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists etc... Our society seems to have the disease called the Me Me's. It's all about me and screw everyone else. What happen to morals and manners ? Is it not "Cool" or "Hip" to use your head and have some common sense ? Or, is there just lots of dumb asses who are ignorant ? Wake up people ! These things are not rocket science. I feel it's a good idea for youngsters to have mandatory helmets. Children are innocent until about age 7 or 8. After that, if your child is a dumb ass, you as a parent are an even bigger one. If thats the case, do us a favor. Don't breed ! We have enough idiots here. Once a child gets into their teens and older I think it should be a choice. In my opinion a child at this age should know right from wrong. Great story as usual Dave. Thanks.

June 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

Everybody on a two wheeled vehicle, on a road, needs some sort of helmet. If this keeps some people off their bike, TS. I won't miss them.
People who drive on the road need to wear seatbelts, by law. Why not a helmet law for two wheeled vehicles? It pisses me off the I see people on motorcycles in Illinois, at 70 mph, not wearing helmets.

June 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGrump

Hi Dave,
Regarding, "Helmets should be encouraged, but not made mandatory.", I agree with you but offer a different idea.

The same discussion could take place with motorcycle helmets. If insurance companies just charged a premium for participants that didn't use helmets versus those who did, "the market", so to speak, would decide this debate.

Let's be honest. An injury with helmet is less severe then one without (in most situations). It's not foolproof, but it's bound to cost less in hospital costs, recovery, etc - so honestly insurance companies and ultimately people's pockets are benefited by wearing a helmet. Just have rates tied to helmet use and done and done.

People can choose to ride without a helmet - it's their life. They just have to pay higher health insurance premiums or risk cancellation if they crash and weren't wearing their brain bucket. I think once money is involved, the decision becomes easier to make.

July 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJosh

Motorists are pissed off that they have to share the road with cyclists and will look for any excuse they can to argue for our losing the privilege of it: "He wasn't wearing a helmet," "They ride anyway they please and break laws."

It's come to the point that I don't even give those kinds of blog comments notice since they are like a sort of straw man argument, and distract from the real issue.

By the way, I live in Los Angeles and own a car, and drive it half of the time. I've noticed far more motorists driving crazily than cyclists. Whether in my car or on a bike, I'm FAR more concerned about the former.

July 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNancy

Helmets should be the rider's choice. And BTW around 61% of the 40,000+ people killed in automobile accidents die from head injuries...who REALLY needs to be wearing a helmet?


July 2, 2010 | Unregistered Commenter2whls3spds

Did anyone see the first stage today (Petacchi)? Helmeted racers ride faster, take risks and crash more often. The mayhem that is an accepted part of bicycle racing did not start happening until recently, post mandatory helmet. On the club and recreational level, I have never, since 1975, seen so many rider fall and hurt themselves, as I am witnessing today. Look up "risk compensation" to see what is happening.

July 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWes

I believe that there are a number of behaviors that collectively earn you more respect from drivers, that make them more willing to accommodate your position on the road, and that reduce the probability of being in an accident. Drivers seem to show more respect for cylcists who wear helmets, ride in a predictable manner, and observe the traffice laws, such as stop signs and traffic lights. You will get recognized as a "serious cyclist" and many drivers become more willing to share the road with you rather than reacting aggressively to your presence on "their road."

July 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

Ian Walker did a study on passing distance of cars: http://bamboobadger.blogspot.com/2009/03/bicycle-overtaking-and-rebuttals.html

You can go to the PDFs if you like. Depending on the conditions, I sometimes fake it and purposely appear to ride "unpredictably", to get the driver to back off the gas pedal and go a bit slower.

July 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWes

The initial blog posting reads:

"If a cyclist is involved in a serious accident, a head injury is only one of the ways he might be killed or seriously injured. For example, in Jarvis, Ontario, Canada, a 21 year old man was riding home from work on the sidewalk.

An SUV made a left turn into a parking lot and the cyclist ran head first into the passenger side window. The glass shattered, and the unfortunate young man cut a main artery in his neck, and bled to death within minutes."


It's academic certainly, but I was contemplating this matter and as I wear a helmet and have at times, had to leave on the sidewalk and even riders on the road are aware of the possibility of a car door opening in front of them, it dawned on me, surely one would rather crash their head through a car window wearing a helmet than without so indeed, the helmet could possibly make the difference in this one unique case.

July 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterT. Patrick C.

Well said Dave. Let adults make their own decisions. In Japan literally millions of adults ride their bicycles to their train station every working day. They wear business attire and most assuredly do not wear helmets.

In Canada, the stupidest use of the bicycle helmet I regularly see is children using bike helmets to go ice skating!

"I sometimes fake it and purposely appear to ride "unpredictably", to get the driver to back off the gas pedal and go a bit slower."

I believe this is known as "bike-fu".

August 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterOtto

You can purchase a full-coverage open-face helmet, a shorty or half helmet as it is known or a full-face helmet which will come with a chinbar. The full-face helmet with chinbar has been found to give the most protection in various studies.

September 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMunicipal Vehicles

Helmets are essential for bikers even if the distance is short it would still be needed on road. In some countries, riding a motorcycle without helmets would give you a ticket fine.

March 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commentergarage equipment

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