An ambiguous future for cycling helmets in The Netherlands

Despite mounting evidence that helmets could prevent numerous deaths and injuries, Dutch cyclists still prefer to go without protective headgear. 

A 2016 report from the Dutch Institute for Road Safety Research claimed that making cycling helmets mandatory for children could prevent five deaths and 140 serious injuries annually. Regardless of this fact, the cycling helmet remains divisive for many people in the Netherlands.

The most recent government plans for compulsory helmet legislation dates back to 2008 and the introduction of the Road Safety Strategic Plan 2008-2020. The programme was created by the Ministry of Transport (now Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment) and long-term aims included obligatory helmets for children.

Nine years later, government talk surrounding helmets has been largely muted. A streamlined 2012 Ministry of Infrastructure report removed any mention of enforcing helmets without informing the public. Government officials were unable to comment on this move.

The Dutch province of Zeeland provided free helmets for children between the ages of four and eight between 2010 and 2015. Whilst young children’s head injuries dropped during this period, the report makes note of a lack of solid data considering the low numbers of participants involved. The campaign is expected to be re-evaluated in 2018.

For Groningen, a 2016 candidate for the best cycling city of the Netherlands, the issue of helmets is magnified as over 60% of all journeys are made on a bicycle.

A helmet could make all the difference between a brain injury or not, according to Dr. Zwany Metting, neurologist at The University Medical Centre Groningen (UMCG). Furthermore, in a 2016 article in the Dutch Journal of Medicine, experts at UMCG supported helmet legislation that would protect vulnerable cyclist groups such as children and the elderly.

Annemiek van der Linden, a former Groningen resident speaking to The Scoop, explained the decision to make her young daughter wear a helmet while she was a passenger on a bike and when learning how to ride. This was due to Groningen’s “chaotic” traffic and the lack of awareness some drivers show children on bikes. Now 6, Annemiek’s daughter has decided to stop wearing her helmet.

Numerous organisations have spoken out on this topic. The Dutch Cycling Embassy and Safe Traffic Netherlands support voluntary use of helmets, but clearly state they do not support legislation that forces it upon cyclists.

Anti-helmet sentiment is echoed by local cycling shops in Groningen. A representative from a local bike shop, Paddepoel Fietsen, told The Scoop that enforcing helmets would be “detrimental for both biking and The Netherlands,” because it would push people away from cycling.

Tensions still exist between experts, organisations and the public on the role of cycling helmets in The Netherlands, dividing opinion further on this safety feature and the most ubiquitous mode of transport in the country.

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