Are mandatory bicycle helmet laws a public health problem?

Blog, Regulation, Steve Lafleur

A recent New York Times article by Elizabeth Rosenthal took on the seemingly uncontroversial notion that mandating bicycle helmets is a worthwhile public health initiative. Mandatory helmet laws reduce bicycle ridership. Some people don’t want to wear helmets because they don’t like the way they look, and others don’t want to worry about dragging around a helmet. Given the health benefits of cycling, mandatory helmet laws that reduce ridership can only be considered successful if the lost health benefits come along with a sizable reduction in bicycle related injuries. They don’t.

Consider the following excerpt:

“Pushing helmets really kills cycling and bike-sharing in particular because it promotes a sense of danger that just isn’t justified — in fact, cycling has many health benefits,” says Piet de Jong, a professor in the department of applied finance and actuarial studies at Macquarie University in Sydney. He studied the issue with mathematical modeling, and concludes that the benefits may outweigh the risks by 20 to 1.

He adds: “Statistically, if we wear helmets for cycling, maybe we should wear helmets when we climb ladders or get into a bath, because there are lots more injuries during those activities.” The European Cyclists’ Federation says that bicyclists in its domain have the same risk of serious injury as pedestrians per mile traveled.

The evidence against mandatory helmet laws is so strong that even New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg — known for heavy handed public health initiatives such as banning large sodas — rejected mandatory bicycle helmet laws for his city.

The move towards mandatory helmet laws is yet another example of public health fever. While politicians and activists pushing mandatory helmet laws do so with good intentions, a cool headed look at the issue suggests that bicycle helmets do more harm than good.