Calls to force bicyclists under 17 to wear a helmet hit the skids in parliament, but some safety experts continue to push for obligatory helmets. Opponents say this makes cycling look more dangerous than it is and fear the number of cyclists will drop.
“I support mandatory bicycle helmets for everyone,” Reto Babst, head of trauma surgery at the Cantonal Hospital of Lucerne, told swissinfo.ch. “I see so many accidents with bikes – even normal bikes, not just e-bikes – where people haven’t worn a helmet.”
Every year around 900 people are seriously injured on bicycles in Switzerland, with almost half of these injuries being to the head. Last year, 36 cyclists died following accidents.
“The helmet is the first point of impact, the crumple zone,” Babst said. “If you don’t have a helmet, your skull will be destroyed instead. The first impact is therefore cushioned by the helmet and this energy absorption is important for protection against significant brain injuries.”
Most people agree and encourage helmet use – especially for children – but whether cyclists should be fined if they do not protect themselves is a separate, complex and highly divisive issue.
Australia and New Zealand are currently the only two countries to enforce universal use of helmets for cyclists. Various other regions (including almost half of the United States) have laws for children.
“We reject on principle the obligatory wearing of helmets, including for children and teenagers,” Christoph Merkli, head of cycling lobby Pro Velo, told swissinfo.ch.
“This would result in more cyclists wearing helmets, but the number of cyclists would go down. This isn’t desirable from either a health or safety point of view, since the more cyclists on the roads, the safer it is for cyclists. A requirement would therefore be counterproductive.”
The international Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation says “cycling is a very safe and healthy activity, and one that has considerable potential to address illnesses such as obesity and heart disease, which are the principal causes of premature death in western countries”. In Switzerland, 30,000 people have a heart attack every year – a thousand times the number of cyclist deaths.
According to the European Cyclists’ Federation, “wherever helmet laws have been brought in, there has been a clearance of cyclists from the streets. For example, cycle hours in New Zealand have dropped 55 per cent since 1989/90. Cycling in Australia has also significantly declined, with 37.5 per cent fewer Australians riding bikes in 2011 than in 1985-86. All this with no discernible benefit for road safety”.
Pro Velo recommends the voluntary wearing of helmets – something already done by almost two-thirds of Swiss children under 14 (but only a quarter of 15- to 29-year-olds, see link).
The cabinet and the Senate wanted to force the other third to wear them, but in June 2012 the House of Representatives roundly disagreed, preferring to shift responsibility onto parents and young cyclists themselves.
A wider package of laws, Via Sicura, was then passed without any requirement to make helmets compulsory, although they are required for those electric bikes (e-bikes) that can exceed 25km/h with pedal assistance.
“People are not always clever. Legislation is needed,” urged Transport Minister Doris Leuthard in vain, wading into the thorny issue of legal paternalism (passing laws to prevent people from hurting themselves). In her view, the personal responsibility of children couldn’t be relied on.
Laws for various forms of transport
In a survey carried out in April and May 2013, 46% of cyclists wore a helmet in Switzerland. There were sizable differences among age groups (see link).
Only 0.1% of Dutch cyclists wear helmets, compared with 15% in Sweden and 38% in the US, according to the British cycling organisation CTC. The Allianz Suisse report had 33% for Austria and 11% for Germany.
Car drivers in Switzerland must wear a seat belt, although not all do. In 2011, just under 90% of drivers and front-seat passengers did, with the figure falling to 80% for back-seat passengers.
Motorcyclists must wear a helmet.
E-bikers must wear a helmet if their e-bike has more than 25km/h pedal assistance.
Skiers and snowboarders do not have to wear a helmet, although last year 84% did (97% among those under 18).
(Source: Swiss Council for Accident Prevention)end of infobox
“A disproportionate measure,” said Fredi von Gunten, manager of the Switzerland Mobility Foundation, of obligatory helmets. He said that since almost 70 per cent of young people already wear a helmet, enforcing a helmet law would only see marginal additional benefits for substantial costs.
The Switzerland Mobility Foundation organises car-free “slowUp” bicycle rides around the country. Organisers of similar events, bike-to-work schemes and charity rides in other countries have expressed concern that mandatory helmets would affect participation.
For its part, the Swiss Council for Accident Prevention said it had called for obligatory helmets for children under 17 because the drop in cycle use would not apply as “children don’t have the option of turning to other means of transport, such as a motorbike or car”, according to spokesman Daniel Menna.
“Children are more vulnerable than adults and need special protection. Also, their cognitive skills are not as developed and they can’t always assess every danger,” he told swissinfo.ch.
The council admits cyclists’ safety “does not depend just on helmets” and recommends a range of additional measures, including speed reduction in built-up areas, better street planning and campaigns such as “Love Velo” (see link).
Road accident statistics (2012)
339 people died in road traffic accidents in 2012, 19 more than the previous year. 4,202 people were seriously injured and 18,016 lightly injured.
Total road deaths have gradually decreased over the past 30 years (the 2012 increase was inflated by a coach crash in which 28 people died). 1,246 people were killed in 1980, 954 in 1990 and 592 in 2000.
Of the 339 deaths, 104 were in cars, 74 were on motorbikes and 75 were pedestrians (of whom 20 were killed on zebra crossings).
28 cyclists and eight e-bikers died. Just over half of these deaths occurred on open roads, the rest at junctions.
2,193 cyclists were slightly injured (plus 166 e-bikers), 840 were seriously injured (plus 78 e-bikers).
(Source: Federal Roads Office)end of infobox
Dangers for schoolchildren
Last month, a study by insurer Allianz Suisse revealed that cycling to school was the most dangerous form of transport for children: accident risk is five to seven times higher than going by school bus or on foot.
“Therefore if a child does bicycle to school, we recommend he or she wear a helmet,” Hans-Peter Nehmer from Allianz Suisse told swissinfo.ch. “In the case of an accident, the risk of injury is massively reduced if the child – or indeed adult – is wearing a helmet.”
The authors pointed out that Swiss roads were eight times more dangerous for cyclists than for drivers, saying further discussion over a helmet law was “urgently needed”.
However, Velo Suisse, the Association of Swiss Bike Suppliers, shook its head at what it considered unnecessary scaremongering by Allianz (which denied plans to differentiate between helmet-wearers and non-wearers for insurance purposes).
“The bicycle – unlike the growing number of ‘mummy taxis’ – is the ideal way to get to school,” it said in a statement. “Learning the biking rules of the road when young promotes enjoyment and use of the most environmentally friendly means of individual transport.”
Velo Suisse added that a mandatory helmet law would make little ecological sense, given the expected move from bike to car by some cyclists.
‘Not enough being done’
So how bicycle-friendly is Switzerland, which has around four million bikes for eight million inhabitants, putting it eighth worldwide for bicycle density (see link)?
According to the Allianz Suisse report, pedestrians and cyclists make up 33 per cent of road victims in Switzerland; the European average is 27 per cent.
Also, no Swiss city made it onto the Copenhagenize Index 2013, which rated 150 cities around the world for bicycle friendliness and listed the top 20 (see link).
“While there are Swiss cities which are ahead of the curve regarding taking the bicycle seriously as transport – here I’m thinking of Basel and Bern – no Swiss cities could compete with the Top 20 in this edition,” Mikael Colville-Andersen, an urban mobility expert and CEO of Copenhagenize Design, told swissinfo.ch.
“Simply not enough is being done. Swiss traffic engineers still control the car-centric matrix, while in cities around the world, urban planning is increasingly revolving around making space for bicycles at the expense of automobiles and re-establishing the bicycle on the urban landscape,” he said.
“Swiss cities are rather old-fashioned in this regard and they are not keeping up with the current trend of modernising our cities by putting the bicycle back into them.”
Helmets increase danger?
According to a study published in journal Accident Analysis & Prevention, car drivers pass an average of 8.5cm closer when overtaking cyclists wearing helmets than when overtaking bare-headed cyclists.
Researcher Ian Walker from the University of Bath wrote: “We know helmets are useful in low-speed falls, and so definitely good for children, but whether they offer any real protection to somebody struck by a car is very controversial. Either way, this study suggests wearing a helmet might make a collision more likely in the first place.”
To test another theory, Walker donned a long wig to see whether there was any difference in passing distance when drivers thought they were overtaking what appeared to be a female cyclist. With wig, drivers gave him an average of 14cm more space when passing.end of infobox