Helmets – Expectation and Inconsistency

One of the most baffling aspects of the fixation on bicycle helmets as a way of attempting to protect cyclists from harm is the extraordinary inconsistency with which helmets are advocated. Setting aside the vexed issue of how effective helmets actually are in preventing the injuries cyclists most commonly suffer in collisions with motor vehicles, it is deeply odd how the logic used to urge helmets onto cyclists is never applied to other road users, particularly pedestrians and car drivers.

Perhaps the greatest absurdity is that a compulsory helmet law would force those of us cycling to the shops at less than 15 mph to wear a polystyrene hat, while people in convertible sports cars remain free to drive at over 70 mph with absolutely no protection to their bodies whatsoever should their cars roll over in a collision, beyond a seat belt which may or may not hold them in the car. Yet as far as I am aware, Headway, BHIT and other bodies which advocate a compulsory bicycle helmet law have absolutely nothing to say about crash helmets for the users of convertible cars.

Shockingly dangerous behaviour.

Of course, the ‘fragile skulls’ of people in cars (for this is the phrase of choice for groups like Headway and BHIT) are not just at risk in convertibles. It is commonly established that head injuries are the most common type of severe or fatal injury sustained by car occupants in crashes. Of vehicle occupants taken to hospital in Australia, the head was usually the most severely injured body region. [pdf]

This same paper notes that, for car occupants,

a bicycle style soft shell helmet could provide a large degree of protection for the head very cheaply. A simpler form of headwear, in the form of a headband covering mainly the forehead, where most impacts to the heads of car occupants occur, could offer almost as much benefit without as much bulk and even less weight. Protective headwear also has the very considerable advantage that it could be available within a matter of months for use by those who wish to reduce their risk of sustaining brain damage if involved in a road crash.

However, the logic that polystyrene helmets could offer protection to car occupants in precisely the same fashion that they could to bicycle users is routinely discarded. A search for ‘helmets’ on the Headway site only produces 68 results almost entirely related to bicycle helmets – nothing about the potential benefits of protecting the ‘fragile skulls’ of car occupants.

Drivers, we are told, have seatbelts, and a protective shell around them, and there is no need for them to protect their ‘fragile skulls’ in the same way that a bicycle user might with a polystyrene shell. This despite the evidence that the most common severe or fatal injury to car occupants is to the head.

Counts, and proportions, of serious injuries to body regions, Australia 2003-4. From this paper [pdf]

Similarly, a UK study of data from 33 hospitals between 1996 and 2003 found that around 25% of car occupants who had suffered a head injury did not survive [pdf].

Plainly the heads of car occupants are susceptible to serious damage. Yet lobbying for car occupants to wear helmets is non-existent, even if, to use the emotive language of bicycle helmet advocacy, ‘they might just save one life’. Or that ‘wearing a helmet is surely better than not wearing one’.

I wrote earlier this year about a tragic local case in which a young car driver, Toby Woolford, died from his head injuries after he crashed into a lorry on the A27 near Arundel.

Although Toby died of severe head injuries – thankfully very quickly – the inquest did not discuss how Toby’s life might have been saved by something he could have been wearing, but was not, at the time of the collision. This is quite proper, of course; it would be unseemly to suggest or imply that Toby was somehow responsible for his own death by failing to use protective equipment while inside his car – a crash helmet, for instance. Such a helmet, similar to those worn by motorcyclists or racing drivers, could possibly have saved Toby’s life. On the other hand, it might not have. We simply don’t know. And it would be wrong to speculate about it. Especially because no driver, or any occupant of a car, would ever see fit to wear crash helmets while using their car for ordinary, day to day activities. It would be quite improper to talk about how Toby wasn’t wearing a crash helmet, even if there was a remote possibility it could have saved his life, because drivers are not expected to wear them.

This, I think, is the essence of the matter – the expectation that bicycle users should wear helmets, and that car drivers shouldn’t have to. Because bicycle helmets are now increasingly seen as a ‘normal’ piece of equipment, it becomes ‘irresponsible’ not to wear one. Conversely, because nobody drives a car with polystyrene strapped to their head, you might look like a bit of a lunatic if you chose to do so – even though, by doing so, you might actually be acting just as ‘responsibly’ as a cyclist wearing the same item. Attitudes to bicycle helmets, in other words, seem increasingly to be framed by custom, and expected behaviour, than about actually preventing harm.

Just like car occupants, pedestrians aren’t expected to wear helmets. That is why, in the case of this unfortunate man airlifted to hospital with life-threatening head injuries after being struck by a car in Brighton just a few days ago, there is no mention of the man’s lack of helmet. Nor should there be; he was walking along, and he was struck by a car. We don’t expect people walking about to be wearing helmets, and so we don’t mention the absence of one when they are struck by motor vehicles.

The glaring inconsistency of this attitude leapt out at me from a report into the recent inquest of the death of a teenager, Joshua Dale, in Nottingham in January this year. He was using a pedestrian crossing when he was struck by a car; traffic was stationary in the right-hand filter lane, held at a red light. However, traffic progressing straight on still had a green light, and Joshua was hit by a car he had failed to anticipate coming (the driver might also have been expected to anticipate people attempting to cross). The Coroner had this to say

Recording a verdict of accidental death, Notts Coroner Mairin Casey said: “It’s imperative if we are to learn anything that children must be educated further and become more aware of the safety aspects of wearing helmets.”

This is utterly bizarre, because Joshua was using the crossing in precisely the same way as a pedestrian might have been, and he was struck by a car in precisely the same way he would have been if he had been walking across. No mention of a helmet would have been made if he had been hit while using the crossing on foot. But because he was on a bike, the absence of a helmet suddenly becomes relevant, despite making no tangible difference to the outcome. Again, it is the expectation that people using bicycles should wear helmets that is colouring attitudes, even when those bicycles are being used to convey people in a manner very similar way to walking.

The final recent example of expectation producing absurd statements about helmets comes from Tamworth, where a man on a bicycle was struck by an HGV coming off a sliproad from the M42 motorway. He suffered serious leg injuries. A spokesman for West Midlands Ambulance Service said

Fortunately the cyclist was wearing a helmet which undoubtedly helped to minimise his injuries.

I doubt this ambulance service spokesman would, on reflection, genuinely believe that a polystyrene hat ‘undoubtedly’ minimised the injuries of a man plainly run over by an HGV. This statement is not really a rational assessment of the abilities of bicycle helmets to protect their users. It’s a product of the belief that people on bicycles should wear helmets, regardless of the actual extent of protection a helmet would offer in the particular circumstances. A belief that disregards the fact that bicycle helmets could be equally ‘useful’ to people on foot when they might be hit by a car or a lorry, or to the occupants of motor vehicles.

What’s in action here is the subtle reinforcement of expectation.

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84 Responses to Helmets – Expectation and Inconsistency

  1. Andrea says:

    My father was killed by a bus driver on Regent Street. He was a pedestrian and he died from head injuries; had he been wearing a helmet, he might have survived.
    The coroner naturally gave a verdict of “accidental death”, even though the driver was travelling at an inappropriate speed. She did not say “It’s imperative if we are to learn anything that pedestrians (especially foreigners) must be educated further and become more aware of the safety aspects of wearing helmets” paraphrasing this idiot from Nottingham .
    In the fifteen years since, not one cycling-helmet advocate has told me that my father should have been wearing a helmet.

  2. AndrewRH says:

    Tis the season when councils throughout the land install ice skating rinks for families to enjoy. No helmets are available to rent, just skates. Yet people are travelling about the speed of a bicycle, with many newbies wobbling around, on a very hard surface. Is there ‘safety in numbers’? I guess if the zamboni were to come out then maybe everyone would be demanding ice skaters to wear a helmet. But they always separate skaters (off the ice!) when it is time to bring the big machine out.

    • Paul Mackilligin says:

      This one is easy. There are no cars or trucks on the ice rink. Its motor vehicles that cause serious injury to cyclists, pedestrians AND to the occupants of cars themselves.

      • Frank Krygowski says:

        The lack of ice skating helmets is not explained by the absence of cars. First, helmet promoters are fond of saying one can topple off a bike in one’s driveway and suffer a serious brain injury. Second, helmets are often recommended even for low speed riding on car-free bike trails. Third, helmets are tested and certified for impacts of just 14 mph, the theoretical speed associated with a stationary topple. Their supposed protective capacity is totally obliterated by, say, a collision with an oncoming left turning car; so that can’t be what they’re really about.

        Helmets are not now recommended for ice skating simply because the helmeteers haven’t gotten around to that yet. If we don’t regain some perspective, ice skating helmets may well become another “Danger! Danger!” campaign.

  3. AndrewRH says:

    Sadly there are injuries in many sports, but as article says, there is little mention of need to wear helmets other than when its a cyclist hit by a car. Some places make it mandatory to wear (very strong) helmets in sports eg skiing children, but rarely if ever in UK for football and rugby players. Or skating on the Council ice rink.
    Scottish GP says mandating helmets for skiers not needed… http://www.steeleslaw.co.uk/news-item.aspx?id=1e3daef0-25f2-4aa1-a35c-062af420e0b3

  4. Would it be possible to extrapolate from UK data the comparative risk of head injury (‘per journey’ or ‘per km’) between cycling and being in a car?

    • Chris March says:

      I’ve not seen the data, but I’m pretty sure it will show you that the comparative risk of sustaining a head injury is greater when ‘cycling’, regardless of what measure you choose to use. Does this matter? No – what is important is that the risk of sustaining a head injury is very low. See these series of posts by Joe Dunkley for the rationale: http://waronthemotorist.wordpress.com/2012/08/02/all-those-helmets-posts-in-one-place/

      Of course, the data, should it exist, will be flawed in any case, as there will be no context for the cycling injury statistics. It is a safe assumption that the vast majority of injuries to car occupants will have been sustained while the car was being used in a typical manner; that is to say the purpose of the journey is one of utility (driving to work, to the shops, to see relatives, etc.). Very few will involve motor sport of any kind. Is this the case for injuries sustained whilst cycling? ‘Cycling’ is a broad church – there is utility cycling, but there is also cycle racing, mountain biking, BMX, cyclocross, audax, sportives, etc. I have no idea of the proportion of rides that are ‘sports cycling’, but given the modal share of cycling in the UK, it will be significant – particularly if you are measuring on a ‘per kilometre’ basis.

    • pm says:

      Even if the relative risk for car-occupants is lower, it still undermines the ‘if it saves one life’ mantra. Advocates of compulsory helmet laws overwhelmingly tend to retreat to an absolutist position, for example in citing individual cases of cyclists who ‘might have been saved’ had they been wearing a helmet.

      If the argument could move on from shroud-waving, silly absolutism, and selective anecdotes to at least a discussion of relative risks and what level of risk is acceptable (and better yet, what other ways there might be of reducing those risks) that would be a great improvement.

      Mind you, I always wear a helmet for cycling and pretty much never get in a car (because the latter seems like reckless behaviour to me!).

  5. Mike says:

    i’m all for helmets. Had a stack when I got a corner wrong and hit a stone walled fence doing about 25-27miles/hour (I was living in Co Cork, Ireland where helmets were not compulsory). I was knocked unconscious by the impact. On inspecting my helmet I saw a large crack down the middle front from where I must have headbutted the wall. I do not want to think what might have happened if I wasn’t wearing it.

    • I suspect what you really mean is “I’m all for helmets… when I’m engaging in fast, hazardous behaviour.” As it happens, I also wear a helmet when I’m going mountain biking, or when I’m out on my racing bike. I don’t wear one, however, when I’m trundling to the shops, or going to work in smart clothes. These are two entirely different forms of activity, and suggesting that the former should tell us anything about the kind of protective equipment we should wear when engaging in the latter makes as much sense as saying car drivers should wear helmets when going to the supermarket, because they protect racing drivers.

      (Incidentally, if your helmet split, it is most likely that it didn’t decrease much of the force of the impact. Splitting suggests it failed instantaneously, rather than deforming and absorbing energy, as it is designed to.)

    • Smorg says:

      I’m glad you were wearing a helmet and that it probably saved you from serious head injury!

      I have had a few crashes myself, but the one that really knocked senses into me was a low speed (walking pace) one where my hands slipped off the bar when I hit the corner of a speed bump wrong. I landed on the side of my helmetless head and earned a bad concussion that pinned my head to the ground and rolled my eye balls back so that I couldn’t see anything for a while. It was probably no more than a minute or two of ‘blindness’, but it felt like an eternity since I knew I was laying downhill from a blind curve and needed to get off the road (but couldn’t, since I couldn’t tell which way to roll). I was extremely lucky that I recovered without long term damage… but I have never gotten on a bicycle without a helmet on ever since, even for a block and a half trip to watch a neighbor’s dogs.

      I do think people who think that the helmet is only needed for reckless, fast, dangerous, clueless, etc, etc (insert other strawman idiotic behavior here) type of riding need to keep thinking beyond their own behaviors. Helmets probably can’t save your life/brain function if you crash at very high speed, and probably don’t make much difference at very low speed ones. But they discount the ability of the helmet to save them in middling crashes (and freaky ones) at their own perils.

      • By this logic, you should of course wear a helmet permanently. Do you?

        • Smorg says:

          Frankly, I like my logic better than your black and white one.

          • Your logic being ‘wear a helmet when riding a bike, because I hurt my head once when I was on a bike’, simultaneously employed with ‘don’t wear a helmet when walking about or driving, even though people hurt their heads while engaging in these activities.’

            I don’t think it’s me being ‘black and white’.

            • Come on, Smorg. Why can’t you look at yourself and admit your own thinking has been revealed as flawed by this article? My one and only head injury occurred when I had food poisoning, was badly feverish, but had to keep running to the loo. The combination caused me to collapse into the frame of the loo door, head first. Lesson? Everyone should wear a helmet when having a dump or what?

              As someone living in a cycling friendly city, I can see one reason for this silly thinking. Here in Bremen, cycling is culturally much closer to walking than to driving. Speeds are much slower, infrastructure is near-comprehensive, and the vast majority of cyclists are people going about their everyday activities in their ordinary clothes. In the UK, the majority of cyclists are young, male and hooked on cycling as sport. If most car drivers understood driving as a sort of formula 1 activity, maybe more would want to wear helmets too.

  6. coshgirl says:

    Or you might had died Mike, as this cyclist did ‘despite wearing a helmet’ and despite no other vehicle being involved: http://www.thisisbristol.co.uk/Talented-Raj-Soni-18-dies-crash/story-16654937-detail/story.html

  7. And all this is why I have stopped wearing my helmet in London. I use my bike to go to work or the shops, and the chances of the helmet having any use in these situations is extremely low. On the plus side I look more approchable when I mingle with pedestrians (shared paths), on the other I expect many seeth about me “not even wearing a helmet, irresponsible cyclists etc”.

  8. Having rolled a car exactly like the one in the picture, I think that motoring helmets should be compulsory for the occupants of all cars. OK, so I walked away from it with only a slightly bruised knee, but it could have been very much worse. Drivers need to be saved from them selves!

    Actually I was very lucky, and it changed my life. After that accident I became a far safer driver as I realised my own mortality and took a great deal more care. I also became an advanced driver and a full qualified driving instructor (but not as a result of the “accident”).

  9. I wonder what the hard numbers of lives which would be saved by car/pedestrian helmets would be.

    It’s worth pointing out that car and pedestrian helmets would save far more lives than cycle helmets, simply because there are many more car drivers/passengers and pedestrians than there are cyclists.

    Cycling’s tiny modal share here means that even if 100% of cyclists wore the very best helmets, only a few lives would be saved every year, as opposed to hundreds (or even thousands?) of drivers/passengers/pedestrians.

  10. There is also evidence for same level of double standard among the helmet champions, James Cracknell for example.

  11. albertsq says:

    I had a bike accident a few months ago. I still don’t know what happened at the time, but I broke my skull and was helicoptered off to Romford for an emergency operation to save my life. Obviously that worked, and here I am today. I didn’t wear a helmet for many years of cycling in London, but I am now wondering if I get back on a bike again whether I will. Probably, because inner ear damage and subsequent balance issues means I might fall off if I’m distracted. There is absolutely no way that I would make wearing them compulsory though, for anyone — they are uncomfortable, hot in summer, and don’t protect against the really dangerous accidents in London, namely being run over by a heavy goods vehicle. The whole business is a non-argument.

  12. rdrf says:

    There is a fundamentalist site devoted to promoting car occupant helmets: http://www.drivingwithoutdying.com/10reasons.html

    There is also the usual “research” to support car occupant wearing, as here: http://xa.yimg.com/kq/groups/9103844/1345405890/name/Australia-1997-FORS-Driving%20helmets-Report.PDF

    There is a basic moral difference between lids for car occupants and lids for cyclists (or pedestrians). If cyclists and/or pedestrians tahe elss care because of the sue helmets (risk compensation – safety benefits being absorbed as performance benefits), they tend to hurt only themselves, whereas car suers are rather more of a problem to others. Motorists are bad enough to start off with, made worse bys eat belts, roll-bars, crumple zones, etc. etc.

    Of course, when someone says to you “Why don’t you wear a helmet when you cycle ? That Bradley Wiggins does”, just say “Why don’t you wear a helmet when you’re driving? That Lewis Hamilton does”.

    Nice post.

    BTW , do take a look at the “A Helmet Saved My Life” point which comes on every thread like this, it is discussed quite nicely on http://www.cyclehelmets.org , the go-to site for this topic. If there is anything at all to risk compensation , and I think there has to be – although i would say that having banged on about it for twenty five years – you might ask yourself a question.

    That is: how many times do you see people say: “One of the reasons I got into the crash in the first place is becasue I took less care than I would have done if I had not been wearing a helmet” ? Or maybe – and more to the point – if we didn’t have this diversion about, might we not be better able to work out hwat is needed for real safety for cyclists (and others) on the roads?

  13. ianbrettcooper says:

    Because head injuries are often a result of car crashes, I would certainly advocate for motorists to wear helmets if I thought the idea had wide cultural support, but it doesn’t.

    As for cycling, the thing is, cycling helmets do have widespread cultural support, so I take advantage of that by choosing to wear a helmet every time I ride. Will I ever need it? According to the statistics, almost certainly not, but because it’s a comfortable helmet, that doesn’t matter to me. Now it’s just a natural part of my preparation for riding – putting on the helmet takes the same amount of time as tucking my trousers into my sock or putting on a trouser clip, and it gives me an advantage in that it forms a solid and reliable mount for my rear view mirror.

    • Why do you say that “cycling helmets do have widespread cultural support”? Anything to do with the wide spread (and as has been pointed out above, largely misleading) advertising that they have had? Cycle helmets are widely use as a means of distracting attention from the real issues of road safety, until we address these the number of pedestrians and cycle KSIs on our roads will continue to rise as they are currently doing.

      It is time to focus on the real issues and stop being distracted by the Red Herring of cycle helmets.

      • ianbrettcooper says:

        I say it because it’s a fact. I think you’re missing my point (which was that I think motorists should wear helmets) and falling into the same trap that you claim people fall into – getting caught up in the issue of helmets when that’s not the real issue. Safety is the issue and helmets are just one of the things that can improve safety.

        I have never believed that helmets are the first defense in the fight against cycling crashes. But they are on the list. My helmet is my last line of defense, there in case everything else fails. The idea that we ‘shouldn’t’ wear helmets just because we feel unfairly pressured by society and by misleading adverts to wear them is just as ridiculous as the idea that we ‘should’ wear them just because we feel pressured by society to wear them’. Neither is a reason to do anything with a helmet or to do anything else safety-related. What should determine whether we use a safety tactic or an article of safety apparel is whether or not it will prevent accidents or mitigate their severity.

        • pm says:

          I think the argument for selectively supporting things that have “wide cultural support” is unpersuasive, because it amounts to accepting that “might is right”. All sorts of double standards exist because of such political factors (attitudes to women’s dress in places like Afghanistan, for example), that doesn’t mean any individual is obliged to simply roll over and accept them.

          In truth, I am unclear what you are arguing for or against. Personally I don’t care if any individual cyclist chooses to wear a helmet or not (I wear one myself, without much enthusiasm, and with a lot of ambivalence). I am totally against making them compulsory and I am annoyed by the victim-blaming that goes on around them, but I’m certainly not saying that its wrong for any individual cyclist to decide to wear one.

          I would say that promoting them is a waste of energy that should be spent on reducing car use and improving motorist behaviour.

          The real issue is that there are too many cars on our roads (driving too fast and too carelessly), and that they dominate urban areas in particular to an extent that I personally find infuriating.

    • The “widespread support” is a nonsense because the widespread community does not ride a bike, whereas virtually everyone rides in a car. It’s easy to advocate nanny state laws when they don’t impinge on your own personal freedom. In they places that primarily have support, notably Australia and Britain, cyclists are detested, so the whole “support” is based on petty vengence and the selfish desire to save costs on the public heath system. You don’t see any of this in mature cycling cultures like Europe. In facts, it’s probably only these anti-cycling countries that would have any support of a mandatory helmet law. Of course, most of these same supporters are lazy lard-asses sitting on the couch, smoking, boozing and will become far great burdens on the health system than any cyclist out there exercising, helmet or not. My blogs:

      • Fred says:

        If by “nanny state” you mean public health interventions, they have saved millions of lives around the world. Your life was most likely saved by the nanny state and the fact that you can live your life so oblivious to the obvious benefits the government has given us is a sign of success. Every death and serious injury hurts the bottom line (taxes and private profit), families, and the person involved. But I guess in your mind we should suffer more as long as we aren’t affected by this vague fear of a “nanny state”. Please read some more history of epidemiology and public health instead of repeating other people’s nonsense aka “nanny state”. Words like “nanny state” show me that someone has let someone else think for them.

        • Then if it’s about “saving lives”, then no doubt you’d support mandatory helmets for car occupants, as this article proposes, right? I mean, 4000 head injuries per year of which 25% cause death, you could save so much off the “bottom line” and save all that suffering for families, right? How about we be mandate lifejackets for beach goers. Bang, no more drownings. Let’s fine people baking themselves stupid in the sun and getting skin cancer. 2000 deaths a year there, plus 40,000 new cases each year burdening the health system. Now for the real doozy – obesity and diabetes. Astronomical costs. So let’s have annual check-ups of everyone and fine individuals $100 per unit outside their BMI. How does that all sound to you? If it sounds invasive and intrusive, so is a damn helmet law on cyclists. The irony of which is that the activity of cycling is the only activity I’ve mentioned above that is healthy and a net benefit on the health system helmet or not. Yet this is the one you choose to impose your supercilious grandstanding of “health intervention” by banning cyclists or persecuting them with vicious fines as is the consequence of mandatory helmet laws? Health intervention is actually trying get people exercising. Not just a discriminator, you’re a hypocrite.

          • Fred says:

            What do you feel about vaccination? Do you realize that until the “nanny state” enacted better standards we died of disease in the thousands per year? The same was true for electrocution (something you probably never realized that your nanny saved you from), and auto accidents.

            If you read my literature, you’d realize that I OPPOSE MANDATORY HELMET LAWS. This is because it does not have any MEASURABLE EFFECT UPON SAFETY.

            So we’re actually on the same side on this. Instead of being so angry at the govt which renders you totally impotent in political affairs, you should read up on data on public interventions and to their costs and benefits.

            Political discussion is so poisoned by rhetoric which is created to keep us apart.

            We need to educate ourselves and raise the bar regarding the tone and content of the political discussions if we are going to make the same kind of progress in the 2000’s that our parents and their parents made in the 1900’s. The point is that you STILL TAKE FOR GRANTED THE BENEFITS AND YOU HAVE NOT SHOWN ME WHY IT WOULD BE BETTER TO NOT HAVE A NANNY STATE SO I CAN BE “FREE” TO DIE OF INFECTIOUS DISEASE. PLEASE ADDRESS WHY I HAVE TO DIE FOR YOUR FREEDOM?

            • I personally like vaccinations. Would I make it a law? No. Besides, the main idea of vaccinations is to protect innocent people (contain outbreaks of disease), so it’s not quite a nanny state situation of imposing laws that restrict individual liberty. It’s like laws against speeding. Good. Because they protect people that cannot protect themselves.

              When you reply to me about the nanny state in the context of MHL, obviously I’m to believe you are favouring such laws. It seems you have a different definition of nanny state to me (more a welfare state, of which I mostly agree), so your questions are irrelevant to the topic and my original context.

              • Fred says:

                Again, we agree on helmets.

                As for “nanny state”, how do I know that something is “nanny state” or not. It seems like a waste of time to use this word as it is emotional and has no real meaning.

                I do think that public health is important. We’ll have to agree to disagree. You can advocate for a vague sense of “freedom” and I’ll be on the side of the thousands of families who are not currently suffering due to painful deaths and disease.

                Instead of vague phrases such as “nanny state” we should ask if public health interventions will work to reduce death and suffering more than their current cost.

                I noticed that you ignored the measurable benefits on things such as personal pain as well as the public and private bottom lines which are also positively impacted. I used vaccinations as an example, there are many, many, many public health interventions which as raised our quality of life and saved us money.

                You might be better off to see if you have not been deceived by this phrase such as “nanny state” that you did not make up which is causing you to emotionally respond instead of soberly and sanely looking at costs and benefits.

            • I’ll use “nanny state” as I already explained it. We are talking this context only of MHL and the various examples earlier – the government intruding on our personal lives and infringing our civil liberties. As I also explained, vaccinations is primarily to protect other people – controlling outbreaks of disease. If you can’t see the distinction, maybe you’ve been nannied too long in life. (Sorry I replied here; no button lower down)

              • Fred says:

                Um, did you read that I am AGAINST MHL?

                One more time, since you keep repeating yourself, please read up more on the history of public health initiatives and stop using emotionally loaded phrases.

                They serve no one’s interests and are just confusing.

                “Nanny state” has no meaning except in your own mind. It means what you want it to mean, but you are unable to convey that meaning so that others knows what it means.

                Overall, I am in favor of public health policies which save money and lives. I am assuming that you are against them which to me is totally insane, but everyone is entitled to your own opinion. I do wish you’re read more.

                Here’s some information to get you started:


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  15. Mike Chalkley says:

    I would urge you all to watch BBC Horizon’s “Surviving a car crash” episode. Although it only talks about survival for car occupants, it does give a detailed explanation of the mechanisms of injury in high speed (>20mph) accidents. Most of the mechanisms we have in place for car safety do not prevent injury but merely lessen it only slightly and instead transmit the forces involved to within the body where the most damage is done – unseen. It helps explain why helmets are ineffectual for these sort of collision.

    • ianbrettcooper says:

      Mike, I think it’s a straw man to suggest that helmets are entirely useless because they don’t help in certain narrowly defined crash types. Yes, my helmet isn’t going to prevent the knee injury I received during the only car accident I was involved in, but I think helmets can reduce head injury severity in crashes which result in head injuries.

      Also, I’d rather have airbags and seat belts than have neither and risk being propelled through the windscreen and 20 yards onto the road, like one (dead) woman I saw in an accident a few years ago. Car safety mechanisms may cause some injuries, but they are manufactured primarily to prevent death.

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  17. cherryrae says:

    I think I understand the argument you’re trying to make… It’s the expectation that helmets are a must to save one’s life in an accident with a vehicle. While it’s certainly arguably that it might not (depending on how you’re struck or how you land), what about accidents not involving other vehicles?

    I understand how much of an inconvenience *compulsory* cycle helmets are to certain cities and rental bikes but as one person who survived a major freak accident, yes, because I was wearing a helmet, I’ll forever find articles like this so bizarre. They do save lives. Maybe not always but I certainly learned how important they are that day.

    Before my accident I was one of those people who would only wear a helmet if I knew I was going to be riding on (my personally) perceived ‘dangerous’ or busy roads. Thank god that day I actually did think I’d be riding on such roads because on a quiet, yet steep hill I was thrown from my bike by an all but invisible pot hole and landed hard on my head and face. Barely a scratch on that ‘polystyrene hat’ you so knowingly mock yet a pretty severe concussion. I do my best not to think about how much worse it would have been with that unfashionable headwear, which I so frequently refused to wear before that day.

    What I’m trying to say is this: it doesn’t matter how ludicrous we find compulsory helmet laws or how much of a hindrance to introducing new programs, or even how annoyed we get at the police spending time ticketing non helmet users while motor vehicles are speeding all over the damn city (i live in Vancouver BC and this constantly frustrates me). The point is, it is really disappointing when I see the use of helmets dismissed and satirized. They DO save lives, frequently. It’s a shame our bodies are also soft and susceptible to damage but high speed traffic accidents aren’t the only ones people have on bikes.

    So yes, please go ahead and make arguments why compulsory laws for helmets aren’t necessary, but I don’t think arguing the absurdity of they’re non-usefulness in bike accidents, or how unfair it is other road users aren’t expected to wear one, does anyone any favours.

    • cherryrae says:

      Excuse the auto-correct typos. I was typing on my phone!

    • Chris March says:

      The effectiveness or otherwise or bicycle helmets has been debated ad infinitum et ad nauseam. Clearly, your own personal experience has informed your belief that your choice to wear a bicycle helmet saved your life – I’m not going to try and persuade you otherwise, because there is no conclusive evidence supporting either side of the argument. It has probably also caused you to assert that bicycle helmets frequently save lives; again, one would suggest that there is a lack of evidence to support you in that assertion.

      The author of this piece is involved in the promotion of cycling as a viable mode of transport for pretty much anybody to use in their daily lives. Riding to work, popping to the shops, going to school, visiting the grandparents, that kind of thing. The kind of thing you can do in whatever clothes you wear on a typical day. The kind of journeys you might make in a car, on public transport, or indeed on foot. Do these modes of transport mandate the wearing of specialist clothing and protective equipment? Of course not – the level of exertion involved is minimal and the risks are low enough to make concept of wearing protective equipment absurd. Are the risks to the user so significantly greater when riding on a bicycle at a moderate speed in an urban or suburban environment, as to warrant the wearing of specialist protective equipment?

      The levels of risk for utility cycling, walking and driving are comparable. They are small. Incredibly small. Yet, of course, awful incidents happen on our roads every day. An average of seven people per day die on Britain’s roads and many times more are seriously injured. Most of these incidents will go unreported by our media, for alas, they are all too common. Incidents involving cyclists tend to get more column inches, however, because they happen infrequently and generate more interest. Pretty much without exception, all of these stories will report whether the unfortunate victim happened to be wearing a piece of questionably effective safety equipment, regardless of context. It means that the uninformed layman now expects that responsible cycling involves safety equipment. Worse, those who should know better, such as the coroner in one of the stories above, now choose to advocate the wearing of bicycle helmets, rather than something eminently more sensible like ensuring that road crossings are safe or, if we must blame the victim, stopping and looking before crossing the road.

  18. X says:

    The table lists location of a serious injury GIVEN that a serious injury occured. Since a car driver has so much protective equipment around him, the likelihood that he will experience a serious injury under similar conditions to a bicycle crash are vastly lower, meaning that the helmet is unnecessary (and would probably interfere with the operation of the airbag anyway). The other argument, that ice skaters should wear helmets, makes a lot more sense; rollerbladers do, skateboarders do. Skating is pretty dangerous!

    • ianbrettcooper says:

      Yet head injuries seem to be quite common in car crashes.

      See http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/810857.pdf

      Crash helmets can reduce the severity of head injuries in crashes that result in such injuries. I seriously doubt that a skate type helmet (all parts of the helmet close to the head – no need for aerodynamics or large air circulation vents) would interfere with the operation of a vehicle’s airbag. If it does, then so will my head, and the airbag needs a redesign.

      I’m beginning to feel like some folks are seeking to support a prejudice rather than looking to see what factors can increase safety. Yes, most injuries won’t affect my head, but some will. My brain’s in there and I really would prefer that to be safe when I’m riding my bike.

      Since I have had lots of experience with mild neurological problems due to back injuries and allergies, I REALLY don’t want to subject my brain to even a slight concussion if I can possibly avoid it. Even a very mild brain injury that upset my vision or my balance could mean that I could never ride a bike again.

      And it’s not as if putting on a helmet is not like putting on a suit of medieval armor. It’s just a helmet – it takes a second to put on. And no one’s forcing me to wear one. If they’re forcing you to wear one, I’ll happily support you to have the right not to.

  19. Why are pro-helmet advocates allergic to data?

    Instead of telling us stories or speculating why not show us some actual data where helmets saved lives?

    In the US, we are told that we could save up to 85% of our cyclists each year and billions of dollars if we all wore helmets.

    If this is so, where is the 85% drop in deaths in Australia when they made helmets mandatory?

    The thing is, we have tested the “helmets save lives” theory and it failed. Badly.

    Now to save face, we are playing statistical games on data to show a minute effect.

    85% is a HUGE claim and it, as a safety intervention, and if it were true, we’d see the proof now.

    Fact is that there is only one thing that kills cyclists which matters and that’s speed. Cyclists speed and motorists speed. If we cared about safety, we’d slow everyone down. THAT would be mandatory. Any mention of helmets without traffic calming will wind up just like Australia’s experiment did.

    That is, the pro-helmet lobby is responsible, by creating a quack sense of safety, for the deaths of hundreds of cyclists. Thanks.

    • ianbrettcooper says:

      “Why are pro-helmet advocates allergic to data?”

      Why is it that everyone who has an agenda on this issue seems to be allergic to data? Could it be because both sides are mired in religious zealotry?

      Where are the Australian numbers and why do they have to show an 85% drop in fatalities? Wouldn’t 5% be enough to show a benefit?

      When I studied the data a couple of years ago, the problem was that there was so little data, and the data that was there was poor. There was no nuanced separation of head injury statistics into severe and less severe (which ought to be a big issue if researchers are serious about the issue) – heck, I couldn’t even figure out whether people who died at the scene of an accident were included in the number of hospitalizations. Also, the data fell into the trap that had caught out the British Army researchers after the Brodie helmet was introduced in 1916, in that helmet use was blamed for a rise in head injuries. In both cases, fatalities were not included in the studies, so it was impossible to tell whether helmet use was turning dead cyclists/soldiers into live ones with severe head injuries.

      The British eventually found out that the Brodie helmet did in fact reduce fatalities. It did indeed turn soldiers who would have died instantly from head wounds into soldiers who survived. However, that also meant that there were a lot more soldiers hospitalized with severe head injuries. So because of that, any attempt to study a reduction in head injuries from severe to light or from light to none was undermined. When a helmet is effective, it’s going to appear to cause a lot more head injuries. That’s the nature of the issue, so in order to have meaningful data, head trauma fatalities have to be a part of any head injury study.

      Also, there are questions that need to be clarified before we determine whether crash fatality and injury severity numbers have even been affected one iota by the Australian law – one being, ‘Is helmet use enforced’. If it’s not, any data on the effectiveness or otherwise of helmets is moot. If the US is any guide, I suspect that police in Australia don’t care whether or not cyclists wear helmets. I suspect the helmet use law is just used by the media and car-culture in general to point blame at any cyclist who is in an accident and isn’t wearing one – blame the victim. It has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with making sure our fellow AAA club members don’t go to jail.

      I agree that speed kills, and that cycling safety efforts would be far better spent on a ’20 is Plenty’ campaign similar to the one that has been so successful in Britain. But here in the US, that dog won’t hunt. You may as well lobby to ban fast food.

  20. scott says:

    Got knocked off me bike. Back of head hit pavement. Helmet split from asshole to breakfast.
    Mild concussion and fractured scaphoid. no helmet? probably a veg.
    Can’t even notice a helmet once it’s on…. and by crikey……
    they work.!!

    • Sorry, basic material mechanics says that if the helmet split it failed to absorb much energy at all. To work properly (and to pass the standard tests) a helmet MUST NOT SPLIT, it must crush and stay in one piece. It sounds like your helmet was either sub-standard, or you hit the ground faster than the helmet standards are designed for. Helmet manufacturers take great care not to pass the impact tests with too much margin, otherwise their helmets end up being heavier and less ventilated than the competition.

      Cycle “helmets” don’t actually do very much, and modern ones protect less than old ones. Here’s the low-down on the facts from a helmet testing laboratory: http://cyclehelmets.org/papers/c2023.pdf

  21. Good article. I always get annoyed by the focus on helmets as a cyclist’s first line of defence – like when Bradley Wiggins started talking about them after the guy was killed during the Olympics. He was crushed by a bus – what difference would a helmet have made? Yet, with all the focus on that comment, I wonder how many people thought that the cyclist was in some way responsible for his own death because of whether or not he was wearing a helmet?

    That said, I always wear a helmet when I’m on my bike. I can’t quite get rid of this nagging feeling of what might happen if I weren’t wearing one and I got into an accident.

  22. Smorg says:

    I’m sorry, but I don’t see much sense in arguing against advocating the use of helmet when cycling by saying that drivers and pedestrians can also suffer head injuries but aren’t expected to wear a helmet. It’s akin to saying that cyclists shouldn’t stop at stop signs just because drivers often roll thru them and that pedestrians often enter the crosswalk without first checking traffic.

  23. Smorg says:

    On another note, I fail to see the distinction between people who automatically assume that a helmetless cyclist is a reckless and irresponsible one (one of my cycling buddies refuses to wear a helmet, and she is one of the safest riders I know) and those who automatically assume that any cyclist who endorses the use of helmet must also engage in dangerous cycling behaviors…

  24. Despite decades of research helmets have not been shown to be effective not even a little bit in saving lives nor reducing injuries.

    They are super effective in making cycling, which is safe, seem dangerous.

    These are facts.

    Further, helmets actually increase risk due to safety compensation.

    Since pro-helmeters love stories so much, here are two which credit a helmet in part to killing one person and paralyzing another.

    So instead of saying, “ever little bit helps” think “this helmet could get me paralyzed or killed.”

    Cyclist causes pedestrian death. He credits his helmet to “saving his life.”

    Do you think he would have been so reckless to kill someone with out a helmet?


    False sense of security causes a kid to get paralyzed.

    Would he be so cavalier without a helmet? He says no.


    “Reported cases of cyclists receiving major injuries due to high-risk cycling accidents have appeared in the press and long term disabilities may be the result of cyclists taking too many risks due to thinking they are protected by wearing a helmet. One such example was reported in the New York Times . In August 1999, Philip Dunham, then 15, was riding his mountain bike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and went over a jump on a trail. As he did, his back tire kicked up, the bike flipped over and he landed on his head. The helmet he was wearing did not protect his neck and he was paralysed from the neck down. Two years later, Philip has regained enough movement and strength in his arms to use a manual wheelchair. He has also gained some perspective. With the helmet he felt protected enough to ride off-road on a challenging trail. In hindsight, perhaps too safe. “It didn’t cross my mind that this could happen,” said Philip, now 17. “I definitely felt safe. I wouldn’t do something like that without a helmet.”

    • “Despite decades of research helmets have not been shown to be effective not even a little bit in saving lives nor reducing injuries.”

      Easy to say. Decades of research? Research isn’t measured in decades. What are we talking? Two studies? Five? Ten? Twenty? I’m a skeptic, so show me. Links to the studies would be helpful.

      I did a quick Google search for bicycle helmet studies and reviews. Here’s what I found:

      “Not wearing a helmet while cycling is associated with an increased risk of sustaining a fatal head injury.”

      Click to access CD005401.pdf

      “In two studies, statistically significant decreases in head injuries were reported following the implementation of helmet legislation compared with controls, whilst one reported a non-statistically significant decline.”

      Here’s a University of Washington website that lists a number of studies:
      Studies that focused on helmets preventing injury or death:
      Attewell 2001: “Results provide clear evidence of helmet benefits”
      Kelsch 1996: “Bicycle helmets reduced the incidence and severity of head injuries”
      Finvers 1996: “Strong prospective effect of helmets for serious head injuries”
      Thompson 1996: “Bicycle helmets are effective for all bicyclists regardless of age and regardless of motor vehicle involvement in the crash.”
      Maimaris 1994: “Helmet use significantly reduces the risk of sustaining a head injury, regardless of type of bicycle accident”
      Thomas 1994: “Helmet use significantly reduced the risk of head injury by 63% (OR=0.37, 0.20-0.66). Helmet use signficantly reduced the loss of consciousness by 86% (OR=0.14, 0.05-0.38).”
      McDermott 1993: “Helmet use significantly protects against head injury (crude OR=0.61, 0.47-0.80) and facial injury (crude OR=0.64, 0.49-0.84). No significant differences in mortality rates between helmeted (approved or non-approved) and non-helmeted bicyclists.”
      Spaite 1991: “Helmeted riders over 33 times less likely to sustain a major head injury”
      Thompson 1989: “Helmet use protects against risk of head and brain injury by 85% and 88% respectively compared to those not wearing helmets.”

      And here I should expand on my earlier point that when crash helmets are effective at preventing deaths, they are going to appear to cause a lot more head injuries (unless they have an even greater positive effect on injuries). The above studies would seem to indicate that helmets do have a greater effect on injuries. But again, I’m a skeptic, so I’d like to see an alternative viewpoint with studies to back it up. It’s perfectly possible that these studies have got all the press due to a pro-helmet agenda, so show me some studies and reviews that refute these.

      Also, for anyone who might think that I believe helmets are an essential piece of safety equipment – here’s what I’ve said on my blog about it:

      • Fred says:

        Any skeptic would be doubtful that a plastic bucket helped much with safety. A good measure of this would be getting a whole country to wear helmets for a few decades.

        This was done in parts of AU and NZ.

        Where were the significant drops in deaths and the significant drops in injuries?

        Again, you fail to post because the data does not exist.

        What does drop is number of cyclists.

        A skeptic, at this point, would say that since it’s so hard to prove even a small benefit to helmets that they are not worth what turns out to be a large amount of money, to the tune of millions of dollars for even a small country.

        End of story.

        Similarly, seeing zero evidence from a LAB instructor, a good skeptic would decide that learning the rules of the road does NOT confer safety–otherwise, they would have provided some sort of proof.

        Incidentally, they refuse to give me the number of those they educated which would help with my own research. So again, we have to default to saying that we can’t place any hope in education nor helmets unless there’s some proof. You failed to do so.

        Game over.

      • Read both sides of the argument, not the bias: http://www.cyclehelmets.org and especially a detailed description of the tests that cycle “helmets” have to pass to be certified: http://cyclehelmets.org/papers/c2023.pdf Cycle helmets just aren’t made to protect against impacts with motor vehicles, by far the biggest cause of serious injure to cyclists. Read the label inside your “helmet” for confirmation from the manufacturer themselves!

  25. Makester says:

    Helmets (at least sold in the UK) are NOT designed (or tested) to prevent injury in a collison with a motor vehicle, just a fall from a (I think stationary) bike onto the pavement. There’s even some evidence that helmets may increase the risk of injury for certain types of impacts i.e. those forcing the head into a rotational movement. If we again look to Holland, which has the highest safety record in the world, virtually no-one wears helmets. Isn’t it time the helmet versus no helmet, compulsion versus personal choice, debates be seen for the red herrings they are, and get on with the task of campaigning for something (i.e high-quality Dutch-style infrastructure) that is evidenced (unlike helmets) to improve safety for cyclists?

    Helmets also turn many potential cyclists off cycling.

    • Helmets are designed to reduce injuries from low-speed (IIRC <12mph) collisions with anything. It is impossible to design helmets for only a fall onto pavement. They are designed to withstand impacts – with just about anything – up to a certain speed.

      If a car traveling at 30mph hits a cyclist's helmeted head when the cyclist is traveling at 18mph and the cyclist's helmeted head then hits the road surface, technically, a bicycle helmet is designed to protect the cyclist from the initial collision because the impact took place at 12mph or less. The subsequent road impact would be low speed too – under 12mph, but a damaged helmet may or may not offer protection. If a cyclist is traveling at 30mph and his helmeted gets hit by a car going 42mph and the cyclist then hits the road without bumping his head on the road, again, the helmet is rated to protect against a collision at that speed. The red herring in high speed collisions is the assumption that a cyclist is traveling at a much lower speed – that's not always the case.

      As for rotational injury, I have seen no studies done on that. What I have seen are people claiming that helmets make rotational injuries more damaging. Claims are not scientific evidence either way. Find me the studies and I'll take your claims a bit more seriously, but without any support, your claims are really not much use.

      In Holland, cyclists tend to ride much slower than cyclists in the US. Dutch speed limits are lower and cyclists are not permitted on many high speed roads. Holland and America are not comparable in terms of the cycling environment. Also, I have yet to see any evidence for the Dutch claim that Holland has the best safety record in the world. Propaganda is not evidence.

      I'm all for getting red herrings out of the equation. That's why I look to studies rather than unsubstantiated claims.

      As for the notion that Dutch infrastructure can improve cycling safety, I have a number of studies that contradict that assertion. See:

      Helmets do indeed turn many potential cyclists off cycling. Unfortunately, that is not an argument against wearing helmets for safety. I really don't care how uncommitted potential cyclists are to cycling. If they are turned off by the mere idea of wearing a helmet, how will they respond to the necessity that they learn traffic law and study their driver's handbook? And God help them when they have to use the road for the first time and have to share the road with those scaaaary automobiles.

      I'm tired of being told that potential cyclists are these delicate flowers that we must nurture to make sure they get on bike seats. Screw that! If they can't take the heat, they shouldn't buy a bike.

      • By the way, just in case anyone is thinking I’m a hypocrite on the issue of demanding studies from others but not including any of my own, I have posted links to studies on helmets and their influence on injuries in an earlier post, but the post is in moderation limbo (probably because it’s a bit link-heavy and got auto-moderated).

      • Fred says:

        No, we do NOT have to prove that helmets cause injury. Brett has tried to win the debate by a rhetorical trick of flipping the burden of proof. This is a sign that he tried and failed to prove that helmets help and has decided that now he’ll continue to wear this useless contraption until someon proves that it’s dangerous.

        If someone suggests and intervention which is really expensive, she must prove that the intervention works. Otherwise, we’d have mandatory magic water cures to rabbit’s foot protection mandated by the government if the standard were to use every single useless intervention unless proven dangerous.

        Why have we not gotten the great results that we were promised in Australia. Please, some pro-helmet person answer this?

        If the CENSUS LEVEL (highest quality) data is unclear, then we can conclude that helmet’s benefit is weak or non-existent. On the other hand, if there’s any question as to whether the useless intervention is harmful then not only are we wasting money, but we are also putting others at risk. This is why we should be very, very careful before wasting time on these things.

        Due to reduced cycling which increases health risks, makes streets more dangerous for cyclist, motorists, and pedestrians, and increases car collisions, helmets had a net negative fact in AU. Why do you think it will be otherwise else where. Please post data and not fairy tales.

        Mandatory helmets are NOT inexpensive. They would cost roughly:

        $18,750,000 in the US assuming we have about a quarter million cyclists and we spend $25 on a helmet. The real numbers are probably much more.

        Why waste millions and scare people from cycling when we have no data to prove that helmets help in the common accidents that kill cyclists?

        Note, I’m not recommending not wearing helmets, I’d just prefer to be left alone from all this bother. Please stop scaring people away from cycling and preventing actual real world fixes for safety hazards by experts. Wear a helmet if you think it helps. I have a lucky rabbit’s foot which keeps me safe. Afterall, nobody proved it was dangerous. 🙂

        • Smorg says:

          “No, we do NOT have to prove that helmets cause injury. Brett has tried to win the debate by a rhetorical trick of flipping the burden of proof.”

          Actually, the way the null hypothesis goes is that the burden of proof falls on those making a positive claim/assertion. Those who say that ‘helmet causes injuries or potential for more severe injuries’ are rightly expected to back up their claim/assertion with evidence.

          On the anecdotal front, I don’t know anyone so scarekitty as to not play a sport (cycling included) just because most players of that sport wear a helmet… If only young boys would be scared off playing football by the thought of having to wear helmet and all the rest of the protective padding.

          Wear a helmet, don’t wear a helmet. Whatever you choose to do yourself, I don’t care. But there is something really fishy about this need to demonize a safety equipment that might safe others who are less invincible than you are just so you could justify your choice.

          • Fred says:

            So your position is that you don’t have to prove that helmets work at all?

            So you are admitting that it’s totally unproven that helmets cause any safety at all and that you are only wearing one for religious reasons?

            Next time you respond, please say something original and provide proof.

            The default is to take no action, actually, to not wear a helmet.

            To get someone to change you must provide proof.

            If, however, there is even a whiff of danger to the “safety device” we must not use it until we prove that this “safety device” is NOT dangerous.

            Even if we suspect that it’s dangerous, this is enough to think twice about it.

            After all, you never know, if a helmet will get you killed. I posted two stories where helmets hurt people where no helmet would have been safer.

            This nullifies any imaginary saftey that you have left totally unproven and you refuse to prove because you know you are wrong and aren’t big enough to admit it.

            Finally, it has been definitively proven that mode share plummets when helmets are made mandatory. This is a fact. Again, you seek to dismiss facts with hand waving.

          • pm says:

            Your reasoning is really quite perverse, to the point of dishonesty.

            The ‘null hypothesis’ would be that helmets have no effect either way. Those who want to insist people wear them are obliged to provide evidence that there is a net benefit for doing so.

            (PS I wear one myself, though I think a large part of the reason is out of wearyness at being nagged about it and an awareness that non-helmet-wearing provides yet another angle for victim-blaming if I’m ever injured/worse by a motorist)

      • pm says:

        I can’t bear the elitist macho attitude to cycling that comes out in your last paragraph, because it totally misses the point.

        My attitude to all of this is less to do with being pro-cyclist and more to do with being, as a lifelong user of public transport and a pedestrian, anti-motorist. Anything that might get people out of their cars (and consequently get them out of my way and their muck out of my lungs and their CO2 emissions out of the atmosphere) is something I’m in favour of.

      • Wuppidoc says:

        Please see my post further down, where I answered to your lovely and loving remark about potential cyclists. If your attitude is the attitude of American male cyclists then I know why your figures, your modal share of cycling is so remarkably low in the US of A. But I happen to know that you have strong opponents in your country.

  26. Makester says:

    If anyone is interested in reading the scientific evidence on helmet use, summaries of the research, and links to the original papers, (including the study that the claim of the 85% reduction in Australian fatalities is based on, and how this finding has been questioned) are on the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation website cyclehelmets.org.

    • Cyclehelmets.org is hardly an unbiased source. From what I’ve seen of them, they appear to be ‘bottoms on saddles’ advocates and willing to champion just about any cause that gets more people on bikes. Hardly a good place to start from to get unbiased info on safety – especially since you yourself admit that helmets turn potential cyclists off cycling.

      Since you still haven’t posted any links to studies supporting the idea that helmets increase deaths and./or head injuries, I will look on cyclehelmets.org to see if I can find any studies.

      • I have taken a quick look. So far, all but one of the links I’ve investigated connect to cyclehelmets.org’s own website, and the data appears to be excerpts of studies taken out of their context. The one link that did connect to an outside website ended in a ‘page not found’. Not that I don’t trust cyclehelmets.org, but I’d like to see stuff that’s published in a peer-reviewed journal, on that journal’s website.

        • I’ve taken a longer look. Still not finding anything. External links are often broken. One external link I did find (http://www.sma.org.sg/smj/4705/4705a1.pdf) supported the notion that helmets improve safety (“When worn, protection against injury was demonstrated.”).

          Another link (http://ipa.org.au/publications/2019/australia%27s-helmet-law-disaster) is an article that seems to have a ‘bottoms on saddles’ agenda, and talks about ‘criticisms’ of helmets but lacks any scientific support. It cites what is apparently a study (Robinson), but the study makes no claims either way for helmet safety. The article says “there is evidence that wearing a helmet will provide some protection from a knock to the head”, which seems to suggest that the ‘disaster’ has little to do with safety and a lot to do with the failure of helmet laws to get more Australians cycling.

          • You are advocating for helmets because you think that they help but gave no evidence. Then you ignore those who do give evidence that they cause harm or dismiss it with a wave of the hands.

            I know that you are religious about this, but this is for those who are on the fence.

            We are not “demonizing” helmets, but rather examining the evidence.

            Helmet claims are very, very big. There have been claims to save hundreds of lives and save billions of dollars. Certainly, we’d see this saving, but we have not. How do explain this? Oh, right, you can’t so you’ll ignore this point.


            “Countries with low helmet wearing rates have more cyclists and lower fatality rates per cycle-km.”

            “Thus at best, the benefits of helmets are too small to be apparent in across-country comparisons. At worst, helmet laws reduce Safety in Numbers and distract attention away from what’s really important, reducing the risk of bike/motor vehicle collisions, the cause of the majority of debilitating head injuries to cyclists.”

            “Enforced helmet laws can produce extremely large effects. For example the decline in numbers of head and non-head injuries following Victoria’s helmet law suggest that the most obvious outcome was a reduction in cycle use”

            There’s far more evidence on the real world harms that helmets have caused, and yet all we get in their favor are fairy tales while continuing to make measurable, and large claims of helmets benefits then taking no responsibility when helmets kill and paralyze people.

  27. Makester says:

    If people want to continue to put their faith in vehicular cycling and helmets and fluourescent clothing, whilst riding in fast and heavy traffic, that’s their right. Myself, and I suspect (not evidence-based) a majority of utility and everyday (and would-be) cyclists, would choose Dutch-style infrastrucure and vote with their wheels, as the Dutch and Danish people did when they had enough of a traffic system silmilar to ours. The numbers of Dutch people cycling everyday for work, leisure and sport, is scientifically established,

    • If my LAB instructor course taught me anything, it’s that what a majority of utility and everyday (and would-be) cyclists would choose and what is safe are two entirely different things.

      • Fred says:

        Your lab instructor lied. Post data to prove that VC is safe. It’s not. The father of VC, Forrester took a study and lied about it’s results. Look up the Ken Cross study and read it. It reads like a debunking of VC.

      • pm says:

        What I would choose is to ban cars from many urban roads, have the state provide proper cycling infrastructure, and to impose REAL penalties for irresponsible and reckless driving (in place of the ludicrous ‘6 month driving ban and suspended sentence for speeding and driving on the wrong side of the road and nearly killing someone’ situation we currently have*).

        Are you suggesting that would not be safe, then? How so?

  28. Makester says:

    Cycle helmets and rotational injuries (From the Cyclehelmets.org site)
    Minor head injuries are usually as a result of linear acceleration of the skull by impact with another object. Cycle helmets may produce benefit by reducing and spreading this force.

    More serious injuries, on the other hand, are often as a result of angular or rotational acceleration, which leads to diffuse axonal injury (DAI) and subdural haematoma (SDH). These are the most common brain injuries sustained by road crash victims that result in death or chronic intellectual disablement.

    Cycle helmets are not designed to mitigate rotational injuries, and research has not shown them to be effective in doing so.

    To the contrary, some doctors have expressed concern that cycle helmets might make some injuries worse by converting direct (linear) forces to rotational ones. These injuries will normally form a very small proportion of the injuries suffered by cyclists, but they are likely to form a large proportion of the injuries with serious long-term consequences. In this way helmets may be harmful in a crash, but this harm may not be detected by small-scale research studies.

    Thorough treatment of this subject, with comprehensive references, is to be found in the following article:

    Curnow WJ. The efficacy of bicycle helmets against brain injury.
    Accident Analysis and Prevention, 2003,35:287-292.

    See also
    Assessment of current bicycle helmets for the potential to cause rotational injury

    • Curnow merely claims that a meta-analysis by Attewell, Glase and McFadden was mistaken in its analysis of the mechanisms of brain injury. When it mentions how helmets affect brain injury, it makes no conclusion for or against helmets. It basically says better studies need to be done.

      ‘Assessment of current bicycle helmets for the potential to cause rotational injury’ is merely a cyclehelmets.org commentary. It is not a peer reviewed study.

      Look, if this is the best you can come up with to support the notion that cycle helmets are dangerous, that’s pretty weak. I mean, surely somewhere there’s some evidence that bike helmets cause death and injury. I mean, the law of averages says there must be something out there.

      Let me make it perfectly clear, and simple: show me one – just one – online link to a study in a peer reviewed scientific journal that shows clearly that wearing a bike helmet causes more injury than not wearing one. Then we’ll be getting somewhere.

      • Why are these discussions in the US/UK so dominated by an obsession with medical evidence about the efficacy or otherwise of helmets? Sociologically, the basis for this discussion is an absolute joke. If you wish to apply these medical lessons, please do so uniformly, across all walks of life, and not just to cycling. The ultimate application of such medical evidence is a political choice. Why is there so much political lobbying exclusively around cycle helmets, and not say pedestrian or motorist helmets? The “scientific evidence” certainly does not suggest that cycling is the most dangerous of these activities. If doctors and others in the medical profession do not understand these simple, fundamental points, they should take their toys elsewhere.

  29. Makester says:

    Perhaps I should have said that it has been suggested that helmets can increase the risk of rotational injuries. Perhaps, wearing a helmet is not shown conclusively one way or another to improve (or reduce) safety. Maybe, that’s why many countries haven’t made it compulsory and we’re still having this debate. We live in a world of uncertainty as well as risk. As you have said, studies call for more studies, evidence is often not conclusive one way or another. People on both sides of the debate (whether we want to see more bums on seats, or not) can interpret or misinterpret any research they like (or don’t like). There will always be people who are convinced by the evidence for helmets, and those that are not. Even the most ardent advocates of positivism now admit that bias can never truly be eliminated from scientific study. All contributors to the debate have their own ideological perspective, and I’m sure your lab teacher spoke of the null hypothesis for utility cyclists as well, and that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. We ignore research at our peril, but other factors need to be considered too, particular as science alone cannot provide all the answers.

    Fortunately, you and I have the privilege of living in democracies. I believe (there’s that word again) that people ( in europe at least) will, in time, exercise their democratic right and vote for Dutch-style high quality infrastructure, even if only because they at least FEEL safer. Many people do want to see more people cycling more safely. How we achieve this is really what this debate really centres around. Many people believe the health and environmental benefits outweigh the safety issues in the helmet debate.

    Perhaps, in time the safety or otherwise of thousands of people choosing to cycle day in, and day out because of high-quality infrastructure, may be validated by large scale scientific studies, and convince those not convinced one way or another.

    But I I believe this shouldn’t be at the expense of our right and your choice to cycle on the road, with or without a helmet.

  30. Wuppidoc says:

    “I’m tired of being told that potential cyclists are these delicate flowers that we must nurture to make sure they get on bike seats. Screw that! If they can’t take the heat, they shouldn’t buy a bike.”
    This is one of the coldest and as well daftest remarks done by a cyclist about other (maybe potential) cyclists I have ever seen. But it also shows that this person never thought about cycling as a mode of transport that could solve loads of problems we have to address in urban development. Everyday cycling i.e. cycling to work, school, shopping etc. has nothing to do with mountain biking or racing.
    The group of people who want to cycle fast with cars on roads (and wear a helmet) is very small. If you want statistics you will have to read the study by the Bundesanstalt für Straßenwesen: Unfallrisiko und Regelakzeptanz von Fahrradfahrern, Bergisch Gladbach, June 2009, but I am sorry, it is in German. So I tell you one very important result of it: In Germany many of the cycle paths are not mandatory any more (since 1998), and this study notes that on streets where you do not have to use the cycle path, only 4% of all cyclists use the road with cars. And these 4% are men between 18 and 44 years. The rest stays on the pavement (most of them on the old still existing cycle path).
    So, the group that wants to ride like an American Vehicular Cyclist is a tiny minority in Germany. And from all my American contacts I know that they are fighting for better cycling infrastructure instead of getting hot about the helmet issue.
    So, if you are so uninterested in other cyclists or potential cyclists why do you discuss the helmet issue here so widely? Get back on your road with your helmet and forget about the needs of the rest of the world. We shall sort it out in time with people who have a wider political view on transport policy and cycling than you. Your lot has done nothing to improve the transport world in the past and won’t in the future. So please get out of our way if you don’t understand. (Free quote from Bob Dylan).

  31. Wuppidoc says:

    Why do we discuss helmets for cyclists in the first place? There were quite a few people here who pointed out that the question of cycling infrastructure and of speed limits for cars (30 kmh) is much more important than getting cyclists under helmets. Reduce the danger first and people will start cycling.
    The helmet discussion is mainly led in countries where hardly any cycle paths, cycle lanes, cycle tracks, or however you want to call it, exist. In the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, helmets are hardly an issue. We want the wee ones, the smaller kids to wear them, not because of the cars but because a kid has more problems with balancing on a bike and might fall off.

    The helmet question is something very personal or individual. For countries or places with high modal shares of bicycles it is a side issue. More important is the question of how we design our streets to make them safe and comfortable for cyclists and human for every one. Why bother with a side issue, when we need to talk about urban development, climate change, intelligent transport policy (instead of dinosaurs=cars) i.e. an intelligent mix of means of transport in terms of ecomobility = foot, bike, bus and trains, taxi, car club (or car sharing).

    In the city I live in we have these possibilities, and they are very well used. Our modal share of cycling is now 26%.

    I sold my car in 1996, joined “Stadtauto”, which is a car club or carsharing system (today called Cambio= “I change” ), got on my bike, and sometimes I use the tram or bus. I never missed my car again.


    When I joined it was a condition to sell your car to join…..Actually I use the system every 2nd month for a ride. It is also quite interesting that the company that runs our trams and busses cooperates with Cambio.

    So maybe you all understand that helmets for cyclists are a minor issue for modern mobility.

  32. I believe Ian is a good man, but perhaps one struggling with a problem. Indeed, he seems to argue against much of what he says here in his own blog posts, at

    I think there may be a certain amount of internal conflict at work. Perhaps, to internally allow himself to continue the use of a visible, yet very questionable, “safety” device, he’s giving as much credence as he can to any data praising helmet use, and giving as little credence as he can to data or sources questioning either helmet effectiveness or the very need for bike helmets.

    I was once in that position. I’d been convinced by American bike club peer pressure to don a helmet, and soon enough I found the usual pro-helmet, out-of-context data that seemed to reinforce that decision. But once I actually began searching for and comparing data from both sides of the argument, I became convinced of two things: that bicycling was not unusually risky, and that helmet wearing had no significant effect on cycling’s tiny risk. Still, it took quite some time for me to dispense with the plastic hat. Admitting to a mistake is seldom easy.

    For Ian or others wanting more data, I’d suggest Scuffham, P.A., et.al., “Trends in Cycling Injuries in New Zealand Under Voluntary Helmet Use”, 1997, Accident Analysis and Prevention, Vol. 29, No. 1. It’s really quite elegant. Every available hospitalization record for a cyclist was studied during a period when helmet use surged in three years (under intense pre-law promotion) from about 30% to about 90% for kids, somewhat less for teens and adults. Scuffham’s team was employed to demonstrate how this surge caused a corresponding drop in percentage hospitalized due to head injury, thus bolster the case for the law. Instead, they found zero detectable benefit.

    That study purposely reduced or eliminated one of the pro-helmet data distortions, i.e. raw counts of head injuries. Since helmet mandates have been conclusively shown to deter cycling, they tend to decrease raw HI counts even if HI per cyclist rise. But even raw counts of fatalities belie the “saved my life” claims. Data from Canada http://www.vehicularcyclist.com/fatals.html and the U.S. http://www.vehicularcyclist.com/kunich.html that span the surge in helmet use show no benefit compared to unhelmeted pedestrians.

    Minor injuries? Well, one can justify wearing a helmet for minor head injuries only as easily as one can justify wearing a face shield, plus elbow and knee protectors while cycling. So there is no need to prove that helmets actually increase risk. It should be sufficient to show that helmets benefits are apparently undetectable for truly consequential injuries, and to show that cycling’s risks are smaller than many other risks ordinary people assume with no worry. See http://www.bicyclinglife.com/SafetySkills/SafetyQuiz.htm or http://cyclehelmets.org/1026.html

  33. How about, you know, removing causes of the crash, reducing the speed differentials are places where crashes happen, add clear zone space on high speed roads and reduce conflicts with large masses? That works well too for preventing car crashes as well. .

  34. Paul Mackilligin says:

    This is a good article, but why are we so dead set on blaming the victims rather than the perpetrators?

    Helmet or no helmet, being hit by a tonne of speeding metal is always going to be bad.

    So why are we not putting at least 90% of our attention on driver behaviour? Driver behaviour is the cause of the problem after all, not cyclist behaviour.

    Or should cyclists just stay out of the way of cars, because cars will be cars (blesss!)

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