Problems With Cycle Helmets


In previous posts, I examined how much space cars give bikes.

I came across a couple of links which made me go back to the issue.

The first is a study by Dr Walker, whose research was published in the journal Accident Analysis & Prevention [link]

Using an electronic measuring device, he found that when wearing a helmet, cars gave cyclists 8cm (3.1 inches). less space.

Interestingly, he found that the worst offenders were lorries and buses (buses got an extra 23cm closer. Something I can easily believe!). He also found that cars were more likely to give women extra room. (an extra 14cm)

His theory, is that car drivers make judgements about cyclists, if they look experienced then they give them less room. However, if the cyclist is not wearing a helmet the car driver worries that the cyclist is less experienced and more likely to behave unpredictably. Therefore, they give cyclists a wider berth.

I’m sure drivers don’t make a conscious decision like -”That person is wearing a helmet, so let’s pass close by.” But, when I’m driving I would take more care and pass wider – if I thought the cyclist was young / inexperienced. The report certainly seems to be plausible from a psychological perspective.

It is only one report, but I have heard alot of anecdotal evidence to back this up. Quite a few people say, that wearing certain clothes and no helmet, encourages cars to give them more room. For example, this newspaper report in Cambridge about wearing purple charity T Shirts

It gives cyclists a dilemma, a helmet may help for low speed crashes, but, if wearing a helmet encourages drivers to pass closer by, the small benefit may be negated.

There are other issues at stake, like could wearing a helmet give a cyclist a false sense of security and encourage more reckless cycling?

When racing, or doing long training rides, I always wear a helmet, it is not because my mother tells me to; but, it seems the right thing to do. But, on short commutes into town, a helmet feels like an inconvenience.

A friend from Cyclox, said after reading a similar report, he tried commuting without wearing a helmet. He made two observations. Firstly, he felt more vulnerable because he was so used to wearing a helmet. Secondly, he did feel he got more space from cars.

7 Responses to Problems With Cycle Helmets

  1. tejvan October 6, 2008 at 9:08 am #

    It seems to make sense about giving helmets to children for a variety of reasons. I guess, the other benefits of helmet use will always be difficult to precisely define

  2. Dan H October 4, 2008 at 9:41 am #

    Making your children wear a helmet isn’t just about them being too young to choose. (This issue came up on the CCC mailing list discussion.) Children’s skulls are much thinner, so a bump on the noggin that you or I would walk away from and take an aspirin for is a potentially serious injury to them. Again, we’re not talking about getting crushed by a left-turning bus or lorry, which no helmet will protect against (and which I reiterate is more likely to happen off the bike than on), we’re talking about the low-impact accidents like losing control on slippery tarmac or leaning too far into a bend, which are comparable to falling out of a tree or coming off a skateboard.

    One chap on the list (who I won’t name) said that he doesn’t wear a helmet because, having considered the evidence, he thinks they are no use, but he makes his children wear them for the reason above. He explains why he treats them differently, and hopes that when they are old enough they will make an informed decision for themselves. I don’t think you can argue with that really.

  3. Stormfilled October 4, 2008 at 8:01 am #

    I looked at studies and things when I started cycling again and made the decision not to wear a helmet. Whether the reports and things are true or not, I was looking for an excuse not to wear one! In all honesty, I’m very vain. Not being particularly pretty, my hair is my best feature and if I had to wear a helmet, I simply wouldn’t cycle. Also, I hate having anything around my head. Sounds stupid doesn’t it? But it’s the truth.

    I think cars make judgments on all kinds of things. I recently went out for a ride with a male friend on a mountain bike. I ride an old steel upright with baskets on it. The differences in the way that cars treated us was absolutely astounding. I’ve seldom felt unsafe on roads, but I certainly worried for him that day; they seemed to see him as a challenge.

    In the studies I’ve read, the protection offered by a helmet seems mostly geared to if you just fall off. Certainly if any of the situations with my friend the other day had been more serious, there’s no way that a piece of headwear would have saved him. But if I had kids, I’d ask them to wear one, just in case they fell off. I think it has to be a personal decision. When my metaphorical kids were old enough to make their own informed choice, then that choice would be theirs.

  4. Lutin October 4, 2008 at 6:31 am #

    I agree with Dan that I wouldn’t put too much trust in that study. Most biking accidents are lateral car/bike collisions and doors opening suddenly before a surprised cyclist. In both cases, an 8cm difference in distance with cars in front or behind won’t make a difference.
    In the city I live, I’m more concerned of bad drivers (and there are so many here) having totally stupid and unpredictable behavior than of having more space while commuting on the street.

    Although, after having fell down once at 35kph (a speed which I reach relatively often while commuting), I wouldn’t bet much on not wearing a helmet either. It was not even in an accident with a car; a small bump on the cycling path and me not paying enough attention. With the force my head hit the ground, I’m pretty positive it saved me at least from a concussion.

    So, kids, be safe and wear your helmets!

  5. tejvan October 3, 2008 at 8:44 pm #

    Thanks for comments Dan, you always have something interesting / useful to say.

  6. Dan H October 3, 2008 at 6:09 pm #

    When I say “on the Cambridge Cycling Campaign” I mean the mailing list. I tried to edit my comment before posting, but it had already gone.

  7. Dan H October 3, 2008 at 6:07 pm #

    I wouldn’t put too much stock in that study. Dr Walker found that the difference in average space left is single digits of cm, which is (1) much less than the standard deviation within each set of measurements, and (2) trivial compared to the several feet of clearance that almost all vehicles gave. A much more important issue is that if a multi-ton vehicle collides with you at high speed, the extra mass attached to your head causes any impact to be harder, increasing the chance of serious head injury.

    On the other hand, pedestrians are more road-accident-prone than cyclists (per person per mile travelled), so if you don’t wear a helmet while walking to the bus stop or corner shop, wearing one on the bike is a bit of a waste of time. Mind you, as so few ped and cyclist accidents involve low-velocity upper head impacts (i.e. the kind bike helmets protect against), you can make a bigger contribution to your safety by always wearing a full-face helmet. Of course, this applies to commuting, not to racing. Riding at race velocities at the separations racers tend to keep, I’d want a helmet too.

    Interestingly, there was a poll on the Cambridge Evening News website on bike helmet compulsion last week: the results were 80-20 against compulsion. It sparked, shall we say, a lively debate on the Cambridge Cycling Campaign – not about compulsion, which even the pro-helmet crowd agreed would be disastrous – but about whether helmets offer any benefit at all.

Leave a Reply

9 + 6 =