26.10.07 by Buffalo Bill
Who would have thought that a piece of polysterene, covered in plastic and adorned with nylon webbing could be the cause of so many arguments? Any cyclist who reads cycle forums, or has been admitted to hospital will be aware that there is a significant constituency of helmet evangelists. Even my old mate Andy White has joined the ranks of the born-again.
Most London bicycle messengers and, indeed, most London cyclists, do not wear helmets. At the first 2 Cycle Messenger Championships, only a small minority of racers wore them. At the 1995 CMWC, minutes before the start of the final, the acting Race Captain, Olli Schuermann unilaterally decided to impose helmet law. London rider Heather retired from the race on the spot, unwilling to accept either this late rule change, or the proposition that wearing a helmet would make her safer.
Since then, all CMWCs have been helmet only. However, it is worth noting that the winner of the 1995 CMWC, Lars Urban, was wearing a leather-hairnet, not a proper helmet. And most CMWCs have permitted the use of such helmets, which are of dubious protective value.
History aside, is the proposition: ‘cyclist + helmet = safer in all circumstances’ proven?
In 1995, when the debate about the use of helmets was beginning, Moving Target published an article entitled ‘Helmets cause death’. A totally absurd assertion, yet this conclusion was supported by the evidence from Western Australia, where helmets had been made compulsory. In the year following the enforcement of helmets, the number of cyclists went down, yet the number of fatal head injury stayed the same. So the rate at which cyclists were dying of head injuries went up.
So it’s worth noting that the simple act of putting a helmet on is not enough to guarantee greater safety for the wearer. I’ll say it again: the risk of collision is not lessened if you have a helmet on. Nor will a helmet prevent death. Emma Foa was wearing a helmet when she was run over and killed.
There is also some evidence that motorists drive closer to helmet-wearing cyclist, which is an unintended, and unfortunate, consequence of bicycle helmets. This is an example of risk compensation. Risk compensation occurs where safety measures are in place that make people feel that the risk of a collision is reduced, therefore it’s safe to go a bit faster, or closer, or pay less attention, thus subverting the extra level of safety.
Finally, when promoting helmets, it is as important to stress that the helmet fits correctly, is adjusted correctly and is still structurally intact. Any helmet that is over 3 years old is no longer safe to use.
I am not saying that no cyclist should wear a helmet. I think people should do whatever make them feel comfortable on a bike, as long as they don’t endanger other road users. However, in my view, promoting helmets should never be an alternative to promoting safe and courteous use of the road by all road users. And I’ll leave you with this thought: the vast majority of fatal head injuries occur in the home.