Should Everyone Wear a Helmet? Yes and No

On this website, every photo shows bicyclists wearing helmets, unless they’re clearly not pedaling. I always wear a helmet when riding. My brain has enough problems without hitting any hard surfaces—and I don’t trust drivers to know how to interact with bikers.

But every day you see plenty of bikers sailing along bare-headed. And, interestingly, cycling associations are against laws requiring adults to wear helmets. What’s the deal?

Fact: Helmets help protect the head in accidents.

Fact: Fewer people ride bikes if they are required to wear a helmet.

Fact: Public health is better overall when more people exercise.

Ergo: Although some deaths could be prevented by wearing helmets, overall public health fares better when more people exercise. Bike-share programs can’t afford the insurance in places where helmets are mandatory, so people in those areas bike less. Bike associations want more people to bike—and to ride bicycles more—so they oppose helmet laws.

Mixed Signals

In countries where bike riding is more common, automobile drivers—and other cyclists—are more used to operating safely around bikers. But in some places, helmets send the wrong signal to car drivers. In England, where bike riding is on par with that in the United States, a study showed that, on average, cars drove closer to bicyclists who were wearing a helmet than to cyclists who weren’t.

The study author, traffic psychologist Ian Walker, thinks that “the idea that helmeted cyclists are more experienced and less likely to do something unexpected would explain why drivers leave less space when passing.”

When helmets are required, it also sends the message that bicycling is unsafe. And studies show that the safest cyclists then get scared and bike less, adding up to a double negative: people who need to exercise don’t and more of the cyclists left on the road perpetuate the “road warrior” stereotype that annoys drivers and other bicyclists alike.

Statistically Speaking

A few studies have been done on whether and how much helmets protect bike riders (see a 2013 article in the Washington Post, for example.

“Studies in the last 20 years have calculated that helmets prevent 10 to 40 percent of head injuries,” according to Jim Titus, a WABA board member at the time of the Washington Post article. He compiled the statistics in his testimony against Maryland’s helmet law in 2013.

In other words, wearing a helmet will not guarantee a safe ride. Other factors are involved. But wearing a helmet properly can help protect your brain, which is pretty important.

Everyone I teach has to wear a helmet to ride. My insurance, provided through the League of American Bicyclists, requires it. I’m happy to provide helmets during classes (and a bike, for that matter).

Kids under 16 should always wear a helmet when riding. The rest of you: It’s your choice. WABA encourages helmet use, but is against laws requiring it.