Cycle helmet compulsion again....

Like a broken record an attempt to reduce the numbers of cyclists by making cycle helmets compulsory has turned up as a 10 minute rule bill the the House of Commons:

Motion: Ten Minute Rule Motion - Bicycles (Children's Safety Helmets) - Mr Peter Bone

As with the best attempts to deter behaviour this just targets those below the age of 17. If you can stop then cycling young then they should be saved from ever taking it up. Once again time to write to your MP. For those who still believe cycle helmets are effective, and I wish that they were, see for the depressing reality that the only thing they are effective at doing is reducing the levels of cycling. They don't have magic properties that allow polystyrene to protect cyclists from the effects of being hit by motor vehicles.


I don't understand why so many cyclists complain about helmets. I live in Cambridge (UK) and cycle every day on roads and cycle paths. I agree that my helmet would not help much if I was hit by a car or a truck, but that's not the only kind of accident I might have. My helmet has definitely helped me a couple of times when I have had an accident all by myself and banged my head hard on the road. The first time, I lay there winded and unable to breathe, thinking "Thank goodness I wore my helmet". A friend recently fell off on a wet corner and broke his arm, got concussion and passed out. If he had not been wearing his helmet the head injuries could have been much worse.

I see lots of cyclists in Cambridge without helmets, which I find strange considering that most of them are here to use their heads at the University. For me, the cost-benefit calculation goes like this: the cost is about £30-40 for a reasonable helmet, plus looking a bit foolish when riding (which is a matter of opinion); the benefit is some extra protection in a reasonably common class of accidents (falling off at speed due to slippery conditions, mechanical failure, riding into a pothole, avoiding a pedestrian etc).

Perhaps a law compelling cyclists to wear helmets won't work. Perhaps it would reduce the number of people who might take up cycling - that seems to be the main 'cost-benefit' analysis on But if you have already decided to cycle no matter what, then wearing a helmet has a definite benefit and only a small cost. It's not just car accidents you have to worry about.

Posted by Euan Harris on October 17, 2007 at 06:31 AM BST #

The only argument for compulsion should be that it will save a significant number of serious injuries or lives.

There is no evidence that this is the case, none. At best helmet wearing has no effect on safety. However helmet compulsion always has the same effect, reducing cycling and it has been shown that the more cyclists there are the safer cycling becomes so compulsion has a negative safety effect.

You claim a definite benefit where there is none. There are claimed benefits most of which don't stand up to scrutiny.

A helmet could benefit you in that it will protect you from a non serious injury, but so will gloves but they are not compulsory. equally helmets would give significant safety benefits to car passengers and also pedestrians but I see no call for helmet compulsion to those two groups despite the fact that they would benefit more than cyclists.

You claim your helmet helped you, it might have, but it might not you don't know. Unless you have the same accident without the helmet you just can't know. Which is why we always end up looking at population studies and those studies don't support the argument that helmets prevent any injuries at all or at least if they do then helmet wearers are more prone to have accidents.

Posted by Chris Gerhard on October 17, 2007 at 06:44 AM BST #

Whilst I definitely \*do not\* agree that helmets should be made compulsory, you really seem to have a blind spot as regards to the potential for helmets to save people from serious injury.

The problem, as you correctly say, is that we don't know how many people are saved from serious injury because they were wearing a helmet. It stands to reason that if they weren't seriously hurt, then they wouldn't end up in hospital, so they would no become a statistic. However, Euan has given anecdotal evidence that they do help, and there are undoubtably thousands more people who could say the same. Just because there is not quantitative evidence to show that helmets are a good idea does not mean that there is no benefit from wearing one.

Posted by Trevor Watson on October 18, 2007 at 03:36 AM BST #

Trevor, I don't have a blind spot, I have a dose of reality based on science, and the evidence from places where helmets are compulsory. I wore a cycle helmet (not the same one) for over 10 years with the absolute belief they were a good thing right up until I was forced by a previous attempt to make them compulsory to read the evidence.

If they were effective then there should have been large decreases in killed and seriously injured cyclists over and above the corresponding fall in cycling numbers in those countries. Oddly and I agree it is odd that did not happen. Cycling injury rates at best remained the same at worst actually got slightly worse. So for every case where a helmet saved a life there must have been a corresponding one where not only did it not save the life but it in some way contributed to the death.

At an individual level since I can't choose the cycle accident that I will have I can't tell in advance whether it will be one a helmet helps with or not. So all I have is the population studies to go on which like I keep saying do not support the assertion that a helmet will help me in fact if anything they say it will make it slightly worse.

What is needed is some real research into why helmets don't perform as expected when applied to populations, however instead we have the wild claims that helmets will prevent 85% all cyclist deaths. When faced with such incredible claims everyone should ask why the proponents of helmets don't just stick to the facts, however the facts don't support cycle helmets except possibly when doing technical mountain biking, although even there is is questionable since they increase the risk of you breaking your neck.

Posted by Chris Gerhard on October 18, 2007 at 06:38 AM BST #

I didn't say that I was for or against compelling people to wear helmets. The question I'm interested in is whether wearing a helmet makes me safer, equally safe or less safe than not wearing one on the same journey --- all other factors held constant. You claim a helmet does nothing or possibly makes me less safe, but I don't believe that the evidence you cite really backs up that claim.

The problem with the population studies is that they are not controlled, so it is hard to tell what inferences you can justifiably draw from them. For instance, the Australia experience suggests that compelling people to wear helmets lowered the rate of participation. The accident rate went up, proportionately, but there are several explanations, all of which could be true. It could be that the helmet-wearers took more risks, but you also claim that having less cyclists on the roads increases the risks for the ones that are left. How do you separate the possible causes? Cross comparison with other, separate studies can be misleading.

The only way to prove or disprove claims like "helmets increase the risk of torsion injuries" is to do a series of crash tests in different situations and see. The population studies can suggest what sorts of things to look at, but as you agree, they are not definitive.

I still believe there is a large class of accidents in which I'm better off wearing a helmet. There's certainly another large class where it doesn't matter what I do - I'm toast anyway. I also believe there are accidents in which wearing a helmet might be detrimental. What I want to see are experiments to examine the effect of a helmet on the outcome of all these sorts of accidents. Then I can assess my risk of each type of accident and figure out, overall, if a helmet is worth it.

I'm not volunteering to have my accidents again, without a helmet, just for the benefit of science! :-)

Posted by Euan Harris on October 19, 2007 at 03:58 AM BST #


Since the original post was about efforts to introduce compulsion that is the thrust of my point. I really don't care if people do or do not wear helmets if it did not lead to compulsion.

The problem here is that there have been some stunning claims from helmet advocates (not you) about the effectiveness of helmets, the 85% of casualties saved for example, yet when helmet compulsion is introduced there has not been a measurable effect. That rings bells for me. That and I have a "helmet saved my life" example that I can quote, the only problem is that no helmet was being worn, has one been worn then I'm sure I would not be easily convinced it did good.

Yes there could be other factors at work, risk compensation for example but that really does not matter. If people end up dead wearing a helmet because they took more risks they are still dead and the over selling of the effectiveness of helmets encourages risk compensation.

My real beef here is the the helmet debate is a distraction. The best way to make cycling safe is to enforce existing laws for motor vehicles. Speeding, driving without due care and attention, dangerous driving. Prosecute drivers who knock cyclists off and then give them a proper fine. Not 250 quid for killing a cyclist as is common.

However what the helmet promoters have succeeded in doing is move the "safety" argument into one, very ineffective, side show. Helmets.

For more reading on this see:

I'm not alone and I'm like a reformed smoker except I am a reformed helmet promoter.

Thank you for the comments.

Posted by Chris Gerhard on October 19, 2007 at 04:51 AM BST #

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