Bicycle Helmets

Achieving Bicyclist Safety

It would have been much easier to do what everyone else does and tell you to wear a helmet for safety, but we feel that’s disingenuous. Instead we’re providing this information to help you decide how to best manage your safety while bicycling.

Bicycle helmets are a passive safety measure that works in some situations. Real bicycling safety solutions require more investment in trails and Complete Streets — and sidewalks for pedestrians. It’s less expensive for government agencies to put the burden of safety on bicyclists rather than change the status quo that has prioritized vehicle mobility over public safety. That’s one reason why they so often the focus of bicycle safety messaging.

Mandatory Helmet Laws

Michigan law doesn’t require bicyclists (or most motorcyclists) to wear helmets. The law does require persons younger than 19 years old to wear a helmet on both mopeds and electric scooters (MCL 257.658).

Should it? Studies show that mandatory helmet laws do not lead to net positive health outcomes.

Perhaps the definitive study on mandatory helmet laws was completed in 2015. The study calculated exposure-based bicycling hospitalization rates in Canadian jurisdictions with different helmet legislation and bicycling mode shares. The study found:

  • Females had lower bicycling hospitalization rates than males, an effect often attributed to conservative risk choices.
  • Hospitalization rates for traffic-related injuries were lower with higher cycling mode shares, a “safety-in-numbers” association consistent with results elsewhere and for other modes of travel.
  • Helmet legislation was not associated with reduced hospitalization rates for brain, head, scalp, skull or face injuries, indicating that factors other than helmet laws have more influence on injury rates.

Another study (The Health Impact of Mandatory Bicycle Helmet Laws) looked at the overall health benefits of mandatory helmet laws. It considered the negative health benefits of reduced bicycling.

In jurisdictions where cycling is safe, a helmet law is likely to have a large unintended negative health impact. In jurisdiction where cycling is relatively unsafe, helmets will do little to make it safer and a helmet law, under relatively extreme assumptions may make a small positive contribution to net societal health.

Mandatory helmet laws negatively affect the viability of public bike share systems. This Seattle Times article notes that “Bike-share experts are all but unanimous that helmet laws, while not necessarily a fatal factor for a bike share, add another layer of complication and make the system less likely to succeed.”

Helmet Safety

Helmets can certainly reduce injury severity and save lives but mostly when bicyclists crash on their own. They don’t offer as much help when hit by moving motor vehicles.  (Cycling Fatalities: When a helmet is useless and when it might save your life)

This could help explain why there is not much difference in bicyclist injury severity from vehicle crashes depending on whether a helmet was worn.

Michigan Bicyclist Injury Severity Distribution from Crashes with Vehicles, 2009-2018

Another explanation for not seeing reduced injuries may be risk compensation. In other words, when people wear a bicycle helmet they feel more invulnerable to injury and therefore accept more risk (e.g. riding faster and in groups, riding on busier roads with higher speed limits, riding racing bikes vs. cruisers, etc.) It can affect motorists, too. One study found motorists pass bicyclists more closely when they are wearing a helmet.

Hierarchy of Controls

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health has created a Hierarchy of Controls for improving safety. The Queen Anne Greenways has applied this to bicyclist safety and it useful strategies for safer bicycling improvements.

Ban cars in the Motor City? Trails like the Dequindre Cut do. Substitution involves encouraging motorists to use other travel modes. Engineering includes separated bike lanes and protected intersections.

The least effective solution is relying on personal protective equipment.

Queen Anne Greenways Hierarchy of Controls

Additional Reading