Cycling safety: helmet use in European countries

Wearing helmets on bicycles can be a thorny topic in European countries. Is it compulsory? Recommended? Often a source of tension and sometimes heated debate, the subject is divisive.

In Europe, each country has its own legislation. But for the moment, only Finland has made it compulsory for adult cyclists to wear a helmet throughout its territory. 13 countries have made it compulsory for children to wear helmets: Malta, until the age of 10, France, Latvia and Austria until the age of 12, Slovenia, Slovakia and Sweden until the age of 15, Spain, Estonia and Croatia until the age of 16, and Czech Republic and Lituania until the age of 18.

At a time when the European Union is undertaking “The Green Pact for Europe” (which aims to reduce transport-related emissions by 90% to become the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050) and considerates cycling as an important part of the solution, the safety of cyclists has become a major issue to promote its development.

About 1 in 5 cyclists wear a helmet in Europe (DEKRA study), with very heterogeneous results. Indeed, 60.9% of cyclists wear a helmet in London compared to only 24.3% accross Germany and 5.9% in Zagreb.

In France, the question of whether or not to make it mandatory to wear a helmet on a bicycle is a recurring issue. On July 8, 2021, by proposing a bill to make helmets mandatory for “all cycle drivers”, Senator François Bonneau has stirred up the Twittersphere and caused a lot of ink to flow. Politicians, associations and cyclists were obliged to react. Sensitive subject in France, the absence of legislation around the wearing of helmets for cyclists divides and always causes many reactions.

Mandatory helmets: a brake on cycling?

Although strongly recommended in most EU countries, the mandatory use of helmets for all cyclists remains a divisive issue. Scientific studies have proven that wearing a helmet reduces the risk of head injuries by about 60% in case of a fall. Although doctors, associations, politicians and cyclists all agreed on the usefulness of a bicycle helmet to protect against serious or fatal injuries, not everyone agrees on the mandatory nature of such a measure.

For some, making helmets mandatory would be tantamount to associating cycling with danger. At a time when public policies are being implemented to increase the modal share of bicycles in cities, and when many players in the bicycle industry are seeking to remove the obstacles to the purchase or rental of bicycles, this would constitute an additional obstacle to the development of the practice. If helmets were compulsory, certain models would collapse, such as self-service bicycles, which would discourage all occasional use of these bicycles. In both Australia and Canada, mandatory helmet use has significantly reduced the number of cyclists. In Australia, the helmet requirement was considered “a resounding failure” with a 90% drop in bicycle use among students.

Mandatory status would be counterproductive to the development of bicycle travel. Awareness campaigns, distribution, subsidies and other initiatives have been shown to be more effective in increasing the safety of cyclists. The most significant results have been achieved in interventions with young audiences on the benefits of helmet use.

Bicycle safety goes far beyond the helmet debate

Imposing helmets on all cyclists would be to evade a deeper problem. While the safety of the cyclist can be partly ensured by his or her equipment, it is also necessary to develop infrastructures. In the Netherlands, the number of cyclists has exceeded the number of motorists thanks to the infrastructure put in place since the 1970s, and the country has very few cyclists wearing helmets (only 1.1%). Proportionally to the number of trips made, fatal accidents are less numerous than in other European countries and this is explained by the rule of numbers: the more cyclists there are on the roads, the safer they are. For example, in 2020, France recorded 184 cyclist deaths compared to only 20 more in the Netherlands (200). However, the modal share of cycling in France is only 3%, while in the Netherlands it is 29%. Almost 60% of all Dutch cyclists claim they would stop cycling if forced to wear a helmet (according to a Dutch Cycling Association survey).

Thus, for increased safety of cyclists, the development of specific infrastructure for cycling is a priority in many European countries. Since the health crisis and the democratization of the electric bike, the practice of cycling is booming on the European continent and we can only welcome the initiatives taken by many cities, communities, or countries to implement public policies to encourage the use of cycling through the establishment of infrastructure.

The connected helmet to go further on safety

Even if it is not mandatory, wearing a helmet on a bicycle can effectively reduce the risk of serious injury. In order for the helmet to no longer be a barrier to riding, it is also important to rethink the helmet itself. Technology and connectivity have a role to play in making the helmet more attractive and removing its label of constraint. IoT solutions allow today to rethink the helmet as an additional accessory that accompanies the cyclist in his cycling experience. Turn signals, Bluetooth connections, voice assistant… Connected helmets extend the experience of connected cycling and have the potential to seduce handlebar enthusiasts by offering innovative services in addition to physical protection.

Connectivity will also enhance cyclists’ safety on many levels further than better accessories to improve cyclists’ experience and visibility. Thanks to a smartbike, an emergency call can be triggered in case of a fall detection. On the long-term connectivity will bring a lot of knowledge on the use of bicycle in urban areas, key information to implement the right cycle infrastructures and ensure safer cycling for all.

What about you, do you ride… With or without a helmet?