In European capitals, people’s attitudes about whether to wear a bicycle helmet or not vary considerably. Usage is almost zero in “bicycle country” the Netherlands; in London, almost two thirds of cyclists wear a helmet, more than any other city. But despite those big differences, a recent series of crash tests show that bicycle helmets are effective in protecting riders. 

Those are the main findings of a large survey conducted  by DEKRA, a company based in Stuttgart, Germany that conducts automotive testing, inspection and crash research.

The survey results are included in the Road Safety Report 2020, released in November, Dekra’s latest annual report, which examined the dangers for riders of motorized and non-motorized two-wheeled modes of transportation —  including bicycles, e-bikes, e-scooters, mopeds and motorcycles — and the need to take effective action to address them. Each year’s report focuses on a different topic.

More than 12,000 cyclists and e-scooter riders were surveyed prior to the Covid 19 pandemic, in nine cities: Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, Ljubljana, London, Paris, Vienna, Warsaw and Zagreb. 

The average overall rate of helmet-wearing in all cities was 22 %. The highest rate was observed in London ( 60.9%).  The next highest, though far behind, were Vienna (26.7 %) and Berlin (24.3 %), followed by Warsaw (22 %), Copenhagen and Paris (both 19.9 %).

The lowest rate of helmet-wearing was observed in Amsterdam – 1.1%.

“Hardly anyone wears a helmet there,” the study noted.  

“When you look at the number of accidents as a ratio of distance traveled, the Netherlands is the second safest country after Denmark in which to ride a bicycle,”  Luigi Ancona, an accident researcher for DEKRA, said in a statement. “Our figures clearly suggest a link between a bicycle-friendly infrastructure, the subjective feeling of safety and the rate of helmet-wearing.” 

Underscoring that link, researchers observed, is that in London, the city with by far the highest rate of helmet-wearing, a “strikingly large” number of cyclists also wore  high-visibility jackets so that they could be seen more easily.

Low rates of helmet use were also observed in Zagreb (5.9 %) and Ljubljana (9.1 %). 

Other highlights from the survey:

— Children are more likely to wear a helmet than other age groups, which can be attributed to the fact that parents are especially concerned about the safety of their children, and the mandatory helmet-wearing regulations for children and young people in some countries. However, the survey found that teenagers were the least likely to wear a helmet.

— Among cyclists who own their own bicycles, a group that makes up the vast majority of cyclists in the cities studied, the rate of helmet-wearing was considerably higher than among those who rent bicycles. 

— Fewer people wear helmets when riding e-scooters; considerably less than among cyclists. In Berlin, of the 173 e-scooter riders spotted, not one rider was wearing a helmet. In Paris, 30 out of 316 e-scooter riders observed were wearing a helmet (9.5 %).

— E-scooter crash tests demonstrated the protective effect of bicycle helmets, even airbag helmets, which are worn around the neck and deployed in a crash.  However, researchers said that airbag helmets were not as effective as standard bicycle helmets in all test environments.

“In cases where the rider simply hit the ground, the airbag helmet deployed very reliably and offered the same level of protection as a conventional helmet,” Peter Rücker, who heads DEKRA’s accident research, said in a statement. “But when the bicycle and the car crashed into each other, the airbag helmet did not reliably recognize this scenario as a crash. It seems that there are still problems with the deployment algorithm, which means that a conventional bicycle helmet is still the most reliable form of protection.”

To improve protections for all riders, DEKRA researchers recommended that people always wear a helmet when riding a bicycle or e-scooter, and that municipalities should make the infrastructure as “bicycle-friendly and as safe as possible.” 

(Earlier Forbes coverage of DEKRA’s 2020 report detailed how riders of two-wheelers, which unlike cars, vans and trucks, don’t have protective shells around them, have a higher risk of being involved in a serious crash, and how carrying children in cargo bikes can be dangerous. 

To learn more about the helmet survey, click here. To access DEKRA’s most recent Road Safety Report, related research, and previous annual reports, click here.

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