Wearing a bicycle helmet is not compulsory in the UK or anywhere else in Europe and I don’t wear one when I go cycling. I am also vehemently opposed to compulsory helmet legislation. Why? Because it reduces cycling rates which in turn makes cycling more dangerous for those left. It also affects the health of the population as a whole because the health benefits of cycling far outweigh the risk of having a crash.
When it comes to cycling there is safety in numbers: more cyclists on the road = reduced risk of fatality and injury per cyclist. It’s the same for pedestrians. See Safety in numbers in Australia: more walkers and bicyclists, safer walking and bicycling. In places where compulsory helmet legislation has been introduced, the effect was to reduce the number of cyclists and not just randomly. It reduces the number of cyclists in the lowest risk group for having an accident. These tend to be people who don’t have lots of fancy equipment and who ride at a slow pace.
I don’t cycle very fast and most of the time I’m on the pavement. I have even been overtaken by joggers before. I’ve just come back from a run now and some of the time I had to run on the road – when I was crossing it or overtaking pedestrians etc – but I did not wear a helmet and nor do I think it was necessary. I put helmets on my kids when they’re in the bike mostly because I don’t want people glaring at me and accusing me of being a bad parent but I don’t really think it’s necessary. The bike has fallen over with them in it a couple of times and they don’t hit their heads. If we had a head-on collision with a car the helmet wouldn’t be much use anyway. I feel a bit differently when kids are out cycling on their own bikes as kids tend to have more accidents, especially when they’re learning to ride. But sitting in Busby is not really any different to sitting in a pram while your mum pushes you along and jogs at the same time and I don’t see any babies wearing helmets in those things. But people like to blame the victim and so it seems easier just to make them wear a helmet.
Ben Goldacre published a paper a couple of years ago about Bicycle helmets and the law (which I’ve linked to from my blog before so some of you may have seen it) in which he says that the popularity of helmets doesn’t lie with their benefits “—which seem too modest to capture compared with other strategies—but more with the cultural, psychological, and political aspects of popular debate around risk.”. A Canadian study which examined the impact of compulsory helmet legislation and hospital admissions for cycling-related head injuries found minimal benefit in helmet legislation.
Having said all of this I’m now going to announce that I’ve just bought myself a helmet.
But I didn’t buy a flimsy piece of plastic and styrofoam, I decided to get a Hövding – or air-bag for the head. I haven’t got it yet but when I do I’ll be sure to write a review.
They’re not cheap – £249 – but they far exceed traditional helmets in impact crash tests. The probability of having a serious head injury when the impact is 25km/h while wearing a traditional helmet is 90%. For a Hövding it is less than 2%. One of the reasons I decided to get this is because lately we’ve been cycling on the Deeside cycleway and I’ve been going much faster than I normally do and so I have probably increased my risk of having a crash.
Hövding have produced this video about how their product performs in crash tests conducted by the Swedish insurance company, Folksam. It’s impressive and far outperforms the traditional helmet.