According to the World Health Organization, there is only one country where the citizens are getting skinnier: the Netherlands.

While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons for the Dutch bucking a global epidemic, their love of bicycling is definitely a contributing factor. Twenty-seven per cent of all trips made in the Netherlands are made by bicycle, and 25 per cent of the citizens use bicycles to commute to work. The average distance cycled per person per day is 2.5 kilometres. In Canada, by comparison, 1.3 per cent of our population uses bicycles to get to work. While the average kilometres cycled daily in Canada is not available, it is likely similar to the U.S. at just 0.1 kilometres.

Overall, we can conclude that the Netherlands is doing something right. A healthier population means less of a burden on the medical system and economy, not to mention a higher quality of life from an individual perspective. How did the Dutch succeed in becoming such avid cyclists, and what are some of the examples Canada can follow? Some of the key factors include cultural values, having good cycling infrastructure available and keeping regulations to a minimum to make the sport more accessible. For example, in the Netherlands cyclists are not required to pay additional taxes, register their bikes or even wear helmets.

Some may cringe to hear that such an avid cycling nation doesn’t mandate helmets. It makes sense, after all, that helmets will save lives and prevent serious injuries, and legislating mandatory helmet usage will benefit the population. Similar to mandatory seatbelt usage in cars, one might reason, mandating helmets will save lives. Unfortunately, statistics don’t paint such a clear picture. The numbers indicate that while seatbelt usage in cars makes a significant impact on preventing deaths and reducing serious injuries, bike helmet usage makes a much more modest difference.

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A study in New Zealand comparing bicycle deaths and injuries before and after legislating helmets indicates a non-discernable correlating decrease in head injuries and deaths. Numerous other studies and data analyses come up with equally ambiguous results, with helmet legislation having less impact than expected. Some speculate that the reason might be that cyclists are willing to take greater risks, feeling the helmet will protect them. Alternatively, motorists may drive more aggressively near helmeted cyclists, seeing them as less vulnerable. A study by the University of Bath found that motorists, on average, drove 8.5 centimetres closer to cyclists wearing helmets compared to non-helmeted cyclists.

The biggest problem with mandating helmets is it causes people to cycle less. When Australia implemented mandatory helmet laws in the early 1990s, cycling trips declined by 30 to 40 per cent. This is a significant number, but it is easy to understand why. Getting on your bike instead of driving is an act of willpower. Any added challenge, such as locating a missing helmet, can trigger the decision to take the car instead. Additionally, public cycling initiatives aimed at getting more people on bikes can be hindered by helmet laws. For example, Vancouver’s bicycle share system, modelled on a successful European model, struggled for years to come up with a satisfactory system to provide helmets for its users. Australians have been facing the same issue with their bike share programs. People in Melbourne cite the challenges of finding a helmet as being the biggest detriment to using the bicycles in their share program.

Some may argue that even if a small number of lives are saved, this makes helmet legislation a valuable tool in public safety. Perhaps, but let’s look at another example where mandatory helmets could make a difference, but the reason not to legislate is obvious. In the U.S., every year almost 5,000 pedestrians are killed as a result of being hit by vehicles. Being a pedestrian is 25 per cent more dangerous than being in a vehicle, where occupants are protected by seatbelts, airbags and the vehicle cage. Since a large proportion of the deaths are a result of head trauma, legislating helmet usage for pedestrians would undoubtedly save lives, but it is clear why we don’t do this: it would dissuade people from walking. Looking at the big picture, the safety advantage is outweighed by inconvenience and an increase in sedentary behaviour. The same basic points also apply to cycling.

Multiple studies indicate that cyclists live longer than average because the increased health benefits outweigh the risk of injury or death. Piet de Jong of Macquarie University in Australia created a mathematical model to compare overall health benefits with and without helmet legislation. The model incorporated existing statistics on both the safety benefits of wearing a helmet combined with the negative health benefits of reduced cycling due to legislation. Overall, the results showed the net benefit to health and longevity actually went down in almost all regions where helmets are mandated, except in regions with exceptionally dangerous riding conditions.

BicyclingPaul Krueger/Flickr Creative Commons

My point is not to diminish the importance of wearing helmets. Helmets do save lives and education programs should be implemented to encourage their use, especially when riding in close proximity to motor vehicles. The question is whether mandatory helmet legislation is beneficial to the overall health of our society, or is it more of a distraction—allowing politicians to avoid addressing the true problem?

The reason why the Dutch have the lowest rate of cycling head injuries despite the fact that only 0.5 per cent of the population wears helmets has almost nothing to do with protective armor. It is because of the infrastructure they have created, which separates bicycles from motorized vehicles. Ninety per cent of cycling fatalities involve a collision with a motor vehicle, and when cyclists are separated from the vehicles, the fatality and injury rates significantly decrease.

If our leaders truly want to make a difference, they need to allocate a greater percentage of infrastructure funds for pedestrians and cyclists. Not only does good infrastructure make people safer, but it increases the number of people who will decide to cycle or walk, very important for our sedentary society. Vancouver’s mayor, Gregor Robertson, for example, made significant improvements to Vancouver’s cycling infrastructure and the efforts paid off. In one year, cycling trips per person increased 32 per cent correlating with cycling infrastructure improvements.

Of course, for our leaders to make a difference, they need to have the support of the population, and this is our greatest hurdle in making positive change. We as a nation do not wholeheartedly embrace progressive initiatives to create safer cycling corridors. Take, for example, my home city of Victoria, British Columbia. We have the highest cycling rate in all of Canada with 4.9 per cent of the population using bicycles for commuting. Our current progressive city leaders came up with an initiative called “Biketoria,” a plan to create a network of separated bike lanes throughout the city. It seemed like a no-brainer—lives would be saved, people would be further inspired to cycle, car usage and pollution would be reduced and the community as a whole would become more active. Despite the obvious benefits, opposition has been massive. The most vocal and influential groups are those opposed to the plan. There is significant outrage about the loss of parking spots and other challenges for the motorist. In Cook Street Village, a small business district near my home, 34 out of 42 businesses have signed a petition against having a bike lane along their street. This reaction to bike lanes is fairly ubiquitous among businesses across North America, despite multiple studies showing bike lanes do not bring a loss of patronage (their primary fear) and often bring in more customers. 

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The countries that have the highest rates of cycling—the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark—all have three things in common: excellent separated cycling infrastructure, no helmet laws and very low injury/mortality rates. At the end of the day, if Canadians truly want to create safer cycling conditions and a healthier, more active population, it’s time to realize that there are no shortcuts—money and public will is required to make cyclists safe. We can only expect the number of cyclists to increase when there is a true solution to making their commute safer.