Q&A with Mikael Colville-Andersen: The Controversy Over Bike Helmets

To wear or not to wear? Photo by Jeremy Kunz.

To wear or not to wear? Photo by Jeremy Kunz.

This interview is part of a series with sustainable transportation advocates, planners, engineers, journalists, sociologists, and other experts working to shed light on best practices and solutions from across the globe. We welcome your suggestions for future Q&As.

“Adding highway lanes to deal with traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to deal with obesity,” said Louis Mumford, a cultural historian and city planner, as quoted in a United Nations Environment Programme report. A similar perspective applies to the long-running and contentious battle on the utility of helmet laws in improving safety for cyclists. If bikers get in a crash, helmets are “widely accepted as reducing the severity of head injuries.” But as other bloggers have argued, the question of whether or not to wear helmets is the entirely wrong one to be asking. Policies that require helmets do not necessarily address the broader and more pertinent safety issues for non-motorized transit users.

The helmet debate, in particular, has been fueled by the politics of road space (who “owns” the road?) and a lack of consistent and reliable data on helmet safety. (Grist.org points to some of the major examples of contradictory and inconclusive evidence.)

Ironically, in countries with higher rates of cycling, helmets are rarely worn. These are the same countries that seek to make biking convenient and safe through cycling infrastructure and policy. Take, for example, the Netherlands: cycling was at its lowest in the late 1970s, but at this point, cycling also became the most dangerous. As cycling rates crept up after this decade, corresponding rates of fatalities went down. Urban planners call this phenomenon “The Safety in Numbers Theory”: collision rates decline as the number of walkers and bikers go up.

Data from the Netherlands. Taken from the report "Making Cycling Irresistible: Lessons from The Netherlands, Denmark and Germany" by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler.

Data from the Netherlands. Taken from the report "Making Cycling Irresistible: Lessons from The Netherlands, Denmark and Germany" by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler.

Although evidence is only anecdotal, it appears that policies that enforce helmet use not only scare people but also prevent them from riding their bikes. (Watch this video, for example, claiming that mandatory helmet laws are the reason bike sharing is failing in Melbourne, Australia.)

Even the European Commission states that mandatory helmet laws run counter to preventing crashes and stimulating the use of biking:

Attempts to promote bicycle helmets should not have the negative effect of incorrectly linking cycling and danger. Nor should the promotion of helmets result in a decrease in bicycle use. Because of these considerations, a mandatory law for bicycle helmet use has not been thought an acceptable or appropriate safety measure in the Netherlands.

But if helmets don’t always work to improve road safety, what does?

A report from 2008, “Making Cycling Irresistible: Lessons from the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany” by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler, found that the key to achieving high rates of cycling are “the provision of separate cycling facilities along heavily travelled roads and at intersections, combined with traffic calming of most residential neighborhoods.”

Pucher and Buehler say the “full integration” of public transport, bike parking, education for motorists and cyclists and promotional events to support cycling achieve the most safety benefits. They also say that coordinated policies for transport, land use, urban development and housing are key. Road design, lighting and vehicle design can also reduce traffic fatalities. Nancy Kete, former director of EMBARQ, the producer of this blog, echoed similar sentiments: “Helmets and seatbelts are very important, but you also have to think about policies that protect all urban residents, not just transport users.”

We wanted to learn more about the debate over whether or not to use helmets and found an interesting perspective from Mikael Colville-Andersen, bicycling activist and writer of the popular biking culture blogs, Copenhagen Cycle Chic and Copenhagenize. Colville-Andersen has been an outspoken critic against helmets, claiming that they instill a “culture of fear” and stand in the way of creating truly livable cities. He also gave a talk at TEDxCopenhagen titled, “Why We Shouldn’t Bike With a Helmet.”

TheCityFix: Why is there so much controversy around wearing bike helmets?

Mikael Colville-Andersen: It’s all about data. It’s safe to say that there isn’t any conclusive evidence that helmets help. The scientific community has been split down the middle for two decades. There are basically two camps: those who look at head injuries and look for ways to prevent them, and those who work towards getting more people to choose the bicycle as transport.

What I find to be the most interesting – and frustrating – angle is that whenever a study favors helmets, it’s important to look at the reduction in cycling levels due to promotion and/or legislation. Everywhere helmets have been legislated or promoted, cycle use has fallen. In places where head injuries have fallen and helmets are said to be the reason, there are less people cycling, which is rarely taken into account. [Colville-Andersen refers to studies published on the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation website, which a skeptical writer from Grist.org calls a "confounded mix of science, propaganda, and cherry-picked news stories."]

Another aspect that is ignored is the industrial design of a helmet. It is only designed to protect the head from non-life threatening injuries in solo accidents under 20 kilometers per hour where you land on the crown of your head. The tests they go through are basically a simulation of a pedestrian falling on the crown of the head. [Highlighting the contradictory nature of available data, the University of Washington found that helmets do end up reducing the rate and severity of injuries for people in bike accidents.]

If the debate has raged for so long, there must be discrepancies in the data. For example, compare it with seatbelts. There are some dissenting voices who claim rightly that when a motorist straps on a seatbelt they feel safer and drive faster and more carelessly. The same reasoning applies to air bags and ABS brakes. Largely, however, there is little debate about seatbelts simply because the data and research adds up. It doesn’t with helmets.

TCF: Why should helmets be non-mandatory for bike riders?

MCA: There are very few cycling organizations in Europe that promote helmets and virtually all of them fight mandatory helmet legislation tooth and nail. Just look at this campaign from the granddaddy of all European cycling organizations, the European Cyclists Federation (ECF): Ask Me Why I Cycle Without a Helmet?  For more information on ECF’s helmet laws, check out this page.

Most national cycling organizations in Europe have scientists employed. As a result, the glaring inconsistencies in the data are brought to the surface. In fact, the European Cyclists Federation is launching a Scientists for Cycling think tank.

We are scaring people away from a life-extending transport form by making it look more dangerous. The question that never gets raised is: why aren’t car occupants encouraged or forced to wear helmets? Or pedestrians? These two groups have a higher risk of head injury than cyclists.

Interestingly, motorist helmets have already been invented.  The Swedes played with the idea in the 1960s, and in the late 1980s, an Australian company started production of them. In the late 1990s, an Australian government study came out showing massive potential benefits if motorists wore helmets. The University of Adelaide and Monash University went to work developing what ended up becoming a motorist headband.

Over 1.2 million people are killed in car collisions every year around the world – more than 40,000 in the U.S. alone, including pedestrians.

The basic policy in Europe is to encourage more people to ride bicycles as transport. The more they cycle, the safer it gets. It’s “The Safety in Numbers” principle. This is why cycling is booming in European cities where no bicycles were to be found just three years ago in cities with traffic more chaotic than any North American city. We’re encouraging it. And there are no helmets in Paris, Barcelona, Seville, etc.

TCF: What’s the effect of mandatory helmet laws on bikesharing programs, like in Melbourne, Australia?

MCA: Mandatory helmets are basically bad marketing. We are telling people for the first time in 125 years since the bicycle was invented that riding a bicycle is “dangerous.” Promoting and legislating helmets scare people off of bicycles by focusing on the perceived negatives while completely ignoring the massive health benefits of a cycling population.

Interestingly, the Northern Territory has the highest cycling rates in Australia. They repealed a part of their helmet law when they realized cycling levels were dropping. More recently, Israel and Mexico City both repealed their helmet laws just before implementing their bike share programs.

The car industry invests millions in branding and commercial advertising. What do you think the bicycling industry needs to promote safety and use?

We used to market bicycles like the car industry markets cars. The car industry learned the ropes of advertising from the bicycle industry, which predates it by 30 odd years. Just look at vintage bicycle posters; they contain beautiful artwork showing elegant women and men riding bicycles. This is positive marketing. And I think we should market urban cycling like any other product.

Until bicycle infrastructure is built, the basic rule should be that cars should be slowed down and priority given to bicycles and pedestrians. Cities were made for people.

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