The Great Helmet Debate
As a cycling instructor, I am frequently asked about helmet use. Many of the comments I hear from frustrated road users conclude with, “and they’re not even wear a helmet!” It seems that most drivers would prefer it if cyclists wore helmets – those who don’t are deemed irresponsible.
It’s a tricky subject, and one that has a huge number of arguments on either side. Some studies show that helmets can reduce injuries sustained when hitting your head; some show the opposite result, that a helmet can make injuries worse. Some studies suggest that wearing a helmet makes you feel more safe, and therefore less likely to use the roads sensibly, as if putting on the helmet ticks the ‘safety’ box and your risk assessing ends there. It can also cause other road users to drive less carefully around you.
Helmet wearing is not compulsory in this country. Cycling is, on balance, a safe activity, the benefits of which far outweigh the risks. Compulsory helmet laws may well discourage current or potential cyclists, which would have a negative impact overall.
I often don’t wear a helmet. Mainly because I would rather not – in the cold I’d rather wear a woolly hat, if it’s sunny I’ll wear a baseball cap, and if it’s raining I’ll wear a hood. I don’t have to wear a helmet so I don’t. It’s not what I wear, it’s how I ride that will keep me safe, and it’s very unlikely I would be involved in an accident in which a helmet would help.
My students often say to me, “I like that you don’t look like a cyclist” – I don’t have all the kit, I wear normal clothes, and I want to promote cycling as a normal, everyday activity that doesn’t require a huge amount of safety equipment in order to take part.
For me, the biggest consideration in this debate is that the helmet question detracts attention from other road safety measures which are more effective in reducing accidents. Helmet use often dominates discussions of road safety at all levels, whereas there are many more things that will improve safety on our roads. Infrastructure is one, training is another. If I become trapped on the inside of a left turning lorry (the biggest cause of deaths on London’s roads last year), it matters very little whether or not I am wearing a helmet. What would help me in that situation is: a) infrastructure that doesn’t encourage me to filter down the left hand side at traffic lights; b) training to make me aware of the dangers of filtering on the left; c) training for HGV drivers; d) better designed lorries that increase visibility of cyclists and won’t drag a cyclist under the wheels.
I recently had an accident, in which I flipped over my handlebars and landed on the floor. I smashed my chin on the ground and fractured my jaw. Having a helmet on would not have helped me in the least, yet the first question that I was asked by the ambulance man was “Were you wearing a helmet?”