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Keywords:

  • Bicycling;
  • cost-benefit analysis;
  • health or risk tradeoffs;
  • helmets

This article seeks to answer the question whether mandatory bicycle helmet laws deliver a net societal health benefit. The question is addressed using a simple model. The model recognizes a single health benefit—reduced head injuries—and a single health cost—increased morbidity due to foregone exercise from reduced cycling. Using estimates suggested in the literature on the effectiveness of helmets, the health benefits of cycling, head injury rates, and reductions in cycling leads to the following conclusions. In jurisdictions where cycling is safe, a helmet law is likely to have a large unintended negative health impact. In jurisdictions where cycling is relatively unsafe, helmets will do little to make it safer and a helmet law, under relatively extreme assumptions, may make a small positive contribution to net societal health. The model serves to focus the mandatory bicycle helmet law debate on overall health.