Bicycle helmet - compulsory or not?

Published on 19 November 2013 by Hilary Staples

Most Dutch cyclists don’t wear a bicycle helmet. This worries many visitors from abroad. Surely that’s dangerous? On the internet you find heated discussions about the pros and cons of compulsory helmets. Safety versus inconvenience. Taking Holland as an example, we ask: Is bicycle helmet legislation indeed the best way of protecting cyclists?
Young children who are more vulnerable in traffic often wear bicycle helmets. Photo © Holland-Cycling.com

Young children who are more vulnerable in traffic often wear bicycle helmets. Photo © Holland-Cycling.com

Cyclists at risk

There is no denying it: if you’re involved in an accident as a cyclists, it’s always safer to be wearing a helmet. For that matter, if you happen to be knocked down by a car while walking along the street, it’s also safer to be wearing a helmet. Bicycle helmets are not compulsory in Holland. Does this mean the Dutch don’t care about the safety of their cyclists, or are there better ways of keeping cyclists out of hospital?

First we need to know what makes cycling dangerous. The obvious answers are: cycling at high speed and other traffic. As Holland is pretty flat, the risk of coming across cyclists hurtling downhill at 50 km per hour or more is not that great. Only ‘fast’ cyclists on racing bikes and mountain bikes manage to reach speeds that are clearly dangerous and as a rule this group of cyclists is aware of the risks and chooses to wear a helmet themselves.

Safer roads

Then there is the issue of other traffic making the roads dangerous for cyclists. A cyclist is more vulnerable than a car driver. The Dutch were used to riding their bikes before cars were a common sight on the roads. As the number of cars increased from the 1950s onward, so did the number of accidents in which cyclists were involved. In the early 1970s this led to public protest against ‘child murder on the streets’ (Stop de Kindermoord).

The government could have made bicycle helmets compulsory, so if a cyclist is involved in an accident the injuries are possibly less serious. The government didn’t. Instead they tried to reduce the number of accidents by making the roads safer for cyclists. This has resulted in an amazing infrastructure for bikes.

Separate cycle paths, traffic lights for cyclists, dedicated tunnels and bridges allowing cyclists to cross busy roads safely - city planners are expected to take road safety for cyclists into account in their plans. If they get it wrong, the general public are sure to put them under pressure until the problem is sorted.

Statistics

The fact that so many Dutch cyclists feel perfectly comfortable riding their bikes without a helmet, suggests that the planners must be doing something right. Statistics confirm this. After Denmark, Holland is the European country with the least accidents in which a cyclist is killed per cycled kilometre*. Second place - it’s something to be proud of, though I can’t help adding that Holland is much more densely populated than Denmark.

Road safety for cyclists matters a lot to the Dutch and a lot of money and effort goes into it. Unfortunately accidents do happen and there is no denying it, a helmet gives the cyclist a certain degree of protection. But the Dutch have shown that more can be done to protect cyclists than mere bicycle helmet legislation.

* Source: Safety in Numbers Campaign  
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