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Danish Speaker Opposes Helmet Use

Summary: There are helmet critics who complain that excessive risk-avoidance is driving helmet use to the detriment of cycling. One anti-helmet speaker has a video up that we found entertaining but misleading.

In case you have not seen it, the video is just over 16 minutes long. The speaker is Mikael Colville-Andersen. He is articulate and has a good sense of humor. But it is evident that he began from the point of view that helmets were senseless and began marshaling arguments, sometimes with too little attention to accuracy. His underlying theme is that there is a "war on bicycles" being conducted by car manufacturers who are afraid that bicycles will undermine the supremacy of the car in cities, and that the manufacturers are promoting bicycle helmets as the way to stop the growth of cycling. He tries to paint helmets and helmet promotion as a nanny reaction to unreasonable fear of cycling injuries.

Mr. Colville-Andersen is wrong about helmet design, saying that "these helmets are designed to protect against non-life-threatening impacts in solo accidents under 20 kilometers per hour." That trivializes the impact protection of helmets that are actually designed to protect against catastrophic brain injury in the vast majority of bicycle crashes. The more severe impacts are certainly life-threatening. The crashes may or may not be solo. And the test drop speed is related to the speed of the head closing with the pavement, not the forward speed of a bicycle. He says that excludes getting hit by a car, a ridiculous statement given the thousands of cyclists who survive car crashes. As many crash stories show, helmets perform well at city speeds, although nothing can help if the car is traveling at highway speeds.

He is also wrong about how helmets are tested. He says they are tested only on the crown (top) and not on the sides. But there is no bicycle helmet standard in the world that tests only on the crown. There are very few impacts in real life on the crown, and most testing is actually on the sides.

He says there is "a 14% greater chance of getting into an accident when you are wearing a helmet." When questioned on a blog, he said that comes from the Norwegian Institute of Transport Economics (Transportøkonomisk Institutt, TØI). We looked there and first found one study recommending that Stockholm promote cycle helmets among other measures to reduce road injuries. Then we found one from 2000 recommending mandatory helmet use. But eventually we found the study that we think he referenced. It's in Norwegian, but here is a rough Google translation of pages 29-30. We think it says that "research" in Australia and New Zealand shows that the use of helmets might in the long term increase cyclists' injuries–even if their heads had better outcomes&ndashif they engage in risk compensation by riding more dangerously due to feeling safer. That is apparently based on a publication by Dorothy Robinson, an Australian helmet law critic. There is no widely accepted research in Australia that we know of that supports that number. The Norwegian study is a literature survey, and notes that other researchers don't agree. So it would not be accurate to cite that study as proof that helmets increase the risk of cycling by 14%. You have to judge if a cyclist will put on a helmet and ride with less care despite the fact that the rest of the body is entirely unprotected, then extrapolate to estimate how many additional cyclists would be injured that way. That's not science.

Mr. Colville-Andersen goes on to say that "there are scientific studies that show that your risk of brain injury is higher when you're wearing a helmet." We have not seen those studies. He might be referring to risk compensation, if you want to be charitable.

He says that riders are scared away from bicycling by helmet promotion because it makes bicycling look dangerous, and that "we've seen it across the water in Sweden, in Australia, in America and so on and now here in Denmark." There is no valid evidence published in a peer-reviewed journal that helmet promotion or helmet laws have reduced cycling in any community in the US. One paper on the website of the University of California at Irvine's School of Education used statistical analysis of national data to reach the conclusion that helmet laws resulted in a ridership decline of 4 to 5 per cent in the age group they covered. The data was collected from parents in telephone conversations, and we don't think that method is valid for helmet use studies. They did not control for traffic increases or parents' crime concerns in the states with laws, and those included California, New York, Pennsylvania, Florida and others where traffic grew the most. And some states have many local laws instead of a state-level law, skewing the comparison. Fortunately, you can read the entire paper, titled Intended and Unintended Effects of Youth Bicycle Helmet Laws on the web and judge for yourself. In any event, we don't think that justifies listing the US as a place where ridership has declined with helmet promotion.

Mr. Colville-Andersen also blames a 5 per cent decline in bicycle sales in Denmark in 2008 on helmet promotion. Given the economic plunge that year, that seems like a real stretch.

The Copenhagen Post reported in November, 2009 that a failed attempt to pass a Danish law requiring helmets for those under 12 was being revived after evidence surfaced that the proportion of Danish cyclists arriving at emergency rooms with head injuries was declining as helmet use there has increased to about one in six cyclists.

In sum, we don't agree with Mr. Colville-Andersen, but found his presentation skills charming and his talk entertaining. His conspiracy theories about auto manufacturers waging a war on bicycles because they threaten the dominance of cars in the cities, and doing it by promoting helmets, are laughable. What we took from his presentation is that a Danish iconoclast who deplores what he takes to be excessive safety-consciousness believes that helmets are unnecessary and actually harmful. We disagree, of course. If he paid more attention to accuracy it would detract from the drama of his presentation but might increase our respect for his position.