Now that Lord Bradley Wiggins of Kilburn has confirmed that he doesn’t want to make cycle helmets compulsory, I feel it’s safe to rehash an old post on cycle helmets. I have a strong fear this topic may have been covered by one or two other people on the internet today already, but I’m sure the internet won’t break under the strain of yet another opinion piece on cycle helmets.
BTW: If I could give cyclists one piece of safety advice, it would simply be don’t pass on the inside of large vehicles like buses and lorries. That advice would make much difference and significantly reduce fatalities from cycling. It’s no good having a cycle helmet if you get caught under a bus turning left.
The argument for cycle helmet compulsion is that it would protect cyclists from head injuries and make cycling safer.
Critics argue that if we did have compulsory helmet use, it would likely cause a significant fall in cycle rates, with little actual impact on reducing fatality rates. The fall in cycle use would have adverse impact on the health of the population, which outweighs any benefits from better protection in accidents. Lower cycle numbers can make roads even more vulnerable to cyclists. Furthermore promoting cycle helmet misses the point about cycle safety. The real key is to prevent accidents in the first place.
Also, you could argue it is not just cyclists who suffer head injuries, more head injuries are sustained by pedestrians and people in motor cars, so where does the call for compulsion end?
1. Helmets are Limited in Their Ability to protect Cyclists. There are numerous studies about the safety potential of cycling helmets; like any set of studies, you can be selective to find statistics to support your position. But, I think it is fair to say that on balance, helmets can play a role in minimising injury for certain types of cycling injury. However, there are also many cycling accidents where helmets unfortunately cannot save lives. Helmets can help in some circumstances. The safety design for cycle helmets are tested for low speed impact.
‘Helmets are designed to protect against injury whilst cycling at 12mph and falling onto the ground.’
In a very good article by Owen Jones at the Independent, he quotes this statistic:
One study of 100 police fatality reports by the Department for Transport suggested that wearing helmets could have prevented 10 to 16 per cent of deaths, but the sample was too small to count as conclusive evidence.
Even a 10% improvement in saving lives is a a strong encouragement to wear a helmet. To put it in context, there are roughly 110 fatalities from cycling each year. If this study has some accuracy, perhaps 10-20 could have been avoided through use of cycle use. It is enough to make me wear a helmet. But, in the context of wider fatalities (e.g. deaths from obesity / lack of exercise – it is pretty small.)
2. Compulsory Helmet Use Reduces Cycling
In Australian and Canadian cities where helmets have been made compulsory, cycle use has fallen.
3. Health Costs of falling cycle rates
This reduction in cycling can have various health costs such as: increased risk of heart disease and obesity. This is one of the biggest problem facing society. BMJ argue against compulsory helmet use because of health benefits of cycling [link]
For example, the number of children killed cycling in the UK, averages about 1-2 a year (whether helmet use would have saved these 1-2 children is uncertain to say the least. The number of children who are obese and face creating future health problems is a rising % of the population.
CTC argues that 15% of children aged between six and 15 were obese in 2001, numbers which are expected to rise to one fifth of boys and a third of girls by 2020.
Therefore, the highest priority of society should be to try and encourage greater physical exercise amongst the young population. Yes, cycling does have risks attached; but, we have to feel that sitting in front of a computer playstation eating fast food all day also has a much bigger hidden risk.
4. Moral Hazard. This argument say that if people wear a helmet they feel safer and more willing to take risks. This lulls people into a fall sense of security. If cyclists feel vulnerable they will take more caution - and it is this that is the best way to protect against serious injury. On the other hand, you could argue people who wear helmets value their safety more and so are just as likely to cycle responsibly if not more so.
5. Do Drivers Change their behaviour When cyclists wear helmets?
Some studies have claimed that wearing a helmet encourages drivers to pass closer to cyclists. If you look unprotected, drivers are more likely to give you space. (problem of cycle helmets)
It is interesting that the strongest calls for compulsory helmets often come from motorists. In fact some drivers get really annoyed if cyclists are not wearing helmets. Maybe concentrate on driving rather than hoping that your bad driving will be saved by a cycle helmet.
5. Cycle Culture and Fatalities
Countries with the lowest % of trips by cycle have the highest % of helmet use and the highest fatalities per bn /km
Helmet use in Netherlands is very low. Yet, fatalities per bn km is only 20. This compares to the US where 38% where helmet but fatalities per bn km is over 100 – five times greater than the US.
There are many ways to interpret this. But, higher helmet use is only a very limited factor in determining fatality rates.
If you want to reduce fatality rates and improve cycle safety, the key is to create an environment, infrastructure and culture which supports safe cycling.
A cycle helmet may help in a small % of accidents. But, the real key is preventing accidents in the first place. (legacy for cycling)
- Cycle helmets can help in some accidents.
- Compulsory helmet use is likely to significantly reduce cycle use, with little noticeable improvement
- When I see adults without helmets part of me thinks – that’s good they have confidence to cycle on British roads without armoured plating
- When I see children without helmets, I always think of how vulnerable a child’s head is, and wish they had a helmet on.
- I really worry that people with little experience of cycling will blame cyclists if they don’t have a helmet on. e.g. a cyclist dies from a broken vertebrae because a car ran into him, but the judge dismisses claims because a cyclists wasn’t wearing a helmet.
- If you do use a helmet, make sure it is fitted correctly. See: How to fit a cycle helmet
- Compulsory cycle helmet law discussed at BBC
- Cycle Helmets at Evans Cycles
- Reasons to wear a cycle helmet
- Cycle Helmet – an site criticial of helmet compulsion and helmet promotion