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Compulsory Helmet Laws For Cyclists Are Rare Globally

This article is published in collaboration with Statista

by Katharina Buchholz

Bicycle helmets are controversial. While they can undoubtedly be a great tool for the safety of cyclists, many people refuse to wear them for a multitude of reasons. Some claim that a helmet messes up their hair, others think it looks uncool, a sizeable share just think it's uncomfortable and that a helmet is difficult to transport. But there are also bigger scale arguments against mandatory helmet wearing: Studies have shown that a critical mass of bike riders and traffic participants who look after one another are the most effective ways to reduce serious biking accidents on a population level. While the decision to wear a helmet when biking is always a good one on an individual level, prescribing helmet wearing to a whole population can have unintended side effects, like decreasing bike use and creating fines that disproportionately affect populations with less access to resources and information.

In most countries, wearing a helmet is not mandatory in any capacity. However, some countries have actually moved to make helmet use compulsory for bikers, including Australia, New Zealand, Namibia, Argentina, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Cyprus and Singapore. Japan joined the bunch on Apr. 1, 2023, when bike helmet wearing became compulsory for everyone in the country. But Japan is also taking a different approach that might cushion the negative effects of such laws: There will be no fines for disregarding the law. This will help mitigate the socioeconomic slant of bike helmet fines and also might be a lesser source of discouragement if a biker has no helmet at hand for whatever reason. South Africa as well as Israel (which prescribes helmet use for all adults in rural areas) have gone down this path of no fines, but have done so due to a lack of enforcement capacity or as a result of push-back against helmet laws, and not as a conscious decision from the get-go.

In line with the idea that bigger forces govern the safety of bikers than just helmets, major biking countries in Western Europe do not have very restrictive helmet laws despite biking being considered relatively safe there. However, many countries in Europe have laws mandating helmet use for minors or younger children. Regional laws affecting all ages and/or children are in place in some locations in the U.S. and Canada as well as in Spain (outside of cities for adults, except for - curiously - uphill climbs) and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

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