Cycle Helmet Debate
The question of whether cycle helmets should be made compulsory is a divisive subject. One side of the argument is that in the interest of safety it should be mandatory for cyclists to wear the protective headgear. Some hold a different view and highlight the potential pitfalls if helmets became compulsory.
The safety argument is really quite a simple one. Better to have a helmet hit the ground first, rather than your head. Various studies have been undertaken to highlight this fact, with one group of researchers in Sydney finding that cyclists who crashed without helmets were five times more likely to sustain severe head injuries than those wearing a helmet.
Firmly in the pro-helmet camp is former Olympic rowing champion James Cracknell, who argues that wearing a helmet saved his life. Cracknell, who was seriously injured in an accident involving a fuel truck, took to Youtube to get his messages across. The video itself is extremely emotive and details the catastrophic injuries he suffered, whilst also looking at the effects they had on him and his family. Moreover, he details the fact that the truck was travelling at around 70mph when it hit the back of his head, demonstrating a helmet’s potential effectiveness at high velocity.
The British Medical Association have also adopted a pro-helmet stance in 2004, reversing its initial view made 5 years earlier. Dr Paul Darragh, Chairman of the BMA’s Council in Northern Ireland stated that cycle helmets “have been shown to reduce the risk of head injury and its severity should it occur in non-fatal collisions.”
Other studies also support the campaign for legislation. In 2009, an extensive investigation in the USA found that helmets did in fact make a big difference. It showed that the risk of head and brain injury reduced by between 63 and 88 per cent for all cyclists wearing helmets. Meanwhile in New Zealand, where wearing a helmet is compulsory, research undertaken in 2000 estimated that the legislation had averted a total of 139 head injuries over 3 years. This equated to a reduction of 19 per cent.
The pro-helmet wearing lobby seem to have a strong argument but many don’t agree. They offer a number of reasons why making helmets compulsory would be a bad idea and point to other countries that have already passed this legislation.
When a Mandatory Helmet Law was introduced in Australia in the early 1990s, cycling declined by 30-40 percent overall, in some age groups participation fell by up to 80 percent. A study in Nova Scotia also found that the number of cyclists declined by a similar level after they brought in the legislation. Possible reasons for this could be the perception that helmets are ‘uncool’, or that it makes cycling sound dangerous.
The anti-legislation campaign has significant support in the cycling fraternity. CTC, the national cycling charity argues that making helmets compulsory would actually cause more harm than good. They point to studies that state legislation would result in a drop in people taking up the activity and claim that the nation’s health would be adversely affected.
British Cycling has also waded into the argument, stating that helmets “are only effective in reducing certain types of head injuries, at lower speeds and lower forces.” He adds: “The majority of fatalities involve forces far in excess of the capabilities of helmets. Issues relating to road conditions, driver awareness and junction design are more important than whether the cyclist wore a helmet.”
Even the effectiveness of helmets has been questioned. They are only tested to impacts of 14mph as they are mainly intended to protect against falling from a bike at low speeds, rather than being hit by another vehicle. Test standards also do not realistically replicate serious crashes. Also, modern helmets with soft shells are considered to offer less protection than some earlier designs with harder shells.
Studies have also backed up concerns over the effectiveness of cycle helmets. In Australia, for example, although cycle use fell on average by 30% head injuries fell by only 13%. This would suggest that the risk of head injury per cyclist actually appeared to increase. In Canada too, the benefits of helmet use has been questioned. In British Columbia and Nova Scotia, where a mandatory law was passed, there was no change in the proportion of cyclists suffering head injuries, although cycle use fell markedly. In Alberta, the helmet law reduced the number of children cycling by around 56% while the absolute number of injuries went up.
Other researchers have expressed a concern that helmets could potentially make some injuries worse by converting direct forces into rotational ones. Although these injuries only normally form a very small proportion of the injuries suffered by cyclists, they are likely to form a larger percentage of the injuries involving severe, long-term consequences.
The use of helmets can also have an adverse effect on a motorist’s perception of a cyclist’s proficiency. A study by Ian Walker, a traffic psychologist from the University of Bath suggested that when a driver overtakes a cyclist, the margin for error they leave is affected by the cyclist’s appearance. Therefore, a driver may presume that because a cyclist is wearing a helmet, they are more serious and experienced than those without and may pass closer to them.
Walker’s study involved him cycling around Salisbury and Bristol, spending half the time wearing a helmet and half the time without. Across the board, drivers passed an average of 8.8cm closer when he was wearing the headgear. He was also struck by both a bus and a truck during the course of the experiment, both incidents occurring when he was wearing a helmet.
Cyclists themselves also seem to be against helmets being made compulsory. On the cycling forum CycleChat, although members did on the whole wear helmets themselves, they believed it should be up to the individual cyclist, rather than being forced upon them.
The subject of making cycle helmets compulsory is certainly controversial. Speaking to BBC’s Newsround, Sir Bradley Wiggins said: “I think certain laws for cyclists need to be passed to protect us more than anything. Making helmets compulsory on the roads, making it illegal to have an iPod in while you’re riding a bike, just little things that would make a huge difference.” After being both praised and criticised, Wiggins took to Twitter to deny he was calling for them to be made mandatory.
Something that both sides can agree on however is that the helmet debate is only part of cycle safety. Other issues include improving the layout of our roads and better cycle awareness on the part of motorists.
Many look to the Dutch for inspiration. The authorities there have decided that cycle safety would be maximised by designing and regulating the road network to prevent accidents happening in the first place.
Where do the Dutch stand on cycle helmets? In June 2011 a Youtube video was made on the subject of cycling. Every person interviewed stated that they did not wear cycle helmets, with reasons ranging from them being uncomfortable, they mess up hair and the opinion that the roads were safe enough to ride without one. Interestingly, a few also said they would refuse to wear one even if it became mandatory and another stated they would actually wear one, but would probably cycle less as a result.
Whatever your view on the wearing of cycle helmets everyone can agree that the emphasis should be placed on reducing the risk of accidents in the first place. Whether it be redesigning our roads, introducing cyclist-only traffic lights or other alternatives it is important that everything possible is done to make cycling safer.