Should Cycle Helmets be made Optional?

By Michael Edmonds 25/06/2013 12


This morning on Breakfast TV, the hosts spoke to a cycling advocate who wants the waering of cycling helmets to be made optional. The first reason given for this change is that less people cycle now because they have to wear cycle helmets. I’d like like to see the evidence for this as it sounds like this could simply be a correlation not a causation.

Another reason given was that in cities in Europe cycle helmets are not compulsory. However, as the advocate noted, they have a different, more relaxed, cycling culture in European cities. If we want helmets to be optional in New Zealand then surely we would change the culture first, not the rules?

Over 15 years ago I spent a year in Oulu, Finland. Very few people wore helmets including myself. However, the cities infrastructure made this possible. Cycle lanes meandered through pine forests separate from the roads. When they did run along side roads they were completely separate and reasonable wide pathways. Also most cycles were not designed for speed but more for comfort. In such an environment, the greatest hazard a Finn faced was a New Zealander inclined to move to the left instead of the right on approach.

Contrast this to cycling in New Zealand. Cyclists dodge in and out of traffic, sometimes at quite high speeds. Drivers fail to check their blind spots for cyclists. Our roads contain pot holes capable of dislodging a cyclist and propeling him or her into the path of the nearest car or truck.

Another argument given for making helmets compulsory is that already there are cyclist who choose not to wear helmets, so why not make it optional instead of fining them. I wonder what would happen if we extended such an argument to wearing seatbelts in cars, or paying taxes?

No, I don’t think cycle helmets should be made optional at all. Not without at least first changing the New Zealand culture to one more likely to improve cyclist safety.


12 Responses to “Should Cycle Helmets be made Optional?”

  • There is rather a bit of evidence on this one, Michael.

    For the current debate, start here.
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0001457511003228
    Rissel et al. They’re here replying to others who disagreed with their assessment that cycle helmet laws reduced cycling, so the link will get you to both sides of the argument and to a reasonable set of references. It looks to me like cycle helmet laws do substantially reduce bicycling frequency.

    And there is a bit of other evidence showing risk-compensating behaviour: both cyclists and nearby drivers take more risks when the cyclists are helmeted.

  • It would be good to actually get some quality research done on the effects of cycle helmets and the interplay with risks. The problem is that the risks aren’t uniform in NZ. There are pieces of road where you don’t have to dodge cars. And there is also a possible effect that motorists that see cyclists with helmets act less precautionary and take more risks around them.

    Let’s note that even when cycle helmets were optional in the past, people still chose to use them. The effect of the helmets laws is to remove the cyclist’s own assessment of the risks and replace it by a universal regulation.

    Personally, there is part of my route that I don’t wear my helmet. It’s a steep hill that cars move slowly up, and is wide enough for there to be a substantial space for me, And doesn’t have a lot of cars. It’s a pretty hard climb on a bike and I prefer not to have metabolic heat being trapped around my head.

    Once I join the main roads, the helmet goes on. That’s because the risks change, and you adjust accordingly.

  • For personal preference, I wear a helmet when cycling. A Bell that I bought in Dunedin in 1979 for $79! The first cycling helmet I ever saw in a shop.

    It’s a lot heavier build than the helmets made today but still in good condition.

    I’ve dealt with the results of too many cycling accidents (as well as being involved in two myself) to consider helmets an option.

  • I get a bit annoyed at the argument that conflates helmets and reduced biking, tied up in a belief that overall health is reduced.

    The two issues – reducing head injuries of cyclists and increasing population level fitness – are separable and should be treated as separate issues. My fitness is not solely predicated on my cycling mileage…

    The introduction of compulsory cycle helmets coincided with a number of changes that also arguably influenced the decline in the number of cyclists, both recreational and commuting – school zoning, employment patterns and the significant drop in the real cost of motor vehicles being only three of these.

    I’d also throw in there the decline of provincial NZ and the increase in Auckland’s geographical and population size – a trend that has accelerated through the 1990’s and onward.

    All of these factors mitigate against cycle use, especially when combined with an infrastructure approach that has marginalised any vehicle weighing less than a tonne.

    Studies that rank cycle helmets as relatively ineffective when compared with other safety approaches make a lot of sense – but there is not the political or social will to take the required steps in infrastructure that would be required to address the gap. Until then, helmets seem to be the best, if flawed, solution the risk of head injury in cyclists

  • The only thing I have to offer is that there may be some validity in the concept of artificial security. The reason you pay more attention when there is a higher personal perception of risk. Applies to quiet comfortable smooth cars. Seat belts and possibly cycle helmets. Isolating one from their environment. Saying that….I wear mine.

    • Jeff, that is an interesting point.
      However, I don’t think I pay any less attention to the road when I am wearing a helmet than I would if I wasn’t wearing one. There are two many idiots on the road (motorists and cyclists) to not pay attention all of the time.
      Which is why I always wear a helmet as well

  • The following comment came in via a email to sciblogs

    bicycle helmets should be made optional, i have been biking around since the age of 7 off and on i am now 21 and i still refuse to wear a helmet. I believe it is up to the person/individual them self to choice weather they would like to risk their safety or not. every time i ride my bike a police officer trys to pull me over and give me a ticket yet every time i bike off wasting their time trying to catch me wich is clearly impossible seen as i can go many places a police car cannot at around 40kmph-50kmph i can reach on a bmx bike through either people cars bush walk areas the list goes on. im only out to have a fun ride im very safety cautious and dont try to put myself in harms way, all of my friends are the same there is a huge number of people from 12-28 that do not choose to wear helmets and that is our choice. we should not be forced to wear a helmet. is there a way that we cyclist can bypass this mandatory rule ????? as i dont like to waste police time on chasing cyclists down for something as little as not wearing a helmet when they could be out there doing there jobs where people could use them the most for proper issues.

    Of course the same argument could be used for seatbelts.

    I think one thing that is forgotten when people make statements such as “I believe it is up to the person/individual them self to choice weather they would like to risk their safety or not” is that they are not the only one affected if they have an accident. As well as affecting family and friends they will occupy the time and resources of those working in the health system. It may also have an affect on anyone else involved in an accident.

  • > I think one thing that is forgotten when people make statements such as “I believe it is up to the person/individual them self to choice weather they would like to risk their safety or not” is that they are not the only one affected if they have an accident

    I totally agree. Especially in a nation with a tax-payer funded health system.