Are Bike Helmet Laws Overrated? A New Study Says So

A report challenges the conventional wisdom. But we don't buy it.

Are laws requiring bicyclists to wear helmets really such a good idea?

The Atlantic reported on a study last week that suggests otherwise.

Non-profit think tank the National Bureau of Economic Research studied the effects of local and statewide cycling laws on injury prevention and found… about what you’d expect: lower rates of head injury where there are helmet laws.

But wait!

The data hints that the reason fewer people in these places go to the hospital with cycling-related head injuries (the study’s metric) may be because helmet laws lead to fewer people cycling.

As evidence, our intrepid counterintuitivist at The Atlantic, James Hamblin, cites a New York Times column about biking in Europe with the takeaway that helmet laws interfere with bikeshare programs; he also quotes helmet-skeptic Manfred Neun, president of the European Cyclists Federation. In the cited article, Neun told the newspaper the West Australian:

Wearing a helmet creates the image of cycling being an abnormally dangerous physical activity. While this may be the case for cycling as sports, it is not necessarily so for cycling as a daily means of transportation. Statistics show that the more cyclists are on the road, the safer it is actually to cycle. Car drivers are more used to the presence of cyclists.

An intriguing formulation: people are scared of cycling because helmets make it seem dangerous.

Hamblin also notes other inconveniences of helmeted riding that may deter people: messing up riders’ hair and the impracticality of carrying around a helmet in cities with bikeshare programs.

While I agree, these points aren’t trivial, let’s not get distracted from the larger point when talking about deterrents to widespread, everyday cycling:

Cycling in American cities not only appears dangerous, but in cities without a comparable bike infrastructure to Copenhagen’s, for example, (read: all American cities), it will always be more dangerous than in Europe.

Copenhagen’s decision to take cycling infrastructure seriously on a policy level—its crown jewel is a “bicycle superhighway”—is far more responsible for its relative abundance of cyclists than is a democratic spear-tip of cyclists emboldened by the lack of helmet laws.

The inconveniences of helmet laws may indeed have some small role in reducing the number of riders on the road, but the overwhelming reason people don’t ride in the U.S. is that roads—and cities—have historically been planned with cars in mind.

The fact is, for all the helmet laws on the books, plenty of people choose to disobey them anyway. If there is a true democratic spear tip for cyclists in the United States, it comes from advocacy groups like Transportation Alternatives fighting for dedicated bikeways, or from a Minneapolis city councilman who proposed the citywide expansion of an ordinance that provides showers, lockers and secure bike storage downtown.

So please, Atlantic, let’s exercise a little common sense when generalizing from a study with a fairly conservative conclusion. Black isn’t white; it’s just a tiny bit more gray than we thought.

 I know I’m not giving up my helmet any time soon.


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