While it may be shocking to many expats, there are some pretty good reasons why the Dutch cycle without bike helmets. Here’s a few of them.

There are many shocking sights you see when it comes to the Dutch and bicycles. There are the ones carrying up to four children at a time; others managing to ride whilst their dog runs alongside attached by a lead; some holding onto another empty bike and others carrying two huge bags of shopping and still managing to wave to their friend as they cycle past. But perhaps the most shocking sight of all is the lack of protective headgear.

It may seem alien to an expat who has just moved to the Netherlands that the majority of the cycling population do not wear a helmet. Most countries in the western world, whilst it is not illegal, take a stern view on cycling without a helmet. So why is it then that the Dutch, a leading country when it comes to innovation and forward-thinking ideas, still refuse to wear a helmet?

1Other road users are more aware of cyclists

Image: MabelAmber/Pixabay

Over 27% of all trips are made by bicycle. So that means wherever you are in your car (except the motorway of course), you will almost always be sharing some part of your journey with a cyclist.

And this has remained so for years and years, so all those 17-year-olds taking their driving license will have watched their parents, and grandparents sharing the road with their two-wheeler comrades, and know exactly how to act when they are driving near cyclists.

Compare this to the UK where only 4% of journeys are taken by bike and you can begin to understand why Dutch car users are so used to sharing the road, which in itself leads to far fewer fatalities.

Despite headlines stating that Cycling is now more dangerous than driving’, thanks to a report from Statistics Netherlands, Director of the Institute for Road Safety and Research (SWOV) Peter van der Knaap argues that cycling is, in fact, becoming safer due to the Dutch cycling so much and to a much older age.

2No one wears a helmet while walking…

Ok, so it sounds a bit of a weak argument but it’s true! Head injuries aren’t just dangerous when you are cycling. They are just as likely in the car as on a bike, with most head injuries happening whilst walking. Falls are responsible for almost 50 per cent of traumatic brain injuries in the USA. And yet there is never a debate on whether helmets in cars should be compulsory or when heading out for a summer’s stroll.

And in fact, there has been research showing that biking with helmets may make the car drivers take MORE risks, as they no longer see the cyclist as being vulnerable, especially if it is a man. So fellas if you insist on wearing headgear then it’s probably safer to also borrow your wife’s dress at the same time.

3Helmets can be ineffective

Many Dutch people argue that bike helmets are restrictive and can actually obstruct the vision of cyclists, making it difficult to quickly look over your shoulder to check the traffic or make a sharp right turn without hitting anyone. And to further back up this theory, along comes Theo Zeggers, a traffic consultant for Fietsersbond who had this to say this:

“If you are hit by a car on your bike there is no helmet that will protect you. There is actually no bike helmet ever developed that will protect you against the kind of dangerous impacts you experience at high speeds. It is impossible to make such a helmet and I don’t think one will ever be developed.”

So helmets may be fine when having a collision with other cyclists, but if you get hit by a car a helmet will not make a difference. A very controversial statement!

4They get traffic lessons when they’re five-years-old

Verkeerslessen or traffic lessons start in school as young as Groep Twee (that’s from about five years old). It may just begin with running around the playground and knowing that red means stop and green means go but the idea of obeying traffic regulations is indoctrinated at a very young age.

The older they get, the more complicated the lessons become and then before you know it (around eight years old) they no longer require cars or buses to go on school trips they all just go by bike! Imagine the headache that would give the teachers in the UK!

5Less restrictions, more cycling

As you can imagine, cycling every day (the Dutch manage at least 70 minutes per week!) means they’ve definitely earned their frikandel and fries at the weekend. In fact, all this cycling and fresh air mean Dutch people have a half-year longer life expectancy and 6,500 deaths per year are prevented according to a 2015 study quantifying the benefits of cycling in the Netherlands.

So what would happen if the government suddenly decided to introduce compulsory helmet use? According to cyclinguk.org enforced helmet laws in some countries have caused a huge reduction in cycle use. For example, in Western Australia bike use has dropped by around 30% since the introduction of such a law.

Who knows what would happen in the Netherlands if the Government introduced a similar restriction. It’s possible that it would put people off the many short cycling trips they take if they didn’t have their helmet with them, drastically reducing the number of minutes a person cycles per week which could mean that they no longer earn that frikandel and fries.

The Dutch seem to be more focused on implementing good biking practice (such as no drunk cycling or biking whilst apping) and investing huge sums of money into properly lit bike paths, than promoting helmet use.  And with the lowest number of cyclists killed per mile travelled in the world the Dutch must be doing something right.

What do you think about the Dutch not cycling with helmets? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!

Feature Image: MabelAmber/Pixabay
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in October 2018, and was fully updated in November 2020 for your reading pleasure.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Five times last year other cyclists ran into me. I wear a helmet because of the concussion I suffered six months ago. Since I started wearing my helmet no other cyclist has violated my right of way. If five percent of cyclists are dangerous to other cyclists, someone is a threat to me every day. Soldiers don’t wear helmets to protect against tanks. Helmets protect against the higher frequency light shrapnel and small arms fire.

  2. I’m dutch and used to biking without a helmet.
    First; There is a lot of drunk cycling over here same goes for biking whilst apping (which will be illegal from the first of july 2019)
    I’m not sure how other counties organized it but in the Netherlands the one who drives a car is responsible if a biker is injured, imo this gives the bikers an unfair (needed, I know) advantage, but in the age we are living in now, when I drive my car I see a lot of bikers just ‘Throw’ themselves in front of my car without even looking behind them. It’s horrifying, and I have no idea why they don’t lecture the cyclist at this point.
    My mother taught me how to safely pass from one way to the other, most important lesson was that I looked behind me to see what was happening over there, and respect the traffic rules.
    Now I’m riding my car, and I’m looking out for the cycler who goes rogue and may jump before my car, and that happens a lot.
    Enough of my rant for now and to the point.
    I’ve been in GB and Usa, and I was petrified a few times.
    Cyclist riding on highways and there where curves, so I could not see the cyclist from ahead.
    I was freaking out about that! You may think it’s weird that we don’t use helmets, but I was freaking out that I was allowed to drive so fast, and past cyclist with such a high speed.
    That won’t happen in the Netherlands, because it’s not allowed for cyclist to be on that kind of roades.

  3. Wearing a helmet means you have to take it with you when you get off the bike, which is extremely annoying. You can of course keep it on and look like an idiot while you’re shopping, or find a spot on a chair next to you in the pub or restaurant, but all these solutions are bound to cause problems and aggravations. Much easier therefore not to wear the damn thing at all…

  4. Very interesting article and agree with all points except #3. Studies about cycling and wearing helmets are extremely conclusive, wearing a helmet will help prevent injury and possibly death. Will they prevent all injuries, no. Do you expect your seatbelt to prevent injury form a train/car collision? No, but it’s a good idea to wear your seatbelt.

    Having cycled in the Netherlands the main thing that stands out (and possibly makes the best point for not wearing a helmet in NL) is that the country is full of bike paths and bike lanes. This, I believe, makes me feel comfortable not wearing a helmet in the Netherlands.

  5. This article is a load of BS. It finds statments to conclude what the they want to conclude, so they can justify not wearing a helmet. Wearing a helmet while riding a bicycle will make you more safe from having a head injury that not wearing any – that can’t be argueed, but yes off course it can be annoying and ugly and bite uncomfortable and the arguments you’re bringing here can of course give a reason for why people is still not wearing a helmet. But stop trying to use your arguments to make it sound like it’s safer to not wear one, than wearing one.

    I live in Denmark a country where they population rides their bikes on a daily basis probably as much as the Dutch people and have the same cycling/car traffic culture. Copenhagen bicycle culture = Amsterdam bicycle culture.
    I’m a nurse and hear about the headtraumas caused by falling on a bike without a helmet from my colleagues at ICU an neuro on a daily basis. And I just arrived home from 5 days as a foot tourist in Amsterdam.
    So I feel that I have some knowledge to speak in this subject.

    In DK people are beginning to be more aware of the risk of not wearing a helmet and we are begging to at see at least half of adult cycelist and all children having a helmet on.
    Then I was horrified from in 5days in Amsterdam only seeing one kid and one sport cyclist wearing a helmet!
    They where carrying their kids some thight up in really fancy safety chairs but also some barely strapped in! I saw a kid with rollerblades an protective gear on his nees but nothing on his head!!
    And maybe people from Amsterdam learn traffic safety from an early age as we also do here in Denmark but most of them drove like maniacs no regard for red light, cars ore pedestrians as weel again as people in Copenhagen. We also saw some young kids having fun and being silly on their bikes one actually feel and hit her head.
    So after all my rambling, my point is I am pretty sure if you check the Dutch statistics of head traumas caused by not wearing a helmet in a bike accident I’m pretty sure it’s high. You are shutting your eyes to a problem that could be easily solved.
    And no a helmet can’t safe you from a broken leg in an accident but it’s a hell lot easier to repair a broken leg than a broken brain…

    And yeah yeah you’re a chill country and enjoys your legal prosteuition and legal pot, and you don’t wanna be tied down by safety things like a helmet but don’t come and say it is not without a consequence??

    Inspite of this i love loved Amsterdam sweet actice biking pepole and the all the bikes because i reminds me of home. But stay safe guys!

    Ps..! you can lock your helmet to your bike lock so you don’t have to bring it everywhere, and in Denmark you can buy a necklace that you can wear that will inflate and protect your head so your hair can still flow in the wind…

    • You’ll find it difficult to convince a Dutch person cycling is dangerous. Wearing a helmet will undoubtedly reduce the incidence of head injury by a factor of 2. That sounds great, but chances are so small you get one in the first place. One in 90 people in their whole life(!) in the Netherlands are admitted to hospital due to a cycling head injury. On top of that these injuries are mostly from race bikers and electric bikers who tend to wear helmets…
      At the same time every Dutch person cycles virtually every day and an average of 2.5 km/day.

      Good luck getting the Dutch to buy into this.

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