Trying to make the case for helmet laws

It seems like a refreshingly long time since helmets were being discussed, but sadly thanks to the recent Olympics and a certain sports person the chatter about helmets has returned. A recent YouGov poll put support for mandatory helmets (just for cyclists that is, not pedestrians or motorists) at 79% amongst the general public, whilst a Guardian poll targeting cyclists themselves showed 79% opposed. With this in mind, I decided it would be an interesting exercise to try to make a case for cycle helmets.

Harm reduction in the event of a collision:

Misleading promotion of the effectiveness of cycle helmets by manufacturers, combined with a tendency within the media to explicitly report the lack of a helmet in the event of a collision involving a cyclist who doesn’t choose to wear a helmet has led the majority of the general public to believe that a cycle helmet will offer its wearer a meaningful amount of protection in the event of a collision involving a motor vehicle. Sadly, this kind of collision is far beyond the specification of all cycle helmets on sale in the UK today. Cycle helmets are designed to provide limited protection in the event of the rider falling off a bicycle travelling at low speed, where no other vehicles are involved. The general consensus from the  research into the effectiveness of cycle helmets in the event of a collision involving a motor vehicle puts the actual level of protection afforded to the wearer of a helmet somewhere between zero and negligible.

Reducing the wider costs of cycle-related head injuries to society:

If a cycle helmet was designed which actually could provide its wearer a useful level of protection in the event of a collision with a motor vehicle, in a society such as ours where the cost of healthcare is paid for by taxation, an argument could be made for a state intervention to make the wearing of such a helmet mandatory when cycling, to reduce the costs of treating injuries sustained by cyclists. This was done twenty years ago in Australia, but to the surprise (I certainly hope) of legislators, it resulted in a huge fall in the rate of cycling (with the remaining cyclists not being protected in any useful capacity by their enforced headgear).

With cycling offering significant health benefits to its participants, the fall in cycling rates would cost more to the public purse than the savings made by the reduction in injuries provided by mandating these as yet non-existent cycle helmets providing a useful amount of protection to their wearers in the event of a collision.

The question of ethics:

Even of a cycle helmet could be made which provided a meaningful amount of protection to its wearer in the event of a collision involving a motor vehicle, and the wearing of these helmets could be made mandatory without the added healthcare costs associated with cycling rates being reduced, there would still be a difficult ethical question to answer. In short, our society would be implying that it is the duty of the vulnerable to protect themselves from the actions of those who are not. Expecting the vulnerable to protect themselves from those who create the danger, rather than expecting those who are the source of the danger to moderate their behaviour is a truly grim proposition.

If we as a society fully accepted this, it would be very difficult to draw the line. For example, would people be expected to protect themselves from shooting or stabbings with protective gear? Would mugging victims be offered no sympathy if they had not taken self-defence classes? Is the convenience of members of an in-group (motorists) more important than the lives of members of a minority (cyclists) group? If we accept the state has a right to intervene in the issue of personal protective equipment for cyclists, would we also accept the state making staircase or shower helmets mandatory? What would the implications be for pedestrians or even drivers of smaller, less armoured cars?

Even if a practical, effective cycle helmet could be designed and made mandatory without doing so incurring a greater burden to the public purse than existing cyclist injuries (through reduced health benefits, increased congestion and a complex series of knock-on economic effects) there would still be the problem of the ethics. However, at least if we did get beyond this issue of ethics, we would all have plenty more to be worried about than cycling or helmets.

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12 thoughts on “Trying to make the case for helmet laws

  1. Your Australian reference seems to imply that Australians wear helmets which provide more protection than a mere bicycle helmet. We don’t. Australians must wear a helmet with the correct Australian bicycle helmet standard label. Safer helmets exist of course made for motorcyclists and racing car drivers but it would be illegal for a cyclist to wear one of these. It could be that the European bicycle helmet standard is safer as testing includes a drop onto a curb shaped surface which I don’t think the Australian standard does. It would be illegal in Australia to wear a European standard helmet though because it has the wrong label. You see, it’s not about safety. It’s about compliance with the standard. I confirmed this with a State Government Transport Minister. The standard requires the helmet to be supplied with instructions which include that no attachments should be used unless approved by the manufacturer. Since none are so approved (helmet mounted cameras,mirrors, lights etc) I asked whether doing so would render the helmet no longer compliant with the standard. I was advised in writing that although this would be against the “spirit of the standard” the helmet would remain compliant as it was sold with the correct compliance label. So, you can make the helmet as unsafe as you like but that is only “against the spirit of the standard”. It would still be legal because of the compliance sticker it was sold with. Mandatory bicycle helmet law is not about safety.

    • Apologies, I was not meaning to imply that Australian helmets are uniquely effective, merely that in pretending that they are, Australia (and others) have shown the disastrous effects of making helmets mandatory.

  2. It appears that a LIbDem MP is arguing for a full parliementary review of helmet safety. That could be a good thing – as long of course as it is not rigged to produce the answer she wants, ie that helmets should be compulsory for under 14s.

    If we had a proper enquiry by a select committee of MPs, and assuming that they would leave their hobby horses at home, everyone would have the opportunity to present their evidence and arguments in a reasoned way. It would of course be essential for the cycling organisations to gear up for this and prepare their evidence properly, and rehearse for their hour in the spotlight because you can be sure that wealthy and powerful vested interests like the BMA and “Headway” charity will do that. Having witnessed a select committee enquiry I am only too well aware that the old military axiom that “failing to prepare is preparing to fail” is absolutely true.

  3. Just one little issue to add: when we’re talking about making helmets compulsory for cyclists, do we mean just when riding on the public roads? Where do cycle paths fit into the equation?

    As a regular cyclist, I’m far from convinced by the argument in favour of compulsory helmets. What I want, more than anything, is for more people to cycle, and in a safer overall environment. Making helmets compulsory would put some people off cycling, and may even take the pressure off other measures to improve the environment for cyclists – more and better cycle paths, better enforcement of rules for motorists, more car-free areas and so on.

  4. I wear a helmet to: a) placate my daughter; b) protect against low-hanging branches over certain cycle paths, but don’t care otherwise. However, my experience is that if people are going to froth about safety, they would do better to concentrate on visibility. It never ceases to amaze me how many times the strong flashing light on the front of my bike has saved me from cars pulling out in front of me from side roads, as the fluorescent jersey etc merges into the background (apparently). Also the number of times I have to take evasive action on roads and cycle paths as someone in dark clothing on a dark bike with no lights in the gloom appears from nowhere, looking neither left nor right (nor in front sometimes).

    • Whilst I do find it odd when I see cyclists who do not have lights, I feel that any cyclist-focussed measures to improve cyclist safety are inherently limited in their ability to deliver results because most collisions between cyclists and motor vehicles are the fault of the motorist. The real gains can be made by moderating the behaviour of those who are the real source of the dangers we face.

  5. 1) Regardless of what Bradley Wiggins has said, it will be Team GB and Sky that will generate the increased interest in cycling. Go to your local bike shop to see !. So I suggest that the most important action is to go with it and to lobby for better cycling provision as hard as we can.
    2) The research is mixed see for example a review at http://www.cyclecraft.co.uk/digest/helmet_research.html. However not all accidents involve cars and “off road” accidents show there are benefits where helmets are worn.
    3) As for the ethics of complusion I am old enough to remember the same discussions with drink driving, seat belts in cars and better motorbike helmets. They all reduced accidents. We have to face it that in the UK the roads are dangerous and I would want children to wear helmets even if they are only on the pavements. So I am happy to be consistent and always wear a helmet myself.

    • 2) Off-road accidents, or rather those not involving motor vehicles tend to be much less severe. Even a wool hat could provide a visible benefit over nothing in the event of a minor crash (eg: grazing). However, the risk in these situations is so low as to make mandating protective gear in this situation impossible to justify; you might as well regulate helmets for all activities.
      3) There is absolutely no comparison to be made between drink driving laws, which protect the vulnerable for the actions of those who choose to take the lives of others, and helmet laws which require the vulnerable to protect themselves (primarily) from the actions of negligent motorists.

      As for seatbelts, their requirement protects their users from some of the consequences of their own actions and the actions of those who are of comparable vulnerability, which is not the same as requiring those who are substantially more vulnerable to protect themselves from the actions of those who are not. The sad issue with seatbelts is that whilst they do offer their users a meaningful safety benefit (unlike cycle helmets), they also decrease the safety of those outside of motor vehicles, through the degradation of driving as a result of risk compensation.

      Motorcycle helmets raise similar ethical questions to cycle helmets, although at least actually providing some protective benefit to their users. Still, mandatory motorcycle helmets haven’t prevented motorbikes from being the most dangerous mode of road transport. Perhaps as a result of this the actual primary source of danger motorcyclists face (drivers) have not been required to moderate their behaviour.

  6. If we’re going to make cycle helmets mandatory, let’s do it properly. Every UK cyclist should be made to buy this: http://bit.ly/PeQYuC

    LOOK AT THE FEATURE SET:

    Genuine UK Arai helmet
    Five year Arai warranty card
    Full dealer aftersales support
    Peripherally belted SNC construction
    Enhanced hyper ridge strengthening
    Triple density inner shell
    Air intake stabiliser diffuser
    Five position air wing
    Airflow spoiler
    Power intake shutter chin vent
    Wider aperture visor SAI
    Improved breath deflector
    Aeroflap – reduces wind noise and turbulence
    Emergency release cheek pads
    Fully washable and removable Dry Cool interior
    Removable skull cap and cheek pads
    Removable neck roll
    Patented visor brow ventilation ducts
    2mm polycarbonate Pinlock visor
    Double D retention system
    Pinlock visor insert included

    Who wouldn’t want an Aeroflap? I often thought that my cycling would be dramatically improved if I had “an adjustable Air Wing that significantly reduces buffeting and drag when the riders emerge from a full tuck when braking from high speeds, enhancing concentration.” If we’re going to treat cyclists like motorcyclists, let’s fully commit to it, rather than this half-hearted plastic hat nonsense.

  7. Hi,
    an interesting discussion, and has been obliquely referred to in the comments, the cause of most deaths and serious injuries is the dangerous behaviour of other road users. Is it ethical to make people wear protection because of the danger caused by others, or would it be more ethical to make the people causing the danger behave better? Strangely enough, that is exactly the position that Health and Safety rules adopt: reduce the danger at source and only as a last resort, make the victims wear armour.

    Since the evidence from more than twenty year’s experience of whole population laws shows no benefit, only disbenefits, there is no practical or ethical reason to either promote helmets or a helmet law, rather the opposite.

    “Misleading promotion of the effectiveness of cycle helmets by manufacturers,….” Actually, it isn’t the manufacturers promoting helmets, it’s organisations like BHIT, BRAKE and the BMA. The manufacturers are forbidden by advertising standards legislation from promoting their helmets on safety grounds, and usually have a disclaimer in the box saying that it won’t protect in some foreseeable collisions. No such strictures apply to the organisations promoting them though, with many lurid stories of death prevented only by a flimsy bit of plastic. To add insult to injury, last time I checked BHIT were getting funding from the taxpayer, so the public are paying them to damage the public health!

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