Why the Dutch don't wear helmets

baby on bike Groningen Netherlands
CC BY-SA 3.0 Zachary Shahan

One of the perennial topics of controversy in the bicycling community is helmets, and the controversial issue is not about which color is prettiest. I won't spend too much time on the backstory, but the controversy is whether or not helmets should be a must (for their skull & brain protection benefits) or left at the shop (because they inhibit bicycling, which results in less bicycling, which makes bicycling less safe). "Must" could mean a legal requirement, or it could simply mean a personally imposed must – it depends on the conversation.

I used to be the director of a nonprofit that was primarily focused on promoting and supporting bicycling in the greater Charlottesville area. I remember publishing the picture that I've used at the top of this article on the front of one of our newsletters and subsequently getting chewed out by some of our members. The feedback wasn't nearly as extreme when I published an article on the unique relationships that Dutch kids have with bicycles here on TreeHugger, but essentially the same discussion was spawned. In this case, however, there were also a lot of Dutch readers (as well as others) who chimed in with their perspective. I found a lot of interesting nuggets in there, so thought I'd summarize and share them here.

First of all, I'll start with the question that got the conversation started: "Why the lack of helmets? The Dutch skulls aren't any more resistant to impact with the ground than anybody else, Or is it that the Dutch: 1. Less litigious than Americans, 2. Have a health care system to handle injuries of all citizens, 3. Isolate bike traffic from automobile traffic? Still seems that it's just good sense to wear a helmet."

On to the responses...

Zachary Shahan/CC BY-SA 3.0

1. Bicycling is super safe in the Netherlands

TreeHugger reader Schrödinger's Cat noted:

You're talking about the Netherlands, where helmet use is almost non-existent, bike use is very high, and yet it has the lowest cycling death and injury rate in the world.

If helmets really were effective, the USA would be the safest place to cycle, right?

...

the Dutch don't need bike helmets because cycling is not an intrinsically dangerous activity – it's the road environment that is dangerous, and the Dutch have created a safe cycling environment.

The majority of head injuries are sustained by car occupants. Perhaps it is motor vehicle drivers and their passengers who should be wearing helmets?

Similarly, from dr2chase:

Because it doesn't make sense -- cycling there is 5 times safer than cycling here in the US. It would make more sense (that is, the risk is higher) to ask you why you don't wear a helmet when you drive your car. To put it differently – your risk of head injury per trip or per hour is higher if you drive a car in the US, than if you ride a bike in the Netherlands.

It doesn't even make that much sense to focus exclusively on bicycle helmets here in the US; biking is riskier, but not a lot riskier. Clear-weather daylight biking is almost certainly safer than driving in the rain at night – yet we don't worry about helmetless nighttime drivers, and we do worry about helmetless daytime bikers.

Also, on the first Groningen article I wrote, dr2chase commented: "Measuring per-trip or per-hour, cycling in the Netherlands is safer than driving in the US (which is not really all that much safer than cycling in the US)."

The issue of whether or not we should be required to wear helmets in cars came up a few times. However, I think an even more apt analogy would be whether or not to wear helmets when jogging. The Dutch bike at a very slow, leisurely pace. You could likely jog alongside many of them. So, I think that the idea of wearing a helmet while bicycling sounds as absurd to a Dutch person as the idea of wearing a helmet while jogging sounds to an American.

Zachary Shahan/CC BY-SA 3.0

2. Helmet requirements discourage bicycling

This second point is one of the biggest arguments against helmet requirements. Continuing his comment on the Dutch-kids post, dr2chase wrote:

It's also Dutch policy not to encourage helmets because overall it is counterproductive; if you could somehow preserve the bicycle use we see today AND also wear helmets, yes, a few deaths would be avoided. But in practice you can't promote helmets without discouraging cycling – where helmets have been made mandatory, cycling levels drop. That has a public health cost -- lack of exercise is far more dangerous than biking without a helmet. The exact value of "far more dangerous" depends on the local risk of cycling – in England the estimate is that per cyclist the risk:reward ratio is about 1:10; here in the US (with our riskier roads) it is about 1:5, but in the Netherlands it is 1:25. That is, for each year of life lost to bicycle crashes in the Netherlands, 25 years are gained from better health because of the exercise.

Guido Bik concurred:

As a Dutch I believe the best reason for not wearing helmets in the Netherlands is because it would discourage cycling (more then you can imagine in a country where cycling is not the main culture). You have to realise a lot of people (especially in the city and students) do everything on the bike. You'll be going to a birthday, pick a quick present at the shop and continue to the address. A lot of people bike to work. Even going to a gala will be done on the bike. Helmets would totally ruin the hair :). Sounds simplistic, but it would be a practical reason to avoid the bike on a lot of occasions. Also: as you make so many trips, putting on your helmet on and of and carrying it with you all the time is quite the hassle.

Zachary Shahan/CC BY-SA 3.0

3. (Some) Dutch cyclists don't feel as safe with helmets on.

I'm not sure how prevalent this one is. I think it's the first I've seen this response. But perhaps it is actually quite common. From Erik:

There is no consensus whether a helmet makes cycling safer: there are several tests which seem to show that the skull itself is protected better but the upper vertebrae are at higher risk. This problem can be solved when using a "full" helmet like on motorcycles and in cars, but for cyclists it decreases the viewing angle thus making cycling more dangerous.

sabelmouse wrote: "having a helmet of any kind on my head irritates and distracts me and makes it more dangerous." I'm not sure if it technically does make bicycling more dangerous, but I have had the same thought many times.

Zachary Shahan/CC BY-SA 3.0

4. Bikers have their own pathways

So, bicycling is much safer in the Netherlands – we got that. But one of the key reasons why it's much safer was highlighted by Liz Almond:

Once you separate out bikes from cars, people don't tend to just spontaneously fall off. Thus you're no more in need of a bike helmet than you are in need of a walking helmet.

Yep, research has shown this over and over again.

A reader from Utrecht, Guido Bik, added a longer but must-read comment to try to better convey to readers how the Dutch system looks:

I believe there is something that a lot of people who have not been in the Netherlands for a long time (unlike you) might not understand. The fact that (cycling) infrastructure is connected to everywhere; it forms a whole. To illustrate this: the other day I was walking in Zwolle and I approached a car and bike tunnel. I was flabbergasted that the sidewalk ended and that I had to walk on the bike-path. I was surprised because effectively all the infrastructure is connected in such a way that whether you are in a car, by bike or on foot, all the paths are connected and lead to everywhere. In other countries this probably compares to the car: you do not expect the road to simply end in nowhere, it should always be connected to other routes (unless it is a dead end street in the city and you have to turn around). In the Netherlands the same goes for sidewalks and cycle-paths. You never stumble upon a dead end, you can always continue everywhere on foot and by bike. Every destination - and I do mean every destination - must be reachable by bike and on foot, as it is by car. (At the moment we are experimenting with cycle highways between cities, for a more straight cycle connection to work.) City Centers and green areas are in fact easier by bike or on foot. You always have the standard trinity: a lane for cars, a lane for bikes and a lane for pedestrians. Only in secluded residential areas bikes and cars share a lane. But because they are always max. 30 km/h zones with speed-signs and speedbumps, the speed is so low that this is not an issue. This interconnected infrastructure is in stark contrast with countries and cities such as London which have just taken their first steps to a cycling infrastructure. Cycling becomes maximally appealing and comfortable when its infrastructure becomes a whole.

Addendum: oy, the US

Many of our readers are Americans. Unfortunately, in the US, there is a different driving and road culture than in most other places. Frankly, it's one that is not as welcome to, or safe for, bicyclists and pedestrians.

S.Nkm noted:

The only country I've seen the majority of people wearing helmets is the US, and they have to, mainly due to how dangerous it is to bike there. It's dangerous because American cyclists are an inferior caste of citizen. In the US, it's OK to be aggressive and it's socially acceptable to behave dangerously toward a cyclist. I know, because I live there. And therefore I feel safer with a helmet, even if it's not going to do anything when 3 ton SUV rolls over my body.

A Dutch person now living in Chicago added:

I agree that it is socially acceptable in the US to be aggressive to bicycles. I grew up in the Netherlands and have been in the US for eight years now.

In the Netherlands it has been socially unacceptable to use a mobile phone when driving for over a decade. In the US you even see police officers texting on their phone whilst driving. If I have a close call with a car it is almost always caused by the driver being on their phone.

Indeed, we have some problems in the US....

Tom Hodgkinson/CC BY-SA 2.0

Arguments for helmets

Of course, there were also many people arguing for wearing helmets. The intent of this article was not to compare or present both sides, but simply to convey why it's harder to find a Dutch person wearing a helmet than it is to find a FOX News anchor who can admit that humans are causing catastrophic global warming. However, to be fair to the other commenters, I'll share their key point.

If it's safer, why not just put the helmet on?

Jeanne Misner commented: "If the adult driving the bike hit a pebble or tripped up somehow, and the child fell to the pavement, he could have a serious head injury. It would make sense to protect the children."

Jim Gordon backed her up: "One little twig that rolls, a wet plastic bag, an ounce of sand, a few wet leaves or a front tire blowout - any one of these things can slam you down to the pavement incredibly fast during a turn. A front tire blowout slammed my head into the pavement and cause a double shoulder separation. Without a helmet I would have been in a head trauma unit with a half million dollar bill."

tony did as well: "Agree re helmets. A few years ago I skidded on a patch of mud and cracked my head on the kerb. Fortunately I was wearing my helmet (which cracked) and since then have always worn a helmet. It was the temple area which hit the kerb, directly over the middle meningeal artery and if that pops, it's probably curtains."

As did GPaudler: "Helmet use should be a personal choice, neither mandated nor shamed. Twice a helmet saved me from injury, or worse, and neither occasion involved speed or another vehicle. I'm a very attentive rider with decades of active cycling under my belt and understand how helmets seem to affect or correlate with culture but it's your head - decide for yourself and respect other people's decisions."

Well, this is the main one. It's not about helmet laws, but about biker choices.

My take

I guess I'll add my 2 cents as well. I didn't wear a helmet in the Netherlands. I felt absolutely no need to do so, and I knew that it would be very odd for me to do so. It was really the former that led me to not wear one, but I also wonder if the latter reason doesn't have a pretty big influence on some Dutch people. Perhaps there are Dutch people who think that it's better to be super safe than sorry, but who know that wearing a helmet goes so much against the social norm that they don't want to try it. I'm pretty positive that's not anywhere close to the majority of the population, but I think a certain minority could be in that canal boat.

In the US, I started off not wearing a helmet. Even living down in Florida – which I think is the most dangerous state for bicyclists, or at least one of them – I felt safe bicycling. As I noted previously, I have always biked at a Dutch pace, so perhaps this is why I felt safe. Or perhaps I'm just a trusting guy. However, after spending time with some other bike commuters, and having the safety benefits of helmets pounded into my head, I eventually started wearing a helmet most of the time. I still would if I lived and biked in the US. Though, as I noted higher up in this piece, I have on several occasions felt that the distraction of my helmet was a greater risk than bicycling without one. But maybe those were illogical thoughts.

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Tags: Bikes | Biking | Health | Netherlands

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