Netherlands bicyclists

OK, one last post on Dutch velocipedal culture, because another reader reminded me of what may its most remarkable convention: no helmets! This one is really perplexing. Obviously, the only people who should wear a bicycle helmet are those who (i) use their heads for thinking or (ii) wish to appear as though they do; many Dutch people meet one or both of those conditions, yet all ride bareheaded, with usually no helmet on the little kid in the bike basket either. Freedom-loving people don’t like to be told what to do by government, nor by well-meaning nags, but the risk reduction is real and considerable (I know at least three people who are almost certainly alive only because of their bike helmets), and even the most devil-may-care Dutch usually have children and other people who care whether they live longer.

One reason helmets may seem unimportant is that so little riding in the Netherlands is done among automobile traffic; there’s a dedicated bike path between almost any two points. And they never get going very fast. I think this is an erroneous judgment, because two of the three horrific accidents my friends had were at fairly low speed and out of traffic, but it certainly feels scarier out in the street among the cars, or flying down a hill at thirty miles an hour, than footling along the bike path. But instinct, convention, and common sense are often very bad guides to actual risk. When I was in summer camp, we were regularly hauled around on highways in the backs of open stake trucks as cargo with no restraints; lots of women think they will protect an infant in a car accident by holding it in their lap. And I remember, when seatbelts became common in cars, that wearing one made driving itself feel less safe for the first couple of years; perhaps the psychology of the helmet is that people just don’t want to think about cycling as risky and wearing one has that effect. Of course most people now feel distinctly uncomfortable driving without a belt, and I have the same sense on a bike without a helmet, but to be the only one wearing one must feel almost intolerably geeky no matter how sensible it really is.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.