The Cult of Bike Helmets

With the increasing number of bicycles and micromobility devices in our cities, the discussion about the need and usefulness of helmets is heating up. This piece looks at recent research, showing how helmets can improve rider safety, but also stand in the way of it.

“Asking individuals to spend money on helmets, lights, and reflective gear without investing in better transit culture ignores the fact that the real danger to cyclists comes from behind the wheel, not from behind handlebars. ‘We can talk about bike helmets because it’s something we can blame for individual decision-making,’ said Alison Bateman-House, an ethicist and medical historian at New York University who has studied mandatory helmet laws.”

Feedback welcome! Personally never use a helmet on my day to day cycling, but I always do when I go cycling (in a sport way).


It is a really good question.

As a non-cyclist (until a recent change of heart) I had always assumed wearing a helmet was a positive, and we always recommended it for our kids. Why not? Falling from a moving bike is a risk even for totally basic issues (like rolling on a stone, or hitting a curb).

Wearing a helmet to protect yourself from OTHER road users, such as inattentive drivers, is probably not worth it, and should not be a determining factor in allocating blame (as I saw recently, when a cyclist was deemed to have “contributory negligence” for not wearing a helmet when they were struck by a driver in a car :exploding_head: )

What surprised me, being new to cycling, is the research that shows that drivers actually consider a cyclist with a helmet to be “more protected” and therefore they are entitled to take more risks with them, such as passing much closer. Wow! I was even told this in the bike shop when I bought my own helmet, and was warned that bus drivers basically ignore cyclists with helmets. That was scary!

I do think that I will continue to wear one when I (eventually) ride more in London, but I can totally understand those who choose not to and am not sure I would agree with a legal mandate for helmets (for adults).

Maybe we have a new measure to use to test the perceived safety and liveability of a place? We already know that there is a high correlation between liveability & equity, and the number of female cyclists, and the number of children on bikes, but maybe it would also be good to measure the proportion of cyclists with helmets?!

This is a sensitive. yet interesting question.
I always get cranky about these helmet discussions. Especially when it comes to making it compulsory to wear a helmet. Let anyone who wants to, wear a helmet, but don’t mandate it.
And there are several reasons for this:

  • you are more likely to suffer a head injury at home (by falling down the stairs), as a pedestrian, or even in the car. Is there ever any discussion of making a helmet compulsory in those circumstances?
  • current bike helmets, which are still wearable, protect adequately in the event of a fall, at 20Km/hour. So if you as a cyclist are hit by a car going faster, the helmet already doesn’t protect anymore.
  • research even already showed (can’t find it now) , as Robert writes above, that car drivers take more risk when passing a cyclist with helmet, than a cyclist without helmet.
    I never put on a helmet (very disastrous for my hairdo too :), I don’t even have one. My children put on helmets when cycling until they were about 6 years old. Until then, they were still wobbly on the bike, and might dare to fall easily.

Anyway, when I cycle outside my fairly safe Leuven, it’s not the helmet that would make me feel safer on my bike, but better bike infrastructure (instead of the many “murder lanes”).


Just here to link the research Elke is refering to: Drivers overtaking bicyclists: Objective data on the effects of riding position, helmet use, vehicle type and apparent gender - ScienceDirect In short: a wig is a better protection than a helmet. The author (Ian Walker) published other interesting material as well (

I’m a cyclist refusing to wear a helmet on principle. Wearing a helmet is admitting that cycling is ‘risky’. When we want to convince more people to cycle, we’re giving them the wrong signal by asking them to wear a helmet. In the Netherlands or Flemish cities (like Leuven or Ghent) cycle helmets are rather rare. In cities we consider more dangerous for cyclists (Brussels) more cyclists wear helmets.

A personal observation is that people with cycling helmets often participate in hazardous behaviour (like running red lights), so I’m very curious to their reasoning. Do they think they can take more risks because they are ‘protected’ (studies tell this asumption is not correct)?


I’m not so sure - certainly not in countries without reasonable infrastructure (like the UK and USA) where we need ANYTHING we can get to make sure drivers actually see us since we are forced to ride on the road.

I’ve seen references to both positions but the only specific study I can find seems to disagree

What I can agree is that forcing people to wear helmets (by law) will have the effect to put off ‘average’ riders and therefore get fewer people riding instead of driving. It could, therefore, mean that only the risk-takers actually ride bikes, and therefore linking it with helmets?

BTW, I love all the work that Ian Walker does. You should definitely listen to his interview on The War On Cars podcast: 99. Car Brain with Dr. Ian Walker – The War on Cars


Recently, a TV personality here in Flanders had a cycling accident and once again sparked the debate about the usefulness of bike helmets.

In a reaction, NDM (Network Sustainable Mobility) and the Fietsersbond (Cyclists’ Federation) summarized the main arguments against obligatory bike helmets, most of which have already been mentioned in this thread.

A summary:

  1. It gives the impression cycling is a dangerous activity. As a result, the bicycle’s attractiveness decreases, parents are less likely to let their children cycle, and modal shift objectives are less likely to be achieved. Studies indicate that bicycle use declines in the short term. In the longer term, bicycle use should recover (not everywhere), but there is at least a slowdown in growth. Where helmets are obligatory, cycling levels are lower than in places where they are not.

  2. An obligation creates an additional barrier for bicycle use, both financial and physical. For people with limited means, the purchase of a helmet is an additional cost, whereas cycling is supposed to be a relatively cheap means of transport that allows everyone to get where they need to be. Health gains achieved by obligatory helmets (e.g. reduction in the severity of the brain injuries) do not outweigh the health gains lost by the same obligation (e.g. less people moving in an active way).

  3. A helmet does not prevent accidents, it only reduces their severity. Pedestrians and car drivers also suffer head injuries in accidents. Yet, a compulsory helmet is not proposed for these road users. One-sided accidents can be avoided by improving cycling infrastructure.

  4. It reinforces victim blaming.

  5. It can result in more risky behavior (both on the part the cyclists who wear a helmet and on the part of road users interacting with those cyclists). Studies on risk compensation are quite rare, but in young people (and especially men) an obligation could lead to riskier behavior.

There is a lot of research into the bicycle helmet. The results and conclusions strongly depend on the angle from which the research comes (trauma doctors, bicycle helmet manufacturers, mobility researchers).

In any case, there are other, more effective, measures to improve cycling safety: better cycling infrastructure, lower speeds, and car-free environments will all have a much bigger impact on cyclists’ safety than the obligation of a bicycle helmet.

Finally, wearing a bicycle helmet or not is also linked to a society’s cycling culture. Compare the images of the Dutch and Belgian royal family on bicycles…



Thanks @miguel for this overview!

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Thanks @MertenDeKinderen for translating.
The famous dude who had a cycling accident was riding a speed pedelec (with a compulsory helmet). As a result Flemish Parliament has asked a formal advice from Mobiliteitsraad Vlaanderen (Flemish Mobility Council).

I’m considering to wear a helmet during the upcoming discussions …


I’m considering to wear a helmet during the upcoming discussions …


I remembered this topic when I watched this really interesting and in-depth conversation.

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