Are helmets safe? Are they really? I know what your knee-jerk reaction will be. “Yes, you moron, wearing a helmet protects your head while riding a bike, therefore helmets are safe”. And you would be right. But there’s just one factor that we have tactfully ignored when looking at helmet safety data. That is the fact that, as a collective, human beings are mind-numbing stupid. Like Tommy Lee Jones said in Men in Black, “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”
So buckle up and strap on your helmet… or not. We’re going to take a look at why Western Australia’s seen an approximate 30% increase in cyclists admitted to the hospital since implementing mandatory helmet laws.
So according to this statistical data, the number of cyclists in Western Australia skyrocketed in the 80’s. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reasons why, but Australia shares a lot in common with European cultures, and Europe loves its bicycles, so it’s probably safe to say that Australians were simply getting caught up in the trend. Whatever the reason, between 1982 and 1989, the number of cyclists in the region nearly doubled, from 220,000 to around 400,000.
During that same time period, according to hospital data, the number of cyclists admitted to hospitals for serious injuries or death dropped to the tune of 33% and 48%. We’re not going to get into the likely causes just yet, however it’s likely that some of those figures can be explained with simple relative math; if 60 out of 100 people get injured, that’s 60%, but if 100 out of 1000 people get injured, it’s only 10%. The rate of injuries dropped by 50% even though 40 more people were injured. It’s the same thing. In other words, a fraction of that 33% and 48% can be explained away by simply having a larger sample size. Of course, that is not the only reason, nor is it the biggest reason (which we will get to later), but it is one of the small factors that contribute.
In 1992, Western Australia introduced mandatory bike helmets for cyclists. Sounds like a good idea right? Protect the noggin of all the cyclists on the roads, reduce the rate of injuries even further, and make yourself look like the kind of politician that actually cares (and securing that pro-cycling niche must help during election season). But a peculiar thing happened.
Instead of the rate of serious injuries and fatalities dropping, it skyrocketed. The rates went up by as much as 30% between 1992-2000, and still continues to be proportionally higher since the law’s introduction.
According to a study released in 2009 by Macquarie University, the health care costs that result from the bike helmet laws are around $500,000,000 a year.
So what’s happening?
What’s going on? Is this just a case of having the same number of injuries but with less cyclists, inflating the percent? Nope.
While it is true that many people, especially women, either cycled less or stopped entirely after the laws came into effect, there is still a huge, measurable and disturbing trend – wearing a helmet seems to make you more of a target for motorists.
Yup. You read that right. It’s not that the helmets themselves are a problem, it’s that for some reason wearing a helmet is like riding around with a “drive into me” sign on your back. Cyclists have reported that drivers are more aggressive around them, give them less space to operate it, and are generally more likely to ignore safety measures when sharing the road with a helmeted cyclist.
Some people were quick to respond along the lines of “well that’s just Australia, one place. It’s an isolated incident.” However, an experiment by Ian Walker from the University of Bath in England confirmed this theory.
The general idea behind the theory is that the element of helmets affect the psychology of both cyclists and motorists – in other words, cyclists will take more risks, and motorists will take less precautions. This is because the helmet doesn’t only make people more likely to survive a crash, it makes people feel safer too. This is an important thing to note because feeling safe has the unfortunate tendency to make us take unnecessary risks, because “Why not? I’m wearing a helmet, I’ll be fine.”
This becomes combined with the fact that we have a huge problem with over-estimating the capabilities of a bicycle helmet. They are not designed to withstand bad crashes. They’re made to protect you from getting concussed when you hit a curb or something, not when you get obliterated by a pick-up in an intersection.
That being said, there’s also innumerable piles of evidence that supports the idea of bike helmets saving lives, so we find ourselves in a catch-22, where you’re more likely to survive a bad crash when you wear a helmet but you’re less likely to be in a bad crash if you don’t wear one.
So what you’re saying is, don’t wear a helmet?
No. No. Do wear a helmet. Helmets are super important to wear and you should definitely keep one on your head. A helmet can save your life. If you ever fall off your bike and hit your head you’ll be kicking your concussed self if you didn’t wear a helmet. We are not saying you shouldn’t wear one. We’re saying that if you do, it might put you at a higher risk of getting struck by a car.
Knowing that fact shouldn’t deter you from wearing a helmet, it should inspire you to exercise caution.
So what does this have to do with the mandatory bike helmet laws?
Not every place that has adopted mandatory bike helmets has seen an increase in head injuries. In fact, in many regions of Canada, these laws have DECREASED the number of fatal head injuries among cyclists. So what is it? What’s going wrong here?
Well, for starters, let’s look at what keeps cyclists safe on the roads. A cyclist on the road is safest when riding in a bike lane, wearing safety gear, on a route with heavy bike traffic, separated from cars.
According to the West Australia Department of Transport they actually have pretty standard cycling infrastructure. It’s nothing too impressive but it’s effective. That being said, many popular routes in the region lack bike lanes, so many cyclists inevitably wind up riding in the road. That alone probably contributes to some of the numbers, but not so much to the inflation of deaths and injuries post helmet law.
But here’s the other thing – cyclists are safest when surrounded by other cyclists. And many cyclists did not respond well to the mandatory bike helmet laws. The number of people cycling as a part of their commute dropped. One of the biggest reasons for the drop in injuries and deaths prior to the introduction of the helmet law was the kind of herd protection provided when you’re with a group of cyclists.
One lone cyclist can be difficult to spot, and with the psychological impact that helmets have on both cyclists and motorists, it becomes easy to see how some poor guy on a bike can get obliterated by a careless driver. On the other hand, it’s a lot less likely for a motorist to accidentally plow through a group of cyclists. As a group, they have a much larger presence, obviously.
In other words, if cyclists aren’t clustering together, they are more likely to get struck. Since the mandatory bike helmet laws rubbed many people the wrong way, there were less cyclists on the roads, making things less safe for the ones who remained.
So the law is ineffective?
Sort of. It’s hard to say if the law itself is the problem, or it’s just the symptom of the problem. What is clear though is that something has to change – whether this is a sign that the law itself is broken and needs to be changed or removed, or it’s a sign that Australia needs to put more time and energy into cycling infrastructure, is a matter for debate.
Whether the law is a failure or not also depends on the metric in which you measure its success – is the purpose of this law to reduce fatalities and serious injuries among cyclists? If so, then clearly they screwed up somehow.
Is this law merely designed to force people to wear helmets? If so then the law itself isn’t so bad. But this brings up a different issue related to the helmet law; in many places that have mandatory helmet laws, the law isn’t actually enforced very efficiently, so many cyclists who didn’t wear helmets before aren’t going to start after. I am actually personally guilty of not wearing a helmet as a teenager, a habit which I had to break as an adult. People are stubborn – if they don’t want to wear a helmet, they most likely won’t.
As we said above, this issue is not specific to just Western Australia. It’s something that’s been observed in many places that have put in mandatory helmet laws for cyclists. There is currently a debate on this very topic hitting the USA.
Critics have also pointed out that mandatory helmet laws have a negative impact on the economics of cycling, making that business niche less profitable and putting less pressure on politicians to develop and invest in cycling infrastructure.
With that being said, many supporters have drawn comparison between mandatory helmets and seatbelt laws. In their opinions, bike helmets are an essential part of safety. But the numbers don’t lie – there is a direct correlation between bike helmet laws and an increase in serious injuries among cyclists. Clearly bike helmets aren’t saving as many lives as lawmakers and supporters have hoped.
So what’s the solution?
For adults, it’s clear that helmets are not the most essential factor when it comes to cyclists and safety. As mentioned above, there are other, more important factors a cyclist’s safety. On top of that, as I said earlier, bicycle helmets are not sturdy enough to offer realistic protection in a bad car accident.
So what should Australia do? Based on the evidence, I think they should scrap the mandatory helmet laws for adults. It’s clear that the laws haven’t effectively protected people like they thought they would. Yes, helmets save lives. But forcing people to wear them clearly has the opposite effect.
Instead of focusing on forcing people to wear helmets when they don’t really help the general public, the best way to protect cyclists is to focus on other methods.
One of the best methods is to improve cycling infrastructure. As we’ve seen in cities like Copenhagen and New York, more bike lanes and better infrastructure saves lives. And this solution has the added benefit of having all kinds of non-safety related perks that vastly improve cities.
Furthermore, the government should focus on making cycling a more viable mode of transportation for commuters, increasing the number of cyclists on the road.
More cyclists means that not only will more and more people benefit from being healthier physically, all cyclists will be much safer. I said earlier that the more cyclists there are, the safer each cyclist becomes. And there is a good way to boost the number of cyclists in Western Australia really fast: getting rid of the helmet law.
According to a study published by the Health Promotion Journal of Australia, getting rid of the law could possibly double the amount of cyclists.
My personal take on the matter is that the law should be removed. The law was passed with good intentions – the supporters genuinely believed it would help, and Western Australia was really the first place to have such large scale mandatory helmet laws. But they didn’t work. It’s nobody’s fault, and I do believe that wearing a helmet is a good idea regardless, but people shouldn’t be forced to.