For a conscientious helmet-wearer like me, it was shocking to see that hardly anybody in Amsterdam wears a bicycle helmet, not even the children.
After asking around a bit, I learned that Dutch traffic planners decided years ago not to make helmets a part of their safety package. Their reasoning: If you tell people to wear helmets they are likely to get the impression that cycling is too dangerous or uncomfortable, and stop doing it altogether. This results in more automobile use, more congestion, more pollution, more noise, more accidents, more deaths and injuries, less exercise and more heart attacks. In short, the negative results of a helmet campaign far outweigh the benefits.
The Dutch approach to bicycle safety is to invest in the infrastructure and in the education of everyone who uses the streets. They have also made some progress towards allocating public street space more fairly, meaning roughly one-quarter each for pedestrians, trams, bicycles and motor vehicles. To accomplish this took (and takes) hard work and persistence, since it was (and is) opposed every step of the way by the powerful lobbies that promote excessive automobile use at the expense of public health and safety.
Two more lessons of Dutch bicycle policy:
• There is safety in numbers. The greater the number of cyclists on the roads, the safer they are.
• There is safety in skill and competence. If people cycle a lot, starting in early childhood and continuing throughout their lives, they are bound to get very good at it.
Why I still wear a bicycle helmet,
even though the Dutch don’t.
For one thing, I don’t cycle only in the Netherlands, but mainly in other countries where the infrastructure isn’t as good and cyclists aren’t as numerous.
Another reason is that I am somewhat elderly, so I might just fall off my bike for no particular reason — not that I have done this up to now, but you never know.
My decision to wear a helmet was influenced by what happened to two of my colleagues in Frankfurt am Main.
One was a middle-aged man who fell off his bike for unknown reasons while riding slowly through a parking lot. He was not wearing a helmet, came down head first on the asphalt and was in and out of hospitals for months. I don’t think he ever completely recovered.
The other was a young colleague named Annerose who was cycling home late at night after teaching an English class. She was riding past a row of parked cars when suddenly a car door opened and sent her sprawling over four lanes of a city street. She got some bruises, but we all assumed (rightfully or not) that her helmet had saved her from serious injury. I went out and bought one the next day. (I was also “doored” once, but that was a few years later.)
(Hi Annerose. If you ever happen to read this, please leave me a comment at the end of this post.)
My helmet once saved me (perhaps) from a head injury while I was riding through a narrow tunnel and had to swerve suddenly, hitting my head or rather my helmet on the tunnel wall. The helmet absorbed the shock and I was not injured in any way.
On the other hand, I realize that a helmet can prevent only head injuries, but not other kinds. In over sixty years of cycling I have only been knocked off my bike once by a car (not counting the time I was doored), and when that happened I landed on my hand, not my head, so I had a strained wrist for a couple weeks. Nothing serious, fortunately, but you should have seen what my bike looked like!
Update: While I still consider a helmet to be a sensible precaution, especially for children and for us elderly folks, I would no longer refrain from cycling just because I didn’t happen to have a helmet with me. And I have come to agree with the Dutch that mandatory helmet laws are totally unproductive, because the damage caused by not cycling far outweighs any slight increase in safety that a helmet might bring.
When you ride around Amsterdam you will soon notice that Dutch cyclists generally have no hesitation about transporting extra people on their bicycles. This is another one of those things that are fine for the Dutch, who have been cycling daily since early childhood, but are not advisable for the rest of us.
In fact when you rent a bike in Amsterdam, one of the rules (at least at Holland Rent-a-Bike) is that you do not take along any extra passengers.
My photos in this post are from 2006. I revised the text in 2017.
Next: By train to Amsterdam