Helmets are great.
Helmet laws are a disaster.
Bicycle helmets are great for what they are designed for – limiting head injuries in low-speed collisions. Mandatory helmet laws (MHL), however, are very bad for cyclist safety.
Cycling is a very safe activity. It is about as risky as taking a walk or watching TV. Being hit by a car, on the other hand, can be rather bad for one’s health. Helmet laws are bad for cycling safety because they fail to address the main source of danger, and discourage cycling as a normal activity.
For a variety of reasons including inconvenience, perceived danger, comfort and even helmet hair, MHLs make cycling less attractive as an everyday activity. When MHLs were introduced into Australia, cycling levels dropped by more than 30%. Similar falls have been reported elsewhere whenever helmet laws are introduced. No region with MHLs has ever achieved a high or even moderate cycling modal share, just as no bike-share scheme has succeeded in cities with MHLs.
Yet the most important safety factor for cycling is the number of cyclists riding bikes – the ‘safety in numbers’ effect. As more people ride, fewer people drive and those who do drive become more accustomed to people cycling. The result is less traffic and fewer cars hitting cyclists.
MHLs are also bad for cyclist safety because they fail to address the main source of danger. Very few adults suffer serious injury or death simply from cycling. Like pedestrians, the overwhelming majority of serious injuries among cyclists are caused by impact with a motor vehicle. Yet helmets don’t stop collisions and, by discouraging cycling, helmet laws can even make collisions more likely. Mandating helmet use for cyclist safety is like trying to stop gun crime with bulletproof-vest laws – it ignores the problem and blames the victim.
Australia and New Zealand are among less than a handful of countries that have national, mandatory, all-age helmet laws. During the 20 years they have been in force, there is no evidence that helmet laws have reduced the risk faced by cyclists. Contrast this with European nations that have tackled the source of the problem with reduced urban speed limits, proper cycling infrastructure and legal protection for non-motorised road users. Cycling without a helmet in Europe is 10-20 times safer than cycling in Australia with one.
No one should be prevented from wearing a helmet if they choose to. At the same time, cyclists should not be singled out amongst other road users and forced to wear a helmet without any evidence that bicycle helmet laws work – even after almost 20 years of having them! That’s why we support Helmet Freedom and ask that you do too.