Should wearing cycle helmets be compulsory?

Should wearing cycle helmets be compulsory?

If there is one issue that is highly contentious in cycling, it is this: Should wearing cycle helmets be compulsory?

It is no secret that I personally do not wear a cycle helmet, but I do understand that some people, for what ever reason, like to wear them. And I feel that they should be free to do so, if they want to. One of the most frequently stated reasons for wearing a cycle helmet is that it might save your life (especially when you are being sponsored to say so a brand ambassador for a helmet company). However, the evidence that cycle helmets have any influence on the rate of head injury is, to say the least, rather mixed. The empirical evidence from places where helmets have been make mandatory show that at best they only reduce the rate of minor injury. Nor is this helped by the fact that there is very little independent testing on cycle helmets, most test standards are set by the companies manufacturing the helmets, and do not test to the highest level of protection.

Do laws making the wearing of cycle helmets compulsory encourage cycling and make it safer? No, there is clear international evidence that where cycle helmets have been made a legal requirement, the number of people riding bicycles has dropped. Indeed, there is evidence from Australia and New Zealand that, after compulsory cycle helmet laws were introduced, the rate of death and injury for cyclists (per Km travelled) actually increased.

There is also the question of do cyclists have a disproportionally high risk of serious head injury? Well, no they don’t, per Km travelled cyclists have a similar rate of serious head injury to pedestrians. Whereas, the occupants of cars have a far higher rate of serious head injury (despite the use of seatbelts and airbags) due the higher speeds at which accidents crashes occur. So why is it that there no promotional campaigns for pedestrians helmets or motoring helmets? Why are cyclists being singled out for special treatment? This brings us on to the question of who actually benefits from laws requiring people riding bicycles to wear a helmet? Well, as this wee film shows, helmet companies like them, but only in countries where cycling is common…

Oh, and the motor industry is also keen on getting people to wear cycle helmets, to protect them against people driving cars, apparently…

So to summarise:

  • Cycle helmets may have some slight protective value, but no where nearly as much as has been claimed, or most people seem to think.
  • Wearing a helmet does nothing to prevent a cyclists from being hit by a car.
  • Real cycle safety comes from providing better infrastructure and restricting motor vehicles where they mix with cyclists (or until that happens learning how to ride properly).
  • Crash helmets for the occupants of motor vehicles could easily save more lives (as motorists are a greater risk of head injury) than making cyclists wear.
  • Helmet laws restrict freedom of choice, may result in the targeting of minorities, discourage cycling, make cycling more dangerous for those who remain, and shift the blame in car-bike collisions to helmet-less cyclists even if it was the motorist who was at fault.

All in all, compulsory bicycle helmet laws are not good for cyclists themselves, but are good for third parties with vested interests. While cycle helmets may reduce the risk of some minor injury, they can’t not prevent serious head injury or make the roads safer. So should anyone suggest such a law where you are, protect your freedom (where did I get that slogan from?), question why they want to bring in such a law and who is funding them. It should be up to each individual whether or not they wear a helmet while riding a bicycle, it should not be a matter of law.

24 thoughts on “Should wearing cycle helmets be compulsory?

  1. Personally I don’t care whether helmets are compulsory or not. I wear one because when I was 10 I was knocked off my bike and had a major concussion.

    I don’t give any credence to this so-called fear faction that people seem to want to promote in arguments for and against.

    I wear a helmet so that for slow speed accidents where I may fall off my bike my head is protected against any hard object as I hit the ground. I do not wear one to protect me from motoring accidents.

    However, today, I found an instance where your head will be protected from relatively fast cycling incidents. An acorn hitting your head at 20 miles an hour causes a major bruise. A conker could cause a lot more than a bruise. Such is the pleasure of autumn rides in the sun.

  2. Even if a bicycle helmet is developed that is then proven to be effective, we must generally ask ourselves, as with any other situation, what level of risk requires protection from it. There is a risk you might get struck by lightning or a painting might fall on your head when you sit comfortably on your sofa. There is a risk of tripping and falling when you walk. There are ample risks that although they exists have very little probablility of ever happening. Should we protect ourselves from every such risk? Or perhaps that would make us a bit overzealous? There are many kinds of cycling that may require helmets – sport cycling the Tour, downhill etc (I hate anecdotal evidence, but there have been cases when riders died or suffered serious head injury even though they did wear a helmet and a good one at that), but then you have leisure and utility cycling where the risk is negligible (and if anyone says “A car might crash into you” – well a helmet won’t protect you from the results of it).
    Remember – we are the safest people yet to live, why are we also the ones who are most afraid?

    1. There have been a number of studies that have shown that more at risk of premature death, due to diseases associated with obesity from not taking exercise than you are from riding a bicycle without a helmet, by a ratio of 20:1.

      Given that not just the compulsory wearing of helmets, but also the exaggerated campaigns to encourage the wearing of helmets, are known to be a major barrier to riding bicycle as everyday transport. It is far better to leave people to chose whether or not they wear helmets based on the best evidence available.

      The wearing of cycle helmets should be a personal choice, free of compunction or scaremongering. Those who freely choose not to, should not be bullied or censured, for their choice.

    2. Indeed. I think that a little bit of common sense and cold logic is enough to see that all this helmet talk is simply BS. All the studies you point to make it even more obvious that helmets are not needed for everyday cycling.

  3. I think helmet is a must-have accessory for every biker as it significantly reduces the risk associated with accidents.
    Regards,
    mountain bike helmets

  4. I agree with you on the obesity point, fair enough, and also that cycling isn’t anywhere near as dangerous as it’s generally perceived but that doesn’t mean the dangers should be ignored. However, I completely disagree on which stops quicker. You’re obviously not, nor have ridden, a modern motorcycle (a post y2k). Having ridden bicycle for 30+ years and motorcycles for almost as long I can say this from personal experience. My Merlin MTB, equipped Hope Tech hydraulics and top-notch sintered pads won’t get close to the stopping power and speed reduction available from my R1. You’re forgetting that any weight disadvantage of a motorbike is negated by the massive engine braking that’s generated coupled with the huge force applied by six pistons per-side pushing sintered pads onto radially mounted (i.e. MotoGP style) 330mm discs each side. It’s simply no contest. Admittedly this is top spec stuff but smaller bikes I’ve owned stop almost as fast. I know this because brakes are my thing and anything two wheeled I own has to have the best, they’re the most important part of any bike to my mind (me, safety conscious?). And this would apply even more so when compared to the tiny rubber blocks used on the polished rims of road race bikes – your Le Mans anecdote just doesn’t stand up. I’d be interested to see any evidence you’ve got to back this up……….Whatever though, the point is your travelling at the same speed and will stop slower than a motorcycle, unless you can’t ride a motorcycle well that is, and coupled with the other disadvantages it’s literally a no brainer to not wear a helmet on the a bicycyle.

    1. So you agree

      “that cycling isn’t anywhere near as dangerous as it’s generally perceived but that doesn’t mean the dangers should be ignored.”

      So given that pedestrians are at slightly higher risk of head injury that cyclists, are you suggesting that we all wear walking helmets?

      As for brakes, both work in the same way, by friction and the area to weight ratio is far greater on a bicycle than on a motor bike, and if you ask a pro cyclist they will tell you they can stop faster than the people riding along side filming them…

    1. Cycle helmets, when worn correctly, can give limited protection against superficial injury. However, they also increase the risk of being injury in the first place, just google risk compensation. Also they increase the risk of injury to the neck and face, it is a zero sum gain.

      An incorrectly warn helmet and it is rare to see children wearing them correctly, can increase the risk of injury such that they are more at risk then if they had not been wearing one.

      Fortunately cycling is a fairly safe activity. Riding a mountain bike between trees is no more dangerous that running between trees. Odd how no one wears an orienteering helmet…

  5. The Motorbike Helmet arguments raise one issue: should people on motorbikes travelling at or below 30 mph be made to wear one. You are exempt if you follow the Sikh religion, so why not say “scooters and motorbike below a certain engine size are exempt”. Why? Because the same documented risk compensation effects amongst cyclists -and more importantly other road users- may also apply. Would someone on a motorbike not wearing a helmet get more clearance from passing vans (admittedly, they can go at speeds where its less of an issue there); would they still get hit in SMIDSY and overtaking crashes? IT is entirely conceivable that the current helmet/body armour set up of motorbikes does cause other road users to drive differently, with negative outcomes for the motorbiker.

    Returning to bicycle helmets, there’s some good data for kids. They are very important for mountain biking, because you will come off, you will hit low-lying branches, and you aren’t going to get run over by a lorry. Those are the conditions that modern helmets do cope with.

  6. Your missing the point. It’s simply a matter of design and technical evolution of helmet forms because as of yet they might not provide adequate head protection (coupled with comfort, good ventilation etc) but evolve them and they will. If you look back at the origins of motorcycle helmets they started out as nothing more than pudding bowls (and often still do, check out Davida) offering way less protection than a contemporary cycle helmet does now yet back in the 70’s the powers that be deemed that wearing one of those ‘piss-pots’ would make it safer (and less costly for the NHS) if all motorcyclists wore one. They had to draw a line in the sand. Yet it took another 15-20 years before we started wearing something that could be deemed adequate head protection (mainly through advancement of materials/composites technology). You may think that a current cycle helmet is nothing more than a ‘cloth cap’ compared to a motorcycle helmet but it’s going to provide at least some protection in a crash and way more than not wearing one, that much is indisputable – but quick, hoik out your stats, go on, hurry up already. Seriously though, I brought motorcycle helmets to the table not to suggest we wear them whilst riding (very mature suggestion that) but because my overriding point is that wearing any decent well designed helmet makes riding anything with two wheels safer. Although you do accidentally made a very good point. There is no doubt that if we wore a BSI (EU) approved motorcycle helmet whilst on a our bikes our heads would be significantly safer than they are without one. But whilst this is, of course, a ridiculous suggestion it highlights that there is a way to make cyclists heads safer and that with the evolution of bicycle helmets they could provide similar levels of safety and protection to motorcycle helmets.

    Your differentiation between riding a bicycle and a motorcycle on the road is most odd because whichever way you slice you’re still travelling at speed on a tarmac surface, both at ~30mph when considered against 50cc bike or a superbike in a 30mph limit. So on this basis they’re almost identical scenarios save for the engine. So what then are the major differences? Same speed, same environment, same road conditions, same weather conditions. But wait, a cyclist is actually in more danger because his tyres have less grip, his brakes are way weaker, his lights are weaker and therefore less visible, he’s a narrower silhouette to notice and he also rides in the gutter yet it’s only compulsory to wear a helmet on the much safer 50cc motorcycle; strange that. And the same arguments hold true when comparing the dangers of motocross against and off road MTB’ing but I guess you boys are not for turning.

    1. It is not a matter of a matter of design and technical evolution of helmet forms, the level of “protection” which bicycle helmets offer has decreased over time not increased. As for riding at 30 mph, most people who ride a bicycle never get that fast, I can get up to 30 mph on the flat on a good day, but I can’t sustain that sort of speed for more than 30 seconds or so. Your point about braking distances is also wrong, as ignores basic physics, cyclist can stop faster than motorbikes, because they are lighter. This is well known among the motorcycle out riders on the Tour de France.

      Once again you claim that wearing a helmet offer more protection than not wearing one, but the evidence just doesn’t support that view. As Elvik (Elvik, R. (2011) Publication bias and time-trend bias in meta-analysis of bicycle helmet efficacy: A re-analysis of Attewell, Glase and McFadden, 2001. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 1245–1251) in the latest paper on the subject points out: “no overall effect of bicycle helmets could be found when injuries to head, face or neck are considered as a whole”.

      All of this misses the fundamental point which is head injury among cyclist is very low, cyclists are a little less likely to die of head injury than pedestrians and far less likely to die of head injury than car occupants. The reality is that riding a bicycle is NOT a dangerous activity, relative to other activities such as DIY or taking a shower (both of which have a higher risk of head injury per hour than cycling). If riding a bicycle was such a dangerous activity, why is it that people who ride a bicycle on a regular basis have a life expectancy two years greater than that of the population average?

      My greatest objection to cycle helmets is the way in which fear is used to sell them, yes it is done for a reason, people wouldn’t buy bicycle helmets if they thought cycling was safe, so they have to be made to think that it is dangerous, when it is NOT! The effect of this fearmongering is to frighten people away from using a bicycle as everyday transport, and this is part of the reason that we now have an epidemic of obesity. Lack of exercise and being over wieght are major factors in illnesses such as heart disease and diabeties, which are the principal causes of premature death in western countries. In Britain these illnesses are more than 500 times more likely to kill than cycling.

  7. “What’s your reason for not wearing a helmet?”

    I have 3:

    1: On the basis of the evidence I’ve seen, I do not think they are proven to be very effective in terms of saving lives, but they are very effective at discouraging cycling.

    2: On the basis of the evidence I have available, I don’t think cycling is dangerous enough to warrant using extra expensive and possibly unproven safety equipment.

    3: I don’t want to live in fear of ‘what might happen’ because some marketing man says I should.

    But I could be wrong. You come back with some evidence that support that -because for all I know there may be some I missed- and we can talk about it.

  8. Wear your motorbike helmet while riding a bicycle if you want too…

    …which is the biggest downfall of his argument Kim.

    A motorcyclist helmet actually does provide decent protection in a bump, but you couldn’t pedal a bicycle wearing one because even cycling gently is too physical.

    When it comes to protection offered, a cycle helmet is just a cloth cap compared to a motorcycle helmet – the two don’t compare Simon…end of.

  9. We’re not talking about badly designed helmets because if they were compulsory there would be a stringent testing procedure which all helmets on sale would have to pass. So on the basis that all helmets have to meet a set standard are you saying that in a head to ground impact you’re more likely to injure your head whilst wearing a helmet or not? The answer is obvious and should be the end to your wafer thin argument. You can call it emotional blackmail but the facts speak for themselves…..and for the record conviction can be attained from anecdotal evidence so I’d suggest that anecdote can and is evidence. That is unless you think the experts in head trauma are talking nonsense. As far as evidence goes there’s the New York City data showing that 97% of their dead cyclists had no helmet, is this a coincidence? The weight of evidence suggesting that helmets work is undeniable.

    Let me ask you two questions:
    1. Do you think motorcyclists are safer wearing helmets or not?
    2. What’s your reason for not wearing a helmet?

    1. You seem to be obsessed with idea that riding a motorcycle and a bicycle are the same thing, when they are not. The risk of injury when riding a motorcycle is far greater than just about any form of transport, whereas the risk of risk of injury while riding a bicycle, as a means of transport, is the same as being a pedestrian. Actually there is a slightly higher risk of head injury among pedestrians than among cyclist, odd that there are never any calls for compulsory wearing of pedestrian helmets, now why is that?

      There is no evidence that compunction is followed by an increasing stringency testing procedure. This apparent New York City data tells me nothing about the risks, it could simply tell me that the rate of helmet wearing among New York City cyclist at the time of the survey was only 3%. The thing that this statement does tell me is that you has no understanding of basic statistical methods.

      I am not sure what your statement that “for the record conviction can be attained from anecdotal evidence” has to do with anything. Here in Scotland a conviction can only be attained from corroborated evidence not from anecdote, maybe you come from a country which has a weaker justice system.

      Why don’t I wear a cycle helmet? When I started to ride a bicycle, no one did and I have never found a good reason for doing so. As I say above, I have read a lot of the scientific literature on the efficacy of cycle helmets and have yet to find a convincing reason for doing so, the evidence suggesting that cycle helmets work is very thin when you look at the scientific evidence.

      However, the scientific evidence on the effects of law requiring compulsory wearing of cycle helmets suggest that such laws has the effect of making cycling more dangerous and are totally counter productive. Now is a coincidence that in places where the wearing of cycle helmets is very rare, cycling is also very common? And yet, these countries also have far lower rates of head injury among cyclist (when measured on a per Km travelled basis), is that just a coincidence too?

      Wear your motorbike helmet while riding a bicycle if you want to, but don’t expect the rest of us to follow your example.

  10. I am truly amazed that there are still people out there who think riding without a helmet is a clever thing to do. The arguments for not wearing a helmet are purely bogus and completely selfish.
    I’m a motorcyclist as well as a cyclist and I’d never ride a motorbike (or am allowed to by law) without wearing a BS (EU) approved helmet. There’s a reason for this; it’s because it saves lives, end of. Over the years numerous (Google them) studies have shown this to now be beyond question but more importantly the anecdotal evidence of health professionals such as Specialist Surgeons, GP’s and Nurses who deal day in, day out with head injury cases wholly bears this out.
    The compulsory motorcycle helmet law doesn’t just relate to Superbike riders such as myself, it also applies to sixteen year old kids who ride 50’s. These tiny bikes and scooters max out at a restricted 33-ish mph, a speed easily beaten on a road cycle. So this begs the question why are helmets compulsory safety equipment for scooter riders doing 33mph but not for cyclists doing up to 40mph+? The answer is obvious…..they should be.
    Perhaps the argument is made clearer when considered like this; the wearing of a helmet does not in any way increase the risk of head injury, it only decreases the risk. It gives you a better chance than when you’re not wearing one. So why would you not give yourself the best possible chance of surviving a crash or reducing the severity of an injury? If you were unfortunate enough to fall off a bike and your head hit hard ground do you think your unprotected skull would do a better job on its own than if you had some protective shield over it? Common (and any other) sense suggests the latter. Thinking “I don’t need a helmet, I’ll never fall off” is also childish and extremely selfish. Think of the devastation and trauma your loved ones would have to endure if you suffered a severe head injury or worse? This being something which could be have prevented or reduced in severity by wearing a helmet?
    So what if a compulsory cycle helmet law would reduce the number of people actively cycling by an estimated ~20%? Great, this would mean that 20% less (ex)cyclists are running the risk of being be involved in a cycling related accident. If they’re of the mind to cycle in the first place (to get fit/lose weight/get a buzz) and decide not to participate because the powers that be want them to be safer they’ll pickup something else to fill that void which doesn’t require protective head gear. Besides, the enormous saving created for the NHS could then be ploughed into better treatment for Cancer patients, for example, these being people who don’t have a choice if they end up receiving hospital treatment, something a cyclist might be able to avoid if they chose to wear a helmet. Whatever their reasoning though the participating numbers would always recover and pickup over time as it did for motorcycling when the compulsory helmet law was intruded in 1973. The initial (angry) reaction to such a law would fade and be followed by a reluctant acceptance of it leading to it becoming part of everyday life and something which finally doesn’t hit your conscious radar, like most laws. No one likes change, but sometimes we need it to progress and mature as a nation……Look at the smoking law and the impact it’s had on massively reducing the number of smokers.
    Who also cares if helmets manufacturers profit from the sales of helmets? This is a good thing. The nature of our capitalist society is that if a product is popular (because it’s well made, safe, looks cool, fulfils all safety requirements etc) then it will sell and thus create profits and then these profits will be shared out amongst share holders (and why not, they own part of the company) and the rest is reinvested to create even better products for us to buy in the future; it’s natural progression. If they don’t make a profit they’re doing something wrong and they’ll disappear. Personally, I never buy any other motorcycle helmet than a top of the range Arai at around £500 because they’re renowned for being one of, if not the, best around in all areas. Yep, they’re expensive, and Arai must make stacks of profit on them, but tbh I don’t care because research from these profits now ensures that it protects my head better than any other lid out there, it’s ultra stable at speed, it’s beautifully quiet, gives great winter ventilation and also looks awesome because I don’t want to wear something resembling a cereal bowl on my head. It was created like this using profits.
    So then why not wear a cycle helmet?…..because it’ll mess up your hair? Because it makes your head hot on sunny days? Because you don’t want to be told what to do because you know what’s best for you? Because you value your personal freedom over everything?…..OK, they’re all valid arguments to some people but from a common sense point of view they’re all flawed, they’re selfish and they’re extremely short sighted……Get it into (or onto) your heads; wearing a helmet HELPS to prevent head injury, it NEVER makes them worse, so why would you not give yourself the best possible chance?

    1. Clearly you have never bother to read any of the research which looks at the effects of helmet laws. The evidence that helmets help to prevent head injury, is at best thin. If you bother to make the effort, you will find there is credible evidence that badly designed helmets (and there are plenty on the market) can increase the risk of head injury, but then why bother with research if you have already made up your mind?

      I have spent a lot of time actually reading the published literature before writing this post. Having spent over 10 year as a research scientist, I am amazed that some of it was published, due to flawed methodology and the failure to address the confounding variables in the statistics. One of the problems is the apparently few doctors health professionals understand basic statistical methodology. I rather hope that those involved in testing the efficacy of drugs and other treatments do involve statisticians in they work.

      Anecdote is not evidence, only 30 years ago there were still plenty of health professionals telling us that smoking was not harmful! However detailed epidemiological research showed other wise. There is population scale evidence from countries which have introduced compulsory cycle helmet wearing, that it has had no effect on reducing the rate of head injury per Km cycled.

      If you want to wear a helmet, do so, but please stop the emotional blackmail.

  11. Helmet wearing has become something akin to a religious adherence, would be so dangerous if only cyclist believed it.

    The problem is that people who rarely ride bicycles but capable of doing great harm (often unintentionally) have a belief in the protective value of cycle helmets. I have actually been told by a driver that I should wear a helmet so the he wouldn’t have to drive so carefully.

    Earlier this year the AA held a stunt in which it handed out free helmets to cyclist. This was done after a survey of AA members showed that the majority of the AA’s members want cyclist to wear them. It also showed that this feeling was strongest among those who rarely or never rode a bicycle. There was a very telling comment from one member surveyed who said “I would feel better if hit a cyclist and they didn’t die because they were wearing a helmet”.

    Often strong support for compulsory cycle helmet laws is more about absolving drivers from responsibility, than any idea of making riding a bicycle “safer”. This of course ignores the simple face the that riding a bicycle is no more dangerous than walking or running…

  12. The main reason I get told I shoud wear a helmet is
    “Something may happen to you, then you’ll be sorry.”

    That last conversation I had was a bit like this.

    Other cyclist (OC): You should wear a helmet. Something may happen to you, then you’ll be sorry.

    Me: Really? Have you any evidence for that?

    OC: It’s really dangerous. Something may happen to you, then you’ll be sorry.

    Me: And where are you getting this information from?

    OC: It’s stupid not to wear a helmet. Something may happen to you, then you’ll be sorry.

    Me: Any data at all to back up this coeim?

    OC: (Incresing volume) Something may happen to you, then you’ll be sorry.

    Me: Tell you what: You come back with some evidence that support that -because for all I know there may be some I missed- and we can talk about it.

    OC: You should wear a helmet. Something may happen to you, then you’ll be sorry.

    Me: Okay, fine. Have a nice day.

    OC: (as I leave) Something may happen to you, then you’ll be sorry.

    1. Helmet wearing has become something akin to a religious adherence, would be so dangerous if only cyclist believed it.

      The problem is that people who rarely ride bicycles but capable of doing great harm (often unintentionally) have a belief in the protective value of cycle helmets. I have actually been told by a driver that I should wear a helmet so the he wouldn’t have to drive so carefully.

      Earlier this year the AA held a stunt in which it handed out free helmets to cyclist. This was done after a survey of AA members showed that the majority of the AA’s members want cyclist to wear them. It also showed that this feeling was strongest among those who rarely or never rode a bicycle. There was a very telling comment from one member surveyed who said “I would feel better if hit a cyclist and they didn’t die because they were wearing a helmet”.

      Often strong support for compulsory cycle helmet laws is more about absolving drivers from responsibility, than any idea of making riding a bicycle “safer”. This of course ignores the simple face the that riding a bicycle is no more dangerous than walking or running…

  13. I am massively anti-compulsion but what I would term pro-choice.

    I don’t really beleive that helmets save lives, I used to as a youth but reading studies from the past 5 or 6 years has changed my mind.

    The culture of fear that cycle helmet promotion has generated has overpowered any possible benefit which the devices may have.

    I mostly wear one now because it makes my Mother and Father distraught if I go bareheaded. They believe the hype. They are scared just as with many.

    Also I think MP Annette Brooke with her Bill forcing children to wear helmets will damage UK cycling beyond anything we’ve seen abroad. We must fight these changes and ideas and show the benefits of cycling regardless.

    1. Before I started reading cycling forums I didn’t know that people really believed the cycle helmets would keep them safe.

      I had been riding bicycles for most of my life (well since the age of 4) and it had never occurred to me that riding a bicycle was in some way dangerous. I was truly shocked that there were people who thought that cycling was dangerous and that a cycle helmet was “essential”.

      These days I am just deeply sicked by the way in which fear is used to sell cycle helmets, purely for profit. The simple truth is that cycle helmets are very profitable, with very high margins, there is far more profit to be make from selling a helmet than, say, a bicycle…

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