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The big bike helmet debate

To wear or not to wear, that is the question

Two thousand kilometres, and I've not even brought a helmet. Am I mad?

Cycle helmets are designed to give essential protection to the most important part of your body. It absorbs some of the impact on collision, and can make the difference between death and survival, brain damage and a lucky escape. An obvious safety precaution then, strongly recommended by the British powers-that-be, and law in some countries such as Australia and parts of the USA. Cycling publicity in the UK almost entirely depicts cyclists with helmets, and photos in newspapers that show people without generate angry letters denouncing the irresponsibility of suggesting that you shouldn't wear a helmet. If not by law, everyone should be strongly encouraged to wear a bike helmet.

Shouldn't they?

The counter-arguments - and there are a few - don't receive so much press. As some of you, my readers, have already expressed surprise that I've not got a helmet, I thought I should explain why.

Firstly, from a broader point of view of society, the expectation that you need special equipment (such as a helmet) to do such an activity deters people from doing it. As cycling is an extremely healthy activity, any reduction is detrimental to the nation's overall level of health. After the legislation came into effect in Australia, the number of people cycling dropped markedly, many presumably switching to cars for transport, or watching TV for leisure. This has three effects:

  • less healthy lifestyle overall leads to more heart disease etc etc

  • more car drivers - environmental damage

  • higher car/bike ratio means that remaining cyclists are LESS safe, as the car drivers are less likely to consider them

Secondly, studies by Ian Walker of Bath University have shown that car drivers will drive closer to cyclists wearing helmets than those without, therefore putting them more at risk.

Thirdly, the level of protection offered by a helmet is hotly debated. In general, impacts with other vehicles are likely to be too severe for the helmet to be of much use, and falling off your bike will rarely lead to a serious head injury anyway. Yes, of course there are cases where bike helmets have likely saved lives in both these cases, but they many researchers now think they are pretty rare.

Travelling across Europe, I find hardly anyone wears helmets. In the Netherlands, they would find it as absurd a thing to do as wearing a suit of armour when out walking. The only people that do wear them are the hard-core racing cyclists kitted out in all the lycra gear, and then it becomes just part of the uniform. They are also going at much higher speeds were falling off would result in a higher impact, so the helmet makes more sense. Absolutely no-one on a leisure, commute or touring ride wears a helmet. The same is pretty well true in Germany too, though I've seen a few children with helmets on, and possibly two adults during the last two weeks.

The risk of death and injury from cycling goes down the more cyclists there are, and in general the more that helmet wearing is enforced, the fewer cyclists there are. These graphs are from www.cyclehelmets.org where you'll find lots of other information about the helmet debate.

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On the day I set out I wondered whether I should bring my helmet after all. It would have been a hassle to carry an additional item, and as most of the time I've been on paths separated from traffic, I've felt perfectly safe without. But even when sharing the road, I don't overall think it makes sense to bother, and if one more person on the road dressed in normal clothes can encourage anyone else to think that cycling is for everyone, then that's a job well done.

What do you think? Comments below!

Posted by bhambidge 00:46 Tagged bicycle

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Comments

I wonder if you could add to the first graph the litigation per capita/cyclists rate in each of the countries. It seems to me that where a culture seeks to 'cover its back' in almost every aspect of life, where lifestyle is as much or more dictated by risk than health factors, it becomes stale and stultified due to fear. Whereas, in reality, the inactivity that this induces is a far worse state to be in. The USA has, by all accounts, one of the most litigious societies. Is it little wonder that the perceived threat of a serious accident while cycling appears to be uppermost when deciding to take part in the activity? What happened to 'common sense' precautions? Are we breeding a generation of children who expect all the risks to have been covered and leaving them with nothing to concern them? I fear so.

by Philip

I fear so too.

Out of interest, if Andris and Matthew cycle, do they wear helmets? Why (not)?

by bhambidge

The boys don't have helmets, but to be honest they've not gone very far ever. Andris isn't really interested in the activity but I think Matthew will take it up more seriously. To wet the appetite I think a ride to Grandma and Grandad's might be fun, but trying to avoid the a4 if possible. Good luck with the rest of the journey! Your blogs are terrific.

by Philip

OK, I'm not trying to get my name under every blinkin' post but I have been thinking about your question...

I passed six cyclists on my way home from work yesterday - surprisingly for me, all helmeted (so I didn't give them much room - just jesting!).

I reckon it's a matter of common sense/personal preference. For sure, wearing a helmet can never be a bad thing. If you feel safer/know you are going to be amongst heavy traffic or whatever, maybe it is a good idea - it might just turn out to make the difference. If, for example, I were planning to do a lot of cycling in the USA, where, from what I have seen, cars are generally big and fast, and in some areas there aren't even proper pavements (never mind cycle lanes) I might think twice about it. Perhaps this is why helmet wearing has been made law there, though in fact, funds allowing, a more effective act would probably have been to create a better cycling infrastructure. (Actually, it's probably not much different here.)

Funnily enough it never even crossed my mind to wear a helmet though I cycled every day when I lived in Europe and Japan, but then I was in countries which are well geared-up for cyclists. Often bikes have a designated cycle path, and even if they are on a busy road, the chances are that the car drivers who they are sharing it with are cyclists themselves too - so possibly more sensitive to two-wheelers than drivers in some other countries.

It's interesting to read that enforced helmet-wearing results in less cycling overall. I am not so sure that this is necessarily because it sends a message that the activity is dangerous - maybe it simply creates added hassle? Fine if you're just nipping to a friend's place and back, but a bit of a pain if you're going shopping and then have to cart a helmet round the town or supermarket, or whatever.

Anyway, just some brain droppings - rude not to after all your effort with the graphs!

by Rebecca

Yes, the increase in safety in countries with more cyclists is likely a factor of all these things: that they have better infrastructure, that motorists are more likely to expect to see cyclists, and that they are also cyclists themselves. Giving way to cyclists at junctions is as automatic as stopping at red lights.

I think its interesting to consider what logic is applied to helmet-wearing. Why cycling? Why not running, or even walking? Horse-riding makes more sense; you're much higher up, and are constantly reliant on another creature behaving as you expect.

The only car drivers that wear helmets are racing drivers, going at extreme speeds. In the Netherlands, the only cyclists that do are again racers going at relatively high speeds. How many people on skateboards wear helmets?(Some I'm sure, but it carries a higher risk of injury).

It just seems absurd to me that we encourage (or even legislate) the use of helmets for a pootle around the park.

by bhambidge

Well done! beautifully argued, and fascinating. I do wonder if the low fatalities and high numbers of cyclists are caused by the fact those countries make so much more of an effort to make cycling easy, and that in turn leads people to feel safer (seperate roads etc) leading to the lack of helmets. But all that teaches us is Britain needs to do the same; instead of obsessing about how dangerous it is and how you should wear a helmet, make it LESS dangerous!

by Mel

Exactement!

Passed four cyclists today: two with and two without. The "withouters" were on the pavement!!

by Rebecca

I say here here to your comments Mel!

Although I am primarily a 'car' person, out of convenience and probably laziness, I can't really speak out of recent experience. However, I have been put off buying a bicycle quite a lot of the last 4 or 5 yrs due to the lack of paths and cycle friendly routes in our country!
Whenever we go abroad Russ & I are far more likely to consider hiring a bicycle (not that we've been to such a place yet) than we would to using one here.
It's an interesting debate Ben, and I can see why you can justify not taking the extra item on your trip.
Blogs are fab as always!
E-L x

by EmiLouRoll

This radio programme had a section on looking at the safety of cycle helmets... listen from about 12m40s. Wasn't nearly as in depth as the discussion above though!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00tgwz7/More_or_Less_27_08_2010/

by bhambidge

Just had a long conversation about this with my housemate. He's definitely in the no-helmet camp.

I'm "common sense" - don't do silly things, because they are silly (duh). I don't care if I look like a monkey on my bike; I'm not about looking cool. I'm about utility. Wearing a pink feather boa wouldn't bother me any more or less than wearing a helmet - if it made me safe(r).

But it's a very good point - if not wearing a helmet makes drivers give you more space, why would you wear one? If not wearing a helmet encourages more people to cycle, why would you wear one?

Most people are not like me. This is evident. But it makes me really scratchy-head at times.

I can't cycle because the helmet messes up my hair.

Really.

Then cut off your damn hair.

("But that's not how you get people to change!" I know I know.)

by Dave E

Ok. So here's how it goes.

Statistics can be made to point in whatever direction you like. This we know.

So it could be read: gee, you'd better wear a helmet in the UK because look! The number of accidents is way higher there!

Question: How does anyone know how many billion km are cycled? What is the nature of those trips - does climate, terrain, and most importantly infrastructure play a role on those statistics?

Those graphs are not telling. They do not speak for or against bike helmets; there is no direct correlation. Going from Denmark to the UK, you double the number of fatalities, but the percentage of bike helmets increases 7 times - clearly bike helmets don't cause crashes.

I would speculate that there are other factors. Perhaps in the UK people cycle more down rural country lanes and get hit, where in the Netherlands the bulk of trips are within cities.

Bald people use less shampoo! Shampoo keeps you hairy!

by Dave E

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