Thursday 12 December 2013

When should urban cyclists wear a helmet?

Summary: Wear a helmet when it's legally required and actually enforced with significant fines or when it genuinely contributes to your actual safety. And if you have no issue with wearing a helmet and don't take extra risks because of it, continue to wear one. However, urban cyclists do not need helmets if riding in very safe circumstances and are not racing around at over 30km/hr. If the circumstance is not safe, a helmet is never the best form of risk mitigation so also consider better safety measures that prevent accidents.

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by Steven Vance
1. Use a helmet when the mandatory helmet laws are enforced with costly fines
- In countries with enforced helmet laws (e.g. Australia) the fine can be prohibitive ($180 in Victoria). In Victoria, around 7,000 helmet fines are issued a year. So until the law changes, it is usually easier to wear a helmet and not stress about every cop you see. See: > How to avoid cycling fines with minimum inconvenience

- But whenever there is little chance of being fined and no safety reason to wear one, you should opt out. E.g. Riding on segregated bike paths or anywhere where there is no or little car traffic and speeds are under 30km/hr.

2. Help eliminate or prevent Mandatory Helmet Laws (MHL)
-  It is well-established that MHL are a barrier to urban cycling adoption and more extensive use by adults, especially for short, local or spontaneous trips. Bike share scheme usage rates in cities with and without MHL prove this. Currently, Australia and New Zealand are the only countries in the world with MHL but certain localities in North America have adopted it and other countries are considering it. So there is work to be done in making urban cycling genuinely safer rather than forcing cyclists to always wear helmets on the basis that being hit by cars or serious crashes are part of the cycling experience.

- Please help get rid of Australia and New Zealand's Mandatory Helmet Laws by signing the petition and taking action here: > Freestyle Cyclists. Obviously, this doesn't stop you choosing to wear a helmet in whatever circumstances you think one is required. However, ending MHL would force Australian governments to actually address cycling safety rather than simply promote helmet use.

3. Where feasible and safe to ride without a helmet and you won't cycle otherwise, just do it
- If  having to wear a helmet is a major obstacle and you have assessed the chance of being fined and the safety issues, it is generally better to ride without a helmet than not ride at all. There are many steps you can take to cycle safely for transport for at least some trips. See: > Solutions to common barriers to cycling. You can also try wearing something on your head that may pass for a helmet from a distance.

4. Consider the evidence and arguments on helmets and safety and make an informed decision
- If considering helmets with regard to your objective safety in certain circumstances, you should consider evidence from both sides and make an informed decision. (Victoria pro-helmet evidence,, However, there are better measures to improve your safety that you should also consider such as your route, the speed you ride at, how you ride, when you ride and even where to live. See the safety category on this blog.

5. Use a helmet for specific trips where speed, risk-taking and safety makes it sensible
- Subjective safety (your feeling of safety) can be enhanced by helmets for some riders. But wearing a helmet can also influence people to favour greater riding speeds and more risks taken (e.g. routes with more or faster-moving cars). So pay more attention to your actual safety and the real, major factors affecting it.

- Cycling carries vastly different levels of safety risks depending on the type of activity and circumstances. Therefore, where feasible, choose whether to wear a helmet judiciously based on the actual specific risks. See: One activity can have different forms (As Easy As Riding A Bike)

- E.g. Personally, if mandatory helmet laws were eliminated, I would choose not to wear a helmet for short local trips (shops, going out to dinner) or for mostly off-road, slower recreational rides. However, if riding on-road at over 35km/hr for significant distances I would use my helmet. This is just common sense. The article that best demonstrates this is: Who are all these self-harming Dutch helmet wearers?. Helmets are only used by cyclists racing around - typically for sport or recreation on weekends. But virtually everyone who cycles for transport (including the weekend racers) does not wear a helmet:
"They’re on sturdy steady bicycles, rarely doing more than 15mph. Their environment is not completely without hazards, but even if things do go wrong, they’re extremely unlikely to find themselves hospitalised. The racers and mountainbikers, meanwhile, are far more likely to fall off or hit something, and at the sort of speeds where that breaks things." > Who are all these self-harming Dutch helmet wearers?

6. If getting a helmet due to MHL factor in comfort and air flow (keeping cool)
- If you do decide to wear a helmet primarily to comply with MHL, remember you don't need to wear an uncomfortable or unattractive one. Inexpensive helmets for urban (not sports) riders are available in various styles. See: Essential gear for cycling and what type to get. My skate-style helmet cost $26. I bought the white version as it is more visible.

- However, I made the common mistake of forgetting about air flow in choosing a style. My skate-style helmet looks cool but the air flow is much poorer than the typical sports helmets. This means my head does get hotter and sweat more on long rides or warmer days. So factor this in when making your choice.

7. If using a helmet for safety reasons then ensure the type of helmet is designed for safety not just style
- Many stylish helmets have passed minimum legal standards but may not be anywhere near as effective as helmets designed primarily for head protection in a crash. One potential indicator is the depth of the hard styrofoam used inside the shell and the coverage down over the forehead. If you ride at speeds over 25km/hr and have some chance of crashing with your head, then you should do some research in order to purchase a helmet that meet's your safety needs. I have a skate-style bike helmet and a normal sports one (lots of hard foam) and the skate-style one has much less hard foam inside the shell. Past safety tests have found some of the skate-style helmets to perform poorly. Also, remember that some helmets bought online may not meet your country's bike helmet safety standards.
> Bike Portland: Nutcase, Bern helmets receive “poor” impact rating from Consumer Reports
> Bicycle Helmets for the 2015 Season

8. For urban cyclists riding safely your chance of hitting your head is very low
- Finally, regarding my own personal experience: I have ridden a bicycle regularly for over 20 years (almost always with a helmet as it's been mandatory) and have never hit my head on anything in that time. In the last 5 years I have ridden every day on Melbourne's roads and have only felt a helmet was even possibly useful when riding at speeds over 35km/hour.

- In the few accidents where I've come off my bike (dooring, car swerving in front, slippery surface) my head has never come close to hitting the ground or another surface or being run over. In my experience, the "a helmet saved my life" stories from cyclists tend to be from sports cyclists who ride much faster and have high impact crashes more often. If I can find accurate statistics of the liklihood of typical urban cyclists hitting their heads I will add them - my experience suggests it is very low.

9. Lock your helmet to your bike when parked
- Outside of your home, it is very inconvenient to have to carry a helmet around with you or store it somewhere and then have to fetch it. If you use a U lock to lock your bike, make sure the lock can pass through a solid part of the helmet (e.g. air hole) when locking up (12-13mm shafts should be ok).

- If the U lock can't pass through a solid part of the helmet, you can still lock it through the helmet straps or plastic but this is obviously less secure.

Further Info:
The Urbanist
Should the UK make bicycle helmets compulsory?
Should repealing the bicycle helmet law be a priority?
The helmet law and commuting in Sydney and Melbourne
Did the helmet law reduce commuting by bicycle?
Should motorists have to wear helmets?
Is regulation more than ‘white hat’ vs ‘black hat’?
Do mandatory helmet laws deter children from cycling?
Will a bicycle helmet save your head?
Should the helmet law be repealed to save bikeshare?
Do motorists drive closer to cyclists wearing helmets?
What’s the case for keeping the helmet law?
What are the benefits of bicycle helmets?
Should Freo go helmet-free?
Do mandatory helmets discourage cycling?

> Fines
Wearing a bicycle helmet
Exemptions from wearing a seat belt or bicycle helmet
Bicycle helmets - don't ride without one (pdf)

To encourage biking, cities lose the helmets (New York Times)

Australia's helmet law disaster (Luke Turner)

Cycling Health New Zealand

Freestyle Cyclists
- Petition and campaign to get rid of Mandatory Helmet Laws in Australia and New Zealand.

Bike helmet story on The Project - 6 Feb 2014 (Australian TV show)

Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute

Helmet Freedom

The Stranger
The Stranger's Staff Argues Over Whether You Should Wear a Bike Helmet

A big discussion about whether you should wear a bike helmet gets it wrong from the first line

At War With The Motorist - Posts on helmets