Research from London University ignites long-running debate over compulsory helmets

‘Cycle helmets offer little protection against head injuries’

New research from St George’s University of London has found that adult cyclists should not be forced to wear bike helmets because they offer little protection against head injuries.

The research compiled by Dr Carwyn Hooper was created in response to laws in Northern Ireland making cycle helmets compulsory for cyclists, according to the Cambridge News. UPDATE: We’ve since had clarified that the bill was never made law in Northern Ireland, with Sustrans among those that lobbied against it.

Here’s a link to the University’s report (thanks to Going Going Bike).

The move to make helmet compulsory for cyclists has proved a controversial and enduring topic. A move to make UK parliament pass a helmet compulsion bill failed last November, while some medical figures – including ex-Irish Medical Organisation president Dr Fenton Howell backed calls for such a bill to be passed in Ireland last February. In April last year Transport Minister Norman Baker was forced to defend his ‘libertarian’ right not to wear a helmet while cycling, in the face of criticism from the likes of road safety charity Brake.

Many cycle organisations and associations have campaigned against moves to make helmets compulsory for cyclists, including Sustrans and the CTC.

Since the new research from St George’s University of London emerged, Paul Kitson – partner at Russell Jones & Walker and legal advisor for the CTC – said: “Cycle helmets offer very limited protection. In my experience of cycle accidents, it’s rare that wearing a helmet would prevent or reduce the severity of cyclists’ injuries.

"Both British and European standards require helmets to withstand a free-fall drop from 1.5 metres onto a flat and kerb shaped anvil, at an impact speed of about 12 mph. This is equivalent to falling to the ground from a stationary riding position. Cycle helmets are not, and cannot be, designed for impacts with moving traffic.

“There is good evidence from Australia and Canada [see below*] that enforced helmet laws reduce the number of cycle journeys, this in itself undermines the Government’s target to increase the number of cycle journeys in the UK.

"In countries such as Denmark, Holland and Germany it is rare for cyclists to wear helmets which is reflected in the number of journeys made by bicycle; in the UK approximately two per cent of journeys are by bicycle compared to approximately 27 per cent in the Netherlands. We have long way to go to catch up with the Netherlands in the promotion of cycling as a healthy, environmentally friendly method of transport and making sure cyclists are not forced to wear helmets is a vital part of this.”

The potential implications for the trade depend on your point of view. If it becomes law to force cyclists to wear helmets then retailers can either expect to sell a lot more helmets, or – as many cycle campaigners believe – bike shops will be far less busy, with potential customers put off by the fact they have to wear a helmet, or put off by the implication that cycling is a dangerous pasttime that requires a helmet to be worn.

* Robinson DL, 2006. Do enforced bicycle helmet laws improve public health?. BMJ 2006;332:722-725.

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