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Cycle Helmets: The Case for and Against

Mayer Hillman, 1993


CONTENTS

SHORT SUMMARY

INTRODUCTION

1 CYCLING, CYCLE ACCIDENTS AND HEAD INJURIES

  • The extent of cycling
  • Casualties and head injuries among cyclists

    2 HELMET DESIGN

    3 QUESTIONING CLAIMS THAT HELMET WEARING REDUCES HEAD INJURIES

  • The influence of personal characteristics
  • Comparable survey periods and sample
  • Changes in the extent of helmet wearing and traffic danger
  • Classification of injuries to the head
  • Evidence only available from survivors

    4 QUESTIONING THE BENEFITS OF HELMET WEARING

  • Degree of protection from cycle helmets
  • The cost of cycle helmets and their usage
  • Cycling comfortably
  • Propensity to take risks

    5 DISCUSSION

  • Whose responsibility for minimising risk of injury?
  • Who should wear helmets?
  • Encouragement versus compulsion
  • Life years lost versus life years gained
  • Alternative approaches to reducing head injuries

    6 CONCLUSIONS

    REFERENCES


    SHORT SUMMARY

    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 involved.

    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.


    Ordering Information

    "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:

    Publications Department
    Policy Studies Institute
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    London NW1 3SR
    UK

    tel 0171 468 0468

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Last updated 04 December 2000