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Helmets

Spokes supportsinformed choice over cycle helmets – not just choice.   Informed choice means that individuals should be told the pros and the cons of helmet use, then allowed to make their own decision.

Organisations involved in selling or promoting helmets should be required to advise potential users about the pros and cons, so that they can cycle more safely whether or not they choose to use a helmet, as well as to help them in making that choice.   This applies to manufacturers (e.g. on packaging), sales outlets (e.g. in sales materials), and organisations such as the police, councils or other organisations (e.g. in publicity leaflets).

We are against helmet compulsion and against heavy or one-sided promotion of helmets.  This makes cycling appear more dangerous than it is and so risks scaring people off and losing the multiple health and other benefits of getting about by bike.  Secondly, for those who do choose to cycle, helmets may give them added confidence to use more dangerous roads* than they otherwise would.  See below for evidence on these points.  [*The difference in danger between different road types is staggering – see p7 of Spokes Bulletin 115 and p5 of Bulletin 117].

Note: Spokes is not involved in Sport, and can’t comment on helmets for sport cycling.  See the CTC briefings below instead.

DOCUMENTS AND ARTICLES FROM SPOKES

We summarise and reference the evidence on helmets below.  A much shorter summary is in our printed helmets factsheet [pdf 390k].  Page 1 is intended to counter the widespread publicity that helmets are an unalloyed good with no downsides.  Page 2 explains some of the main issues and our stance, and provides some evidence links.

Our views on helmets are reflected in our policy on advertising and on promotion of events.

CREEPING COMPULSION / HELMET CULTURE

The way in which helmets are promoted by some public institutions and by financially-interested private organisations is leading to ‘creeping compulsion’ – a growing public mood that not to wear a helmet is irresponsible.   Some charity rides, supposedly open to all, now ban all unhelmeted cyclists, or those under 18.   In the tragic death of Edinburgh Cyclist Audrey Fyfe, the Sherrif blamed Mrs Fyfe for not wearing a helmet, even though the crash resulted entirely from careless driving and no evidence was produced that a helmet would have affected the outcome.

An article in Spokes Bulletin 113 about helmet ‘creeping compulsion’ generated a lot of media interest, which prompted us to produce the above factsheet and a 15 June 2012 news posting explaining our position further and outlining feedback received following the Bulletin article.   Our concerns are further discussed on page 5 of Spokes Bulletin 114.

THE EVIDENCE

For a picture of everyday cycling in European countries with less injuries per mile cycled than in Britain, see…

Copenhagen
www.copenhagencyclechic.com
www.copenhagenize.com
Berlin
www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20068083

For links to the research evidence on helmets, see…

  • BicycleSafe.combicyclesafe.com/helmets.html – interesting US helmets advice article [with links to evidence] from a website dedicated to how to cycle safely [as it’s USA, read ‘left’ for ‘right’ and vice versa!]

Other more anecdotal evidence…

Some specific papers…

Here we list one source of evidence for each of the main claims made in the Spokes factsheet.  Further sources can be found in the above website and briefings.

ARTICLES

1.  1209 29 New York Times   To Encourage Biking, Cities Lose the Helmets

‘Many researchers say, if you force or pressure people to wear helmets, you discourage them from riding bicycles. That means more obesity, heart disease and diabetes. And — Catch-22 — a result is fewer ordinary cyclists on the road, which makes it harder to develop a safe bicycling network.  …

Pushing helmets really kills cycling and bike-sharing in particular because it promotes a sense of danger that just isn’t justified — in fact, cycling has many health benefits,” says Piet de Jong, a professor in the department of applied finance and actuarial studies at Macquarie University in Sydney. He studied the issue with mathematical modeling, and concludes that the benefits may outweigh the risks by 20 to 1.  He adds: “Statistically, if we wear helmets for cycling, maybe we should wear helmets when we climb ladders or get into a bath, because there are lots more injuries during those activities.”’

2.  Copenhagenize.com has published a series of articles on helmets for everyday motoring.

3.  1312 13 New York Times  Ski Helmet Use is not Reducing Brain Injuries

An interesting parallel with the cycle helmet debate.  At the same time as a huge rise in helmet-wearing, head injuries amongst skiers have stayed static (one study) or have risen (two other studies).   As with cycle helmets, an explanatory theory is that skiers are taking more risks because they feel safer, even though helmets are only very effective in low speed crashes – and ‘providers’ are colluding by building more extreme skiing facilities, assuming skiers are safer.

Skiers and snowboarders in the United States are wearing helmets more than ever — 70 percent of all participants, nearly triple the number from 2003 — (but) there has been no reduction in the number of snow-sports-related fatalities or brain injuries. … Experts ascribe that seemingly implausible correlation to the inability of helmets to prevent serious head injuries … and to the fact that more skiers and snowboarders are engaging in risky behaviors.

4. 1411 Chris Boardman Why I won’t promote high vis and helmets

I won’t let the debate be drawn onto a topic that isn’t even in the top 10 things that will really keep people who want to cycle safe. I want cycling in the UK to be like it is in Utrecht or Copenhagen and more recently New York City – an everyday thing that people can do in everyday clothes whether you are eight or 80 years old.”

MORE RESEARCH NEEDED

Three big questions need answered…

1. How much will a helmet help you, and in what sorts of crashes?

A fair bit of research has been done – some is linked from the above sites.   Generally speaking the message is that a helmet may help if you have a slow speed crash such as falling off and hitting your head on the road, but is unlikely to make much difference in a crash with a motor vehicle.

2. Are you more likely to crash if you use a helmet?

This could happen because drivers think you are safe and so give you less space when passing; or because you feel safer and so cycle faster or use a faster road.  Some limited research has been done, pointing in this direction [see links above] but very little.  There are many supporting anecdotes such as the London taxi driver who said, “I always give the Boris bikes a wide berth” and the cyclist who told Spokes, “I would never use that road unless I was wearing my helmet.”  i.e. the helmeted cyclist is taking on more risk from traffic; the unhelmeted bike-hire user is taking on less.

The government, police, helmet manufacturers, road safety agencies, etc refuse to take these arguments seriously or to commission any serious research.   They are thus potentially risking the safety of individual cyclists, by promoting helmets as an unalloyed good and not, at the least, advising wearers to be aware of the downsides.

 3. Do overall cyclist deaths and injuries per mile or per bike user fall if helmets are made compulsory or become very commonplace in a country?

A medium amount of research has been done [some in the links above].   The answer in general seems to be that deaths and injuries per unit of exposure do not fall – and they often rise.   The reasons could include…

  • Usually many people are put off cycling – no one has researched why this happens, but one theory is because the emphasis on helmets makes cycling feel dangerous – i.e. we aren’t told to put on a helmet to walk or drive to the shops, so cycling must be more dangerous.  If the people who stay cycling are the more confident, fully equipped ones who use fast roads, and those deterred are the more ordinary unhelmeted cyclists who stick to local and quiet roads, this could explain why casualties rise – because there is a huge differential in cycling danger on the two types of road – see Spokes 115 [forthcoming] page 7.
  • There may be more crashes per cyclist for the reasons in (2) above.