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The Cycle Helmet Debate

In the UK, unless you are taking part in certain sports competitions, wearing a cycle helmet is not compulsory. The debate as to whether cycle helmets should be made a mandatory piece of cycling equipment is heated and topical. But, surely, it’s pretty clear cut; whether you are a child or adult, taking part in a competition or commuting to work, wearing a cycle helmet should be made compulsory. Or should it…

The Case For

Maisie Godden-Hall was 11 years when she sustained serious injuries in an accident on 3rd November 2016 as she was cycling to school. She believes that her cycle helmet saved her life and she is now campaigning for cycle helmets to be made mandatory.

Maisie describes how she was getting ready to go to school but was running late as she couldn’t remember where she had put her helmet. Having found the helmet, she was cycling to school when a car pulled out at a junction ahead of her. She braked too hard causing her to fly over the handlebars and landed in the road. The driver didn’t see her and drove over her. Maisie sustained three breaks to her pelvis, a broken collar bone, major facial injuries and lost seven teeth. Doctors told her that her helmet saved her life. Fortunately, Maisie has now recovered well from the accident.

Sadly, there are many similar accidents involving adults and children alike. In 2003, Andrey Kivilev was a 29-year-old professional road cyclist when he died during the Paris-Nice cycle race. His death lead to the International Cyclist Union, the world governing body for cycling, making it compulsory for the wearing of cycling helmets in all endorsed races.

Followers of the Tour de France and other major cycle races will know that all professional cyclists now wear helmets. In downhill mountain bike races, cyclists must wear a full head and face helmet. Certainly, in local amateur races that I have taken part in, all competitors’ equipment, including helmets are inspected before the start and competitors are not allowed to take part unless they are wearing a helmet.

The road safety charity, Brake, reports that wearing cycle helmets reduces the risk of head injuries by 85%, brain injuries by 88% and severe brain injuries by at least 75%.

On the face of it, it seems obvious that cycle helmets should be compulsory. Even if one life is saved or an injury prevented then the wearing of cycle helmets should be supported.

The Case Against

Many, however, will argue that the debate is not so one sided.

Cycling UK, an independent campaigning organisation, says that it should be up to the individual to decide whether or not to wear a helmet and that making it mandatory will deter people from cycling. Australia is an example of this, where a helmet-wearing law was introduced from 1990 to 1992, only to see the number of people cycling reduced. Cycling UK argues that the health benefits of cycling significantly outweigh the relatively low risks involved.

There are also doubts about the effectiveness of helmets. Whilst they might be designed to withstand low impact or minor knocks, it must be questioned as to whether they are truly effective in a serious collision. After all, cycle helmets provide no neck or facial protection.

Others argue that wearing a helmet is actually detrimental as cyclists are more likely to take more risks and go faster than they would have done had they not been wearing a helmet.

In the unfortunate case described above involving Maisie, she describes how she was cycling faster as she had been delayed by looking for her helmet. Therefore, had she left on time without her helmet and thus had not needed to cycle as fast, would the accident have been avoided? Whilst very limited medical evidence is available in this case, there is actually no mention of a head injury. Is the helmet debate even relevant to this case?

She also states: “I was cycling my regular route, which involved using the crossings and cycling on the pavement. There is a junction on my route where I generally move into the bus lane, as there is a wall that blocks the view for drivers”. It was at this junction that she had to brake hard and her accident occurred.

Other Considerations

Rather than automatically concluding that helmets should be made mandatory, perhaps greater attention needs to be made to increasing the number of cycle routes and making them safer as well as having better laid out junctions.

On balance, I believe that cyclists should be free to make their own decision as to whether they wear helmets or not. I believe more focus should be made on making cycling the norm, as it is in the Netherlands, and thereby improving the overall health of the UK.

I also believe that consideration should be given to the construction of cycle helmets so there is more protection around the side of the head and neck. Certain newer models now appear more robust than the older versions and would seem to provide greater protection.

For now, I will continue to wear a cycle helmet as in my view it is the safest option and I see no harm in wearing one.