Dutch cyclists don’t care much about helmets. Only half a percent of bicycle riders bother with protective headgear in the Netherlands, according to a book released last summer.
And yet Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality notes that the European country has the world’s lowest rate of biking-related head injuries.
It seems counterintuitive, but Vancouver-based author Chris Bruntlett, who cowrote the book with his wife, Melissa, says there’s a good explanation behind it.
“Helmets just aren’t part of the culture. They’re not part of the conversation,” Bruntlett told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.
“They instead placed the emphasis on designing safe streets—and making sure that they’re trying to avoid any collisions between bikes and cars—instead of mitigating or minimizing their damage through personal safety equipment.”
Bruntlett, an architectural designer, has been riding around Vancouver without a helmet for many years.
For him, pedalling bareheaded in the Netherlands, where he and his family travelled in the summer of 2016, was not a new experience. But he still found it “really striking” to see so few people on bikes with helmets.
“Maybe we got our safety priorities and emphasis on the wrong things here in Vancouver and other cities in North America,” he said.
Wearing a helmet is compulsory in B.C. Legislation varies in provinces across the country.
The Dutch could have made bike helmets mandatory. They didn’t. Bruntlett recalled that in the 1990s, they adopted a set of safety principles that state that road users make mistakes behind the wheel of a car or on a bicycle. That meant that roads should be engineered to minimize the impact of those errors.
“So if there are differences in speed between bicycles and cars, then there should be physical separation between the two,” Bruntlett said. “And if that physical separation is impossible, then the car should be slowed down to a certain speed.”
In the book, the Bruntletts write that there are 35,000 kilometres of fully separated bike lanes in the Netherlands, which constitute a fourth of the country’s entire road network of 140,000 kilometres. More than 75 percent of urban streets are traffic-calmed to a car speed of 30 kilometres an hour or less.
According to the book, the Dutch government spends the equivalent of 45 Canadian dollars per person each year for bike infrastructure.
Bruntlett believes that Canadians can learn from the Dutch and ride like they do. “If we’re really interested in improving people’s safety and well-being, we’re far more better off focusing on street design and creating conditions where more people are going to cycle no matter what they happen to wear on their heads,” Bruntlett said.