Should Cyclists Be Legally Obliged To Wear A Crash Helmet

I was sitting in the office the other day, when I overheard a conversation between two of my colleagues. Now, I should probably explain here, that one of the protagonists is a keen cyclist, and commutes to work by bicycle every day, regardless of weather – a distance of some thirteen miles.

The other party to the discussion was a self confessed petrol head, and drives a very powerful and sporty muscle car.

He was remonstrating with the cyclist, criticising him for not wearing a cycle helmet. Quite rightly, in my opinion, the cyclist was defending his position by saying that there was no legal requirement for him to wear a crash helmet, and as such he wouldn’t.

This got me thinking. Over the past three or four years, there has been some serious lobbying by some safety motivated pressure groups to make it a legal requirement for cyclists to wear crash helmets whilst riding their bicycles.

As a free thinking adult, and a free spirit, I normally baulk at any sort of legislation that attempts to regulate aspects of my private life, and this includes the “Nanny State” mentality of coercing me to stop engaging in activities that are perceived by some unelected bur to be either dangerous or unhealthy.

So I decided to conduct a little research into the subject, and this is what I came up with.

Statistics. Lots of statistics, all of which can be distorted and twisted to put a particular slant on a story.

However, I have done my best to strip the spin and hyperbole from the stats and explain it as it is.

Firstly, one has to first understand why a crash helmet may be needed by a cyclist.

Advice to wear a helmet, means that the person or organisation feels that there is a great risk that a head injury may be sustained by the individual by taking part in the activity – in this case the relatively safe activity of riding a bike.

So, to put this into perspective, there is a need to assess the element of risk associated with cycling, and compare it with other common activities.

A little research throws up some interesting facts that the proponents for mandatory crash hats don’t tell you.

Firstly, according to Her Majesty’s government, there were over three times as many pedestrian killed on the roads in 2013 than cyclists. If we are to assume the pro helmet lobby’s argument that helmets should be mandated for the riskiest activities, then they should be advocating that pedestrians should be compelled legally to wear helmets! This is obviously ludicrous.

Naturally, everybody wants human activity to be as safe as is reasonably practicable. However, there is a fine balance between protecting people and demotivating them from being involved in an activity.

The health benefits of cycling are well known; excellent for cardio-vascular fitness, aerobic fitness and muscle bulk and stamina. Add to that the psychological benefits of riding a bicycle – greater hand/eye co-ordination, a very good stress buster, and a great sense of personal freedom and independence, and you have a formula for good health.

Given the stark warnings of an impending obesity epidemic, it would appear to be common sense for governments to encourage as many people as possible to ride a bicycle, not only as a leisure activity, but also as a means for commuting, and even a way of conducting commerce.

A second great driver for the encouragement to cycle, is the government’s commitment to comply with EU emissions reduction targets. Reduction in the use of hydrocarbon powered transport is central to this theme, and increasing the number of bicycle journeys is an excellent way of both improving national fitness levels, and reducing pollution and greenhouse gases.

To facilitate this, there have been a number of initiatives set up to encourage cycling in the UK. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has set up a public cycle hire scheme, administered and funded by Barclays Bank – colloquially known as Boris bikes to encourage Londoners to cycle.

This has proved to be a great success, and has now been complemented by the provision of a London-wide cycle network, consisting of Bicycle Super Highways – with an orbital route, and cross city routes.

Sadly, all of these initiatives may prove to be worthless, should the pro helmet lobby get their way, and legislation is passed to enforce cycle riders to wear crash helmets.

The statistics clearly show that in every country that has instituted compulsory helmets for cycling, there has been an immediate and irreversible reduction in the number of active cyclists on the roads.

For example, in Australia, there is a. Lear link between the decline in cycling journeys and the introduction of mandatory helmet law

I have to confess that I do wear a plastic hat – occasionally. The big difference is that I make the decision whether to wear one based on my own assessment of the risks associated with the type of ride on which I am about to embark.

If I am about to ride down a well maintained canal tow path, or ride on relatively quiet country lanes then I most definitely leave the helmet at home. However, if I am riding in a busy city or commuting to work, then I grab the bash hat from the cupboard, and reluctantly wear it.

If legislation were enacted tomorrow, then I admit here and now, that I will consciously disregard it, and continue to ride without wearing a helmet wherever I think it appropriate.

I have ridden bicycles since I was five years old, and as an adult have suffered numerous bike crashes. More recently I survived a near fatal cycle accident – and in most of these cases I was not wearing a helmet. Furthermore in all of my accidents, wearing a helmet would have had no influence on the outcome.

Additionally, there is always the potential for behaviour to be altered when wearing a helmet.
Riders may feel much less vulnerable when wearing a crash helmet, and may, therefore ride in a less cautious fashion, thereby increasing the chances of them being injured in an accident.

Drivers of vehicles may also be less considerate to riders who appear to be more “professional”

In a study conducted in 2006 by Dr. Ian Walker of the University of Bath, it was found that drivers of motorised vehicles passed much closer to helmeted riders than riders without. This would appear to support the idea that helmeted riders give the impression of being more competent and regular riders than those without.

Naturally, this places the rider at more risk through drivers being less tolerant of their vulnerability, and thereby increasing the chances of an accident.

Dr. Walker, a traffic psychologist, used a bicycle fitted with proximity detectors and a computer to enable him to establish how closely traffic passed him whilst he was cycling.
The research was conducted on public roads in the cities of Salisbury and Bristol.

In order to assess whether the wearing of a helmet influenced driving behaviour, he conducted half of the study whilst wearing an approved cycle helmet, and the other half bare headed.

During the study, data from over 2,500 overtake manoeuvres, was analysed.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was found that passing drivers were twice as likely to get particularly close to the cycle when he was wearing the helmet. The analysis showed that drivers passed closer by about 8.5cm than when he was bare headed.

It would appear then, that a drivers perception of a rider, is influenced by their appearance, and will affect the amount of safety margin they are willing to provide.

Due to the increasing popularity of cycling, and the Renaissance of larger sporting group rides, the study suggests that drivers (as a group) tend to perceive cyclists as a separate sub culture to which they don’t belong, and don’t understand.

As a result, unfair stereotyping, classifying cyclists as “Lycra-clad urban street warriors” prevails, and anyone riding a bicycle wearing part (or all) of the “uniform” are regarded to be more competent, experienced and predictable than those who don’t wear a helmet.

The flawed acceptance of this sub conscious fact, would go a long way to explaining why drivers pass extra close to helmeted riders.

There is an interesting dichotomy here. Most adult cyclists are also licensed car driver, and therefore know what it is like to drive a car, but relatively few motorists ride bicycles in traffic, so don’t understand or identify with the problems that cyclists face when riding.

Interestingly, the study also found that larger commercial vehicles such as buses, coaches and lorries pass even closer than cars.

The average car passed 1.3 metres away from the cycle, whereas the average truck passed only 1.14 metres from the bike. Buses were even bigger offenders, passing with only 1.1 metres of clearance. Not a lot of “wobble room” for the cyclist in the event that evasive action needs to be taken to avoid riding into a pothole, or drain head.

Despite their frequent bad press, the drivers of larger SUVs, 4x4s and People carriers passed no closer than the drivers of standard cars.

And what of “White Van Man”?

Well, the urban legend of white van man is still living up to public expectations, and will, on average, overtake cyclist 10cm closer than drivers of cars.

In order to further explore driver psychology, Dr. Walker tested if drivers would demonstrate more consideration to female riders. He therefore conducted part of the study wearing a long wig.

Whilst wearing the wig, the data clearly indicated that drivers passed with an average extra clearance of 14cm more space!

It is not clear from the study whether this is because drivers subconsciously regard female cyclists as being less predictable riders, or whether it’s due to some other factors not yet ascertained.

Whilst this is respected research, having been published in The Journal of Accident Analysis and Prevention, it does not seemed to have been offered the same level of media attention as the vociferous pro helmet lobby, which has been given under the guise of complying with the Health and Safety fixated and risk averse culture that is the norm in Britain today.

One of the major collateral problems of legislating for helmets to be worn by cyclists, is that it implies that cycling is an intrinsically unsafe activity. This affects public perception adversely, subtly persuading potential riders that they must be coddled up in high visibility clothing, helmets and so on in order to commute a few miles to work, or to make a quick trip to the shops. A lot of people therefore give up cycling, because of the extra inconvenience of having to take so many steps to protect themselves in what is really a quite benign environment.

This is also reflected in the usage statistics of various city bike rental schemes, such as the Boris Bikes operated in London. The public cycle rental system in Melbourne, currently gets used for just 150 journeys a day. Melbourne operates a mandatory cycle helmet policy. Conversely, in Dublin, (where the climate is far less conducive to riding a bike) where there is no helmet law, the scheme enjoys over 5000 journeys a day, despite Dublin being hilly, and full of old cobbled streets.

I believe the two sets of factors are linked.

I re iterate my previous statement, that statistically, more pedestrians are killed every year on the roads of Great Britain. If we are to legislate purely on injury rates, then pedestrians should be legally obliged to wear walking helmets, and wear high visibility clothing, and maybe should carry approved lights during the hours of darkness.

This is plainly ludicrous, but you can see where I am going with this.

It seems that even the respected organisers of charity bicycle rides have been caught up in the scientifically flawed argument that helmets must be worn as a condition of riding, despite the fact that the Road Traffic Act, and the Highway Code makes no such stipulations that riders should wear a helmet.

I have a helmet for such occasions, and wear it at the start, when there is high traffic density and other hazards that I have personally assessed for risk. However, once away from the start, I will pull over, and confine the helmet to the saddle bag, where it belongs and ride with either a baseball cap or nothing at all, depending on the weather.

I have ridden on many rides in this fashion, including the London to Brighton road ride, the London Bridges ride, and The London to Oxford ride.

Last year I participated in the London to Brighton Off Road ride.

This ride is truly off road for a distance of eighty miles, and involves the rider in traversing rough country, fields, woodlands, river beds, grassy heathlands and the South Downs. It takes place in September, and when I did it, the weather was cold, wet, and windy, and the conditions were muddy and treacherous, particularly when riding down trails with tree roots, exposed stumps, loose shale and mud.

I wore a helmet for the whole ride, as it was immediately apparent that the chances of crashing and coming off were very high, and the nature of the terrain made the chances of subsequent injury quite high.

Furthermore, due to the relative remoteness of sections of the ride, getting quick medical assistance would be difficult.

In essence, I believe it is the responsibility of the rider to establish whether a helmet is required, or in the case of a child, the parent should make the assessment.

Too many children are growing up in a heavily risk-averse society, where they are paralysed to take any sort of action, or participate in any kind of sport or activity without the psychological prop of some sort of “Protection”

If I feel like riding down hill on my road bike, with my nose on the handlebars and nudging the speedo past 40 miles an hour, with no helmet, then it is my inalienable right to do so, and I don’t require the permission of some do-Gooder to do it.

Naturally, it’s up to me to ensure that I am carrying adequate insurance in the event that I sustain an accident, but I carry that as a matter of course.

There is, of course, another, more sinister aspect to this, and that is the actions of the judiciary.

The judgements passed in some recent cases relating to cyclists make interesting reading.

A cyclist who was knocked off his bike and seriously injured was deemed to be partially responsible for his own “accident” as he chose not to ride on the cycle path provided, but instead opted to ride on the road.

Whilst there is no legal requirement to ride on a cycle path, it is apparent that the judge in this case decided that he should have used it as it was there.

In another case, Mr. Justice Griffith Williams stated “I am satisfied on the balance of probabilities that a cyclist who does not wear a helmet, runs the risk of contributing to his/her injury”

This in my humble opinion is poppycock. Cycle helmets have a design limit to protect the head in a crash situation at Impact speeds of a maximum of 12 miles per hour. I frequently double that speed whilst cycling. It may protect if I were to fall on my head from a stationary condition, but that is not a very likely scenario is it? Unless of course I had ridden down the road to my local, and imbibed six pints of old and grungy.

My recent near-fatal cycle accident actually happened on a cycle path – where the fence (topped with barbed wire) had fallen over the path due to inadequate maintenance. The path was strewn with debris, and was littered with ruts, potholes and overgrowth. In hindsight, I would probably have been safer using the road.

However, should I have been riding in the road, and suffered another type of accident, would I have been apportioned an element of blame due to not riding on what was proved to be a highly dangerous piece of cycle way.

You decide.

But my point remains. As an experienced rider, and a free citizen, with a democratic right to free choice, I will continue to make my own assessments on the requirement to wear safety equipment.

I am solely responsible for my safety. I will NOT be wearing a helmet anytime soon, unless I feel it is warranted.

Now…….where is my long blonde wig?

Mark Charlwood
November 15th 2014

2 thoughts on “Should Cyclists Be Legally Obliged To Wear A Crash Helmet”

  1. Really interesting argument. I personally wear a helmet on all my rides, and on one occasion where I lost traction turning, I hit the road and cracked the helmet- and despite that I was quite dazed and needed a minute to regain my thoughts. I agree that we all have free choice in the matter, though I’d hate to think what would have happened had I not been wearing one.
    I find though, that the space I get by overtaking drivers is affected by other factors, such as how visible I am to them. My personal experience is the brighter my presence from behind, the more space I get.

    1. Hi Apahade,

      Thank you for reading my article, and taking the time to comment. Every accident is unique, and I’m glad that wearing your helmet saved you injury. You don’t say whether you live in a country or state where it’s a mandatory requirement, but I imply from your comments it’s not. Therefore you are making your own risk assessments, and making your own decisions regarding what to wear which is the real point of my argument I guess.

      I ride a lot on quiet Rural lanes where there isn’t much traffic, but drivers in the UK tend to hurtle around the villages at high speeds, so I do wear a high viz tabard if it’s getting towards dusk. Take care on that bike!

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