Friday 29 July 2011

Cycle Helmets

the quandary that not wearing helmets actually improves the health of the nation

Oh no, not again! Yet another athlete appears on TV, shakily showing a broken helmet and talking about how it saved their life. The story is full of shots showing roads, traffic, maybe some rough camera footage, and talks in a scary way about an accident. Usually, they are backed up by a well known cause, most often Headway, a charity helping people with head injuries.

"What's wrong with this?" I hear you say. Well, a whole load of things.

We'll start with the backing, Headway. They are a magnificent charity doing fantastic work with and for people with brain injuries. However, that's it. They are not a cycling organisation and have no remit towards the health of cyclists, they simply want to reduce head injuries. So, they simply repeat the "wear helmets" mantra without considering anything else in the cycling sphere.

Second, although this is a good story, full of gripping drama, it's just an anecdote and not a very scientific analysis of the situation. If I were a parent, it'd scare me. I would start to think that perhaps I shouldn't let my kids out on their bikes. And if I wasn't a parent, it'd scare me. If I didn't have enough money to get a helmet, I'd consider stopping cycling, as it's clearly far too dangerous as this story shows.

The other effect of a heart-wrenching story is the upswing in calls for legislation. It's usually called for by people who have no interest or understanding of the issues, they just see a good story and get stuck in "righteous indignation" mode. Especially when people see cycling as mostly in the prevails of children.

I'm not going to pretend that cycling doesn't have a degree of danger to it, that would be ridiculous. But actually, for many it's much, much less than this story implies. And importantly, helmets have a much lower effect on safety than a whole series of other measures. More of them later.

Finally, there's the oh-so-subtle message "wear a helmet, it'll save you". The problem is, it's just not true in the majority of accidents. Most people think helmets are some kind of magic protection that will save cyclists in collisions with motor vehicles. Worryingly, most of these people drive cars! This study from the Transport Research Laboratory done for Department for Transport shows that helmets are just not designed to assist in these collisions. In fact, one study from Dr Ian Walker of the University of Bath, has shown that wearing a helmet actually makes cars passing more dangerous.

So what's the other angle here? Pretty much all cycling organisations say that helmet wearing should be a case of individual choice. So, why do they dislike this kind of newstory?

Well, for one, it doesn't promote cycling, in fact it detracts from it. The safety issue (as above) is the main factor here. This is saying that travelling by bike is inherently dangerous, when in truth, it's nowhere near as dangerous as the newstory purports.

Promoting cycling means the need to reach out to those people who don't already cycle. By running stories about accidents less people are likely to even try bikes. Also, there's the need to appeal to those who would consider wearing a helmet a detraction on their personal style. Most cyclists (or potential cyclists) are just trying to get a short distance to an event, be it work, a party, a social activity, a meeting. Many of these activities for many people would require a dress sense, some of which will not fit easily with helmet wearing. This may seem a silly issue when it comes to safety, but it's what a good proportion of people would cite as an issue to riding. The Institute of Advanced Motorists study found so, and it was seen as bad for business in Northern Ireland.

As for helmets being the main way to save lives on the road, by far the bigger impact would be for our collective driving standards (including cyclists) to improve.

Recently the AA got some stick after a cycle helmet promotion stunt. Their members thought it would be good to give helmets to cyclists, mistakenly believing it would save them in a vehicle collision. It concerned many cyclists greatly as it stank too much of "blaming the victim". Again, this promoted the idea that somehow cyclists are saved in motor vehicle collisions amongst drivers. And prompted cycling organisations to promote better driving standards as a better way of reducing cycling injuries.

Cycling is well known to be good for health. In fact a recent study shows (and I wish I could find a link!) that for every £1 spent now on cycling infrastructure will save £4 in healthcare later on. This means that putting in cycling infrastructure will actually save money.

Interestingly, another study (towards the end) shows that there are more child accidents when walking (whilst also finding some pro-helmet studies are shown to be misleading). So, why don't we insist children wear helmets when walking?

Of course, the whole helmet debate is quite poorly done in the media. Like a number of other issues (climate change & MMR spring to mind as examples of the media being shown getting it so wrong), they pick on a good story without paying much attention to the serious scientific work done which shows exactly the opposite of their narrative.

Luckily, there are a few good stories out there, based on the evidence and not just a good story. Such as the study in the British Medical Journal giving a reasoned point of view against compulsory helmets. And fortunately the Transport Minister Baker defends helmet-free cycling, so compulsion is not likely any time soon.

So, in summary, why is this kind of newstory bad?
  • it makes cycling look dangerous
  • it mis-states the way most people would ride
  • it reduces cycling appeal to newbies
  • it's setting the slippery slope toward mandatory helmets
  • it reduces the general health of the population by not increasing cycling

Athletes, lycra-clad speeders, off-road davedevils, and other higher risk groups probably should be wearing helmets. But they are a small minority of those who should be cycling. And athletes really shouldn't attempt to speak for these people generalising their experiences into everyones.

And now the revelation, I wear a cycle helmet. Yep, I do. But then I fit into several of the above groups and feel it may help me. But whether it'll help others is not for me to say or to tug at heart strings with anecdotal stories of woe that detract from the wonderful thing that is cycling.

For a much more in-depth analysis than my paultry piece here go to