Urban Cycling

Why Do Dutch Cyclists Not Wear Helmets?

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A few years ago I visited Amsterdam to see a close friend of mine, who is Dutch. She’s not sport-obsessed, but she cycles everywhere, as do most Amsterdam residents. She also arranged for me and my friends to have bikes while we were there – the trusty and wholly wonderful ‘omafiets’ that are so comfortable.

Of course, I’d known for a long time that Amsterdam was a cycling city, regarded globally as the pinnacle of “bike-friendly”. But nothing really prepared me for experiencing it first hand. I’d been cycling in London for years without any issues, but it was an absolute joy to be cycling in a metropolis, almost entirely separate from traffic.

And I’ll be honest, none of us ever thought about helmets. They were never mentioned, and no one else was wearing one, so neither did we.

Do Cyclists Wear Helmets in Amsterdam?

It is very rare for cyclists in Amsterdam to wear a helmet. In fact, it’s almost unheard of. If anyone is seen wearing a helmet in Amsterdam they’re probably not Dutch. The exception is children, who, being less experienced, are sometimes seen wearing helmets. Though not always.

When Dutch people who live in Amsterdam are asked why they don’t wear helmets the answers are mixed: “because it’s safe without”, “it messes my hair”, and so on. But the response is often slightly bemused, with a general feeling of “I don’t really even think about it.”

When I asked my Dutch friend why, she laughed, and when she’d stopped laughing, she said, “We always know a tourist because they’re wearing a helmet, and we think it’s weird.”

Essentially, people in Amsterdam don’t wear helmets because they don’t feel they need to. Hundreds of millions has been spent by the Dutch government on cycling infrastructure since the 1970s, resulting in cities (and non-urban areas) having a widespread network of cycle routes that are often separate from car traffic, with their own traffic lights, roundabouts, bridges and tunnels.

Helmets haven’t become ingrained in (or even entered) Dutch cycling culture, because most cycling accidents involve cars. Many motorists in Amsterdam are also cyclists, and even if they aren’t, there is a general awareness of and respect given to cyclists. Sadly, this is not something we can boast about so much in the UK.

Indeed, statistically, cycling is actually less dangerous than walking, and Dutch people argue that it’s extremely uncommon for people to simply “fall off a bike”. Whether or not cycling is dangerous is intrinsically linked to the type, and amount of other traffic that cyclists encounter on the road.

Bike Helmets Statistics in the Netherlands

According to the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation, it’s estimated that approximately 0.5% of cyclists in the Netherlands wear helmets, as opposed to around 35% in the UK.

Cycling Statistics in the Netherlands

In 2020, there were an estimated 22.8 million bikes in the Netherlands, of which around 2.4 million were electric bikes.

More than a quarter of all trips in the Netherlands are made by bicycle, with around 36% of Dutch people (of a population of 17 million) saying it’s their preferred mode of transport. 

In 2019, the Dutch made 4.8 billion trips by bicycle, covering 17.6 billion km. Cycle use remained fairly consistent during the Covid 19 lockdowns, with the lengths of trips increasing, from an average trip of 3.4 km (September 2019), going up to 4.4 km (in early April 2020).

Studies do show that bike accidents are responsible for over 70% of “severely injured traffic participants” in the Netherlands, and that accidents resulting in serious injury have increased by 35% in the last ten years.

The Netherlands sees around 200 deaths each year from cycling accidents, whereas in the UK there were 140 road cycling fatalities in 2020. But proportionately to the population, there are more cyclists making regular journeys in the Netherlands. This would imply that the Netherlands is a safer place to travel by bike, regardless of helmet use.

Do Cyclists in the Netherlands Wear Helmets?

Most cyclists in the Netherlands as a whole, do not wear helmets. And in spite of the Dutch SWOV Institute for Road Safety Research asserting that protective head-wear could lessen cycling fatalities by about a third, it’s unlikely that the 95% of helmetless riders will start any time soon.

In spite of the fact that a relatively high number of cyclist hospital admissions in the Netherlands involved cyclists wearing helmets, The Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation have attributed this to the fact that most riders who do wear helmets are engaged in more dangerous cycle sports such as mountain biking or racing.

Why Are There So Many Bikes in Amsterdam/Netherlands?

By the early 1970s there were thousands of deaths per year from traffic accidents in the Netherlands. In protest, Dutch people took to the streets, and the turbulent campaign resulted in a widespread investment in cycling infrastructure, transforming the country, and its bike culture, completely.

This bitter history, although relatively recent, now seems an age ago, as the Netherlands has for decades been regarded as the “cycling capital” of the world. Cycling for Dutch people is not only popular, it’s rooted deeply in the culture.

For the Dutch, commuting by bicycle is considered healthier, greener, cheaper, easier (in terms of parking) and safer. But it’s also an important part of history. The sheer number of bikes in Amsterdam and the rest of the country are testament to the fact that they fought to reclaim the streets for two wheels, and they won.

Why Are There So Many Bikes in Amsterdam Canals?

Although statistics vary, there are certainly more bikes in Amsterdam than there are residents. With around 900,000 bikes in the city, theft is a problem, and about 15,000 bikes (presumed stolen), are fished out each year from the Amsterdam canals.

This might sound strange, but bear in mind that there are 165 canals in Amsterdam, covering a distance of approximately 60 miles. For the more unscrupulous types wishing to get rid of a bike – as hideous as it is – dropping it into the canal probably seems like the easiest option.

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