With the debate about whether or not to wear cycle helmets in the news once again, RoSPA asked Carlton Reid, the executive editor of BikeBiz.com and editor of BikeHub.co.uk, to contribute a guest blog.
I’m a pro helmet anti-compulsionist.
I wear a helmet because I’m a mountain biker too and it’s now pretty much standard equipment off-road. I’ve also raced in the past and helmet-use is a requirement for any form of racing. Hopefully, when road riding, I don’t go quicker or more recklessly because I’m wearing a helmet.
My three kids (11, 13 and 11) have always worn helmets and two still do. The third is now getting more fashion conscious and she prefers to wear a hat rather than a helmet. I don’t force the issue, she’s old enough now to realise concrete and tarmac are quite hard and unforgiving.
Cyclists are united by their love of cycling, but are very often divided over the sometimes vitriolic subject of helmets. But I don’t think my bicycle helmet will save my head should I be unlucky enough to be hit by a speeding car.
Polystyrene is tough, but it’s not that tough. Helmet manufacturers are very careful when it comes to claims about the efficacy of their products. They have to be: if they overstated the effectiveness they could be held liable in those cases when, sadly, cyclists have been badly injured or killed while wearing protective head gear.
Most bicycle helmets are designed for falls to the ground from one metre at speeds of 12mph. They offer almost zero protection in collisions between bicycles and fast-moving cars.
Riding safely is the best form of protection.
But the way some in the mainstream media portray bicycle helmets you’d think polystyrene was a magical material with amazing force-field capabilities. It’s very common for news reporters to mention the use – or non-use – of helmets when describing car v bike fatalities. Recently, a TV news report from Carolina in America had this awful headline: “Cyclists involved in deadly accident not wearing helmets”.
The first paragraph of the news story said: “Investigators say Trey and David Doolittle were not wearing protective helmets at the time of the car accident…that killed both cyclists. Highway Patrol Trooper B.R. Phillips says David Doolittle was wearing protective gloves as well cycling shoes and spandex but neither cyclist had on head protection.”
Trey and David Doolittle were killed by a drunk driver, likely doing at least 55mph. The driver did not brake before he hit the cyclists. He would have carried on driving had he not been stopped by a motorist who witnessed the crash. The TV reporter does not reveal how polystyrene would have protected this father and son, out on a training ride.
This media focus on helmets is classic victim-blaming. And it’s not just a media problem. A 2007 study found that motorists give lid-less cyclists more room when passing, suggesting that many motorists believe cycle helmets offer serious protection.
Bicycle helmets are by no means the most important safety intervention. Physical barriers to prevent motorists hitting cyclists, now that’s more like it. But such infrastructure is expensive. It’s far easier and cheaper to focus on making cyclists wear plastic hats rather than build safer routes for cyclists.
In the Netherlands, such separated infrastructure is common and use of helmets for such an ordinary, everyday activity of cycling is negligible. As this video from the winter of 2010 shows, cyclists who fall from their bikes at slow speeds don’t tend to hit their heads. Shot in Lelystad in the Netherlands, cyclist after cyclist in the two minute video falls to the ground when tackling an icy corner. None are wearing helmets.
One woman nearly hit her chin and a few people might have risked wrist damage but, while it’s an unscientific sample, none of the fallen cyclists came anywhere near to hitting their heads. In this particular case, the best safety intervention would have been to spread grit to melt the ice.
RoSPA recommends that cyclists wear a cycle helmet that meets a recognised safety standard. Cycle helmets, when correctly worn, are effective in reducing the risk of receiving major head or brain injuries in an accident. They do not guarantee protection, nor prevent accidents from happening in the first place, but wearing a cycle helmet is a simple, low cost and effective way that individual cyclists can protect themselves.
A cycle helmet cushions the head in a fall, providing a last line of defence between your head and the ground. It reduces the force of an impact before it reaches your head and brain. The hard outer shell spreads the force of a blow over a wider area than the initial impact site.
Choosing a cycle helmet:
- Try the helmet on before buying it
- Make sure you like the type and style
- Check it has a CE mark and meets at least one recognised Standard: BS EN1078:1997 (European Standard) Snell B.95 (American Standard)
- Make sure it fits comfortably and securely
- Check that the straps are easy to do up and adjust
- Ensure it stays in place on the head when the straps are fastened
- Make sure it does not obstruct vision
- Ensure it does not cover the ears
- Check that it is well ventilated
- Ensure it comes with clear advice for the user.
Helmets do not prevent accidents. An accident can still be very serious, even when wearing a helmet. So be just as careful, look around for traffic, dress brightly and follow the rules of the road.
And most importantly of all, RoSPA urges drivers and motorcyclists to ensure they keep a proper look-out for vulnerable road users like cyclists, and to watch their speed, particularly in residential areas and around schools.
Take a look at RoSPA’s cycle helmet information.