Oh no, it’s the bike helmet debate again!

I’ve decided to pen a few words on the subject of bike helmets, prompted by the coincidence of two articles.

The first was in ‘Cycle’, the UK’s biggest-selling cycling magazine (see below); the second was a short piece by my friend Andy Sinclair in my local paper
The Express & Echo.

I don’t wear a helmet, or at least usually I don’t. Over the last 10 years I’ve seen more and more Chain Gang cyclists opt to wear a helmet, and of course I buy 40 or more new helmets every year for our customers, so you can imagine I get asked a lot why I don’t wear one.

The collection of my reasons are contained within these two articles. I’d like to set them out in the interests of balance, and I’d be very interested to know what you think.

1. Statistics, show me some statistics!

So far, statistics simply don’t exist to prove that wearing bike helmets will make me safer from injury. The standard response to that is that it’s obvious, helmets must make you safer from head injury. And yet in more than 30 years nobody has ever managed to prove it with any statistics that stand up to scrutiny. But the same was true about the link between smoking and lung cancer, so I can see the weakness in that argument. But ‘it’s obvious’ has never been a particularly convincing argument for me.

A perfect example was a review in 2009 of available research from the UK’s Department of Transport. In the same report, they concluded that the wearing of bike helmets would save lives, and then stated specifically that there was no research to support this asumption! I call that truly pathetic. I like stats, I look carefully at the assumptions that lie behind them, and I am happy to be persuaded. But when Government departments issue recommendations and then specifically state they cannot find any evidence to support them, well I wouldn’t trust them to buy my daily paper.

2. It isn’t a level playing field!

If you always had to cycle at the same speed regardless of the weather, congestion or light conditions, then I’d wear a helmet whenever it was crowded, wet or dark. Instead, sometimes I wear a helmet, and sometimes I cycle more slowly and more carefully. Sometimes, I do both!

Andy makes the point in his article that we cyclists can dramatically improve our safety by being seen. I would add to that road positioning, a knowledge of who has the right of way, and then equal measures of confidence and humility towards other road users.

If you take two equally safe cyclists, it might be true that if one of them wears a helmet then they’ll be safer. But if an unsafe cyclist wears a helmet, and a safe cyclist doesn’t, only one of them’s going to hospital. And afterwards you can bet every penny you own that their life will have been ‘saved’ by their helmet! Time after time I hear this claim, and at the risk of tempting fate I think “I cycle more than you do, how come you keep getting hit by cars and I never do? Your helmet didn’t save your life, you almost lost it.”

OK, we all know now that I am going to get hit by a car, and next month I’ll be inviting your best wishes for a speedy recovery. But until then, read these two articles, and by all means share your thoughts with me.

I’ll leave you with two comments:

1. Please, wear a helmet if you want to, but don’t try to force me to if I don’t want to.

2. Be seen, and cycle safely. And if it’s ever a choice between cycling safely (like me!) or wearing a helmet, please cycle safely – that really will save your life!

2 thoughts on “Oh no, it’s the bike helmet debate again!

  1. Paul Garner

    A helmet reduces your risk of head or brain injury by 2/3 if you have an accident, research clearly shows.

    A reliable systematic review by the Cochrane Collaboration has carefully synthesised all the available evidence. There are no RCTS but 5 well conducted case controlled studies. The plain language summary of this is as follows: “Wearing a helmet dramatically reduces the risk of head and facial injuries for bicyclists involved in a crash, even if it involves a motor vehicle
    Cycling is a healthy and popular activity for people of all ages. Crashes involving bicyclists are, however, common and often involve motor vehicles. Head injuries are responsible for around three-quarters of deaths among bicyclists involved in crashes. Facial injuries are also common. The review found that wearing a helmet reduced the risk of head or brain injury by approximately two-thirds or more, regardless of whether the crash involved a motor vehicle. Injuries to the mid and upper face were also markedly reduced, although helmets did not prevent lower facial injuries.”
    Source: Thompson DC, Rivara F, Thompson R. Helmets for preventing head and facial injuries in bicyclists. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 1999, Issue 4. Art. No.: CD001855. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001855. Review assessed as up to date: 2006.

  2. Martyn

    Statistics & experts agree that wearing helmets, even cycle helmets, would go a long way to protect road users from brain damage in accidents IN CARS.

    There are many who agree that helmets should be compulsory in cars as seat belts are now (unless you are in a Hollywood movie where most still appear not to) & as ABS & airbags are compulsory now for new cars.

    My question is if it is safer in the kitchen, in Christchurch or under coconut trees, perhaps even a book shop with tall shelves or a pine forest with a helmet, nay full protective racing gear or something appropriate for Red Adair then why isn’t one compulsory in every day life?

    How can they let us leave the country without a helmet & perhaps a life vest in case we fly over water….. “boarding pass, passport, helmet sir”? Who knows what dangers await?

    And who can argue that a respectful turban or a kitchen pot is not infinitely more likely to protect you from hazard?

    Let the user decide, let them volunteer the risk once they have reached the age of consent I say.


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