Bicycle helmet laws kill

I’ve previously suggested that mandatory helmet laws are bad for the environment. Well new research suggests that they’re actually bad for health outcomes, too:

A model is developed which permits the quantitative evaluation of the benefit of bicycle helmet laws. The efficacy of the law is evaluated in terms of the percentage drop in bicycling, the percentage increase in the cost of an accident when not wearing a helmet, and a quantity here called the “bicycling beta.”

Empirical estimates using US data suggests the strictly health impact of a US wide helmet law would cost around $5 billion per annum. In the UK and The Netherlands the net health costs are estimated to be $0.4 and $1.9 billion, respectively.

That’s a LOT of money and that lot of money in net health costs could save a LOT of lives. If there’s a net social health cost to mandatory helmet laws then they’re hurting more people than they help. That’s a good reason not to have them if you care about saving lives, or minimising harm, or maximising welfare.

Note that this says nothing about the individual cost of wearing a helmet. In fact, the study assumed a benefit in accidents of wearing one. The point is that people are deterred from riding by the existence of compulsion. It’s still a good idea to wear a helmet if you want to save your brain 🙂

  • Rob

    This sort of thing is debated a lot over at – a Danish website promoting bicycling. I would be interested to see whether individuals are actually ‘safer’ if they wear helmets.

    There is an argument that helmets give riders a false sense of security when they cycle. As a result, riders with helmets may engage in more risky riding behaviours than they would otherwise, which in turn leads to a higher incidence of accidents among helmet wearers.

  • Ed Snack

    The entire “cost” seems to be that people don’t take up (or indulge in) cycling, and this generates a cost in terms of reduced fitness. Sounds like BS to me I have to say. People don’t bike because of the need for a helmet, WTF, really, that significant ? So they can afford a bike (probably at least $50 for the worst second hand, only free if you steal) and can’t afford $20 for a NEW helmet, or is it the “freedom” of the wind in your hair…

    What about substitute activities, they can’t ride so they walk, probably a definite cost benefit both in fitness and reduced accidents. And riskier behaviour because you wear a helmet, sounds suspicious. Theoretically maybe, in reality, seems like a very minor effect. Now a reliable protection against gravel rash and you might be onto something.

  • @Ed Snack
    You may doubt the truth, but that won’t change it. While the truth can never be known, I prefer to rely on an accumulation of evidence to form my beliefs about it rather than take a wild guess at it. This study builds on previous studies, takes the things you mention into account, and concludes that there is a net cost to helmet laws. Without convincing evidence that the researchers made significant mistakes I have no reason to doubt their conclusions.