Should You Wear Bike Helmets In France and Italy?

Last year on one of our Burgundy trips there was a heated debate around the dinner table in Châteauneuf on the subject of bike helmets. Châteauneuf, by the way, is amazing. Davide, an Israeli cyclist, said ‘It’s amazing, just amazing. I thought Loubressac was the most beautiful village I had ever seen, but it is Châteauneuf.’ But anyway, helmets.

By coincidence, shortly after I got back to the UK there was an extended article in the Guardian newspaper about bike helmets – should they be compulsory? Why do Parisians not wear them as much as Londoners? Are they effective? It reminded me of our ‘debate’ in Burgundy (Debate means argument).

Looking over the Dordogne on the way to Gluges

Here’s the Devil’s advocate bit. The bit where I just say what I think without the need to back it up. I and all Chain Gang guides are guys in our 30s and 40s, sensible people, some with families, all intelligent. Until 5 years ago a minority of Chain Gang cyclists chose to wear helmets. Now it’s almost every single customer – really, almost every single one. And occasionally somebody comments that I’m not wearing a helmet. And in fact, neither does Ben, nor Toby, Mike, Pete, or Guido come to that. And over the last 12 years we’ve had to take a number of people to hospital following a crash, mercifully mostly for checks, but very occasionally with broken collar bones and other traditional cycling injuries.

One on, one off. Mike and Lynette in Burgundy

Without exception those wearing a helmet, and the rest of the people in the group, exclaim how fortunate, how wise, that the person was wearing a helmet. But the person being examined is never me, and never Toby, Pete, etc. We cycle every week, without a helmet, and we don’t have accidents. We’re not immune of course, and the day will inevitably come, but I think people should spend more time not having accidents and less time worrying about what might happen when you do.

Basil has forgotten more about cycling than I will ever know, and he wears a helmet.

So that’s the knee-jerk view.

But the Guardian article got me thinking, and also reminded of an article I read in a cycling magazine written by Olympic Champion Chris Boardman, written in response to a letter from a critical reader who had seen photos of Chris sans helmet in a bike review article. So it prompted me to look into the issue. I haven’t spent months on it, but here’s what a few hours digging found me.

What did I find?

The main website promoting helmet use, and advocating compulsory helmet use is the grandly named Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute [see 1. below]. Their website reads like the websites of those creepy creationist evangelists, and reading their website alongside the myriad rebuttals I was tempted to write-off the whole ‘pro-helmet lobby’ as a bunch of evangelical cranks. They don’t do themselves any favours with their sloppy use of statistics, including a few lies and some obvious inconsistencies, and they demonstrate no understanding at all of causality.

You have to dig a bit deeper for well-reasoned support of helmets. Australia is one of the few countries where helmet-wearing is compulsory. That this compulsion has led to a marked decrease in cycling seems to be accepted by everybody. But some people have also reported a proportionate increase in the incidence of head injury. Where does the truth lie? Well, there is a study from the Health Department of Western Australia which comes down on the side of helmets reducing the chance of head injury [see 8. Below]. So too does a report from the UK Department for Transport [see 11. Below].

I’ve listed a whole load of different sources below for anyone who wants to explore further. The more serious reports say that there simply isn’t the weight and rigour of research yet. There will be, but in the meantime if you want serious commentary you have to work at it. This isn’t meant to be an essay, just my view having worked at it a little bit. So here’s what I reckon.

i. Helmets probably do help to reduce the incidence of head injury.

ii. Helmets are absolutely useless in the event of the type of accident that most people wear them for. Any collision with a car, for example, or falling from your bike at speed, takes you way, way beyond anything a bike helmet was designed for. If you were going to bruise or scrape your head, a helmet will help – in extreme cases it may even help minimise concussion.

These objectives are worthwhile. But if the incident was ever likely to be fatal, then the chances are overwhelming that it will be fatal. They prevent some injuries, but it seems to me they do nothing at all, literally nothing, in the event of a potentially fatal head injury.

If you don’t believe that, read the documentation that came with your helmet . It’ll sober you up pretty fast.

iii. Compulsory wearing of helmets reduces cycling. In fact it reduces it so much that the health effects of wearing a helmet are undone by the adverse health effects of not cycling.

iv. The incidence of head injury caused by cycling is incredibly rare, far rarer than most people realise – with the exception of the “Well, my sister fell off her bike and she hurt her head…” brigade. Basically if you want to suffer a serious head injury caused by cycling, statistically you’ll have to devote a lot of time to cycling. Several lifetimes, in fact.

v. Every website I could find promoting the use of helmets seems to have come from the “numbers mean absolutely nothing to me” school of statistics. This doesn’t mean there aren’t useful statistics in support of their case, or that causality doesn’t exist, but all the helmet-advocacy sites that I could find have convincing prose and crap statistics.

Good stats do exist, and can be found in various Government-sponsored reports, but they’re heavyweight (I’ve included some examples below). The lightweight, frothy stats put forward by the advocacy groups just insult everybody.

vi. There may be people who wear helmets to prevent minor head injury and to minimise symptoms from more serious injuries. The chances of sustaining such injuries are tiny, but if you understand that, and want to minimise the effect of a minor injury, then those are powerful reasons for wearing a helmet.

But a bike helmet won’t save your life – it was never meant to, and isn’t designed for that job. Such helmets do exist, of course – motor cyclists wear them. They save lives. Bike helmets minimise injury.

That’s a worthwhile objective, I just wonder if helmet wearers understand the limited objectives a bike helmet?

Helmets should be compulsory:

1. The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute (BHSI), and their stats.

2. Conclusions from the Health Department of Western Australia

3. Brake, UK National road safety charity

“No” to compulsory wearing of helmets:

4. “Overall, cycling is beneficial to health – the benefits outweigh the risks by up to 20:1.” Hillman M., 1994, Cycling: Towards health and safety. British Medical Association, London

5. “The proportion of cyclist injuries which are head injuries is essentially the same as the proportion for pedestrians at 30.0 % vs. 30.1 %.” Department of Health

6. “The evidence currently available is complex and full of contradictions, providing at least as much support for those who are sceptical as for those who swear by them.” Cycle Touring Club, UK.

7. “Enforced helmet laws discourage cycling but produce no obvious response in percentage of head injuries”. DL Robertson, British Medical Journal

8. Rebuttal of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute arguments

9. Article from Bluedome, a website for Outdoor professionals:Cycling Helmets: should you wear one?

“We think you should learn more about it if you want to express a view”:

10. Wikipedia:‘The Helmet Debate’.

11. Brilliant summary from Department for Transport. And the detailed part of the same report.

12. The Guardian piece that first got me thinking.

11 thoughts on “Should You Wear Bike Helmets In France and Italy?

  1. jed baxter

    Good article Bernard. Well balanced. I tend to wear a helmet *most* of the time. When I do I think – “don’t want the nasty scalp graze from the tarmac should something unexpected happen” . When I don’t I think – “f*** it, chances are nothing is going to happen let’s go ‘as nature intended’ and play safe.

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  2. Richard Keatinge

    Very dubious whether helmets do any good at all, see cyclehelmets.org. Helmet laws have stopped a lot of people cycling and have done nothing for head injury rates, see Robinson DL. No clear evidence from countries that have enforced the wearing of helmets. BMJ 2006;332: 722-5. http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/332/7543/722-a. It appears that helmets break easily, but don’t absorb the impact, see the engineers quoted at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicycle_helmet.

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  3. Malcolm Wardlaw

    Bernard, I have spent quite a lot of time on this issue over the years. Google my name and you will see what I mean. The main problem (as I see it) is that the relevance of cycle helmets has been vastly exaggerated. There will be a mixture of reasons for this. The academics that “proved” helmets are highly effective have a vested interest. Politicians have a vested interest – especially in countries where cycling on the roads is seen as foolhardy. Ironically, cycling in France is probably safer than driving, hour for hour basis. Helmets are doubtless a good idea for mountain biking. Road riding is rather different. The risks are very low and in any case in the unlikely event of beiing in a serious road crash, a cycle helmet will not help you out. It is a great pity that so few cyclists have a thoughtful view on this issue. Nowadays so many people are happy to believe that cycling on the roads is dangerous. Does this reduce cycling? Is the sky blue? Regrettably less cycling means more risk per cyclist. It is a classic market failure that cyclists take to wearing helmets in the belief it is the sensible thing to do, but the collective interest is damaged.

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  4. Margery Cairns

    In Australia bicycle helmets have been compulsory for several years and statistics have shown that the number of head injuries through bike accidents has been greatly reduced. At first a few people ( mainly due to the effect on the hair do) may have stopped riding bikes. However now most people regard wearing a helmet as just another part of cycling such as wearing cycling shoes, sunglasses etc. and would never ride without their helmet. Helmet designs have improved vastly and are not the sweaty items they once were. In fact they are quite trendy. I suffered a bad fall some time ago, injured my shoulder and landed very heavily on my head on ashphalt. The helmet was damaged but my head survived what could have been a serious injury. A helmets probably wouldn’t help if you were hit by a car, but for less serious accidents it is one way you can protect yourself. Accidents can happen even to the most experienced of cyclists so why not wear a helmet -just in case.

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  5. Malcolm Wardlaw

    The reply by Margery Cairns is typical of the support for helmet use: a mixture of half-understood statistics followed by anecdote. She is correct that head injuries did fall after helmet compulsion in Australia, this was because there was a fall in cycling and a general fall in head injuries (the decline for pedestrians was actually greater than for cyclists). In fairness, most injury prevention specialists do not understand this point either, or else they choose to ignore it. So far as the anecdotal goes, it is pretty clear that those who use a helmet hit their head far more often than those who do not. Surveys suggest a factor of 8 difference on the basis of self-reporting, but since this will have biases in it, the actual difference might “only” be 2. The bottom line is that she wore a helmet and hit her head. The problem is that, like 99% of helmet users who hit their head – she learned precisely the wrong lesson. Sad, but true. Alarmingly, helmet use has repeatedly been associated with excess cyclists’ deaths. Disgracefully, this has been ignored by the injury prevention community.
    Like I said, the helmet culture is a market failure; individuals take what appears to be a sensible choice, but bring harm upon themselves and others as a result.

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  6. stephen

    I hope other countries can take australia as a lesson the failure of the bicycle hire scheme in Melbourne is a good example – the government are now giving away free passes to try and get people to use it, but when they do the police book them with helmet fines for not having a helmet !. It may be a shock to the un-informed but most people in the city don’t carry a helmet around in their handbag.

    The helmet hysteria is beyond a joke here and the police are now using it to raise revenue by harassing and booking people who are in absolutely no danger. I saw 2 women on a path in Adelaide getting booked the other day. I suppose it could be justified if they were bicycle couriers or such racing around thru busy streets, But these people were just cruising along at no more risk than the pedestrians on that same path, and copping a fine. It’s turned us into a police state now where the police have found that bludgeoning the innocent is a better source of revenue than catching criminals, it’s speed cameras, bicycle helmets, jay walking, next thing you know it will be for not tying your shoe laces.!

    Wear a bicycle helmet, worship them and wear one all day if you like. But having a law which institutes the persecution of people for not wearing the Australian approved foam helmet that is simply tyranny. And few would agree with the helmet hysteria crew that bicycles are death traps.

    In the 2010 election the Labour party lost allot of support and were forced to form a minority government with the greens and 2 independents to keep power. this is good since the greens seem to support civil rights more. And now we have a new political party the LDP (Liberal Democratic party) which supports removing the bicycle helmet laws. If more people vote LDP at the next election it will send a clear message that people have had enough of this kind of treatment.

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  7. Liam

    As a regular rider, I cannot think of one genuine reason why an individual would not use a helmet. Its only hinderance is your hair!
    It reminids me of an Italian study on compulsary helmets for mopeds.
    The statistics speak for themselves. http://goo.gl/JlcXL
    Nor has speed anyhing to to with the argument, as you would not say that falling when running would make one more prone to a broken wrist then when walking.
    Wake up people! You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.

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  8. Pingback: Bicycle helmets? No easy answer. « Filtered Thoughts

  9. Olly

    I find it incredible that any cyclist cannot see the benefits of wearing a helmet. I feel quite lucky that in about 5 years of cycling i have only had 1 accident (my own fault) – and at the time i had a helmet on and bounced my head off some railings at the side of the road. Obviously without the helmet i have no idea what my injuries would have been, but with it, i suffered only road rash and a bruised pride.

    With modern helmets weighing around 300g (averageish), i can’t see any case for not wearing them. They are comfy enough that after 5 minutes you don’t even notice them and light enough that it has no effect when trying to hold your head up. How exactly can an extra (think) layer of foam/padding/plastic between your brain and the road not be beneficial?

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  10. Christian

    The real hinderance of wearing a helmet is for bike hire. I’m from Melbourne, Australia, and have had to live with the helmet laws for years. I’ve always hated them, I’ve never once been involved in any sort of accident. But if I’m taking my bike out, my helmet is there, so I put it on.

    But sometimes I’ll be in the city, where I don’t have my bike. And I feel like a leisurely bike ride. I see the hire bikes, but of course, I can’t hire them, because I don’t have a helmet. Sure, I could buy one, but I already have one, so now I’m just wasting my money on stuff I already own. And I’m not going to carry my helmet with me all the time “just in case” I want to ride. So the result is that I don’t use the awesome bike hire service that’s available to me.

    Fast forward and I’m now in Europe. I have the same urges to ride, and guess what, I can just pick up a bike and ride around the city without any worry at all. It’s awesome.

    Ultimately it should be up to the individual as to whether they want to wear a helmet or not. If I have my own bike and had easy access to a helmet, yeah, I’d probably wear it just in case. But if I didn’t – for any reason – I should be free to ride without infringement. Let people make up their own damn mind.

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  11. Lawrence

    I’ve ridden a bike, largely on UK roads, since I got my first “racing” bike in the mid 70s. Never worn a helmet, never will. I still consider myself a keen leisure cyclist/tourist (and ended up here researching the laws on helmets in France as I fancy another tour over there.)

    In around 1975 I managed to put my hand in my front wheel which catapulted me instantly straight over the handlebars and head first into the road. I’m sure that I was lightly concussed but after a few minutes I was able to ride the 3 miles home. I did get taken to casualty to be checked over where I was given the OK apart from cuts and bruises, (I still have a scar on my nose from this incident.)

    It’s the one crash I’ve had where a helmet may have been of use but regardless, here I am, 38 years later, fit, healthy and still cycling.

    If people think that cyclist should wear helmets regardless of fast they go, why not calls for joggers to wear them? I’m sure they must occasionally trip/fall.

    If you want to wear one fine, go ahead. I don’t intend to start now and if it was ever made compulsory here in the UK I’d either give up cycling or else I’d rack up a huge amount of unpaid penalty notices for not wearing one.

    LG

    Off out on my bike now, (and, knowing my luck, will probably get hit by a car after this!)

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