Cycling helmets

From Richard Grant’s blog: the Cross-Party Cycling Group of The Scottish Parliament discussed bicycle helmets (pdf) back in May, and published a presentation (slides, notes (PDFs)) about risk factors by Malcolm Wardlow. So far as Google can tell, Wardlow is ‘just an enthusiast,’ but I’ll take an amateur who’s published in the BMJ over most analysts, thanks.

I’ve known for a while that the upshot of Australia’s dalliance with compulsory cycle helmet wearing was not as clear-cut as one might expect; Wardlow fills in the story with a decade’s dose of perspective also. The bottom line? Helmets do little to prevent serious injury to cyclists, and even appear to contribute to increased fatality rates. Nevertheless, cycling is getting safer – apparently because there are more cyclists. The more of us there are, the safer it gets for us all.

Thus, making helmets compulsory is counterproductive not only because they might not actually be of any use, but also because the perception of danger puts people off cycling. And that has a very measurable effect on all the remaining cyclists.

The paper’s an excellent read, and at the policy level is fascinating and fairly clear. What’s unclear are the implications for individuals: does my wearing a helmet actually do me any good? Also: whenever I show presenters cycling on TV, I always ensure they’re wearing a helmet. I’m no longer as convinced that I should do that, despite the deluge of complaints I’d receive if I didn’t.

4 Comments on "Cycling helmets"


  1. as a one time out door pursuits instructor, games designer and inherent safety officer I’ve often stipulated ‘no helmet’, as the perceived danger when not wearing a helmet can significantly reduce accidents. [As opposed to perceived safety with a helmet, making the wearer clumsy and dangerous.]
    There are obvious times for wearing helmets, common sense is a good judge of these. An environment where heavy sharp objects might fall from above gives the feeling that something solid on the nut is a good idea. But cycling in the open air? when has an elaborate polystyrene cup with holes in ever saved anyone?

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  2. I agree with you, John. The whole ‘risk compensation’ thing is worrying me.
    I know I drive differently when I’m not wearing a seatbelt (on private land) and that really scares me – because I thought I was a careful (but confident) driver.

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