No bicycle helmet law here, please

We’re free to wear whatever we please while riding a bike. But to those who might be considering a compulsory helmet law, like that in Australia or the law that looks as though it may be adopted in Northern Ireland, think again.

I can’t put it any better than Ann Warren, of Southwark Cyclists:

This is a huge issue for me. If they make them compulsory I will either have to give up cycling or go to prison.

My thoughts are:

1. Accepting the hostile cycling environment we have in London to the extent that we are willing to wear body armour seems like capitulation to me. I want motor-free cycle routes like they have in modern cities elsewhere. Forget Australia and Canada where there are no pedestirans. Think of Germany, Holland, Belgium, Denmark, China – no-one over the age of three wears a cycle helmet in these places.

2. If cycling is so dangerous that I have to wear a helmet, why on earth would I want to do it? I wouldn’t dream of doing any of those dangerous, boyish things like potholing or motorbiking for which people have to wear helmets.

3. Someone did some research a couple of years ago (in Bristol? Bath?) measuring the distance between moving vehicles and a moving cyclist – you get four more inches (10cm) if you don’t wear a helmet. This confirms what I have noticed myself. (Apparently you get another four inches if you wear a blonde wig – but what’s new?)

4. I don’t really want my town filled with urban warriors in helmets. It’s not polite. What kind of town do you want to live in?

5. I want my daughters to cycle.

6. If helmets are essential for cycling, then they are definitely essential for climbing or descending stairs. Every staircase should have a basket of helmets of various sizes at top and bottom, especially public staircases. Think of all those reckless young people who run up and down two at a time. How can the authorities be so cavalier as not to legislate to ensure their safety?

20 thoughts on “No bicycle helmet law here, please

  1. Sorry, what exactly is the substantial argument against helmets here?

    Sure, it’d be great if London like a northern European style cyclist’s utopia, but that’s not going to happen in a hurry (ever). Until then, it seems completely reasonable to have a law that makes cyclists safer – like motorists wearing seatbelts.

    I just can’t buy the argument that cyclists should deliberately appear as vulnerable as possibel in order to get car and lorry drivers to drive more safely around them!

    And what is this ‘urban warrior’ crap? Since when did London have a reputation for being polite?

  2. @Steve: I think Ann is saying that a helmet law will make it less likely that London will become a ‘cyclists’ utopia’ because fewer people will ride bikes. In every instance of a helmet law being introduced the result has been fewer people riding bikes. Be careful on those stairs.

  3. Although I almost always wear a helmet, I totally agree with Ann. Think of this issue as the top of a slippery slope. If helmets were to become compulsory, those who feel they should bear no responsibility for their actions whilst behind the wheel of a motor vehicle seem to have a small list of other rules they’d like to apply to cyclists: insurance, license plates, ‘road tax’, having to cycle on cycle paths when available etc. All, or any, of these would surely act as significant barriers to getting people riding bikes.

    One thing which never seems to get mentioned is that, as far as I am aware, bike helmets are designed to protect the cyclists head in a fall from a bike and not as the result of an impact from a motor vehicle.

  4. I couldn’t agree more with Ann.
    Even though I do wear a helmet when touring, especially when I know a great deal of ‘tricky’ terrain lies ahead of me (as in terrifying descents), I don’t think anyone should be ‘forced’ to wear a helmet – especially if they are only embarking upon a gentle saunter to the shops for groceries/to a cafe/whatever.
    If such a law were indeed enforced, I feel that the number of people cycling would definitely be reduced. Might it not also give drivers another excuse to banter around – oh, I knocked him/her off, but they weren’t wearing a helmet … so it’s their own fault … or something similarly ludicrous.

  5. @steve,
    The only way to completely stop cycling injuries is to ban cycling. Goal achieved but a tad counter productive.

    If however, you would like to reduce the risk cyclists face without counter productive effects, then you will need to address the source of the harm – being hit by a car or HGV.

    The problem with helmet laws is that, like banning cycling, they don’t address the source of the problem. Instead they achieve their ‘safety’ effects by reducing the number of people cycling. A better approach is to stop being being hit by cars in the first place – separated infrastructure and strict liability for dangerous motorists.

    If you still believe that helmet laws make cycling safer (note I’m not saying helmets don’t work), then please explain why they safest places in the world to cycle are the ones with the lowest helmet usage.

    If helmet laws worked, then Australia would have much safer cycling than say Denmark. Only problem is that riding helmetless in Copenhagen is over 20 times safer than riding with a helmet in Sydney.


  6. Jesus wept, not the helmet debate again?
    To steal a phrase from Dr Ben Goldacre ‘s Bad Science newspaper column, this is a zombie argument.
    No matter how often it is explained that helmet compulsion has always led to a reduction in the number of cycle journeys, up it pops again refusing to die in the face of reason.
    If they made a helmet that resilient I’d consider wearing it.

  7. Nothing here against helmets… only against laws

    I wear a helmet 20-30 hours a week due to laws in Australia… without the laws I’d still wear it for maybe half that

    People can be trusted to make good decisions for themselves

    In 1992 Australia lost about half of it’s cyclists… three quarters of women

  8. Steve Kerr, check wikipedia for substantial arguments against cycle helmets. One argument is, as helmet use rises, head injury does not fall.

    No clear evidence from countries that have enforced the wearing of helmets British Medical Journal 2006.

    Another argument is that cyclists live longer. If helmet complulsion or helmet campaigns reduce cycling or inhibit growth in cycling, they are counter-productive.

    All-cause mortality associated with physical activity during leisure time, work, sports, and cycling to work. Archives of Internal Medicine June 2000

    Do The Health Benefits Of Cycling Outweigh The Risks? Environmental Health Perspectives August 2010

  9. My guess is that BorisBikes have killed off potential for helmet laws here. The amount invested inthem, and the fact that they’re totally incompatible with helmet laws, has had this [assuredly unitentional]by-product.

  10. @ Jon, but as @ericonabike has said, so much has been invested in the hire scheme in London (politically and financially) that they would never let it be killed off by a new helmet law.

  11. @Jack – I’m just less optimistic about politicians choosing the smart rather than populist approach. MPs have nothing to lose from widdling on the London Mayor’s scheme.

  12. ‘MPs have nothing to lose from widdling on the London Mayor’s scheme’

    They do, really. BBs represent a successful public/private partnership with millions of £s invested. The numbers here speak louder thasn words, I think.

  13. Here in Melbourne, we continue to be the poster child for what happens to cycling under helmet laws. Our bike share is struggling to get 10,000 rides a month (each of the 600 cycles is ridden 16 times a month).

    I had hoped that its looming failure would be a wake up call, but it doesn’t seem to be getting through yet. They have even put in helmet vending machines to sell $5 helmets for the bike scheme.

  14. Snowboarding helmets work well when I ride on ice and snow. If I go down because of the winter wonderland I live in, count on your head hitting something hard and, usually frozen. Doesn’t stop me from cycling, however.

  15. I think that before any law is brought in, we should at least have the chance to buy, at a reasonable price helmets that are really safe. The standard set in UK for cycle helmets is one of the lowest in the world. If I am going to look like an idiot in a helmet, I want a SNELL 95. This standard the best in the world.

  16. I ride two bikes an old fashioned high Nelly for transport and a mountain bike for fun and or workout.
    I’m in a similar body position to walking on the Nelly, very stable and weight in balance, I dont bother with a helmet.
    On the mountain bike more of my weight is forward so I,m out of balance, therefore I wear a helmet on this type of bike.
    Two very diffrent bikes doing diffrent things one I’m happy without the helmet the other I want the helmet.
    There should be no conflict really

  17. If my husband had not been wearing a helmet when he fell from his bike on a quiet road (puncture) at 30mph and broke his pelvis, he would have been dead or seriously injured. The logo and writing on the side of the helmet had been scraped off in the fall and the helmet was cracked and dented. This would have been his head if he had not been wearing his helmet.

    • If he was doing 30mph on the flat and a puncture threw him off badly enough to fracture his pelvis, then it’s pretty certain that he was riding a light head-forward road bike where coming to a sudden stop is likely to mean a dive over the handlebars. Everyday utility bikes don’t work like that: they’re too heavy, and the centre of gravity is so far back that you always fall off sideways, with your knee, hip, forearm and shoulder taking the impact in that order.

      The fact that your husband’s helmet was scraped on impact doesn’t mean a great deal. The human brain is in fact quite well protected by nature, and nineteen head-whacks out of twenty do no lasting damage at all. In any case, unlike motorcycle helmets pushbike helmets aren’t very solidly constructed, so any blow powerful enough to crush the helmet will probably crush the skull beneath it as well. In 2011 two professional racing cyclists died of head injuries despite wearing helmets.

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