28 August 2008

Helmets: The Clever Dutch and Arrogant Danes

Laat NL Fietsen!
I was interviewed for an article about our Danish helmet website Cykelhjelm.org the other day and was talking with the journalist about how in The Netherlands there is a completely different focus. How the Dutch prefer to tackle dangerous traffic situations instead of fear-mongering about helmets.

I had researched about it but I was sitting around today wondering about the official position in the Netherlands. So I said 'fukkit' and called the Fietsersbond - The Dutch Cycling Union.

I got put through to a wonderful chap named Theo Zeegers who is a Traffic Consultent for the Fietsersbond. Here's a transcript of the interview:

What is the Fietsersbond's official position on promotion of bike helmets?
First of all, bike helmets are developed to protect cyclists from solo accidents that don't involve other vehicles. These kinds of accidents are most likely to occur at high speeds. If you're a racing cyclist and ride at high speeds in a group with other cyclists it might be an idea to wear a helmet.

At lower speeds it is impossible to crash and hit your head. It is usually your arms or legs that get hurt. The risk of hitting your head is so low at lower speeds. You have a greater chance of hurting other parts of your body.

If you are hit by a car on your bike there is no helmet that will protect you. There is actually no bike helmet ever developed that will protect you against the kind of dangerous impacts you experience at high speeds. It is impossible to make such a helmet and I don't think one will ever be developed.

A motorcycle helmet will protect a cyclist but you can't ride in one as your head will get too hot.

Children under 14 are not at all at risk of head injury on bikes, so there is no need for them to wear one. Older children, over 15, are more at risk, but that risk is still low.

Instead of promoting bike helmets, we tackle the cars and the other traffic. Traffic calming, speed limit reductions. We are also promoting air bags on the outside of cars. They already exist. Ford has developed them for pedestrians in the US and a Swedish company is working on them, too.

Is there anywhere on your website where Dutch cyclists can get information about bike helmets?
No. There is a good page on Wikipedia about bike helmets that links to good resources. That's sufficient.

The European Cycling Federation is against legislation of bike helmets and warns against promotion and we agree with that. The studies from Dorothy Robinson about Australia show that it doesn't work. That's just one of the many studies.

Is anyone promoting bike helmets in the Netherlands?
Yes, I think some government traffic agencies are trying to but I don't know why they are.

So in your experience, as a Traffic Consultant and scientist, our current helmet promotion in Denmark will cause more people to stop cycling?
Hey, life is risky. If you promote bike helmets, you will have less cyclists. It's that simple. There is so much research that shows this. It's about what kind of society you want to live in. If you promote bike helmets and use scare campaigns to do so, people will stop cycling and then you have problems with heart disease and all the other illnesses from lack of exercise.

You have think rationally about the risk. Emotions don't do any good. I'm a scientist, so I don't need those emotions. Just rational thinking.

It is so reassuring and so refreshing to hear someone straight-talking about the subject. Sure, I agree with him and have reached the same conclusions based on the science, but this is just a man whose job it is to get more people to ride bikes and to increase safety for Dutch cyclists.

A promotional video for membership to the Fietsersbond. Interestingly, they present the reality of cycling, including some rather tricky traffic situations. No fearmongering, just rational reality.

Lack of Danish Rationality

It's quite shocking that we here in Denmark are stuck with the Danish equivilent of the Fietsersbond - Dansk Cyklist Forbund - DCF - once a proud and important organisation but now reduced to being a rather irrelevant sub-cultural interest group. How on earth can the cyclists' unions in the world's two leading bike nations be so far removed from each other?

When I think of the Fietsersbond I form images of pleasant, regular Dutch people - men and women - working hard for a good cause that they personally believe in. When I think of the current generation at the Danish Cyclists' Union I see fuddy-duddy old men in trimmed beards and woolen socks in sandals. Hardly representative of your average, free-thinking Copenhagen cyclist. It's worth mentioning that I have no idea what ANY of them look like.

Imagine the good, positive work we could do here in Denmark if we had visionary role models who respected science and common sense. Instead we're stuck with ill-informed, arrogant and self-righteous helmet advocates. As we've posted before:
- Helmet advocates sell helmets and use fear to do so.
- Bicyle advocates sell cycling and use science and positive messages to do so.

On the website for the Danish Cyclists' Union you are met with the usual propaganda-like rhetoric - and not much else.

"Bike helmets are common sense. Bike helmets are not just for safety fanatics. It is actually quite stupid to ride without them."

With one fell swoop they are calling the vast majority of Danish cyclists stupid. How's THAT for an arrogant tone? Name calling is the first sign of weakness and insecurity. They waffle on and even repeat the mantra:

"Bike helmets are common sense. There isn't anyone, for example, who laughs at a motorist who puts on a seat belt..."

No. Because the effectiveness of seat belts has science to back them up.

On their page about "Hvorfor køre med cykelhjelm? - Why use a helmet?" they are shockingly vague. When they mention statistics it is without any reference to specific scientific studies and they merely wrap it all up in more arrogant rhetoric and tiring spin.

There is nothing on their website about helmets that makes sense - scientifically or morally and the Danish people deserve much more than that.

So if you're looking for role models, look to the Fietsersbond or even the British CTC. Or the Belgian Fietsersbond. They know how to promote cycling positively and, what's more, you get the feeling that they love doing it.


Anonymous said...

Great article. I personally steer clear of cyclists wearing helmets, as they are usually less experienced (thereby, more dangerous).

Here in the U.S. we have hippies bitching about how the government is a "police state" while at the same time demanding helmet laws. Personal responsibility be damned.

Zakkaliciousness said...

I agree. I let them take a wide berth.

Anonymous said...

"Children under 14 are not at all at risk of head injury on bikes, so there is no need for them to wear one. Older children, over 15, are more at risk, but that risk is still low."

I twice had concussions from cycling accidents when I was under 14. I am still subject to regularly occurring debilitating headaches and a some other annoying neurological "quirks" though I cannot be sure that they are directly related to those head injuries. I'll keep wearing my helmet.

Anonymous said...

love the site, but i have to say your rants against helmets are tedious and tiring. i think there is a point at which (and you're past this) that you've stated the case, now it's probably best to move on.

helmets... or no helmets... **yawnnnn**

Anonymous said...

In the US, it is very bad. Not wearing a helmet, is, as we say, the new smoking. You deserve to die. Any story involving cyclist vs. car always mentions whether the cyclist had a helmet or not. One stands the chance that one's health insurance will not pay for any injuries if a helmet is not worn (this is not a standard or stated policy, but it has been used against cyclists on a case by case basis, especially if they are seeking monetary damages from the driver's insurance company). This may be a tedious topic to some, but the critically ignored facts need to be repeated. Go, Dutch ! :-)

Luis Peters said...

I like the Radlust campaign http://www.radlust.info/en/

twodeadpoets said...

There are times I think it wise to wear a helmet and other times I feel it unnecessary but I wear one most of the time - usually because I don't want the hassle or guilt trip from others NOT because I agree with them. I've actually had parents stop me and tell me that I'm a bad example to their children... What the fuuu?!

It's a personal choice and I get pretty frustrated when others push their agenda onto those (me) who would rather that they stick their helmet up their own arse.

stevo9er said...

I am in the US and I never wear a helmet. At intersections (probably the most dangerous areas of my trip) I am very cautious and always make eye contact with drivers and wait for them to slow and stop.

The funny thing is I always see cyclists with helmets dash into intersections off of sidewalks and MUPs but they are wearing their helmets; it is ridiculous.

The closest I have come to hitting my head is while doing a track stand at a light, but I was going zero MPH, so I was in more danger of not being able to stop laughing then incurring any serious injuries.

Cyclo said...

The best advice is at http://cyclehelmets.org/ - and it is interesting to see that a helmet (even one that is fitted correctly) can increase chances of head injury. Here in Colchester, UK (a Government-sponsored Cycling Town!) we prefer to leave the decision to individual users after pointing out sources for advice. In some accidents (falling and hitting your head on a kerb) a helmet may help; in others, it will have the opposite effect. Basically, if you wouldn't cycle without a helmet wear one, if you're confident, then don't. The new emphasis here in the UK is on Bikeability training, as we won't have (by and large) the network of cycle paths as seen in Holland and Denmark.

Robert P said...

@ anon: "love the site, but i have to say your rants against helmets are tedious and tiring."

My guess is that the fact-mongering will stop when the fear-mongering from the pro-helmet lobby has been put to bed.

What's needed is *more* voices of reason, not fewer- and I learned something new from this post, so it wasn't a total re-hash.

And if you're tired of the debate, may I politely suggest skipping blog posts with the word 'helmet' in the title? ;-)

P.S. Z- nice to see your message quoted in an Irish daily newspaper yesterday. Sadly, now all my colleagues know where my better ideas are stolen from! :D

Anonymous said...

When I was a Child,I was knocked down by a Car . I thought the Road was clear and I ran across to the other side,a Car came out of nowhere and hit me . I got a Broken Leg. Two Years ago some Car nudged me off my Bike on the Cycle Lane on the Commute in the Morning.I was more worried about the Bike being Damaged than me.I got a Graze on my Leg.A few Years ago ,i was in my own Little Housing Estate and coming down to an Intersection with a Hedge on my Right. To late I did not see the Car until the Last Second and Jammed on the Brakes and went over the Handlebars Hurting my Hands that I used to break my Fall.Result I am more careful of Intersections,and I always make sure that nothing is coming before turning in Future. I have never Hit my Head all through Childhood and Adulthood ,and now I am 56. I wore a Helmet a couple of times and when Touring and I could never get used to them, they were so uncomfortable. I am an Average Pleasure Rider and City Cyclist and not a Speed Cyclist and I dont see the need for a Helmet. Now if I had A road Racing Bike traveling at 30 Plus mph then I would wear a Helmet not as a Protection from Cars but from other Cyclists and falling off the Bike. Polystyrene is no protection against 1 1/2 Tonnes of Car. Dublin Ireland.

Anonymous said...

Corporate propaganda and a misguided public health community is largely responsible for the Helmet Harpies in the the US. Strangely, this is given credibility by a screwed-up health insurance system and a twisted, but persistent, libertarian view that is so car-headed it boggles the mind.

Keep up the good work


m said...

Insisting that cyclists should wear helmets to protect them from cars is, apart from being based on exaggerated perception about risk and helmet benefit, just morally wrong. It is like saying non-smokers should wear face masks for protection. When will we insist pedestrians wear helmets?

And then all these "analogies" with other protective gear. Seat belts are (a) more effective, (b) a LOT less inconvenient, (c) protecting you in an activity (driving) that is much more dangerous without any outside source of danger than cycling. The correct analogy would be car occupants wearing helmets, and/or five-point harnesses and fire-retardant suits, as car racing drivers do.

JerzyUk said...

I find it odd that no one ever points out the potential cost caused by accidents involving cyclists that are not wearing helmets. In countries with socialised medicine, this is some thing to consider. Why should my tax money go towards paying for someone who "didn't want to mess up there hair."

That said, I do understand the point about helmets only being affective against crashes that rarely happen. However, I know quite a few people who have fallen off their bikes (rode over stones/sticks and then woken up later on) and their helmets helped.

Also, I take issue with the point about children under 14 not needing helmets. Where is the evidence for this? I think that if you are going to post information like this, some sort of external references are needed.

This might sound like an agitated post, but I actually really enjoy this blog and agree with promoting cycling rather than promoting helmet wearing. However, I think the issue is more complicated than "do not promote helmets because then less people will cycle."

Cyclo said...

Jerzy, let's turn your argument inside out: if people are put off cycling because they have to wear helmets (and they are, the evidence is there) then they probably won't get the exercise they need for a healthy life; if this happens, they are more likely to become overweight and/or obese, draining the resources of the NHS with all the associated problems over several years. Promote helmets > reduce cycling > increase the cost of social health care > far more taxes than a few accidents involving people with no helmets.
As I posted before, make people aware of both sides of the argument (helmets can increase the risk of certain injuries) and let each decide on an individual basis. I may be involved in the helmet debate here, but I don't preach about it face-to-face: the only way someone finds out my view is if they ask (and "they" are usually a motorist) "Why aren't you wearing a helmet?"

JerzyUk said...

Good point Cyclo. However, I think at lot of the points being made here (except for the one about promoting helmets causes a reduction in cycling, which I agree with and understand) are quite hypothetical. You point out that less people cycling could cost the NHS a lot of money because they wouldn't be getting the exercise they need. First, they could be getting their exercise elsewhere, and second the cost of dealing with a major head trauma is a lot higher than dealing with someone who is overweight.

Also, I am not in favour of promoting helmets; I never said that. I'm just not convinced that I should abandon my helmet just yet.

What head injuries can helmets increase the risk off? I tried googling around but I couldn't find anything and I would be interested to know.

Zakkaliciousness said...

Cyclo answered for me. The benefits of a cycling population are 20 times greater than the 'risks' of cycling. On a societal level, it is more important to get people cycling that promoting helmets that scare people off.

This is the recommendation of the European Cyclists Federation and the EU, as well as many national bodies. The British CTC share this view, too.

The Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation has a number of articles and analysis of how helmets may contribute to injuries.

Cyclo said...

After a few years of wearing a helmet, it becomes like a security blanket ... I remember feeling so vulnerable when I did it about eight years ago.

Given the protracted nature of obesity-related illnesses, I wonder how many fat people would equal one with a head injury in terms of cost? Don't forget, we're talking diabetes, heart problems, early knee and hip replacements, high blood pressure - all with a staff and medicinal cost.

I think what convinced me was the argument over rotational injuries. There's a lot of data here - http://www.cyclehelmets.org/papers/c2022.pdf - but go down to the section on rotation.

Again, I would stress that if you feel safer wearing a helmet, keep wearing one, especially if you wouldn't cycle otherwise. At the same time, take the advanced section of the Bikeability training scheme, and invest in a yellow flo jacket - these can prevent accidents altogether, not just reduce injury, which is the claim for helmets.


Cyclo said...

Sorry - this isn't part of the helmet debate, but I thought some Brits/French/Dutch/Danes might be interested in this - www.londonfreewheel.com - on Sept 21, when many London streets connecting tourist spots will be open only to bicycles.

Anonymous said...

With Helmets there is always the Danger of the Helmet or Neck Strap catching on an Obstruction Protruding from a Car or Truck and being dragged along by your Neck. It can also happen in the Woods when Trailblazing and Catching your Neckstrap on a Branch. I feel that they Deaden your Head, make you have the Sensation of Numbness. You do not seem to think as clearly as when you have not one on your Head. You become Isolated from your Surroundings, with a Fish Bowel Object on your Bonce. I always felt like Rowan Atkinson in that Series, The Thin Blue Line, Where he played a Daggy Police Inspector who had a Bike and a stupid Helmet on his Head,any time I wore a Helmet.I think good Bike Infrastructure is the Key. Nice big Wide Cycle Lanes, and more Permanent Traffic free Areas in our Cities and Towns for the Benefit of Pedestrians and Cyclists. Norbert Malone. Dublin Ireland.

Yokota Fritz said...

Mikael, you've become influential in the world of bicycling advocacy here in the United States. You constantly have new readers, so I say keep up the good work with your insistence that helmets are, for most cyclists, not that necessary even here in the United States.

I agree that for higher risk activities such as high speed road cycling and mountain biking, helmets should probably be worn. But for just puttering down the road to the corner store or to your work? Helmets are clearly overkill.

Anonymous said...

This is a little off-topic. I uploaded a tv-program 'Cyckelkultur i Danmark' and uploaded it onto Gigasize. Download at


'Cykelkultur i Danmark' (2003, produced by '3113film')

262 MB, 28 minutes, 600x400 MP4

The reporter speaks Swedish, interviewees Danish and French. There are no subtitles (maybe someone can make English subtitles?). The film was shown on FST5 (The Swedish-language department of the Finnish public broadcasting company YLE).

There's a short segment on pre-Velib Paris, filmed in 2003. Someone from the apparently misguided Danish cyclist's association is also interviewed.

David Hembrow said...

I see helmets on utility cyclists as an indicator of how save the cyclists feel.

Whether people will cycle or not depends very much on subjective safety.

Where cyclists feel very safe, such as here in the Netherlands, people don't feel the need to wear helmets, fluorescent clothing etc, and everyone will cycle.

Where people feel ill-at-ease on a bike, you'll find cyclists wearing special gear, and of course far fewer cyclists.

As I blogged a few days ago, cyclists are the pit canaries of our roads. You can tell a lot about a society by looking at the cyclists.

I'll also point out what happens when a dutch cyclist visits somewhere less friendly. It's the same thing in reverse from what we find when people who normally wear safety gear come and visit us.

Zakkaliciousness said...

thanks for the comments. very kind, yokota fritz! [such a cool name.]

thanks, david! cool blog and post!

Zakkaliciousness said...

and thanks for the link to the documentary film! really cool.

Anonymous said...

In the UK if you do receive a head injury and are not wearing a helmet, the lawyers will try to claim contributory negligence to reduce the size of any claim

Zakkaliciousness said...

Oh, they try, sure. But it's important to point out that no judge has ever ruled FOR the motorist and there have been thousands of cases.

Here's one British solicitor's experience. He specialises in cycling injury accidents.

And here's another one.

So not to worry. Although it is hardly surprising that one of the main helmet lobby groups is the FIA - the intl automobile federation. They want helmets made compulsory so that motorists don't keep losing these cases.

dr2chase said...

David Hembrow nailed it. If you don't feel safe, you're going to opt for gaudy outfits and helmets. The other thing that we now get in the US (and perhaps elsewhere) is very bright bicycle lights made from the new generation of LEDs (I build my own lights, it's much cheaper, but I've got lights like that). This is partly to illuminate bad roads at night, but also because we don't feel safe. (But bright lights don't give you a sweaty head.)

I think the crucial gotcha is "if all else is equal". If helmets did not discourage cycling, if they were not promoted in place of cycling education, if they did not give road designers an excuse to not think harder about our infrastructure, then they would increase safety. Since all else is not equal, helmet laws and pro-helmet policies (that create social stigma for not wearing a helmet) are anti-safety. However, that does not mean that a helmet does not increase safety of an individual, and you should not overstate your case; the lack of studies cited could be caused by (1) the age of any such studies (hence, not easily found on the internet) or (2) the difficulty of ethically and correctly devising such a study. I have seen other cyclists in accidents where the helmet displayed substantial damage that (to my eye) would have sent the cyclist to the hospital, but instead they walked away. I've been in accidents with cars, have seen accidents with cars, and have friends who were in accidents with cars, where the main effect of the car was not to crush or energetically fling the cyclist, but instead merely caused the cyclist to quickly and badly lose control, or be forced off the road into obstacles at cyclist speed; a helmet helps in such low-speed accidents. And I have never heard of someone being snagged by a helmet strap; I am sure it has happened to someone somewhere, perhaps riding off-road, but that is indeed in the realm of "can I get a citation for that?"

There's an additional factor to watch for; in countries where cycling is done right, the accident rate is so low that there's not much more that helmets can do to help -- if the accident rate is actually zero, then helmets are completely useless. Here in the US, there's more accidents where helmets can help, and we won't be doing cycling right for some years yet.

So, on to your main point, yes, the Danes are being idiots, but please don't extrapolate to the US yet -- we're not even as smart as that, because we lack the policies and infrastructure necessary to make helmet-wearing superfluous.

Andy B from Jersey said...

Did anyone read the post below (Make sure you wear your helmet when you drive!) that is linked this one?

The opinion that he quotes is one of the best I've read about the hypocrisy of cycle helmet laws in the face of overwhelming evidence that helmets for car drivers would be much more effective in preventing brain injuries in a broader public health perspective.

A must read after this once again excellent post about bicycle helmets.

Anonymous said...

I live in California, where adults don't have to wear helmets. Most don't wear them and they are hopping curbs, running lights, riding recklessly.

I think it's a gross generalization to say that helmet wearers feel invincible. I have yet to see someone in a helmet riding recklessly. That could also be because most people here are scared to ride because cars dominate. Our society is car oriented and anything else "doesn't belong here."

I wear a helmet because I was hit by a car, while not wearing a helmet. Although I didn't experience any head trauma, my health insurance company would not pay my medical bills because I wasn't wearing a helmet. Ya, it's a screwed up policy, but when you have to spend the next 10 years paying $500 a month to pay off the bills, the helmet suddenly looks pretty appealing.

I think in Denmark and the Netherlands and everywhere else where bikes are treated as equals to autos, helmets are stupid for all the reasons you mentioned. But the US is a different beast that does not value health, happiness, or alternative transport. Until our policies change, you should not blanket people wearing helmets in such a negative way.

THAT is what creates challenges to increasing cycling over here. Our cycling problems require a different approach.

Zakkaliciousness said...

we focus on the danish experience here on the blog. we know it's different elsewhere.

when riding here, it's generally the few with helmets who fly past to, run red lights and are more reckless.

Cyclo said...

Anonymous's assessment of cyclists' behaviour in California is interesting. At a recent British CTC conference, the argument was that many UK cyclists lacked respect for traffic rules, etc, because they themselves were not respected by either the transport authorities (lack of provision) or many drivers. It was summed up by Conservative Party leader David Cameron being secretly filmed by a national newspaper as he cycled across London. A series of very minor traffic violations were necessary in order for him to make an effective, direct cycle journey.

Anonymous said...

dr2chase attempted to make the US sound dangerous, to justify promoting helmets.

Sorry, my experience and my data searches show the opposite. The US may have more injuries per km ridden than, say, the Netherlands, but the danger of US cycling is low by any rational standard. Cycling is safe by comparison to things like playing basketball or walking near traffic. Really, far more pedestrians die due to head injuries. What's next, walking helmets???

He claims to have seen damaged helmets that, to his eye, prevented hospital trips. Sorry, but if national data show no reduction in head injuries to match the many helmet cracks, then a damaged helmet does NOT prove anyone was protected. Check the New York Times, July 29, 2001 - head injuries per cyclist have actually _risen_ with American helmet use.

Think! If "protective styrofoam jogging shoes" became fashionable, would every dented sneaker "prove" it saved a broken foot?

I've bike all over and all the way across America, for over 60 years. It's not dangerous. And even if it were, these styrofoam caps wouldn't cure it. They're a scam.

dr2chase said...

Statistically, the US IS more dangerous to cyclists than Northern Europe. Once the accident rate falls low enough, helmets are clearly superfluous.

In addition, I don't just "claim" to have seen damaged helmets (nice snark, "anonymous", if that is your real name); in two cases, I saw them, and in one case a guy I cycled with at time trials described his own accident vividly. The helmet damage I saw was deep gouges in the plastic from sliding across pavement gravel; the damage described to me was "split clean in half, with the foam compressed down to 1/4 inch".

I agree that the national statistics for the US don't back this up; however, those are not as definitive as the European stats (because those show a very low accident rate, that clearly defines an upper limit on the benefit from helmets), and there are plenty of confounding factors over the same period of time, including selection effects ("safety-minded people drive Volvos, hence Volvos are safe") and changes to cars. And it may very well be that kid helmet laws actually did reduce safety by driving kids off of bicycles, losing us even that critical mass of cyclists. That is -- the NY Times reports a group statistic, not an individual statistic.

BUT, having seen actual damage to two helmets, and having had a first-hand description of helmet damage, I think it is obvious that for an individual, in the US, a helmet increases safety, if it does not dissuade you from riding your bike. If the inconvenience of the helmet sends you to your car, then no, you should not wear the helmet, because the car is more dangerous to your health than unhelmeted cycling, even in the US.

In a low-biking-culture like the US, you might even argue that helmet use is a safety-prisoner's-dilemma; if you wear the helmet, you gain can a small margin in individual safety, but when many people wear helmets, it makes biking look less attractive and you lose the critical mass of cyclists and reduce safety (thus increasing the individual utility of helmets). It is the nature of the prisoner's dilemma that a rational person would defect -- they would wear the helmet. And I generally try to be a rational person. Prisoner's dilemmas are rarely fixed with individual action; usually, it takes collective action, meaning laws, changes to infrastructure, etc.

twodeadpoets said...

Well said Dr2Chase

Rasmus Eliasen said...

I have fallen once in my life. I was 12 years old and I banged my head full speed in the road. Luckily I wore a helmet.

That is all I can say to this website.

Mikael said...

Feel free to include your proof, rasmus. preferably scientific. emotional propaganda like your statement comes cheap.

and have a read here while you gather your proof together.

looking forward to hearing from you.