Author and cycle safety consultant John Franklin claims he’s not anti-helmet but in a talk at VeloCity 2001 yesterday his conclusions were warmly welcomed by arch anti-helmet academic Dr Mayer Hillman. As well as promoting the fact cycling must be inherently dangerous if it requires head protection, Franklin complained that the majority of cycle helmets on sale worldwide fail to meet the safety standards they are claimed to exceed

Oi, helmet suppliers: your products don’t work

Franklin started his research into the effectiveness of cycle helmets after he was an expert witness in a court case where it was argued a cyclist injured in a RTA should receive a reduced compensation package because he contributed to his own injuries by not wearing a cycle helmet.

Upon studying the existing research he said he was alarmed at the poor science on display in many of the helmet studies usually recited as Gospel by pro-helmet campaigners.

Since 1934 – when records first began – cyclist fatalities and serious injuries have been steadily declining. Wider take-up of helmet wearing does not seem to have deflected the declining fatalities/injuries trend. And what many studies have failed to do is recognise that the decline in fatalities/injuriers was happening at the same as the number of cyclists and cycle miles travelled were decreasing too.

Helmets have been around for 25 years, said Franklin, and now 1 in 6 cyclists in the UK wear helmets, but there has yet to be a definitive correlation proved between increased helmet use and a decline in injuries/fatalities. In fact, the opposite could be argued: thanks to risk compensation factors it could be argued that helmet use has actually increased the numbers of injuries/fatalities because people feel safer so ride more dangerously. Franklin said this area is ripe for further academic delving.

Last month the US Consumer Products Safety Division published a report which stated that helmet use in the US had grown from 18 percent of all cyclists in 1991 to 50 percent today. Yet head injuries increased by 10 percent.

Franklin posited four reasons for the failure of increased helmet use to deliver less injuries and fatalities:

1. Much helmet research is poor. “There’s a lot of bad science about,” said Franklin.

2. There’s insufficient distinction between the different cycling disciplines. “Helmets may be effective for children and for off-road use so perhaps helmet campaigns should focus on those two groups intead of all cyclists.”

3. The capability of helmets to act as protective devices is over-rated: “The design and testing of helmets is still very simplistic. A fall from a bicycle is very complex, it’s not just about hitting a kerb at low speed. And many helmet standards are far from rigourous. The [UK]Consumers’ Association found that 16 out of 24 helmets failed to meet European standards."

4. Wearing problems. “The majority of users do not wear their helmets correctly. Few people do their straps up tight enough.”

Helmets for motorists would be a much more fruitful safety campaign, said Franklin, claiming singling out cyclists to wear head protection was “discriminatory.”

Individual cyclists often have tales of how their helmets saved their lives, said Franklin, but if all these cases were extrapolated to the mainstream accident statistics, the number of potential cycle fatalities would be four hundred times greater than it actually is.

Pro-helmet campaigns usually result in a decrease in cycle usage which is detrimental to a populace’s health at large. Because they are fitter, cyclists typically live 10 years longer than non-cyclists. A fatality ocurs only once every 8000 miles of cycle travel. Anything that restricts cycle use is therefore detrimental to health, said Franklin.

He called for more honesty from pro-helemt campaigners and helmet suppliers.

Franklin’s talk was chaired by Shimano Europa’s Hans van Vliet. asked van Vliet his views on helmets, bearing in mind he’s in the bike trade and he’s a Dutchman (there’s minimal helmet wearing in the Netherlands yet with no corresponding explosion in head injuries sustained by cyclists).

Van Vliet said: “You’ll never find a helmet with Shimano on it. We wouldn’t want to produce a product associated with injuries. If you produced a helmet it would prove safe for some people much of the time but there are question marks.”

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