Do We Need Bike Helmets?


A few years back, a cop pursued me because I was cycling without a helmet.
He gave me a stern lecture but no fine and told me to walk the rest of the way and never do it again!

I have always been ambivalent about the wearing of helmets - not wanting to put myself in any danger if I am involved in an accident but at the same time, I’ve heard scary stories about what can happen if people are wearing a helmet and it causes them more damage than saving them.

I know a cyclist who attributes a helmet to saving him worse injury in a accident with a car and another who thanks his helmet after his mountain bike flipped and his head connected with a tree.

But some European countries don’t have compulsory laws and you can find lively debate son both sides of the equation about whether that’s a benefit or hindrance.

A long time campaigner against compulsory wearing of helmets was back in the news this week, again pushing his case.

So it’s a timely discussion to once again have.

Dr Nigel Perry of the University of Canterbury is vocal on the subject.

On one international forum he writes:

“Here in NZ we have had compulsory wearing of bicycle helmets for over a decade and there is simply *no* reduction in head injury rate that can be attributed to the law. As they passed a law the Government cannot admit it failed, so they try, and try, and try to find proof it worked but have known for years it hasn’t.

Of course in some cases (whether you are on a bicycle, in a car, walking, etc.) wearing a helmet may reduce injury, but the population wide results of passing helmet laws which show no overall improvement has to lead to the conclusion that there are therefore cases where wearing one increases injury.”

In a conference presentation, he says:

“Promoting helmets as a solution to the “problem” is the completely wrong approach, as countries which have rejected helmets in favour of other safety measures and bicycle promotion have shown. Helmets cannot be designed to protect against the major source of risk, vehicle impact. Yet the message of the helmet law is the opposite, wear a helmet to protect yourself on the road.”
He also points out that it’s not unusual to see cyclists with ill-fitting helmets.
Australia was the first country in the world to introduce compulsory helmets (in 1990).
This website claims:

Surveys show Western Australia’s mandatory helmet legislation reduced public cycling numbers by at least 30%, yet total hospitalised cyclist injuries did not decline at all. The reduction in head injury numbers was marginal. West Australian cyclist numbers recovered in the decade to 2000 but hospital admissions were at record levels from 1997, roughly 30% above pre-law levels by 2000. In essence, the results strongly suggest that the mandatory wearing of helmets increases the risk of accidents and thus injuries.

The helmet law has been around in NZ since 1994 and it’s hard to see any government changing it.
Should they?




  1. Ross says:

    The helmet law is a joke. Unicyclists don’t have to wear them, tricyclists don’t have to wear them, people with religious beliefs that preclude helmet wearing don’t have to wear them, pedestrians (who can also fall over) don’t have to wear them, motorists (who die by the hundred every year) don’t have to wear them. Why should I as a casually commuting cyclist have to wear one? The helmet law does nothing but portray cycling as a very dangerous activity, which it is not.

  2. Nick R says:

    As an injury prevention researcher I have reviewed quite a lot of Victorian and Australian data on this topic.

    although the two may covary, the assertation that helmet wearing laws *caused* a drop in cycling usage rates of 30% of whatever is simply untestable. You cannot look at the data and say this *caused* that. During the 1990s when the law came on line, cycling, walking and public transport all continuted a long term trend of a decline in popularity. One could just as reliably say that helmet laws caused a decline is bus patronage!

    In Victoria this was the case, overall cycling rates declined after the helmet law… But looking deeper into the data it was actually just child cycling rates that continued to decline heavily (attributed to a shift from children walking and cycling to school to being driven), and this masked an actual increase in adult cycling rates. So yes, more adults started cycling after the law was brought in, although again one cannot assume any causality here.

    Furthermore currently cycling rates are increasing rapidly in all age groups yet Victoria maintains helmet usage rates greater than 90%. If wearing helmets somehow stops people from riding then someone forgot to tell the people of Melbourne who stubbonly insist on taking up cycling with helmets firmly in place!

    There is also the issue of usage rates and exposure levels. Anecdotally people are riding longer these days, often tens of kilometres to get to work. In decades past most cyclists were children riding a kilometre or two to school. So there used to be ‘more’ cyclists, but now cyclists spend much more time on the road in traffic. Does a higher level of cycle injuries mean it is now more dangerous, or is it simply because people spend more time on the road? There is a paucity of usage data on this topic so no one could make any concrete conclusions on cycling injury rates. Anyone who makes these conclusions hasn’t done their homework properly.

    Beyond this, the points above all miss the main point completely. It is surely true that helmets do little to prevent crashes: the don’t stop cyclists being wiped out by cars, they don’t stop them from bashing their head after clipping the curb.

    So no, helmets don’t prevent head injuries, and it is no surprise there is no general reduction in cyclist head injury rates. But what helmets do do is reduce the severity of head injuries, and that is their value. Helmets turn a fractured skull and permanent brain damage into a concussion or a sore head. The fact that the website linked above directly equates the risk of having an accident with the risk of being injured (and presumably the severity of injury too) simply shows that they have no understanding of injury epidemiology and are just aiming to justify their own opinions.

    This is much the same as seatbelts. Seatbelts don’t prevent car crashes. You could argue that in some cases the cause injury themselves, or that the idea of protecting oneself with a seatbelt is the wrong answer to the wrong ‘problem’. But the fact of the matter is seatbelts, like helmets reduce the severity of injuries to prevent disability and save lives.

  3. Richard says:

    I’m afraid Nick has more faith in polystyrene helmets than many of us have. Having cycled for sixty years and raced for thirty one of those I have a fair idea what happens to you when you fall off. Like any racing cyclist I have crashed dozens of times. Contrary to the belief of many I think the better examples of the old style padded leather helmet, had they had today’s superior fastenings would have afforded better protection than the plastic/polystyrene we now have.

    The reason I say this is that the padding slows down the impact speed (like an air bag) reducing the ricocheting effect to the brain within the skull. The polystyrene conversely just shatters on impact allowing the head to “carry on”. I had a fall last year, the first in twenty three years since a bad training smash stopped me racing. This was also my first fall wearing a helmet and lo and behold I hit my helmet! I made a side to ground impact, not the sort you hit the head in from my experience. Do modern helmets have a homing device making head impact mandatory? Far more cyclists now are hitting their helmets than ever hit their heads pre helmet days. I was amazed at what happened to my helmet, it had fallen to bits on the left side and it was near new. I certainly didn’t say my helmet saved me!

    Cycle helmets are only designed for slow speed impacts and not for collisions with vehicles…….so what use are they?? It’s when you are going faster or collide wirth a vehicle you need head protection

    Before last years fall I had hit my head twice, once when about aged twenty on Western Springs Stadium in a track race, a minor glancing impact on a safety barrier. The second when I was run over by a house training and thrown into an open drain my face impacting with a culvert. This impact apart from smashing my face up somewhat cracked a bone in my neck and this could easily have been worse had i been wearing a helmet and it snagged on the culvert.

    This raises another point, the classic cyclist head to ground impact when there is one is to the jaw not top of the head but helmets seem to have changed this somewhat.

    To summarise if cycle helmets are so effective why are you not allowed to use them on motorcycles? Personally I believe the decision should be up to the rider, from my experience there are as many negatives as positives

  4. Nick R says:

    I think the answer to that is simply that motorcyle riders must use an even higher standard of helmet, due to the higher speeds involved (square power law and all that). I’m not claiming myself that bike helmets are super effective or better than motorcycle helmets, but I am claiming that they are better than no helmet for preventing severe head injuries.

    You are aware that polystyrene helmets work by deforming during an impact to distribute the force? They are only good for one impact then they must be replaced. Apart from that I can’t comment too much on helmet design, I work mostly with injury statistics myself. I would however agree that most cycle helmets are designed for the ‘average’ consumer and relatively minor impacts, not for the sorts of speeds a cycling enthusiast can achieve. I know there are people within the injury prevention sector that would like to see cyclists required to wear full face helmets, particularly as maxilliofacial (i.e. jaw) injuries are still a big issue. Personally I rid with a full BMX style ‘stack hat’ to provide better protection for the upper jaw bones and side impacts (it won’t do much for a chin-first hit though).

    The issue of personal choice is a tricky one. Unfortunately what it boils down to is the fact that the government pays for medical care and recovery, which also madates them to prevent injuries in the first place. People don’t have the freedom to injure themselve to their hearts content as long as the taxpayer is picking up the pieces.

  5. Geoff says:

    I rode a bike everywhere for the first 23 years of my life, then pretty much stopped after the helmet law came in, bought a car and never looked back. I did try, but could never get used to the straps against my ears making it harder to discern direction of traffic noise. The slighest pressure on the back of your ears changes their direction, and the natural ability to determine direction of sound was taken away. It became more difficult to know where cars and trucks were around me, and I felt it was much safer without a helmet. Since it was too much of a hassle always looking out for police cars while riding, I gave it up.

  6. JB says:

    Cycling is my only means of transportation and the rare times that i do wear a helmet are only because i feel a social burden to do so. This is either due to the threat of the police and one of their low speed pursuits and subsequent fine and lecture or because of the abuse that people shout at me for not wearing one as I pass them in their cars.

    The attitude is that if i am going to be using some of THEIR road then i am required to protect myself against THEIR cars. The situation is very discouraging and clearly we ought to be looking at ways to ENCOURAGE cycling. Removing the stigma (and laws) that all cyclists must be fortified lycra-clad glow sticks would be a refreshing start.

  7. Geoff says:

    In the US, many states don’t even require helmets on motorbikes, let alone pushbikes. See

  8. anthony says:

    In amsterdam you see 80 year old women on pushbikes with almost no form of protection, as a matter of fact automobiles move out of HER way instead of the other way round like here.
    I nearly got run over by an Intolerant B****** on Stafford Street in Timaru who says i should stop taking over the road and that they are only for vehicles.
    ummmmm hello? a pushbike IS a vehicle! talk about ignorant, i was left shaking on the side of the road and NO ONE offered to help me and they just stared at me like it was entirely my fault. I never biked again after that.

  9. Tim Gummer says:

    Intuitively I have wanted to believe that a helmet makes me safer - and surely in some situations it does - but looking at the big picture - I now realize I’m actually much more at risk than I was before the law came in.

    We’re in a transitional period - cycling is in the increase in spite of the helmet law, and this is a great international trend. At this point I would still want to wear a helmet in some situations - but certainly not all the time. As much as possible I would prefer be seen as a human on a bicycle, not a “cyclist”.

    Australian Sue Abbott, who was famously fined AUS$2000 for not wearing a helmet, was told by the cop who booked her, that he gave up cycling when the helmet law came in. Closer to home, I struggled to get my 13 year old daughter to cycle here in this country, but while she’s currently in Germany she happily cycles 40 minutes a day, safely, along with millions of other cycling commuters - without helmets.

    For the sake of our cities, our heath, our environment, and our transport infrastructure; it’s incredibly urgent that we build a culture of normalized, comfortable, and safe cycling. For that to happen, along with many other things (like the availability of comfortable commuting bikes, separated lanes etc) - we need less geeks and more people on bikes. The law should go, and in the transition period, as drivers take in the reality that cycling is more than here to say, cycle riders and parents should use good judgment about when to wear a helmet and when not to.

    I’m passionate about cycling, but I also need to look at the cold hard facts - which tell us that the safest cities for cyclists are those where cycling is popular, where it isn’t a sport - it’s a way of getting around slowly and comfortably. And where no one is wearing helmets.

  10. Chris says:

    I think it should be compulsary. Cars get too close to cyclists, because of the lack of cycling lanes. Overseas there is normally no need because of their better infrastructure accomodating for cyclists. I am Dutch, and there cars have to give way to cyclists at intersections (very suprisingly), and cyclists have their own pathway seperate from the road, and normally integrated with the footpath - two laned, approx 2m wide. Here cycling is almost an extreme adventure sport

  11. ingolfson says:

    “People don’t have the freedom to injure themselve to their hearts content as long as the taxpayer is picking up the pieces.”

    Car drivers do not void their ACC insurance by getting injured while driving drunk, or too fast. So this argument, while sensible, does not tell the whole story. Further, various studies show that over the whole system, your life expectancy gain by cycling is on the order of 10-20 times the life expectancy loss due to extra risk. So clearly it is a massive benefit to health AND economy to get more people cycling, and almost anything that hinders cycling must therefore be stopped.

    Australia and NZ are pretty much the only countries worldwide who have a cycling helmet law - “some European countries don’t have one”? Tell me which do???

    Helmets should be optional. We do not make sunscreen mandatory, even though the cancer effects are a massive drain on our health system too (looking at the ACC account ONLY skews the picture, as I said above). Should we make sunscreen mandatory, and have cops check? I wonder what the rates of outdoor activity would drop if one did, and people accepted it as they sadly did with the cycle helmet law.

    As for Chris - I agree that NZ is currently relatively hostile for cycling, in comparison. But that is partially BECAUSE of the helmet law and the low levels of cycling. Many people report that cycling without a helmet, people treat them more carefully.

    I think, at some point we will abandon the law, making it optional at least for adults.

    Further, our per person ACC payouts for injuries while cycling are the same as our per-person payouts for outdoor cricket. It is NOT an extreme sport. It is being PERCEIVED as one.


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