Published: 20th SEPTEMBER 2019

Our position on the use of cycle helmets

We believe that it is a personal choice whether to wear a cycle helmet or not, and for parents to make that choice for their children.

People on bikes cycling over bridge in London

Summary

  1. The health benefits of increased physical activity far outweigh the disbenefits of injuries associated with cycling. Helmets are designed to reduce impact to the head and can be beneficial if you are involved in a collision. Wearing a helmet whilst cycling is not a legal requirement in the UK.
  2. As is currently the case in the UK, we believe it must be a personal choice whether to wear a cycle helmet or not, and for parents to make that choice for their children.
  3. However, it’s important to remember that cycle helmets don’t prevent collisions from happening. Therefore, we strongly support and focus our work on measures that help create and maintain a safe cycling environment to reduce collisions taking place.

Context

A cycle helmet is designed to reduce the impact to the head of a person cycling in falls or collisions while minimising side effects such as interference with peripheral vision.

Recent studies have found that cycle helmets can offer protection to the head, but not in every scenario. For example, a recent academic study showed cycle helmets offer "effective protection at low speeds of less than 50km/h (31 mph)" [1]. The same study also concluded cycle helmets offer protection against secondary impacts against the ground after the initial collision, but that helmets became less protective the faster cars are travelling, and were of "minimal" use in crashes with cars travelling at more than 50km/h (31 mph).

A French study found that helmets contributed to a 24%-31% reduction in head injury overall and a 70% reduction in head injuries categorised as moderate injury (defined as loss of consciousness for between 15 minutes and 6 hours or a period of post-traumatic amnesia of up to 24 hours) [2].

The studies above, however only access the effectiveness of helmets following a collision. Some studies suggest wearing a helmet may be associated with an increased likelihood of having a collision and helmets can contribute towards greater injury in the event of a collision. Another interesting Dutch study found that 13.3% of cyclists hospitalised in the Netherlands were wearing helmets, despite it being estimated that less than 1% of Dutch cyclists wear helmets [3].

What Sustrans thinks

We believe that it is a personal choice whether to wear a cycle helmet or not, and for parents to make that choice for their children.

Improved safety records in the most cycling-friendly countries are greatly attributed to a network of well-connected and high quality dedicated infrastructure, public awareness and understanding of cycling, and a culture where most people cycle regularly rather than being in any way attributable to higher levels of helmet use. Countries with the highest levels of cycling, such as Denmark and the Netherlands, record the lowest levels of helmet use in the world.

Legislating to make cycle helmets compulsory can discourage people from cycling. Evidence from Australia and New Zealand, for example, suggests that large numbers of cyclists are deterred from cycling by helmet legislation [4]. In the year following the introduction of legislation for compulsory helmets in New South Wales (Australia) there was a 36% reduction in cycling levels.

It is estimated that a total of 136,000 adults and children in New Zealand – nearly 4% of the total population – stopped cycling immediately after the introduction of cycle helmet legislation in 1994 [5].

This reduction in cycling is associated with a reduction in physical activity which could lead to negative health impacts overall. Coupled with this is the fact that cycling safety improves when more people cycle – the ‘safety in numbers effect’. It is thought that the increased frequency of motorist-cyclist interaction creates more aware motorists [6].

Cycling has many health, social and environmental benefits. If we are to make the most of these benefits, we need to increase, and, therefore, normalise cycling. This means putting solutions that are based on the evidence and the experiences of most cycling-friendly countries and cities into practice. We need to invest in and deliver a network of dedicated cycling routes and car-free public space so that cycling is a viable option for everyday journeys.

References:

[1] Professor Michael Gilchrist, of University College Dublin (UCD) https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/republic-of-ireland/cycling-helmets-are-life-savers-study-claims-31583968.html

[2] 14 Olivier, J. and Creighton, P. (2016) ‘Bicycle injuries and helmet use: a systematic review and meta-analysis’, International Journal of Epidemiology, 1:1-15.

[3] Rijkswaterstaat, 2008. Enkelvoudige fietsongevallen. Ministerie van Verkeer en Waterstaat, 2008. https://www.cyclehelmets.org/1261.html

[4] http://www.ctc.org.uk/sites/default/files/file_public/cycle-helmets-evidencebrf.pdf

[5] http://www.cycle-helmets.com/helmet-law-spin.html

[6] https://injuryprevention.bmj.com/content/9/3/205 

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