Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

“Use your head: Bike helmet laws don’t work”

with 26 comments

Useful reminder

Brad Killburn in the Richmond News presents some intriguing information about how helmet laws got through the legislature.

The article is full of useful data – but sadly none of it is properly cited or referenced, so I have not been able to identify his sources or check them for myself. It does indeed seem likely that cycle helmets do very little to reduce fatalities of cyclists involved in collisions with motor vehicles. The bike hemet is after all mostly a thin plastic shell on styrofoam.

He refers to a study that was cited when the legislation was being debated

what the honourable members did not know was that it was collisions with motor vehicles that caused virtually 100 per cent of the cycling deaths, and that the study used to show reduction of head injury did not include a single collision with a motor vehicle, or any involving cycling adults for that matter, but merely simple falls by children from their bicycles.

I think he should have identified the study sufficiently to help his readers follow up if they wished to. I have heard many people argue that helmets save lives – including former Vancouver Councillor Dr Fred Bass. I have equally heard a lot from advocates who say that helmets simply convey the message that cycling is dangerous, but do little to reduce its risks, and that cyclist fatalities will start to fall when more dedicated cycling facilities are provided. The ticketing of cyclists without helmets is an especially controversial practice, given the lack of evidence that it actually does any good at all.

I thought that I would at least raise it here in case any of you know of these studies and can provide URLs in your comments

Written by Stephen Rees

September 16, 2009 at 1:59 pm

Posted in bicycles, cycling, Road safety

Tagged with

26 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I rode a bike without a helmet for 11 years to high school and UBC. Although I had lots of close calls with cars my only collisions were with pedestrians and other cyclists caused by crowded conditions on campus and around a bus stop adjacent to the bike path. Back then, of course, virtually nobody wore a helmet.

    A couple of years ago my daughter was going down a hill on her tricycle and lost control. I managed to grab one handlebar before she rolled across the street, but the force dumped her on the ground and smashed her helmet. The next day I bought us both new helmets even though I didn’t have a working bike. Falls happen and I’d rather have styrofoam on my head than nothing.


    September 16, 2009 at 3:52 pm

  2. Twenty seconds on Google should get you all the urls you need.

    The most comprehensive review of the relevant studies was done in Australia, and is known in the cylcing world as the Henderson Study:

    It is a review, but provides at least 80 good references, most government sutdies or peer reviewed journals. Short form: Proper helmet use is positively correlated with lower injury risk. Causation is highly likely.

    Pat J

    September 16, 2009 at 4:06 pm

  3. Sungsu

    September 16, 2009 at 4:09 pm

  4. Here’s the thing: While helmets do indeed reduce the risk of head injury, they are only designed to prevent injury up to 12.5 mph; and reduce the severity of injury up to 20 mph. And if you are a high speed cyclist, or hit by a car, chances are your head will impact the pavement with more force than that.

    So yes, wearing a helmet is smart; I never ride without one. But it is far from the overwhelmingly effective safety device many make it out to be.

    I’ve written about it here — — with links to a number of sources; you might also check out; a survivor of a life-altering collision himself, he frequently writes about what helmets can and cannot do.


    September 16, 2009 at 9:59 pm

  5. […] “Use your head: Bike helmet laws don’t work” [Stephen Rees's Blog] TransLink ponders toll on Knight Street bridge [The […]

    re:place Magazine

    September 17, 2009 at 8:25 am

  6. Another angle – helmet promotion makes people think cycling is dangerous.


    September 17, 2009 at 8:58 am

  7. David, there is little debate about the benefits of children wearing helmets. In fact, even in Europe, many children wear helmets even when their parents are not. Some jurisdictions have helmet laws for children 16 and younger while having no requirement for adults.


    September 17, 2009 at 10:02 am

  8. … and in the US, more than 1/2 of the jurisdictions have motorcycle helmet laws for children 18 and younger while having no requirement for experienced adults… I’m not arguing one way or the other here… just pointing out the “slippery slope” we’ve gone down since the ’70s


    September 18, 2009 at 8:23 pm

  9. Davie, just what point are you trying to make. “Slippery slope” arguments are just really tiresome.


    September 19, 2009 at 1:04 pm

  10. My major problem with the helmet laws is that it leads to the invincibility complex that riders get when they’re told time and time again and show posters of smashed watermelons that a helmet will save their life.
    Which is true if you’re riding down a side road and a car backs out without seeing you and hits you. But that same helmet won’t provide much protection in standard downtown riding or even in the daily commute.


    September 20, 2009 at 12:42 pm

  11. Any rider who gets an “invincibility complex” from a helmet is deluded. However, my observation (and some of the studies cited in other comments) suggests that those who wear helmets are the more careful, risk averse riders. The ones that bother me wear no helmet, dark clothing, and wobble around on main roads at night with no lights on their bikes. I assume they do not wear a helmet because they acknowledge there is nothing in their skull that is worth protecting.

    Stephen Rees

    September 20, 2009 at 1:28 pm

  12. Way to go Stephen, insulting what could be the majority of the world’s population. Most people in the world who ride a bike don’t wear helmets and cycle in ordinary clothes (which are more often dark than not) including those in Denmark and the Netherlands where fatality rates among cyclists are much lower than here.


    September 20, 2009 at 6:09 pm

  13. People get it all the time with other forms of safety devices. Airbags, Seatbelts, hockey helmets, to name a few. It’s not that there’s nothing to protect it’s just that people are brainwashed into thinking these things are safer then they actually are, so they think they can do more things with them.


    September 20, 2009 at 6:26 pm

  14. Plus, I am a more careful rider when I don’t have a helmet on, because I know the chances. I’m more alert, instead of just plodding along.


    September 20, 2009 at 6:27 pm

  15. Richard – I was not trying to insult anyone – but you are. The tone of the comments you are making on this blog has caused me to add you to the list of those whose comments do not appear until approved by a moderator

    Stephen Rees

    September 20, 2009 at 9:01 pm

  16. Stephen, I have to agree with you. As a long time rider, I respect anyone else’s choice whether or not to wear a helmet. But anyone who rides after dark with no light, wearing dark clothes, has surely got a death wish.


    September 20, 2009 at 9:11 pm

  17. I see nothing insulting in Richard’s comment, but your statement, “I assume they do not wear a helmet because they acknowledge there is nothing in their skull that is worth protecting” is very insulting.


    September 21, 2009 at 4:33 am

  18. My word! bike rage???

    I would love to ride a bike but not until we have bike lanes clearly separated from the road, like the ones I used in my youth in Europe (wish I could send photos but can’t figure out how).
    We didn’t wear helmets at the time but then there was no chance of falling under a car…I and my buddies fell many times while showing off along back roads but we only got minor bruises.

    Most Japanese don’t wear helmets while riding bikes but then they ride on (wide) sidewalks (I saw once cops giving the what for to teens for riding on the sidewalk while ignoring adults doing the same…) or in residential streets so narrow that cars are slow.
    Many Japanese also ride bikes in the roofed over pedestrian shopping streets that are so common in Japan, flagrantly ignoring the NO BIKES signs…

    Some bike accidents have strange results..
    One of my grandma once “stole” the bike of a young man she fancied and rode away, with him madly running behind to catch her..she took the wrong road, barelled down a steep hill and ended up in a heap INSIDE the church at the bottom of said hill. (until 25 years ago country churches in Europe used to keep their doors they are locked and alarmed to deter thieves)
    When her mother found out that the young man had ripped his shirt to shreds to bandage the poor girl leg (he had seen her legs! she had seen his chest! -this was around 1912) she called his family to arrange a marriage… grandma never rode a bike again..

    Red frog

    September 21, 2009 at 9:13 am

  19. I didn’t see this mentioned, but in Canada, we have a medical system that covers all of our injuries, even if you are a poor sucker with little money.

    It costs money to fix heads. It costs HUNDREDS of thousands of dollars to heal, or raise a person with a mental disability that was caused by them bashing their head on the ground. If that can be prevented by wearing a $30 dollar helmet, then medicare will take gains to eliminate that risk, especially when the only problem with wearing a helmet is that you won’t have the wind blowing through your hair.

    As for people thinking that “wearing a helmet makes people think cycling is dangerous”, I think that argument is ludicrous, and simply derived to help forward the anti-helmet people.

    Is driving dangerous? Yes. but we have air bags and crumple points and seat belts to help hold us in place. Doesn’t stop anyone from driving. No one thinks driving is “dangerous”, because we have these safety mechanisms in place. If we all drove around in cars that were essentially dune buggies with out the top frame, we wouldn’t feel so comfortable. Using a helmet brings some security when riding a bike.

    Bill T

    September 24, 2009 at 10:32 am

  20. You may think the argument “ludicrous” but simple comparison shows that people in North America (where helmets are mandated) are much less likely to cycle for transportation (as opposed to recreation) than in Europe. To some extent that is also reflected in better traffic management and separate bike facilities. It is also clear that insisting on bike helmets and enforcement of helmet laws is a diversion from useful activities – like better traffic management and separate bike facilities. It is the old tactic of “blame the victim”.

    “No one thinks driving is “dangerous”” – but that does not mean they are right! Automobile use is one of the leading causes of death and injury – yet gets much less attention as it seems to be accepted. And it is other road users who face the greatest risk – not the driver. It was the guy sitting at the bus stop who died, not the road racers.

    And, by the way, our medical system only covers the cost of treatment when in hospital. “Poor suckers with little money” and injuries which persist for years have to pick up the tab for their medications. ICBC has become expert at keeping down the cost of settlements to those injured in collisions

    Stephen Rees

    September 24, 2009 at 10:54 am

  21. I just came back from a visit to Taiwan where there is lots of freeway construction while, at the same time, a lot of construction for cycling infrastructure. The government is heavily promoting cycling to the local population and seeing a growing uptake. It is also hoping to attract tourism with their new bicycle routes. What I found noteworthy is that highways have marked bicycle lanes, although I never saw any curb separation. Given the driving culture there (road lines are for indication only), however, I wonder how many fatalities there are from vehicle collisions? I also saw a lot of helmet use, but don’t know if this is mandated by law in any way.


    October 7, 2009 at 12:21 pm

  22. The bike helmut issue makes me sick…and sad!!!
    It is about the cattle syndrome…people lining up to do anything its “leaders”, i.e. big brother governement tells them to do.
    Been riding for 50 years, fell twice, and knew how to fall. There were no such things as these repugnant robocop looking things. I’ve ridden all over Shanghai and Bejing, where there are thousands of cyclists, and NO helmuts. People become GOOD cyclists becaue they pay attention to the entire environment around them. They develop a sense of direction, peripheral vision, and self confidence. In the new world of increasing big brother, you have small plastic play ground toys for kids, unlike yesteryear with the big slides…ooh, so many scared mommies called their local poliiticans to get rid of the dangerous things, just like did the diving boards in community pools.
    Frankly, bike helmuts were possibly the first step towards the total weakening and wussification of society. Everyone scared! Soon joggers will need helmuts in case they trip over the curb. How sad the human race has become…and how gullible. Sorry, back in the 60’s and 70’s I read of no kid who was very damaged off a bike, cause everyon could ride with confidence back then, and we were confident for everything in life, not like the whiners calling their lawyers rather than solve problems by themsevles. I could go on but you get the point, either totally agree or think I’m a luny! That’s OK, at 60 I’m still driving racing cars and dirtbikes (and DO wear a helmut) for those activities, because I NEED one. But not for a stupid bike in the Stanley Park trails for godsake!!!


    October 22, 2009 at 3:06 pm

  23. “They never tell you your risk of head injury is higher in a car than on a bicycle and at no point have we ever seen the car industry promote motorist helmets.”

    source: Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagen speaking in Portland Oregon recently

    Stephen Rees

    October 31, 2009 at 12:02 pm

  24. Brainwashing indeed, I’ve never worn a helmet and never will, been cycling London streets for nearly fifty years, I’m still doing it, if anyone has sense and has a helmet, do yourself a favour, throw it away along with all that other health and safety crap, and go free, Tom, Crystal Palace, London.


    September 4, 2010 at 5:18 pm

  25. I happened on this blog quite by accident. I always find it amazing how information spreads in so many ways to so many places without one realizing it is doing this.

    In writing a column, I have to decide on a balance between relaying my opinion and citing the evidence on which I base it. Sometimes I cite more references than other times.

    The previous year, I wrote a column on the VPD ticketing cyclists not wearing helmets and cited more than a half-dozen studies.

    The study I mentioned in this column was the infamous, Seattle area, TRT Harborview study published in the NEJM in ’89.

    Helmet legislation is a major issue for cyclists and there is much information available online that explores it. The TRT study is perhaps the most prevalent study of them all.

    I’m also always ready to answer any questions that arise from my columns. My editor has fallen out of the habit of publishing my email address, but sending a letter to the editor with a request to contact me should get one through.

    Brad Kilburn

    November 28, 2010 at 8:25 am

  26. Speaking of Mikael Colville-Andersen, I just ran into a speech he just recently gave that addresses the culture of fear that spawned the helmet issue

    It’s 16 minutes long, and well worth the time

    Brad Kilburn

    December 1, 2010 at 2:18 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: