Do Bike Helmet Laws Do More Harm Than Good?

Do Bike Helmet Laws Do More Harm Than Good?

Some cycling advocates argue that helmet regulations can create long-term health problems


Rachel Bachman, Wall Street Journal

Oct. 12, 2015 11:13 a.m. ET


Helmets help prevent head injuries, so laws requiring cyclists to wear them would seem obvious.

But many cycling advocates have taken a surprising position: They are pushing back against mandatory bike-helmet laws in the U.S. and elsewhere. They say mandatory helmet laws, particularly for adults, make cycling less convenient and seem less safe, thus hindering the larger public-health gains of more people riding bikes.

All-ages helmet laws might actually make cycling more dangerous, some cyclists say, by decreasing ridership. Research shows that the more cyclists there are on the road, the fewer crashes there are. Academics theorize that as drivers become used to seeing bikes on a street, they watch more closely for them.


Cycling advocates say bike shares, such as New York’s Citi Bike, are safer than other types of riding because the bikes are slower and often used in bike lanes and areas with other cyclists. Photo: Allison Scott/The Wall Street Journal

Cycling advocates are quick to say they’re not anti-helmet. Instead, they’re opposed to helmet laws and their unintended consequences—especially amid the rise of bike-share programs.

“I wear a helmet every day. Everyone in our office wears a helmet every day,” says Colin Browne, communications coordinator for the Washington (D.C.) Area Bicyclist Association. “But as public policy, it’s not a good idea. It just limits the ease and accessibility of bicycling.”


WABA argued that a mandatory, all-ages helmet law proposed in Maryland a few years ago would do more harm than good. The group cited a paper in the British Medical Journal that showed no noticeable drop in head injuries after enforcement of helmet laws in parts of Australia, Canada and New Zealand, but drops in cycling of between 20% and 44%. The study focused on the years leading up to and after the laws were passed. The Maryland bill died in committee.

California cyclists made similar arguments when pushing back against a proposed all-ages helmet law earlier this year. The helmet requirement never came up for a vote, and the bill was amended to focus on injury research.


Seattle’s Pronto Cycle Share is a year old. County law requires cyclists of all ages to wear helmets, which bike-share officials acknowledge could have deterred some riders. Photo: Pronto Cycle Share

Mandatory bike-helmet bills also have stalled or failed in Hawaii, New Jersey and Mississippi in recent years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Dallas changed its helmet law in 2014 to exempt adults before a local bike-share program’s launch.

Some cyclists and academics say helmet laws discourage a convenient form of exercise in an era of inactivity. Sedentary lifestyles can have quieter but wider long-term effects than bike crashes, such as billions of dollars in health-care costs for chronic conditions, they say.

Piet de Jong, a professor in the department of applied finance and actuarial studies at Sydney’s Macquarie University, actually calculated the trade-off of mandatory helmet laws. In a 2012 paper in the journal Risk Analysis, he weighed the reduction of head injuries against increased morbidity due to foregone exercise from reduced cycling.

Dr. de Jong concluded that mandatory bike-helmet laws “have a net negative health impact.” That is in part because many people cycle to work or for errands, experts say. People tend to replace that type of cycling not with another physical activity such as a trip to the gym, but with a ride in a car.


Helmet-law proponents say the possibility of fewer people riding is worth preventing debilitating or deadly injuries. Statistics vary, but several studies show that wearing a helmet reduces the risk of head or brain injury by about two-thirds or more. An analysis in the Journal of Pediatrics of a decade of data concluded that bicycle-related death rates were about 20% lower among children in states with helmet laws.

The helmet-law debate is complex enough that the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, which grew out of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association four decades ago and is still a part of it, disagrees with WABA’s stance on helmet laws. The institute supports the laws.

“They do, in fact, increase helmet use and increase the awareness that you should be thinking about a helmet before you get on a bicycle,” institute director Randy Swart says.

In total, 21 states and Washington, D.C., require bike-helmet use by young people—typically under age 16. About 50 cities or counties in the U.S. mandate bike-helmet use for all ages, according to the BHSI.


Seattle’s Pronto Cycle Share has helmets at every station for checkout by annual members or $2 rental by short-term users. Few other bike-share programs rent helmets. Photo: Pronto Cycle Share

Cyclists make up less than 1% of U.S. commuters, but their ranks have surged in recent years. The dozens of bike-share programs now operating in U.S. cities have spurred more commuters and tourists to ride. The services let people rent bikes stationed in central locations for short trips.

“It is a burden on customers to have to bring their own helmet,” said Paul DeMaio, a former board member of the North American Bike Share Association, emphasizing that he was expressing his own opinion. “Bike sharing actually is a very safe mode of transport.”

Bike-share riders in the U.S. generally wear helmets at lower rates than other cyclists, research shows. Still, program advocates say bike-share travel is safer than other cycling because the bikes are heavier and slower and often are used in areas with relatively more cyclists.

In recent data from 10 bike-share cities in North America and London, 200 crashes have been reported out of more than 14 million trips, according to the North American Bikeshare Association. New York’s Citi Bike, with 7,400 bikes and more than 22 million trips since its 2013 launch, has had no reported deaths.


Denver’s bike-share program launched in 2010. The area has no bike-helmet law, but many people wear helmets anyway. In this 2014 photo, U.S. Olympic freestyle skier Bobby Brown was photographed taking a promotional ride for charity. Photo: Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

Advocates point to statistics showing that in cities where more people bike as part of their commute—a common use of bike shares—cyclist fatality rates tend to be lower. Drivers are more likely to operate more slowly and carefully where they know bikers are common, advocates say.

A 2014 study in the American Journal of Public Health analyzed five bike-share cities. Data from the study showed a 28% decrease in overall bike-related injuries and a 14% decrease in bike-related head injuries in the year after bike-share programs launched. The study didn’t track helmet use, which injuries were incurred on bike-share bikes versus other bikes or overall ridership changes.

The figure from the study that made headlines wasn’t the injury decrease, but the fact that the share of total injuries that were head injuries increased to 50% from 42%. A contentious Internet debate ensued on bike safety and helmet laws.

Some Australians have pushed back against that nation’s decades-old, all-ages bike-helmet laws, arguing that they’re hurting a nation with rapidly growing obesity levels. Observers in Melbourne stationed at the same 64 locations and observation times before and after the 1990 enactment of a state law found a higher rate of helmet use—but also 29% fewer adults and 42% fewer children bicycling at all.

In the U.S., the Seattle area’s King County is among the most populous places affected by an all-ages bike-helmet law. Seattle’s year-old bike-share program, Pronto Cycle Share, has helmets at every station for checkout by annual members or $2 rental by short-term users.


Boston’s bike-share program launched in 2011. Some cycling advocates say riding on bike-share bikes, which are slower and often have automatic lights, are safer than other types of riding. Photo: Wendy Maeda/Getty Images

Pronto has averaged about 24 trips per bike each month in Seattle. That is fewer than the 27 trips per bike each month in the first year of Denver’s B-cycle bike share, which also had 50 stations and 500 bikes, adjusting for Denver’s fewer operating months.

Seattle’s usage rate was significantly lower than the rates in the first years of bike shares in the San Francisco Bay Area (37 trips per bike a month) and Washington, D.C. (76 trips per bike a month).

Holly Houser, Pronto’s departing executive director, acknowledged that the helmet law “can be a deterrent, because there is a perception that if you have to wear a helmet to ride a bike, then biking is dangerous.”

But Seattle’s steep hills and patchwork bike infrastructure are stronger factors than the helmet law in putting off casual riders, she says. “You combine the topography with a lack of protected bike lanes, and helmets become that much more important,” Ms. Houser says.

One way to make cycling safer, many advocates say, is to create more bike-specific lanes and pathways—to decrease the chance of crashes in the first place.

Write to Rachel Bachman at rachel.bachman


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