Myths about cycle helmets

During discussions of road safety for cyclists, a number of arguments are put forward in favour of obliging cyclists to wear helmets. While these arguments may appear convincing at first sight, when we take a closer look we find that they are not as conclusive as they may at first appear.

statement: Bicycle helmets save lives.

Response: While it is true that helmets can save lives, their potential should not be overestimated. An approved cycle helmet only resists impacts at speeds of up to 23 kph.

A law making it compulsory for cyclists to wear helmets would reduce the number of cyclists. This, in turn, would lead to an increase in deaths from heart disease and other illnesses associated with a sedentary lifestyle . The overall effect would be an increase in premature deaths.

Statement: The law obliging motorcyclists to wear helmets was also controversial when it was introduced, but time has shown it to be effective. The same would hold true for cyclists.

Response: The protection offered by a motorcycle helmet cannot be compared to that offered by a bicycle helmet. A cyclist has to pedal hard to cycle up hills, and his/her head therefore needs to be well ventilated and could not support the weight of a full helmet without damaging the cyclist’s health.

Motorcyclists travel at far higher speeds and an accident can be caused by a slight movement of the right hand, without any physical effort. The fact that bicycles and motorbikes have the same number of wheels is no reason for the same rules to apply to both.

Statement: Racing cyclists and off-road cyclists are a high-risk group and must be protected.

Response: Some cycle sports require protection like gumshields, kneepads or helmets, but an activity such as cycle racing bears no relation to riding a bike in traffic.

Almost all cycle sport federations have drawn up their own rules on this subject. The fact that some types of cycling involve a higher degree of risk does not justify making it compulsory for all cyclists to wear helmets at all times.

Statement: Promoting the wearing of helmets is a cost-effective way of reducing cyclist deaths.

Response: Protective devices paid for by the individual are cheap for the authorities, but is the total amount of money spent cost-effective? Bicycle helmets are not effective in all cases, and collisions between fast-moving motor vehicles and cyclists will in any case be fatal. Cycle helmets do not offer effective protection against most fatal road accidents.

Statement: Helmets should at least be worn by children, who are more vulnerable than others.

Response: The ECF maintains that road conditions should be adapted to the skills of vulnerable road users – children, elderly people and the disabled – and not the other way round. Nevertheless, there is some truth in this argument, as children have a lower perception of risk and are more often involved in ‘single vehicle accidents’, like falling off a bicycle.

This is precisely the type of accident where a helmet designed for an 18 kph impact offers real protection. On the other hand, having to wear a helmet may put a child off cycling altogether. For a bicycle promotion policy to be successful, it is essential not to discourage children from cycling.

Should today’s children stop cycling, the next generation may never take it up. Parents should be allowed to make an informed choice as to whether or not their child wears a helmet.

Statement: Campaigns to promote the voluntary wearing of helmets do not work, so helmets must be made compulsory.

Response: This argument presupposes that helmets are the last word in road safety, but creating safer road conditions is far more effective.

Helmet legislation may even distract attention from the need to improve the road environment, thus proving counterproductive to real road safety.

A mandatory helmet law requires constant police enforcement, and it is doubtful whether a satisfactory level of compliance can be achieved . This would contribute to a growing disregard for the highway code, and for the law in general.