The Great Bike Helmet Debate

There are a few conversations about bikes that inevitably get repeated over and over again without anything getting resolved. Why won’t bikers stop at stop signs? Why are cyclists in the road when there’s a perfectly good path right next to the road? The most recent question to rear it’s head in the local papers is whether or not cyclists should be required to wear helmets.

Scofflaw Obama sans helmet. But notice the kids still wear them.

This time around, the debate started when reporter Sharyn Jackson wrote a lifestyle piece about Minneapolis Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator Shaun Murphy. The article mentioned, mostly in passing, that Murphy doesn’t wear a helmet because “he doesn’t want the activity to appear dangerous or scary.”

This started a firestorm of follow-up articles, including one by columnist Jon Tevlin, which included a mention that following Jacksons previous article, “…Murphy was told by supervisors that he now has to wear a helmet on the job.” Other follow-up articles included this one full of data from high-school student Seth Colbert-Pollack, and these letters to the editor. I’m sure there are others as well. And of course, while Jackson’s article seems to be the one sparking all the interest this time around, we should note that the Minnesota Daily also ran an article back in May that generally outlined both sides of the debate as well.

Obama with a helmet.

To sum things up [albeit a bit flippantly], the arguments in favor of mandatory helmet laws are generally as follows:

  • If you don’t wear one, you’ll get hurt.
  • Head injuries are bad, mmkay?
  • If you get hurt, the rest of us end up paying your medical bills.
  • I know a guy who hit his head and is/isn’t ok because he was/wasn’t wearing a helmet.
  • Helmets are low-cost, high-benefit

And the arguments against mandatory helmet laws are generally:

  • It’s my head let me do what I want with it
  • I don’t feel like it.
  • They look dumb & make me sweat.
  • Cycling isn’t dangerous so quit making it look dangerous.
  • If I get hit by a car, a styrofoam hat isn’t going to help much anyway.
  • Helmet laws will deter people from cycling, and having more cyclists on the street will make things safer than helmets ever will.
  • There are other ways we can improve safety.
For the record, I rarely wear a helmet while I cycle. You can read why on my personal blog here.

I like making predictions for the future that I can’t really justify, so here’s another one for you:

Mandatory helmet laws are inevitable. I can’t tell you when it will happen. It could be a dozen years from now, or a couple dozen, but I think it will happen. A lot of states already have mandatory helmet laws for riders under a certain age, and some cities (and other agencies) already require helmets for riders of all ages.

Recall that a bill was introduced in the MN state legislature by Phyllis Kahn and Scott Dibble last year that would require cyclists under the age of 16 to wear helmets. It didn’t pass, but it might next time.

Here’s why I think the helmeteers will win this one:

  • The idea that helmets make cycling safer is simple and appeals to logic (whether true or not). The idea that cyclists may be safer overall without helmet laws is not immediately obvious. Convincing a decision-maker of the latter would require them to put serious thought and effort into formulating an opinion.
  • Stories about someone who was killed or injured and wasn’t wearing a helmet will go a long way towards turning public opinion. These are painful and emotional stories, and can have a powerful impact on public opinion.
  • The tide is already turning. There is very little precedent (in any arena) for removing requirements mandating safety equipment. There is plenty of precedent for new safety equipment requirements.
  • Non-cyclists generally don’t care about the issue, and will likely think mandatory helmet laws are a good thing –  because who doesn’t want things to be safer, right?
  • Cyclists are not all in agreement on this issue. Some of the most adamant supporters of helmet laws are avid cyclists.
  • Some of the most likely opponents of the law, people well entrenched in bicycle planning or advocacy, will not be permitted to voice their opinions by their employers out of fear that their personal opinions will reflect poorly on the organization overall (see Shaun Murphy).
  • The most influential local agencies clearly encourage helmet use. The City of Minneapolis is the local heavy-hitter in bike policy, and they’ve established a clear trajectory towards increasing helmet use (they require Murphy to wear a helmet, their police officers give away free helmets to kids – see Bike Cops for Kids, the bicycle plan has stated a clear objective to increase helmet use (page 128)). Of course there is a big difference between encouraging use and mandating use…
  • Liability is a big issue in local governments today. One major lawsuit victory against some negligent agency and we could see a wave of agencies trying to protect themselves.
  • The only people who will really be upset by mandatory helmet laws is a very small portion of existing cyclists – most likely the cyclists who are mischaracterized as scofflaws, vagabonds, or hipsters anyway.
  • The political crowd typically supportive of efforts to preserve individuals ability to choose possibly-risky behavior without government interference, who I will broadly refer to as tea-partiers or right-wingers, have a history of being antagonistic towards the cycling community.
  • The current population of adult cyclists were raised primarily before bike helmets became popular, myself included. I can’t recall any of my friends wearing helmets growing up. Or even owning helmets. Tomorrow’s population of adult cyclists will have grown up in a culture where helmet-use among kids is widely supported and encouraged.

Of course, if there’s hope for my fellow non-helmeteers out there, its the growing popularity of bike-sharing systems, and the problems mandatory helmet laws pose for these systems. The success of bike-sharing relies on individuals being able to conveniently choose to ride a bicycle without planning ahead or bringing personal equipment. Requiring people to bring their own helmets to ride public bikes would severely hamper the system, and share-able helmets aren’t a popular solution.

Time will tell, I guess, but if I were a betting man, I’d put my money in favor of mandatory helmet laws. How about you?


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25 Responses to The Great Bike Helmet Debate

  1. Julie Kosbab August 22, 2012 at 1:27 am #

    I think requiring the Minneapolis bike coordinator to wear a helmet on the job is a pretty sane requirement for a lot of reasons. Personal choice aside, on the job is not personal choice. If he is injured while working without a helmet, it falls under worker's comp and the health plan. If he's injured on the job, especially given the drama with public safety when he was hired, the PR is a beast. All of this has added cost to the city.

    To some extent, him wearing a helmet on the job is like the flag-carrier wearing a reflective vest and steel-toed boots — expectation of the role.

    By taking the job he is in, he does lose some of his personal choice in exchange for money. This is what work very often is – you trade time, and sometimes other personal attributes, in exchange for cash money.

    • Reuben Collins
      Reuben Collins August 22, 2012 at 9:16 am #

      Sure, I don’t disagree. I don’t really mean to point fingers at Murphy or the City of Minneapolis. My point is only that as long as agencies/organizations/individuals view helmet wearing as the smart and safe choice and not wearing a helmet as the risky choice, then it’s only a matter of time before the smart choice becomes the required choice.

      • Julie Kosbab August 22, 2012 at 9:25 am #

        Well, I think it's more about "preventive choice." Behavior certainly matters, but the helmet is a layer that is not entirely behavior dependent.

        HCMC is also one of the largest (if not the largest) providers of uncompensated care in the state. Minneapolis/Hennepin County will twitch about anything that can reduce costs. (and probably rightly so.)

  2. Reuben Collins
    Reuben Collins August 22, 2012 at 3:41 am #

    An additional thought that is being teased out in these comments that I wasn't very clear about in the original post:

    The compromise solution that has floated to the top here is that nearly everyone supports promoting helmet use, but a lot of folks are content to leave it at encouragement rather than make it a hard requirement. This is the status quo, and I think it's a compromise solution that generally works pretty well for everyone (except for people who feel that any discussion of helmets at all will deter new riders). Since we're all pretty comfortable with this compromise, there may not be a big push to require helmets in the near future. However, I still think that day will come.

  3. BB August 22, 2012 at 4:28 am #

    I don't think the law would hold up in court. A person should be free of undue restrictions whilst traveling in America. Citing a privilege of driving the motor vs the right to ride a bike.

    and since you mention stop.

    Look at the silly stop sign law which doesn't clearly define what a cyclist is suppose to do.

    Cessation of movement. My heart, wheels, handlebars, arms, head, all move whilst I am stopped at a stop sign, a clear violation of the law.

  4. Moe August 22, 2012 at 4:58 am #

    But seatbelt laws have held up, right? And now you can be pulled over for not wearing one.

    • Jake August 23, 2012 at 3:10 pm #

      @BB makes a tenuous argument, but one with some merit nonetheless (the first paragraph anyway). Mandating helmets will absolutely deter some ridership and may infringe travel, but the State probably has a compelling interest that is narrowly tailored to address the harm. The only distinction I can think of between seat belts and helmets is that seat belts are built in and do not require an additional purchase or other meaningful inconvenience.

      Personally, I commute daily and year round between Mpls and St. Paul with frequent trips to the southern 'burbs. I could not image going without a helmet, though I ride fast, with traffic, and in some very congested areas. While I feel it should be an individual choice to wear a helmet, a mandate would likely be constitutionally valid, despite a negative impact on ridership.

  5. Brendon Slotterback
    Brendon Slotterback August 22, 2012 at 5:18 am #

    As soon as helmet law for bikes is passed, I will begin actively begin lobbying for a helmet law for cars. While I appreciate this article outlining the debate and making a prediction, more information should be provided on the actual risk. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among those age 5-34 in the US.

    • Reuben Collins
      Reuben Collins August 22, 2012 at 6:16 am #

      I am currently lobbying for a helmet law for blogging.

  6. Moe August 22, 2012 at 8:30 am #

    Great summary of the debate Reuben.

    Are helmets required by motorcycle drivers? I guess I’d rather see that changed first.

    I think NiceRide plays an interesting role in mandatory helmet laws. How can you have a bike sharing system, where you are basically catering towards people that probably don’t have a helmet with them, while also requiring they wear one. I’m certainly not going to wear one that other people have used.

    • Reuben Collins
      Reuben Collins August 22, 2012 at 3:22 am #

      Motorcyclists are not required to wear helmets (I think you are required if you have a learners permit, maybe.)

      I agree that NiceRide plays an interesting role here. However, NiceRide is also handing out free helmets this summer. I'm sure they won't be championing any mandatory helmet laws any time soon, but they are definitely encouraging helmet use!

    • Ed Kohler August 22, 2012 at 5:58 am #

      @Moe, Melbourne has a bike share program that I believe is built by the same company that does NiceRide. They have had a harder time getting their ridership numbers up, and Melbourne's mandatory bike helmet laws have received some of the blame.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melbourne_Bike_Share

      They're working on making helmets accessible all over town, including at 7-11 locations and from vending machines:

      http://www.melbournebikeshare.com.au/helmet-locat

  7. Ian Bicking August 22, 2012 at 8:32 am #

    I think there's a reasonable argument for mandatory helmets for minors. Minors aren't equipped to make reasonable, rational safety decisions on their own. While you might defer to parents, it's not really clear that parents hold that authority alone. And even if you wanted to defer to parents, parents often are not around when their kids use bikes, and so only with a general law applied to minors is it possible to intervene when a child is not wearing a helmet.

    • Ian Bicking August 22, 2012 at 8:34 am #

      But soon, how will we even know if you are wearing a helmet? http://vimeo.com/43038579 (Well, I'm a little skeptical of this design, but maybe?)

    • Julie Kosbab August 22, 2012 at 9:28 am #

      On the other hand, I think the parents who ride with their kids without helmets send all sorts of the wrong message. Modeling matters with kids.

      I have also been first-on-scene for one of those individuals, where the parent crashed and the kids (wearing helmets!) were freaking out while the parent had a bleeding head wound and near-certain concussion. It was suboptimal.

  8. David Fitzpatrick August 22, 2012 at 12:58 pm #

    It upsets to me think that some people think that you're much safer wearing a helmet while bicyling when there's a study that was done in Britain that I saw on another bike blog that found that motorists tend to be less careful around bycyclists that wear helmets than those who don't. Another thing I've noticed is that some people including those who don't like such laws go around predicting that these laws are somehow inevitable. As a Californian I became a victim of this state's "click it or ticket" seatbelt law campaighn and had to quit driving 6 years ago under advice from a former social worker friend of mine. This is because I've always hated the idea of being strapped in spite of the automotive safety statistics. It's also one of the reasons why I'm very strong passenger train and rail transit advocate mainly because of emphasis on crash prevention safety procedures and technologies within the industry. I should point out according to couple of articles I saw in Railway Gazzette there were a series of rail passenger car crash tests both in the U. S. and Britain that showed that seatbelts are neither effective nor desirable for use in passenger trains. I've been thinking of probably getting a full size tricycle since I don't have that great sense of balance but not if they pass an adult bike helmet law around here! I should also point out that the "kiddie" (under18) helmet law that was passed in the '90's hasn't been enforced very much in recent years. Some of you people who don't like the helmet laws if you keep predicting that they're inevitable too much they're gonna happen!!!!! Stop making conjectural predictions and start organizing to prevent and/or repeal such laws!! Dig?

  9. JanD August 22, 2012 at 5:43 pm #

    The helmet headed faithful are like other religious – "Don't confuse me with the facts". It's a superstitious ritual that accomplishes nothing, but is given undue deference. Grow up. bubble wrap generation.

  10. Jim Moore August 22, 2012 at 5:48 pm #

    There are two options:

    1. If you want to cripple cycling growth rates forever for no good reason then go ahead and allow the Taliban to introduce mandatory helmet laws. We did that exactly that in Australia and New Zealand did it too with the same results. We're the best case study of how to achieve extremely poor cycling conditions.

    2. If instead you want to go in the direction of the Netherlands, with a countrywide cycling rate of 27% of all trips (with highs of 50-60% in the larger cities) then don't introduce mandatory helmet laws for anybody.

  11. Darren Mew August 23, 2012 at 12:48 am #

    In Australia we have experienced an extraordinary growth in cyling uptake, but I would estimate the bulk of this is recreational rather than a legitimate shift in modes for commuting.

    We suffer an extraordinary lack of planning in relation to safe infrastructure for cyclists to commute, making helmets seem more a placebo than any real protective mechanism.

    Yet for all this, the interest in cycling continues to grow, and for many it seems to be rekindling a child like enthusiasm, which ultimately, seems entirely virtuous (despite the great shame of being middle aged and lycra clad).

    It is hard to find a ruling where 'no helmet' would be accepted in cycling or motorcycling in Australia. It seems entirely contradictory that the US would consider a helmet law for cyclist while turning a blind eye to motorcylists.

  12. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke August 23, 2012 at 4:43 am #

    I'll take that bet, Reuben, and I'll give you 3:1 odds.

    The trends are all in the other direction, away from educationalist 'helmet law' policies and towards the northern European model, where helmets are a rarity and where bicycle spaces accommodate many different kinds of everyday people in everyday clothes. People in these cities ride bikes not because they're specially equipped or specially trained or even because they consider themselves to be bicyclists or bicycle people, but just to get around and get exercise and enjoy the city. The Dutch, Germans, and Danish are shining examples of how to create cities that welcome and encourage bicycling, and they're places with stellar safety numbers and almost zero bicycle helmets. As long as people over there keep cycling every day in everyday clothing, that's going to be a huge signpost showing Americans how to build a bicycle-friendly future.

    I'd also take issue some of the implications in your piece, for example you imply that helmets are commonplace today. Actually (and I haven't seen numbers on this) I'd bet that under 50% of Minneapolis cyclists wear helmets. Go to down the Greenway or the Washington Avenue bridge on a nice day (during U of MN hours) and count. Plus, most poor people don't wear helmets, though they also never attend bicycle policy meetings.

    You also give short shrift to the arguments against helmets, particularly of the very murky research on actual bike helmet safety. Bike helmets are not equivalent to seat belts. They're probably more like the extra third brake light in the back window of your car. Far more important for bicycle safety are things like street design, lane positioning, route choice, and paying close attention at intersections. I'd encourage anyone curious about the issue to actually read some of the research studies, where there is a extensive debate on how much or little helmets actually accomplish. I've a lot more to say about this, but don't want to be pilloried. (I'll putting some links on this at the end of this post.)

    More and more, policy actors (like Shaun) are realizing that we need to create safe spaces for all of these people, no matter if they're wearing helmets or protective vests or how many lights they have or how fancy their bike is. Cycle tracks, bike boulevards, and off-street paths like the greenway are all part of this approach to bicycle planning. (See also, Davis California.) Helmets, vehicular cycling training, and special equipment are part of the approach that mostly failed in the 80s and 90s. This is probably the #1 reason why mandatory helmet laws are going to become a thing of the past.

    A quick Google search will show you that in places like Australia and Vancouver that have mandatory helmet laws, there are movements to change those laws. It's likely that the political pressure to get ride of these ineffective and unnecessary regulations will only grow.

    The #2 reason why helmet laws are a thing of the past is (as you mention) the new existence of bike sharing systems. It's next to impossible to have helmets be part of the bike sharing system (see: Vancouver), and cities everywhere are really excited about bike sharing systems for lots of good reasons. As these become more and more commonplace, you'll see the fixation on helmets start to fade away. Bike sharing systems are great 'gateway bikes', in that they don't require any special equipment. Anyone can just get one and ride one. They're not intimidating, nor are they for 'bicyclists'. They're for normal people, who just want some exercise and to see the the city in a new way. Passing a mandatory helmet law would just about kill all of these programs, and it's not going to happen.

    A level-headed conversation about helmets in the USA is a very rare thing, and I don't think we'll be having one in Minnesota anytime soon. But I know the bike lobby here would fight any attempts to have such a law, because many people in the bike advocacy community 'get it', even if they can't admit that they get it in the Star Tribune without risking an emotional public shaming campaign.

    Just a few of the vast forest of links on bike helmets that are out there include…

    A really thorough examination of the bike helmet debate by a UK blogger: http://waronthemotorist.wordpress.com/2012/08/02/

    a blog post on helmet testing: http://www.risksense.org/2012/06/14/the-myth-of-t

    An article by a well known UK researcher on bike helmet promotion campaigns: http://www.copenhagenize.com/2009/09/fear-of-cycl

    Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicycle_helmet#Scien

    • Reuben Collins
      Reuben Collins August 23, 2012 at 9:00 am #

      Bill, For the sake of American cycling, I hope you're right! Really, I would love to believe that the Twin Cities is trending towards the Copenhagen model of accommodating bikes.

  13. Rob R. August 23, 2012 at 9:12 am #

    This is one of the few rational and even handed discussions I've read about bike helmets. I'm glad I stopped by.

  14. Richard Burton August 25, 2012 at 5:16 am #

    A good discussion indeed, but it makes the assumption, as do most of the commentators, that there is a safety benefit from wearing a cycle helmet, when all the reliable evidence shows that there is none. The biggest ever research project about cycle helmets showed a small but significant increase in risk with helmet wearing. If they don’t improve safety, then there can be no possible reason for making it law to wear one, especially when such a law would have massive and negative unintended consequences. As one commentator points out, most people who believe that their helmet will protect them do so on grounds of faith, not science.

    The only proven effects of such laws is to deter some people from cycling and to make obscene profits for helmet makers, there is no reduction in risk. Since regular cycling confers such huge health benefits (regular cyclists live longer and are fitter, healthier and slimmer) the people deterred from cycling lose those benefits with no compensating improvement in safety. Cycle helmet propaganda and laws have been compared to tobacco advertising: absolutely gigantic private profit and immense public cost in increased illness and lives shortened. In the middle of an obesity epidemic largely caused by reduced exercise levels, helmet propaganda and laws are frankly insane.

    If anyone would like to get a little more understanding of the arguments, I can recommend cyclehelmets.org

    • Reuben Collins
      Reuben Collins August 25, 2012 at 9:44 am #

      @Richard – I certainly didn't intend to make that assumption. My assertion is that it really doesn't matter if helmets are effective or not. As long as people – especially non-cyclist elected officials – think helmets are effective, we will steadily continue on a path towards helmet mandates. Thanks for the link to cyclehelmets.org.

  15. Paul Udstrand August 30, 2012 at 3:24 am #

    In think the evolution of bike riding is partly responsible for this hoopla over helmets. I'm 49 years old and I've been riding with the exception of a three year hiatus in my late teens since I was 4 years old. I starting riding again in the mid 90s, and at the time I was one of few riders on the road. We went through that period were helicopter parents started bubble wrapping their kids, and ridership went down. At the time I knew one guy besides myself who actually commuted by bike, everyone else I saw out there was a "biker" pretending to be training for something. THOSE guys were the first ones I saw with helmets and within a year or so they were ALL wearing them. Meanwhile in places like Europe commuting bikers were and have been the majority while "biker" bikers were comparatively rare.

    When you commute, or when you use your bike to go to the store, or meet someone for coffee etc, you don't want suit up every time you get on your bike, you just want to jump on and go. And when you get where your going you don't want to have to carry equipment around, you just want to lock up your bike and go. Helmets obviously don't make sense in this environment.

    I've seen a shift taking place here in the US over the last few years (and I'm sure you'll agree). The number of normal commuter bikers has risen dramatically, and they like any other normal person don't wear helmets and other "gear" when they jump on their bikes. For a few years there I was one of the few people riding that wasn't wearing a helmet, now I'd say not only have the number of bikes out there dramatically increased, but so too has the brotherhood of the unhelmeted. I'd say it about 50-50 wouldn't you?

    I'm not sure mandatory helmet laws are going to go down well with adults who are riding to the coffee shop or work, and the numbers are increasing. I think as those numbers increase the chances of mandatory helmet laws for everyone decrease, but we'll see.