My views on the cycle helmet debate

I actually wrote this post a few days ago and then sat on it. The main reason being that I’m not sure if it’s wise to open this massive can of worms. But, as you can see, I’ve decided to post anyway.

I admit that I’m no expert on this, but this is my view on the way this debate is being presented to the masses, most of whom, like me, aren’t experts. So, here goes:

– – –

In a terrible coinciding of news, a few hours after Bradley Wiggins won Olympic gold on his bike a cyclist died near the Olympic Park after being hit by an official Olympic bus.

It’s obviously very sad and a real tragedy and our thoughts go out to the friends and family.

Not surprisingly in his press conference Wiggins was asked about it and his reply included him suggesting that all cyclists should wear a helmet as ‘Ultimately, if you get knocked off and you don’t have a helmet on, then you can’t argue…You can get killed if you don’t have a helmet on.’

What then happened was a huge swell of support with many people claiming that all cyclists should be made [with laws introduced] to wear a helmet. And of course an equally loud group saying how ridiculous that was and how helmets actually reduce safety.

Now I don’t belong to either camp, but I do find the non-helmet argument a strange and possibly disturbing one – so I thought I’d explain why in more detail.

As I understand it the non-helmet* argument is split into three key points.

*I’m using the term “non-helmet” to describe those people that argue against those that immediately want a helmet law. I’m aware that some of those people wear helmets occasionally, but are arguing against a helmet law.

Anyway, onto those three points:
1 – A thin bit of plastic won’t do you much good if you’re hit by a truck
2 – Forcing people to wear helmets puts people off cycling and actually cycling is safer when more people do it
3 – The helmet question is a distraction and want we actually need is better, more cyclist friendly infrastructure and attitudes

So firstly, three quick replies to those points:

1 – Can’t disagree with that, but a helmet may help reduce serious injury if you hit the road, or a branch.

2 – I know that stats are wheeled out (no pun intended) to say that when a helmet law is introduced the level of participation in cycling drops, but those are historical figures and why do we have to blindly assume that they will be repeated?

3 – I agree completely with the second half of this point, but as for the first half I believe that it is the non-helmet brigade who make it such a distraction.

And this is at the heart of my problem with this argument.

By instantly shouting down anyone that suggests that a helmet law may be a good thing, they are further stigmatising helmet wearing and further enforcing their argument that fewer people ride when there’s a helmet law.

Instead, why not embrace helmet wearing and make it a natural thing when it comes to cycling? Law or no law doesn’t really matter to me, but the non-helmet brigade need to accept that this isn’t an argument they will win – when incidents like this happen then some people will instantly say “helmet law”.

So go with that. Thank them for their concern about the welfare of cyclists and then suggest that helmet wearing is merely the start. If the same effort was spent in promoting cycling even with helmets as goes into shouting down a proposed helmet law then the numbers wouldn’t drop.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that the passion that is shown on trying to improve the infrastructure and change attitudes to cycling to make it safer should be lessened in any way, instead fight with the helmet brigade and not against.

But on the issue of the stats, I accept that I haven’t read them all in detail, but I would like to question some of the conclusions. As have proper studies been done in relation to not only the number of cyclists, but also the number of other vehicles on the road? Because when this Daily Mail article (and one that was specifically pointed out to me as having got the non-helmet response spot on) says: “You are far, far less likely to be killed on a bicycle on the streets of Amsterdam or Copenhagen than you are in New York or Los Angeles.” My first response is “of course”. That would appear to be obvious based on the number of other cars, lorries, trucks etc. as much as it about the safety in numbers argument.

In summary, I believe that by fighting the helmet lobby, the non-helmet brigades are themselves making cycling less safe. By focusing on this argument they are alienating themselves from a majority voice that just thinks “helmet = safer”. They should embrace this group, embrace helmets as a start of making cycling safer, push for mass participation and spend their energies on the important stuff such as the infrastructure and attitudes.



Filed under Cycling, Kit

15 responses to “My views on the cycle helmet debate

  1. Hi Patrick

    It’s good to see a ‘layman’s’ take on this. I’d like to make some points, clarifications and suggest counter-arguments:

    2 – I know that stats are wheeled out (no pun intended) to say that when a helmet law is introduced the level of participation in cycling drops, but those are historical figures and why do we have to blindly assume that they will be repeated?

    – Because all over the world, involving millions of people, over the last 20 years, this has been the case. It’s hardly ‘blindly assuming’ when there’s such a massive, unequivocal body of evidence. Participation falls, and never recovers fully. External factors such as fuel prices can and do influence participation, but only at fiscal gunpoint.

    3 – I agree completely with the second half of this point, but as for the first half I believe that it is the non-helmet brigade who make it such a distraction.

    – What we have seen, again the world over, is helmets being used as a proxy for ‘real’ safety. National and local councils push helmet wearing (including the considerable cost) and the onus of ‘safety’ onto the cyclist, and tick the ‘Done It’ box. Likewise, schools and event organisers can point to ‘we made them wear helmets’ as an example of doing everything possible to make people ‘safe’. Helmets *are* a distraction, and have been used as a tool to avoid implementing real safety initiatives for years.

    “By instantly shouting down anyone that suggests that a helmet law may be a good thing, they are further stigmatising helmet wearing and further enforcing their argument that fewer people ride when there’s a helmet law.”

    – It’s not an argument, it’s hard fact. People do ride less – from 40 to 95% depending on age, sex, income etc – when helmet laws are introduced.

    ““You are far, far less likely to be killed on a bicycle on the streets of Amsterdam or Copenhagen than you are in New York or Los Angeles.” My first response is “of course”. That would appear to be obvious based on the number of other cars, lorries, trucks etc. as much as it about the safety in numbers argument.”

    – NL & DK didn’t used to be the nirvana they are now. sums it all up – they didn’t get there by telling people to wear hats. They started building separate paths, which encouraged more cycling. Legalising helmet wearing at the same time would be a completely barmy thing to do, knowing it puts many people off.

    “They should…embrace helmets as a start of making cycling safer, push for mass participation”

    – The two are utterly divorced. Nowhere that has legalised helmets has seen anything above a few % of modal share on bikes. In helmet-free NL/DK it’s often over 50%. If you told people they needed a helmet to ride a bus, they would simply stop taking buses.

    Here’s some human nature for you: UK women spend a *year* of their life and £26k on hair styling. Wearing a helmet means re-doing all your hard work to look nice. Many women (and a lot of men) have hairstyles incompatible with helmets. Now this isn’t an issue when cycling for purely sporting reasons (and I include Lycra-clad commuting with a shower at the end as ‘sporting’), but for popping to the shops, the pub, the park, work…nope. Like it or not, people *know* helmets look dorky when worn with normal clothes in an urban setting. Take a helmeted cyclist to Amsterdam or Copenhagen. Within a few minutes riding among the gorgeous creatures, free, beautifully dressed, un-helmeted, they’d feel a right prat. That’s the problem: in saying helmets are a good idea for everyday cycling you are going against the most powerful forces known to mankind: self-image, ego and sexual attraction. You may disagree, you can say that people are vain and stupid and image-obsessed but it doesn’t change the fact. That’s why in Australia, post helmet law, up to 90% of teenage girls gave up cycling: (includes references). That’s why in Brisbane and Melbourne which have helmet laws, the bike hire schemes are dying on their knees.

    In closing (thank god you say :-)) cycle ‘campaigners’ are more than capable of pushing the strong positive messages on the benefits of cycling, pushing governments to spend more and do more, as well as countering the calls for helmets at every turn from the well-intending along with the downright devious (motoring organisations, for example). All three strategies are needed. If we build cycling infrastructure but end up with a magic hat law, it would be a bloody tragedy.

    • Hi Mike, welcome…
      Thanks for the very full response, but you have missed my main point. I’m not advocating a helmet law, but what I am saying is that by being so quick to jump down the throats of anyone who is you are missing an opportunity in my opinion. People advocating a helmet law do so because they are trying to do something to improve the safety of cyclists – it may just be a “tick box, done that”, but it is still something. By jumping down their throats you turn that something into a nothing. Surely a better approach would be to work with them to make it the thing you want.

      • If you’ve been sold a lie for decades, it might seem like heresy when told the exact opposite is the truth and that in carrying on you are perpetuating the very thing you seek to stop.

        I don’t see stating the truth using well-founded facts as ‘jumping down the throats’ of those calling for helmet laws or even just ‘helmets-as-a-good-idea’. Europe has swags of proof that even *promotion* of helmets leads to declines in cycling. Why? It sends a loud and clear message that cycling is dangerous, because you need body armour. As a parent, why would you let your child do something *dangerous*? Much better to drive them. Much safer…

        I agree 100% that if someone raises the ‘helmet question’ – as friends often do when they see us cycling with our un-helmeted children – a gentle explanation is in order, not Mr Ranty Shouty Anti-Helmet Zealot. From personal experience some people ‘get it’ and some don’t. Those who don’t ‘get it’ tend to (in our experience) think they have power to control all risks and outcomes, and in forcing themselves / their kids to wear helmets they can feel they have done all they can. This persuasion runs the gamut from Liberal to Arch-Conservative, very-well-off to poor-as-churchmice. There’s ‘owt as queer as folk and the issue is complex as hell.

        In the media a forceful, pull-no-punches approach is needed to ‘balance’ the usual line interviewers take of ‘but what *harm* can it possibly do, you lot are being *unreasonable*’ etc…

        …that line of ‘what harm can it do’ thinking lead, in 1994, to New Zealand passing a Mandatory All-Ages Helmet Law – it basically killed utility cycling stone dead for two generations of Kiwis, and has resulted in uncounted deaths and injuries due to increased obesity, increased car use and decreased safety-in-numbers for cyclists. I weep for my country, and struggle to see that the same fate never befalls the UK. Be certain that many interest groups and corporations would love to see helmets made law here – there are £Billions at stake keeping Brits wedded to their cars or indoors playing computer games. They are constantly lobbying MP’s, councils, schools, charities and event organisers. Only through continued vigilance and vocal opposition will utility cycling be returned to the levels it enjoyed in the pre-WWII years. The Revo-lution will not wear a helmet.

  2. John

    Just three quick points – not a reasoned response.

    1. I don’t wear a helmet, either cycling for fun in the morning sunshine, or when doing errands. I don,t think this a black/white issue, but I have thought about it a lot and don’t wear one. I know some of my friends are distressed by this.

    2. Official spokespersons, such as the local council, tend to make carefully worded statements about the benefits of wearing a helmet (and there certainly are some). They usually include the phrase “properly fitted and correctly worn”. Well many adults fail this, and quite a high proportion of children based on my observation. So a tick in the box, but not much help.

    3. If you have to go to A&E in Nottingham as a parent of a child who has been injured while out cycling, as I did several times, the FIRST question they ask is “was s/he wearing a helmet?”. They ask in such a way that one feels an immediate referral to Social Services follows the wrong answer. [Fortunately, we could always answer “yes”. And why they did, and I don’t is another story.]

    • Hi John, it is interesting the difference between what we as parents do and what we insist our kids do (not just with cycle helmets). Also I’d be interested to see what health professionals etc say, as surely there is some benefit of an individual level to wearing a helmet.

  3. The New Zealand article seems pretty compelling. I buy that legislation – and even promotion – is likely to lead to a fall in participation.

    I also think that a law would be almost impossible to enforce and therefore meaningless (who’s ever been stopped for driving at 75mph on a motorway). If we are to legislate one thing it should be blind spot mirrors for trucks etc.

    But I don’t believe that anyone is saying that wearing a helmet is less safe: I really don’t buy the argument that they make you complacent.

    So I’m often confounded when a non-helmet wearer’s answer to “why aren’t you wearing a helmet?” is “ah, but legislation leads to … etc as discussed”. That sounds like it’s true but what most people actually mean is – as Mike says – “they make me look like a dork” / “I couldn’t be bothered”. That’s fine – it’s their choice to do so.

    And when one chooses to wear a helmet that too is your choice, about your own personal safety (or perception of). You are not subconsciously joining a conservative hegemony whose values are forcing the population towards obesity.

    Note: My own use of helmets is inconsistent: I rode / trained at lunchtime for 1:30 and wore a helmet. I’ve just nipped out to the shops down some of those same roads and didn’t. I never let my children ride without but I do ride with them around London (ie near bloody great buses)

    • I totally buy that helmets laws can reduce participation (and have done in the past). Part of my point is that I’m not sure that means that they have to in the future. I do agree that for most people that don’t want to wear one it’s about how they [cyclists] look, not how they [helmets] work – but as you say that’s their choice.
      What I would like to think is that as parents we are creating a generation of people who love cycling, wear helmets and still want the government to create better damn infrastructure.

  4. I’ve seen stats (can’t remember where now) that show it can be less safe to wear a helmet. Some drivers think you are protected and so sweep closer to you if your head is encased.

    Which leads me on to make a point about psychology and safer streets. Apparently, one of the best ways to get drivers to drive slowly is to strew childrens’ toys on the pavement. Drivers become alert and wary.

    What we really need, and this is part of the making cycle friendly infrastructure debate, is to get to the place where psychologically drivers take care all of the time.

    There’s no need for drivers to bang up my residential street at nearly 40mph, but some do. There’s no need to get so close to a cyclist that she can almost put her hand in the passenger window and steal a sweet from the glove compartment. But I am fully aware that some drivers do.

    If we get to that psychologically save place, the helmet debate to a large extent just goes away.

    • You’re right that at the heart of all this is our attitude to drivers. What I would really like to see is that driving becomes a privilege and not a right in our culture – and that means that you have to be safe, obey the laws of the road and look after other road users, including cyclists.

  5. John

    Sandra is thinking of the experiment done by a cycling scientist on the south coast. He tried to be as “scientific” as possible, measuring how close cars came to him when he was cycling with/out helmet. Just one experiment, and not sure we can extrapolate just from that, but interestingly indicative. I think there have also been experiments where Drivers have to wear helmets, this seems to make them better drivers. But it may just be the Hawthorne effect.

    Whether to wear a helmet or not is partially about risk, one’s skill and experience. No particular reason to think that the decision should be the same for an adult as for a child.

    • One of the many, many confounding (and confusing) factors in the science of helmets is that they are most likely to be worn (and worn correctly) by those who need them least – i.e. fit, alert adult males who cycle frequently on well-maintained modern bikes (also the group least likely to care about ‘helmet hair’, given they probably don’t have much left ;-).

      Those who could in theory benefit the most from protection due to lower physical ability, lower risk assessment skills and less road experience (children, the elderly, infrequent cyclists) are also the ones least likely to wear helmets, and critically wear them correctly. You could argue that therefore effort should be put into intense education of this group on the correct wearing of a modern, well-fitted helmet. But in doing so, you re-enforce the message that cycling is dangerous. And around it goes…

      Making drivers wear helmets would make things worse. Drivers who feel safer go faster and take more risks. This is why the overall death rate for all road users has not changed much as cars have gotten safer – safety features are traded for speed, resulting in more deaths of other road users. The insurance industry knows ABS-equipped cars were in more crashes than non-ABS cars at its introduction in the ’80s. The best safety feature you could put in a car is a 6″ steel spike protruding from the steering wheel.

  6. Over half of cyclist’s deaths in London are caused by collisions with HGVs: – I suspect helmets wouldn’t have helped.

    No doubt many are the fault of the cyclists but many could have been saved by forcing HGVs to have blind-side mirrors and sensors. Legislation would be far easier to implement and seemingly a more positive outcome

  7. Rob S

    Patrick – always an interesting debate. I’m all for freedom if choice but it’s an obvious fact that if you wear a helmet it’s much safer.
    Helmets were made compulsory for motorbikes some years ago and nobody questions that now. Yes the speed is greater but a bang on the head can kill you from just falling over.

    If you look at Vietnam they have 26 million vehicles of which 95% are mopeds or motorbikes. Helmet law was only introduced in 2007 and has substantially reduced injury. The issue they have now is getting parents to make their kids wear them . Check this link for some details

    Click to access 08-057109.pdf

  8. The oft-forgot context here is the actual risk of dying on a bike, that helmet proponents are so desperately keen to protect against.

    Some context: Cycling 20km a day to work, how long before you’re likely to die on UK roads?

    a) 55 yrs
    b) 3,350 yrs
    c) 12,500 yrs
    d) 55,000 yrs

    Ans: c

    That’s right kids, you’d have to have been cycle-commuting SINCE THE LAST ICE AGE to be at serious risk of dying on a bike in the UK.

    I’m all ears to hear how PR gurus would recommend countering the various strawmen proffered as reasons to wear helmets for everyday cycling (I own and wear one voluntarily for ‘extreme’ cycling like MTB or fast[ish] roadcycling).

    We are dealing with borderline religiously-held views here on a helmets’ ability to save lives, as God knows there’s no hard proof – except of their ability to put people off utility, everyday riding. I think that’s why the issue is so divisive, even within the otherwise intelligent, informed cycling community. One side clings desperately to the *belief* that they must work, the other looks at the empirical evidence and *knows* they don’t.

    How to marry the two? Where is the bridge to be built?

    Brian: “Brothers, we should be struggling together”
    Francis: “We are!”

  9. Pingback: Do wetsuits make swimming “dangerous”? | 1000kmstowindermere

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