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Non-use of bicycle helmets in Europe…and in BC

"I wear a helmet every time I ride." / "The helmet logic is flawed. I don't wear one."

The bad news

In recent years, North American attitudes in some circles have been "going European", i.e. "the cycling cultures in Europe don't wear helmets, so there really is no need".

Some bare-headed cycling advocates even know that helmet laws lead to fewer people cycling. (True.) They may also reference the relatively low frequency of brain injuries among cyclists in the Netherlands. (Also true.) There isn't a high frequency of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), especially when one considers the kilometres travelled by cyclists. Keep in mind though, that these statistics are for Holland - cycling nirvana.

Counterpoints are:

  • Helmets do reduce the severity of TBIs. 
  • TBIs do happen in Europe, even in the Netherlands.
  • Comparing the Netherlands to North America is apples to oranges. There are huge differences in infrastructure and culture that we can't just wish away. 

I think we need to make choices based on the reality we see in front of us, not the one we wish we had. Perhaps the most salient point for North Americans is that many bicycle fatalities or injuries happen when in close proximity to vehicles (if you go inside the link, click on bicycle statistics). 

Not many North American cities have infrastructure that supports bike culture in a way that Holland does. We are still very much a vehicle-dominated society. There are big pushes to modify this, but it takes time (culture) and costs lots (infrastructure). 

So as much as I love the idea of an Amsterdam-style bike culture - until we have the attitudes and the infrastructure to support it, I want to educate people and ask them to err on the side of caution. This isn't Amsterdam. Is that another bike beside you? Or is it a truck? Or a bus...or is that an SUV? Oh, wait - it's a farm vehicle. This is Canada, after all.

The good news

Many studies agree that there are fewer injuries among cyclists when:

  • There is a high proportion of people who do cycle.
  • There are dedicated lanes / paths / arteries for cycling.
  • Bike etiquette is well understood and practiced.

Harm reduction for non-helmet users

And, because all effective prevention / education work needs to be grounded in harm reduction - if you  find yourself out and about without a helmet on, or without it properly done up, or wearing a helmet that you purchased a decade ago - here are some ideas to minimize your risk:

  • Ride where there are fewer vehicles.
  • Ride slowly and defensively, but be assertive.
  • Be very visible.
  • Ride at low traffic times.
  • Ride in a group, wherever possible.
  • Ride using proper etiquette.

Here is a great online resource for bike etiquette and bike safety in general: Bike Sense BC

And check out this alternative to helmets: the Hovding airbag for cyclists. It has won not just a few European innovation awards and is a solid attempt to combine style with increased protection. They aren't yet available for sale in Canada but I will spread the word as soon as they are.

 

Non-helmet cycling advocacy

For non-helmet users, why not also work towards creating a more bike-friendly culture for non-helmeted cyclists? If you want Amsterdam, then work to make it Amsterdam! Possible local actions one could take to make non-helmeted cycling safer are:

  • Work to get cycling etiquette out to the cycling community, so that all cyclists are on the same page.
  • Work to educate drivers of vehicles about their responsibilities.
  • Speak to the RCMP about enforcing speed limits within town and holding drivers accountable for driving that endangers cyclists.
  • Take down some license plates and call in the irresponsible drivers.
  • Fundraise and support initiatives for commuting arteries dedicated to just cycle traffic. 
  • Partner with health organizations to broadcast the physical, mental, economic, social and environmental benefits of cycling.
  • Organize a public forum to air both sides of the issue, with the goal being mutual understanding and respect.
  • Support work that disincentivizes vehicle use. (Ha!)
  • Talk to local media and get some publicity. Raise awareness. Speak (responsibly) to your side of the issue.

Information

Advocating non-use of helmets

Why I'm Done Wearing a Helmet

To Encourage Biking, Forget About Helmets

The Case Against Helmets

Walking the line

Bike Helmet Paradox

Helmet Wars

Helmets or Health?

Do Helmets Work?

Cycle Helmets

Why Doesn't the Dutch Bike Culture Include Helmets (The whole blog post is mixed, but the embedded Ted Talk is very anti-helmet.)

Helmets and risk compensation

Europe

Incidence and costs of bicycle-related traumatic brain injuries in the Netherlands

The Netherlands one of safest EU countries for road use, bike deaths an issue

Bicycle Death Statistics in Amsterdam and the Netherlands

Brain injuries and the Dutch cyclist

Other resources

The Bice Study 

People for Bikes

Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Centre

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