If there is one issue that is highly contentious in cycling, it is this: Should wearing cycle helmets be compulsory?

It is no secret that I personally do not wear a cycle helmet, but I do understand that some people, for what ever reason, like to wear them. And I feel that they should be free to do so, if they want to. One of the most frequently stated reasons for wearing a cycle helmet is that it might save your life (especially when you are being sponsored to say so a brand ambassador for a helmet company). However, the evidence that cycle helmets have any influence on the rate of head injury is, to say the least, rather mixed. The empirical evidence from places where helmets have been make mandatory show that at best they only reduce the rate of minor injury. Nor is this helped by the fact that there is very little independent testing on cycle helmets, most test standards are set by the companies manufacturing the helmets, and do not test to the highest level of protection.

Do laws making the wearing of cycle helmets compulsory encourage cycling and make it safer? No, there is clear international evidence that where cycle helmets have been made a legal requirement, the number of people riding bicycles has dropped. Indeed, there is evidence from Australia and New Zealand that, after compulsory cycle helmet laws were introduced, the rate of death and injury for cyclists (per Km travelled) actually increased.

There is also the question of do cyclists have a disproportionally high risk of serious head injury? Well, no they don’t, per Km travelled cyclists have a similar rate of serious head injury to pedestrians. Whereas, the occupants of cars have a far higher rate of serious head injury (despite the use of seatbelts and airbags) due the higher speeds at which accidents crashes occur. So why is it that there no promotional campaigns for pedestrians helmets or motoring helmets? Why are cyclists being singled out for special treatment? This brings us on to the question of who actually benefits from laws requiring people riding bicycles to wear a helmet? Well, as this wee film shows, helmet companies like them, but only in countries where cycling is common…

Oh, and the motor industry is also keen on getting people to wear cycle helmets, to protect them against people driving cars, apparently…

So to summarise:

  • Cycle helmets may have some slight protective value, but no where nearly as much as has been claimed, or most people seem to think.
  • Wearing a helmet does nothing to prevent a cyclists from being hit by a car.
  • Real cycle safety comes from providing better infrastructure and restricting motor vehicles where they mix with cyclists (or until that happens learning how to ride properly).
  • Crash helmets for the occupants of motor vehicles could easily save more lives (as motorists are a greater risk of head injury) than making cyclists wear.
  • Helmet laws restrict freedom of choice, may result in the targeting of minorities, discourage cycling, make cycling more dangerous for those who remain, and shift the blame in car-bike collisions to helmet-less cyclists even if it was the motorist who was at fault.

All in all, compulsory bicycle helmet laws are not good for cyclists themselves, but are good for third parties with vested interests. While cycle helmets may reduce the risk of some minor injury, they can’t not prevent serious head injury or make the roads safer. So should anyone suggest such a law where you are, protect your freedom (where did I get that slogan from?), question why they want to bring in such a law and who is funding them. It should be up to each individual whether or not they wear a helmet while riding a bicycle, it should not be a matter of law.