Are debates over cycling helmets driving us up the wall?


A Scottish cycling video advert promoting safe cycling was recently banned by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) as it shows a rider cycling on a road without a helmet, the advert being branded by the ASA as “socially irresponsible.” Many have reacted strongly to this censorship, arguing that as it is not a legal requirement to wear a helmet when cycling, it shouldn’t be mandatory to depict every cyclist wearing one. But should helmets be made compulsory?

It is currently mandatory to wear helmets when cycling in Australia, New Zealand and parts of the US, with many other countries considering the implementation of cycle helmet legislation. In the EU alone, road accidents kill approximately 2000 cyclists every year, and many groups have used this to advocate mandatory helmets for cyclists.

There are heated debates, however, regarding the potential benefits and disadvantages of wearing a helmet when cycling. On impact in an accident, a well fitted, good quality cycle helmet acts as a shock absorber, dissipating the shock of the impact into the soft lining of the helmet. Analysis of a number of studies has shown that wearing a helmet reduces the risk of head injury by 45%, brain injury by 33%, facial injury by 27% and fatal injury by as much as 29%.

However, it has been suggested that motorists take less care of and drive much closer to helmeted cyclists than non-helmet wearing cyclists when overtaking. Others have suggested that wearing a helmet makes cyclists ride faster and take more risks, increasing the number of injuries from accidents. While a helmet may protect the head, it doesn’t protect the rest of the body; indeed, a large number of cycling fatalities result from crush injuries to the pelvis, legs and chest. Cycling incidents involving large motor vehicles, such as vans or lorries, are more likely than accidents involving cars and cyclists, due to the vehicles’ greater blind spots. Often, the forces involved in crashes with larger motor vehicles are far greater than the force a helmet can withstand before splitting, in turn suggesting that helmets do little to prevent head injuries in major crashes.

Some cycling advocates have suggested enforcing helmet wearing by law may reduce the number of cyclists, resulting in obvious negative health consequences such as decreased cardio-respiratory fitness, as well as detrimental environmental impacts due to increased pollution as cyclists return to their cars. However, this supposed reduction in the number of cyclists if helmet laws are enforced is debated – the numbers of cyclists have actually grown in Australia for example since the implementation of such laws in 1991.

Few cycling campaign groups support calls for mandatory cycle helmets, as they believe it will detract awareness from the fact that a major cause of cycling casualties in the UK is due to poorly designed roads which force cyclists and motorists into conflict. Similarly, many motorists don’t understand aspects of safe cycling and how and why cyclists position themselves on the road – evidenced by Jeremy Clarkson’s obnoxious tweet at the start of January. Many motorists hold the mistaken belief that cyclists should hug the kerb, but cycle safety advice is to “ride towards the middle of the lane to prevent dangerous overtaking by other vehicles if the road is too narrow for vehicles to pass you safely.” This want of understanding on the part of motorists has led to a significant number of accidents between bikes and motor vehicles. The majority of cyclists in the Netherlands, the most cycling aware country in the world, do not wear helmets, and yet they have the best record of cycling safety – because motorists understand and are more aware of cyclists.

The absence of any compelling evidence showing whether helmets cause cyclists and other road users to take more risks suggests it is up to individuals to decide whether to wear a helmet. Helmet laws won’t make motorists drive more sensibly around cyclists. They won’t fix the design flaws on roads that force cyclists and motorists into conflict. And they won’t save you from any injury below your head. It is much more important to develop better cycling infrastructure, such as cycle lanes, and increase motorists’ awareness of cyclists and the way they cycle, rather than implementing another law that will change very little. But personally, I’ll always wear a helmet – I’d rather have one and not need it than need it and not have it.

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