The Helmet law and the Mary Poppins Effect

The helmet debate has recently been stirred up again, with cycling advocates giving quite contrasting opinions to our two major news outlets. Patrick Morgan, spokesperson for CAN (and CiW writer) agrees with the report and supports a government review. Barbara Cuthbert, spokeswoman from Cycling Action Auckland disagrees. Whatever your views on Colin Clarkes report, you have to admit it is not the first such report, and certainly won’t be the last.

Helmets were brought into law in New Zealand in the late 80’s thanks, chiefly, to the campaigning done by ‘helmet lady’ Rebecca Oaten. I vaguely remember her – or someone representing her – visiting my school, with stories of children being killed or seriously brain damaged because they weren’t wearing a helmet. What happened to her son is undoubtably very sad.

Rebecca and Aaron Oaten - Source: ONE News

Half the kids at my school biked back then. There was as much space for bikes as there was for teachers cars. These days, I very rarely see kids on bikes anymore. If I do, they’re off-road. And, what’s worse, is that when I do see kids riding on the road, it scares me a little. That is truly sad. Kids deserve to feel the freedom of riding a bike, no matter what generation they are born into.

(Just to clarify, while I support a review of the helmet law, and I personally am anti-compulsion for adults*, I do support helmets for kids. But when adults don’t ride bikes, it seems their kids don’t either. So let’s try get those adults back on their bikes first.)

My issue with the helmet law is that it was brought in because of the campaigning from one lady and one case. To this day she still says that if people don’t want to wear helmets that it’s “too bad”. We’ve all heard stories about people who have broken helmets which saved their lives. We talk less about our family and friends who have had heart surgery, suffer from obesity or related diseases because they stopped biking when helmets were introduced (and I agree that helmets are not solely to blame for this – other causes include more cars on the road and campaigning for helmets which made cycling seem less safe). But, let me raise a question: what if it is actually safer to ride a bike without a helmet? 

How helmets are tested

Most kiwis (and our neighbours across the ditch) assume, rather logically that bike helmets are obviously safer. And I agree, that if you weigh 5kg and fall from a height of about 1m to the ground (which is what helmets are tested for) then, of course, you would be better off wearing a helmet. Many kiwis wrongly assume that they are better off overall wearing a helmet, or that a helmet offers significant protection from a collision with a vehicle. It does not, nor is it designed to.

So if helmets aren’t designed to offer you any significant protection in a collision, what would help? Well, the best scenario would be not to be in a collision in the first place. Evidence shows that you are less likely to get hit if you are not wearing a helmet. Surely, not being hit, is better than being hit and hoping to fall from 1m onto a solid non-moving object?



Studies show that drivers will pass a cyclist wearing a helmet 30cm closer than a cyclist not wearing a helmet. There are several ideas behind this. One is that the cyclist wearing a helmet appears ‘protected’ or less vulnerable. Another is that a cyclist without a helmet appears more ‘human’.  It would be interesting to find out in how many cases that 30cm was critical? The NZ Road Code recommends passing cyclists with a 1.5m berth. In reality most cyclists would not often experience that. Our roads don’t allow for it, especially in Wellington. But an extra 30cm would be most welcome!

Who would want to hurt Mary Poppins?

If you take this a step further, you get something called the “Mary Poppins Effect”. This suggests that a woman riding an upright style bike, wearing a skirt gets more respect and is more visible to other road users than other cyclists. Anecdotal evidence supports this.

Lycra just isn't for everyone

Again, there are a few different theories behind this. One is that a person on a bike wearing ‘normal’ clothes is easier to identify with – the driver can see themselves – so they appreciate that the cyclist also has ‘somewhere important to be’. A lycra-clad roadie on the other hand is out for ‘recreation’ and therefore just getting in the way of the ‘important place’ the driver needs to be. So in a sense, by wearing similar clothing to what drivers do, you become part of their ‘us’ as opposed to the lycra-clad ‘them’. (No offence to lycra-clad cyclists – I know it’s practical – it’s just there aren’t very many lycra-clad drivers/pedestrians around to identify with.) You are no longer an annoyance, but a fellow commuter.

Another theory relates to the bike itself – an upright bike makes you taller and therefore more visible. You are also less likely to be travelling very fast on an upright bike. They are designed for comfort, not speed. If you are travelling slower, it gives other road-users time to see you; you become more predictable. In my own experience, I can say that wearing the same outfit on an upright ‘Omafiets’ and on my commuter/mountain bike, I feel safer on the Omafiets.

Having said that, the difference is still noticeable when the only change is to your outfit. I like to tell people that the most effective ‘hi-vis’ I’ve found is wearing a short skirt on my bike. I make more eye contact with drivers when wearing a short skirt than any other item of clothing or piece of equipment. It causes them to pause, and that pause can be the difference between them pulling out in front of me, or not.

This from Lovely Bike:

The way people process each other visually and emotionally is governed by a complicated system of simulation and self-recognition… And from that point of view, it makes sense to speculate that the more “I am human! I am you!” signals we give off when cycling, the more empathy a driver will feel towards us.

Empathy is an important factor when it comes to making gains for cycling.

The amazing cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands came about after protests in the 70s. The main gist of these was to ‘Stop the child murder‘. Any parent would be up in arms when the safety of their child is threatened. And rightly so. The Times in the UK is campaigning for ‘Cities Fit for Cycling’. This issue hit home to them when one of their own was seriously injured while cycling. In Wellington the Council’s budget for cycling has recently doubled and I think it is no coincidence that we now have a cycling Mayor.

To make cycling safer in New Zealand we need better infrastructure. No doubt about it. But to get this, we need numbers supporting it. More cyclists on the roads already improves safety. More ‘human’ or everyday cyclists will help raise awareness by normalising riding a bike. Groups like Frocks on Bikes do amazing things in an effort to get everyday people wearing everyday clothes on their bikes. It’s the reason I joined them. If we strive to have an environment like Amsterdam or Copenhagen, we need to encourage such an environment. Forcing people to wear hi-vis and helmets, in addition to investing in their bike, will put some off. As Simon Kennett pointed out (halfway down the comments), they already have enough excuses, so why add to them?


What do you think? Have you come across any evidence that shows an overall positive effect from the introduction of helmet laws? Have you experienced different behaviour in response to what you’re wearing? Do you feel safer wearing a helmet despite suggestions that this might not actually be the case?

Would you support an independent, evidence-based review of whether the helmet regulation has worked?


* Please note, I am anti-compulsion, not completely anti-helmets. When I am able to jump on my road bike and I swish down hills at 70km/h  I wouldn’t be caught dead(?) without my helmet. But just as a racing driver doesn’t wear his helmet when driving to the shops, neither do I think cyclists should have to. Same goes for mountain biking.

In over two years of cycling in London, two years in the Netherlands and over 20 years in NZ,  I’ve had two incidents that could have resulted in serious head injuries – one was snowboarding and the other surfing – neither of those, or the many other ‘dangerous’ activities we partake in everyday, have helmet laws. I do now choose to wear a helmet while snowboarding, despite head injuries not even being in the top five documented injuries; I recognise that I take more risks while partaking in ‘sport’ activities and do so even more while wearing a helmet. It also helps that the type of incidents that could occur are the ones which the helmet is designed for, i.e. falling from a height of about 1.5m onto a hard surface (it’s amazing how many rocks there are under snow!). 



66 thoughts on “The Helmet law and the Mary Poppins Effect

  1. Brian

    Great article. Compulsory helmets are one major barrier to getting mass numbers people on bikes and achieving a critical mass as you see in the Netherlands. I saw a young woman in a fancy skirt and no helmet cycling down Victoria St the other day…perhaps she didn’t know of the helmet law. It was quite a site to see here, but would be great if such casual riding could be more common.


  2. Malcolm

    I would personally always wear a helmet if I’m cycling on the road, but I think it should be optional for adults. Would get more people cycling if they didnt have to wear a helmet I think.


    1. Rob

      The only problem I have with the idea of “compulsory helmets for kids, optional for adults” is how do I explain to my kids (10, 8 and 3) that I don’t need to wear a helmet but they do? Do I condescend and tell them that adults are better riders? I’d wager most kids who ride bikes regularly (to school etc) are probably more skilled than weekend-only parent riders.


      1. atom

        You could wear a helmet, when riding with your kids.

        Most kids understand that adults have different rules than kids. Even if they don’t like it, they understand it. This applies to bedtime, beer, TV shows, movies, driving a car… Why not helmets?

        “When you’re old enough, you can decide whether or not to wear a helmet. For now, you have to wear a helmet, or you can’t ride your bike.”


      2. Simon Kennett

        It’d be tricky, but you could try explaining to your kids that the ability for the human brain to quickly analyse the risk posed by fast moving objects as they move down the road is not fully developed at their age. This was part of the logic behind increasing the minimum driving age from 15 to 16 last year (and it’s higher in many other countries).


      3. atom

        Does it have to be that tricky? My son understands that there are things he’ll be good at and be able to do when he gets older, just like there are things that he used to enjoy when he was younger, but doesn’t care for now.

        Like reading books without pictures on every page, being able to help with different things in the kitchen, what games he likes to play… From one day to the the next even the foods he likes or doesn’t like changes. He’s pretty sharp about knowing that different people at different ages have different abilities.

        FWIW, he enjoys riding his bike on the footpath, but he doesn’t want to ride in traffic until he gets older. Perhaps most importantly, I wear a helmet (without complaining!) so there’s nothing dorky about it in his eyes… At least not until he’s a teenager. Whether or not we wear helmets isn’t a discussion, it’s just part of riding a bike.

        That said, I still think that peer-reviewed science should determine at what age helmet use becomes a personal choice. Lower speeds and being closer to the ground are two factors that would likely make foam hats (aka “bicycle helmets”) somewhat useful for children, but not really correlate to adults.


      4. Jerzy Kaltenberg

        Injury data indicates greatest chance of serious accident in 14 and under. I also always wear my helmet and make my kids wear theirs; it has saved my life.


  3. Simon Kennett

    “Evidence shows that you are less likely to get hit if you are not wearing a helmet.”

    I’m keen to see this evidence. Reference please. Remember that there is difference between reduced passing gaps and increased chance of being hit.

    I bought a bike helmet in the early 80s because that’s what cycle touring enthusiasts in the USA seemed to be doing back then. Wore it off and on. Had my last crash with a car in 1987 (while not wearing my helmet) – head-first over the bonnet, narrowly missing a concrete power pole. Have worn a helmet 99% of the time since then.

    For the sake of balance, it should be mentioned that the most respected studies of helmet efficacy have concluded that, overall, they do significantly reduce the likelihood and severity of head injuries incurred in cycle crashes.

    I agree that the Mary Poppins effect can be beneficial, and think it applies to men as well (wearing trousers, rather than skirts). I’ve noticed this kind of effect when riding a bike in any unusual style (with a trailer, on a tandem, etc). Hard to say whether better drier behaviour is the result of looking ‘normal’ or novel, but looking normal is more likely to attract more people to cycling (and that is the key to better safety in the long term, imho).


    1. Fair call Simon. I should have said “evidence suggests”. The study I’m referring to is the one conducted by Dr Ian Walker in 2006. Some info here: (other links to the study are above). The conclusion drawn is that the reduced passing gap also reduces the margin of error, increasing the likelihood of getting hit (in his case twice while wearing a helmet).
      Obviously none of these studies stand alone and many are based on small samples, draw conclusions, or are conducted in specific environments. Very few have been done in NZ, which is why I would encourage a well-researched review based on NZ conditions.

      There are many situations in which I would encourage and support wearing helmets, but I would like to have the choice to leave my helmet at home if I’m just popping down to the shops. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, I feel safer. Blame it on my Dutch upbringing. (Also from a health point of view, it’s one of the ways I can easily remain mobile and healthy without too much pain. The helmet is an extra burden.)
      You have to agree that there is a big difference with riding a road bike down a hill at 70km/h in a 100km zone and tootling off to the dairy at 10-15km/h in a 30km/h zone.

      This TED Talk also makes for interesting viewing:

      Overall, I think laws should be aspirational, not based on fear or the past. If we strive for an environment where cyclists are safe (which I know isn’t necessarily the case yet, but it’s not as bad as people think), then we should also legislate for that.


      1. Simon Kennett

        I enjoyed re-watching that TED talk. A couple of things worried me. There has been a 30% reduction in Denmark since 1990 (despite all their great infrstructure and no helmet law). And there has been a sharp decline since 2007/08 when helmet promotion began in earnest. The suggestion is that merely promoting helmets has caused a sharp decline.

        How come promoting airbags and other car safety features (not to mention millions spent on gruesome road safety advertisments and ample sobering roadside signage) – how come all that doesn’t cause decline in motoring, god dammit!


      2. I just noticed – re-watching that TED talk myself – that this is where I must’ve gotten my info regarding ‘being more likely to be hit with a helmet on’.

        Mikael states that you are 14% more likely to get hit. He referred me to this link: where he quotes “The 14% stat comes from the Norwegian Transport Økonomisk Institut (TØI).”
        (My Norwegian is a bit rusty so I’ll have difficulty verifying that, but I’m more than happy to take his word for it.)

        The great majority of cycling deaths come from a collision with a vehicle. While helmets may provide some (again, how much is disputed) protection, they aren’t designed to, so my preference would be to avoid that collision in the first place. In our current environment, safe cycling practices are most effective for this, but if not wearing a helmet gives me a 14% edge, it’s worth considering.

        I’d like a helmet law review to consider whether helmets have actually made the overall environment for cycling safer, or more dangerous?

        I don’t disagree that wearing a helmet during an impact will offer some protection, but this is true for pedestrians and motorists too, yet they aren’t forced by law, or even recommended, (or tentatively suggested) to wear a helmet. More motorists and pedestrians die on our roads every year than cyclists. Legislating helmets only for cycling seems almost to discriminate against them, when they’ve already been pushed to the edge of a road dominated by motor vehicles.

        Also the NZTA appears to show quite a bias when collating stats. The “New Zealand Household Travel Survey 2006–2010 – Risk on the road: pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists” report claims that for cycling “The risk is much higher relative to other modes per distance travelled than by time travelled, due to the slower speeds involved’ then shows tables where walking is given ‘per million hours’ and ‘per million km’. The cycling table is given ‘per million hours’ but per ‘100 million km’. The overall distance walked per year (for all ages) is 849 million km, for cycling is 310 million km. Yet cycling deaths are averaged at 10 per year and walking at 35 per year.

        I’m not a statistician but by my calculations that puts walking deaths at 0.04 per million km travelled and cycling at 0.03 per million km travelled. When you count injuries, cycling is just over twice the number as walking. When you look at hours it increases the ‘risk’ for cycling by a bit more, which is what they note in the big box warning on pg1 of the report. But if you’re choosing between walking to the shops or cycling (over the same distance), cycling could be considered safer.

        All this is, of course, quite ridiculous, as these numbers overall are tiny, and you’re almost as likely to get struck by lightening (figuratively speaking). The point is, that the ‘danger’ of cycling is grossly exaggerated. I think many of us just like to sound like heroes/increase the danger. I know I’m guilty of telling stories (“OMG, you won’t believe how close I got to being knocked off!”) when the truth is, I’ve been hit and hurt more often while in a car than on a bike.

        Cycling is quite safe, but we need better laws and infrastructure to make it desirable.


      3. Simon Kennett

        That Norwegan study is very interesting. You can find an English language version here
        Of course, Mikael will pick the part of the study that supports his arguement and ignore the rest. He is, after all, a cycling advocate and marketing man, bound to put a spin on things (all for the best possible cause, of course).

        The 14% figure comes from a review of the situation in New Zealand & Australia. Did they try to take into account the large increase in traffic since the early 90s? We don’t know.

        The study also includes some results that support helmet use.

        Agree that prevention is the best cure.

        WRT cyclists risk exposure versus other road users, the Annual Monitoring Report has a couple of useful graphs on page 39 and 40.
        I think casualties per million hours exposure is the best measure for active transport because walkers and cyclists will choose to travel shorter distances for a given trip (to the shops, for example) c.f with those who drive most places.

        The average risk is significantly higher for cyclists that walkers and drivers regardless of whether you look at km travelled or hours travelled. I like to tink my individual risk is much lower because of the way I ride a bike.

        The only mode with a higher casualty risk than cycling is motorcycling (and a helmet law applies there too). Clearly we have a road safety problem that goes way beyond the helmet issue. And I acknowledge we have even bigger health problems, too. So, I’d be interested to see a balanced review of the helmet law.


      4. atom

        Cars are “normal”; every other mode of transport is odd.

        If someone loses a friend or family member in a car crash (as a driver or passenger) you’ll NEVER hear them question the safety of driving in a car.

        But if they lose a friend or family member in a bus crash, train crash, plane crash, bicycle crash (or any other crash that’s not a car), there seems to be a universal sentiment of “I could never travel by _____ because it’s dangerous.” People just don’t apply that “logic” to cars.

        This is an example of people being bad at risk assessment.


    2. atom

      Wearing a helmet puts cyclists at risk, suggests research

      “Dr Walker, who was struck by a bus and a truck in the course of the experiment, spent half the time wearing a cycle helmet and half the time bare-headed. He was wearing the helmet both times he was struck”

      “Either way, this study suggests wearing a helmet might make a collision more likely in the first place” – Dr Ian Walker

      Based on that, it looks like the likelihood of getting hit is anecdotal, but it is consistent with the published findings about passing clearance with/without a helmet.

      Also, read John Adams’ essays, particularly “The Efficacy of Seat Belt. Legislation” –

      and “Risk and Freedom” –

      The paradox here is that for an individual, it probably is
      safer to wear a helmet (even if it’s only by a very small margin, and ignores the increased likelihood of being hit by a motor vehicle)… But in practice, mandatory helmet laws put the bicycling population at higher risk of injury (per person; for the bicycling population this trend seems flat in NZ), and the general population at higher risk of disease and mortality resulting from sedentary lifestyles, because they’re not riding bikes. The end result is that, overall, people are not living longer or healthier lives as a result of the helmet law; in fact, the opposite seems true.

      Intuitively, it seems like it should be safer all around if people wear helmets while bicycling, but it doesn’t work that way in the real world.

      Ultimately, this is what the numbers show again and again. That’s the paradox of mandatory helmet laws (it also applies to seatbelts! Read the John Adams stuff). It’s paradoxical and unintuitive, which is why politicians and news anchors fail to grasp it… Especially in a nanny-state where politicians are under [perceived] pressure to “DO SOMETHING!” if it intuitively seems safe.


      1. Rob

        “Dr Walker, who was struck by a bus and a truck in the course of the experiment, spent half the time wearing a cycle helmet and half the time bare-headed. He was wearing the helmet both times he was struck”

        That’s a pretty massive leap to make – “I was hit twice while wearing a helmet ergo helmets are dangerous”. Does this guy happen to share an office with Andrew Wakefield?


      2. atom

        In the context of his published research, I don’t see how it’s a big leap.

        What surprises me is how far some people go, for the sake of science ;). I think most people would call it quits after getting hit the first time.


      3. Simon Kennett

        I agree. Sample size of 1 person = evidence fail.

        Also, the passing gap thing needs a whole lot more explaining. What was the spread of the passing gaps like for helmeted vs unhelmeted rides. I’m thinking of a study done in New Zealand a few years ago where passing gap was measured for cyclists in a cycle lane versus not in a cycle lane.

        Riders in a cycle lane got a smaller average passing gap, but it was a less variable passing gap. The variability of the passing gap concerns me a lot more than the average gap (when looking at average passing gaps of over a metre).


      4. atom

        Here in NZ, I suspect that most bicyclists hit by motor vehicles are wearing a helmet 😉
        But there isn’t a check-box for that on an accident report, so who really knows?

        Here’s some details of the study, including raw data –

        Let us know what you come up with. In the meantime, “there were 23% more vehicles coming within 1m of the bicycle when a helmet was being worn.”


      5. Simon Kennett

        Interesting. What I’m getting from that is that road position is critical. When he rode 1 m out from the curb he got a larger average overtaking gap when helmeted! And the variance was similar. He got the least variance in overtaking gap when riding 25 cm from the road edge (no safe place to be when riding to parked cars) and that was when wearing a helmet.

        So…if you wear a helmet and want a decent (and consistent overtaking gap (in England) ride close to the curb where it’s safe to do so, or 1 m out from the curb elsewhere. That’s what the graphs seem to suggest (in isolation).


      6. Simon Kennett

        If you want to help discredit the anti-helmet law lobby, using a 30 year old piece of anti-seatbelt research is a good start. Despite whatever blips in statistics may have occurred in the mid-seventies, road safety professionals credit seatbelts with playing an important part in the massive reduction in New Zealand’s road toll which has taken place since the mid-seventies (despite a concurrent massive increase in vehicle km travelled).

        Again, it’s another study that fails to take into account all sorts of confounding factors (were countries who introduced seatbelt laws in the mid-70s wealthier and therefore rebounded from the oil crisis faster?) and it’s simply out of date. Maybe there was some risk compensation when seat belt laws were passed, but that is ancient history now. For risk compensation in the 21st century, maybe look to large vehicle size, air bags and electronic stability control, not seat belts. They’re normalised now.

        The libertarian arguement may have some currancy in the USA, but in NZ (with ACC providing cover for all, and the costs of accidents being shared by all) it doesn’t go very far.


      7. atom

        It is what it is. Vehicle size, air bags, electronic stability control, seat belts, helmets… These are all “products”. To paraphrase (or bastardize) one of my favourite Bruce Schneier quotes: “Safety is a process, not a product. Products provide some protection, but the only way to effectively be safe in a hazardous world is to put practices in place that recognize the inherent hazards of the activities and limitations of the products.”

        Schneier is an authority on electronic security, but most of what he writes can be applied more generally to risk assessment and risk management.

        Anyway, when we substitute safety products for safe practices, we lose. And it’s too easy for all of these products to be sold on the basis of “they make you safe” and “they keep you safe”. Too often we hear “be safe, wear a seatlbelt” and “be safe, wear a helmet” which just replaces “behaving safely” with using a safety product. No matter how normalized seatbelts and helmets become, they’re still “marketed” as “keeping us safe”, despite our actions.


      8. Simon Kennett

        I completely agree that safe practice is primary, and safety products are secondary. Combining safe practice and products = optimal safe road use.

        Possibly a tangent, but another ‘normalised’ safety product is bike lights. We could get by without them in urban areas (and like helmets, they are a hassle) but your risk of an injury goes up when riding without bike lights. If bike lights were commonly not used (and not compulsory) would society slow down and take more care on the roads after dark? Probably, but I suspect not to the extent that there were any safety gains – once the situation settled down, people would probably return to accepting the status quo level of risk (but we’d all be taking longer to get places). Finally, in NZ, those that used bike lights (and crashed less as a result) would effectively be subsidising those who didn’t use them (and crashed more).

        This example has some historical roots, because when cars first came on the scene it was not compulsory for bikes to have lights at night. It was many years before that rule was introduced (and I’m sure it was opposed by many cyclists).


  4. Rob

    Let’s face it, it has nothing to do with studies and suggestive statistics. It’s because helmets are perceived by most as “dorky”.

    As someone who went to school when the helmet lady was doing her rounds, the biggest shame you could be subject to was your parents buying you a bright orange StackHat.


    1. atom

      That certainly is a factor, although it’s harder to quantify than injury statistics and passing clearances. Most people who don’t ride, if asked, would deny that it’s a factor for them not riding. They’d just talk about perceived safety, necessity and convenience.


      1. I had a dorky bright orange stack hat! Was hoping to find it at my parents house but I think they may have ceremoniously burnt it!

        My parents biked me to school everyday before the blanket helmet law came in. They both stopped riding, pretty much completely, after it came in and I sometimes wonder if that had any influence on their health problems later on.
        Certainly, since they’ve taken up riding again (doctors orders), they both are much fitter and happier.

        That’s the flip side to the ‘A helmet saved my life’ anecdote – how many people do we know with expensive and deadly health issues who stopped riding a bike because it was suddenly labelled as dangerous and dorky?


  5. Serious question: how much of an actual, here and now deterrent effect is this actually happening? I saw 7 people riding without helmets along the waterfront on my way home tonight. It’s a rare night that I don’t see one or two (my maximum so far is 9). If not wearing a helmet is a big deal for people, a lot of people seem happy to take the risk of a $50 fine.


  6. caroline

    If you are not on a public road are you legally required to wear your helmet? From a safety perspective I can’t see why you would need to (if it is a shared pedestrian-cycle path). I am assuming when you say the waterfront you mean the pedestrian bit? I very rarely see helmetless cyclists on the roads in Wellington.

    I think too it’s a shame that the helmet law came in just before cars got much bigger. Cycling was something kids just did for years and years, then the helmet law came in (when I was at school) and that highlighted the dangers to parents, a lot of whom who out of fear of injury (or fines) stopped encouraging their children to ride on the roads. And now our streets are full of airbagged 4WDs with big old blind spots, and drivers are unused to looking out for kids on bikes, the perceived danger has been actualised through diminished numbers as much as anything. And it’s seen as unsafe to cycle on the roads so even short trips are taken by car, compounding the problem. It’s a crying shame.

    I agree with freedom of choice, over a certain age if necessary. In Britain, where helmets have never been compulsary, fatality rates by km or mile travelled are slightly less than for walking (“Road Casualties Great Britain 2007 – Annual Report (page 82, “Fatality rates by mode of travel”)” (PDF). Department for Transport.). And in the States it is more like 2/3 of the pedestrian rate (from Wikipedia, it is footnoted there too

    No-one suggests pedestrians should wear helmets.


    1. Simon Kennett

      You are required to wear a helmet in public thoroughfares such as the waterfront, although I’ve never heard of police enforcing it. There is some logic to this, given that most cycle accidents which result in hospitalisation don’t actually involve a motor vehicle. Most are self-inflicted. Source:

      Why helmets for cyclists and not pedestrians? In New Zealand the crash risk for a cyclist is much higher than for a pedestrian (or a motorist). Basically, bicycles are relatively unstable, yet faster that walking and more vulnerable than cars. (Of course they are great fun, too).

      The stats you pulled from wikipedia have three problems (apart from not being from New Zealand).
      1 – When comparing travel modes with very different speed/range, you should use risk per hour of exposure, not risk per km travelled. There is an exposure to crash risk simply by spending time on the road, regardless of whether or not you travel any distance at all.
      2 – The reporting rates for cycling accidents are normally significantly less than for walking accidents (see the Norwegan study referred to above. A Christchurch study a few years back concluded the reporting rate for cycling accidents there was around 20%).
      3 – It’s a mistake to just look at fatalities. It makes the data-set size small and unreliable, and ignores all the tragic serious injuries. Anything involving a hospitalisation should be considered, especially when arguing the effectiveness of the cycle helmet (since some injuries will be effected by the helmet). Arguably, we should also consider all the cases where helmet use prevented hospitalisation.


  7. Chris Glover Kapiti Coast NZ

    Pushbike helmets or SILLY HATS became compulsory in nz on 1 January 1994 not the late 80s.The pushbike helmet law is possibly the most STUPID LAW that has ever been made.School bike racks and sheds were full, now they are empty or non existent. Thats more like a 90 percent reduction in cycling since the helmet law. No research or public consultation ever happened before introduction of the helmet law in 1994.


    1. Simon Kennett

      It’s a mistake to blame the decline in children riding to school solely on the helmet law. Usually parents choose how their kids get to school, and they choose driving because of fears about road safety and child abduction (according to a CCC study). In flat areas, school surveys often find that close to half the kids would like to cycle to school. I doubt young kids worry about wearing a helmet – it’s as normalised for them as wearing a seatbelt.

      Where there are good programmes and infrastructure to support cycling to school, the bike sheds are filling up fast. Belmont Intermediate School in Auckland won a CAN Cycle-Friendly award in 2010 for their success.

      High school students will be more likely to cycle in the future (now the minimum driver licence age has been raised) if they develop the habit in intermediate school and good infrastructure is provided.


      1. atom

        Infrastructure is a big part, but to the extent that helmets are to blame, parents should be riding with small children. If the parents don’t ride because helmets are dorky, then they’re not riding with their kids, and their kids aren’t riding.

        It’ll be interesting to see how the increase in DL age affects this.


      2. Rob

        As a parent of two boys who can clock up to 30km per week cycling to school, I can say that the infrastructure is the key. We have an awesome cycleway under construction out in Tawa and when it’s complete, kids will be able to get to most schools without going on the road. I don’t know that I’d be so keen on them riding if they had to share a road with the enormous 4WDs that plague our suburbs nowadays.


    2. Nigel

      David Hembrow reports that the Dutch mothers’ campaign “Stop de Kindermoord” (“Stop the Child Murder”) began in 1973. This was aped in NZ a decade or two later. The respective governments’ responses were quite different. One improved safety by steadily building infrastructure, the other took a cheap way out and mandated helmet wearing as the safety measure.

      The results speak for themselves. The Dutch feel so safe bicycling that they can’t understand the whole helmet thing. In NZ parents are constantly reminded that bicycling is dangerous – needing helmets, hi-viz, daytime lights etc. Hembrow even described it as “warriors preparing for battle”. It is self fulfilling in our current political environment.


      1. Simon Kennett

        Netherlands: GDP per capita = $42,183
        Flat and often densely populated.

        New Zealand: GDP/capita = $27,668
        Hilly and usually sparsely populated (and therefore keener on motoring).

        These factors have a lot more to do with our lack of cycling infrastructure than the helmet law. Just look at the NZ cycling scene in the late 1980s (before the helmet law) or any one of a dozen similar countries that don’t have a helmet law (like France, Spain or Italy). They’ve all progressed at the same slow rate.

        I agree we need more cycling infrstructure (and it is coming, slowly) but if you use the Netherlands to define success, you will might never be happy with cycling in Wellington. Which would be a shame, because cycling here is usually pretty groovy (regardless of what you have on your head).


  8. Pingback: Helmet Freedom | Cycling in Wellington

  9. Bill V

    Simon according Wikipedia Spain does have a Cycling helmet law “Required on interurban routes”

    Since 2004.

    Actually many countries or states within those countries have some kind of law ( despite what Pat Morgan (from CAN) said on Nat Radio to Jim Mora few weeks back.

    As a kid I rode my bike as my major form of transport constatntly for age 11 to 23. Pretty much every day to various schools and varsity. Plus to get about generally. This was pre helmet law days.

    I was hit by a car once, age 16 (my only cycling accident ever) I was not wearing a helmet.

    Result: Concussion, knocked out for more or less 2 hours, 30 stitches in my head. Spent 3 days in hospital. ONly my head was injured. I was as the doctors say, very very lucky.

    As James Cracknell says – Use your head. Use your helmet.


    1. Thanks for your comment Bill, however I find such anecdotal stories very unhelpful to either side of the debate. Firstly, you say you weren’t wearing a helmet and yet I assume you still made a complete recovery, which kinda counters your argument.
      Secondly, you neglect to mention how many of your friends, colleagues or acquaintances suffer from health effects from leading an inactive lifestyle (some possibly due to the perceived risk of cycling).
      Finally, for every story you mention where someone was saved by wearing a helmet, I can find one amongst my Dutch friends where they were in an accident and were injured on any part of their body except their head, while not wearing a helmet. My cousin broke both her legs when hit by a car, but not a single head injury.
      Why is this? That’s what we need to be asking in NZ. Despite our helmet laws we still get a disproportionate amount of head and neck injuries. We need to be looking at what really makes cycling safer; lower speeds, safety in numbers, better cyclist and driver education, better infrastructure. If you want to protect the most vulnerable road users (and I include pedestrians and kids on scooters/skateboards, etc) then we need to look at the big picture and not place responsibility (and inevitably blame) on individuals.


    2. atom

      While many jurisdictions have some type of helmet laws, NZ/AU are the ONLY countries that have and enforce “all ages, all places” mandatory helmet laws. Of the other jurisdictions with adult helmet laws (whether conditional or not), they’re generally not enforced.

      FWIW, I suffered a head injury in 2009. I spent a year in bed, a year teaching myself how to walk, a year teaching myself how to walk without holding on to things… Recovery is ongoing and I’m lucky I survived. Oh, that was a swimming accident. Apparently swimming accidents are a common way to get head injuries. Should we require that everyone in or near a pool wears a helmet?

      Should we require that anyone climbing a ladder wears a helmet? How about standing on a chair? Or sledding? Skiing? Driving a car? Bathing? ALL of those would reduce head injures.

      If you want to talk about individual safety, then wearing a helmet is likely a prudent choice; no one will give you a hard time for freely choosing to wear a helmet. But when you talk about population health & safety, there is ZERO evidence to support mandatory all-ages helmet laws, and quite a lot of evidence to challenge mandatory all-ages helmet laws.

      I’m not against helmets… I’m against helmet laws (for adults).


  10. Bill V

    I used an anecdote as Simon had described his experiences of never having an accident in 25 years of cycling. In my 25 years or so i had one and suffered a serious head injury. I was lucky I was not killed, as for complete recovery who knows.

    I also linked James Cracknel’s story you have to admit it is compelling.

    If you are interested in statistics and studies, I’m sure you have all read many articles or and against compulsory helmut legislation.

    After my experience I always wear a helmut. i think the evidence backs up the call to make them compulsory.

    You could read these


    1. Bill, I don’t dispute that if you are in an accident, a helmet is probably useful. I disagree with mandatory helmet laws, because evidence suggests they make the overall environment less safe (by discouraging riders and stifling the building of infrastructure), thereby increasing the chance you get hit in the first place. If you had a choice: being hit by a car with a helmet on, or not being hit by a car, I think it’s pretty obvious which we would all prefer.
      So I advocate for safe infrastructure, driver and cyclist education and other safety measures. There are dozens of things we could be doing which lessens the chance of an accident, but they’re not being done partly because “helmets protect cyclists”. I’m looking at the big picture – how to improve overall safety for every vulnerable road user. If you want to take individual responsibility and wear a helmet, good on you – I won’t stop you. But I want the roads to be safe enough for my son to ride a bike to school when he’s 5 years old – and a helmet on his head will not provide me with much/enough reassurance.
      Let’s put this helmet issue to bed for now, and focus more on the bigger issues: the lower speed limits, the spending on infrastructure and road education. Once these are in place, then we can talk about whether or not helmets need to be compulsory. And who knows, maybe we can create an environment as safe as The Netherlands and Denmark, and we’ll laugh at the idea that cyclists ever needed helmets, just as we’d laugh at the suggestion pedestrians should wear them.

      Here’s a couple of articles which may be of interest to you:


  11. Bill V


    IN the Australian article I linked the writers advocate for better cycling infrastructure and point out that is making cycling safer in Australia.

    Thye say cycling is more popular than ever in Australia.

    But they also have research that shows making cycling helmets compulsory reduced serious head injuries markedly there. Some researchers say wearing a helmet can reduce the chance of serious heaqd injury by 60-70% for cyclist if the head is hit or hits the road. (See the US Cochrane review)

    Listen to the James Cracknell clip again. I know I’ll be making sure my kids wear helmets when on a bike.

    This is not Denmark or the Netherland (see one of Simon’s comments above)

    It is about reducing risk.

    Lets ask a question: Do you wear a seat belt when you drive? Do you think Motorcyclists should wear helmets….none of these were compulsory at one time. Yet we do it without thinking now to reduce risk in the case of an accident.

    Pedestrians have a footpath to walk on, they don’t share the road with a half of ton of metal moving at 50 kilometres an hour. (even at 20 or 30 that will knock any one of their bike and then the result is down to luck and a helmet if you have one on).

    As for putting the helmet issue to bed, who wrote this article about helmets and woke it up?


    1. This article is two years old, fyi. When I say, let’s move on, I mean that I realise that in the current situation we won’t get any change. But we don’t have to accept the current situation. We can encourage our politicians to support cycling, to build infrastructure etc.

      If we build the infrastructure, we can make the roads as safe as in Europe, or at least approach that standard. It didn’t happen overnight there either. And they deal with some pretty tough physical demands too, yet they didn’t give up and say, “it’ll never work, let’s just slap helmets on everyone and hope for the best”.

      Helmets are a last ditch attempt at protecting people when you haven’t/can’t/won’t try anything else, in my view. Yes, pedestrians have footpaths – why can’t cyclists have bike paths? Who put them on the same road as cars? Why do they have to be there?

      Seatbelts and helmets for motorcyclists actually work, and – in the case of driving – unfortunately don’t make this activity look more dangerous or put people off. You’re more likely to get injured playing rugby, football or gardening, yet only cycling requires a helmet. It just seems very odd to me.

      And I’m sorry but I don’t find the James Cracknell clip compelling at all. Perhaps if I was intending to partake in extreme sports, I might, but as someone who tootles along to the shops on my bike, I really have very little to relate to.
      I’ve lived overseas and seen what it could be like. Perhaps you haven’t. That’s a shame. It really is quite wonderful and kiwis are missing out.


    2. atom

      How do mandatory helmet laws reduce bicycling head injuries…?

      “A before-law survey showed that 272 out of 1,293 teenagers in Victoria wore helmets. After the law, 302 wore helmets out of 670.

      “The law resulted in 30 more teenagers wearing helmets compared with 623 fewer cycling”.

      Assessment of Australia’s Bicycle Helmet Laws – Civil Liberties Australia

      If you get rid of half the bicyclists, you get rid of half the bicycling head injuries. Simple, but not what I would call a success story. What makes it even worse, is that there’s no data to support that head injuries were cut in half: Overall injuries and fatalities actually stayed about the same while the number of bicyclists plummeted. So in both AU and NZ, the all-ages mandatory helmet laws seem to have actually INCREASED THE RISK OF INJURY per bicyclist.

      Since then, obesity rates (in both AU and NZ) have soared, along with obesity related illness and death.

      Again, helmets may be good for an individual, and no one will will stop adults from making a decision to wear a helmet, but ALL-AGES MANDATORY HELMET LAWS are BAD for the overall health of affected populations.

      Helmets: Not bad.
      All-ages mandatory helmet laws: Bad.


  12. Bill V

    I’ll point you again to the Australian article.

    Take home message:

    On a per population basis, 2010 enjoyed the lowest head-injury rate since the collection of hospitalisation data going back to 1988-89.
    These results highlight the success of the Safe-System Approach. This national road safety strategy, adopted by all state and federal roads ministers, suggests that multiple interventions are needed to improve safety.
    Bicycles are inherently unstable and cyclists will still crash on cycleways and in other off-road environments. In any cycling crash, wearing a helmet properly protects the most important part of the body. However, helmets alone should never be seen as a panacea. They are one important component in the overall cycling safety environment.
    Intuitively, we all know that segregating cyclists from cars, trucks and buses through cycling infrastructure makes collisions less likely. There’s no doubt now that greater spending on cycling infrastructure and mandatory helmets have jointly delivered major benefits on two fronts – fewer cycling injuries, particularly head injuries, and more people enjoying the health benefits of safe cycling.

    Surely it would be irresponsible to do anything but continue down the path of making cycling safer. Keeping helmets and building more cycleways is unquestionably the way to go.

    Dr Jake Olivier is from the University of New South Wales School of Mathematics and Statistics; Scott Walter is from the UNSW Centre for Health Systems and Safety Research; Professor Raphael Grzebieta holds the UNSW chair of road safety.

    FYI I have lived in the USA and the Uk and traveled widely in Europe and Asia


    1. atom

      “Ask any trauma surgeon. Crash reconstructions show that when cyclists and cars collide, the head often strikes the bonnet or windshield – usually with debilitating consequences.”

      Fact: Those forces FAR EXCEED the design and testing standards of bicycle helmets –

      For motor-vehicle vs bicycle crashes, helmets are not so useful. Bicycle helmets are really designed and tested to fit the needs of someone just falling over and hitting the ground, NOT crashes that involve forces generated by motor vehicles, or even bicycle-only crashes at speed.

      Here’s a fairly thorough ripping-apart of the article you posted –


  13. Bill V

    You may also be interested in this research from the Netherlands itself.

    How many cyclists sustain head/brain injury?
    Annually, 190 people die in the Netherlands and more than 9,200 sustain serious injury in a bicycle
    crash. A third of these seriously injured bicycle casualties are diagnosed with head or brain injuries
    (32%) (LMR 2005-2009; see also Table 1). Head injury is the general category and generally implies
    brain injury, but sometimes there is head injury without brain injury. Table 1 contains data about
    head/brain injury among cyclists during the period 2005-2009;
    • Of the cyclists with serious injury who are admitted to hospital following a crash with motorized
    traffic, almost half (47%) are diagnosed with head/brain injury. After crashes not involving
    motorized traffic this is the diagnosis for just under one third (29%) of the cyclists.
    • Proportionally, head/brain injury occurs most frequently among children and youths. In crashes with
    motorized traffic more than 60% of the young seriously injured cyclists (0-17 years old) have
    sustained head/brain injury, compared with an average of 47%; in the case of crashes not involving
    motorized traffic, the percentages range from 33 to 56% for these age groups (compared with a
    29% average).
    • Approximately three-quarters of all head/brain injury sustained by cyclists are the consequence of
    crashes not involving motorized traffic (n=2,229). For young children (0-5 years old) as many as
    nine out of ten head/brain injuries are the consequence of bicycle crashes not involving motor
    vehicles. These are mostly cyclist-only crashes, i.e. crashes without another road user being
    involved, or crashes into an object


    1. Numbers are great aren’t they? You can interpret them in all sorts of ways. For a bit of perspective, please read this:
      Basically, if the Dutch were to wear helmets, the chance of them being saved by one is once every 3100 lifetimes. In contrast, the chance of a British child dying in a car accident by the age of 16 I’d one in 27. If you’re serious about putting your children from head injury, you’d also have them wear a helmet in a car and while out walking, or playing sports for that matter. And a cycle helmet won’t do; you’d better invest in some serious motorbike helmets.


  14. Bill V

    Yes numbers are great.

    Netherlands :
    190 cycle deaths per annum
    9200 Serious cycle injuries per annum
    30% of these are head/brain injuries.

    If you take the yearly total of dutch cycle deaths and serious cycle injury (9400 per annum) by the Dutch population 16 million that means every year 1 in 1702 people will have a serious cycle accident or die. That is their risk.

    According to the SWOV 30% of these injuries are head/brain injuries.
    That means 3000 of these are head/brain injuries.

    If you accept the Swov and the Australian evidence that helmets can reduce the incident of head injury by 30% (some studies claim 60%) you can reduce that to about 8000 deaths or serious injury. So the risk is reduced to About 1 in 2000 people having a serious injury or dying in a cycle accident.

    (3000 head injuries per annum reduced by 30% by compulsory helmet use leaves 2000 serious head injuries)

    In raw numbers you reduce 9400 injuries or deaths to about 8300 serious injuries or deaths.

    To me saving 1000 people per year from death or serious injury seems pretty worthwhile.

    If you look at New Zealand we have:

    8 Deaths due to cycling in 2013 and 61 serious injuries out of a population of 4 million.

    Now we only average 0.2 klm per day by bike compared to the dutch with 2.5 per day.

    It would be great if we all cycled more for a lot of reasons….I’ve no argument with you there.

    If we cycled as much as the Dutch , even if we had all their great cycling infrastructure, safety in numbers and training in cycling (kids pass a test before thy are allowed on the roads with bikes there) we could expect the same casualty rate couldn’t we?

    There are only 4 million of us so I’d estimate 1 quarter the deaths and 1 quarter the serious injuries they have in the Netherlands.

    About 50 deaths and 2500 serious injuries per annum….

    Of which 30% would likely be head injuries.

    So about 15 Deaths and 800 serious injuries per annum due to serious head injuries.

    So our compulsory helmets would likely save 5 lives and prevent about 250 serious injuries per annum.

    I know what outcome I prefer.


    1. atom

      What would actually happen if The Netherlands introduced an all-ages mandatory helmet law…?

      Fewer bicyclists (that experiment was already done in NZ & AU; we KNOW the outcome). The good news is that it *might* result in fewer cycling injuries and deaths, but the bad news is that it would result in MORE chronic disease and a net result of MORE premature deaths resulting from sedentary lifestyles.

      Now, you can say that virtually all bicycle injuries and fatalities in The Netherlands involve bicyclists who are NOT wearing a helmet. Of course, this reflects the population where helmets are virtually unheard of.

      Meanwhile, let’s note that in NZ, we’ve got about a 90% compliance rate with the helmet law; and about 90% of the NZ bicyclist fatals and head injuries involve bicyclists WITH helmets (IIRC, >95% of the NZ bicyclist fatalities involve bicyclists WITH helmets). Again, this reflects the population. If your assertions about the efficacy of helmets were correct, we’d note that NZ bicyclists without helmets are disproportionately represented in injury and fatality statistics… But that’s NOT the case; so your assertions seem to be wrong.

      From a public health perspective, what concerns me more than bicyclist injuries and fatalities is NZ’s epidemic of obesity[1], heart disease[2], diabetes[3], and other chronic diseases that are directly caused by, or exacerbated by, sedentary lifestyles. While NZ averages one bicyclist fatality per month, someone in NZ dies of coronary heart disease EVERY 90 MINUTES.

      While “Coronary Heart Disease” is the #1 cause of death in both NZ & NL, people here are almost TWICE AS LIKELY TO DIE FROM IT. The rates of fatal CHD in NL are 39.79 per 100k. In NZ it’s 76.51 per 100k.

      So from a public health perspective, is it more dangerous to ride a bike without a helmet (like most people in NL) or not ride a bike (like most people in NZ)? Or would you like to ignore the health benefits of 30 minutes per day of physical activity, that most people here lack?

      But it’s even worse that that!

      “Road Traffic Accidents” as a cause of death in NL is 3.97 per 100k (#22 cause of death). Here in NZ it’s 10.31 per 100k (#10 cause of death)! Compared to NL, not only are people in NZ almost twice as likely to die of a heart attack, we’re almost THREE TIMES MORE LIKELY TO BE KILLED IN A TRAFFIC CRASH (and about 97% of people in NZ who are killed in a traffic crash are NOT classed as cyclists)!

      So again, from a public health perspective, people in NZ are dying from chronic diseases of sedentary lifestyles and CARS, in numbers that are FAR WORSE than our un-helmeted comrades in NL. Ditch the all-ages mandatory helmet laws and save lives (and improve the quality of life, while reducing public health expenses).

      None of this implies that wearing a helmet isn’t a prudent choice for an adult to protect their individual health; it does however point to all-ages mandatory helmet laws being detrimental to public health.



    2. Atom’s right, this is a much bigger question than will I hurt my head if I ride a bike and don’t wear a helmet. Here’s a poster from Public Health Copenhagen

      Bill, you also seem to be imputing “serious brain injury” into the “serious injury with head injury” numbers. I don’t think that’s a reasonable extrapolation. Nor do I see where you are getting data to support your assertion that head injury implies brain injury.

      Regardless of all that, as the public health department says above, you’re safer on your bicycle than on the sofa.


  15. Bill V

    On the effectiveness of Cycling Helmets:

    “Our research published last year established that bicycle-related head injuries fell by 29 per cent immediately following mandatory helmet legislation. That reduction was unrelated to any other changes occurring in cycling around that time: helmets plainly worked as intended.
    We have since looked at subsequent New South Wales trends in bicycle-related injuries that were serious enough to require hospital admission – excluding emergency room visits and less severe injuries — between 1991 and 2010.
    We then singled out head and arm injuries for comparison, to see whether helmets were doing their job. Arm injury rates reflect what is happening in the cycling environment, such as general safety improvements and the behaviour of cyclists. If more riders take to the roads, for example, or ride longer distances, more accidents resulting in arm injuries will follow. Helmets only protect heads, so comparing arm and head injury rates gives a clearer picture of the effect of helmet-wearing.
    We found that arm injuries have indeed mirrored the large growth in cycling numbers in NSW and Australia in general. In the past decade in particular, imports of bicycles and cycling participation rates have grown and the average daily number of cyclists in the Sydney CBD has trebled.
    Before the helmet law, the head-injury rate was consistently higher than that for arm injuries. But after the helmet law, head injuries dropped below arm injuries and the two gradually diverged. Arm injury numbers rose steadily at a rate of 3.3 per cent a year (as cycling rates grew), yet head injuries stayed relatively flat. By 2006, the head injury rate had fallen to almost half that of arm injuries.
    The numbers tell this good-news story: between 1991 and 2010, the NSW population increased by 22 per cent. In that time, arm injuries rose by 145 per cent, yet head injuries rose by just 20 per cent (and in the past decade alone, cycling participants increased by 51 per cent).
    Put another way, if head injuries had increased at the same rate as arm injuries, we would have expected 1,446 head injuries in 2010. Instead, there were only 706 – that’s a lot of serious harm avoided in just one year.”

    ON cycling numbers in Australia. (they are growing)

    On health stats.

    If you used heart disease rate as a proxy for fitness or health in a population.

    You will indeed see NZ rates are high ( in terms of high income countries)

    with a rate of 127/100,000 people .

    Denmark 105/100,000.

    Holland 75/100,000.

    But Spain comes in at 53/100,000

    Finland 143/100,000. (More than NZ)

    Yet Finland rates no 6 in numbers of cyclist (average 0.7 klm per day )

    Spain has a quite a low rate of cycling of 0.1 klm. per person per day (less than NZ)

    Obviously there are many factors regards the ‘health’ of a population. Just getting more NZrs cycling won’t fix heart disease rates.

    More cycling would be great in NZ for a number of reasons. But repealing the helmet law makes no sense.

    Just something to think about


  16. atom

    “Our research published last year established that bicycle-related head injuries fell by 29 per cent immediately following mandatory helmet legislation.”

    Which means nothing, when one considers that rates of cycling dropped by MORE THAN 30% during that same time.

    If rates of cycling drop 30-40%, and head injuries drop by only 29%, that means that all-ages mandatory helmet laws FAILED. The helmet law made cycling more dangerous.

    Seriously, do some reading before you keep posting flawed stats that support flawed logic…


  17. Bill V

    Ok Atom,

    um, did you actually read all of this ‘flawed’ research?

    “We then singled out head and arm injuries for comparison, to see whether helmets were doing their job. Arm injury rates reflect what is happening in the cycling environment, such as general safety improvements and the behaviour of cyclists. If more riders take to the roads, for example, or ride longer distances, more accidents resulting in arm injuries will follow. Helmets only protect heads, so comparing arm and head injury rates gives a clearer picture of the effect of helmet-wearing.
    We found that arm injuries have indeed mirrored the large growth in cycling numbers in NSW and Australia in general. In the past decade in particular, imports of bicycles and cycling participation rates have grown and the average daily number of cyclists in the Sydney CBD has trebled.
    Before the helmet law, the head-injury rate was consistently higher than that for arm injuries. But after the helmet law, head injuries dropped below arm injuries and the two gradually diverged. Arm injury numbers rose steadily at a rate of 3.3 per cent a year (as cycling rates grew), yet head injuries stayed relatively flat. By 2006, the head injury rate had fallen to almost half that of arm injuries.”

    I agree with you:

    Cycling as a physical activity is obviously good for people.

    It is a great mode of transport.

    There are many reasons New Zealanders should cycle more.

    Personaly I never cycled recreationally much, but used as my primary way of just getting around to study or work. I’d like to cycle from the Hutt to Wellington to work, but I find it to dangerous. I want a cycle-way from Petone to Wellington.

    If we cycled as much as they do in Holland or Denmark we will see the rate of deaths and injury for cyclist rise in NZ.

    Those countries have a very safe record for cyclist per klm ridden, but per head of population their crash stats are actually quite high compared to NZ for example.

    We may well end up with a fitter, healthier population if we get to an 0.8 or even maybe 2.5 klm average ridden.

    But there is no reason to think we would not have similar (proportional to population) crash rate as the accident statistics to Denmark or Finland or The Netherlands for cyclists.

    Danish stats for 2008.
    “In 2008, 54 cyclists were killed in traffic, 561 were seriously injured.
    17,500 cyclists are treated at the hospital each year from cycle-related injuries”

    The (flawed, as you put it) Austrlaian study shows you can significantly reduce serious injury and fatalites due to head injuries, as do the studies cited in the Dutch SWOV article by using helmets.
    (See (Elvik, 2011)

    The other Australian article I linked shows cycling is increasing in popularity in Australia as thay add better infratructure and possibly because they have reduced the rate of serious injury and deaths due to that better infratructure and the helmet law.

    Would you be happy about those kinds of cycling casualty rates per head of population here in NZ as in in Denmark or Holland knowing that some of them are avoidable just by the use of helmets?
    ( To get people to use helmets consitently, you pretty much have to make them compulsory)

    Or do you simply just think helmets don’t work at all so why bother with them?


    1. Explain this to me then, if it’s all about saving just a few lives, why don’t we legislate mandatory helmets for all occupants of motor vehicles? Why don’t we make life jackets mandatory for everyone on a boat or near the water? Or compulsory helmets for snow sports? Or, if it’s head injuries that concern you, we really should just ban football. These measures would undoubtedly safe dozens of lives and prevent hundreds of injuries every year. But only cycling is singled out. Explain to me what is so special about riding a bike down to the shops that I need protective armour? Yet, I can partake in extreme sports without a worry in the world? It seems a bit odd to me.


  18. Bill V


    I’ve read some of the crticisms of

    Walter Olivier Churches and Grzebieta

    other papers back them up:

    One of those critical papers was retracted
    “The academic paper was later retracted due to serious data and arithmetic errors”


    You can read the full study here (if you have not already)

    You can read a discussion of the paper here:

    “Did cyclist numbers reduce after the mandatory helmet laws were introduced?

    The Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) commissioned a few reports around the time the helmet law was introduced. One that came out in 1991 found the number of child cyclists reduced by around a third but there seemed to be an increase in adult riders. The overall numbers appear stable around that time.

    So the numbers of cyclists overall may not have changed much, with more adults cycling but fewer children cycling – our model accounted for that.

    Our conclusions remain the same regardless of the numbers of cyclists. But there is certainly active debate about whether it stopped people from cycling or not, and whether those that stopped cycling took up other activities and returned to cycling after our study period.”


  19. Simon Kennett

    Are you sure bicycling is being singled out?

    Off the top of my head, other activities requiring protective headgear include motorcycling, construction site activities, parachuting, car racing, combat activities, and equestrian sports. I suspect helmets are compulsory for snow sports competitions. I suspect the list will grow as time goes by. Including rugby makes sense to me.

    As for motor vehicles, there are big gains in safety being made in that area…aimed at crash prevention rather than reducing injury in the event of a crash. I’d like to see that philosophy adopted a bit more by bicycle manufacturers.


    1. atom

      Is there a legal requirement to wear a helmet while parachuting? Otherwise, everything on your list is mandated by employment and/or competition regulations (which also regulate clothing, footwear, etc). The only exception is motorcycle helmets which, unlike bicycle helmets, are generally considered to be effective at preventing head injuries.

      So excluding employment and competition requirements, and excluding helmets that are actually effective at reducing head-injury, bicyclists do seem to be singled-out.

      In what way(s) should bicycle manufacturers incorporate crash-prevention technology into bicycles? I haven’t heard that one before…


      1. Simon Kennett

        For a start, commuter bikes could come with lights built in to them. These could be dynamo powered and come on automatically in low-light conditions. You can’t buy a motorbike or car without lights – and I mean decent lights. The bike industry is allowed to sell rubbish which passes the legal requirements… and off you go into the night, virtually invisible.

        Brakes are another area where the bike industry could do much better. Cheap bikes have rubbish brakes. Rim brakes should probably be phased out (they’re so poor in wet weather). Very few bikes have a brake system that can’t easy be used by a novice rider to go head-over-heels on a steep descent.

        Tyres on most road bikes are relatively unsafe. Imagine a motorbike with 23mm wide tyres heading down Ngauranga Gorge at 80 kph – sketchy! So many crashes could be avoided if cyclists used >40mm wide tyres. Add some suspension and you’d be even safer.

        Thinking outside the square, how about an air-horn activated by a proximity detector. If a large mass of steel gets within half a metre – ‘BBRRRAAAPPPP!!!’.

        There are some safety measures for bicycles written into the existing industry standards (which are compulsory, and currently being reviewed) but there is a lot of room for improvement. And the bike industry could follow the lead of the motor vehicle industry and use safety features to sell their product at a premium. The bike industry did that very successfully in the 1890s (with the ‘Safety’ bicycle) and it moved cycling from an activity for the fit and fearless to a pastime enjoyed by the masses.

        P.S. I’m presenting on this topic at VeloCity, so any thoughts on these ideas would be most welcome.


  20. Bill V

    the cycling rate in Australia dropping by about 30% since the helmet law it is probably worth reading this.

    Regards NZ see

    Regards Clarke’s article claiming a 50% reduction in cyclists since the MHL

    See this critique

    I’d also point out the claim for 53 premature deaths Clarke makes due to less cycling occurring in NZ would unfortunately probably be matched by about 40-50 deaths if we actually cycled as much as the Danes do.

    Danish cycle fatalities and injuries:
    Population 5.6 Million.
    • In 2008, 54 cyclists were killed in traffic,
    561 were seriously injured.
    • 17,500 cyclists are treated at the hospital

    As for the question do Bike Helmets work
    Even If you read Elvik (2011)

    He references his own paper

    “A meta-analysis
    by Elvik et al. (2009) reported a 64% reduction in the risk of head
    injury when a hard helmet is worn and a 41% reduction in risk
    when a soft helmet is worn. ”

    IN the discussion of the paper

    he actually makes this point.

    “Do bicycle helmets reduce the risk of injury to the head, face
    or neck? With respect to head injury, the answer is clearly yes,
    and the re-analysis of the meta-analysis reported by Attewell et al.
    (2001) in this paper has not changed this answer”


    1. atom

      1- Cycling rates in AU & NZ did, in fact, drop at least 30% after the introduction of all-ages mandatory helmets laws. Since then (eg, over the last 20 years!) the cycling rates have recovered and gained some ground (it took ~20 years to recover what was lost!). Meanwhile, in other ports of the world, rates of cycling did NOT drop while AU & NZ introduced all-ages mandatory helmet laws; they mostly saw slow-and-steady increases in mode share during most of that time, and more recently, much of the western world is seeing a bicycling renaissance.

      2- “the claim for 53 premature deaths Clarke makes due to less cycling occurring in NZ would unfortunately probably be matched by about 40-50 deaths if we actually cycled as much as the Danes do.”

      That fails to account for the “safety in numbers effects”[1], and fails to account for the fact that more cyclists on the roads keep ALL road users safer[2].

      This also ignores the fact that less people in motor vehicles results in less traffic casualties than those same people riding bikes. Taken to an extreme in a thought-experiment, imagine you wake up tomorrow morning and there are no cars; everyone’s riding a bike. I’m not suggesting the road toll would drop to zero, but it would likely result in 200-300 fewer fatal crashes on NZ roads. Maybe the number of bicyclists killed would double, or even triple (from current numbers, of about one NZ bicyclist fatality per month; so let’s say cycling fatals rise to 50/yr, but 200-300 lives are NOT lost from MV crashes; seems like a reasonable trade-off to me). There would still be a HUGE net reduction in on-road casualties, and a MUCH healthier population that consumes less public-health resources for chronic diseases. Win-win.

      3- You’re trying to argue two distinctly different points at the same time, and thus creating confusion:
      a) Are bicycle helmets effective in preventing adult bicyclist injuries and deaths, for an individual?
      b) Are mandatory helmet laws effective at preventing adult bicyclist injuries and deaths, for a population?

      Even of the answer to “a” is “yes”, that does NOT mean the same answer is true for “b”. In fact, based purely on the best evidence I can find, the answer to “b” is “NO”, regardless of the answer to “a”.




  21. Bill V

    It is interesting to note that in Denmark cycling has reduce by 17% from 1990-2008

    A country with great cycling infrastructure, a cycling tradition, a high cycling level and no helmet law.

    ‘According to the Road Directorate, cycling on a national level decreased by 17% and car driving increased by 46% from 1990 to 2008. But in some

    cities like Copenhagen and Odense cycling has increased.’

    New Zealand and Australia are fighting the same trend..

    In New Zealand

    ‘Cycling is growing very rapidly, with over a million
    cycles imported to NZ since 2001 – about 20% growth over the five years from 2001 to 2006 (or about 4% a

    Regular cyclist numbers are also growing, though as a proportion of the population they are steady at about 19% of New Zealanders
    Note that cycle commuter (people riding to work) numbers are falling slowly now about 1% of the population.’

    So lets get better cycling infrastructure built to encourage more comuter cycling.

    In Australia:

    ‘after adjusting for the overall ageing of the population between the 1985/86 survey and the 2011 survey, the per capita cycling trip rate has

    actually increased by eight per cent. In addition, the absolute number of cycling trips per day has, as Gillham and Rissel correctly pointed out,

    increased by at least 26 per cent’

    If people want to find out where there are helmet laws see this page

    Main ones are New Zealand, Australia, A number of States in the US and provinces Canada like British Columbia.

    For example you have to cycle with a helmet in Seatle. It is mandatory to ride with a helmet in Finland (but not enforced)

    Many countries have mandatory helmet laws for children and minors.

    Finally anyone interested could see (if they have not found it alread)


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