When I first started riding a bike any distance greater than up and down the dead-end road where my family lived, I was pretty much always wearing a helmet.
That was decidedly non-standard in the 1980s, when most kids and adults sped about with the breeze ruffling their hair.
But I had parents who were quite protective, so I wore a helmet, and it’s a habit I kept up throughout my life. I never get on a bike without a helmet, and B.C.’s imposition of mandatory helmet laws in 1996 didn’t affect me at all.
But I do wonder about helmet laws. We’re trying to convince more people to try cycling, especially for short trips to work, to school, and to nearby stores. Getting people out of cars is a key way to fight climate change, but it also helps reduce traffic congestion and makes safer streets.
Lugging around a bike helmet, worrying about helmet head – not everyone has my short hair/less-every-year lack of concern about this – can create a real barrier. That’s especially true with bike share systems like Vancouver’s Mobi. If you have an impulse to hop on a bike for a short trip, you likely don’t have a helmet on you.
Bike helmets do reduce the severity of injuries and save lives in some cases. But they aren’t perfect, any more than seatbelts in a car are.
Studies have shown that what really makes cyclists safer is better cycling infrastructure.
A 2016 study by the Toole Design Group looked at helmet use and cyclist fatalities per mile travelled in a variety of countries. Canada was not one of them, but the U.S. was at the top of both tables – it had the highest helmet use and the highest number of cyclist deaths.
The lowest on both was the Netherlands, where almost no one wears a helmet, but still had less than a quarter the deaths of the States.
The reason isn’t that helmets don’t help when you’re in a serious crash. It’s that cycling in the Netherlands is much, much less likely to lead to a serious crash in the first place.
Cyclists in the U.S. – and in Canada – are more often riding on busy roads, with fast moving traffic. There are fewer cyclists in general, which means drivers aren’t as prepared for the sight of a rider.
Meanwhile, in the Netherlands or Denmark or Germany, lots of people toddle along at about 20 km/h on their way to work and school, using bike lanes and dedicated car-free paths in cities and suburbs. The drivers are highly aware of them when they do interact.
Should we scrap bike helmet laws?
Probably not, at least not yet, or not entirely.
But we shouldn’t focus on them as the primary plank in making cycling safer. Separated bike lanes, educating drivers and cyclists, and creating infrastructure that allows for more frequent cycling will bring about the changes that make riding safer for everyone.
Perhaps rules could be relaxed for riders in areas where there are adequate bike lanes.
Unfortunately, here in B.C. we’re a long way from being able to give up the helmet entirely just yet.
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