Cycling Helmets: should you wear one?
Is a helmet a fashion accessory or a safety device. The experts are
In Holland, where
cycle usage is far greater than here, few people wear helmets, yet Dutch
safety organisations do not clamour for change. In the UK, many people
feel they must wear a helmet to protect themselves in the event of a
collision with a car. Yet cycle helmets are only designed to withstand
impacts of 12 mph onto kerbs from waist height. If they were any more
protective than this they would be too heavy to wear on a regular basis.
Many parents insist their kids wear helmets when cycling but if children
should wear helmets for cycling, shouldn't they also wear them for climbing
trees, crossing the road and other potentially dangerous situations,
ask anti-helmet campaigners? They believe those who want to legislate
to force people to wear helmets are guilty of creating the false impression
that cycling is incredibly dangerous.
Be Hit, an organisation with compulsion as its eventual target has sparked
controversy in the world of cycling because it was given government
cash to further its seemingly laudable aims.
The Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust, a new charity set up to promote
the use of cycle helmets among under-16s, recently received backing
from the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR)
and the Department of Health.
The charity has grown out of the Reading-based 'Helmet Your Head' campaign,
an initiative by Angela Lee, a nurse at the Royal Berkshire Hospital.
The charity has been allocated £100,000 over the next three years.
Commenting in support of the initiative, Tessa Jowell, the then Minister
for Public Health, said:
"Too many children die or are injured each year in road accidents.
In some cases these tragedies are preventable. I applaud the efforts
of the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust to improve cyclists' safety."
The wearing of helmets is not yet widespread in the UK. The Transport
Research Laboratory report 'Cycle Helmet Wearing in 1996' showed that
overall wearing rates for cycle helmets is around 18 percent of cyclists
(this figure is probably higher today).
Lee hopes, however, that "a law will eventually be passed to make
helmet wearing compulsory."
The medical profession's national body disagrees. A motion lodged at
the 1998 British Medical Association's July annual conference in favour
of helmet compulsion was voted down by doctors.
What helped inform the BMA's decision was the Australian experience
of helmet compulsion. There was a 63 percent fall in head injuries since
compulsion in 1991 and 1992 but BMA delegates heard that there had been
a large decrease in numbers of people cycling after the law was introduced.
On balance, discouraging people from taking up a healthy form of exercise
was felt to outweigh the advantages of helmet wearing.
Most cycling campaign groups are also against helmet compulsion.
"One of the reasons so many cyclists feel strongly about this issue
is that a great deal of time, effort and money can go into promoting
cycle helmet wearing," says David Earl of the Cambridge Cycle Campaign.
"That effort could have been directed at the source of the problem,
largely the excessive speed of motor vehicles."
According to Dr Mayer Hillman, Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Policy
Studies Institute in London, who has undertaken the only major international
research of the evidence on the use of helmets, you're better off not
wearing a helmet.
"By wearing helmets, cyclists are, at best, only marginally reducing
their chances of being fatally or seriously injured in the rare incident
of a collision with a motor vehicle."
He believes protective devices encourage higher levels of risk taking.
"Imagine you're driving a car in the outside lane of the motorway
and a wasp has got under your seat belt. To free the insect you undo
your seat belt. Instinctively you slow down the car because now you're
not strapped in, you feel vulnerable."
Dr. Hillman believes that in feeling vulnerable you will instinctively
behave more cautiously.
"The problem is you can't show how many cyclists have avoided head
injury by riding with more vigilance. However studies show that when
you don't wear a protective device you compensate for the risk you run.
For instance, if motor vehicles were fitted with a spike in the centre
of the steering wheel which pointed towards the driver's chest, the
driver would drive slower in the knowledge that should they hit something
they'd be the first to get hurt."
Dr Hillman believes that by being more careless, the helmet-wearer is
using up any extra protection offered.
"Cycle helmets provide limited protection for the head. Neither
manufacturers nor retailers tell the public this."
"You're much better off cycling with extra care than you are wearing
a helmet and riding with an exaggerated sense of security," says
"Non-cyclists say they don't cycle because they think it's too
dangerous. If you tell them they should always wear a helmet when they
ride you're reinforcing their belief that it's dangerous. I have calculated
that the health benefits of regular cycling in terms of life years gained
through increased longevity, far outweigh the loss of life years in
Dr. Hillman doesn't even recommend children should always wear a cycle
helmet while cycling.
He says: "If they were using the bike for dare devil tricks such
as if they were deliberately testing their skills, yes, but not if they
were simply using the bike as a form of transport."
Alistair Jenkins, a consultant neuro-surgeon at Newcastle General Hospital,
is a club cyclist and rides to work every day. He's in favour of helmets
because he sees the results of accidents where people haven't been wearing
"I have to pick up the pieces when people have accidents, often
literally. I see the results of both wearing and not wearing helmets.
I have looked after cyclists who have been involved in accidents who
have died, been
severely disabled and some who have made a good recovery. I have never
looked after a cyclist who was wearing a helmet who later died or was
"However, I don't want to give the impression that I operate on
lots of injured cyclists all the time. I see far more pedestrians and
motorists. "When a motorist has an accident they are often in a
pretty bad way".
"Although a cycle helmet won't protect you in every incident of
ground impact, by the time a cyclist's head actually hits the ground
they will be decelerating and, even if they were cycling at 30 miles
an hour, the impact would be at no more than 10-15 miles an hour.
"The argument that cyclists who wear helmets take more risks than
those that do is rubbish. If I crash it could be my arms and legs that
get injured, they're not going to be protected at all. I ride safely
at all times.
"I now feel naked without my helmet. Okay, so you don't get the
wind in your hair but that bothers you the first couple of times you
go out. Look at the positives, what you lose in terms of ventilation
you gain in shelter from the sun and rain.
"I'm not in favour of compulsion because wearing a helmet is a
matter of personal choice but I think children should be made to wear
them. They naturally take risks, and fall down more, it's a part of
growing up. Adults can make a logical choice whether they think a cycle
helmet is right for them, kids can't make those sorts of decisions by
With thanks to Carlton Reid
and BikeBiz, the UK cycle industry webzine for this article.