Should you wear a bike helmet?

Are helmets a necessary safety measure, a cause of health issues, a government cop out – or something more complex?

I usually wear a helmet on my bike commute to work. Recently, however, I’ve discovered a new, safer route that mostly keeps me away from rush hour car traffic. My new, safer route has inspired me to ride without a helmet. That either makes me a reckless criminal or some sort of liberated free spirit – the concerned expressions I’ve received from pedestrians, drivers and other cyclists since I ditched my helmet make me think it’s the former.

But expert evidence on whether or not you should wear a bike helmet has been inconclusive at best and contradictory at worst.

In 2012, a New Zealand Medical Journal report correlated our compulsory helmet laws with bike use halving. Since helmets contributed to less cycling, the study blamed health issues on compulsory helmet laws, even claiming the rule caused 53 annual deaths from lack of exercise.

The University of British Columbia’s cycling cities research program found that Canadian helmet laws did not equate to reduced bike-related hospitalisations. Their study argued that helmets, which only protected cyclists during a crash, had become a diversion from crash prevention measures, like dedicated space for bikes separate from cars.

A 2018 US study, on the other hand, puts forward a strong safety case for helmets.

That study compiled data from 55 studies between 1989 and 2017. It found that helmets reduced “head injury by 48%, serious head injury by 60%, traumatic brain injury by 53%, face injury by 23%, and the total number of killed or seriously injured cyclists by 34%.”

A graphic outlining the safety stats for bike helmets.
The safety stats for bike helmets (Graphic: Accident Analysis & Prevention)

So it seems that the experts can’t agree on whether bike helmets are good or bad – on one hand they decrease the number of cyclists and stop us from taking better preventive safety measures, but on the other they also protect cyclists from injury.

Since the expert evidence is so inconclusive, I decided to talk to my cycling colleague Shanti about why she wears a helmet. Much like the experts, Shanti’s answer was complex.

Although she wears one, Shanti questioned why helmet use is compulsory in New Zealand. She wears a helmet to respect the law, worrying about being ticketed by police when she doesn’t. Her whānau di lei also has a history of bike accidents, a particularly nasty one happening to her dad di lei. Even Shanti hasn’t been left unscathed, having been hit by a car at a roundabout and spraining her thumb. But she said whenever she forgets her helmet she enjoys feeling the breeze in her hair.

Interestingly, Shanti noted that helmet use is also a cultural habit. Wearing a helmet has been a deeply ingrained part of bike culture in the English-speaking world since the late 20th century. Australia was the first to legally require helmet use in 1990, with New Zealand following closely after in 1994. Another deeply ingrained part of bike culture in English-speaking nations is that bikes with cars sharing the road is not only acceptable, it’s the preferred practice .

Kids illegally riding bikes on the footpath
A scene from a Kellog’s advert that was removed for showing kids illegally riding on the footpath. (Screenshot: Kellog’s)

New Zealand’s Land Transport (Road User) Rule 2004 legally mandates helmet use and requires bicycles to ride on the road with cars. It is illegal to ride a bike on a footpath – even for many children. Only those delivering mail/newspapers or kids bikes with a wheel diameter width of 35.5cm or less are exempt.

But riding alongside cars makes biking much more dangerous. In the US, 96% of bike fatalities involve a car.

In places that focus on preventing accidents with cars, bike fatalities are rare. Denmark and the Netherlands, world leaders in bike safety, have comprehensive networks of bike infrastructure that are safely separated from cars. Yet, in both places, barely anyone wears a helmet. The safer infrastructure reduces the risk of injury and crashes ninefold. Helmets, on the other hand, only reduce injuries two fold and do nothing to prevent crashes.

Dutch cyclists with few helmets to be seen.
Dutch cyclists, only a few wearing helmets. (Photo: FietsBeraad)

As it turns out, cars drive less carefully around cyclists with helmets compared to those without, according to research by Dr Ian Walker from the University of Bath.

Since I stopped wearing a helmet, I have technically become a criminal. But since cars cause so many bike fatalities, is the government not criminally complicit by forcing cyclists onto the road? No matter the answer, the reality in New Zealand is that we don’t have a comprehensive separated bike network like the Netherlands.

Legalities aside, whether or not you should wear a helmet ultimately comes down to personal preference. If wearing a helmet makes you feel safe enough to ride a bike, then do it. If a helmet inhibits you from cycling, choose a less car-infested route. Whatever gets you onto a bike is good for your health and the planet.

Either way, if you want to stay genuinely safe, think carefully about where you are cycling and what transport modes you’re sharing space with.

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