Alternative approaches to reducing head injuries
Over 200 cyclists have been killed and over 80,000 injured in road
accidents in Great Britain in each of the last few years. The great majority of accidents
are minor. They characteristically involve cyclists losing control of their cycles and
falling off. Other vehicles are not involved. Injuries are rarely serious; admission to
hospital usually reveals only short-term concussion.
But when accidents are serious, they generally involve damage to the
head following collision with a motor vehicle. This is true for the large majority of
fatalities and about one half of the serious injuries. Adult cyclists are most frequently
Many studies have been carried out to establish the extent to which
the wearing of helmets by cyclists reduces the incidence and severity of head injuries in
the event of accident. Most conclude that helmets are highly desirable.
That conclusion would be warranted if it were also supported by
evidence about the effect on cycling behaviour of wearing a helmet. The studies assume
that behaviour is unaffected. That assumption is not justified. The likelihood is that
when wearing a helmet cyclists feel less vulnerable and therefore ride less cautiously. As
a result, they are more likely to have an accident. Consequently, the benefits attributed
to helmets by the studies are at best highly exaggerated. At worst, wearing a helmet may
expose cyclists to greater danger.
Wearing a helmet only marginally reduces the extent of head injury
following collision with a motor vehicle. Thus, cyclists who wear a helmet do so with an
inflated idea of its protective properties. Indeed, this illusion is encouraged by road
safety campaigners and helmet manufacturers who set out to persuade cyclists that they
will be safer with a helmet, using all the techniques of modern advertising. Cyclists are
not warned of the limited benefit provided by a helmet in an accident with a motor vehicle
An appropriate solution to the problem of serious accidents to
cyclists requires an understanding of the circumstances in which accidents occur. Cyclists
rarely ride into motor vehicles. It is motor vehicles driven without sufficient care which
are the source of most of the danger and which pose the threat to the life and limb of
cyclists. Calling on cyclists to increase their safety by wearing a helmet shifts
responsibility away from the drivers, the agents of accidents, on to cyclists who are
nearly always the victims. Were cycle helmets to be made compulsory, it would reinforce
public perceptions of the bicycle as a dangerous form of transport and encourage the view
that cyclists are responsible for their own injury.
The weight of evidence is against the introduction of a statutory
requirement on cyclists to wear a helmet. Moreover, where a cycle helmet law has been
introduced, it has led to a substantial reduction in cycling. That represents a public and
private loss because cycling is such an efficient, healthy and environmentally-friendly
form of transport. The weight of evidence is also against the encouragement of cyclists to
wear helmets. Cycle helmets are a means of slightly reducing head injury if an accident
occurs. Wearing a helmet does nothing to prevent accidents. The primary means of reducing
serious head injury among cyclists is to create an environment in which accidents are less
likely to happen.
"Cycle Helmets: the Case for and Against" is available
directly from Policy Studies Institute, price £5.95 plus post and packing.
Here is where you can order it from:
Policy Studies Institute
100 Park Village East
London NW1 3SR
tel 0171 468 0468
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BEBC, on 01202 715555.