Infrastructure vs Helmets

Dieser Artikel wurde auch auf Deutsch veröffentlicht, hier.

This article was originally published here on my new German-language blog. It was written in response to the German government’s hateful helmet promotion campaign, but still contains points relevant elsewhere.

The safest country in the world for cycling is the Netherlands. There you’ll also find the widest spectrum of people cycling: from young children (the average age at which children begin to cycle independently is about 8 years old) to elderly people (those over 65 cycle for over 25% of journeys).

So, the Netherlands is the safest country for cycling at any age, yet helmet use is only 0.5% – and it’s likely that the 1-in-200 helmet-wearing cyclists are riding for sport. Cycling safety is clearly something more than wearing a styrofoam hat – and yet the German government’s ministry for transport is gung-ho for helmets.

A montage of six Dutch cycling scenes: two young ladies, an older man, a woman with a child in a box-bike and another child riding alongside, a group of teenagers, an older woman, and two young children.

All ages and physical abilities, cycling without helmets – yet the safest in the world.

Helmets are no answer to dangers on the street. In the UK wearing a helmet when cycling is common, yet cycling there is six times more dangerous than in the Netherlands (and that figure ignores the fact that hardly any children or elderly people cycle in the UK).

If we genuinely want to make cycling safer, more helmets aren’t the solution. They are really a good indicator that the streets aren’t safe. When people don’t feel safe when cycling, they will wear a helmet – and hi-vis vest – with or without advertising.

Cyclists in London waiting at traffic lights, surrounded by cars. All of the cyclists are wearing helmets, most are wearing hi-vis even though it's bright daylight.

Cyclists in London, where helmets and hi-vis are the norm, not because of advertising but because people don’t feel that cycling is safe.

Higher helmet use shouldn’t be a goal, it should be seen as a failure of policy, an embarrassing statistic. An increase in helmets is a sign that the government has failed miserably in their duty to provide safe streets.

The real solution is better infrastructure. The government must invest in cycling infrastructure, so that everyone can feel safe and comfortable cycling at any time, without difficulty fear. Helmet promotion campaigns are a way for the government to avoid their responsibilities.

On main roads we need wide, smooth cycleways, with good visibility at junctions, optimised for safety (not the narrow, bumpy cycleways with dangerously-planned junctions which are usual in Germany).

A young woman rides on a wide red-asphalt cycleway in Utrecht. There is room for four people to cycle side-by-side.

Smooth, wide, clearly-defined: a Dutch cycleway. Well-proven safety.

In residential streets we need filtering, so that driving through those streets as a rat-run is impossible, but residents and visitors still have access.

Four bollards placed across Warren Street in London prevent motor vehicles from being driven through, but allows cycles.

Filtering turns a rat-run into a quiet street. (Photo: CEoGB)

Long-term planning goals should be to unravel routes (1, 2, 3), to separate cycles and motor vehicles as much as possible. Cycling infrastructure should be a high priority for transport planners and local councils. Because when the conditions are right, cycling will be the easiest and most obvious way for people to travel through the city.

Helmet promotion is just an easy way for the government to absolve themselves of any responsibility for safety, by pushing it onto the people themselves. They’re saying “if you get hurt, you’ve only yourself to blame” – rather than accepting responsibility for their poorly-designed roads.

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54 Comments

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54 responses to “Infrastructure vs Helmets

  1. Pingback: Infrastruktur vs Helme | Das andere Bundesministerium für Verkehr

  2. Bill

    Cycle helmets are the homeopathy of road safety. Proponents only offer anecdotes in their support and refuse to engage in any discussion that involves measuring the effectiveness of a few hundred frames of polystyrene against two or three thousand kilogrammes of metal.

    • Bob Vitray

      Been down with a helmet and without. With is better. I don’t care what you do. This article’s headline does not accurately describe the article which is long on assertions and short on facts. Is there any topic unworthy of an anti-helmet rant?

      • Bill

        Hi Bob,
        Do you remember which model helmet you were wearing and how much energy (k/newtons) it could absorb before failing?
        I should also be curious to know if your falls were while riding as a sport, or riding for transport.
        Tks, Bill

        • Brian Bucket

          I’ve also been down with a helmet, while riding about 30mph, after sailing over the front hood of a car that turned without warning into the bike lane for a parking spot.

          The helmet had a big dent in it. I was covered in road rash. My bicycle was totaled. My head and brain were fine.

          If helmets had a downside then these anecdotes would be ignorable, but the only real downside is missing the breeze in your hair. I’ll stick with a helmet, thanks, and if you also want to improve road safety, I’ll take that too.

          • MJ Ray

            Way to misdescribe the opposition! That’s one way that helmet zealots annoy people. There are significant drawbacks with current helmets, most of which aren’t even as protective as some 1995 helmets.

          • Bill

            Hi Brian,
            I am glad that you survived your accident without a serious head injury, but you give the helmet full credit for preventing injury in an anecdote that is lacking clarity.

            To evaluate the benefit of the helmet we need to consider how much energy was absorbed by your hands and arms, did you roll with the fall etc. It is even possible that your head only had contact with the object that dented the helmet because you were wearing it and the helmet literally raised your profile.

            My interpretation of the blog post is that if there had been proper segregation the car would not have cut in front of you while you were riding at 30mph. You would have avoided the road rash to your body and neither the bike nor helmet would have needed replacing.

            Unfortunately, for as long as the authorities point to helmets as an alternative to good infrastructure we will not get those safe segregated routes.

          • So what? This article is about how government should be providing safe infrastructure rather than promoting helmets.

            I’m not saying that helmets shouldn’t be worn, do what you like. But they’re not effective on a population level, but infrastructure is. Hence why it’s safer to cycle in the Netherlands without a helmet, than it is to cycle in the UK with a helmet.

            Read the article properly next time before commenting, please.

          • edmonds59

            It is quite easy to avoid going 30 mph. Perhaps that should be part of the conversation. My bike has brakes, and I frequently ride sitting bolt upright, between 5 and 10 mph. I find that helps immensely in not going over the hoods of cars.

            • As another generally-slow bike rider, I’ve some sympathy with that, but hey, do we want cycling to be a viable mode of transport or not? If so, that means some people going fairly fast sometimes. However, we really need better space for cycling that enables that, not the current junk where designing for 20mph riding is seen as an ambition rather than a minimum.

      • Short on facts? 0.5% of cyclists wear a helmet in NL, yet it’s safer than the UK, where many people wear a helmet. There’s facts right there. Infrastructure works far better than a helmet, which is why governments should be providing infrastructure instead of pushing helmets.

        Is this article really an anti-helmet rant? Did you actually read it? Because it’s clearly about how the German government is neglecting its responsibility to provide safe conditions by pushing blame onto the victims of poor infrastructure.

      • John F

        I’m a leisure cyclist who likes to go fast. If I come off I’d rather be wearing an helmet (& I did come off when going fast once, with an helmet 20 years ago, have been careful on descents since). However, I’m under no illusions about the efficacy of my helmet if a car or lorry drove over me.

        Fun anecdote: I recently rode on a cycle path beside a main road for the first time and my helmet was only useful for keeping the overgrown hedge out of my hair. The lack of basic maintenance meant you were better off not using the cycle path.

        • johdi

          Re fun anecdote: I think that is not in the Netherlands because people here don’t like councils that don’t maintain cycle paths!
          I once phoned the council because a pothole (created by heavy rain that night) and the same morning they repaired it.

        • Mark Williams

          You should write a book full of such anecdotes and lobby the government to use it as the basis for teaching primary school children how to cycle (or put them off for life). You’ve certainly got the right sort of name for it ;-).

      • Hello Bob!
        Helmets will protect ‘some’ surface damage to the head in the event of a light/moderate crash but an heavy impact won’t help as there will be internal injuries to the brain. For full protect I’d suggest wearing a motorcycle helmet but I doubt you’d wear one of those as you’d be the laughing stock of the cycling community.

        Many new cyclists are brain washed into thinking if they are hit by a car or ran over, then they are perfectly safe and will just walk off because they wear this bit of polystyrene on the head! My friend was nearly killed when he hit head on with a Vauxhall Astra, He used to rant that the helmet saved his life, it wasn’t his helmet as his head never hit anything but it was the car designers who put in crumple zones for pedestrians, If he’d hit a 4×4 he would have died instantly.

        Two years ago in the USA a guy was killed because he was wearing a poly helmet, The cyclist just fell from his bike and was run over by the following car! Turns out the poor cyclists had passed out on a very hot day, The heat build up inside his brain was caused by the helmet as the helmet kept the heat in, poor bugger.

      • Jeff

        Quick fact you are ten to fifteen times more likely to suffer a severe brain injury in a car. So mandatory helmets for car drivers? Please explain why they do not wear helmets in the Netherlands except for sport?

  3. MJ Ray

    What’s your source for “In the UK, most cyclists wear a helmet”?

    The media may misrepresent it like that, but the latest highest figure I saw was below 50% and that was in a TRL report estimating helmet use in rush hour London, so not itself something I’d trust blindly. In places like Cambridge or King’s Lynn, I’d put it at under one in five (one in seven in a recent video I took for non helmet reasons).

    Of course, there are probably large swathes of the country that are cycle-hostile and the few remaining people cycling there almost all wear armour, but is it enough to push it to “most”?

    • I’d say that’s a correct assumption but you’re right that it varies a great deal depending where you’re looking. In London, helmet use is probably higher than the rest of the country.

      Some 6 or so years ago, not long after the hire bike scheme launched, I did my own mini-survey in London. On my 5-mile trip to work one morning across central London out of 100 people I counted on bikes, 80 were wearing a helmet and the other 20 weren’t. Not so many people on hire bikes back then wore helmets, but some did.

      On several occasions since then I did smaller counts of just hire bike riders that I saw wearing/not wearing a helmet (rather difficult while on the move, I discovered). Their numbers were smaller than all cyclists, but I’d say there was a distinct growing trend toward helmet wearing amongst this group.

      Of course I was counting people on weekdays, during peak commute hours in residential and business central London areas, rather than around Hyde Park, for instance, at a weekend. I wouldn’t expect the rate of helmet adoption to be anywhere near as high among visitors making spur of the moment trips on hire bikes.

      • What assumption is correct? If “In London, helmet use is probably higher than the rest of the country” and yet it’s still estimated at below 50% (sorry to discount congokid’s observations, but like mine, they’re not very representative) then logically, most people aren’t wearing helmets.

        • Thanks for pointing this out, MJ. I should say that my observations refer to London rather than the UK as a whole, I’ll change the article to reflect this.

          Like Congokid, I’d done various counts while I still lived in London, and had looked at the many (many, many, many) photos I’d taken and counted there too, nearly all of which was of transport cycling. Not the most rigourous science ever, I admit, but these counts were made over about three years, at a vantage point of a cycling-busy junction (looking out over Lambeth North tube station, people heading south from Baylis Road down Kennington Road).

          I wonder how the TRL figures were arrived at, and if they include leisure cycling in parks, etc.?

    • Jitensha Oni

      Totally. I’ve collected biweekly data since 2013 of bike riders I encounter in North Surrey (thanks to my bike camera), and about 1/3 of adults wear helmets; it’s more like 9/10 for kids.

  4. Bill

    Gah! It was supposed to read “grammes” not frames. Auto-correct strikes again.

  5. paulc

    I just posted a link to this blog post into the Guardian’s article on “‘If there aren’t as many women cycling as men … you need better infrastructure’ ” and it got deleted? How on earth was it not relevant?

    Anyway, here’s the Guardian’s article:

    http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/jul/09/women-cycling-infrastructure-cyclists-killed-female

  6. I find the level of presumption in this item off-putting. Saying “Cycling infrastructure should be a high priority for transport planners and local councils. Because when the conditions are right, cycling will be the easiest and most obvious way for people to travel through the city” is a bit nuts. It may well be, if (a) your are a cyclist (b) have access to a bicycle (c) are fit enough (d) if the weather is cooperative (e) if you are not having to transport cargo or people… I could go on and on. Cycling is not the solution for everyone or every need.

    • Will

      Don’t waste your time reading blogs, this is something that you need to see for yourself.
      Grab a flight to Copenhagen or Amsterdam and go for a stroll. Then catch a flight to London or Manchester, do the same and compare the experiences.
      I strongly suspect that you will then see the benefits of cycling. And if you don’t, at least you will have had a nice trip to the Netherlands or Denmark.

    • Jitensha Oni

      But if you discount all those there’s still a huge number who aren’t cycling who could be.

    • I think it’s you who is being presumptuous!

      (a) Everyone has the ability to cycle, it’s not genetic you know.
      (b) This blog is calling for cycling infrastructure, of course people should have access to a cycle. It’s one of the cheapest forms of fast transport there is.
      (c) Why would physical fitness matter? Watch the video here, physical disabilities don’t seem to stop any Dutch people from cycling.
      (d) Again, you’re making assumptions that cycling in rain or snow is impossible. It’s not.
      (e) Why must a cycle be for one person with no luggage? That’s nonsense. Cargo bikes exist, child seats exist, trailers exist.

      But you know what? I’m not saying that a cycle should be the only mode of transport for every single journey. I’ve never said that.

      But for a huge proportion of journeys around town – you know, all those times you’re not carrying a mattress, and it’s not blowing gale-force winds – cycling makes the most sense, and these journeys need enabling.

      • paulc

        ” (c) Why would physical fitness matter? Watch the video here, physical disabilities don’t seem to stop any Dutch people from cycling.”

        rather amusingly, I was overtaken this morning by a one legged cyclist… How did I know he only had one leg? He was wearing shorts and the prosthesis was rather obvious…

        There’s also a guy who goes on the roads in Gloucestershire in a handcranked recumbent tricycle… I know one thing though, typical cycling infra in the UK is impossible for him to negotiate… too many barriers, chicanes, gates and bollard nests…

    • These are all self-serving non-arguments. a) Most people will have used a bike as a child and you never forget how to ride a bike. B) Fit ? A man on a bike is the most efficient moving creature on the planet. I am 80 years old & still use a bike. People who are car-dependent are unfit. They will get fir (again) if they use a bike C) of course you use a car to move cargo etc the point is that you use a car AND bike. I use a bike for about 80% of journeys. I could go on an on too if I had the time !

  7. rdrf

    It’s worth looking at the evidence on the effect of cycle helmets on a population level – or to be more precise, the lack of evidence. Partly this is because of the lack of effect in collisions, but also compensatory/adaptive behaviour by the wearer (and to some extent, other road users).

    Take a look at posts on http://www.cyclehelmets.org , and for a short resume http://rdrf.org.uk/2013/12/27/the-effects-of-new-zealands-cycle-helmet-law-the-evidence-and-what-it-means/ . (Also, if you wear one – why not wear one in a car? – certainly longer journeys).

    But most of us are annoyed about the red herring factor, where government, police, doctors etc. get away from what we should be talking about, namely reducing the danger to cyclists at source, e.g. from motor traffic..

  8. Opus the Poet

    I have been studying bicycle safety for almost a decade now, and something interesting I have discovered is the energy window between an impact you could survive without a helmet (but that would still cause brain damage) and one that you can’t survive with a helmet is very tiny. Most adults can take a 10 MPH shot to the head in a fall without dying, but by 20 MPH all a bicycle helmet is good for is preventing scalp abrasions if it is still on your head and not shattered into multiple bits.

    That said I wear the most protective helmet I can buy, a BMX full-face hardshell helmet that was tested to DOT motorcycle impact resistances and passed. I don’t expect it to be of much good in keeping me alive, what I wear it for is to inoculate my heirs and survivors when they sue the guy that hit me for everything he’s got including clean underwear. And I wear a full-face because one wreck I had they had to sew part of my face back on, and the healing process from that is enough to make a person crazy. Never again.

    • paulc

      the trick, which the Dutch and Danes have discovered, is not to crash in the first place…

    • Guy

      Opus the Poet can you post some links to the research you mention about energy windows between survivable/non-survivable collisions with and without helmets? I’m quite interested in learning more. Seems to me that helmet efficacy is generally perceived to be greater than it is (especially in Australia) and, given that the human skull is already evolved to protect the brain, I would like to know how much more protection a bicycle helmet provides?

      • Opus the Poet

        My link to the CPSC standards for bicycle helmets came up 404 but that is where I got all that information on helmet design and testing. They are the government body tasked with setting the standards by which helmets are judged legal or not and the original page on helmets had a prologue on whys and wherefores and limitations. There was similar research published by the Snell Foundation, but their research was more into the higher energy wrecks of motorcycles and motorsports.

        Basically what it boils down to is how much energy is a helmet designed to absorb, vs what it is required to absorb in testing. Bicycle helmets are built to absorb a 12.5 MPH impact and most manufacturers treat anything in excess of the test standard beyond a tolerance to make sure every helmet can pass as being excess weight.

        Part of my problems are I was in a wreck that exceeded the parameters of my helmet and only survived because I have a very thick and dense skull, literally. I took a fair amount of brain damage in the wreck which affects my memory.

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  10. Pingback: Infrastructure vs Helmets | Revue de web de Mon...

  11. Your conclusion is absolutely spot-on. It’s a clear attempt to distract from more relevant and important issues. Helmet laws went into effect in Vancouver and Toronto about 20 years ago: the result was an all-out war on cyclists. Police started targeting and ticketing helmet-less cyclists while ignoring homicidal motorists. What’s left of the local media covers the many cyclist deaths by reporting whether a helmet was worn and if it was properly buckled, while the judicial system regularly blames the targeted victim for being run over.

  12. Jim

    I just got back from riding around the Netherlands for two weeks. In the US I always wear my helmet but I did not there. One comment that I heard over and over again from both cyclists and drivers is that in the Netherlands in an encounter between car and bicycle, the driver of the car is always presumed to be at fault. Therefore, even when riding on country roads with no protected lanes it was clear to me that drivers of both cars and trucks made sure that they got out of my way. This is so different from my experience of riding for many years in the US.

    • Highwayman

      Jim,

      I rode in the Netherlands myself for all of merely 10 days ( I wish it was longer) back in 2013. The difference was such that to return to the Netherlands and cycle there again would, for me, be a return to Paradise. Having said that, I do not think it is any laws governing liability that makes Dutch motorists respectful of bikes on country lanes. When travelling such matters stay mostly in the rear recesses of our minds.

      Two factors I believe induce Dutch motorists to respect bicycles on a country lane:

      (1) The obvious factor is that every Dutch motorist also rides a bicycle;

      (2) Not so obvious, but pointed out by David Hembrow on one of his study tours (check out his blog “A View from the Cycle Path” on http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com) is that Dutch country lanes by both their design AND their routing are not engineered as arterial roads. They are narrow –VERY narrow! By necessity, a driver has to slow it down to 30+ kilometres / hour (18 miles / hour to the low 20’s miles / hour). And the destinations of such country lanes are strictly and built local. To use these roads as rat-runs around clogged-up main roads most likely will have a motorist maneuvering out of dead-ends and reluctantly & bitterly returning to the clogged main road –often back to the same point they departed said main route.

      Some country lanes are even dirt roads while the parallel bike-path is paved.

      Because Dutch country lanes are not rat-runs, a motorist in a rush on such lanes is a rare sight. It is a motorist in a rush (anywhere in the world), that disregards others on the road..

      To rush is NOT to speed. Excess speed at a small scale does not threaten vulnerable road users. To rush is to PANIC, and that panic leads to accidents, and that same panic threatens vulnerable road users..

      I have an example of slow speed collisions: I drive a tractor-trailer (articulated lorry) at often crowded, very bureaucratic, New York and New Jersey piers. It’s my fifth year doing this kind of work. I’ve seen 4 or 5 truckers, over the years, in a rush colliding with a truck in front of them –at LOW speeds. Still, enough collision force was generated for the front of their trucks to lose their grill, and their engines to seriously leak fluids. Because these truckers could not wait an extra few seconds or minutes, they suddenly found themselves required to wait all day after they crashed.

  13. As a citizen of a country that introduced a mandatory helmet law around 1990 (and from which cycling in Australia has never really recovered), I could go on all day about the negative aspects of people being forced to wear helmets just to get on a bicycle. Cyclists are a vilified minority here, and it will remain that way unless we’re given a choice on whether or not to wear a helmet while cycling. I make no comment on their effectiveness, but just wanted to point out that forcing people to wear them is one guaranteed way to stifle cycling.

  14. Dan B

    Helmets have their place. I ride in London, commuting on a road bike. I ride in lycra and wear a helmet. On a road bike I’m riding fast (20mph+), so any mistakes I make are more likely to see me fall. I ride on main roads with the traffic – there are more chances of someone making a mistake that causes me to crash. I’ve crashed in races, on road defects and been hit by a car, and was glad to be wearing a helmet in those conditions – high speed, high force events.

    I also ride a utility bike, wearing normal clothes without a helmet. It’s an incredibly different style of riding, and my routes are different where necessary with lower traffic levels. There’s lower risk of crashing due to reduced speed, and a better potential outcome should I fall. I have ridden wearing a helmet, and it makes me feel less safe. I have also crashed on thins bike – a tight corner with a heavily loaded bike at low speed (yep – entirely my fault). All I felt was a bit stupid.

    My commute also involves a small amount of protected cycle infrastructure near my house. On my way home I tend to remove my helmet…

  15. Pingback: THE CASE AGAINST BIKE HELMETS–AND FOR BETTER BIKE INFRASTRUCTURE | Boom English

  16. I am not a fan of helmet laws, and really object to being told I must wear one every time I get on a bike. I agree with the sentiment of this article, but I can’t stand by the initial commenters who seemed to want to take a stance as far against cycle helmets as possible.

    I agree that a bicycle helmet won’t stop your neck from being broken, but for pity’s sake this guy was going 30MPH!! If I were riding that fast I’d wear biker leathers or full-protective skater pads or something along with a motocross helmet to protect my jaw.

    30MPH!!

    The important thing to remember is that this is a very different type of cycling than what I do. I pootle at 10mph to the shops and back, and just want safe paths there and back again. I shouldn’t have to wear a helmet to do this! But if I were going for speed I’d definitely need to think about some kind of protective padding to absorb my momentum in a crash.

    But you know what? I don’t do that. So for me, helmets are talismans against blame, not harm.

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  18. Pingback: Bikes are not cars, and infrastructure is better than helmets – qwe

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