/ Motoring

Should cyclists be legally required to wear helmets?

In the latest Which? magazine, we produced a full test lab report on adult and children’s bike helmets. While we recommend wearing a good quality helmet, there’s never been a law to make it mandatory. Until now…

A new EU report has proposed cycle helmets should be made mandatory for children up to the age of 13, as well as adding cycle safety training to the curriculum for all seven and eight year olds.

Reports from the Irish Independent newspaper also suggest that parents who allow their children to ride a bike without a helmet will face charges under new rules proposed by the Road Safety Authority. These rules could come into force in Ireland by 2016 if the government approves them.

But Ireland won’t be the first to impose a bike helmet law; bicycle helmets have already been made mandatory in 13 European countries, as well as New Zealand and Australia.

Cycle safety sanctions

There have been plenty of reports to support the use of cycle helmets spanning the last two decades. But an international review of the evidence gathered by the UK Department for Transport in 2009 concluded there was no reliable evidence that helmets resulted in a lower risk of head injury for cyclists.

While not mandatory, we think bike helmets are worth wearing when in the saddle – if you buy a good one. However, our testing found a few helmets that seriously underperformed.

For example, we awarded the Met Camaleonte Executive adult bike helmet our Don’t Buy status, having failed to meet the European Standard in our tests. We’ve even asked Met to recall the helmet. But do you think it’s better to wear a low-quality helmet than to not wear one at all?

But helmets aren’t ’cool’!

These new laws raise the question – can parents really be held responsible for the actions of their children to this degree?

For children heading to secondary school aged 11 and up, the potential for rebellion is greater (if my memory serves me correctly). I suspect the reality is that many kids will cycle round the corner, whip the helmet off and continue on their way.

And is it reasonable to have an age limit on wearing a bike helmet? Should it not be universally applicable? I’m also intrigued to discover how big the fines will be for parents of children who don’t wear helmets, and exactly who will be enforcing these laws.

In some countries, it’s illegal not to wear a helmet when cycling – but would you welcome these laws in the UK?

Should cyclists be legally required to wear helmets?

No - cyclists shouldn't be legally required to wear helmets (58%, 780 Votes)

Yes - all cyclists should be legally required to wear helmets (32%, 431 Votes)

Yes - but only under 13s should be legally required to wear helmets (6%, 77 Votes)

I'm not sure - I'm not convinced either way (5%, 68 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,359

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Comments

If it is established that cycling helmets are of real benefit, then they should be compulsory. There was a lot of dispute when seat belts were introduced but that is history.

Richard Burton says:
22 July 2012

There was a lot of dispute at the time about seat belts, so the government of the day commissioned a report to look at what happened in other countries which had already introduced a seat belt law. This was duly done, and produced before the vote in Parliament, but it was never published, because it showed that there was no benefit, and that while it would save some people, it would kill at least as many.

It’s called the Isles Report, and there is a pirate copy on web.

The suppression of this report neatly demonstrates what is wrong with most “safety” interventions, especially on the roads. They don’t analyse the risks, and when measures are brought in to ameliorate those risks, the outcome isn’t measured.

As well as seat belts, a case in point is that of motorcycle helmets, which has many similarities to the case of cycle helmets. The risks of motorcycling are considerable, and motorcyclists have the highest risk on the road, and the number of motorcyclists dying fell after the introduction of their helmet rule, so obviously it worked, and this is claimed as a benefit by the promoters of the law. But when you dig a bit deeper, you find out that the number of motorcyclists fell considerably after the introduction of the law, and that the death rate fell dramatically between the hours of 2200 and 0200, but by very little otherwise. Why should motorcycle helmets become magically effective late at night? Since they clearly don’t become more effective then, it is likely that there is some other explanation, and it would appear much more likely to be a result of the breathalyser, which was introduced at the same time. There is still no clear evidence that motorcycle helmets have saved any lives.

Interesting you mention Australia – apparently Melbourne’s version of the Boris Bike has been hampered by the helmet laws so to hire a bike you have to either have your own on you (unlikely) or find a convenience store that lends them to you. Not sure how other countries with bike helmet laws and hire schemes work.

Would the Boris Bike and similar schemes survive if helmets were mandatory?

I agree that children should be encouraged or mandated to wear a helmet, but to extend this to adults as well would be a step too far. As you suggest, Boris Bikes would be unusable for many people if helmets were universally compulsory. Who would carry around a helmet on the off-chance they might use a Boris Bike?

I regularly see people wearing helmets when using the Boris Bikes. It is not more of a hardship to carry a cycle helmet for a hire bike than it is to carry one for your own bike. It may put people off casually using them but I would think that a lot of people using the scheme are using it to regularly travel to and from a place of work.

Anna says:
20 July 2012

If you were carrying a bike helmet around, chances are it would be because you left home on your own bike. A mandatory helmet law would kill off the bike hire scheme.

Helmets on bikes should never be compulsory, even for kids. You are taking a risk by riding a bike and a helmet leads you into a false sense of security. Not having a helmet means that you are always exposed to that risk and therefore more aware of your surroundings and activity therein.

When I was at school, I cycled there every day and one day a car turned left into me and I went over the bonnet and landed on my head. What was my injury? 2 broken toes from being ripped out of my toeclips!

I’ve had many an accident on my bike and in no circumstances would a helmet have saved any injuries. The body parts most at risk when you ride a bike is your neck and your back, does this mean that we should all be riding around in a brace?

I would particularly like to see how the EU enforce this in the Netherlands, there’ll be mutiny, but also a massive cash windfall for whoever makes cycle helmets which in my opinion is the only reason for EU “directives”.

I strap on my helmet when cycling through central London (though I admit not for shorter journeys) and can say that I never have any sense of security when wearing it, false or otherwise.

I am wary of anecdotal evidence as it tends to highlight the exceptions – with seatbelts it was the chap thrown clear in an accident apparently told by the fire brigade he would have died had he worn a belt, or the smoker who puffed a packet a day until he was 80 (then the bus struck). The Irish Independent report Rob links to has data that shows a strong correlation between helmet wearing and decreased head injuries from accidents.

So I don’t think it is just the EU being meddling or helping out the cycle helmet industry. It won’t be a panacea as you point out but I think it will help if more people wear them.

So, should we scrap the requirement for seat belts in cars, on the basis that they lead to a false sense of security? That has often been claimed.

I’m more concerned that cyclists are kept away from motorists and from pedestrians. Having sustained a broken collarbone thanks to a pavement cyclist I feel quite strongly about the need for zoning.

There is nothing anecdotal about my own personal experience. If you want to cycle in London that is your prerogative, and you say that you don’t have any false sense of security, so why do you not wear it for short journeys then?

If you wear it only for long journeys then you are making an assumption that the more you are on the road, the more you need to be protected, hence you wear a helmet, hence a false sense of security.

Dean – Police evidence shows that a significant number of car drivers do not “belt up” for short journeys either – Even the fact it is against the law doesn’t make any difference. Frankly it is more likely due to complete lack of thought. I personally will always wear a cycle helmet – as I know a couple of cyclists that died through not wearing one. Seat belts led to fewer fatalities and serious injuries. Just as compulsory motorcycle helmets led to a reduction in fatalities and serious injuries. Incidentally I also know of motorcycle injuries – often fatal – that were caused by striking the kerb and similar “sharp” objects – it depends on how fast the speed of collision is stopped..

Argus says:
20 July 2012

You cannot compare a bike with a car and you cannot hypothesise whether someone would’ve died on not had they been wearing a helmet.

Considering that the majority of road deaths involve a motorcycle, your point does not stand. In a car you are protected by the bodyshell and crumple zones. On a bike/motorcycle, the crumple zone is your spine.

Richard Burton says:
23 July 2012

@Jonathon,

“The Irish Independent report Rob links to has data that shows a strong correlation between helmet wearing and decreased head injuries from accidents.”

The article doesn’t provide a link to the EU report which is supposed to provide the case for compulsory helmets, but it does apparently quote some figures from it, e.g. 85% reduction in risk, and these are complete drivel. The 85% figure quoted comes from a single source, who were avid helmet promoters, has never been repeated by anyone else, and has been completely disproved on peer review. There is a simple test for any report or article about cycle helmets: if it quotes the 85% figure you can stop reading as it is nonsense, and the writer is blissfully ignorant or deliberately providing false information to promote helmets.

Since several other articles quote the same figure from the same EU report, it would appear that the report uses the 85% figure, and it can safely be concluded that it isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on, or a single electron of the electronic version. The briefest research into cycle helmets would reveal that this figure is nonsense, and it would therefore appear that the authors of this report deliberately seek to mislead.

Jon Irwin says:
19 July 2012

“international review of the evidence gathered by the UK Department for Transport in 2009 concluded there was no reliable evidence that helmets resulted in a lower risk of head injury for cyclists.”

So in light of no compelling evidence that wearing helmets results in a lower risk of head injury for cyclists why go ahead with it? In the countries which have implemented similar legislation (Australia & New Zealand) the result has been a significant drop in the numbers of people cycling.

The numbers of people getting hurt and killed whilst cycling has not changed significantly, as it tends to be the actions of other road users which inflict injury and death on more vunerable road users. i.e. car drivers, and HGV’s.

The drop in people cycling overall has resulted in a higher risk for those people who still do cycle getting hurt. That’s before going into the negative health impacts and costs for society at large by reducing the number of people cycling.

Charlie Holland says:
19 July 2012

I would rather police energy is put into enforcing existing laws requiring cyclists to have lights at night. I would hate to see the feeble energy put into enforcing usage of lights redirected to enforcing wearing a polystyrene hat.

As a cycling instructor I think that efforts should be focussed on reducing the likelihood of collisions/bumps – well maintained bikes that fit and have brakes adjusted so it’s comfortable to ride with fingers resting on the levers; cycle training to increase control and road understanding; Dutch quality cycle facilities; and presumed liability for adults colliding with children.

Many children hate wearing the helmets and twist and tug the straps until the helmet isn’t effectively positioned (esp. people with very curly hair as the velcro in helmets tends to irritate). Also with many hair styles (esp woven braids) a helmet sits on top of the head like a cherry on a cake so is entirely ineffectual. A legal requirement to wear a helmet will deter children from cycling (and their parents from daring to let them take up such a ‘risky’ activity) to the detriment of their health and fitness and to the cost of the UK in obesity, diabetes and other debilitating long-term illnesses, not to mention pollution, congestion and CO2 emissions.

Above all, the stats show that cycling is essentially a very safe activity and form of transport and we should celebrate and build on this to nurture cycling rather than demonising it as a lethally dangerous thing to do.

Austen says:
21 July 2012

And I would rather police energy is put into enforcing existing laws requiring motorists not to break speed limits nor use a hand-held mobile phone while driving

Colin says:
24 July 2012

In line with what Austen says, police priority should be (i) to save lives and (ii) prevent injuries, not to go off on whatever annoyance and irritation people have decided to complain about because it has affected them personally even sometimes to the level only of annoyance.

Tim Beadle says:
19 July 2012

“Should cyclists be legally required to wear helmets?”

Only if you wish to finally put a nail in cycling’s coffin in the UK. It’s been bumbling along in its death throes for 40-odd years, having never quite died out. Now it’s enjoying something of a resurgence, thanks to various things including sport cycling success for Team Sky & the Olympic cycling team, and the realisation that going everywhere by car isn’t exactly a sensible move for people or towns & cities.

I know it doesn’t mean there’ll be a product you can do a group test on afterwards, but the best cycling safety comes under the wheels (proper, Dutch-quality cycling infrastructure), not on the head.

There’s a bigger share of cycling as a mode transport in the Netherlands than anywhere else in the world. Fewer of the people on bikes, as a proportion, are hurt or killed while doing cycling. About 1% of people on bikes in NL wear helmets.

Want more cycling? Focus on cycling’s intrinsic safety as an activity, and campaign for infrastructure that allows people of all ages and genders to ride without having to share with HGVs, buses & cars.

Fine, but keep them off the pavements, please.

Charles Barraball says:
19 July 2012

Totally endorse Jon Irwin’s evidence-based commentary.
It would be good if Which? considered risk compensation by riders and drivers and evidence that 75% fatalities involve 5% metropolitan traffic, the HGVs.

The cycling hat won’t take the impact of an HGV; the life of a plastic hat is 3yrs so has environmental considerations. And Economic. Which? would save more lives if it proposed that car users wore helmets!

mcshroom says:
19 July 2012

The NIH in the USA did a study of people being injured doing a range of different activities including walking and cycling. The results showed that there was a 0.9% chance of injury while cycling yet a 1.1% chance of injury while walking (the margins of error make those numbers in reality the same). Considering how walking must be as dangerous as cycling, are ‘Which?’ now going to promote mandatory helmet wearing for all pedestrians too?

mcshroom says:
19 July 2012

I’ll also point out that this article is written by a researcher for What? Car. Although I’ve no doubt Mr Hull has no intended bias or agenda here and I am not suggesting that he has done so in this piece, I’m not sure if a car centric publication is the best place to be considering cycling laws.

Kirsten says:
19 July 2012

I think I’m going to start campaigning to have all steering wheels fitted with a 10″ metal spike in the middle. That’ll improve driving standards immediately and better driving standards will automatically make things safer for cyclists and pedestrians. Stop talking about this helmet nonsense – you’re far more likely to get a head injury in a motor vehicle but I don’t see anyone campaigning for helmets for drivers and their passengers – and start doing something about the real risk which is motorists’ behaviour.

Not True – It is already compulsory to wear a seat belt in a car – which restricts the chances of injuries – the addition of the air bag reduces further the chance of an injury inside the car. So helmets are not usually necessary – this is not the case for the cyclists or pedestrians, But please note that race and sports drivers DO wear helmets.

Caroline says:
19 July 2012

“So, should we scrap the requirement for seat belts in cars, on the basis that they lead to a false sense of security?”

Arguably it would be safer for everyone (remembering that not everyone travels by car) if we were to ban them altogether, and airbags too. I think that people would drive more carefully if they and their passengers were as vulnerable to the effects of any bad decisions they might make behind the wheel as everyone outside their car is.

While everyone should use the roads with care, a cyclist with a “false sense of security” risks their own safety just as much as anyone elses (being fundimentally unprotected). But reckless drivers travelling at higher speeds in heavier vehicles can risk the lives of pedestrians and cyclists in relative safety, secure in the knowledge that their airbags and safetybelts will cushion them from any impact.

As has been stated by another poster, walking is higher risk than cycling per mile covered, so instead of suggesting that everyone outside a car joins the safety-features-arms-race, how about we address the elephant in the room: the source of this danger is from vehicles operating at speeds that are inappropriate for the conditions. If the speed limit on a road is one where you would not have time to react to and stop for an event you can reasonably expect to happen on that road (for example a pedestrian crossing the road to get to a shop), it is too fast. Speeding and reckless driving on residential roads should not be tollerated, there needs to be more respect for people outside cars, not more rules put in place to make cycling less convenient (and arguably not much safer, considering that crushing accounts for a large proportion of cyclist deaths).

We should all have the right to free mobility around our neighbourhoods without having to use a car. It should be a choice and not something people feel they need to do for their own safety.

Interestingly, a survey by the British Medical Journal found that a number of its readers said they don’t want to see bicycle helmets made compulsory. Their argument is that this law could cause a large decrease in the number of people willing to cycle, and therefore have a detrimental effect overall on the nation’s health.

This article in the Telegraph from last year covers it in more detail, but basically argues that this law sends a message to people that cycling is dangerous (therefore putting them off), and in some countries where this law HAS been introduced, the number of cyclists has fallen, while the risk to the remaining cyclists hasn’t.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/8669773/Bicycle-helmets-should-not-be-compulsory-say-doctors.html

Ann says:
19 July 2012

I’m against compulsory helmets except for racing and extreme off-road cycling. Having said that I always wear mine, but if I didn’t wear a helmet, I’d wear a sun hat in the sun, a rain hat in the rain, and a warm hat in the winter, so my helmet covers for most of those situations.

I’m a Bikeability Instructor, and insist that children on on-road courses wear a helmet, but don’t insist for adults or for any private learners. It has to be a personal choice for adults and for the parents who are paying me to teach their children.

I’d like to see so many cyclists in the UK that other traffic has to slow down to make room for us, then we’d all be safer. Cyclists and drivers co-existing and sharing the space sensitively.

Jonathan says:
19 July 2012

The loudest voices for compulsion tend to come from those furthest away from actually cycling. Helmets must not be compared with seat belts (or motorcycle helmets for that matter) as the lack of any health benefit from either of these makes them entirely different. Cycling is a fantastic form of exercise, short distance transport and has social benefits.

As someone esle has said, if you wish to kill off cycling in this country, then use supposition, bias and ignorance to make helmets compulsory.

If a helmet could prevent you from being killed I don’t see how this is different from a motorcycle helmet. Consider being alive as a significant health benefit.

I started riding a motorcycle in the early 70s, just after it became compulsory to wear a helmet. I did not really appreciate the value of a helmet until I had an accident, caused by a car driver. I suffered from concussion despite the helmet. I have no idea whether I would have survived without the helmet.

I am not a cyclist because the accident in 1975 also caused damage to my knee. Maybe if I had been wearing motorcycle leathers I might be cycling today.

I cannot understand why I was not keen on wearing a motorcycle helmet or why some cyclists prefer not to wear helmets. Those cyclists I do know all wear one.

Chris says:
19 July 2012

Cycle helmets are designed and tested for falling off a bike independently at low speeds. Not for being hit by a car or a lorry, which is what KSI’s most cyclists. There is some argument that cycle helmets in fact increase the risk of rotational injuries to the brain by increasing the circumference of the head. And research has shown little or no change in the amount of head injuries reported in areas where cycle helmets are mandatory, and that there is a significant reduction in cycling in these areas.

The only thing that can make cycling safer is for all road users (especially car drivers, who wield huge, people-killing weapons as though they have a right to them) to take responsibility and use the roads safely.

It seems that the cycling lobby argue thus.
Nothing that occurs on the road is our fault, it is always the car, lorry etc….
This applies when cycling at night with no lights, the wrong way down one way streets, across pavements, through red lights or creeping up the inside of an HGV. There always seems to be a logical reason for doing this which absolves the cyclist from all responsibility for their actions.

Now we have cyclists using the same ‘logic’ to argue that safety gear is in fact not safe at all, I would laugh at this if it was not so tragic [‘wearing a helmet gives a false sense of security’ ] from the way most cyclists [in London] use the roads it seems they already believe they are invulnerable.
We had the same lame arguments against seat belts and crash helmets, today we realise just how many lives they have saved.

I have clocked many a cycle doing in excess of 30 MPH, We need to make cycle helmets similar to crash helmets, have them tested to withstand impact of say up to 40MPH and make the wearing mandatory. I would love to see cycles with rear number plates and having to carry insurance, then maybe I could do something about the cyclists who scrape down the side of my car and damage my wing mirrors, or the ones who shoot up onto the pavements causing you to jump out of the way, or the ones who cycle across zebra crossings whilst you are trying to cross.

We need to regulate bicycles as it is clear from day to day experience that this is a group of people who believe they can break the law when it suits them, yet demand the same laws be applied to everyone else.

I have to add – I was stopped years by the police doing 37 mph on my cycle (no speedo) – though this was not in traffic. I was not prosecuted. I am appalled at the numbers of cyclists that ignore the highway code..

DelBoy says:
21 July 2012

OK not all cyclists obey the highway code, but then again nor do motorists! How many of them jump red lights, drive across zebra crossings when people trying to cross, weave in and out across traffic so they can get one or two cars ahead?

CJ says:
23 July 2012

The law-breaking by cyclists hardly ever hurts anyone else. By comparison, almost every driver regularly drives faster than the speed limit, and every single extra mile per hour makes it more likely that you will kill the next person who happens to step into the road, rather than stop or slow to a non-lethal speed before you hit them. And collisions like this account for hundreds if not thousands of deaths annually.

I know that most drivers break speed limits because I’m one of them. I try not to let the needle drift over 30, or 40, or whatever, but it’s hard when almost every other driver seems intent on going as fast as they can probably get away with. It may be only a few mph over the limit, but when the unexpected happens every mph counts.

And that’s the point. Cyclists and drivers are all human with all the same human virtues and vices. A very common human vice is the tendency to break man-made rules, when convenient and when we think we can get away with it.

The difference is that when the cyclist gets it wrong they’re unlikely to hurt anyone else. (It does happen, but so rarely that it always makes the news.)

Maybe parents who have lost a child in a cycle accident could help encourage use of helmets. Having said that, the first step must be to establish whether or not they are of significant benefit in accidents.

Richard Burton says:
20 July 2012

It is quite clear that a helmet may be beneficial in some circumstances, and it would be foolish to argue otherwise. But the evidence from places with more than twenty years experience of helmet laws, is that cycle helmets do not improve the safety of cyclists. There are many and various theories as to why cycle helmets are not effective, but these are irrelevant in the face of the data that they aren’t.

If only the helmet proponents would look at all the evidence and stop doing something which is at best irrelevant and at worst very negative, we could all go home and just carry on cycling. Unfortunately, they only look at the evidence which supports their preconceived ideas, and which has mostly been disproved on peer review.

Guess what? Parents have already done this.
Holland acquired its cycle infrastructure as a direct consequence of political action in the 1970’s by parents who wanted their children to be able to ride their bicycles safely in an increasingly car centric environment. They achieved their goal not by armour plating the children but by making the environment safe for cycling. Helmets never entered the equation. The empirical evidence has shown the Dutch strategy works and it’s sunsequently been repeated in Denmark (and Germany to a more limited extent) with the same results.

By contrast, there is no evidence that cycle helmets have made any difference to the safety of the cyclists in countries where they have been made compulsory (NZ & AU. I’m not counting Spain in this instance because their cycle helmet laws are so bizzare)

Why do people so repeatedly insist on armour plating the victim when in every place it has been tried is cannot demonstrate its efficacy? This debate always gets heated because there is by now a strong conviction amongst most cyclists that this has nothing to do with cycle safety and everything to do with ignorance and prejudice.

Tim Beadle says:
20 July 2012

Richard: it’s not illegal to do that speed on a bike as speed limits don’t apply to bikes. It might not be sensible, however, and the police may think you were “riding furiously” under a 19th-Century bit of legislation. http://www.bikehub.co.uk/featured-articles/cycling-and-the-law/

Anyhow: not that I am condoning law-breaking by anyone, but it is a false equivalence to assume that failure by cyclists to adhere to the highway code has the same harm as drivers doing so.

Yes, sometimes pedestrians are harmed by cyclists, but it’s in the news when it happens because it’s rare. The daily carnage caused by the drivers of motor vehicles is so commonplace that it barely warrants news coverage, save to inform other drivers of the inevitable congestion and delays as a result.

The drivers texting, phoning, distracted by satnavs, failing to yield to pedestrians when turning into a road, speeding, tailgating, driving without due care and attention: these are the sources of danger.

Enforcement, not education, is the only way. British drivers don’t generally have a skill deficiency; they have an attitude deficiency. Yes, so do some cyclists, but they’re not killing and maiming by the thousand.

Tim
“However, despite the fact that speed limits do not apply to bicycles, you can be prosecuted simply for cycling too fast – under the charge of ‘cycling furiously’. You can also be prosecuted for riding dangerously or carelessly”.

So frankly the police car that stopped me was acting within the law – I was driving “furiously”

QPR says:
21 July 2012

@Richard – for the “Furious” and co charges to stick they have to prove you were a danger or a risk to others (eg riding through a red or on pavements, or colliding with someone or something).

QPR – not according to what I read – I was riding at 37 mph racing with other cyclists – “so I could be “prosecuted simply for cycling too fast” still holds.

I am both a regular driver and cyclist in London, and I think it’s safe to say that neither drivers nor cyclists can be wholly blamed for accidents and injuries.

Frustratingly, there are many cyclists out there who don’t bother to learn the rules of the road before they start cycling. For me, this is a huge problem considering the dangers they face and potentially pose to others. But similarly, even those of us who cycle by the book still encounter a number of very dangerous drivers who simply cannot be avoided.

Personally, I dislike the unpleasant relationship that seems to have developed between London cyclists and drivers. In my experience, drivers are largely respectful of cyclists when they respect the rules and don’t manoeuvre dangerously, and vice versa for cyclists and drivers. Yet there are always going to be exceptions in both groups, who taint the reputation of the group as a whole.

In fact, it may sound controversial, but I wouldn’t be adverse to seeing some kind of cycling qualification put in place, very similar to a driving test. It wouldn’t have to be expensive or intense. But I think it could save numerous accidents, help foster understanding in those cyclists who have never driven (and therefore don’t necessarily understand the rules of the road) and overall, provide a positive improvement in safety for all cyclists AND drivers.

Tim Beadle says:
20 July 2012

Jennifer: you’d gain a bigger safety benefit by making riding a bike on the road, for those physically able to, a pre-requisite for gaining a driving licence.

It is the drivers who wield the power and who are the danger source, often without realising it. It must sound like special pleading, but it is important that drivers gain more empathy for those outside the protection of a metal cage: this includes pedestrians as well as cyclists.

By asking for a cycling qualification, you just raise the barrier to cycling, leading to more people rejecting it as a form of transport, possibly leading to more people driving or being driven in cars, or choosing an already-pressurised public transport system.

Barriers to cycling must be lower, not higher, if the UK is to wrest itself from its air pollution, traffic congestion and obesity problems.

Those are some very compelling points Tim. I’d love to see more cyclists on the roads, and feel heartened to see so many already in London. I can certainly see how some kind of qualification (even a minor one) would put many people off.

Your suggestion to have all drivers cycle on the road before taking their test is an interesting one, but I imagine logistically difficult (there must be a large number who people who can’t cycle, are unwilling, unable, unfit etc.)

I absolutely agree that drivers are in the more powerful position, and increased empathy would be a huge benefit. But a lot of the problem as I see it, is that we have a chicken-and-egg situation – the more irresponsible cyclists drivers encounter, the less understanding they become. Yet as drivers become less tolerant of cyclists, sometimes to the point of making dangerous manouvres on purpose, the more cyclists are prone to break the rules in order to avoid them.

Kirsten says:
20 July 2012

Yes, there are some people who drive who would never be able to cycle because of disability. But if cycling was compulsory for the driving test, those people who are unwilling would have to get over their unwillingness, or forgo the privilege of driving.

Jennifer: An interesting comment in your last paragraph, and interesting replies. Despite already being a confident, experienced cyclist, I decided to do Bikeability Stage 3 training as I could get free 1-to-1 training for 2 hours here in Greater Manchester. During the 2 hour lesson, the instructor and I experienced several close passes and 4 incidents of serious driver aggression. Having observed my riding, she said that there was really nothing she could teach me as I cycled exactly as she would. This is the reality we face: no amount of training or testing cyclists will address this serious problem of bad and aggressive driving.

Cycling is healthy: a regular adult cyclist typically has a level of fitness equivalent to being 10 years younger, and a life-expectancy 2 years above the average.

By contrast, cycling is not especially “dangerous”: you are about as unlikely to be killed in a mile of cycling as a mile of walking. Do we also need walking helmets?

The health benefits of cycling far outweigh the risks involved, thanks to those 2 extra life-years. It has been shown that the life-years gained outweigh the risks in Britain by c20:1 – see http://www.cyclehelmets.org/1015.html for this and similar cost:benefit estimates of cycling’s health and safety impacts.

From this it can be shown that forcing people to wear helmets (or even urging them to do so) would shorten more lives than helmets could possibly save, even if they were 100% effective, if it reduced cycle use by more than c2.4%. See http://www.cyclehelmets.org/1249.html.

There are in any case serious doubts about the effectiveness of helmets. They are (and can only be) designed for minor knocks and bumps, not collisions with fast cars or lorries. There is also evidence that some cyclists ride less cautiously when wearing them, that drivers leave less space when overtaking helmeted cyclists than those without, that helmeted cyclists suffer 14% more collisions per mile travelled than non-wearers, and that helmets increase the risk of neck injuries.

There is plenty of evidence that cycling gets safer the more cyclists there are – see http://www.ctc.org.uk/safetinnumbers. Denmark and the Netherlands are good examples of this “safety in numbers” effect, yet very few people in those countries wear helmets.

Some people will choose to wear helmets, either for increased confidence or because of the type of cycling they are doing, and CTC (the national cycling charity) fully respects those decisions.

However, in terms of public policy, it is far more important to encouraging more people to cycle, than to worry about whether or not they wear helmets when doing so. Faced with mounting obesity and climate crises, the last thing we should be doing is forcing people into increasingly car-dependent, sedantary lifestyles.

For more information see CTC’s campaigns briefing on cycle helmets (http://beta.ctc.org.uk/file/public/cycle-helmetsbrf_0.pdf) or our summary of the evidence (http://beta.ctc.org.uk/files/cycle-helmets-evidencebrf_1.pdf). A full resource for investigating the evidence is provided by the Bicycle Helmet Resource Foundation: http://www.cyclehelmets.org.

Roger Geffen
Campaigns & Policy Director
CTC, the national cycling charity