If you fall on your head while cycling, hopefully you’ll have a helmet to protect it. But surely it’s better not to fall at all, on your head or otherwise. The Netherlands is just about the safest place to ride a bike anywhere in the world, yet only a handful of people wear helmets. Contrast this with the UK, where helmets are the norm for cyclists, and yet cycling there is six times more dangerous.
Or, as a British blogger, the Alternative Department for Transport, puts it: “Cycling safety is clearly something more than wearing a styrofoam hat.”
Why? Infrastructure. You could say that the Brits have to wear helmets because the roads are so dangerous, but that just makes a stronger argument for better infrastructure. As the Alternative DfT notes, high helmet use should be seen more as an embarrassing “failure of policy” rather than the goal.
In the Netherlands, and to some extent in other countries like Germany, the road system is designed for multiple types of vehicle. Roundabouts (rare in the U.S.) have a dedicated lane for bikes, and drivers turning right to leave the roundabout must cede to bikes that are continuing onwards. Traffic lights are phased for cycling speeds, not car speeds. At traffic lights, bikes get their own waiting area ahead of cars, and (sometimes) their own set of human-height lights which turn green early to give cyclists a head start.
This is combined with plentiful bike lanes, often segregated from other traffic, and which seldom disappear just as the road gets to a tricky junction. Bike lanes are even temporarily diverted around road works, just like car lanes.
This results in bikes being a legitimate mode of transport. Car owners make many journeys by bike, and everyone rides. In the Netherlands, kids under 12 make just under one journey by bike per day, on average. Folks over 75 make almost half a journey per day on average. The figures also show that almost almost all journeys under 4 kilometers, or 2.5 miles, are made by bike or on foot.
Clearly, a transport policy that focuses on moving people around, rather than just on moving cars around, make things better for everybody except the small percentage of people who only travel by car.
But aren’t helmets a good thing whatever the riding conditions? We asked Randy Swart of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute in Arlington, VA, whether would be okay to ride without a helmet if you’re always separated from traffic.
“Although most fatalities involve a motor vehicle, many head injuries do not,” he told us. “There are 5,280 ways to fall in every mile. We think you need a helmet.”
That might make Swart look like a militant helmeteer, but his views align surprisingly well with those of the Alternative DfT:
“The usual ride in the Netherlands is at 8 to 10 mph on a dedicated or at least safe facility. Unless you have ridden there you have no idea how well developed their bike infrastructure is–try as we might, we will never have that in your lifetime,” Swart says. “Imagine a country with a safe way to bicycle anywhere and everywhere. In the Netherlands, nobody ever opens a driver’s side car door without checking behind, because there will often be a cyclist coming. Their legal structure is designed to protect cyclists from cars. There is a bicycle culture. Gas is very expensive.”
Better bike infrastructure is essential to better safety and encourages more people to ride, especially those who wouldn’t otherwise get on a bike. This is turn forces drivers to deal with more cyclists on the roads, which increases safety even further, or at least stops motorists from being surprised to see a bike.
But as Swart points out, if you crash, it’s better to do it while you’re wearing a helmet. Shouldn’t we wear them anyway, just in case?
Cycling just isn’t that dangerous. Especially when compared to motorcycling, but in some cases helmets do prevent serious injury. On the other hand, several studies show that helmets can invite disaster. This happens through two mechanisms: a phenomenon called risk compensation and drivers driving closer to cyclists who wear helmets.
The idea behind risk compensation is simple: If you wear a helmet, you take more risks. If I go mountain biking without a helmet, I go much slower. Or imagine walking along the edge of a cliff with a safety rail. Now imagine the same walk, only there’s no rail. Even in your imagination, there’s a big difference in your behavior. The theory of risk compensation is that cyclists will ride more recklessly because the helmet makes them feel safer. A 2011 study in the journal Risk Analysis observed that “routine helmet users reported higher experienced risk and cycled slower when they did not wear their helmet in the experiment than when they did wear their helmet.”
The other possible risk is a reduction in passing clearance. That is, drivers passing cyclists might squeeze closer to riders wearing helmets. The main study cited on the subject found that drivers gave helmet-less riders 3.3 inches extra clearance, and when subjects wore “female wigs” they got a full 5.5 extra inches. The average distance, though, was between 4.1 and 4.5 feet, so those few inches might not make a major difference.
More interesting is the theory that has been applied to these numbers. The thinking goes that drivers perceive helmet wearers as more experienced, and therefore more predictable. This reminds me of an old bike tourist trick, which is to let yourself wobble a little when you hear a vehicle approaching from behind you on the highway, so that drivers leave more room as they pass.
The evidence on bike helmets is far from clear cut, with good and bad arguments on both sides, but it seems obvious that to focus on helmets above other more universal and permanent safety measures is the wrong call.
However, in the U.S., helmets may be the best bet for now. “We all know that safer facilities can reduce crashes, and it’s better not to crash than to crash in a helmet,” says Swart. “We all know that more riders means safer cycling. But in the U.S. we still live in a car culture, and change will be slow.”