/ 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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Trevor A Panther says:
21 July 2012

I am 75 and i wear a helmet. it is there mainly to hold my camera and a small but powerful LED front and also a rear red light. I has saved my hhead from one banging which wrote of the helmet completely. presumably I helped and did its job.

I am totally against compulsory helmet for childen and adults.

In the case of children, my long experience has shown me that children wearing helmets rarely if ever wear them correctly and thus openthemselves, in fact, to greater risk of head injury. my own grandson , made to wear one by his dad ( my son) inevitably had it sitting loosely on the back of his head and the chinstrap very loose. My son eventually agreed with my points of it being totally useless as protection and likely to cause more injury! He removed the orders for helmet wearing.

I cycle daily and have solo cycled all over Europe. Lots of people just ride bikes in their ordinary clothes and don’t travel at “racing ” speeds. Once, on my way down the Danube, a 92 year old lady helped me find my way by leading me off on her bike — and travelling faster than me ( under full camping load). She like many other “ordinary folk” had never worn a helmet and cycled every day!

I doubt very much that a helmet offers any real protectionat all

Tim Beadle says:
21 July 2012

Yesterday I was chatting with a colleague about the coming weekend. She recommended the Bristol Harbour Festival, but said she couldn’t go herself because she doesn’t drive (she lives elsewhere in Bristol, not far from the Concorde Way cycle route). It’s about a three mile ride.

“Why not cycle?” said I. “I can’t do that – I don’t have a helmet, and it’s illegal to cycle without a helmet,” she said. I replied, “It’s not, and it’s not even necessary to wear one.”

You see how insidious the promotion of helmets is? Disinformation and fear, to the point where she thought helmets were already mandatory, caused my colleague to reject cycling to the festival as an option.

It’s more dangerous not to cycle than to cycle.

Austen says:
21 July 2012

As they day in Copenhagen “You’re safer on the bicycle than on the sofa!”

Zandranna says:
22 July 2012

There are many people here in the UK that truly believe wearing helmets for children is mandatory. I had a massive discussion last night with 2 family members over the fact that it’s not mandatory for children, as they also believed it. But why do people believe it is? Because all schools only allow children to cycle to school if they wear a helmet. Schools are enforcing a law that doesn’t exist. The result was that now even less children are riding to school, my own nephew included. I personally am very angry that schools can force a law that doesn’t exist in our country.

There are plenty of examples of things that are not law but are commonsense. Cyclists are recommended to wear clothing that helps to make them visible. Schools do promote sensible behaviour.

Judith Smith says:
21 July 2012

Some vocal cyclists are paranoid about this matter – as they fear that mandatory helmets will discourage people from cycling and hence reduce the interest in their hobby. Even promotion of cycle helmets implies that cycling is dangerous. They come up with all sorts of spurious reasons for not wearing helmets or encouraging others to wear them: cars will drive closer to you; they give you a false sense of security so that you will take greater risks; and my favourite: they increase the chance of you hitting your head as they effectively increase the diameter of your skull by at least an inch!!
However they refuse to answer the simple question: if you were to be involved in a cycle accident, is a cycle helmet likely to do more good than harm.

I have seen a call on a newsgroup to such cyclists to make their vote here – so I expect you will get a mammoth vote against cycle helmets which may be taken with a pinch of salt.

Tim Beadle says:
21 July 2012

“Spurious reasons” otherwise known as academic research. But then it’s no surprise: “common sense” is fetishised in the UK above research and rationality.

Oh, and “hobby”? No, it’s my main form of transport. “One fewer car in your way”, shall we say?

Richard Burton says:
21 July 2012

The proposal that cycle helmet laws and propaganda reduce the number of cyclists is soundly based on evidence from places with laws and where there has been such propaganda, so it’s hardly paranoid to base your views on reality.

All of the things that you list as “spurious” are in fact supported by a large body of scientific, proven on peer review, evidence.

As for your simple question, here’s an answer: according to all the reliable scientific evidence, the likelihood is that a helmet will make no difference whatsoever, except in the case of minor injuries. Unfortunately, helmet propaganda always pretends that a helmet will save your life in almost any circumstances, but since it isn’t the helmet manufacturers making those claims, advertising standards don’t appear to apply.

It is certainly noticeable that those opposing helmet compulsion and promotion are relying on the scientific evidence, whilst those promoting them rely on innuendo, assumption and common sense.

QPR says:
21 July 2012

But it isnt just cyclists is it. Its the British Medical Association, the Institute of Advanced Motorists, and most probably a few others.

You really DO have to prove the case before things become enshrined in law. And the evidence simply isnt there. Have you any proof that there is a concerted effort from a newsgroup? I dont frequent them myself but do often read these discussion boards and am spurred into participation when it is something that I have researched and participated in for many years of my life.

Judith, calling these things “spurious” just shows that you havent bothered to read the data and the studies. This is very much why ordinary people should not be used as the basis for mass change in law – you MUST rely on experts, research and statistics instead.

Austen says:
21 July 2012

Dear Judith, cycling is not a “hobby” – it’s the way in which people like me get to work and do the shopping.

Geoff Rone says:
21 July 2012

Hi Judith, in answer to your question, in some limited circumstances a helmet may make a difference. But then so would wearing a helmet whilst walking or being a a car occupant. That is still no reason for compunction.

Dear Judith,
If as a cyclist I was involved in a collision there no question that I would want to be wearing a helmet but that’s only one dimension to the question of safety. When people believe they are protected against a risk they change their behaviour with respect to that risk. This is not necessarily concious behaviour.
It doesn’t help protecting yourself against injury if you increase the risk of incurring the injury in the first place.

timbo says:
21 July 2012

Cycle helmet compulsion is a really bad idea – wherever it’s happened it’s reduced cycling levels, and thus public health levels – by creating another entry barrier to cycling, and by spreading the myth that cycling is an intrinsically dangerous activity – instead of something that actually makes people far healthier, in the big picture.

Peter Clinch says:
21 July 2012

No, they shouldn’t be compulsory. Why not? Because when you look at the actual track record of making them compulsory (NZ, Oz for example) the rates of head injury have not changed but cycling levels have been reduced. And since cycling is a health benefit, mandating helmets actually makes for a public health own-goal. Cycling saves lives (through general fitness and well-being improvements). Cycle helmets, judging by their actual track record across whole populations, don’t.

Mandating things because they /ought/ to work, or we like to think they /might/ work, doesn’t make any sense for a public health intervention if we have evidence that it doesn’t work, and we have that evidence. When we know (again, from their actual track record in the Real World) that the only clear effect of mandatory cycle helmets is to put people off cycling then we’re clearly living in cloud-cuckoo land thinking it’ll magically be different in the UK than the other places it has been tried, and has failed to do any good.

AVL says:
21 July 2012

Which, why don’t you look at the areas of our lives where we suffer head injuries that a helmet might ameliorate? You know, at home, in the car, walking, playing football, clubbing and so on. Many people arrive in A and E with head injuries sustained in these activities and there is never any pressure to wear a helmet is there?

Bikecat says:
21 July 2012

Helmets are a red herring. Other posts have talked about traffic reduction and speed reduction and infrastructure. But right now, not in some far-off future when this comes to pass, all cyclists can make themselves safer by taking on board the ideas of the National Standard which in turn are based on John Franklin’s ideas in his book Cycle Craft. I have been teaching adults and children this for over 10 years and riding in this way for just a little longer. I feel mostly safe on the roads because of where I am and how visible I am to other road users. I look behind often and signal when necessary. I prevent other vehicles coming next to me at junctions by taking the lane and not sitting by the kerb. This prevents left hooks. I cycle well away from parked cars and only use cycle lanes that suit where I am going. Adult lessons are available all over the country. We need more publicity about how much of a difference these principles and ideas make to the safety and confidence of cyclists. Even experienced blokes can learn something to their advantage! The CTC lists cycle instructors on their website.

ambrose says:
21 July 2012

That’s all well and good. But I don’t see why this issue is constantly reduced to the threat from vehicles?
A cyclist may still have an accident due to any number of non-vehicular conditions. They may simply fall off whilst going around a corner at speed, or down a hill, or in a group of other cyclists on an empty country road.
In these cases, especially, helmets are relevant.

ambrose says:
21 July 2012

Helmets save lives and prevent catastrophic injury because they protect the brain from trauma.
The Snell Foundation has been conducting research on this for over 50 years. Look it up.
We live in a renaissance of materials, manufacturing and design. Cycling helmets have never been so varied and stylish and sorted. Yes, they must be worn correctly. Same with trousers.

QPR says:
22 July 2012

But this is a major point.. the SNELL cannot replicate the complexity of the brain, the complexity of head injury.

Comparing with seatbelts again – the basis of seatbelt prevention is to restrict a body from moving. Something that is very easy to accomplish. What Snell test is a simple physical procedure. The only way to be sure is to actually test on human bodies, with MRI style scans, before of the brain and after controlled impacts at a variety of different speeds..

…but no-one in their right mind would do that. The risks are too great, the controls too hard to achieve. It is actually far easier to improve infrastructure and engineer out 93% of the risk.

Peter Clinch says:
22 July 2012

The most common cause of head injury is, I believe, trips and falls. So it “obviously” makes sense to lower that particular risk by wearing helmets anywhere you could trip or fall. The stairs are particularly dangerous…

Since cycling (at least A to B transport cycling) isn’t especially productive of accidents compared to, say, being a pedestrian, it doesn’t make any sense to single out cycling as something where helmets are particularly needed.

It’s not a case of “can accidents be reduced?”, because nobody wants anyone to wear one for being a pedestrian and that is a clear case of something where accidents can be reduced. Same goes for occupants of cars: they get head injuries, but nobody’s insisting they wear helmets. There is no consistency in the application of reasoning, and there must be if it is to be an intelligent basis for a major public health intervention.

John Catt says:
21 July 2012

This is what an 80 year old member has provided for our next newsletter on this subject (www.ldcuc.org.uk) :

“While simple statistics appear to be beyond the ken of those who support compulsory helmets for cyclists, some non scientific, non statistical views may provide a pointer.

Some years ago I was a regular visitor to a Regional Neurosurgical Unit at a major teaching hospital. This was partly personal, as my wife was a patient (not as a wounded cyclist), partly professional, as my department had contracted to design and make some equipment. The two matters were not connected.

While I had no access to the records of other patients, in a busy Regional Ward, there were no cyclists with head injuries, with the majority suffering natural disasters. A significant proportion were head injuries from motoring accidents, either as occupants or victims of car mishaps (none hit by cyclists). There was also a high proportion of domestic mishaps, largely to the elderly from falls.
Looking at this chance selection, one might conclude that efforts to enforce wearing of helmets might be more usefully focussed on motor car occupants, pedestrians and people at home, especially the elderly. But where does rationality come into this effort to get the hated cyclist out of the way of the Clarkson fuelled motoring lobby? While the Minister tells me Clarkson’s programmes are just a bit of fun, and no-one takes them seriously, we all know there is an idiot fringe who follow his lead devotedly, and behave accordingly.

On a personal level, I have been cycling the world over for almost 75 years (started at five, pedalling furiously behind two cycling parents, from Leicester to near Derby and back, on the same day) and have never been knocked off (although falling off several times), all without injury apart from cuts and bruises.”

Reg says:
21 July 2012

Just a question out of curiosity. It is often quoted that the amount cycling in OZ and NZ decreased when compulsory helmet wearing was introduced. This was some time ago.
Has there been any research or stats to show if cycle numbers have recovered or increased since?

John Catt says:
21 July 2012
Richard Burton says:
22 July 2012

There has been research, which showed that cycling increased considerably in the last few years. But then someone had the bright idea of comparing the cycling levels to population, and the result is that the rate of cycling per capita is still below what it was when the helmet law was introduced, as the population has increased by more than the increase in cycling.

Oz and NZ now have a serious obesity problem, and whilst that may not be connected to the helmet law, there is no doubt that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks many times over, and by deterring cycling, the helmet laws have reduced the public health of those nations.

Here is what the Highway Code has to say:

Clothing. You should wear
– a cycle helmet which conforms to current regulations, is the correct size and securely fastened ….

I wonder why we have the Highway Code when both motorists and cyclists decide which rules to follow and which to ignore.

Richard Burton says:
22 July 2012

And cyclists can safely ignore this, as it isn’t a rule. Rules in the HC are only that if based on law, and there is no law compelling the wearing of cycle helmets. If there was, the rule would say “you must wear a cycle helmet” not “should”

It is to be regretted that the most widely available publication dealing with safety on the roads has decided to follow the hysteria about the risks of cycling and to promote a completely unproven method of dealing with the risks.

Safely ignore might be an inappropriate choice of words. I suspect that there are cyclists who believe that helmets will never provide any protection.

Jane Hopkins says:
22 July 2012

I agree with Richard Burton and, again, we have non-cyclists presuming to know what is best and safest for us (see my comment below).

QPR says:
22 July 2012

Not to get into a versus scenario but the Highway Code also says in rule 186 you should indicate on unmarked roundabouts… how many do so?

There are rules and there are guidelines. There are also laws. No-one can actively be criticised if they haven’t broken the law, and have not harmed anyone else.

You have to remember that the Highway Code is written by the DSA with help from the DFT. Both largely motoring centric. During the last draft in the run up to the 2007 release the CTC, British Cycling and other bodies who represent cyclists in the UK were largely shut out of the process. They were given a document shortly before the new release and then had to fight hard to remove ambiguities, much of which still remain.

The cycling bodies, at least, have read up on cycling related matters, the research and the data. The DSA sadly didnt and the effect has been damaging to the uptake of UK cycling levels in recent years.

Peter Clinch says:
22 July 2012

Ask your MP why the Highway Code says this and (s)he will escalate it to the DfT, who will in return send back a copy of the Towner Report that apparently underpinned that particular bit of reasoning.

Do read that report, and also dig up some critiques of it. In particular note the narrow spread of references, which come from the Cochrane database. The criticism of that database for cycle helmets is considerable, and has now expanded to reach peer-reviewed material where it is quite heavily bashed for clear publication bias (i.e., it cannot be treated as objective).

So I don’t have much time for the rule saying I should wear a helmet, because I’ve found out why it’s there, have read the report that that “why” is based on, used my professional science skills (I’m a clinical scientsit by trade with a medical research library down the corridor) to evaluate the paper and found it wanting. I don’t ignore it because it suits me to, I ignore it because I’ve researched it in considerable depth and it doesn’t stand up.

frances says:
22 July 2012

Have you ever been stuck behind a cyclist on a winding country road ?
It takes only a few minutes for the traffic to build up behind you
while the biker pedals away at 5mph up the gradients.

The situation is a disaster waiting to happen.

What is the use of this helmet ?
Better to avoid the war zone and have dedicated cycle tracks
properly separated from the roads. It would be quite a project
but it’s the only answer.

QPR says:
22 July 2012

I know of some residents in the New Forest who actively want their country roads closed off to the majority of motor traffic that passes through. Nothing to do with cycling but to do with pedestrian injuries (there are no pavements) and horse/farm animal fatalities.

As someone who hails from the New Forest, without a car you could feel pretty cut off. Though bike only roads would be a great, though I suppose that’s what bridal ways are for.

Bridleways, I believe. 🙂

Sounds like a great idea provided that the cyclists can be kept away from the pedestrians.

That’s what I get for using my phone’s predictive text to make comments 😉

Jane Hopkins says:
22 July 2012

I’m over 70 and have been cycling since I was 11, mostly without a helmet, and I do get very tired of the way non-cyclists presume to know what is best for me and other cyclists. I don’t like the way, when I have a helmet on, some motorists seem to de-humanise me and leave me less room as they pass and do not lower their speed when appropriate. My main safety tools are hi-viz clothing, very good lights for night riding, and being highly attentive to the traffic and road conditions around me. I do think small children should wear a helmet as they are more likely to fall and their skulls are still soft. I also think that all cyclists over the age of 11 should take and pass a road test before they tackle today’s road and traffic conditions.

There are 2 factors that should decide on issues of safety like cycle helmets. These are:

1. Quality evidence
2. Sufficient evidence

Note, opinion is not listed in any of the above. Nothing subtitutes for quality representative data and enough of it to cover the subject in all its complexities.

I am a regular cycle commuter and yes I wear a helmet. Should I? Well I’m sure that my cranium may be better protected against impact but thats different to saying that a helmet makes me safer. Unless I can say for certain that wearing a helmet does not change my behaviour or those around me I can’t say for certain.

I may be placing myself at greater risk if wearing a helmet deludes me into thinking I’m more protected and as a consequence I take more risks, or, as Dr.Ian Walker showed in a controlled study, motorists take more risks on my behalf by reducing amount of space they allow for helmeted cyclists when overtaking.

So should this become mandatory for children?
Where is the evidence that there will be any benefit?

I’ll leave you with a question:

Take two little boy’s and armour plate them. How long do you think it will take before one or both of them hurt themselves more seriously than if they had no body protection at all? Anyone who has been a parent to a little boy will know the answer that one.

I have a nasty suspicion that legislation of this nature has the capacity to do a great deal more harm than good.

I’m sure there are many that differ but if you want to convince me please quote your sources.

Does anyone want the sale and wearing of cycling helmets banned in the UK?

Ed Kirk says:
22 July 2012

I refer to Rob’s preamble and my comment yesterday, if a particular helmet is awarded a Which? ‘Don’t Buy status ’, even though it is advertised as certified and labelled with a European CE EN1078 standard, does this mean it not worth wearing. Are there other helmets awarded this Which? status? Since this is a safety item and not a piece of audio equipment etc. then shouldn’t the tests and results be in the public domain, otherwise this and other debates on the subject would seem to be pointless.

John Thompson says:
22 July 2012

frankly Judith, I take exception to your ridiculing of the point I made that SCIENTIFIC RESEARCHERS do say that the effective increasing of the size of the head by a helmet can actually excacerbate injuries. Why exactly are you so adamant that cyclists should wear helmets?

Of course this is true, just as seatbelts can cause more serious injury and can prevent people escaping from cars after an accident. Many safety devices can, in some circumstances, do more harm than good.

Alan Holmes says:
22 July 2012

Making it an offence to cycle without a helmet is bloody stupid, I have cycled in a group of about 20 people for many years and not once has anyone in that group suffered a head injury, and once or twice one or other has fallen off their bike.

If I ride a bke I do NOT wear a helmet and do not intend to, EVER!

Richard Burton says:
22 July 2012

A very useful debate, with many views expressed either way, and Which? is to be congratulated for instigating the discussion.

But I think it would be useful if they could explain why, in the face of all the scientific evidence, they still recommend cycle helmets?

So how about it Rob Hull, tell us why you think helmets are beneficial and why you said “we think bike helmets are worth wearing when in the saddle” when all the scientific evidence says that they aren’t. Which? is supposed to be an evidence based organisation, which looks at all the evidence before coming to a conclusion, but this clearly hasn’t happened in this case: why not?

Which? clearly promotes the wearing of cycle helmets, despite the evidence, so why should anyone have any confidence in your independence?

CambridgeCyclist says:
22 July 2012

Making cycle helmets compulsory would 1)cause a dramatic reduction in the number of cyclists & therefore reduce drivers’ experience of cyclists’ needs & therefore increase casualties per mile cycled 2) Not prevent many deaths from head injuries – cycle helmets are necessarily flimsy because of the desire to keep weight & bulk to a minimum. Horse riders and motorcyclists have much more protection, but cyclists would never agree to wear bulkier protection in which they’d get hot & which would cost much more 3) Cause cyclists & drivers to take more risks & 4) increase muggings etc. due to more people walking home at night instead of cycling (either because they refuse to wear a helmet or because they lost/forgot it). The safest head protection a cyclist can wear is a blonde wig – White Van Man will give you a precious few more inches of space. There may be a case for children wearing helmets (young skulls, more likely to fall off when learning etc), but it should still be the parent’s choice. In Cambridge, an adult cyclist wearing a conventional helmet is treated much worse by our lovely “professional” (huh!) bus, white van and taxi drivers – the only answer if you want to wear one for protection from these morons is to wear a disguised one (e.g Yakkay) that looks like a normal hat – then you regain those couple of inches of self-preservation.