There was a thread on a cycling forum recently on how often a cycle helmet needs to be replaced. The person who starting the thread wrote that his helmet was now three years old and still in perfect condition but the manufacture recommends that cycle helmets should be replaced every three years. There was a sentiment expressed that this was a marketing ploy by the manufacturer to sell more helmets. This set me wondering about peoples understanding of the safety of using helmets and their motivations for wearing them.

Conversations with colleges at work show that at least one had suffered injury directly as a result of wearing a cycle helmet. The helmet was not properly fastened and a glancing blow caused the helmet to twist on his head leaving him with a gash across the forehead. He was of the opinion that had he not been wearing a helmet he would not have been as badly injured and consequently he no longer wears a helmet when cycling. One cycling expert has stated that apart from racing cyclists either off or on road, he, hardly ever sees a cycle helmet being worn properly. Research has also shown that a badly fitted cycle helmet can double your chances of a head injury in the event of a crash.

Do cycle helmets actually increase cycle safety anyway? This is rather a contentious question…

The manufacture and sale of cycle helmets is a highly profitable multi-billion pound international business, dominated by a few large companies. These companies have given money to campaigning organisations that seek to boost helmet use and introduce legislation. In Europe, industry campaigns to boost helmet sales in countries where helmet use is low (such as The Netherlands and Denmark) have been driven by purely commercial considerations. The claims made by helmet manufacturers for their products are very modest compared with those made by lobby groups and they do not claim that a helmet will protect from death. However, the industry has been active in promulgating the results of pro-helmet research by others, even where this predicts benefits from helmet use well in excess of what manufacturers feel able to justify.

As John Franklin, the author of “Cyclecraft”, concludes: “Although there has been much research into cycle helmets, too much of this is suspect with regard to assumptions made and control groups used. It does not relate well to real-world circumstances. Most research has been predictive in nature and based on small samples. Little has looked at the results that have actually been achieved in large population samples when helmet use has increased significantly. No research has put the risk of head injury when cycling into perspective with the risk from other common activities and the overall effect on life expectancy and health.

It seems reasonable to expect that reductions in injuries brought about through the wearing of cycle helmets would be reflected in the general accident statistics in places where helmet use has become significant. This should particularly be the case if the more optimistic predictions for injury reduction are correct. However, whole population statistics from Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada show no distinguishable change in fatalities, and statistics for London show no such change for any severity of injury, as helmet use has increased substantially.

This suggests that the real-world performance of cycle helmets may be falling well short of the predictions that have been made.”

David Jamieson the former Minister for Transport, acknowledged in 2004 when the UK Government considered introducing a law to make the wearing of cycle helmets compulsory, that the Government knows of no case where cyclist safety has improved with increasing helmet use. The Government abandoned it is plans for this law after failing to find a single cycling organisation which was prepared to back such a law. Even the NHS has produced evidence the compulsory use of cycle helmets has a negative effect on health of the wider population. Four papers, published in UK in 2005, found little evidence of helmet effectiveness. Indeed there is evidence the wearing a cycle helmet increases the risk of neck injury if you are struck by a motor vehicle (Rivara et al. 1997).

The more I look to this question, the more the evidence convinces me that cycle helmets are a waste of money and do very little, if anything, to increase cycle safety. If, however, you do want to use a helmet then it is best to get one that conforms the highest standard, a list can be found here. They may cost a wee bit more but then it again are you going to wear it for safety or as a fashion statement?

I would just like to give the final words to Laurence Howman writing in the British Medical Journal “Sirs I worked as a Health Care Worker for 24 years at the Local Hospital. 4+ years of that Time was spend on the Neurological Ward. So I had to deal with many Head Injury Patients. It may be of interest to those who promoted the use of Cycle Helmets that During that 4+ years I can’t recall any of the Patients who was a Cyclist. I believe it about time that those studying Cycle Accidents take a look at the Neuro Wards and not the Emergency Wards. It is the Neuro Wards where the really head injuries come. I bet they may just change their tune. You could also look at the Heart and Stroke Wards too because Cyclist don’t turn up there much either”.