Bicycle helmet legislation and Hövding

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.

25 thoughts on “Bicycle helmet legislation and Hövding”

  1. I am very happy to hear that you are protecting that wonderful brain of yours. It’s really smart when you know the roads you are on are risk factors,

  2. There was a long discussion on Goldacre’s bad science forum, which concentrated more on the arguments put forwards by some that helmets were themselves dangerous, which was not overall the case. Wearing them increased the change of a specific type of injury, but that was outweighed by the overall decrease in damages from the other possible ways of hurting your head. Certainly one of my friends would have been brain damaged or worse had he not been wearing a cycle helmet when he came off his bike.

    You do know you shouldn’t actually be cycling on the pavement though? It’s illegal; children get a pass from most people because they’re children, but adults really shouldn’t be unless there’s no other option.

    1. Yes I’ve heard about the risk of a special type of injury when wearing a helmet. Some kind of rotational injury? I don’t think Goldacre mentions this in his article and he does suggest that there is an individual benefit to wearing a helmet although even this is uncertain. There’s one study that found that motorists take a wider berth around cyclists who are not wearing a helmet. That has certainly been my experience here – that motorists give me lots of clearance when I’m on the road.

      I know it’s illegal to cycle on the pavement but I think it’s largely unenforced. I cycle past a police station almost everyday and even past police officers who always smile and say hello to me and this is when I’m cycling on the pavement.

    2. I meant to respond to the bit about your friend coming off his bike. Individual examples like these might encourage others to wear a helmet out of fear but they’re not a good basis for deciding whether or not to introduce compulsory helmet legislation. The decision should be made on the basis of studies involving large groups rather than individual examples. The type of study Ben Goldacre did is better and his conclusion seems to be this type of legislation is not effective and confers minimal benefits for improving safety for cyclists.

  3. I guess you and I are going to have to agree to disagree on helmets (I prefer agreeing with you on cycling Rachel but hey, where’s the fun in that!?). Maybe it’s because I’m a London cyclist though I expect the centre of Aberdeen is just a frenetic. I would certainly make cycling for under 18s helmet-compulsory. It’s not you it’s the nutter who hits you after all. And yes the new Danish helmet sounds fab but even the old ones are better than nothing. Mine has hit the pavement rather than my head when I’ve been taken out by a van, me doing circa 10 mph him 15-20. The helmet cracked but I didn’t. If someone can afford a bike they can afford a helmet; at least that’s the way I see it. And maybe we can agree that there should be a subsidy for helmets if you have a bike and are on benefits. And, while we are on the subject of safety, lights too. Sends me into paroxysms of apoplexy to (not) see cyclists without lights. I imagine where we can agree is to turn all towns and cities in 20 mph zones. Humans can run about 20 mph when they sprint so we are designed to survive impacts at that speed. Most survive 20 mph impacts. There can be no justification these days for built up ares having anything other than 20 mph limits. Sorry to be contrarian!! Don’t ban me!

    1. I’m not going to ban you! I don’t mind people disagreeing with me at all. I’ll just delete your comments instead. Just kidding 🙂

      Making helmets compulsory for under 18s is not going to make it safer for young cyclists. It’s more likely to have the opposite effect since compulsory helmet legislation reduces the number of cyclists on the road and fewer cyclists increases the risk of cycling for those who remain. The study I linked to at the top of my post about safety in numbers found that when cycling halves, the risk per kilometre goes up by about 52%.

      I’m definitely in favour of the twenty’s plenty rule. But far better would be dedicated cycling infrastructure so cyclists don’t have to cycle next to cars at all. One of the safest cities in the world for cycling is Amsterdam and no-one wears a helmet there. It’s safe because there are so many cyclists and the infrastructure is so good. It might seem easy to introduce a new law but it’s not very effective at making things safer for cyclists.

      1. Still not going to agree. Compulsory helmets on scooters didn’t kill scooters maybe a dip but the numbers will return . I really go on personal experience. It rarely let’s me down. And yes separate infrastructure is a great idea but I still want helmets compulsory

      2. I will defer to Ben Goldacre who from one I understand works in the field of epidemiology. If he thinks helmet legislation offers little benefit then I will defer to that. I’m pretty much go with mainstream science.

  4. A friend of mine’s son, aged13, was killed by a hit and run. It is thought that a helmet might have saved him. Perhaps making helmets compulsory for the young (I remember being rash) would be a good idea. Then again there is the matter of setting good example and the avoidance of one law/rule for kids and another for adults/parents.

    1. I’m sorry to hear that, Graham. That’s very sad.

      Making helmets compulsory for young people is not going to make cycling safer for young people. All it does is reduce the number of cyclists on the road and thereby reduces the safety of cycling for the remaining few because of the safety in numbers rule (or Smeed’s law). Amsterdam is one of the safest places for cyclists in the world and no-one wears a helmet there. It’s safe because they have good cycling infrastructure and the proportion of the population who are cyclists is very high.

      1. It seems that there is conflicting evidence on this subject. For instance:-

        Amsterdam has a large number of cyclists and a good safety record. Whereas Cambridge has a large number of cyclists and highest KSI (killed or seriously injured) rate outside of Greater London, here. Therefore, I would conjecture that numbers do not create safety but that safety, or the perception of safety, create numbers.

        The idea that helmet laws reduce the numbers of cyclists probably came from here. The paper refers to youth cyclists only and concluded that such laws increased helmet use by 25-30%, reduced fatalities by 19% and reduced the number of youth cyclists by 4-5%. Although the later may have had more to do with the increasing use of computers/games.

        Personally I don’t mind what adults choose to do and don’t like imposing on the young either but it is generally accepted that they are worthy of some guardrails and example. 🙂

      2. It’s always possible to find studies that support a given point of view, that’s why we have epidemiologists who look at lots of studies and form conclusions on that basis. This is exactly what the Ben Goldacre paper is about which I linked to from my post and which I will defer to.

      3. Since Ben Goldacre discusses several disparate views with a number of “may’s” and seems to conclude that the matter remains in debate and will likely continue so, an open mind would seem appropriate.

        Hopefully the research by London Hospitals will bear more weight when they have a larger sample.

      4. Yes, I agree it’s good to have an open mind about these things and to change our mind when new evidence presents itself. I come from Australia where cycle helmets are mandatory and it’s only recently that I’ve changed my mind about this and now view this legislation as flawed.

        We know where there are gains to made with improving cycling safety and these are by building dedicated cycle paths. Compulsory helmet legislation has minimal benefits for public health at best, and detrimental benefits for public health (through increased inactivity) at worst. While it’s possible new research will change these findings I think it’s more important to encourage cycling as a safe and healthy activity for everyone at any age.

  5. I am pleased to hear. It is the responsible thing to do. You are a young woman with 2 lung children that need you.

    This is a controversial subject. There is compelling evidence on both sides. I don’t like disagreeing with (I enjoy your posts and don’t want to be shut out), but having experienced a “minor” concussion, I know how depilating a head injury can be. So, if there is anything I can do to protect myself, no matter how effective it may be, I prefer to be cautious.

    Can’t wait to see a picture of you in your new attire 🙂

    1. I don’t deny that there is an individual benefit to having a helmet on your head if you happen to hit your head on the pavement. This post was really about compulsory helmet legislation which I think is a bad idea. But if you think I have responsibility to protect my head then surely I should wear a helmet when I go running too since the risk is probably about the same. We should also get passengers in motor vehicles to wear helmets since it’s also safer for them to have a helmet on at the time of a crash. And the Hovding helmet is far safer than the plastic helmet so we should all be wearing ones of these. People owe it to their families to wear the Hovding whenever they leave the house.

      It’s actually far better for longevity to go cycling sans helmet than to not do any exercise at all. I think we need to look at the bigger picture here.

      1. I have not been able to stop thinking about your post.

        I began thinking about who does wear a helmet. Skiers. Snowboarders. Skateboarders. Scooterists. Motorcyclists. Hockey players. Football players. Rugby players. Boxers. Even car derivers an their passengers sit in a helmet style encasing further protected with a seat belt and multiple airbags. Despite the studies you reference, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that even a small impact to the head can cause serious damage. The NHL (hockey) has gone to great lengths in recent years to protect the players from head injuries, and when they do occur, prevent players from returning until all systems are gone.

        Personally, rather than focus of bike helmet legislation, I would prefer to see energy directed to building a safer infrastructure for cyclists – dedicated bike lanes, traffic calmed streets, bike pathways, signage … I have seen first hand how when there is a political will these things can happen, and when they do, ridership increases, cyclists feel safer, and cycling becomes a real alternative.


      2. I must admit I don’t wear a helmet when I go ice-skating or skiing. But I think you’ve raised a good point. There are two types of groups in all these activities: there are professionals who take the sport seriously and who take bigger risks and there are people who do it for leisure or in the case of cycling, for transport. If you’re a professional cyclist who travels at great speeds or a mountain biker who takes risks then cycling without a helmet is probably unwise. But if you’re just leisurely nipping to the shops around the corner for some milk than being forced to wear a helmet is just another nudge to grab the car keys instead. It’s these people who are discouraged from cycling with helmet legislation and these people are also in the lowest risk group for having a crash. A professional mountain biker who hurtles down steep terrain at great speeds is in a completely different ballgame. The only reason I’m now investing in a helmet is because I’m joining the other group when I go for lengthy rides on the cycleway as I’m suddenly going faster. When I cycle on the pavement to take my kids to school I’m going very slowly, sometimes at walking pace and not usually any faster than a jogger. Forcing all cyclists to wear helmets makes cycling look sporty and dangerous. It can be both things but it can also be neither. I like that in Europe cyclists don’t look like they’re competing in a race. I can wear a dress with my hair tied up in a bun with hundreds of pins – no helmet will fit over this. I am making it look safe – which it is – and accessible to the average person rather than something that requires lots of special equipment and skill. I agree wholeheartedly with you that the best way to make cycling safer is to build the infrastructure.

    2. I wore a MIPS helmet. It was smooth, no edges to catch and interfere with movement. I got a concussion. Now I am really aggravated that helmets do such a lousy job of protecting us. Sure, it was probably better than nothing, but I thought I was better protected than the Falksam study shows I actually was. Now I want to know why helmets are allowed to offer so little protection and still be legal. Also, I’ve bought a Hovding.

      1. Yeah, the Falksam study was a bit of an eye-opener. The Hovding helmet is great. I wear it everyday now although I’ve never seen it’s performance in a crash because I haven’t had one.

  6. After at least 3 nasty falls off bikes, one where my front teeth took the impact of a fall, and thanks to ACC I managed to get the dental work I have had since that happened, paid for- I wasn’t wearing a helmet the very first time and they weren’t necessary by law when I was 11 and a half..the next 2-3 I was very lucky I did have one on- as I got pretty serious concussion after one of them- I might not be around if I wasn’t wearing one or have a serious disability which could impair my functioning dramatically- I am more of the prevention is better than cure group- One sure as heck might look dicky wearing a helmet- although I am happier to look silly than be limited in function because of traumatic head injury- You might be biking sensibly, although sometimes people might not be as lucid as one might wish they were when driving a car- it just takes a wet day and a slightly higher speed for stopping distances to be increased- As a rider, I reckon people that choose not to wear helmets are taking an unnecessary risk- What example does that set to teenagers and youth that haven’t associated with people with brain injury and their family- where the injury was preventable and assume it will never happen to them?
    I am really glad that there are airbag style helmets now, I asked some time ago if there was such a technology available for bike riders, as my helmets haven’t fared well on my last tumbles, although at least they spared my brain the same fate!

    1. I’m very glad that you’re ok but again yours is a scary personal example which should not be used when making decisions about public health. It’s better to use data from studies involving large groups.

      The national cycling charity is against compulsory helmet legislation. Here’s what they say:

      “CTC is opposed to both cycle helmet laws and to helmet promotion campaigns, as these are almost certainly detrimental to public health. Evidence shows that the health benefits of cycling are so much greater than the (relatively low) risks involved, that even if these measures caused only a very small reduction in cycle use, this would still almost certainly mean far more lives being lost through physical inactivity than helmets could possibly save, however effective.”

      There’s a good article in the Guardian about Jersey’s cycling helmet law:
      “Jersey’s compulsory cycle helmet law: based on emotion, not evidence?”

      “So that’s where we are. On a small island where 20% of children are overweight and cycling would seem an obvious way to provide everyday exercise we have a legislature passing a measure which will, at very best, give no discernible public health benefit while giving youngsters and their parents the message that cycling is intrinsically unsafe.”

  7. I just want to add here that a school boy at a primary school in Aberdeen slipped on ice one year, fell and hit his head on the ground and died. A helmet would probably have saved his life but I don’t think we should make children wear helmets in the playground or when running and climbing trees.

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