Dutch health experts increasingly vocal about helmet use

A woman and a man wearing bicycle helmets are standing in front of historic locks in downtown Ottawa
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Talking about increasing bicycle helmet use is a big taboo in the Netherlands. There is a lot of cycling research being done in the Netherlands but much of the publications don’t really make the news abroad. For example, one thing I am starting to notice is a push to wearing bicycle helmet use in the Netherlands. Are the times achanging?

Read more: Dutch health experts increasingly vocal about helmet use

No one really ever wanted to touch ‘let’s talk bike helmets’ with a nine foot pole in that small bike friendly nation with nearly 18 million residents, but as the number of cyclists dying in traffic is higher than car occupants now, and doctors facing an increasing number of the elderly getting in serious accidents, the discussion behind the dikes is gearing up.

Some numbers

In 2021, the Netherlands witnessed 582 road deaths, which was 28 less than the year before. The majority of those road deaths were cyclists and car occupants: 207 vs. 175.

Traffic deaths in the Netherlands Blue = cyclists; Green = car occupants. These are absolute numbers

However, the situation took a turn for the worse in 2022 with the number of Dutch traffic deaths skyrocketing to a shocking 745, which is 163 more than in 2021. This means that the number of road deaths is back to the level of 2009. Nearly 40% of the road deaths were cyclists and about 30% were car occupants. By age, 54% of all traffic deaths were people aged 60 years and above, and 23 children died in traffic (not necessarily on a bike).

500 cyclists didn’t come home in 2 years

If no one bikes in a country, you obviously have zero cycling deaths. It is important to note that numbers depend on how mobile a certain age group is. We also can’t just compare countries based on numbers. Even when you look at traffic deaths per 100.000 residents, you can’t compare. There are many variables, such as percentage and numbers of people cycling, cycling infrastructure or the lack thereof, maximum speeds, road design etc. But 207 cycling deaths in 2021 and 290 in 2022 means that just under 500 cyclists in the Netherlands didn’t come home in the last two years. Additionally, many people suffer from permanent damage. Those are still significant numbers.

High rate among aging cyclists

One of the areas where several Dutch think quick improvements can be made is convincing more people to wear a helmet. As you can read in the article below, among cycling fatalities, three quarters were over 60 years old. So this is a group that the Dutch Institute for Scientific Research on Road Safety (SWOV) is starting to focus on.

A table that shows blue and orange bars. The bars in turn show a rapid increase in bicycle deaths among seniors on e-bikes. It is suggested in the article that helmet use may address this
Traffic deaths among the most senior Dutch e-bike riders increased rapidly between 2018 and 2022 (sorry, forgot to translate ‘jaar’ = year)

Doctors for Safe Cycling promote helmet use

In 2021, a Dutch think tank, Doctors for Safe Cycling was launched, now supported by 11 scientific and medical organisations. To give this issue a bit more oomph, someone in the Netherlands invented a National Helmet Day during the third week of April. Given that seniors are more vulnerable and probably also more open to living a few more years in their twilight years, this group is currently approached to consider helmets, especially when using an e-bike. You can imagine that with an aging population that wants to stay fit, the numbers of cycling deaths might actually keep going up for a while. My own mother is still cycling (on an ebike no less) at 84. She is on the fence about buying a helmet.

The image above shows an article about “surprisingly more seniors buying a bicycle helmet”, a Dutch child with a helmet in the magazine of the Dutch version of the CAA and an article about three people who state they will leave “never again without a helmet”. These are examples of how you nudge people to change their behaviour: news articles, photos and testimonials.

Getting kids on board

Another group being targeted are kids. Kids are more vulnerable, both in development and visibility, and it’s likely easier to bring concerned parents on board than an inconvinceable teenager.

  • Ottawa River Pathway detour near War Museum
    Reading Time: 3 minutes A new detour on the Ottawa River Parkway came into effect. I went out and checked it out for you. It is well signed, but I am not sure about those ‘walk your bike’ signs.

Encouragement, not laws for helmet use

Although I mentioned before that comparisons between countries are difficult, Canada’s provinces have a law that mandates helmet use for the under 18 year olds. After 18, you are free to wear a helmet or not. Spend some time along a busy bicycle commute route in Ottawa though, and you’ll notice that probably 90% of the people is wearing a helmet voluntarily anyway.

The Dutch appear to consider encouragement before introducing laws. Generally, the Dutch don’t like to be told what to do, so nudging is likely the way to go.

A strategy that includes bringing kids on board early on and hope for voluntary helmet use after 18 without having to introduce laws is exactly part of a strategy that Denmark is following. With some interesting results. I will discuss that in my next post next time with another article from a Dutch newsletter.

Dutch newspaper article

Below is an article from AD Media from 2022, which I read when I was in the Netherlands last year. I translated it into English for you with help of Google to get a sense what is being discussed. The title is a bit click baity, as it sounds like an announcement but it is actually just a thought that is likely not realistic any time soon.

‘Cycling helmet mandatory for people aged 60+’

<end of article>

I am creating a number of recreational bicycle maps for Ottawa that mostly follow safe pathways and residential streets. Take a look here.





    • Thanks Karen. The pathway should open again in the Fall of 2024, just another year! Here is what is happening:

      Winter 2023–Fall 2024

      Parliament Hill escarpment rehabilitation work.

      – Remove vegetation at the base of the escarpment.
      – Plant erosion-resistant vegetative cover.
      – Build retaining walls.
      – Flatten the slope.
      – Repair and reinforce the natural exposed bedrock face.
      – Replant vegetation to restore the natural appearance of the escarpment.

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