Bicycle Helmet Use Remains Under Ten Percent in Tokyo; One Year After Law Revision, Local Rates Still Vary Widely

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Many people are seen riding bicycles without wearing helmets on a shopping street near Kita-Senju Station in Adachi Ward, Tokyo, on April 30.

Bicycle helmet usage has not increased much among cyclists since April of last year, when a revised law obligating cyclists to make an effort to wear helmets went into effect. Helmet usage rates vary by region, with rates of less than 10% in Tokyo and Osaka prefectures. Experts are calling for strengthened measures to encourage cyclists to wear helmets, as the gear is proven to prevent fatal injuries.

Nearly Double Fatality Rate

On the evening of April 30, hardly anyone could be seen wearing a helmet among the families and workers dressed in suits riding bicycles along the main street leading to Kita-Senju Station, a train terminal in northern Tokyo’s Adachi Ward.

According to the National Police Agency, the fatality rate for cyclists not wearing helmets during accidents is nearly double that of those who wear them. Protecting the head is crucial for reducing the severity of injuries. The revision of the Road Traffic Law in April last year obliged bicycle riders to try to wear helmets. However, there are no penalties or enforcement measures for those who fail to do so.

According to a survey conducted by the Metropolitan Police Department between last December and this January, examining about 110,000 bicycles across 112 locations in Tokyo, the rate of helmet usage by bicycle riders was 9.1%. This was five percentage points higher last year, when it stood at 4.1%. By gender, it was 13% for men and 4.3% for women.

The rate of usage on the street leading to Kita-Senju Station was 2.5%, the second lowest figure among all survey spots.

“I know making an effort [to wear a helmet] is mandatory, but nobody else does, so I don’t either,” said a 75-year-old woman returning home from shopping. “I’ve been riding bicycles since elementary school, so I’ll be fine.”

In a survey conducted by the Osaka Prefectural Police between January and March, the rate of helmet usage remained at 5.8%. A survey by the NPA in July last year showed wide variation by region: Ehime Prefecture had the highest rate at 59.9%, followed by Oita Prefecture at 46.3%, while Niigata and Aomori prefectures were in the 2% range. The national average was 13.5%.

No Place to leave them

The Tokyo metropolitan government conducted a survey last autumn among those who do not wear helmets while riding bicycles, asking for reasons why they choose not to. Respondents were allowed to give more than one answer.

The most common reason cited was “it’s a hassle to wear” at 47.9%, followed by “there’s no place to leave them after riding, and they have to be carried around” at 38.6%, and “it messes up my hair” at 31.8%. There were also many calls for improvements in the design of helmets.

According to the NPA, accidents involving bicycles totaled 72,339 nationwide last year, marking an increase for the third consecutive year, up from 67,673 cases in 2020. Police are now conducting traffic safety campaigns nationwide, advocating for people to wear helmets while riding bicycles.

Effect of mandating helmet use

Local governments are implementing measures to encourage the wearing of helmets while riding bicycles. This fiscal year, the Niigata prefectural government began providing subsidies to municipalities that offer grants for purchasing helmets for those age 18 or younger, while the Kagawa prefectural government has started offering high school students a subsidy of up to ¥5,000 to buy helmets. The Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education now requires students at metropolitan government-run schools to wear helmets when they commute by bicycle.

In Ehime Prefecture, which has the highest rate of usage, helmets were made mandatory for students commuting to prefectural high schools in 2015, and about 29,000 students were given helmets free of charge. “Eliminating resistance [to wearing helmets] has led to an increase in usage rates,” an official from the prefectural board of education said.

Makers are applying some clever strategies of their own. One major helmet manufacturer, Osaka Prefecture-based OGK Kabuto Co., produces about 40 types of helmets, including some designed to resemble casual hats. The company is looking into developing foldable helmets that are easy to carry and those less likely to mess up hairstyles.

“Wearing helmets can be troublesome, and there are limits to how much effort someone is obligated to make,” Prof. Hajime Tozaki, a specialist in transport policy at J. F. Oberlin University, said. “The central and local governments should consider new measures, such as making helmet use mandatory when commuting to schools.”