We moved to Netherlands and no one seems to wear a helmet. My teenage child did have a helmet but said she lost it. When my wife wanted buy her a new helmet, my daughter said she will refuse to wear it. This ended up in some family drama between them.

My daughter ended up saying that it is safer to cycle without a helmet in the Netherlands, then with a helmet in USA. To end the crisis, we agreed that she does not have to wear a helmet if this is true. (My wife expects it to be false) But I am not sure, as I read once that the safety of a helmet is generally overestimated (and there is also some risk-compensation). Hence my question is:

Is it true that cycling in the Netherlands without a helmet is safer, then cycling with a helmet in the USA?

Apart from that my daughter claimed that the health befits of cycling outweigh the risk by far. Is this true?

Please give scientific evidence if possible.

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    The question in your title is completely different from the one at the end of your post. Which are you asking? – David Richerby Sep 29 '16 at 20:09
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    Anecdotally, cycling in the USA sounds like a battle between motorised vehicle drivers and cyclists. The Netherlands just doesn't seem to have the same level of confrontation. – Criggie Sep 29 '16 at 20:45
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    This looks like a parenting issue to me. I think you're hoping we'll solve the problem for you, but it won't work. Even if we do come up the scientific evidence you have requested, you cannot force a rebellious teenager to wear the helmet when she's out of your sight. I suggest, instead of you trying to win the argument, meaning she loses, that you ask her to substantiate her arguments. The facts do not give such a black and white answer to support either side, so it comes down to her behaviour when she's riding. At some point in her life you'll just have to trust her, with her life. – andy256 Sep 29 '16 at 22:58
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    Clearly she never had a fatal accident in the US. The fatal accident rate of 0 vs 'a risk of some number greater than 0' riding in Netherlands makes riding in Netherlands, for her, more dangerous. – mattnz Sep 29 '16 at 23:53
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    @npsantini: unless you also advocate that the kids wear a helmet when walking and riding in a motor vehicle, then making them wear them on bikes based on that rationale is pointless, inconsistent, and counter-productive. – whatsisname Sep 30 '16 at 2:04

There's a simple answer to the question you didn't actually ask: in the Netherlands cyclists who wear helmets are much more likely to be hospitalised than those who don't

Although the Netherlands is probably the safest country in the world for cycling, helmet wearing among Dutch cyclists is rare. It has been estimated that only about 0.5 percent of cyclists in the Netherlands are helmeted.

However, according to Dutch Government data (Rijkswaterstaat, 2008), 13.3 percent of cyclists admitted to hospital were wearing helmets when they were injured. Why does wearing a helmet appear to increase the risk of being injured so substantially?

The answer is probably related to another statistic. Of the injured cyclists wearing helmets, 50 percent were riding mountain bikes and 46 percent were riding racing bikes (Rijkswaterstaat, 2008). In other words, most helmeted cyclists in the Netherlands are engaged in a competitive activity, with very few making utility trips on the traditional style of Dutch bicycle.

I can't find a useful answer because of that. I couldn't find statistics that answer "of the less than 1% of utility cyclists who wear helmets, how many were killed or injured"?

Of course, having so many people riding bikes on the roads also means that of the people killed on the roads, a high proportion are cyclists (about one third). The Netherlands is also the safest place in Europe to use the roads (45 deaths/million pop, cf 145 in Greece which is the worst in Europe and 147 in the USA).

What that means is that in The Netherlands about 185 cyclists die every year compared to 700-odd in the USA (~4x as many, thanks whatsisname). There are more than twenty times as many people in the USA... but more trips by bicycle in the Netherlands. You're still safer there than any inhabited part of the USA. You're safer on a bike in The Netherlands than in a car in the USA, even just looking at immediate crash danger rather than life expectancy (the lifetime risk of death remains 100%, obviously).

There are some amusing results of that:

  • After a recent decline in the murder rate, you are now fractionally more likely to die while biking than to be murdered in the Netherlands!

  • In Amsterdam, you're still more likely to be murdered, though.

  • You're also more likely to die by murder in the U.S. as a whole than by biking in the Netherlands.

  • You are also more likely to drown here than either die biking or be murdered, especially if you are a child.

My suggestion is to look at it the other way: if you-the-parents insist that your daughter wear a helmet while cycling, will she keep cycling? Will she be unhappy that her mother would prefer her be socially ostracised than even try to fit into the new culture? Will she just observe that her parents are failing to assimilate and reject them, rather than everyone she knows?

Also try flipping it - how would your wife deal with someone who moved to rural USA and didn't want their daughter to learn to drive? Or insisted that she only travel in the Smart car, since that's the safest small car and it's what her parents had back home in the Netherlands?

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  • The 113 figure for cyclist deaths I think is for the UK. The US is more in the realm of 750/year. www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/Main/index.aspx – whatsisname Sep 30 '16 at 2:14
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    +1 I think the "simple answer" you posted sums up the entire issue. More on that principle, check out this rush hour video youtube.com/watch?v=0q-ej1eihoU from the netherlands. People aren't riding all that fast. Anyone could easily run faster than the people are cycling. No one wears helmets when they run. Why would you wear one if you're going slower? In the US roadie style riding is what many associate with cycling, but there, what's in the video dominates the scene. – whatsisname Sep 30 '16 at 2:24
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    Yes, good work @Móż. The cultural aspect you touched on is important. The culture in Netherlands is different to USA. The young woman is trying to fit in. Excellent stats on who gets injured. – andy256 Sep 30 '16 at 2:39

No matter how to frame it, shopping for the answer you want does not change the facts, which largely fall into irrelevance when coming to an agreement with a teenager. Your daughter will be able to shop for the answer she wants, and you get to the same stalemate you are now at. The society you now live in in support her position, as teenager, that's more than enough proof she is right to any reasonable person (in her mind) - ergo - to her you are being unreasonable

You daughter won't ride a bike if she has to wear a helmet. If you try to force it, she will choose to not ride a bike, or remove her helmet as soon as she is out of sight. If you succeed in forcing her, its unlikely it will have no cost to your relationship with her.

In this situation, express your disapproval, explain you logic to her, let her know its "because we love you" (hopefully this is not a control issue), but let her make her own choice. Its one of those battles you cannot win, and more importantly - its not important to win it.

As far as "Scientific Evidence" - you won't easily find any reliable data because all the easy to access research is published to either prove the point one way, or with the research that is fact based the difference is below the margin of error or the research is not holistic (e.g. fewer riding mean more heart disease...) The exception to this is for young under about 10 yo children where helmets have been shown to improve safety outcomes (sorry, no time to look up reference).

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    I suspect "it's important not to win" is more accurate - forcing the issue will have costs. Disproportionate costs. FWIW the stats are there, but it's a lot of work to go back to primary sources (hospital admissions data) and collect the specific figures for this question. It's also silly two ways: the overall death rate is much lower for white, middle class teenagers in The Netherlands than the USA (which I suspect is the stat that matters); and as you point out, this is a parenting issue not a statistical one. – Móż Sep 30 '16 at 0:16

We have regular debates in Australia regarding our mandatory helmet laws. Pretty much all such laws did was to divert attention away from strategies that actually make cycling safer, significantly reduce the cycling participation rates (they more than halved after the laws were introduced) and further marginalised cycling and cyclists in the eyes of general Joe Public road user.

As part of those debates I did some research and read various papers on the topic. Interestingly there was a correlation between fatality rates and helmet usage in developed nations - see the chart below. That's not to suggest a causative relationship though.

enter image description here

There is also an inverse correlation between fatality rates and cycling participation rates - which does imply that the more cyclists there are, the safer it is.

One would presume that more cyclists means the infrastructure is cycling friendly and conducive to greater participation and that other road users are far more attuned to cyclists and cycling (far more likely to be a cyclist themselves).

enter image description here

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    The inverse correlation with participation rates doesn't necessarily imply a causative relationship in one direction either - it could just be that low injury rates for other reasons encourage higher participation, rather than high participation resulting in drivers being used to looking out for cyclists. Or both could be independently caused by other societal factors. See also en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smeed%27s_law – armb Nov 4 '17 at 9:11

I also have a teen daughter, she is 15, and we kept the helmet for awhile, until she was 11! It was impressive. Then I looked around, nobody was wearing a helmet not even kids, I had never worn a helmet. My other daughters had stopped wearing one at 9 and 8. So when they were both 15 and 17, so there was never an argument. My daughter had mentioned that she wanted to bike bareheaded to school. I asked parents and it is so much safer from research and other parent input. They are so much safer with traffic. There are so much more biking so they are safer. I have lived in Amsterdam for 14 years. So yes, it is safer technically. I think that she is a teen so you just have to let it go. My daughter just turned 13. I hope you find this helpful!

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On average, every Dutch person makes a trip by bicycle 5.6 times per week. This works out as an average across the whole population of 2.5 km cycled every day. That's the highest figure for any population in the world. If we assume that people cycle every day of their lives to the age of 80, and that they cycle that 2.5 km every day of their life, they will ride a bike for a total of 73000 km during their lifetime. Divide it into 6.5 million and you find a figure that a typical Dutch cyclist can expect a "head/brain injury" once every 90 lifetimes

Note that it doesn't say how serious the injuries have to be in order to be included. However, it does give total numbers of head/brain injuries per year as 550 + 1600 = 2150 which is more than ten times the total deaths of cyclists per year from all types of injuries. For the sake of making the maths easy, let's lazily (and very inaccurately) assume that every death when cycling is due to a head injury. We then find that the risk of death due to head or brain injury when cycling is actually around once per 900 lifetimes.

I have a teenager daughter too, and I understand being what it is like being a mom. I also understand what it is like to live in America, I always thought that anyone under 18 should wear a helmet. (Even though I never wore a helmet on a bike) I did make my daughter wear a helmet until she was 8, and then I started to teach how to safelt ride a bike, and then by the time she was about 9, she threw away her helmet and I felt confident about it. She bikes every day to school, which is 4 kilometers each way, and I feel 100 perecent comfident that she is safe and that feels good. then I really started to understand the safety, I bike about 6 kilometers every day, and not once have I fallen off a bike, the thing is that there are no potholes, and the Netherlands was designed for cyclists Another thing is before she takes that helmet off you need to teach her how to ride the bike safely, because without that teaching then she is 5 percent more likely to fall.

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I feel like this is really going to come down to the specifics. For example is it safer to ride a bike in the middle of a field with no one around in the Netherlands than it is to ride down a main road in Los Angeles? Yes. Is it safer to ride on an empty beach of North Carolina than amongst traffic in the Netherlands? Yes.

So it is really circumstantial. I would not be surprised to find that the Netherlands are more bicycle friendly than the US, as much of Europe is. I however would not say that it is ever safer to ride without a helmet than it is with one. While they can result in neck injuries if you land on your head i would venture to say that is still better than a fractured skull 90% of the time.

I really think that it depends on what form of cycling she is doing, the distance, her age, location and a multitude of other factors. You may take this time to teach her to use her best judgment and leave a little responsibility in her hands (depending on age). As I honestly don't wear a helmet if I'm just taking a couple laps in my neighborhood, but if I'm going a distance or trail riding i always do. I also do not have children so i can't really speak on how you should parent your child. This is just my 2 cents on the matter and was too long for a comment.

Maybe you should speak with your daughter and change the pertinent questions to where you lived before vs. where you live now rather than considering the entire country, Because if you used to live in down town New York and now you live on 15 acres, or vice versa, that changes things a bit.

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  • I think you have never been to the Netherlands and do believe the helmet sellers who scare you into thinking that helmets are safe (which is not proven yet.) – Willeke Oct 15 '17 at 10:28

To cut it short, just wear a helmet wherever you are cycling. Accidents can happen anywhere at anytime, you might be a safe country but it only takes a driver to accidentally nudge your rear and will send you flying. Other scenario where your bike hit a hole or something which send you flying forward and landing your head first.

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    Do you extend this same thought process to every situation where "accidents happen", and are more likely, e.g. riding in a motor vehicle, walking, climbing a ladder, etc? – whatsisname Jun 28 '17 at 6:54
  • Do you wear a helmet walking the stairs? It is proven that walking on stairs is much more dangerous than cycling and that a helmet is able to protect your brains there (better than in a road accident where cars are involved.) – Willeke Oct 15 '17 at 10:30

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