Cycling Helmets: should you wear one?

Is a helmet a fashion accessory or a safety device. The experts are divided...

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 Hillman.

"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 cyclists' deaths."

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 them.

"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 disabled.

"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 themselves."


With thanks to Carlton Reid and BikeBiz, the UK cycle industry webzine for this article.