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.