07 July 2012

Open Letter to Danish MPs Against Helmet Law Proposal

FRB Hospital Bike
Last year, a proposal for bicycle helmet legislation was tabled here in Denmark. Copenhagenize Design Co. and Bicycle Innovation Lab promptly gathered a list of experts and we sent an open letter to all the members of the Danish parliament - and to the Danish press.

The bicycle helmet law was defeated! Rationality prevailed. Here is the letter we wrote to the papers and to every MP in the parliament.

The letter is also online here, on the Copenhagenize Consulting website.

Experts: Vote no to the mandatory bike helmet proposal and strengthen public health!
Danish experts in traffic, mobility and cycling recommend that all members of the Danish Parliament vote NO to the proposed bicycle helmet law.

You should vote NO to mandatory bicycle helmets in Denmark because:

- Denmark is the world's safest bicycle nation, along with The Netherlands.

- Cycling levels are falling and mandatory helmet laws further reduce the number of cyclists. We need MORE cyclists, not fewer.

- It will harm Denmark's leading role and international brand as a bicycle-friendly nation.

- Documentation for the effectiveness of bicycle helmets is, at best, doubtful and countered by numerous scientific articles around the world.

Copenhagenize Design Company and Bicycle Innovation Lab have teamed up to contact the country's leading experts in traffic, mobility and cylcing and get them to join our declaration. Their names can be found at the end of this letter. 

Why vote no?
Many European countries have already rejected bicycle helmet law proposals. Among them are the UK, France, Italy, Poland, Switzerland and Norway. The reason is that there isn't any conclusive scientific evidence that a helmet law will benefit the public health.

In addition, there isn't one single place in the world where bicycle helmet usage has reduced the number of serious head injuries. The worst thing about a helmet law is that we risk having fewer people choose the bicycle. A catastrofe for a society that is plagued by lifestyle diseases, rising obesity and children that don't get enough exercise. We have to INCREASE cycling levels.

Even the European Council for Ministers of Transport have made it clear:

"... even the official promotion of helmets may have negative consequences for bicycle use. If the importance of wearing a helmet is stressed, the implied message is that cycling is extraordinary dangerous. The report on cycling shows, however, that refraining from bicycle use has far greater negative consequences for health than increasing bicycle use without the wearing of helmets. To prevent helmets having a negative effect on the use of bicycles, the best approach is to leave the promotion to the manufacturers and shopkeepers".
European Council of Ministers of Transport - National Policies to Promote Cycling - 2004

We say no to bicycle helmet legislation in Denmar and our conclusion is the same as the European Cyclists Federation, the Danish Cyclists Federation, as well as cycling organisations in Holland, UK, Germany, France, Belgium, Ireland, etc.


- A bicycle helmet isn't even designed to protect the head against life-threatening impacts. It is designed - and tested - to protect the head against non-life threatening injuries in solo accidents under 20 km/h. A helmet isn't designed to help in situations where a cyclist is hit by a car or truck. Promotion of helmets - not to mention a law - has a very serious consequence: people stop cycling. We've seen it all over the world. Between 20-40% have been scared off their bikes and that impacts the public health. 

The advantages of cycling daily are 20 times greater than the marginal risk of hitting your head. 

When we are dealing with something as important at the public health and sustainable transport forms, the documentation has to be watertight. We don't think it is regarding the proposal of making helmets mandatory for children under 15.

Denmark is the world's safest bicycle nation, along with the Netherlands. The number of head injuries keeps falling in Denmark and has done so since the 1960s, apart from minor, short-term periods. This is due to better infrastructure, traffic safety intiatives, the "safety in numbers" principle and people paying better attention. Daily cycling prevents a long line of illnesses and can extend life by up to seven years. We shouldn't risk having fewer cyclists - and certainly not children.

What is the state of cycling in Denmark right now?

The number of cycled kilometres in Denmark has fallen by 30% since the beginning of the 1990s. If Danes still cycled that extra 30% we could save at least 2880 lives a year. (Source: Lars Bo Andersen, Professor. University of Southern Denmark). Instead of working towards increasing cycling levels, we see a proposal that will ruin our bicycle culture.

The number of cyclists continues to fall in Denmark. Copenhagen is actually the only city in the western world where cycling levels have fallen over the past few years. We need to increase these levels. We can't do it with helmet legislation, but by creating better and safer conditions for the nation's cyclists.

Harming Denmark's strongest international brand

Bicycle helmets are basically misunderstood treatment of symptoms. We should, instead, discuss what kind of cities we wish to live in. If we wish to do something positive for safety, health and the environment we should arrange our cities so that they are safe for pedestrians and cyclists and we should give these groups first priority in our planning. The European Parliament doesn't want to legislate helmets but instead recommends 30 km/h zones as a solution. Another example is the 8-80 Cities concept - which means that cities should be designed for people from 8-80 years old - so that they can move around their city safely.

Among the cycling organisations in Europe, the new Danish law proposal has been met with stunned amazement. The proposal is in sharp contrast to the image of Denmark as a role model for cycling and it can harm our unique brand as a cycling nation. Cycling in Denmark creates jobs and export potential. These are put at risk when you don't understand the international consequences of the unfortunate messages we send.

It is through testing, experimenting and playful desire that Denmark wears the jersey as one of the world's best cycling nations - not through legislation and restrictions. Therefore, all the experts signing this letter encourage the members of Parliament to vote NO to the proposal about helmet legislation for children under 15.

What can you do instead?

An effective strategy for saving lives and preventing injuries is lowering the speed limit to 30 km/h in densely populated areas. This is in place in over 100 European cities. We would experience a fall in killed and serious injured cyclists and pedestrians AND motorists between 25-40% THAT is effective lawmaking.

Traffic calming in cities and better, wider and safer bicycle infrastructure have the same positive effect and we encourage you to propose and support such plans.

We are at your disposal

Each of the experts who have signed this letter can expand on why a bicycle helmet law is a bad idea based on our individual expertise. We are at your disposal if you want to know more. Feel free to contact us. We can also recommend international experts through our networks.

Best regards:

Mikael Colville-Andersen - CEO – Copenhagenize Design Co.
Lasse Schelde - Head of Project – Bicycle Innovation Lab
Professor, dr.med.,Lars Bo Andersen - University of Southern Denmark

Claus Hyldahl - Doctor in Orthopedic Surgery - Lægernes Test Center
Thomas Krag - Mobility adviser and former head of the Danish Cyclists Federation

Malene Freudendal-Pedersen – Asst Professor - Institute of Environment, Society and Spatial Change (MOSPUS)
Anne-Katrine Braadgaard Harders - Civil engineer and Ph.D student - DTU/AAU
Lise Drewes Nielsen - Professor -

Institute of Environment, Society and Spatial Change (MOSPUS)
Christer Ljungberg, CEO, Trivector. Expert in sustainable transport. Sweden.

One of our colleagues who signed the letter is Prof. Lars Bo Andersen from the University of Southern Denmark. He added a letter of his own to the open letter. The pdf of his letter, in Danish, is viewable here.

But we thought it relevant to translate his text;

Recommendation of a No vote on the bicycle helmet law proposal

By Professor Lars Bo Andersen, University of Southern Denmark

I have researched cycling and health over the past two decades and have published more articles and papers about the health benefits of cycling as transport than any other researcher in the world.

Mortality among cyclists is 30% lower than among those in the population who transport themselves through passive transport. Today, such a large percentage of the population cycles that this reduction in mortality results in a significant number of lives saved.

- According to Danmarks Statistik the cycling levels fell 30% between 1980-2000.
- This fall means that the total mortality (within the same age and gender) has risen by 4.8%.
- Roughly 60,000 people die each year in Denmark and the actual reduction in cycling equals 2880 deaths.
- This is in relation to the fact that only 30 cyclists died in traffic in 2011.

If a bicycle helmet law causes a fall in cycling levels, as it is expected to do, it will be cause a great deal of damage in the health of the Danish people.

Best regards
Lars Bo Andersen

Brilliant. Thanks, Lars. 

If you're wondering which individual was behind this proposal (and it's always an individual) it's Andreas Steenberg, from the political party Radikale. In email exchanges with him it is clear that he hasn't bothered looking at the science, the risks and the negative effect on public health. He is just as uninformed as Pia Olsen Dyhr from the Socialist People's Party who was bikeslapped here on the blog a couple of years ago.


lagatta à montréal said...

Bravo. I'm heartened that there is an initiative against this dreadful proposal. Denmark and the Netherlands are seen as beacons in the effort to increase everyday cycling in normal clothing.

The helmet lobby seems to have a policy of starting out from restrictions on children and teenagers - of course their real aim is an all-ages law. And as you've seen in BC and Australia, it is very hard to secure repeal of such legislation, despite the dire public health impact thereof.

I've been reading studies showing that the decline in physical activity (organised sport, but also cycling, walking in towns or nature etc) among girls begins much earlier than once thought - some studies indicate that this decline is as early as the age of ten.

It is patently obvious that a helmet law would do much to exacerbate this problem, at an age when girls - and boys - are very concerned about how their peers view them.

Fortunately the most recent helmet proposal here has been rejected - so far it will not be submitted as a bill in the Québec National Assembly, but we must remain vigilant.

Anders Rudkjaer Norgaard said...

Benny Engelbrecht har forstået sagen


Miles Bader said...

This letter is very good, clear and to the point without a lot of rhetoric.

[Maybe it's mostly Americans, but I've noticed that sometimes anti-helmet people get a bit ... er, carried away with their hatred of helmets.

It's important to remember that helmets are not evil (they have their uses), the problem is helmet laws ... and maybe more generally the tendency to approach complex issues with ill-thought-out slogan-based reasoning...]

Downfader said...

I think its sometimes wrong to use the term "anti-helmet", too, Miles.

A lot of Brits get rather passionate about stopping helmet legislation (we tend to have an attempt at legislation every 3-5 years, Bills have been written but thankfully never pass into law).

What can come across as anti is actually a situation where cyclists are out-numbered, feeling very much attacked by the media (eg http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2168939/Jumping-red-lights-Putting-pedestrians-peril-Why-tartars-wheels-think-law.html and co), attacked by those that don't cycle (one of many videos popping up: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5PqTlvfavM )... the feeling becomes one that we're in the minority in parts of the world and to bring in legislation would very much kill off cycling as a mode of transport.

The term pro-choice has been adopted in the UK. Many of whom who consider themselves such, myself included, do wear helmets at times. But its a whole different style of riding in places like the UK, the USA, Australia and New Zealand as a result of the minority of it.

USbike said...

I guess it all comes to the reason why such a law is really being proposed. If it's as innocent as naively believing (without doing adequate research) that helmets are going to improve safety, there may still be hope. If there's actually a hidden agenda (lobbying, bribery, etc.) then no amount of scientific evidence, logic or reasoning is going to get them to change their mind. Unless, I suppose, a large fraction of the population demands otherwise.

Har said...

I live in Holland and I would hate to see the Danes being forced to wear helmets, as we would be next. I don't know what idiots your political parties consist of, but I'm sure we have them over here as well, only too willing to oblige the car-industry.

Frits B said...

@Har: The political parties Mikael refers to are far-left, the regulating kind. The danger in The Netherlands lurks in the medical corner; the latest suggestions that helmet usage should be promoted come from hospital doctors faced with head traumas. The fact that there are far more broken wrists/elbows/legs than skulls as a result of bicycle accidents apparently doesn't count - although I will admit that the consequences of head trauma are much more serious. The fact remains that helmets are of little use in a cyclist v car accident.

Paul Martin said...

Yes, those who cycle the least support helmet laws the most. It's perverse.


Patrick Morgan said...

Our helmet law is a safety and health disaster here in New Zealand - and it's very hard to get rid of.
Cycling dropped by about 30% in Australia when they introduced helmet laws. Don't underestimate this threat to your country's health and safety.

Henrik Berg said...

As much as I dislike this (as well as any other political intervention, that cut's off people's personal responsibility and freedom), one important part of the suggestion seems to have been left out in the original post:
That the law proposal is only for children under the age of 15, and not the bicycling population as a whole. If I'm not mistaken this proposal is very similar to the current helmet law in Sweden.

Aly said...

As an Australian who has lived 7 years in Germany I can say I never felt safer on my bike than riding helmet less in Europe. If they repealed the helmet laws in Australia tomorrow I would probably continue to wear one for most on-road trips (they are required here even on a bike path), at least until the cycling population and infrastructure increased enough to make cycling 'normal' and not just something a minority participate in.

The alternative is to make car drivers wear helmets - I'm sure there are enough studies out there to prove this would have a positive impact on head trauma statistics!

kfg said...

"That the law proposal is only for children under the age of 15 . . ."

That is similar to the law here in NY. Here's how it works:

The law goes into effect and immediately the ridicule and shaming of adults who ride without helmets begins, because they need to set an example - For the children.

As if the adults were responsible for demonstrating childish behavior for children to grow up to emulate.

If you think that laws such as this are actually intended to apply only to children you are off the mark. They are intended as leverage for enforcement of an extra legal social requirement of a desired behavior in the general populace, while maintaining deniability that any compulsion exists.

If the time comes that sufficient compliance is achieved by this method than the compulsion can be made law without fuss or bother and used to define and harass those that refuse to comply as "social deviants" (Hi Sue, keep givin' 'em hell).

Jens said...

While I believe the general gist of the argument, I am having problems following the details. Death rates vary greatly with age, this line of argument assumes that the drop of cycling rates and the reduction of death rate due to cycling is constant across age groups. Or that there is some other hidden mechanism that cancels out any age-specific variability. Also, it seems to me that the argument should be made in terms of life expectancy rather than death rates.

Seattle Cycle said...

This is proof that all good political achievements must be constantly defended - no political discussion is settled forever. Good luck defending freedom from compulsory helmets. It would indeed be a tragedy to lose a beacon such as Denmark - those of us living in regions shackled by helmet laws look to you for inspiration!

Adrienne Johnson said...

With the world economy collapsing, discrimination against immigrants increasing in every "developed" country in the world, the immediate problems of resource availability and distribution becoming obvious to even the most willfully blind among us, no wonder the politicians and fear mongers are going after something like helmet laws. They get people all riled up and talking about silly things that provide no benefit to society so that we stop paying attention to the stuff that is truly important.

Anonymous said...

This sounds like politicians wanting an easy target to make it seem they do something. Using reason with them will not help as they only see the politcal advantage in getting press time rather than helping child safety on Danish roads.

joao pedro barreto said...

Hi Mikael,

I don't know how to contact you directly, so I'm adding a comment here (not related to the post).

A classic case of ignoring the bull in Lisbon, Portugal (yes, one of the countries with a highest car per capita index in the world):

- There was a 3x increase in children hit by cars in Lisboa in June (12 accidents in June with 3-13 year-olds).
Lisbon has 500K inhabitants, and absurdly savage parkings and driving habits (just check this link for examples: passeiolivre.org)

- The response from the local traffic police?
A campaign with the slogan "Play on vacation YES, but NOT near the street!".
Not even one note about driving behaviors.

Link for the campaign:

Joao from Lisbon

Pancho said...

In Argentina, Paraná, a medium size city, bikes also are rising!


Miguel said...


yesterday here in Spain, it was said that the traffic comision in the natioanl parliament decided that helmets will be compulsoty also in the strets (now it's compulsory on roads with exception of moments of great heat).

One of the few good things from thisd comision will be the aproval of cargo bikes (now a legal "hole" in Spain) and allowing bikes with more than one cupant (remember the Madrid case some months ago?).

Bicycle use had barely started here and it's going to get a hard hit

Good luck in Denmark

Anonymous said...

No chance of lobbying defeating this helmet law in Spain? What will happen to all the progress in Barcelona and Seville?

(Also: Mikael, your captchas are too hard to read.)

Greg Spencer said...

It seems doubtful that a lack of science is the problem here. Even so, here's a link to the very latest research on the health threats of helmet laws:

Greg Spencer (cyclingsolution.blogspot.com)

l' homme au velo said...

In Ireland a couple of years ago some Idiot in the Government was proposing compulsory wearing of Helmets but it was shot down. Lots of Cycling organisations and especially Dublin Cycling Campaign lobbied against it and also some Politicians from right and left. There is a lot of good will for Cycling in Government but still there is also the Car Lobbiests too who hate Cycling.This is always lurking around in the background and we have to keep all the Vitriol and anti Cycling attitudes in check from various sources including the news media.This cropped up in the Northern Ireland Parliament with them trying to bring in Compulsory Helmet use as well. But with lobbying from Cyclists from Britain and Ireland Nth and South it was dropped.

There is an understanding now that it should be left to the Individual Cyclists whether they wish to wear them or not. For normal Cycling that does not entail high speeds or coming down steep descents especially in rocky Forests there is no need to use Helmets unless you feel unsafe.The best of luck to you in your campaign. If you could set up an International Petition to Lobby your Government to stop this happening it might help.Dublin Ireland