The Helmeted Cyclist as an “Indicator Species”

There are some striking passages in the new “Cycling in the Netherlands” report (via David Hembrow).

Wearing a bicycle helmet for daily trips is unusual in the Netherlands. Only competitive cyclists or mountain bikers tend to wear a helmet for their sport. Some parents give young children bicycle helmets. Usually the helmet is simply packed away for good before the offspring are 10 years old. There is certainly no support for mandatory helmeting. The fear exists that making it mandatory would cause a drop in bicycle use.

Sound dangerous? No, the reverse.

To talk about the relationship of bike helmets to safety is, it seems, to approach the situation in the wrong way. A useful analogy, I think, is to consider the presence or absence of certain species of birds in our environment. The near-disappearance of the peregrine falcon several decades ago was, it turned out, an indicator of the presence of toxic contaminants in our midst (it wasn’t just a bird problem, it was a human problem); we addressed the problem (somewhat), and the falcons returned. Conversely, the appearance of a flock of bike helmets could be read as a sign of safe and responsible individual behavior, or it could represent a species under attack in an unsustainable environment. To take another example, various species of woodpeckers have been on the decline, not just because of habitat loss, but because of the decline of natural processes, like fire, that give them the habitat they need. There too is a metaphor for cycling culture — without habitat, without the right habitat, a species won’t thrive. Given the Netherlands’ experience, helmets matter rather little — much more important are facilities, riders, enforcement, incentives, and the broader culture comprised of these things.

There’s all sorts of other interesting stuff in the report; e.g., this passage:

Most children are taught to ride a bicycle by their parents or a brother or sister at a very early age. This is less apparent amongst the growing of migrant population. Traditionally the bicycle is not part of Turkish or Moroccan culture. Often the parents cannot ride a bicycle, so no suitable bicycles are available in the household. In large cities with many migrants, extra attention is thus devoted to cycling skills in primary school. To ensure that all children gain cycling experience, the Amsterdam municipality makes bicycles available to schools, for instance. In a number of cities cycling courses for migrant women are also held. They can then master cycling in a protected environment. Many participants enjoy this as an opportunity to develop more skills.

The city giving bikes to schools — amazing! Here (in NYC) we read about community resistance to bike lanes so as not to interrupt the smooth vehicular conveyance of children to schools, typically in oversized vehicles that themselves are a threat to the urban environment.

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This entry was posted on Friday, March 6th, 2009 at 1:10 pm and is filed under Bicycles, Cyclists, Traffic safety. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

13 Responses to “The Helmeted Cyclist as an “Indicator Species””

  1. Joe Says:

    Correlation does not equal causation!

    What happens if you exclude the Netherlands outlier? There’s a pretty tight bunching in the middle. It still wouldn’t prove anything, but what is the adjusted r^2?

  2. Jesse Says:

    That’s fascinating. I bummed they didn’t include stats on the ‘States for comparison.

    I think it has to do a bit with ‘traffic culture’, no? I remember discussing this topic in one of my social theory courses. There are a number of implicit laws regarding biking use that conventional law has little influence over (such as running through stop signs around here in Colorado). If very few people generally ride bikes, then that means drivers are less likely to ride a bike from time to time and are therefore less understanding of implicit biking rules. If more people bike, more people understand the unwritten culture of biking, then there are less accidents.

  3. chrismealy Says:

    I think Seattle is ground zero for the bike helmet thing. The hospitals around here have had a helmet campaign going for about 20 years (google harborview bike helmet). The local trauma experts seem to think it’s reduced serious injury. Maybe the difference is the hills. Seattle is really, really hilly. It’s easy to go way too fast downhill.

    I used to think not wearing a helmet was as dumb as not wearing a seat belt in a car, but I’m on the fence after reading David Hembrow’s blog for a while, and now reading about the divergent paths in Denmark (more helmets and less biking) and the Netherlands (no helmets and more biking). I think David Hembrow is on to something with his subjective safety approach, and helmets sure do convey “this is dangerous!”

    I’m going to keep my helmet on for now though.

  4. Tom Vanderbilt Says:

    Chris, just as an aside, I’m not advocating not wearing a helmet in the U.S., but noting that the presence of helmets in the U.S. is a sign of how our system is out of whack, how much more fear (rightfully so) U.S. cyclists exhibit compared to their Dutch peers. Joe, rather than outlier I would suggest the Netherlands represents an exemplar toward which every other country should be moving. I mean, the production values of that cycling report alone show how committed they are.

  5. Jack Says:

    It is about culture and attitudes that lead to safety. No laws can replace or duplicate what is accomplished when everyone has respect for all road users and each act responsibly. We have developed a driving culture where the person behind the wheel cannot relate or empathize with pedestrians and cyclists.

    The problems grow over time as another generation of children are being driven to school (not walking or cycling) even though they live within a few blocks. Parents tell me that “they’re scared, worried” but those are convenient excuses. Yes it takes time to teach your children how to cycle on dangerous streets and it would be quite helpful to have supportive infrastructure to reduce the fears of other parents.

    Mikael at (Hembrow links it) wrote a great piece on this this week and how the Danish Safety Council and Cyclist Federation are scaring cyclists with their helmet push. The fewer cyclists on the streets the more dangerous they become for everyone, even for those with helmets.

  6. Nick Says:

    The interesting thing about the US is that the vast majority of injuries to cyclists requiring medical attention — about 85% — involve no one other than the cyclist. The biggest danger to US cyclists is themselves — they fall off their bikes, ride off the road and ride into things. You could eliminate all automobile/bicycle crashes in the US and it would still have an accident rate many times that of the Netherlands.

    What’s clear is that the Dutch are just better at cycling. It’s also clear that experience level matters a great deal in cycling safety; in the US experienced cyclists are dramatically less likely than average to have accidents — and the average cyclist is quite inexperienced! So if you truly want to measure the effect of environment, you need to correct for experience level. I have never heard of a study that does so.

  7. Michael O'Brien Says:

    Portland’s experience seems to support the proposition that an increase in bicycle riders on the streets has the paradoxical effect of reducing the rate of collisions and injuries. Drivers learn to expect bicyclists on the streets and eventually they can coexist. This adaptation has been greatly accelerated by Portland’s impressive efforts to create suitable infrastructure for bikes: not just designated bike lanes, but also turn lanes and protected green “boxes” at intersections, and even a separate “highway” for bikes. Needless to say, with an average of five deaths per year, most Portland bicyclists still wear helmets.

    No doubt the Dutch fatality rate is reduced by the amazing system of separate bike “freeways” that parallel the main highways between cities.

  8. David Hembrow Says:

    It’s not just the numbers cycling. There can also be no doubt that the infrastructure in the Netherlands leads to lower injuries.

    As a cyclist here you are very rarely in a situation which can either be perceived as dangerous when cycling, or that is dangerous (there are three types of safety).

    And as for cyclists as an indicator ? I covered that before

  9. Henrietta Sherwin Says:

    Does a helmet make the person wearing it feel safer and therefore ride faster? – this compensatory effect was noted with seatbelts in cars. Presumably if you fall off or have a crash at greater speed, the injuries are likely to be worse.

    I interviewed a German cyclist who had recently arrived in the UK and her first reaction was to laugh at all the cyclists wearing helmets. Within two weeks she had bought a helmet simply because the driving behaviour felt more threatening and there were less facilities for cyclists compared to Germany. It is breaking this vicious cycle – cycling feels dangerous and is perceived as such(exacerbated by helmets) meaning fewer people want to cycle though more cyclists would mean it would be safer.

  10. Michael O'Brien Says:

    Jesse writes: “There are a number of implicit laws regarding biking use that conventional law has little influence over (such as running through stop signs around here in Colorado).”

    If cyclists routinely ignore stop signs and red lights, maybe we should reconsider whether they should be required to obey them in the same manner as cars. Besides, it makes little sense to have to stop your bike at a vacant intersection, especially if your toes are clipped to the pedals.

    To reduce conflicts with other vehicles at intersections, cyclists at a stop sign or red light could simply be required to yield (to quote existing Oregon law) “to any vehicle in the intersection or approaching so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard during the time when the [cyclist] is moving across or within the intersection.” It’s also reasonable to expect cyclists to yield to pedestrians.

    This is what cyclists typically do anyway. It makes little sense to treat bicycles as the legal equivalent of a 3,000-pound mass of steel and glass.

  11. Ed Hillsman Says:

    I get a 404 error “not found” when I click on the link to the report. Through David Hembrow’s blog I found the report at

    I would also be curious to see a daytime/nighttime breakdown of bicycling accidents. This morning (first Monday after the time change) I noticed two cyclists on the way to work, in the dark. Neither had any light or obvious reflector. This was my drive-to-work day. Other days I bicycle in with helmet and good lights.

    chrismealy says “Maybe the difference is the hills. Seattle is really, really hilly. It’s easy to go way too fast downhill.” True. Seattle also is often wet, which means the streets are slicker, brakes don’t work as quickly for either cars or bikes, and visibility is poorer, especially in the dark. That’s a lot of added risk factors.

  12. electric Says:

    Sure, it’s safe to not wear a helmet in the Netherlands or Denmark… but people here shouldn’t start walk out the door without one. Don’t assume we’re in the same situation(i.e. let the global village fool you!). If you do i’m sure reality will “smack” you in the face as it often does!

    Another recent inflammatory anti-helmet article. Which starts to claim helmets cause injuries…

    As far as canaries in coal mines go, you may be onto something Vanderbilt, but it’s no secret to me.

  13. lagatta à montréal Says:

    Seattle and Vancouver are very hilly, but they are no wetter than Amsterdam or Copenhagen. The Scandinavian cities, warmed by the Gulf Stream, are far north of any major cities in North America, so in Copenhagen – not to mention Swedish and Norwegian cities! – commuters are going to work and heading home in darkness in autumn and winter.

    electric, I have no idea where your “here” is.

    A minority of cyclists are helmeted here in Montréal. And with more cyclists in recent years, accident rates have fallen.

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