Originally posted in The Mirror by Marie Le Conte
The question has been raised times and times again, but what do we actually know on the subject? Is there really an easy answer?
Surely, wearing a helmet should protect your head?
Talking about country-wide helmet policies and the personal effects of wearing one (or not) will get you very different replies - let’s have a look at the former first.
Australia was the first country to make cycling helmets mandatory in 1990, with the law coming into effect a year later in certain parts of the country. While head injuries in New South Wales did go down to an extent in the 15 years following the changes, the benefits were hardly revolutionary. It is also worth noting that the introduction of increased cycling infrastructure from 2006 have had a more consistent positive influence from 2006 to 2010.
On the other hand, the Netherlands, which has no policy on helmets, and has the lowest non-fatal and fatal cycling injury rate in the world, keeps reducing its number of cycling-related injuries with no distinct change in policy.
This does seem to prove that a strong helmet policy may not have the effect on cycling safety one could hope for, but there are other aspects to consider.
Wearing a helmet might change cyclists' behaviour
Though several studies have found that people who wear helmets are less likely get injured while cycling, this may say more about those people and their behaviour, rather than whether or not they’re wearing helmets.
There is also the element of “risk compensation”, which suggests that people may be less careful on the road when actually wearing helmets. Sadly, these are all things which are arguably hard to effectively study. So once again, different bits of research have come to two very different conclusions.
What can be proven, though, is that there is safety in numbers - the more people cycle, the safer they tend to be. In 2006, 27% of all trips in the Netherlands were made by bicycle, as opposed to 1% in Australia and the UK.
An article in the New York Times looked at different bike sharing schemes in cities around the world, and how helmet policies seemed to influence their popularity. It found that in Melbourne, Australia, where helmets are compulsory, bikes were only used for around 250 rides a day in 2012, even though the city is flat, therefore ideal for cycling. In Dublin, the figures were much higher - the scheme was still young in 2012, but it could count over 5,000 daily rides, regardless of how hilly and cobbled the city is.
So here’s the Catch 22
On a personal level, helmets may help reduce the risk of serious head injuries (at least to an extent), but widespread compulsory helmet policy may just reduce the number of cyclists in any given city, which, at the end of the day, would make cycling more dangerous.
One last thing!
No matter where you stand on the helmet issue, it would be impossible to deny the positive effects that cycling can have on a population’s health, and on the environment.
So hey, go on: on yer bike!