Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Should Cyclists be forced to wear helmets?

An argument that has been rumbling on for years hit the local press over the last week.

On wednesday, blog favourite Cllr Colin Rosenstiel was quoted claiming that wearing a cycle helmet makes you more likely to have an accident, and criticised the County Council over their attempts to compel staff to wear them.

But yesterday, the chief executive of Cambridgeshire head injuries charity Headway hit back, questioning the assumption that cyclists with helmets are more likely to be involved in an accident, and calling for a common sense approach, that those with helmets are more likely to have their skull protected in an accident than those who don't.

On this latter point, it is hard to argue that in the case of an accident involving a head impact, you wouldn't be better off with a helmet on, although the protective effect is nothing like as comprehensive as some might think, particularly in high speed collisions.

The issue of whether wearing a helmet makes you more likely to have an accident in the first place is more debatable. There are usually two parties involved in causing an accident, and usually through defensive driving or riding, either party can stop an accident happening. It is possible cyclists would ride less 'defensively' whilst wearing a helmet - an extreme way of expressing this is the argument sometimes suggested for preventing injury from car accidents - it would be safer to put a large metal spike on the steering wheel than an airbag - which rather graphically illustrates the point. Another factor that could cause  helmet wearers to be more likely to be involved in an accident is the effect the helmet has on other road users, and in particular it is claimed that drivers are more likely to drive closer to cyclists (i.e. less defensively) if they have a helmet.

But there is a third argument why forcing cyclists to wear helmets might increase the accident rate (not to mention also increasing levels of traffic and obesity) - a second order effect, namely that forcing helmet usage reduces cycling as it is significantly less convenient, which it turn makes if less safe for all cyclists. Countries with very high rates of cycling like Holland don't insist on helmet use, and tend to have much lower accident rates amongst cyclists, as road users always expect high levels of cyclists and change their driving or cycling accordingly to reduce the risk of accidents.

Put all these arguments together, and I can easily believe that the protective effect of helmets in some accidents is more than outweighed by an increase in accident rates and reduction in cycling take up if helmets are made compulsory.

Add to this my natural scepticism whenever government tries forcing an individual to do something purely for 'their own good', even when that individual has taken a considered and informed view that they wouldn't otherwise do it, and I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing rather more with Cllr Rosenstiel that we shouldn't be forcing helmet use on cyclists - it should be a personal choice.

Usually around town I don't wear a helmet - but I hope I ride quite responsibly and defensively. Riding along the tow path this evening marshalling the town bumps I probably will choose to use my helmet...


Martin said...

Well said, Chris.

In terms of the liberty aspect, there is a further point which is that the government (or the County Council!) shouldn't be making laws which they don't have a hope of enforcing.

Equinox said...

Wearing a cycle helmet is but one part of cycling safely.

The Cambridge Cycling Campaign (http://www.camcycle.org.uk) linked to an article about this - http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/Home/Cycle-trainer-critical-of-obsession-with-helmets.htm

My understanding from the article is that this was about whether focussing marketing on the wearing of cycle helmets was the right strategy. (I wear one because it feels safer with it...and it matches my jacket).

What I'd like to see is the language schools working with the Councils to put on cycling awareness courses as part of their package to students. That way it would help reduce the friction between local pedestrians using traffic lights and those cyclists who otherwise would go through them.

Also, doesn't anywhere do advanced cycling courses in the same way that you can do advanced driving courses?