I will always wear a cycling helmet but should government force people to?

The debate about whether or not wearing a cycling helmet should be compulsory is once again raging. This time, the catalyst for the debate is the heart wrenching story of Ryan Smith who is now lying in a coma after being knocked off his bike. His father has made a plea to parents to ensure kids wear a helmet.

But, what seems like common sense (wearing a helmet saves lives in the same way wearing a motorbike helmet does and so should be compulsory as well) is more contentious than it might first seem.

The cycling charity, CTC, makes the point:

“Given that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks by around 20:1 (one recent study put it at 77:1), it can be shown that only a very small reduction in cycle use is needed for helmet promotion (let alone helmet laws) to shorten more lives than helmets themselves could possibly save, regardless of how effective helmets might be.”

Essentially, it is saying when Ryan’s father publically talks about the importance of helmets – he’s making people less safe…I assume they would say the same for other people speaking out about helmet use (for example the wife of James Cracknell after his near fatal accident).

A study in the British Medical Journal however shows that:

“helmets reduced the risk by 63-88% for head, brain, and severe brain injury among cyclists of all ages.”

The road safety charity, BRAKE, supports this saying:

“Last year, over 17,000 cyclists were injured on UK roads with over 2,500 killed or seriously injured. The vast majority of these deaths and serious injuries were the result of a head injury. This is precisely why many of our international and European partners have already introduced compulsory helmet wearing,”

These, initially contradictory statements have fuelled a debate that divides cyclists, journalists and politicians alike.

All this evidence though seems to be pointing in the same direction – against the legal enforcement of wearing a helmet, and towards the incentivising of helmet use. It is difficult to believe CTC’s claim that appropriately constructed promotion campaigns would significantly put people off from cycling and as such make people less safe.

There seems to be no shortage of steps that could be taken.

Currently in the UK, a reasonable helmet for a commuter will cost around £30 (for example – this Lazer introductory sports helmet).  I couldn’t find any studies to show cost to helmet use ratios, but anecdotally I can say that I cycled for 3 months in London without a helmet because I lost my old one and at the time couldn’t afford a new one. I would be surprised if there was no correlation there.

Equally there are a host of other measures that could be dreamed up to promote the use of helmets ranging from school curriculum to better helmet storage facilities (when you lock your bike up somewhere you normally have to carry your helmet around with you).

Would having somewhere safe to store your helmet really put people off cycling?

But, to a certain extent, these arguments miss the point. What makes cycling safe or unsafe, primarily is not about what gear you’re wearing but where you are cycling. In cities for example that have physically separated cycle routes, the number of accidents reduce massively.

The flip side of this is of course that badly designed roads massively increase cycle accidents. For example, evidence shows that multi-lane roundabouts act as a death trap for cyclists (anecdotally I cannot help but to think of Elephant and Castle in support of this). This study concluded saying:

“Evidence is beginning to accumulate that purpose-built bicycle-specific facilities reduce crashes and injuries among cyclists, providing the basis for initial transportation engineering guidelines for cyclist safety. Street lighting, paved surfaces, and low-angled grades are additional factors that appear to improve cyclist safety.”

Reading these studies feels like it is just adding weight to common sense. But then again, wearing a helmet also seems like common sense.

Cyclists are safer in large numbers and people only get on a bike when they feel safe. Forcing people to wear helmets will not make them feel safe – investing heavily in separated cycle lanes will.

Is this too simplistic a conclusion?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “I will always wear a cycling helmet but should government force people to?

  1. Galloway's Valet

    I suspect your conclusion ‘people only get on a bike when they feel safe,’ is right. Helmets are a bit of a red herring. The corporate sector makes billions destroying countless lives with tobacco, alcohol, junk food, petrochemicals and privatized transport. Vast industries (advertising and marketing) spend billions spreading disinformation about the nature of these products and their consequences. The damage caused by the ‘external’ costs of these ‘markets’ dominates health spending and now threatens planetary survival.
    In this context focusing on the morality of cyclists’ head-wear choices is truly grotesque.

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  2. I find myself in the uncomfortable position of agreeing wholeheartedly with you.

    I will very rarely agree with legislation which forces people to think about their own safety. It is, at the end of the day, our own lookout. I’ve chosen to cycle without a helmet in London (when hiring a Boris bike) – if helmets were mandatory, I’d get the tube or the bus instead, and my beer belly would reverse its current trend towards atrophy. So which is more risky to my health? I think I should be the one empowered to make that decision.

    Your suggestion of concentrating on improving cycle lanes is also well-placed. Unfortunately, London has been taken seemingly completely unawares by the explosion in cycling in recent years (it’s got even better since last year, would you believe?) and painting a portion of its already-narrow carriageways blue simply doesn’t cut it. As someone who both drives (had I ever mentioned?) and cycles in London I can see that the road needs to be safe and well-designed for all users, and a fundamental redesign of horrible junctions like E+C (which I believe is in the Mayor’s ten year plan) would be a bloody good start.

    There’s a difference, which must be recognised, between “Cyclists” and “POBs” – Pedestrians on Bikes. Cycling campaigns tend towards the former group, which is where they find their core support – but we should be focusing education towards the latter – the ones less likely to wear a helmet, but more likely to be rattling around at 5mph on a badly-maintained bike in the dark with no lights on listening to their iPod. If we can convince these people to take cycling (and their own safety) a bit more seriously, I think we’ll see a fair impact on accident statistics.

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