I’ve gone off helmets

I’ve been looking for a while now for evidence that bike helmets are unequivocally good – so good that they ought to be enforced on a population. But what I keep finding instead is evidence like this*:


If I’ve got my Dutch right, and I think I have, the vertical axis is deaths per billion kilometres cycled and the horizontal axis is percentage of cyclists wearing helmets. The letters are, of course, the initials of countries. Bear in mind when you look at this that the Dutch (NL on the chart) ride 15 billion kilometres a year. That’s with a population of 12 million, folks.

In the last 18 months, Israel and Mexico City have repealed their helmet laws. Hong Kong refused to implement one because of the nasty chilling effect they have on cycling. Spain has a sort of half-baked law under which you don’t have to wear one in the city but you do if you’re riding between cities – except if it’s hot or you’re going uphill. Most other countries don’t have any helmet requirement and the few that do apply it only to children. And some of those don’t even enforce it. Despite this, there’s a marked lack of people dying in droves.

We got our helmet requirement as a result of an emotive, non-evidence based campaign. Here’s a graph showing the effect of the law on head injuries in NZ at the time it was implemented.

If helmets were effective you’d expect to see a big downwards rush in the red line showing head injuries from the time the helmet requirement was implemented, right? And yet the line is carrying on in much the same way as it already was.

Everything I’ve read points towards helmets being a bad idea for a population. The effect of mandatory helmet requirements is to reduce the number of people riding, and the number (or rather, the proportion) of people riding is the single biggest safety factor. More cyclists = more safe, and New York’s measurable experience is that improving cyclists’ safety makes the streets safer for everyone.

There’s reasonable evidence that wearing a helmet in a low-speed crash provides some level of protection. But there’s also evidence that wearing a helmet can make a crash involving a car more likely(!).

And bear in mind, folks, that helmets aren’t designed to protect you if you’re hit by a car. They’re tested by having a 5kg weight placed inside before being dropped from a height of one metre. The force of the impact is measured and that gives the safety rating. The best that I can say about that is that if you weigh 5kg and you fall one metre on to the centre/top of your helmet you’ll probably be OK.

Australia and New Zealand are the only two countries in the world that actively enforce helmet laws on adult populations. So do you think we’re safer than countries without helmet compulsion? To help you decide on your answer, let me ask you this: Is New Zealand’s road safety record so good that other countries are knocking on our door saying “How the heck do you achieve this great result? Tell us your secret, please!” or is it we who are looking to other countries for guidance?

I won’t tell you the answer, you can make an educated guess. But having considered the evidence I’ve gone right off helmets.

This post will be actively moderated. Grown-up, evidence-based, good-natured comments only, please. 

*Unfortunately I haven’t noted down the source of the first graph, which isn’t helpful. If you come across it let me know. See http://amsterdamize.com/documents/NVC2011_paper.pdf for the English version.


55 thoughts on “I’ve gone off helmets

  1. Kirstin

    Having recently returned from 18 years living (and cycling) in London – I’ve heard all of the arguments against helmets before. However, I believe that on the off chance a helmet saves my life – why not wear one. Having said that – I would like the choice to not wear one if I’m going a short distance like to the local shop …


  2. James

    I’m for them on a personal basis, but against them being mandatory.

    I’ve got used to wearing one mountain biking. I bought a nice light, well-ventilated one and it’s pretty comfy.

    I also have my own experience of smashing my (helmeted) head against the ground while riding pretty fast. It looks like I wouldn’t have walked away if I wasn’t wearing a helmet.

    BUT I am well aware that the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’, so my experience is just that — my experience. I also agree that helmets put people off ‘utility cycling’ — and that the knock-on effect is likely to be poorer health overall.

    So, yeah. Helmets: yay. Mandatory helments: boo.


  3. James

    Oh, and I think somewhere in SE Asia recently made them mandatory as well. I can’t find the article I read. It made a good point that lots of people were buying cheap ‘token’ helmets and not wearing them correctly. You certainly see people in NZ wearing 20-year-old helmets that will have aged badly, and people wearing them in ways that make them pointless.


    1. That sounds familiar. Was it Dubai? IIRC there was enforcement of wearing them but not enforcement of wearing them correctly.

      Ways that make them pointless…yes… One of my issues is that in order for them to work properly you can’t wear anything under them. But we have massive and measurable problems with sun-caused skin cancers, and you can’t wear a sun-hat while riding. I strongly object to not being able to wear a sun-hat.


  4. Brent C

    Neither National or Labour seem keen to make a change to the law. The baby boom generation believe that in order to safely drive their petrol hungry cars around, those who ride their bicycles should wear a helmet.
    Most bicycle accidents involving motor vehicles are the motor vehicles drivers fault. So shouldn’t we be changing the behaviour of these drivers? Not punishing the cyclist.


  5. atom

    The 2nd graph looks like one from here – http://www.cycle-helmets.com/zealand_helmets.html

    Since 1993-1994 saw a drop (20%? 30%?) in bicycling mode-share, when the helmet law came into force, the head injuries in that graph PER PERSON riding a bicycle actually INCREASED.

    From my research, it seems that a helmet’s benefit to an individual is debatable (very limited benefit under special circumstances only, but some types of injuries can be exacerbated by helmets), but mandatory helmet laws definitely make bicycling less safe.

    Seat-belts are PROVEN to save lives and prevent injuries (although when I was a medic, I’d seen people walk away from wrecks that would have killed them if they were restrained; there are always exceptions). Motorcycle helmets are PROVEN to save lives and prevent injuries. Bicycle helmets… any study that supports their efficacy seems flawed and easily discredited.

    Who’s got the data on per-cyclist head injuries before and after 1994? From what I can infer, that number increased, starting when helmet laws went into effect.

    “A case-control study of the effectiveness of bicycle safety helmets”, New England Journal of Medicine 1989, seems to be the granddaddy of studies that support bicycle helmets; IIUC, it was cited when NZ passed a helmet law. Read about it here – http://cyclehelmets.org/1068.html
    That’s a must-read for anyone who wants to have an opinion on the topic.


  6. ilikebike

    As a daily commuter myself, I don’t think anyone should be without one…. in fact I was reminded of this the other day because I slid off my bike coming into my work car park because of the rain.

    I wasn’t going fast and my head didn’t come anywhere near the ground. But, when I got up and dusted myself off my first thought was that if my head did hit the ground even at that low speed, i’d have a hell of a sore head for a few days at least without my helmet.

    If my head’s going to hit the ground, you best believe I want something (anything) between me and it.

    I’m all for personal choice, but personally still definitely support the mandatory law.


    1. I don’t think, though, that one can impose one’s personal experience on a population.

      I used to have the same opinion as you. But now that I’ve looked at (read – been unable to avoid) the arguments and the evidence I’ve changed my mind. Mandatory helmets have quite clearly made it more dangerous to ride, not less. I think that’s a problem, don’t you?

      For example, when Spain decided to repeal it’s helmet law it was found that the number of cyclist deaths would increase but – and this is important – not only would the percentage of cyclist deaths decrease (more cycling and fewer deaths per billion km cycled) but the overall road toll would decrease because more people were riding and fewer driving.

      Know any road tolls around here that could be improved?

      The debate over whether it’s a good idea for an individual to wear a helmet is probably one that should keep going. But from an epidemiological perspective – whether it’s a good idea to impose it on a population – I just don’t see any room for argument.


    2. I’m curious – have you ever slipped and fallen anywhere else? Shower, stairs, kitchen? Those are all known hazardous places for slip-and-fall injuries. I’m guessing you don’t advocate mandatory helmet laws for those places too. So why bikes?

      You don’t give any reason for supporting the mandatory law so it’s hard to say whether your position is reasonable.


      1. ilikebike

        I have slipped and fallen in other places as i’m sure most people have, the reason I don’t advocate mandatory helmet laws for these situations is that the injuries are generally not as bad as those involving speed, and that you also have more reaction time available to you to deal with your fall.

        The main reason I believe in personally using a helmet is two reasons.

        The first is as I mentioned above, if i’m going to hit my head then if I can help it I want something between myself and the hard surface that i’m going to hit. Better to damage something disposable rather than my non-disposable head. But I would think it’s a bit absurd to mandate helmets for possible slip and fall injuries.

        The second is that most bike accidents involve a person going at some speed that is beyond their possible natural state of motion. Simple physics states that force = mass x acceleration, so given that my mass will remain constant, the faster I go then the larger the force impact on my head will be when I hit it off something, thereby increasing my injury by a corresponding amount. Conversely, a helmet will absorb some of this impact thereby reducing my injuries to a lesser extent that those received had I not been wearing one.

        I’m not particularly fearful of attaining injuries, but I know that by cycling I increase my chance of receiving them more than I would walking, so I take the corresponding precautions.

        But that’s just my two cents though, each to their own I guess…


      2. I still don’t get why you want to impose helmets on the rest of the population though. If mandating helmets increases the risk of head injury to a rider why would you want that?

        Is it that you feel strongly that what’s right for you is also right for everyone? Would you feel the same if you were riding in Denmark or the Netherlands, do you think?

        Genuine questions – I’m trying to understand what makes this belief so entrenched in so many of us, even though the evidence shows we shouldn’t be mandating helmets.


      3. ilikebike

        Genuine questions deserve genuine answers.

        I believe the helmet laws to be mandatory for the same reason we make seat belts, and motorcycle helmets mandatory…. safety and the reduction of injuries.

        For every person injured who requires hospitalisation, acc compensation, or lifetime care due to an injury that could have been prevented by simply wearing a helmet, then the resources used on them could be better used to help someone who genuinely needs them.

        It’s about economics… or more simply put, I would rather my tax dollars went towards helping susan’s heart transplant instead of Joe’s lifetime of assisted care which he now needs because he thought wearing a helmet made him look like a dork when he rode to the dairy, but which would have helped him not receive the brain injury he now has.

        I’m all for forcing people to wear helmets if it means the difference between a concussion or becoming intellectually handicapped.

        Reading your article again, I note two things, firstly that your graph is from the wikipedia and doesn’t reference the data set it used, which makes me question its credibility. Secondly, the helmet law page states later that “A full analysis of the New Zealand law showed no reduction in head injuries”. So which is it? More head injuries as the graph suggests, or the same amount of head injuries as the article suggests? As i’m sure you’re aware, when it comes to academic data the wikipedia can’t be trusted.

        But of course, this just the opinion of some guy on the internet so who really cares?


      4. First, the graph provides a path that does reference the dataset it used. If you scroll down and check other wikis using the graph http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicycle_helmet_laws is noted. The graph is footnoted 38. Footnote 38 gives the reference to a study published in the Journal of Accident Analysis and Prevention.

        I don’t think you questioned the graph so much as dismissed it without checking. I’m all for robust debate and being called out when I get it wrong, but that means you have to have it sorted too. Fair?

        Secondly, where are you getting your safety information from? Everything I’ve seen points towards helmet mandation making it LESS safe, which is the point of the post. If you can point me to good information, please do so.

        Thirdly, you say you are concerned about your tax spend. That’s fair. Is reduction in our injury cost (dollar and social) more important than reduction in our illness cost? Given that increased cycling results in overall health spend savings (google it, there’s quite a bit of evidence), doesn’t your statement mean that we’re spending more on lifestyle health costs (Susan’s heart transplant) than we would on transport cycling-related head injuries? I say it does and I challenge you to show otherwise.

        I’m not sure which article you’re referring to when you say “the same amount of head injuries as the article suggests”, so it’s hard to comment. Would you mind linking?


  7. Nigel

    I shuddered when I read this today:
    The Womens Institute would seem to be a powerful lobby group, and the London bikers seem a bit afraid of this one! We in NZ need a lobby group in the reverse direction, as we know where this emotional decision making got us.
    P.S. I shuddered again when I read that the coroner was thinking head protection should be required for forklift drivers. I presume(hope) he was meaning hard hat industrial type headgear. And now possibly headgear for skateboarders in an Australian State. Help!


  8. Simon Kennett

    I’ve seen a couple of convincing studies that show cycle helmets will reduce the incidence of minor and moderate head injuries, but nothing convincing about serious injuries.

    Not too sure about those graphs. The first one simply begs the question – what are all the other variable at play? Do any of those countries have a lower standard of emergency care? Which ones have high vehicle use and vehicle high speeds? The US and France are not densely populated (like Denmark and the Netherlands) – perhaps a graph of cycling deaths versus population density would be more revealing.
    If we looked at a graph of cycling deaths versus per capita rates of cycling, we’d probably see a better correlation (because the outlier in the first graph – France – has a fairly low rate of everyday cycling compared with Denmark and the Netherlands).

    You might say I’m suggesting cycling mortality rates have little to do with helmet wearing rates – it’s true that I think other variables are far, far more significant.

    The second graph is, I assume, a graph of cyclist head injuries as a percentage of all cycling injuries vs helmet use. It’s not at all clear on the cycle helmets website, but I seem to remember coming across the original graph years ago. But this graph also begs a whole lot of questions. Are we looking at all cycling inuries or only on-road cycling injuries?

    According to ‘RIDE – the story of cycling in New Zealand’, in 1993 60% of cycle commuters wore helmets and over 90% of mountain bikers wore helmets. These are very high helmet wearing rates compared with 1990 (especially when you consider the massive growth in mountain biking as a proportion of all cycling). Could the rise in helmet wearing have something to do with the decline in head injuries as a percentage of all cycling injuries?

    The decline in cycling over the last 50 years is a real problem, but it’s a decline that was well underway long before the helmet law was introduced. The main cause has to be more affordable motoring, leading to more crowded roads. That and urban sprawl. The helmet law is discouraging some people, for sure, but It’s not a major deterrant in New Zealand. Most people still think helmets are a sensible idea – it’s cycling on busy roads they’re not so sure about. I really don’t think repealing the helmet law is going to change that.

    Regarding our road toll, it’s dropping nicely for every mode except cycling. And…the number one country New Zealand looks to for advice on reducing the road toll is Australia. Aside from having a helmet law, they do put a lot more money into cycling infrastructure that we do. Not sure what effect that’s having on cycling injury rates, yet.


    1. Can you tell me what the relevance of head injuries as a percentage of all cycling injuries is? I don’t see it.

      I also dispute the statement that helmet mandation isn’t a major deterrent. I would say that it’s more true for guys than for girls, but that’s as far as I’ll go. If I spend 15-30 minutes doing my hair for work each morning (as many women do), why the heck would I then jam a helmet on top & mess it all up? It’s fairly well known that women are judged on their appearance in the workplace, so this is a matter of pay levels, not just vanity as some have decided.


      1. Simon

        In graph two, we need to know what the % is of. If it were % of baseline head injuries, then you might think that the total number of head injuries had declined (perhaps due to a decline in cycling). But, if it is showing a decline in the % of head injuries compared with all types of cycling injuries, then the changing rate of cycling is not significant – helmets use (and maybe the types of cycling) are really significant.


      2. Alastair

        When people are surveyed about what puts them off cycling, mandatory helmets comes fairly low on the list – perceived danger is generally the main thing. I am concerned that we may have a self fulfilling prophecy – if we keep telling people that wearing helmets is a put-off, they’ll believe it.


      3. Simon Kennett

        GWRC commissioned research into Short Trips Active Modes in 2009. 800 people were surveyed. This survey was a follow up from surveys in 2004 and 2006. It found a significant drop in mode share for driving for short trips; a corresponding rise in mode share for walking and a small increase in cycling for short trips (up to 2 km). There was a drop in the total number of short trips (possibly associated with the recession). The main reasons for undertaking a short trip where shopping (16%) going to work or study (11%) and going to catch public transport (9%).

        In 2009 the reasons given for not cycling were:
        Lack of time (13%)
        Weather (12%)
        Too much to carry (12%)
        Road safety concerns (10%)
        Habit (9%)
        Have young/sick children (9%)
        Travelling further afield (7%)
        Health concerns; pregnancy (4%)
        Personal safety concerns (4%)
        Travelling with another person (4%)
        No secure storage for cycle (3%)
        Steep terrain (2%)
        Doesn’t suit corporate dress/religious or cultural dress (2%)
        Nowhere to shower/change (1%)
        Other reasons (8%)

        In 2006 the top five reasons given were:
        Too much to carry (22%)
        Habit (17%)
        Lack of time (8%)
        Health concerns; pregnancy (8%)
        Weather (7%)
        Personal Safety concerns (7%)

        Between 2006 and 2009, bicycle ownership in the Wellington region increased from 27% to 31% of respondents.


  9. Pingback: @amsterdamized gives us Dutch cycling culture on Radio NZ : Cycling in Wellington

    1. Apart from the general awesomeness of that outfit, it’s quite nice to see a bit of light-heartedness around the issue. We get so serious and earnest about it – nice to have an unexpected laugh about it!.


  10. Lisa, you’re right on track. Here’s a review paper on the efficacy of helmets by Theo Zeegers, Traffic Consultant / researcher with the Dutch Cyclists Union/Federation: ‘Why bicycle helmets are not effective in the reduction of injuries of cyclists.’ This organization is one of the key advising bodies for the Dutch government on bicycle policies, promotion & infrastructure.


    PS: the Netherlands’ population has grown to 16.7 million since ;). A little more, but equally impressive stats.


    1. Thanks, Marc. Really appreciate it. One of the issues I’m running into is finding English-language publications. I know there’s a lot of great Dutch papers, and Spanish too from when Spain was examining the effects of their helmet law . It’s exceptionally frustrating to look at a document and know that there’s valuable – but inaccessible – information in there, so it’s particularly useful to learn of the paper you link to.


  11. Pingback: The Helmet law and the Mary Poppins Effect | Cycling in Wellington

  12. Chris Glover Kapiti Coast NZ

    Pushbike helmet laws have been a disaster for health,safety,the environment,civil liberties,tourism,the economy and utility cycling


  13. Albert Ross

    I conscientiously object to cycle helmets, and commute weekly without wearing one.

    The maximum fine is $55, and I have never been fined.

    The most annoying thing about NOT wearing a helmet is the Lycra brigade’s angry and self righteous “get a helmet” shouts as they cruise by.

    Don’t complain. Just be disobedient.


  14. Fiona M

    I just thought I should point out that the statistics don’t cover people who have accidents but are protected by their helmets and aren’t injured enough to seek medical help. Car and motorcycle accidents are usually reported in some way, bicycle accidents where you can get up and walk away fly beneath the statistical radar.

    The graphs capture the people who had an incident and ended up with a head injury, not the ones who were wearing a helmet and as a result didn’t sustain and injury which is what I’d be wanting to see for a more balanced view. And how many of those people with head injuries were abiding by the helmet law at the time? All of them? What about comparing severity of the injuries?

    I threw myself off my bike a few weeks ago, no cars or pedestrians or anyone else to blame. I was travelling around 25Km/ph, nudged the kerb, went over the handlebars (actually my hands stayed on the handlebars, I guess I forgot to let go) and slid along the ground on the side of my face which was terrifying.

    I still have a face, because my helmet kept it just slightly off the pavement. I didn’t require any medical treatment (I had hideous bruises everywhere, but a doctor can’t do much about those), but I’m pretty confident without my helmet I would have needed an ambulance. Sure my helmet messes up my hair but that’s much easier to fix than missing skin.

    So for me, I am totally in favour of helmets, and in favour of the mandatory helmet law. If you don’t want to wear one and take the risk of maiming yourself I’m not going to try to convince you otherwise. Believe the statistics or believe in your own mortality and do something to protect it.


    1. Simon Kennett

      The graphs are ambiguous.

      The first graph needs to be coupled with one showing cycling deaths versus cycling rates – then we’d see a suggestion of safety in numbers (rather than helmet use leading to cycling deaths).

      More to the point, a similar graph which compares coutries with helmet laws vs countries without would probably show no correlation at all.

      The second graph needs to have it’s vertical axis labeled properly. And, as you’ve suggested, a number of people have accidents in which their helmets take a significant impact, and then choose not to seek hospital care. Only the worst accidents end up in the hospital stats (and a significant proportion of those who do present at A&E with cycling head injuries have less severe injuries thanks to their helmet).

      The most comprehensive study on the effectiveness of bicycle helmets I’ve seen is this one:

      It is immediately followed by responses from it’s detractors and replies by the authors.

      The report’s conclusion:
      “Helmets provide a 63 to 88% reduction in the risk of head, brain and severe brain injury for all ages of bicyclists. Helmets provide equal levels of protection for crashes involving motor vehicles (69%) and crashes from all other causes (68%). Injuries to the upper and mid facial areas are
      reduced 65%.”

      The big question is – ‘Do helmet laws reduce the level of everyday cycling to such an extent that they outweigh the benefits in injury reduction?’


  15. Countries with good cycle safety records don’t have helmet laws. Countries with helmet laws have bad cycle safety records.

    It’s my view that the helmet regulation allows central and local government to abrogate their responsibilities. That’s poor road safety.

    It’s fine that you feel safer with a helmet, Fiona. Wear one, by all means. But I feel safer with actual safety measures.


    1. Simon Kennett

      Doesn’t the chicken come before the egg?

      It’s tempting to change your first two sentences to:
      “Countries with good cycle safety records don’t need helmet laws.
      Countries with bad cycle safety records do need cycle helmets laws.”

      There are plenty of countries without helmet laws that have bad cycle safety records. I suspect it’s only with some very selective sampling that the anti-helmet lobby comes up with the correlation they want.


  16. Got any evidence for those propositions, Simon?

    Helmets come waaaay down the experts’ lists of cycle safety measures. What countries with bad cycle safety records need is proven safety measures, not unproven speculation turned into legislation.


    1. Simon Kennett

      Do you mean evidence for the proposition that selective data sampling can produce a graph to support a particular point of view?

      Do I really have to go away with that first graph and replace the Netherlands and Denmark with Italy and Spain – that would level the line out and suggets no correlation between helmet use and safety.
      Check out page 7 of this:
      It’s all about safety in numbers, not helmets.

      I agree that helmets come well down the list of cycle safety measures (although they are one of the most affordable, and something that an individual can implement themselves).
      I’d like to see the energy spent fighting the helmet law directed towards lobbying for better infrastructure and safer road use.


      1. No, Simon, I meant for your spurious propositions. And you know it. Stop being cheeky.

        See, I think that if we scrap the helmet regulation we’ll get more and better safety measures because a) people will call for them, and b) it won’t be possible for Territorial Authorities to believe that the major safety measure is already implemented.

        I finally watched the first part of the Roger Geller presentation and I was interested to note that voluntary helmet use has increased in Portland in the time that they’ve improved the city’s cycle safety infrastructure.


  17. Pingback: Does the helmet regulation make it safer to ride a bike? | Cycling in Wellington

  18. Simon Kennett

    a) People are already calling for more and better safety measures.
    b) What territorial authority believes that the helmet law abdicates them of their responsibility to provide better cycling infrastructure? I don’t know of any.

    My propositions were no more spurious than yours. In fact they weren’t meant to be taken as propositions – just trying to highlight that your statement:
    “Countries with helmet laws have bad cycle safety records.” has it round the wrong way – it could easily be read to imply that helmet laws lead to bad cycle safety. Our bad safety record came before the helmet law – it was a reaction to a specific accident which the politicians believed to be representative of a wider problem. A more correct statement would be “Some countries with bad cycle safety records enact helmet laws.”

    That Portland’s helmet wearing rates have climbed steadily (along with the growth in cycle lanes and paths, and cycling generally, and cycle safety) reinforces my belief that helmets are not a significant factor in the big picture of cycle development – just a distracting and divisive issue that is best avoided.

    I asked Roger Geller about the helmet growth – he said it had happened without any promotion by the authorities. People were simply choosing to wear helmets.


  19. Cyclists are calling for more & better safety measures. People are not. The goal is to have more bike riders than non-bike riders in NZ. That will be when ‘people’ are calling for more and better safety measures.

    Ask a road safety person at any council what the most important cycling safety measure is. Ask a few. Ten bucks says most of them will answer “helmets”. If you’ve already got the most important safety measure in place, how hard are you going to drive lesser safety measures?

    Mine were statements of fact. Yours were extrapolations from those facts, which were turned into propositions by the use of the word “need”. You need to bring evidence to back that up.

    It could indeed be inferred from my statement of fact that helmet laws lead to bad cycle safety. That is what I believe. See previous paragraph as to part of the reason why. See also my comment on today’s post as to another part of the reason why.

    Regardless of whether my belief is correct, the reasons for the facts are worth investigating. Or we could just do what the successful countries do and scrap the helmet regulation & get on with proper safety measures.

    Your statement regarding enactment is correct, but not relevant. What we are interested in is whether the regulation is effective. For that we have to look at the present safety levels compared to the past, not simply the point when the regulation was enacted. Your statement would be more relevant if it read “Some countries with bad cycle safety records enact helmet laws and continue to have bad safety records following enactment.”

    Yes, I got that from the Geller presentation. I can only speculate that it has to do with cultural environments? Portland’s cycling mode-share rose after helmets came to be considered a good idea by a sizeable segment of the population. Europe’s generally have not, and they also have European successes to model themselves on. (Americans tell me that as a nation they are reluctant to look outside America for role models).


  20. Simon Kennett

    Statements of fact, indeed…how about:
    ‘Most countries with bad cycle safety records do not have cycle helmet laws.’

    Might be fact, but it would be a mistake to read anything into it.

    WRT to your 2nd paragraph, who are you talking to? I think you know I’m the Greater Wellington Regional Road Safety Coordinator. I do almost nothing to promote helmet use. The big cycle safety efforts for GWRC are cycle skills training, cycle conspicuity, ‘Mind the Gap’, and bike lights & reflective gear promotions. Also promotion of better cycle infrastructure at various meetings.

    I also attend road safety planning meetings throughout the region and can assure you that helmets is not the big cycle safety measure of any council. The real money goes into projects like the Tawa shared path, sealing of the Hutt River Trail, the odd new cycle lane, advanced stop box, etc. After that, cycle skills training is important for most councils, and night lights campaigns. Councils even put more effort into just planning for new cycle paths than they do promoting helmets.


  21. For accuracy I ought to have said local councils.

    I didn’t say councils promote helmets. I said [local] council road safety officers generally think helmets are the most important safety measure, and that’s already done.

    What I’m saying here is that the helmet regulation provides a false level of comfort to local council road safety officers. In my experience they tend to have a great deal of faith in its effectiveness. What do you reckon would happen to their comfort levels around current cycling safety if the regulation were repealed today?

    I’m quite aware of your work, Simon, and as you know I have a good deal of respect for it. But by and large I don’t think that you (or GWRC in general) has a great deal of power to provide population-level cycling safety measures. That is the purview of local councils, and I think the regulation alters their perception of what’s required. That really bothers me.


  22. Andrew

    Was cycling home from work today and had a car cross in front of me, she was in the wrong as she didn’t give way, glad I was wearing my helmet! Safety over vanity any day.


  23. About the blief that cycle helmets work:

    Well, I was the DUtch guy on the Canadian radio yesterday, pleaing against promotion of helmet use. What’s also important to remember is that helmet’s won’t help against collisions with cars (they’re designed for speeds up to 20 km/h). Furthermore: When I talk about it with people here in the Netherlands, people all agree: it is very hard to construct a single-sided accident on a bike, where a helmet would have helped. Because the reflexes are so strong to protect your head, faling sideways or foreward almost everybody manages to avoid falling on the head. And folling backward on a bike is almost impossible. I (and all people around me) have been falling hundreds of times and bruised every part of my body, except for my head, that did not even get one single scratch. This was also the conclusion af a girl who worked as a cycle courier in New York, where she got the same conclusion. So if you believe in wearing helmets, do so, but realize that your conclusion that helmets work is just a belief.


    1. Simon Kennett

      I’ve acheived the ‘almost impossible’ – crashed on a shared path and whacked the back of my head. I believe it would have hurt less if I’d been wearing a helmet.

      A few of my friends have wrecked helmets while out riding. They believe their helmet helped prevent worse injuries.

      If a van turns across my path and I hit it at 20 kph, I believe a helmet may be of some use.

      Those are all just beliefs. A thorough, peer-reviewed study is more convincing. How about this one:

      I’m not saying helmets are a must-have, I’m just saying the evidence that they reduce the chance of injury in the event of a crash is very strong.


  24. OK, there’s someone again with the famous Cochrane report, which has been disputed very strongly. What is also important is that Piet de Jong of the Sydney University has shown that the mandatory helmet law in Australia has led to a decrease of bicycle use on average of about 50% in Australia and has costed the Australian community about half a billion dollars per year on extra health costs. The reason? When someone who goes to work by bike instead of be car (5 days a week 2 times 5 km a day) has a gain of life expectancy of 16 months (and a gain of being in good health of about 5 years). The decrease in life expectancy because of accidents (with or without helmets) is about 10-15 days. So the positive effect of more cycling is enormously compared by the negative effect.
    In practice in no country in the world the occurence of severe head injuries per million cycled kilometers has decreased after introduction of a helmet law.
    So if you really want to have the positive effects of cycling on sustainability, health and liveable cities, you should go for at least 15% cycle use. Which means that you will have to keep your youngsters (11-18 years of age) cycling. Just like in the Netherlands where kids aged 12-16 cycle on average 7 km a day. And these kids especially girls just rather don’t cycle than that they wear helmets. So because of this helmet mania you take away the positive effects of cycling from the community.
    So there is none, none evidence of any decrease in severe head injuries from practical situations. So stop talking about it and get serious on promoting cycling


    1. Simon Kennett

      This is New Zealand, not Australia and certainly not the Netherlands.
      Cycle to work mode share here was 5.7% in 1986. Mandatory helmet use was introduced in 1994. Cycle mode share in 1996 was 4.0%. You would put the decline down to helmets, of course. I would suggest that a huge influx of cheap imported motor vehicles had more to do with it.

      In Wellington we have actually bucked the national trend. Cycling to work mode share increased from 1.6% to 2.6% between 1986 and 2006, despite the introduction of compulsory helmet use. And the council CBD cordon counts since 2006 have shown a doubling in cycling since then. If helmet use is having a negative effect on cycling numbers, the effect is minimal.

      What’s been happening with fatal and serious cycle crashes in the region over that period of time? In the decade after 1990 (when helmet use began to really take off) there was a significant decline in fatal & serious crashes (despite the growth in cycling). Since then we’ve seen growth in injuries, but it has been less than the growth in cycling – individual risk appears to have fallen dramatically since the early 1990s.

      There’s my evidence. Do you have anything that directly applies to the Wellington Region?

      Sources: NZ Census data; WCC Cycle Cordon Surveys; Greater Wellington Road Safety Investigation 2008; 2011/12 Annual Monitoring Report on the Regional Land Transport Strategy.


      1. Simon, that comment is not worthy of you. You are guessing at possible influences while ignoring international experience, and, quite frankly, 2.6% mode share is nothing to celebrate. It is well within the ‘strong and fearless riders’ category, i.e. the ones – like yourself – who won’t stop riding despite the odds.

        Do you really think that people in other countries – or other regions of New Zealand – respond so differently to perceived safety issues? Why then did Israel and Mexico City repeal their helmet laws because of the effect on cycling?

        We cannot get away from the fact that children have stopped riding to school (including me, when I was forced to wear a helmet), and given that children don’t drive I struggle to see the impact of cheaply imported cars. My generation was the last to ride to school in any numbers (I was 20 in 1994), and I remember very well the fear that arose in my parents and my friends’ parents and our teachers when the campaign for helmet compulsion was introduced. Before that, they’d considered hooning around on bikes an excellent thing for us to do. After that, it was dangerous. Bear in mind that this was in Nelson, hardly a car-heavy metropolis.

        The helmet regulation has introduced a climate of fear to cycling for people like me. You are not one of us, you are a renowned mountain biker and I have seen you overtake cars around Oriental Bay on a little yellow folder, so, with respect, I don’t think you are coming from the same place that people like me are. The belief that riding isn’t safe, and that if we’re hit by a car it’s probably our fault. That it’s not safe for children to ride.

        That’s what happens when you blame the victim, which is precisely what the helmet regulation does.


      2. Simon Kennett

        I’ve re-read my post and see nothing ‘unworthy’ about it. Those are just a bundle of facts that call into question the application of the anti-helmet rhetoric to the Wellington situation.

        2.6% was the figure in 2006. As stated in my post, it’s likely to have doubled since then (judging by WCC figures). Surely this is something to celebrate?!

        I do think that people in other countries/regions respond differently. Regions where helmet use is already high (and now fairly normalised) are likely to accept helmets more readily than regions where compulsory helmet use is forced on a population with low voluntary helmet use to start with. And riders in hotter climates (like Israel and Mexico City) are likely to find helmets more uncomfortable than those in cooler climates.

        I don’t support the sort of scare tactics that were used to promote helmet use or compulsion in the early 90s. Fortunately we’ve seen a lot less of that sort of thing since the helmet regulation was passed.

        Bearing in mind that cyclists in our region perceive cycling to be more dangerous that non- cyclists do, I think it is the experience of cycling with lots of fast, dodgy traffic that creates a climate of fear – far more than seeing cyclists wearing helmets. And the fact of the matter is that cyclists do have a higher crash rate than any other mode other than motorcycling. The health benefits outweigh the risk of a crash, but the risk is still real. People are going to work that out regardless of the helmet regulation.


      3. Simon Kennett

        Two more thoughts regarding regional/country differences in perceptions of helmets:

        1 – Topography probably has an effect. If you cycle in steep terrain (at speeds over 40kph) as many Wellingtonians do, you might feel at greater risk of injury and be more likely to think a helmet could come in handy one day. In that case a compulsory helmet law wouldn’t seem like such a big deal (compared with a flat city).

        2 – There is quite a difference between Europe and America in terms of the cycling imagery used in popular media (and in terms of the desire to own sports gear/gadgets, I suspect). In American cycling mags (which influence new ‘cyclists’ in NZ) nearly all the cyclists are shown wearing helmets. This has helped to normalise cycle helmets. It probably does make cycling appear like a more dangerous activity, but that’s not a deal-breaker. Just look at Portland.

        Portland (like Wellington) has seen a significant rise in cycle commuting and helmet use over the last decade (in Portland’s case, without helmet compulsion). Thanks to some great infrastructure they are getting many new cyclists who do not fit into the ‘fit and fearless’ category, but most of those newbies are choosing to wear helmets voluntarily (kinda makes sense that somebody who isn’t fearless would be more likely to choose to wear a helmet).

        Portland are at 7% mode share for cycling to work. If we had their level of cycling infrastructure, I suspect we’d have the same level of cycling mode share.


  25. The most important thing is: Why can’t people decide for themselves? There are a lot of things that you can do freely that are lots and lots more dangerous than utility cycling without helmets. The chances of something really bad happening when paddling at 15 km/h are really very very dim. Risk of something bad happening with your head when cycling at that speed is per km comparable with the risk of walking at 6 km/h. And you wouldn’t suggest walking with a helmet I suppose. Give the info to people not only to the upside of helmets but also the downside. And someone putting the decline on cycling in Australia to cheap vehicle imports: Is that also in all the other countries where cycling declined dramatically after a mandatory helmet law: In Sweden, Iceland, Alberta Canada, Halifax? Come on let’s get sensible and take people seiously: Let them decide for themselves. If they want to go into this perceived big risk of cycling without helmet (when you even allow people bungee jumping) get out of their way. They can themselves decide between the discomfort of having a helmet and the perception of safety. This is not a regulation issue.


  26. Rob

    Personally, I’m a bit bored of the helmet debate.

    I think helmets are a good idea and I will wear one. However, I think everyone should be allowed to come to their own conclusion without the government mandating it.

    I appreciate what the helmet lady’s campaign was trying to achieve, but I think it has had much more far-reaching effects than she could possibly have imagined.


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