The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has recommended that all states and territories create mandatory bike helmet laws that would require everyone, child or adult, to wear a bicycle helmet when riding.
Wearing a bicycle helmet could reduce head injuries by 48 percent and serious head injuries by 60 percent, according to Dr. Ivan Cheung, a transportation research analyst at the NTSB.
Leading bicycle advocacy group, The League of American Bicyclists, also encourages “bicyclists to wear helmets and strongly recommends the wearing of helmets that (a) are properly fitted to the rider and (b) meet the bicycle helmet standards of either the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the American Society of Testing and Materials, or the Snell Memorial Foundation.”
Furthermore, in a recent EVELO podcast, we heard that “head injuries are catastrophic and new helmet technology can really reduce the odds of that happening.”
A Controversial Recommendation
The NTSB’s bike helmet recommendation is nonetheless likely to be controversial for several reasons, including the efficacy of bicycle helmets; the difference between a recommendation and a mandate; and the fact that the real problem with bicycle safety may have to do with infrastructure and education, not protective gear.
Not everyone believes bicycle helmets reduce risk significantly. Take, for example, a recent post on the “Bicycle Dutch” blog.
In the post, Ralph Marrett discusses why Dutch bicyclists tend not to wear bicycle helmets and writes a response to a 2016 Reuters report that said wearing a bike helmet reduces the chance of brain injury by 52 percent (which is even better than the NTSB estimate mentioned above).
“What about the ‘huge reduction (eg. 52 percent) in brain injuries’ that occurs when helmets are worn? Why do we, why do the Dutch, ignore these things and continue to go about our business as if the reduction in brain injuries is not a big deal – after all we are going to be riding bikes for our whole lives,” wrote Marrett.
“Well, just maybe, the Dutch intuitively understand something that the rest of the world appears to be missing…It turns out that, assuming everything else stays the same, the reduction, for example, in the likelihood of traumatic brain injury expected if a helmet is worn over a whole lifetime of riding a bike [emphasis in original] is ‘rather less than 2 percentage points.’”
“And this is ‘assuming everything else stays the same’－in particular that wearing a helmet does not make an accident more likely, for example by impairing riders’ hearing, or limiting their awareness of their surroundings, or by adversely affecting the behaviour [sic] of bike riders or the surrounding traffic, even by what might seem to be a fairly small amount,” Marrett continued, quoting, in part, a 2014 study of traumatic brain injuries in The Netherlands.
According to Marrett and his hand-drawn charts, a Dutch bicyclist has about a 3.1 percent chance of experiencing a traumatic brain injury as the result of a bicycle accident in his or her lifetime. Wearing a bicycle helmet would lower the risk to about 1.5 percent, which is around a 52 percent reduction. But, according the Marrett regardless of whether a helmet is worn or not, the chance of experiencing a brain injury in a bicycle accident is low.
Similarly, in 2010 a British neurosurgeon, Dr. Henry March, said that bicycle helmets are ineffective and may actually cause additional injury, according to a CNET article.
While many experts do recommend wearing a bicycle helmet when you ride, it is clear that Marrett, March, and, frankly, others don’t believe helmets will help. Thus, the potential for controversy.
Recommendation versus Mandate
Earlier, it was mentioned that The League of American Bicyclist recommends that you wear a properly fitting and well made bicycle helmet when you ride. But the organization is not in favor of mandating it.
“We are disappointed with NTSB’s decision to endorse mandatory helmet laws for all people who bike,” wrote Laura Jenkins on the League’s website.
It is one thing to encourage a rider to consider a helmet, perhaps, review the research for oneself, and make a decision on your own, but it is entirely different for the government to mandate some piece of safety equipment.
This difference, which is by no means subtle, is also likely to cause a controversy if states begin to act on the NTSB’s recommendation.
The Real Bicycle Safety Concern
Finally, this November 2019 NTSB helmet law recommendation is likely to be controversial because it overshadows what might be the real causes of bicycle accidents.
“The League believes that the safety of people who bike will be best advanced through coordinated improvements to streets and cars,” wrote Jenkins,” rather than laws that may be enforced in discretionary and discriminatory ways.”
This may be especially poignant, because the NTSB itself found that infrastructure was a leading cause of bicycle injury.
“If we do not improve roadway infrastructure for bicyclists, more preventable crashes will happen and more cyclists will die in those preventable crashes, ” said NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt.
So Should You Wear a Helmet?
Our recommendation is still, yes. You should wear a bicycle helmet. But we would also encourage you not to just take our word for it. Rather, do a bit of research and make a good decision for yourself.