If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Cycle Helmets

Mandatory semi-relevant babe picture

Moving away from motorbikes for a moment (don't worry, we'll be back before long): what do you think about the wearing of cycle helmets?

There was an interesting debate a few years ago over at Treehugger (visit for research purposes only), with all points of view if you follow the links therein. My view was formed by a reading of the excellent Richard's Bicycle Book, when I was a regular cycle commuter back in the late 70s/early 80s. Accidents involving head injury on bicycles occur mainly in urban areas, and mainly to children, so if you are an adult riding in the country, you probably don't need to wear one. I didn't.

Recent research (links in the Treehugger site) suggests that the wearing of helmets makes a big difference to child injury rates, and very little difference to adults. This makes a kind of sense. The protection that the helmet provides for an adult is counterbalanced by the increase in the likelihood of having an accident if you are wearing one, and overall rates stay unchanged. I assume this is due either to risk compensation (you feel safer and therefore take more risks) or a change in the behaviour of the car drivers around you. This piece of research suggests that drivers will see a rider wearing a helmet and assume an increased level of competence, and will therefore drive closer to the bike when overtaking.

Some countries make the wearing of a helmet compulsory, either for all cyclists or just children (for example, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and some US states), and I have just picked up a hint that this may well be on the cards for the UK. The IAM are holding another poll, this time on the wearing of cycle helmets. Why would they be doing that, I wonder? As usual, you don't have to be a member to participate, and they want as many views as possible.

Go and make your views known. And ponder a curious fact: the countries with the best cycle safety records (Denmark and the Netherlands) have among the lowest levels of helmet use. It's a complex issue involving infrastructure and attitude, but it's interesting.


  1. Simple really. In my experience the wearing of a cycle helmet confers some sort of invincibility belief in the wearer.

    Not that matters as most cyclists have taken to riding their machines on the pavements in my fair town.

    I've yet to knock a cyclist from their as I walking along on the pavement but at some point I will, helmet or no helmet.

  2. Sorry buggered that comment up.
    I've yet to knock a cyclist from their machine whilst walking along on the pavement but at some point I will, helmet or no helmet.

  3. William is spot on. As an active cyclist I know first hand the effect of wearing a helmet has on risk perception. I don't wear one because I instinctivly take greater risks when I do, Risks I know that if they went wrong the helmet wouldn't help me. Further more they decrease visibility, hearing and the distance motorists give when overtaking.

    If cycle helmets become mandatory and this is enforced I will stop cycling.

    The above applies to road cycling. I wear a helmet when cycling off road as the speeds are slower and I am more likely to fall off or be involved in an accident where they might actually offer some protection. Small children learning to ride should wear a helmet (although this should not be enforced by law) as they are fairly likely to fall off randomly.

  4. Risk Compensation.

    Clearly understood by the layperson ignored by the cretinous Daily Prole reading safety lobby nannies who think 'something most be done'. Forever.

  5. I saw a family out for a ride, with just the 10 yr old daughter wearing a helmet. I always presumed the principle being that at least one of them needs to remain conscious to be able to summon an ambulance? But I take anon's point about the youngster being more likey to fall off - I never thought of that one! So the wearing of helmets is based on individual risk assessment? That should keep the legislators off my back then, shouldn't it?

  6. I've always wondered what use typical cycle helmets are. They only seem to offer protection from the top (handy if you manage to land upside down, or have a redundant satellite fall from the sky). But plenty of damage can be done if you get a blow to the side/rear of your head, and none of them even cover that area...

    If you want to feel safer as a result of wearing a helmet, then it should be more like a motorcycle one that offers real protection.

  7. In 10 years of cycling I have probably injured myself in around 4 major falls and accidents.

    1. Forks collapsed whilst going fast down a hill ~30mph. I landed on my hands. I was wearing full leather gloves which were totally destroyed by the crash and I suffered no hand injury. My watch which was on the bottom of my wrist was destroyed down to the back plate and my trousers were ripped. I was able to get up and carry on to the pub.

    2: I answered my phone whilst cycling and tried to break and turn on the bottom of the hill. I slid under the handle bars and landed on my chin. I couldn't shut my mouth for a week due to muscle spasm and still have scar.

    3: Hit black ice at the bottom of a steep slope as I turned. Landed on my side, was able to get up and carry on.

    4: Side swiped by a car turning left without indicating and knocked off. Bike was destroyed but I was fine if shaken.

    I've had a good number of other incidents. Probably fairly typical and none of them would have been helped by wearing a helmet. Other protective gear yes (If I hadn't been wearing gloves in incident 1. I believe I would have ripped the skin off my hands to the bone).

    Helmets are rated to give marginal head protection to a fall from a very low speed onto a kerb. Not a very likely accident in the real world.

  8. Perhaps one reason why the Netherlands has a low cycle accident rate is the legal presumption that the vehicle driver is responsible for the accident unless he can prove the contrary. That and the large number of cyclists which means that nearly all drivers are cyclists as well and so better understand the hazards involved.
    As for children wearing helmets, they should because the helmet offers the degree of protection that prevents injuries in 85% of hildren's accidents (eg fall onto kerb at low speed as Anon above). Children don't tend to ride on the road to the same extent as adults and so have a higher percentage of minor accidents.

  9. Interesting comments, and thank you all.

    I didn't say too much about the Netherlands as I didn't want to ramble, but I think Brian has it. The presumption of the motorists' guilt is appalling, but it may keep cyclists that bit safer (and smugger). However, to me the key thing is the way that cycling is utterly bred into the cloggies from age 0. Anna and I did a cycling holiday over there a few years ago, and a) the level of cycle use, and b) the high level of skill is astonishing. Not only are almost all car drivers cyclists at other times, but they were riding bikes for probably 15 years before they learned to drive. That makes a huge difference to general attitudes, and consequently to safety. Remember when all drivers had a couple of years on a motorbike before they could afford a car?

    I'm not as cynical as some of you about the usefulness of a cycle helmet. Although they only cover the top of the head, they stick out quite far to the side, and I would imagine give quite good protection to the temples and side of the head indirectly. If there is a case for compulsion, it is with children. They fall off more, they have lower risk perception, and the consequences of a head injury are likely to be more severe. I was pretty relaxed with my girls when they were small, and let them take all kinds of risks - provided that the consequences weren't life-changing. So they can climb a tree as high as they like, but not over a concrete surface, kind of thing. These days, I would insist on their wearing a helmet riding on the road until they were old enough to tell me to get stuffed, but that would be my decision as a parent: whether that translates to compulsion for everyone I am not sure.

    Incidentally, the comments below that picture of the woman on the multi-child bike are revealing, as they divide completely along national lines. The US/Canadian commenters ask in shock why none of the children are wearing a helmet; the European commenters say what a wonderful image.

    The best one I saw in the Netherlands was a woman with 1) child on child seat behind, 2) child on crossbar seat in front, 3) baby in papoose on her back, 4) folded buggy also on her back, 5) two bags of shopping on the handlebars - crossing five lanes of traffic in the middle of the rush hour in Arnhem. Awesome. And yes, she made it across fine.

    Go Cloggies!


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