Helmets, yes, usually. Helmet laws, no.

Here’s me on the left, no helmet! I’m riding a coaster bike. I think it’s likely my top speed was 15 km/hr. it’s a beachside rental on a small island in French Polynesia. It was the kind of cycling environment where a helmet would have seemed out of place. There were parents and kids sharing a single bike. Not a helmet in sight. It was also very hot. Susan and I biked to the beach and I loved it.

I’ve also ridden bikes without helmets in Amersterdam, Bremen, and Montreal. What these cities have in common is well developed cycling infrastructure and lots of everyday people on bikes. Love riding in their protected bike lanes.

In the other photo, there’s helmeted me on bike commute to work through traffic in my usual hometown. Definitely wearing a helmet. I also wear helmets on longer, faster rides through the countryside.

My preference is for no laws requiting helmet use for adults. Why not? Well, helmets make cycling seem special and scary and put people off riding. I am concerned about cycling safety. When it comes to bike safety, numbers matter more than helmets. If fewer people ride if they’re required to ride a helmet, that’s less safe overall.

It’s one of those situations where your goal, increased safety for cyclists, is undermined by the means you choose to achieve it. You aim for all cyclists to wear helmets, increased safety, but the effect is fewer people riding. Numbers of people riding matters more to cycling safety than helmets.

For prudential reasons, I usually wear one. But there’s no need to force me.

Here’s my thoughts:

Here’s the Guardian on why helmet laws don’t save lives.

6 thoughts on “Helmets, yes, usually. Helmet laws, no.

  1. Helmets, yes, always, when you are riding anything faster than you can run. Your skull, awesome as it is, has only enough strength to protect your brain up to speeds as fast as our body can run. That’s why no helmets for pedestrians are needed. As for helmets not being worn in areas like Amsterdam, etc., I think it’s important to look at their social structure. Is healthcare universal? As a society do they take better care of their disabled people? I live in America and frankly have no desire to try to live disabled from a head injury in this country.

  2. I’m of two minds about helmet laws. I believe that everyone riding a bike on US roads should wear a helmet because our infrastructure isn’t designed to protect bike traffic properly (although we are getting slowly better). However, I also agree that bike share programs are great for people, cities, roads, and the overall well-being of everyone. And they don’t include helmets. I’ve used many bike share programs and ridden city streets with no helmet. I’ve rented bikes in the Netherlands and ridden with no helmet. And last week my family and I rode beach bikes in protected areas with no helmets. What the other commenter says makes sense– if you’re riding faster than you can run, then wear a helmet. That’s a nice rule to follow.

    1. I like that rule too. But that’s a rule for you to follow, not a rule for the state to enforce.

  3. Actually, bike share bikes in Vancouver DO include helmets, which I think is great.

    I differ a little from you on this, Sam — I actually love riding a leisurely bike without a helmet — and yet I think we should have to wear helmets. I buy the “it makes bikes feel scary” argument, but I also know too many people who’ve had significant concussions (or been saved from head injuries by helmets) when they were traveling slowly or STOPPED. I’ve had so many colleagues unable to work because of head injuries in the past few years, and going slowly doesn’t make a difference. And the people who aren’t used to riding are the ones who SHOULD wear helmets.

    So I support requiring helmets, personally. Even though I’d rather not wear one some of the time 😉

    1. Even if the result is more cycling deaths and injuries? What you want is cycling law + compliance. I get that. But what studies show is that laws requiring people to wear helmets result in fewer people riding. The biggest single factor that affects cycling safety is the number of bikes on the road. I also know lots of pedestrians and runners with life changing concussions yet no one suggests helmets in those cases. I’m not convinced that low speed cycling is much less safe–head injury wise–than other activities we undertake all the time.

  4. I disagree with compulsory helmet laws. I like freedom of choice. I live in a country where cycle helmets were made compulsory when I was a child (I remember the freedom of riding my bike in the park without a helmet). Compulsory helmet laws do nothing to promote safe cycling or cycling as an everyday form of transport.

    I would wear a helmet 99% of the time I ride anyway, but if I’m popping to the shops along the cycle path or riding through the park it would be nice not to have to.

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