Should cycle helmets be made compulsory?

BikeRadar's question of the week

With UK cycling minister Norman Baker nailing his colours to the mast this week with his views on helmets – prompting a huge debate among BikeRadar readers – we thought it was time to delve deeper into the issue, and ask whether they should be made compulsory in the UK.

The legal situation

Mandatory wearing of helmets is already in place – to the chagrin of many – in several countries around the world. Australia was first to make it law for all cyclists in 1991 and New Zealand followed suit three years later. Non-conformists risk a NZ$55 fine.

There's no federal law in the US enforcing compulsory use, but individual states started doing so as far back as 1987 – mainly for under-18s – and it’s a similar scenario in Canada. There are various laws in place throughout Europe, too; Iceland made it compulsory for under-15s to wear helmets in 1998, and Sweden did likewise in 2005. Finland passed a law for riders of all ages in 2003, but there's no fine for those who break the law.

Although a 2004 British Medical Association study recommended a mandatory UK helmet law, no such legislation currently exists. However, a bill to force all cyclists to wear helmets in public places in Northern Ireland got as far as the committee stage before it was stopped in its tracks by the Assembly dissolving for elections on 24 March.

Compulsory helmet use is also relatively new to professional road cycling. Those new to the sport may find it surprising to learn that as recently as 2003, riders were allowed to go helmet-free. It was only prior to that year’s Giro d'Italia, following several high-profile deaths, that helmet use was enforced.

Differences of opinion

We could talk forever about the arguments for and against. As UK cyclists' organisation CTC puts it: “The evidence currently available is complex and full of contradictions, providing at least as much support for those who are sceptical as for those who swear by them.” For every Norman Baker, there’s another cyclist who wouldn’t leave home without one.

One thing for sure is that there aren’t many cyclists who enjoy being told what to do by central government. Many forum members agreed with Mr Baker’s belief that it should be left to the individual to decide; it was only his decision to choose not to wear one that proved contentious.

“Obviously it's a good idea to wear a helmet, the advantages vastly outweigh the disadvantages,” said BikeSwan. “But this is about having the choice to wear a helmet or not. I think it's completely your decision and you can choose to wear one or not.”

Roger Geffen, campaigns and policy manager at CTC, agreed. “The more you tell people to where them, the more you will put people off cycling," he told BikeRadar. "We'd lose far more lives through the loss of people being active than we ever would through accidents on the road."

Julie Townsend, campaigns director at road safety charity Brake, felt Mr Baker was undermining his own government’s message by ditching his helmet. “We have extensive evidence that cycle helmets are effective in reducing the risk of serious head injury when cycling – so wearing a helmet is a really simple step that all cyclists can take to help protect themselves," she said. "That’s why we urge all cyclists to take this basic safety precaution."

Mr Baker said he didn’t want to see obstacles put in the way of people cycling and in his opinion, forcing people to wear helmets is a big one. With an obesity epidemic one of the biggest threats to the NHS, it’s in the UK Government’s interests to do all it can to get people riding. Some see them as restrictive, others simply don’t like the look of them, but making helmets compulsory might have a harmful effect on numbers on the road.

Do helmet laws affect cyclist numbers?

This theory appears to be backed up by figures in countries with helmet laws; Western Australia saw a 40 percent reduction in cyclists between the 1991 census – the year the law was introduced – and the following census in 1996, while cycling trips decreased by 51 percent between 1989 and 2006 in New Zealand.

Andreas Kambanis, of the London Cyclist blog, agrees. "I'm opposed to compulsory helmet wearing as I believe it'll be a strong disincentive for people to cycle," he said. "We'd see what happened in Australia, where cycling dropped dramatically after the law was introduced. I believe this should remain an option for each individual."

But Melbourne resident Wade Wallace, creator of Cycling Tips Blog, is fully behind the country's helmet laws after witnessing the consequences of cycling head injuries. "I don’t think that any barrier for people to take up bike riding is a good thing, but wearing a helmet is something I don’t see as being negotiable," he said. "It's just like wearing a seatbelt when in a vehicle. They protect you in an accident. No matter what the helmet laws state, after seeing what I've seen in my 30 years of cycling I can assure you I'll be wearing a helmet every time I hop on a bike."

Kevin Clinton, head of road safety at RoSPA, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, told BikeRadar that the organisation recommends the use of helmets, but wouldn’t support a law making them compulsory. He said he was unconvinced by Mr Baker’s argument that it would deter people from cycling, but would require more evidence on the issue before backing mandatory helmet use.

“We take the view that it’s common sense to wear one, but it’s up to individuals to decide for themselves,” he said. “We don’t think it would be a practical proposition to make a helmet law, nor do we think police stopping 10-year-olds without helmets in the street is a desirable exercise, particularly in light of deep budget cuts.”

Would compulsory helmet use make our roads safer?

So what effect would a compulsory helmet law in the UK have on road safety? Again, there are a plethora of studies out there all coming to different conclusions, but here are a few that caught our eye. In 2006, research by Dr Ian Walker at the University of Bath suggested wearing helmets may increase the risk of collision as drivers left less of a gap (8.5cm) when driving past helmet-wearers than than when driving past those without. (Of course, this doesn't take into account crashes caused by failing equipment or obstacles in the road).

A 2001 report from the SWOV Institute of Road Safety Research concluded that “from the point of view of restrictiveness, even the official promotion of helmets may have negative consequences for bicycle use. If the importance of wearing a helmet is stressed, the implied message is that cycling is extraordinarily dangerous. To prevent helmets having a negative effect on the use of bicycles, the best approach is to leave the promotion to the manufacturers and shopkeepers".

And a recent study by the Norwegian Institute of Transport Economics downgraded the protective effect of cycling helmets. It found that helmets reduced the risk of head injuries in a crash by 43 percent, in comparison to previous studies which found head injuries were reduced by at least 60 percent.

For many, donning a helmet is as essential a part of pre-ride prep as mounting the bike itself. As forum member Soni says: “I think helmets are now becoming so much the norm that when you see somebody out on the roads without a helmet on it looks like there's something missing from their kit. Just as I don't feel comfortable not wearing a seat belt in a car, I don't feel comfortable riding without a helmet.”

The logical conclusion is that helmet use has to come down to personal choice. Many cyclists would think it the sensible choice to wear a helmet. They’re not perfect, but better a helmet take the brunt of a head-on collision than your skull. However, if you decide not to wear one, the only person it can be ultimately detrimental to is yourself.

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