Helmet compulsion is back in the news. Who wants it? An MP in Northern Ireland does. Who doesn’t? Britain’s largest cycling organisation, the CTC, doesn’t want it and is on permanent standby to speak against compulsion whenever the issue arises.

Melbourne cyclists don’t want it.  There, in the State of Victoria, the helmet law is said to be killing off the new cycle hire schemes in Melbourne and Sydney. Mexico recently revoked their helmet laws fearing it would deter people from hiring bikes.

And on mainland Britain,  a report by the  Department of Transport, after a review of the available research, says  there is no clear evidence to support the view that helmets protect from serious injury.

To wear a helmet or not to a wear a  helmet – let the individual, parent or guardian decide. That remains the stance of the CTC – the national cyclists’ organisation. One good reason is that the health benefits far outweigh the risks.

Notwithstanding this position, the island of Jersey recently passed a helmet law, and now Northern Ireland MP Pat Ramsay’s Private Members bills seeks to do same.

There is a connection. It’s called Headway, the brain injury charity, acting with the best of intentions but, according to cycling safety experts, exaggerating the risks and being selective in the use of statistics.

The gospel according to Headway was at work in both Jersey and Northern Ireland.

Ramsay refers to 42 serious incidents of children falling off their bikes and being rushed to A&E.

“It is clear and obvious from brain injury group Headway that there is an increasing number of young people having serious accidents on their bikes,” says Ramsay.  “We must legislate for this at the Assembly, particularly when some accidents sustained by young people can easily ruin their lives permanently, then every effort must be made.”

CTC’s campaigns and policy director Roger Geffen says that the viewpoint behind proposals for a helmet law in Northern Ireland rests on three unfounded hypotheses:

“The first is that cycling is a particularly ‘dangerous’ activity.  You are as unlikely to be killed in a mile of cycling as a mile of walking. Pedestrian helmets anyone?”

The second, says Geffen, is that helmets are ineffective at preventing the risks which cyclists face. In fact, cycle helmets are (and can only be) designed to withstand minor knocks and falls, not being hit by moving traffic.

The third is that helmet use cannot be promoted, let alone enforced, without reducing cycle use,
with all the health, environmental and other benefits it brings. “In fact there is good evidence that enforcing helmet laws substantially reduces cycle use,” says Geffen.

John Franklin, author of How to be a better cyclist, and a cycling expert in court cases, says that the recent Department for Transport study showed there was no clear evidence of benefit from helmets in serious crashes.

“It’s also a paradox that most people seem to know of someone ‘saved’ by a helmet although very
few people know of anyone badly hurt through not wearing one. The claims and the hard evidence just don’t add up.”

The one thing proponents of helmet legislation seem to ignore is that the fact that helmets do nothing to improve road safety, say the CTC.

What Helmets have done for cycling’s image, however, is to create the perception that cycling is inherently dangerous, which it was never considered to be before the arrival of the ubiquitous shiny hard hat.

  • Paul Bunting

    Helmets are helpful only if you are hit on, or land on, your head. Most cyclist injuries and fatalities take place at junctions and are due to motor vehicle drivers overtaking when it is not safe to do so. Cyclists can also overtake on the left motor vehicles when it is not safe to overtake eg juggernaut with mirror blind spots turning left at a roundabout bounded by railings. Such crushing and rolling injuries are not avoided by wearing a helmet. The only way to avoid cyclist injuries and fatalities is better cyclist and driver training and/or, as in Holland, giving cyclists absolute priority over motor vehicles, plus thousands of miles of effective, continuous, safe cycle lanes. The cyclist injury potential incidents I have seen are (1) motorist turning left into car park into path of cyclists capsizing them (did not signal and presumably did not check left mirror) – helmets not applicable; (2) motorist veering left round a miniroundabout capsized lady cyclist already on the roundabout, whom he claimed he did not see, but he was wearing dark glasses facing in the opposite direction of the sunset – helmet not applicable; (3) pedestrians against a red pedestrian light started walking across the road into the path of a cyclist with the right of way and whom they caused to be thrown some distance over the handlebars and, when he got up and attempted to remonstrate with the pedestrians, they claimed it was his own fault!. He was not wearing a helmet but was in better senses than the sleepy pedestrians. I also remember some years ago news that most of a cycling club was wiped out on the North Eastern A1 by a drunken motorist one Sunday morning – a classic case of overtaking when it was not safe to do so. Helmets would not have saved them.

  • Paul Bunting

    A helmet is useful if you are hit on, or land on, your head. Most cyclist injuries and fatalities take place at junctions and are caused by motor vehicle drivers overtaking the cyclist when it is not safe to do so. Cyclists can also overtake on the left motor vehicles when it is not safe to do so eg juggernaut with blind spots turning left at a roundabout bounded by railings. Such crushing and rolling injuries are not avoided by wearing helmets. Most cyclist injuries and fatalities could be avoided either by better cyclist and driver training or by (as in Holland) giving cyclists absolute priority over motor vehicles plus thousands of miles of effective cycle lanes. I remember that some time ago on the North Eastern A1 most of a cycle touring club was wiped out by a drunken motorist. This was a classic case of overtaking when it is not safe to do so, with drunkness a strong contributory factor so that the motorist ploughed into the cyclists instead of overtaking safely when it was safe to do so. Helmets would not have saved this cycling club.

  • SexifyBicycles

    The vast majority of maiming and death on the streets is caused by motor vehicles. This goes for people on foot, on bicycles or in other motor vehicles.

    If you really want to improve people’s safety, tackle the SOURCE of the danger, not the victims.

    Strict liability for collisions with vulnerable road users would be a cheap solution. Slower traffic speeds work wonders in the UK cities where they’ve been implemented.

    Long term, modernise the national standards for street design to incorporate safe bike paths in new and renovated streets. Something the Dutch did 40-odd years ago.

  • brian walsh

    I don’t believe this. If the government were serious about reducing cycling injuries, they would tackle the ridiculously dangerous drivers which are far too common in Northern Ireland. I speak as a (non helmet wearing) cyclist and driver in Northern Ireland.

  • MonteZoncolon

    I absolutely agree with the introduction of a Law to make wearing helmets compulsory. Any body that rides a Bicycle without a helmet are putting themselves in grave danger. Helmets can save lives. To hell with statistics. Bring in this Law. It will help save lives and serious Head injuries. End of story.

    Quote : If the do-good helmet nannies really cared about lowering head injuries, rather than trying to control a small group of people, they would try to get all motorists and walkers to wear helmets. Their head injuries FAR outnumber head injuries to cyclists. But they’re not stupid enough to take on that task are they? So they try for their moment of glory with cyclists. They’re easier to pick on. QUOTE.

    That is one of the most stupid statements I have ever read.

  • Colin Clarke

    http://www.cyclehelmets.org/papers/c2022.pdf
    provides more info, the 48% and 70% figure where always likely to mislead the public.

    If you look at the Appendix.

    “Table 3 shows the risk of death and serious head injury (as defined by TAC) increased relative to that for
    pedestrians. We may therefore conclude that the widely-quoted claims of 48% and 70% reduction in cyclist head
    injuries were mainly due either to changes in admission procedures and improved road safety conditions (resulting in
    29% and 75% reductions in numbers of concussions to pedestrians).”
    ————-
    Extra information on helmets and cycling, google, ‘Health and safety assessment of state bicycle helmet laws in the USA’.

  • Andrew

    I also wear a bicycle helmet 99% of the time, and would encourage others to do so. I am, however, very concerned that requiring bicycle helmets would reduce bicycle use, without causing a significant increase in safety.

    One thing I would like to see before I make up my mind is some “real” data.

    Colin Clarke shows accident data, but it is not normalised against the number of people carrying out each activity or distance travelled. If it were, then my guess is that cycling would far outstrip pedestrian deaths and would start to approach road deaths. Colin shows that cycling reduced in Victoria after the helmet law, but not by what proportion of the total.

    Then again, what are the benefits of wearing helmets? Hannah says that fatal accidents were reduced in Victoria, but does not balance that against the reduced number of cyclists. Of course, if it reduces the number of cyclists, it may also increase the number of deaths from obesity-related causes, and that would probably have to be factored into a more reasoned assessment…

    Personally I would like to see more cycle lanes and then perhaps we should consider requiring helmets when cycling on main roads.

  • old hedgey

    First-class, balanced article. As a helmet sceptic myself, it is rewarding to read such jornalism. Which beggars the question as to whether CW will feature a non-helmeted figure on the cover ever again? That would boost the sales for sure. Also, does that law regarding compulsory bells still apply in N.I.?

  • MAG

    The only winners appear to be the helmet manufacturers. What do their spokespersons have to say on the matter?
    I wear a helmet if I am likely to be riding at speed on or off road. If I am just popping round the corner at low speed I don’t. I am capable of making my own risk assessment. I don’t need legislation. The PM is obviously lacking in any real policy issues to champion. There are far more important things to sort out in NI.

  • Hannah

    In July 1990 in the state of Victoria (Australia) the wearing of pedal cycle helmets was made compulsory, and through 1991 and 1992 NSW and other states and territories followed suit. In the two years after compulsory helmet wearing legislation was introduced in Victoria, the number of bicyclists with head injuries decreased by 48% and 70% in each of the two years, relative to the last year before the law.

    I agree, education is the key if you dont legislate, but there are a lot of ignorant parents out there that wont be educated so will not be armed with the right information to protect their children.

  • Mauhum

    I wear a helmet 99% of the time I cycle, but I would be 100% against any law making me wear it 100% of my cycling time. They seem to be targeting children as a reason for making it compulsory to wear helmets. Let parents decide what the risk is of head injury. Educate parents and others to the potential risks of cycing without a helmet, but don’t force it on them in a ridiculous law. Whatever happened to the old ‘public information’ films on television? Crikey, after Reginald Molehusband, we could all park safely without any crazey law being passed!!

  • pete tomkins

    Are there going to be police at the trail centres, carting people off for helmet infringements?
    There was a recent article in the national press documenting pedestrian casualties on our roads…in the thousands per annum. Must pedestrians now be obliged to ‘helmet up’?

  • Colin Clarke

    Uk data shows cycling is a low risk,
    eg deaths in 2008 were,
    Total 509,090
    Circulatory disease 168,268
    (stroke 53,000 approx)
    Road deaths 2,538
    Pedestrians 572
    ( child 57 deaths)
    Cyclists 115
    ( child 12 deaths)

    Helmet laws have reduced cycling, Victoria Australia, survey data following their helmet law;
    297 extra wearing helmets and 1110 fewer cyclists.
    New South Wales, survey data following their helmet law;
    569 extra wearing helmets and 2658 fewer cyclists.

    Erke and Elvik19 (Norwegian researchers) 2007 stated: “There is evidence of increased accident risk per cycling-km for cyclists wearing a helmet. In Australia and New Zealand, the increase is estimated to be around 14 per cent.”

    Helmet laws do not provide a benefit to health and safety.

  • Mike T.

    If the do-good helmet nannies really cared about lowering head injuries, rather than trying to control a small group of people, they would try to get all motorists and walkers to wear helmets. Their head injuries FAR outnumber head injuries to cyclists. But they’re not stupid enough to take on that task are they? So they try for their moment of glory with cyclists. They’re easier to pick on.