It’s compulsory for every cycling blog to wade into the “Helmet Debate” at some point. I nearly did a month ago when the Northern Ireland Assembly were due to debate whether the wearing of cycle helmets should be made compulsory. Now I have to give it my tuppence worth because, apparently, the road charity, Brake, are calling for compulsory helmet wear for users of Boris’ much vaunted London Cycle Scheme.

Let me make my position clear: I wear a cycle helmet on approximately 95%+ of rides on my bicycle. Occasionally however, I like to feel the wind in my hair and I ride without a helmet. By choosing to do this I am not increasing the risk to any other road user.

At first glance, it would seem to be obvious that wearing a helmet would increase the safety of the wearer. In fact, that may not necessarily be the case. In a famous piece of research it was shown that car drivers routinely give helmet wearers less space when overtaking, thereby increasing the risk of collision. In another case in point, the Netherlands, which has the highest number of active cyclists, ?has by far the best safety record – and virtually no-one wears a cycle helmet. And in Australian cities with cycle hire schemes (where helmet wearing is mandatory) uptake has been very disappointing. Compulsion has reduced the number of cyclists on the road.

Unfortunately, the result of all this campaigning for compulsory helmet wearing simply reinforces the impression that somehow cycling is a dangerous activity. It’s not. It also ignores the fact that international standards on cycle helmet design are somehow designed to protect cyclists in the event of major collision, they’re not, they are designed to withstand an impact of 12mph or less.

So, the way to increase safety for cyclists is not to segregate us in poorly designed cycle lanes, or force through compulsory helmet wearing, but to try and get more people on to their bikes as wherever bike usage is high, accident numbers reduce. Shame then, that Cycling England is one of the quangos due for the axe, according to today’s Telegraph.

Calling for helmet compulsion is wrong for 3 reasons:

  1. It tacitly accepts cycling is a dangerous activity and therefore discourages cycling;
  2. Cycle helmets are not designed to prevent injury in vehicle collisions;
  3. It is impossible to promote compulsion without actually reducing the number of cyclists on the road.

My first cycle helmet, 1981 vintage