What Bike Helmet Advocates Don’t Tell You

If we’re going to make bicycling safer in the U.S., we need to be honest about what needs to be done.

The primary safety solution from many groups is to wear a helmet. But, according to research, wearing helmets is not the best way to improve bicycling safety. Creating safe bicycle facilities, increasing bicycle use, and educating users are the best means for improving safety. The results from the Netherlands support this. It’s one of the safest places to bike in the world yet almost no one wears helmets.

What do you call a cyclist wearing a helmet in the Netherlands? A tourist.

Helmet use Fatalities per 100 million trips
U.S. 38% 21
Germany 2% 8.2
Netherlands 0.1% 1.6

One study summarizes the six priorities that Germany and the Netherlands use to make biking so safe:

  • Better Facilities for Walking and Cycling
  • Traffic Calming of Residential Neighborhoods
  • Urban Design Oriented to People and Not Cars
  • Restrictions on Motor Vehicle Use
  • Traffic Education
  • Traffic Regulations and Enforcement

The big challenge in Metro Detroit is many road agencies and municipalities don’t know what better bicycling facilities are. For example, the Road Commission of Oakland County refuses to acknowledge much less use best practices for bicycling facilities. They ignore the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHTO) guidelines for bicycling facilities. They ignore Federal Highway Administration guidance. They ignore bicycling safety studies that show their policies have been consistently found to be unsafe.

And similarly, many cities have followed the Road Commission’s lead. Rochester Hills and West Bloomfield have pursued wide sidewalks (ironically called “safety” paths) despite the overwhelming evidence that these are not safe options for cyclists.

If we truly want safe cycling, we need to start by forcing our local road agencies and municipalities to use best practices and provide safe non-motorized transportation options for cyclists. This should be our primary campaign. And that message needs to come from cyclists, citizens, AAA, medical professionals, health experts, the Traffic Improvement Association (TIA), and others.

This doesn’t mean helmet use should be discouraged. Helmets can lessen injuries when cyclists are hit. But it’s much better to prevent those “hits” in the first place.

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4 Responses to “What Bike Helmet Advocates Don’t Tell You”

  1. Craig Bryson Says:

    The Road Commission for Oakland County has no objection to bikers. We simply have no money available to make costly improvements to roads to allow bikers. We cannot affort to simply maintain smooth pavement on the roads or even begin to address the massive congestion that clogs our roads everyday. It would be very difficult to justify spending scarce resources on bike facilities when we can’t maintain the exisiting roads. If you are proposing additional funding just for bike facilities, we’re more than willing to listen.

    Craig Bryson
    Public Information Officer
    Road Commission for Oakland County

  2. Todd Scott Says:

    Thanks for responding Craig, however money is not the primary roadblock for the Road Commission providing safe bicycling opportunities in Oakland County. That primary roadblock is a policy of not supporting AASHTO on-road bicycle facilities. Instead, Road Commission policy only supports bicycle facilities on sidewalks (a.k.a. safety paths) which are not recommended by AASHTO, MDOT, and others.

    As for money, there are significant sources of funding available specifically for bicycling facilities, including but not limited to Transportation Enhancements, CMAQ, private grant sources (e.g. Bikes Belong), and Act 51 funds. As you may know, Act 51 requires Road Commissions to spend not less than 1% of that funding on non-motorized facilities. In the past, the Road Commission of Oakland County used a loophole in the law to count the paving of gravel roads as a bicycle facility. We have since changed state law and removed that loophole, so that may free up Act 51 monies to pay for safe, AASHTO on-road facilities — once we get your bicycle policy changed.

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