24 September 2010 4 Comments

The Helmet Debate

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


4 Responses to “The Helmet Debate”

  1. Redbike 24 September 2010 at 3:35 pm #

    It’s amazing just how many people are shocked / comment on the fact that you haven’t got a helmet on when you do a group ride without one.

    I tent to fall off the MTB far more than the road bike. When MTBing I’ve always found that knee pads / elbow pads are far more use in a crash than a helmet. Yet, its rare that anyone (including myself) wears these.


  2. Martyn Dews 10 March 2011 at 8:07 am #

    An interesting article John and food for thought. As a family we cycle quite a bit, we are lucky that Lancaster has some great provision for cyclists. I have to say that I never wear a helmet, but always think that I should get one, but never get around to it. I sort of use the argument that I never used one in all the years I was riding around as a child to justify it. Not really a valid argument I know.

    Having never owned a helmet, I just imagine that it would be uncomfortable to wear in comparison to the safety benefit it would offer.

    On saying that, I insist that my kids wear one. what a hypocrite eh?

    An interesting debate though. I’ll be following the comments here. Thanks for posting.


  3. TamDl 5 November 2015 at 10:27 am #

    The helmet you show, is an actual helmet. If cycling helmets are so important, why do cyclist accept the least realistic helmets on earth. They aren’t just not designed for car to cyclist collisions, they aren’t designed for anything that happens after the bike gets underway. Literally they are fit only for lateral falls off the bike while stationary. So not so bad for young kids.

    At one point I looked at some national statistics (Canada), and the stats showed that car drivers were 10 times more likely to die of head injuries than cyclists. Of course the rate per mile was against cyclists, but your lifetime exposure clearly indicated you were more likely to have your head destroyed in a car crash. But apparently they don’t need to bother. Forcing people to wear helmets does cause the disdain you mention, and it also reduces the scenarios in which bikes are useful.

    While touring I average 14 miles on the speedo, though total miles made good are a lot lower, but at one point this had dropped off a little, still making good progress as I passed a school that was letting out. I was passed by an athletic teen trying to get to his carpool ride, as he ran by. Though I average 80 to 90 miles loaded a day, I was passed by a runner. Makes one wonder who should be wearing a helmet.



  1. What if? | Irontwit - August 2, 2012

    […] previous post on the helmet debate: http://irontwit.creativeblogs.net/2010/09/24/the-helmet-debate/ This entry was posted in Cycle Commuting, Cycle Safety by john sutton. Bookmark the […]


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