Health care professionals think cyclists should wear a helmet. For now, they call for more education, but ultimately they want a mandatory helmet law, especially for children. The idea is supported in the province, but Amsterdammers are adverse to government interference.
In some countries, it is considered abnormal for people to get on a bicycle not wearing a helmet. Obama received hostile reactions when he went for a cycling tour without a helmet. In Melbourne, three police cars responded to a recent protest of twenty helmetless cyclists. In the Netherlands, such incidents are inconceivable, but some argue that the bicycle helmet should become a common phenomenon here too.
On 11 October, a symposium will be held in Amsterdam under the title ‘Bicycle helmet for children, reduce head injuries’. “The symposium intends to promote awareness of this problem and to stimulate public debate”, Frank de Groot explained. De Groot is the manager of Traumanet AMC, the organiser of the symposium.
Bicycle bloggers like Copenhagenize are very critical of bicycle helmets, because they suggest that cycling would be unsafe and evoke associations with lycra-clad fanatics. Cyclists’ organisation Fietsersbond and road safety organisation VVN also have reservations. They argue that it makes more sense to create safer bicycle paths.
By contrast, health care professionals are convinced that helmets may prevent injuries. In view of the limited support for making helmets mandatory, they call for education programmes targeting young children. However, they consider this a first step, according to a report by Consument en Veiligheid (Consumer and Safety). In the future, such programmes can be expanded to a helmet law, applying to a broader range of cyclists.
In May, carmaker Volvo joined the ranks of the helmet promoters. The company has started selling bicycle helmets and is advocating a helmet law. In this way, it wants to show that it feels strongly about road safety. Of course, there is a cynical side to this, as pointed out by the Bakfiets en meer weblog: “Volvo introduces helmet to protect against Volvos.”
The Consument en Veiligheid report calculates that helmets may result in 500 fewer young victims of accidents ending up at the emergency department. The authors argue that it is urgent to promote helmet use and they will explain their position at the AMC symposium.
Still, there is a lot of confusion about the effects of bicycle helmet promotion. In some countries, mandatory helmet laws have been introduced. Some researchers say the number of accidents has dropped significantly there; others failed to find such an effect. Some studies found that the laws caused a significant drop in bicycle use, while others say this effect is modest at most.
One thing is certain: foreign experiences cannot simply be projected onto the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, cycling is much safer than in most other countries. This can be attributed to the bicycle-friendly infrastructure, but also to the large number of cyclists, forcing motorists to respect slow traffic.
Campaigns to promote helmet use emphasize the dangers of cycling. In so doing, they may unintentionally discourage bicycle use, which will ultimately actually make cycling less safe. Also, discouraging bicycle use has a negative impact on public health. As a result, any reduction in head injuries may be offset by an increase in deaths caused by cardiovascular diseases.
Helmet sceptics further argue that cycling is not riskier than walking. If you want cyclists to wear a helmet, you should be consistent and tell pedestrians to wear helmets too.
Using focus groups, Consument en Veiligheid has assessed support for bicycle helmets among parents in Amsterdam and in the Amersfoort region. Parents from Amersfoort supported mandatory helmet laws: “Then it will be accepted, just like for example wearing a swimming cap in swimming pools in Italy.” By contrast, parents from Amsterdam are adverse to government interference, even those who make their own children wear a helmet. Some argue that you cannot protect your children against each and every hazard.