Whatever internet libertarians think, car use has externalities, and bicycle use doesn’t. So it is a reasonable goal of Government to facilitate cycling especially for short journeys. Standing in the way of more people jumping on their bikes for short journeys (anything less than a mile, is usually quicker by bicycle than by car…), is the vexed issue of safety. The superficially obvious sticking plaster solution so beloved of nanny-stater is to ignore the crap road design and poor infrastructure for cyclists; turn a blind-eye to appalling motorist behaviour and attitudes and compel cyclists to wear helmets and high-visibility clothing, as if that would make a difference.
The evidence is clear. In New Zealand and Australia, compelling people to use cycle helmets did decrease cycling related head injuries, by about the same amount they reduced total cycling miles. So given positive externalities of substituting bicycle journeys for car journeys, society is poorer. Individuals are poorer too, since the evidence is clear that (for adults at least) cycling, even without a helmet, saves more people from heart disease than it kills under the wheels of motor-vehicles. Given there is some “safety in numbers” for cyclists, reducing the number of cyclists makes any given journey more dangerous for the cyclists that remain.
Even the motorist is worse off if there are fewer cyclists: if short car journeys are substituted with Bicycle journeys: There’s less congestion, especially around school run time, There’s less competition for parking spaces, and given most congestion is in the queue at the lights, journey times fall.
The solution is to make the bicycle safe, and that means separating it from all but the slowest moving traffic, and where volumes of pedestrians and/or cyclists are high enough, cyclists should be separated from pedestrian traffic too. Unfortunately most infrastructure in the UK is tailor-made to create conflict. Most roads are too narrow for cars to pass cyclists safely, so frustrating (apparent – waiting behind a cyclist on an open road almost never delays a journey, you just catch up with the car in front a little later) delays are caused by cyclists on open roads, or the motorist is tempted into a dangerous and uncomfortable close passes. Most “cycle paths” are shared-use, and pedestrians do not often keep to “their” side of the path, leading to frustration and (apparent – cyclists whizzing past pedestrians are no-where near as dangerous as it appears to the pedestrian) danger.
Many idiots think cyclists are a significant danger to pedestrians. “One nearly knocked me over…” This is risible tospottery spouted mainly by the kind of contemptible wanker who thinks UKIP isn’t a bunch of contemptible wankers.
The key is to get more people cycling, creating a virtuous circle where cycling infrastructure generates cyclists. This encourages councils to build more, which encourages more cyclists and so on. Everyone gets used to having cyclists about. Everyone is better off. There’s less noise, congestion, stress, and people are healthier and better-looking. Forget gastric bands, prescribe cycling on the NHS for being a disgusting land-whale.
What helmet laws do, however, is put out the message that cycling is DANGEROUS. Parents don’t let their kids do something that’s so dangerous the Government has made protective equipment mandatory. Instead, kids are cocooned in a steel cage, until they get their own at 17. Secondly by criminalising occasional cyclists who just want to pop to the shops and don’t have a cycle helmet, they never get on their bikes and so jump on the car. It also discourages short, urban journeys.
The reality is simple. Plastic hats aren’t much cop in a serious collision. In any given crash, a Bicycle helmet helps in around 16% of cases (more in children, who have more low-speed, sideways tumbles, for which the design of cycle helmets is optimised. Because of the very specific tests helmets are subjet to, their benefit is greater at low speeds, and especially off road. But there is a flip-side: it is probable that bicycle helmets increase the likelihood of getting into a crash – both the motorist and cyclist engage in risk-compensating behaviour. Cyclists take more risks and go faster, motorists pass closer to helmeted cyclists. Even the fact that the helmets are bulky increases the risk of a collision.
The more upright the bike, the less you need a helmet. The sportier and faster your bike, and the rougher the terrain, the more you need a helmet. Think about what happens in a front wheel skid at speed at the bottom of a hill on a “dutch bike” with a basket, compared to a racing bicycle where the rider’s weight is significantly borne by the hands. The latter ends up with the cyclist falling head first. The former lands on their feet.
Most of the assertions and statistics made in this post are peer reviewed, and can be found here.
In summary, There is little benefit to helmet use in urban utility cycling. In a collision with a motor-vehicle, a helmet is next-to-useless. In a crash not involving a motor vehicle helmets sometimes help. If you’re likely to have the former, helmets don’t matter, and the latter they might. It really should be up to the cyclist.
Helmets may help prevent injury, especially minor injury, in any given crash, but may, in some circumstances make serious crashes with motor vehicles (where helmets are not efficacious) more likely. The main effect of bicycle helmet compulsion, is fewer cyclists, an effect which dwarfs any other safety effect of such legislation. Encourage the use of cycle helmets, at least until the UK cycle infrastructure looks like the Netherlands’, by all means, but don’t pass a law making it compulsory. To compel helmet use is the single biggest thing a government can do to put back the cause of utility cycling.
If you want a take home you can tweet, here it is: If your bum is higher than your hands, wear a helmet, it might help in some crashes, but helmet law mainly reduces the number of cyclists.