A bicycle helmet might protect your head. But it doesn’t make you safer.
This isn’t news to cyclists. We live the reality that no matter how perfectly we comport themselves, no matter how well we mitigate the risks of cycling, the biggest threat we face by far is one we have zero control over, the risk moving automotive vehicles present. No one wants to crash into a stationary 5,000lbs vehicle, and the impact of one colliding into a cyclist traveling at any speed is life-threatening, with the risk of death increasing exponentially the faster the vehicle is moving.
So it’s almost surprising that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has recently advised all 50 states enact mandatory helmet laws for cyclists. One of the board members pushed for it at the last minute and it was voted on without data or discussion.
The “almost” is considering how federal agencies have been running in the Trump era, the maneuver shouldn’t be seen as completely bizarre. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in the midst of promulgating rules that limit the science used to implement regulations. The Department of Education wants to arm teachers rather than endorse any effort to curb gun violence It’s hard not to speculate that the decision was done to hamper cycling in favor of cars and driving, as this administration is in the midst of gutting pollution regulations that limited the use of coal and compelled auto makers to build more fuel-efficient cars. The latter can also be seen as something that will further endanger cyclists, as auto efficiency can be aided by smaller, lighter cars, which are less deadly for every road user.
The specifics of the decision to formally make the suggestion are about as bad as government gets. While meetings of the board are generally fairly scripted, with research done on any proposal in advance of the meeting and with time for board members to read and understand and formulate an opinion on whatever they are going to vote on, that didn’t happen for helmet use. It was, according to Streetsblog, “a last-minute resolution that had not been recommended by the board’s own staff.”
The board member who put forward the resolution, Jennifer Homendy, claims to be a cyclist, and claims that safety is what the NTSB is after. Curiously, it’s clear from the data the NTSB published for the meeting that the problem isn’t cyclists running into things and hitting their heads, but getting hit by cars. Fully a quarter of all cyclist fatalities occur when a motorist tries to pass a cyclist. And the next seven of the next nine most frequent types of fatalities all involve motor vehicles, including failing to yield (five different ways, comprising #3-#7 on the most common fatality list). Even the definition of “failing to yield” demonstrates the battle cyclists face; the nomenclature suggests the cyclist was at fault. And the data indicates that “midblock” locations are more common than at corners, where arguably the sightlines are good. The data further indicates that higher posted speed limits are far more likely to result in fatalities than areas with 25mph or lower speed limits.
Clearly, cyclists aren’t at fault. Yet we pay the price and are expected to mitigate the risk that others create. This is a classic externality problem: Drivers create the problem, but cyclists are responsible for the problem someone else created.
Ms. Homendy said the following when pressed for why she wanted this recommendation:
“I understand there are concerns in the bicycle community that this could reduce the number of bicyclists, but the NTSB’s mission is not about bicycle use. Our mission is safety. It’s the National Transportation Safety Board. Our goal is zero deaths. The way we go about doing that is by issuing recommendations that prevent crashes, that prevent injuries and that save lives. … We know the dangers of not wearing a seatbelt and the NTSB issued recommendations on seatbelt use. … That’s the power of the NTSB. We set the safety bar.”
There are many problems with this. Seatbelts are different in many ways. They come equipped with the car. They travel at far greater speeds far more of the time than cyclists can achieve, save rare circumstances. If drivers screw up and hit something, the driver and unbelted passengers are hurled into the steering wheel, the dash, through the windshield. Seatbelts protect drivers from their errors. Cyclists rarely hit their heads. Helmets don’t always protect cyclists from their errors. And they only protect cyclists from the errors of others some of the time.
Further, if the NTSB really prioritized saving lives, had a goal of zero deaths, are really interested in setting the safety bar, they’d be doing far more than recommending helmet use. Trucks, which are now more popular than cars, are also more dangerous, both for the occupant(s) and the people they hit. Part of this is that trucks have to meet less stringent safety standards, part of it is greater vehicular weight, part of it is dangerous design. In Europe, the European Union requires front ends of cars and trucks to be designed around protecting people outside the car from front-end impacts. While this regulation has worldwide impact, as cars designed for Europe are often sold beyond the EU borders and the United Nations is behind the effort, it doesn’t mean that the big cars of the United States, which often are not sold beyond our borders, are so designed. Our large SUVs and trucks are often designed in such a way that any person getting hit by the front end is being pushed under the vehicle. This could be why the number of driving deaths for non-occupants has risen from 14% of all driving fatalities in 2009 to 20% in 2018, even as the deaths of car occupants have slightly gone down.
As to the mention of Trump influence above, The National Highway Transit Safety Administration (NTSA) was considering implementing such a requirement in 2015, but “the language disappeared from the NHTSA site after Trump took office. Now the issue is again in limbo.” There’s also the matter of better road design, making sure roads are in decent condition, and more, but the NTSB doesn’t go there.
Thankfully, there is a body of research which back up the contention that helmets aren’t the panacea they were pitched as. Sadly, the NTSB had access to the research and seems to have either been oblivious to it, or chose to ignore it.
In Australia, mandatory helmet use for all was tried out. It didn’t do so well. While helmet use shot up to around 80%, the number of cyclists went down. Worse, even though around 75% of the riding public was now wearing helmets, the proportion of cyclists going to the hospital for head injuries went down by only 13%. Interestingly, the number of pedestrians who were admitted to the hospital for head injuries went down by roughly the same percentage without the benefit of helmet use, suggesting that other road safety issues were the actual cause of the decline. The study also found that the risk of dying from a head injury on the road for both helmetless cyclists and helmetless car drivers was about the same, suggesting that there wasn’t a disproportionate risk in not wearing a helmet. Most damning, the overall health benefits of cycling outweigh the hazards by a rate of 20 to one.
“Where a law on this has been introduced in other countries it has led to a significant reduction in cycling, with a likely adverse outcome in terms of the promotion of public health as cycling represents an ideal means for maintaining fitness with wide benefits both for personal and public health. Cycle helmets are a secondary and not a primary means of reducing head injury. Helmet wearing does nothing to prevent accidents. The primary means of reducing serious head injury among cyclists is to create an environment in which accidents are less likely to occur.”
That was back in 1993.
Subsequent to that study, more work has been done that suggests helmet use might actually make cyclists a bit less safe.
There was a study in England in 2007 that found evidence that drivers passed helmeted cyclists closer than they passed non-helmeted cyclists. When it was questioned in 2013, the researcher checked his work, and found more conclusive evidence. The second study was published in 2018.
Ironically, while helmet use doesn’t correlate with greater safety, what has been proven to make cyclists safer is more cyclists. A study by the University Colorado Denver found that there is a “safety in numbers effect” for cyclists. New York City’s Department of Transportation found the same thing, by measuring “killed and severely injured” (KSI) data for 18 years between 1996 and 2014—and the last year of the study included the debut of Citibike, wherein there was the sudden explosion of 8.2 million Citibike trips in less than a year on top of the already growing number of cyclists.
Greater number of cyclists on the road also correlates with increased safety for all road users. So more bikes on the road is better for drivers and pedestrians if they want to remain alive and uninjured. And if the NTSB is interested in getting toward zero deaths, there seems to be an answer right here.
It’s distressing that the NTSB is pushing policies that have thusfar proven to be failures at their stated goals and discouraging the one thing that has been proven to make cyclists safer.
I guess the good thing is that cyclists will now have to shoulder more blame if they’re injured for not wearing a helmet.
And cyclists will still get blamed if a car hits them when they’re wearing a helmet, even if the driver was speeding while texting.