There’s been so much controversy and debate around the issue of bicycle helmets, it’s almost impossible to know where to start. Speaking rhetorically, are helmets actually useful for cyclists, or are the benefits simply outweighed by the numerous disadvantages? It would be easy to say helmets save lives, proceed to quote the abundance of anecdotal evidence available and then simply leave it at that. Without doubt, claims such as “I’d likely be dead if I hadn’t worn my helmet” are extremely powerful, but such conclusions only paint a very small part of a much larger picture.
Helmets have undergone considerable development over the years in an attempt to improve their effectiveness and also make them a more attractive proposition for the casual rider. Regardless, helmet use continues to vary dramatically from country to country and between different groups. The percentage of urban and leisure cyclists wearing helmets for instance is generally extremely low when compared with the numbers of amateur sportive cyclists wearing a helmet.
Developments in professional cycling.
It was only quite recently in 2003 that mandatory helmet use was implemented in professional cycling. Beforehand, helmet use was left to be determined by individual preference and local traffic laws, with many competitors choosing to ride without a helmet in order to reduce weight on critical climbs and improve overall comfort.
However, on the 11th of March, 2003, during the second stage of Paris-Nice, dramatic events were about to change everything. A collision between Andrei Kivilev, Marek Rutkiewicz and Volker Ordowski resulted in Kivilev hitting the ground. He immediately fell into a coma and despite the best efforts of the emergency services he later died of his injuries. Many believe a helmet could potentially have saved his life.
The UCI quickly used Kivilev’s death to push through new regulations which ensured helmets became a compulsory measure and they have remained so ever since.
These events caused considerable ructions within the professional cycling world with many cyclists still reluctant to abide by the new regulations. However, more rigorous enforcement has led to the complete adoption of helmets by professional cyclists.
On a lighter note, mandatory helmet use in professional cycling has advantages beyond safety. Most importantly, it has meant we have been spared some seriously ridiculous and outrageous haircuts!
The story so far.
Regulations in professional cycling leave riders with no choice but to wear a helmet or face significant penalties. On the other hand, mandatory bicycle helmet laws for the general populations are not only much harder to enforce, but have numerous unwanted side-effects. For example, it has been argued that mandatory bicycle helmet laws lead to a reduction in the total number of cyclists on the road. This has the subsequent negative effect of increasing risk for remaining cyclists, who experience reductions in the value of the ‘safety in numbers’ effect. In essence, it is believed motorists awareness of cyclists decreases as they encounter them less frequently.
In addition to this, fewer cyclists on the roads mean fewer people are gaining the long-term health benefits that come with cycling. Several commentators have suggested that having fewer cyclists on the roads is far more detrimental to the health and well-being of the general population than any possible protection from injury which a helmet might provide. While this is a valid point, surely slightly the health of a few casual cyclists cannot be considered more important than preventing the loss of a life?
Criticism of cycle helmets continues with the suggestion that they cause cyclists to ride less carefully because they feel safer. This logic has also been transferred to motorists encountering cyclists on the road, leading to the suggestion they drive less carefully when encountering a helmeted cyclist. There’s evidence for this in the conclusions of one small study from England which found that vehicles passed a helmeted cyclist with between 8 and 9cm less clearance. Funnily enough, it was also revealed that wearing a long-haired wig increases this clearance.
While all these findings portray the cycle helmet in a fairly negative light, there’s an equal amount of evidence in their favour. Perhaps most influential is a commonly quoted case-control study which concluded that there is an 85% reduction in the risk of head injury when using a helmet.
The CTC have concluded that “the evidence currently available is complex and full of contradictions, providing at least as much support for those who are sceptical as for those who swear by them.”
Consequently, let’s step away from the academics and review the real world evidence in the major cycling hubs of the world: Europe, Australia and the USA.
Helmet usage in Europe.
Use of helmets varies wildly across Europe. However, the country most widely discussed is, without doubt, the Netherlands. Estimates place the total number of bikes in the Netherlands above the entire population of the country (almost 17 million!). While this is an impressive figure, the fact that only around 0.1% of these cyclists wear helmets is quite startling.
Why is helmet usage so low in the Netherlands? One of the most commonly cited reasons is that helmets discourage cycling by making it less convenient, less comfortable and less fashionable. One father summed up his children’s feelings towards helmets by suggesting “They’d rather go to school naked”. A spokesman for the Dutch Cyclists Union recently stated “It’s just not part of Dutch culture to use helmets”.
Discussions around helmet use in the Netherlands regularly spark fiercely emotional debates. In one such discussion, a Dutch physician gave his opinion that helmets increased survival as well as the number of quadriplegics. This kind of logic appears to be common in the Netherlands, with Dutch cycling experts and planners vehemently opposing helmet use, primarily because they perceive the disadvantages to far outweigh the advantages. For example, they mention the possibility that helmets would make cycling more dangerous by giving cyclists a false sense of safety, thus encouraging riskier riding behaviour.
In the Netherlands, bikes are regularly used for frequent short journeys around town and helmets are therefore seen as cumbersome and ultimately excessive. Moreover, the Dutch regularly state that their safe bike paths and segregated cycle lanes render helmets unnecessary. Combine this with the fact that motorists defer to cyclists and it’s easy to see why cycling is so popular in the Netherlands.
Critically, Dutch cyclists’ boycott of helmets doesn’t appear to have led to increases in serious injuries either, with the Netherlands having one of the world’s best cycle safety records. However, this can mainly be attributed to greater public awareness and understanding of cyclists among other factors such as the ‘safety in numbers’ effect.
Finally, unlike professional cycling, cycling in the Netherlands doesn’t involve particularly high speeds or dangerous manoeuvres, leading many commentators to question the need for helmets.
To illustrate this last point, the humorous video below shows possibly the worst case scenario for cyclists in the Netherlands. Please note: if you’re reading/watching in work you may want to lower your volume as the accompanying music is quite heavy!
In addition, this next short video shows that there are a number of enthusiastic cyclists who should never leave home without a helmet, under any circumstances!
While an extremely low percentage of the population in the Netherlands wears a helmet while cycling, this trend does not extend to countries such as the UK. The UK’s Cyclists’ Touring Club (CTC) say that cycling in the Netherlands and Denmark is perceived as a “normal” activity requiring no special clothing or equipment. In contrast, the UK’s roads are dominated by cars, with the cyclist being in a far smaller minority. As a result of this, incidents that may involve head injury are far more likely and helmets are much more widely used.
As we recently covered in our blog on road rage and what’s being done to help the typical cyclist, initiatives to improve the urban cycling experience in London are still lagging behind the example set by the Netherlands. As a consequence, helmets remain a vital accessory in the UK, especially in busy urban environments where the car is still king.
Helmet usage in Australia.
Is Australia any different? Well, in 1991, Australia became the first country in the world to introduce mandatory helmet use for cyclists. The figures suggest there was a 36% reduction in the number of cyclists on the roads in the year to follow. However, figures have steadily risen since then.
There have been continued calls for the laws to be overturned, allowing cyclists to once again choose whether or not they wear helmets. Critics suggest compulsory use of helmets puts people off cycling, by causing them to believe cycling is more dangerous than it actually is, while in reality, cycling is extremely good at increasing people’s physical activity and improving health. Such a point is of course perfectly valid. However, rather than exerting greater effort in trying to overturn cycling laws, surely it would be wiser to spend more time overturning the commonly held and fundamental belief that cycling is dangerous in the first place? Could the act of further reassuring people that cycling is a safe activity and that a helmet is merely a precaution, similar to a seat-belt in a car, not increase the numbers of cyclists on the roads, while also maintaining cycle safety? We’d like to hear your opinions on this.
Improvements have recently been made in Melbourne. People utilising the cities new bike hire scheme have recently acquired the ability to buy cheap helmets from nearby locations. Hundreds of bikes have been available to use for some time, however, one bright spark decided not to provide helmets even though wearing a helmet is of course required by law. This meant the budding cyclist would have to bring their own and then carry it around with them. Removing this logistical barrier is certainly a step forward. If mandatory helmet laws are really going to be successful, every effort will have to be made to make it easier for the casual cyclist to locate and use a helmet.
While all this applies to the commuting or casual cyclist, how is the enthusiast affected? We’d like to hear the opinions of our Australian readers. Are you reluctant to wear a helmet on your rides or is it something you simply would never leave home without, even if the laws were overturned?
Helmet usage in the USA.
In the USA, helmet usage is high. The vast majority of states have some kind of helmet laws in place. Most prominently, focus in the USA is on minors and ensuring that children wear helmets at all times. Such a focus certainly has merit as children are more vulnerable to peer pressure and are not informed enough to make a well-judged decision about the issue.
On the other hand, in terms of the adult use of helmets in the USA, providing cyclists with the choice of whether or not to wear a helmet appears to have worked well. Again, cyclist’s are not the dominant force on American roads and the infrastructure in place for cyclists in America is simply not at a level where helmets can be dismissed. Coming up against an 18 wheeler is certainly not for the faint hearted and wearing a helmet is a small price to pay for the added protection, even if you’re hopeful you’ll never have to find out how much protection it provides!
Over the border in Canada, helmet use made the headlines this year as many cyclists chose to leave their helmets at home during the hot summer weather. Police and the local authorities were keen to compound the fact that helmets save lives and significantly reduce the chances of serious head injuries. Undeniably, the lady who was the subject of the incident in the video below will be thankful she didn’t decide to leave her helmet at home that day.
Attempts to revolutionise the cycle helmet industry.
The helmet debate continues to roll on and it’s unlikely the argument will be satisfied one way or the other in the foreseeable future. However, several creative individuals have turned their attention to the helmets themselves and have attempted to create new designs which might make the act of helmet wearing slightly more appealing for the casual cyclist.
First up is the cardboard helmet. After creating a tough, waterproof, recyclable cardboard cycle helmet for a final year project as part of his industrial design degree, Anirudha Surabhi is now hoping to bring his invention to market with the aid of a £20,000 grant. Under the name Kranium, the cardboard helmet is said to weigh less than standard polystyrene helmets yet offer four times greater impact protection. The figures are certainly impressive although we’re unsure whether a cardboard helmet will really take off, particularly with the £80 price tag that has been hinted at. Would you wear it?
If you’re still worried about that new hairstyle you’ve invested in then maybe the bicycle airbag will interest you. Designed as a safe alternative to the bicycle helmet, the Hovding airbag collar is designed to wrap around your neck like a scarf. The scarf is designed to deploy a hood if it’s built in sensors detect a potential impact. While an interesting alternative to the cycle helmet, the $500 asking price for this piece of kit is perhaps a little inflated (pardon the pun). Moreover, would you be interested in wearing a thick scarf on a ride in the middle of a hot Australian summer? We think not.
Here’s the Hovding airbag collar in action. Our favourite part is the ‘Object in front wheel’ section (3:15). The way the dummy’s face hits the floor doesn’t exactly inspire us.
To wear, or not to wear?
It’s plain to see that there is a substantial amount of evidence in support of both sides of the ongoing argument surrounding helmet use.
The fact that nowhere that has introduced a helmet law has been able to demonstrate any significant reduction in risk to cyclists is a convincing statement. To some extent it may be true that everyday cycling is simply not risky enough to require the use of helmets. However, ensuring that minors are required to wear helmets first and foremost is definitely a priority, even if convincing the adult populations of countries such as the Netherlands to wear helmets is likely to be a far more troublesome prospect.
While the Netherlands has succeeded without mandatory helmet laws, its clear that this can be attributed to the fantastic cycling infrastructure that has been developed over many years, not the mere dismissal of cycle helmets. It is also clear that riding without a helmet in a busy urban environment elsewhere in the world is a far different notion, and surely a slightly ruffled hairstyle is a small price to pay for improved safety.
On the busy roads that the majority of us encounter, we feel helmets are a necessity, to ensure your safety and give you peace of mind. With the developments in helmet design and the improved ventilation and aerodynamics that modern helmets possess, there really is no reason why the avid cyclist shouldn’t wear a helmet. After all, they might even make you faster!
We’ll leave you with this last video from Denmark which shows a rather more friendly approach to enforcing the use of helmets. Might this approach tempt your non-helmet wearing friends?
Let us know your thoughts on the helmet debate. Have you always worn a helmet? Were you reluctant when you were younger? Do you have any friends who refuse to wear a helmet? Have you got any interesting stories or anecdotes of your helmet use? Where do you see the debate heading in the future? Could a cardboard helmet or air bag replacement burst into prominence or is it simply full of hot air!? Let us know below. Oh, and don’t forget to vote!