Cycle helmets - a hard case to crack

Woman cyclist
With the autumn evenings drawing, regular cyclists will be reminded of the need to stay safe on the road. Many riders wouldn't leave home without a helmet - but it's a piece of kit that doesn't offer as much protection as some cyclists might think.

Cyclists on the UK's roads travelled 3.1 billion miles last year and many will have done so with safety at the forefront of their minds. Lights and reflectors are a legal obligation after dark, and reflective jackets an increasingly common sight.

But it's the cycle helmet that is undoubtedly the most debated piece of kit. Helmets are not compulsory in the UK, unlike in Australia and parts of the US, yet the government encourages cyclists to wear one.

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But is it really safer to wear a helmet when cycling?

Just a brief look at the blogosphere shows you what a hotly contested question this is. Unfortunately, the published evidence doesn't make the debate much clearer.

While many cyclists wouldn't leave home without clamping on their helmet, Dr Ian Walker, a professor of traffic psychology, has long believed head protection can work against someone on a bicycle.

Dr Walker conducted a study looking into how cyclists wearing a helmet affect the behaviour of drivers. He found that for those wearing a helmet, motorists drove much closer when overtaking.

"In absolute terms they got 8-9cm closer than they did when I wasn't wearing one," he explains, "And the proportion of vehicles getting within a really close distance went up considerably."

He also decided to don a long, flowing wig to disguise himself as a female and found that drivers left him more space when passing. He says this further proves that drivers react to cyclists' appearance.

His findings have led Dr Walker to conclude that drivers use a cyclist's physical appearance to judge the specific likelihood of the rider behaving predictably. They alter their overtaking space accordingly.

He suggests drivers think helmeted cyclists are more sensible, predicable and experienced, so therefore the driver doesn't need to give them much space when overtaking. Non-helmeted cyclists, especially non helmeted "women" are less predictable and experienced, according to this study.

Skull protection

But it's not only motorists who alter their behaviour. Other research has looked at how helmeted cyclists take more risks, believing their head protection will compensate for this.

"I'm not convinced I saw any evidence of that," says Dr Walker. "I don't take any more risks when wearing a helmet and I think other cyclists would say the same."

A recent report commissioned by the Department for Transport rejected all behavioural research, including that of Dr Walker, saying that none of the studies was robust enough to prove that helmets affect behaviour.

Start Quote

It's plain and simple that helmets are effective”

End Quote Angela Lee Bike Helmets Trust

This Department for Transport report studied all the evidence available and concluded that "the effectiveness of helmets in single-vehicle collisions was estimated to be 50%".

But the report's authors admit that "it should be remembered that there was no specific evidence to support these estimates".

They do include a study into 100 police fatality reports which led them to say that helmets could prevent 10-16% of cyclist fatalities. But this was also an estimate based on a small study.

The problem is that the data available about injured cyclists, from the police or hospital admissions, does not record whether they were wearing helmets or not. It is therefore difficult to draw definitive conclusions in favour of helmets.

But for many cyclists, any such evidence comes second place to first-hand experience.

Angela Lee, chief executive of the Bike Helmet Initiative Trust and a nurse consultant in paediatric trauma, says it's clear that helmets make cycling safer.

"It's plain and simple that helmets are effective," Ms Lee continues. "If you think of people who have mobile phones, computers, I bet they all have covers on to protect them. You have a skull protecting your brain and if you know anything about computers you know that if you damage a computer you can't load the programme. That's exactly the same with your brain."

Wearing a helmet does seem like common sense - if it doesn't encourage you or other road users to take extra risks. But in the absence of really compelling evidence either way, it's up to individuals to make their own choices.

Me? I wear a helmet, and I'll continue to do so.

A selection of your comments appears below

During the years that I have worked in a hospital I vividly remember seeing two patients with a good proportion of their frontal lobe missing due to incidents involving riding a bike without a helmet. I would like to believe as many others do, that had they worn a helmet then the subsequent brain damage would have been minimized. While it is true that helmets don't provide 100% coverage (then again neither do seat belts or air bags) they do provide an effective barrier between your fragile skull and anything about to impact with it. I for one used to forsake the need of a helmet if I was in a hurry, but since meeting people whom have suffered head injuries that might have been avoided by wearing a helmet, I would now never ride without one. Common sense and experience is compelling evidence enough for me.

Simon, Maidstone

I would not wear a cycle helmet. I like to be comfortable when out for the pleasure of riding my bike. I also want to be able to concentrate on the road/off road track and not be distracted by having something exceedingly uncomfortable sitting on my head and stopping the wind from blowing through my hair. I do not want to have the attitude of 'I'm OK, I've got my helmet on', which is displayed by a number of the correspondents. My skull is there to protect my brain and the one time I broke it was when wearing a helmet!! (Motorcycling in Pakistan trying to get away from the imminent Indo-Pak war in 1971). I do not consider myself as an irresponsible rider but one who keeps a good look out for traffic and where possible aims for less-trafficed roads. My aim is to not have an accident.

Jane, Essex

Over forty years ago I worked on a geriatric ward where on patient had a massive brain damage as a direct result of hitting his head on a curb while cycling. I always wear a helmet. But that is my personal choice. I find the evidence against wearing helmets persuasive, because they change other road users behaviour, because they only offer limited protection and because they can cause injuries (especially when worn incorrectly). I find it persuasive enough to convince me that helmet wearing should not be made compulsory. Countries with a higher proportion of cycle use and proportionately little helmet use (like Germany and Holland) have proportionately fewer head injuries than we do in Britain. It's the behaviour of car drivers that is the problem, not the bicycle or cyclist.

Ol Rappaport, W London

I regularly cycle around London and, to ease my mother's fears of my imminent death under the wheels of a van, I recently bought a helmet. I wore it about a fortnight before deciding it was causing more potential harm than good: Drivers around me gave me far less space, and on a couple of occasions seemed to completely ignore me, cutting me off or practically running into me at left turns and so on. Frankly, I prefer the idea of having slightly less protection in an accident if it means being significantly less likely to actually be in one.

Owen, London

Racing drivers wear crash helmets in their cars to protect their heads in an accident. Many times more people drive cars than ride bikes and as a result of scales there are thousands more car accidents than bike accidents. If you really want to have an large scale impact on reducing head injuries then surely the first place to start is to make the wearing of helmets compulsory in cars. People would be up in arms about this suggestion, yet feel it their place to thrust their opinion regarding helmet wearing on the cycling minority. It's a case of practicality and personal choice for those that cycle.

P Redg, Lincs

I have always worn a helmet while cycling. A few months ago I was involved in a collision with a car. I broke the car's windscreen with my head (well, helmet), but I didn't know that until a couple of days later when the driver told me. I didn't feel it at all and had no idea my head had hit anything. Now this was a low speed collision at a junction. Precisely the conditions for which a helmet is designed and tested. In a higher speed impact it may not have provided quite so much protection, but I'm going to continue wearing my helmet. It is hard to argue with personal experience...

Steve Rumsby, West Mids

I find it quite irresponsible to say "it's a piece of kit that doesn't offer as much protection as some cyclists might think" when this article has nothing to do with helmets stopping head injures, and instead is about how people apparently perceive you when you have one on. It is this kind of statement that will stop people wearing helmets. I don't think people should be forced into wearing helmets, as it is a personal choice. People should however be made aware that helmets are vital piece of safety equipment. Hitting your head on something travelling at more than 15mph is more than enough to cause serous damage, and helmets are there to help protect you in case of something like this. I personally, would never ride my bike without one. I personally think Dr Ian Walker should work more towards changing drivers attitudes towards cyclist, than telling cyclist helmets aren't safe. I would also like to know for his tests did he use the same drivers? The same stretch of road? The same time of day? As with all uncontrolled statistics, you could do this test the very next day and find completely different results.

Simon Hayllar, Derby

I think it's also down to peer pressure, especially amongst those that need educating the most - children. Whilst I will always wear a helmet when out on a ride, my 2 step-daughters refuse to do so as they they think they'll look stupid if their friends see them or it'll mess up their hair. It's now got to a stage where I cycle alone as I will not let them go unless they wear one.

Mat Fletcher, Bishops Stortford

I cycled to school every day and my parents required that I use a gadget called a "lollipop stick", a retractable plastic stick with a reflector at the end to force the motorists to give me space. I hated it, it looked absolutely horrible and uncool, but the odd time, if someone's car scratched against it, I'd realize how close that car was and how I was actually lucky that I normally didn't have cars that close to me. I'd approve of a more modern "cool" version of that for all bicycles and I would always wear a helmet too!

K Holland, Dublin

Some cyclists go to the trouble and expense of wearing a helmet, only to wear it at such a jaunty angle their entire forehead is exposed! Stupid.

John, London

What a fantastic article this is. A hotly debated topic that needs much more attention and publicity.

Florence, London

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