Cycle safety

This morning I have been reading some extraordinary rubbish in The Times about the wearing of helmets by cyclists.

It is suggested that making helmets compulsory would reduce the number of people cycling.  This claim is based on evidence from Australia where there was about a 30% decrease in cycling when helmets were made compulsory.

But, let's think about it for a minute.  I am currently looking to buy a bicycle and while you can get some pretty rubbish bikes for around £100, anything remotely decent seems to start at around the £399 mark.  You can buy a helmet, which, should you fall off, will substantially increase your chances of survival, for just £9.99 from Halfords.  Whether you're spending £100 or £1,000 on a bike (and incidentally one of my local shops has a lot of bikes at over £5,000 each!) an extra £9.99 is not going to break the bank.  In any event, you'd imagine that if cycle shops were concerned about a serious loss of trade they'd start running promotions that include a bike and helmet for a combined price.

So, cost isn't really a reason not to wear a helmet.

Another argument is that wearing a helmet causes cyclists to be more reckless... personally I find it difficult to believe that some cyclists could be more reckless than they already are, but the majority are as careful as any other road user.  This isn't a new argument, it has been used for many years in respect of safety devices on cars.  But, the fact still remains that if you wear a helmet while riding your bike you are more likely to survive an accident.

There seems to be an attitude among many cyclists that it is the responsibility of others to be careful of cyclists.  This is correct.  But, that doesn't mean that cyclists should not take care of themselves.  Car drivers have long been advised to drive defensively, which really means drive like everyone else is an idiot and out to hit you.  If you learn to ride a motorbike that's pretty much the training you'll receive and when you undertake advanced rider training you'll find it's all about how to make yourself safe and reduce the chances of you being hit and others hitting you.

The argument that requiring people to wear a helmet on a push bike will reduce cycling misses the point completely.  It's not about cost, because helmets are actually very cheap.  Nor, is it about cyclists choosing to ride recklessly if they wear a helmet - some of the worst motorcycle riders you'll see are the guys in shorts, t-shirts and trainers on very powerful sportsbikes, not the rider wearing all the safety gear (come off a motorbike at speed without the proper gear and you'll have no skin and there's a reasonable chance your feet could be ripped off!).  The question is whether personal freedom not to take care of yourself is more important than reducing deaths on the roads?

If you think that the right to make your own decision on taking care of yourself is more important then I presume you also think that you should not be required to wear a car seat belt or a helmet while riding a motorbike?  If not, then I don't really understand your position.

There have been calls recently to change the law to presume that the driver of a motorised vehicle is to blame where there is a collision between a peddle cycle and the motor vehicle.  I don't think you can have it both ways, either you take all reasonable safety precautions or you accept that you are at risk of being killed if there is an accident.  I hope that no such law is introduced, but if one is then I would hope that not wearing a helmet is taken as a presumption that the cyclist was not acting responsibly.

I am not in favour of cycling helmets being made compulsory, although people should be encouraged to wear them.  At the end of the day, if you don't wear a helmet then you're the one who will end up dead.  If you don't mind doing that to yourself and your family then it's a decision for you.


  1. Wearing a helmet causes drivers around cyclists to drive more recklessly and closer to them; it makes absolutely no difference in terms of accident survival and injury rates, except possibly to small children; and it pushes the image of cycling as a dangerous thing for which you need to take special precautions, so reduces the number of people doing it (which in turn makes it more dangerous for each of them, because drivers are less used to encountering them).

    Of course seat belt laws are ridiculous; bringing them in made no difference to total injuries on the roads, it just shifted them from car occupants to other road users as risk-compensation caused the drivers to be more reckless.

    If you think it's reasonable to force people to be safer, why aren't you pushing for a mandatory helmet law for car drivers?

    See and note that most of the "pro" lobby are either funded by helmet makers (see also the French breathalyser law, funded entirely by the main maker of the things) or the same sort of tired old BMA members who also want to do away with sharp knives and beer.

    1. Ed (not Bystander)3 August 2012 at 16:51

      Roger, please cite evidence for your first paragraph.

    2. Roger, I have to say that I find the claim that cycle helmets make no difference simply astounding. The US Government recently noted that:

      "Sixty percent of all bicycle-related deaths involve head injuries. Yet, research shows that helmets can reduce the risk of these deaths and injuries by as much as 85 percent."

      A mere 85% reduction in the risk of death and head injuries sounds like a significant reduction to me.

      I have looked at as you suggest and it looks like little more than gossip with little or no actual research backing up what it claims.

      Finally, may I invite everyone to actually read to the end before telling me I'm wrong. If you had, you'd have found out that I'm not in favour of making cycle helmets compulsory, but I do think you'd be pretty stupid to ride in heavily congested areas like London without one.

  2. The research being used by the US Government is outdated, and the conclusions drawn there would just as validly indicate that helmets reduce the risk of leg injuries a similarly huge percentage. Read the references; the older research was done by doctors who admitted that they were setting out to prove a point, and didn't attempt to control for the type of cyclist, or the type of cycling being done.

    Would you be astounded to learn that wearing an eggbox on your head didn't make you safer? That's only slightly less protection than a cycle helmet gives you.

    Read the references. I have nothing further to add.

    1. Ed (not Bystander)3 August 2012 at 17:38

      Your "references" are a study on car safety, and a website that gives no studies at all.

      Are you conceding that you have in fact no evidence for your claims?

    2. Jonathan Miller4 August 2012 at 09:50

      I have just taken a look, and it seems that pretty much every assertion on is backed by statistics or research, so I don't understand Ed's antagonism.

      The American govt research apparently shows that helmets 'can' reduce 'death and injury' in accidents that 'involve' head injuries by 'up to' 85% - seems pretty weasely language to me. Yet stats on show (or purport to show, though I have no reason to doubt them) that cycling produces 2-5% of total head injuries, far behind the stats for driving/pedestrians and even assault. It seems to me that legislators would, as RogerBW says, be far better off requiring helmets for pedestrians and car drivers.

      As for voluntary wearing of helmets, stats from Holland show that helmet wearers are disproportionately in receipt of hospital treatment 13% as opposed to ~3% in the general cycling population. seeks to give some explanation for that statistic.

      ...and yet the site is criticised.
      By all means wear a helmet if you like, but don't dismiss evidence that suggests that it really might make you more likely to get injured.

      Anecdotally, I live and work and cycle in Oxford - the two cyclist fatalities that I recall (there may be more) both involve the cyclist going under the wheels of a lorry - a helmet probably wouldn't have helped much.

    3. Jonathan Miller4 August 2012 at 10:08

      TDB & Ed - did either of you actually read the site at all?
      Gives an excellent overview of the egregious flaws in the '85% reduction' study.

      Lies, damned lies and cycle helmet statistics.

    4. Ed (not Bystander)4 August 2012 at 12:17

      The analysis is poor because it carefully avoids considering the whole population being considered in each case. That would be the only way to calculate whether helmet-wearers are actually more likely to have accidents.

      The page also refers to "wounds to the scalp, forehead or ears... often minor injuries". Apparently, so minor that the victim felt the need to go to the emergency room.

      There are far too many weasel words: "seems more likely" (to whom?), "Perhaps cyclists forced to wear helmets ride more dangerously" (so you don't know?). Not science, more science theatre to promote a viewpoint.

    5. Ed, you pick up on the reference to "wounds to the scalp, forehead or ears... often minor injuries" and dismiss this as "Apparently, so minor that the victim felt the need to go to the emergency room."

      Most of the 'victims' in this study were kids under 15 - it's their parents who felt the need to take them to A&E.

      Essentially, what the '85%' study showed was that poor black kids who rode their bikes on streets and didn't wear helmets, had more head injuries than did middle-class white kids who rode their bikes in parks and off-road areas, and whose parents made them wear helmets and took them off to A&E for anything more serious than a grazed knee. It's a rubbish piece of research.

    6. Ed (not Bystander)14 August 2012 at 16:22

      Nice assumptions (about the different cycling environments). You should totally become a scientist.

      By the way, you know that ER treatment isn't free in the US, right? And obviously you're assuming that parents enjoy taking the time and making the effort to go wait in the ER for treatment, and will do so lightly.

    7. Ed, don't be snide. The stuff about relative family income levels/social class, as well as the riding environment, is not an assumption - it is in the study.

      As the full text of the study isn't freely available - or at least I can't find it - then I'll quote the commentary and summary to be found at

      "The most serious criticism concerns the considerable differences between the two main groups of cyclists upon which the research is based. Case-control studies are valid only if the 'control' group is representative of the population at risk (the cyclists who might suffer head injuries).

      In this study, a comparison was made between 145 children treated in hospitals in Seattle for a head injury (the 'cases'), and a 'community control' group of 480 children who had, in one way or another, simply fallen from their bikes. A comparison of the two groups based mainly on helmet use of children under 15 years (21.1% of ‘control’ vs 2.1% of ‘case’ children) leads to the frequently quoted claim that the reduction in head injury due to helmets is 85%.

      However, at the same time as this research was being carried out, there was a much more extensive survey of helmet use in the city of Seattle (DiGuiseppi, Rivara, Koepsell and Polissar, 1989). Of 4,501 child cyclists observed cycling around Seattle, just 3.2% wore helmets. This is not statistically different from the 2.1% of the hospital cases who were wearing helmets.

      As well as having a helmet wearing rate 7 times that of the cyclists riding round Seattle, the ‘community control’ group came from higher income households and had parents with higher educational levels. The observational survey of child cyclists riding in Seattle found that helmet wearers were predominantly white, middle class, riding with their parents in parks, whereas the non-wearers were more often black or other races riding alone on busy city streets. The risk profile of these two groups would be quite different."

    8. Ed (not Bystander)16 August 2012 at 19:21

      Two points:

      1. Dry your eyes.

      2. So your rebuttal of my criticism of the website's contents... is to quote more of the website's contents (which I had already read). Excellent.

    9. >1. Dry your eyes.

      Big man, aren't you. That really moves the discussion on.

      >2. So your rebuttal of my criticism of the website's contents...
      >is to quote more of the website's contents (which I had
      >already read). Excellent.

      Er, no. You criticise 'assumptions'; I rebut this by showing that rather than being my assumptions, they're restatements of what's contained in the study.

      Feel free to mis-read or mis-state this too; you're welcome to the last word as far as I'm concerned.

  3. Personally I wear a cycling helmet but those on here pointing out they offer little protection are spot on.

    A new and reasonably well made cycle helmet will absorb about 7-8mph of direct impact to the top of your head.

    The problems arise when you're not hit in exactly the right place for it to protect you (IE: most of the time).

    That said, I don't think we need no cycle helmets, I think we need better cycle helmets that offer more protection.

  4. I have lived in a city where I cycled to work - and having to wear a helmet actively discouraged me. Certainly discouraged my other half.

    reasons included impact on hair (seriously!), heat on a very hot day, having to carry the bloody thing around if you went out after work, etc etc.

  5. I concur with TBD's final para.

    I always wear a helmet when cycling (on one occasion wearing a helmet saved my life) and strongly advise doing so to friends/family etc. This includes teaching cycling proficiency in schools.

    Yet I think taking personal responsibility and avoiding nanny-state syndrome transcends this. Wearing a helmet is only one part of a bigger picture when cycling. I've seen many cases of loose and ill-fitting helmets, loose handlebars, faulty brakes, seriously under-inflated tyres etc. etc. All of these are important in avoiding a collision and avoidance is probably better than damage limitation. Of course both is better than either/neither!

    I have some empathy with the idea that if a cyclist doesn’t use a helmet and is involved in a collision then he bears some of the responsibility for injuries he suffers. Yet just to point out the opposing argument, if he’s not to blame at all then why should be penalised? Indeed if a motorist was aware a cyclist wasn’t wearing a helmet shouldn’t he be more careful?

    I can’t be bothered to comment on the stats though.

    BTW great blog! Glad you’re posting a bit more frequently.

  6. Robert the Biker6 August 2012 at 15:58

    When the Snell Institute finally produced some stats on motorcycle helmets they found that they were pretty much useless if you hit an immovable object above 12 - 18 mph and that head injury reduction was matched almost exactly by injury to the cervical spine and neck. This is because even with modern lightweight kevlar and carbon fibre materials, helmets are still an increased mass on the head.
    The modern cycle helmets would be put to shame by a pudding basin style from the fifties and look (to my admittedly jaundiced eye)as though they would be more likely to break your neck than save your skull. As regards the changing of a law to make everyone else at blame for cyclists poor riding habits, I can't see that surviving the first test case; are we presumed innocent or not?
    I agree that all car drivers should have a spell on a motorbike, they would learn what roadcraft meant.

  7. Ed - have a look here (the peer reviewed publications are cited as well as the actual data etc). It confirms what many cyclists have claimed for some years. When you put a helmet on vehicles actually seem to pass closer to you. If you don;t believe it why not try it out and ride in for 30 minutes every day for a week and then repeat in similar traffic conditions with a helmet on. I've seen the same in both town centre and country road environments.

    DefenceBrief: "But, the fact still remains that if you wear a helmet while riding your bike you are more likely to survive an accident." Is there any real evidence of that? The most likely cause of death whilst cycling is a vehicle-cyclist collision, helmets are designed to deal with impacts with the road (typically at speeds of 12 mph) not impacts with vehicles.

    However to address the thrust of your argument, "people will not cycle less" if they have to wear a helmet... I agree cost is not an issue (although not many people riding 1000+ bikes are using a £10 helmet!), fashion and style clearly could be - but over 1/3rd of riders already are and %ages are steadily increasing, however in many cases for the sort of short journeys where a bike is ideal practicality might be. Where to safely store a helmet when you get to the shops or even where to store 30 fragile helmets in the classroom, how to avoid sweating like a pig on a hot day when wearing an inch of very effective insulation on your head; how not to mess up your hair (perhaps more of an issue for some of the fairer sex.

    I do (almost always) wear a helmet on my bike. I do wear a seatbelt* in the car, if I have it off for some reason, or am in a vehicle which doesn't have belts I do feel 'exposed' - this is a demonstration of risk compensation. It is the same with my cycle helmet if for some reason I am not wearing it, I feel more exposed which presumably makes me more cautious. Many people I have discussed this with don't seem to be able to comprehend this - but risk compensation is sub-conscious.

    Your other point about presumed liability on car drivers in cycle accidents I would hope no such law is introduced. If it were to come it would be ludicrous however to assume that a cyclist was being reckless by not wearing a helmet if that had no bearing on his injuries or accident (e.g. getting squashed under a truck no bit of polystyrene is going to help!); just as it would be crazy to assume that the car driver was at fault for hitting a cyclist who jumped a red light or sneaked up the inside into his blind spot. If we are to improve safety for cyclists we need to get away from "us and them" and just recognise each other as road users who all want to arrive safely at our destination.

    * Interestingly if you wanted to make car travel safer for its occupants introducing motorcycle style helmets would probably help. If you wanted to make a modification to car design that would reduce accidents seatbelts should be removed and a large spike fitted to the centre of the steering wheel.


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