Last updated on 2012.09.30
In August I mentioned that the Brits are a lot less uptight than we Americans about wearing bicycle helmets. Many European countries share a research-backed view that wearing a bike helmet is much less important than getting people to ride in the first place:
...many European health experts have taken a very different view: Yes, there are studies that show that if you fall off a bicycle at a certain speed and hit your head, a helmet can reduce your risk of serious head injury. But such falls off bikes are rare — exceedingly so in mature urban cycling systems.
On the other hand, many researchers say, if you force or pressure people to wear helmets, you discourage them from riding bicycles. That means more obesity, heart disease and diabetes. And — Catch-22 — a result is fewer ordinary cyclists on the road, which makes it harder to develop a safe bicycling network. The safest biking cities are places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where middle-aged commuters are mainstay riders and the fraction of adults in helmets is minuscule.
"Pushing helmets really kills cycling and bike-sharing in particular because it promotes a sense of danger that just isn't justified — in fact, cycling has many health benefits," says Piet de Jong, a professor in the department of applied finance and actuarial studies at Macquarie University in Sydney. He studied the issue with mathematical modeling, and concludes that the benefits may outweigh the risks by 20 to 1 [Elisabeth Rosenthal, "To Encourage Biking, Cities Lose the Helmets," New York Times, September 29, 2012].
Wearing a bicycle helmet is a reasonable personal health precaution. But from a public policy perspective, promoting or even mandating helmet usage is counterproductive. We get better bang for our public health buck by investing in bike-share programs and non-motorized infrastructure to make bicycling an accessible, normal activity for more Americans.