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Is it safer to wear a helmet when cycling?

Is it safer to wear a helmet?
Michael Donlevy
21 Nov 2018

Some studies say helmets have saved lives, while others say you might as well be wearing a paper hat. So should we cover up or not?

Former Mayor of London Boris Johnson wasn’t wearing a helmet when he suffered his most serious cycling collision. ‘I was negotiating Knightsbridge with extreme caution when a French tourist walked across the road without looking – you could tell he was French by the noise he made on impact.’

The then London Mayor sustained a sprained wrist and claimed a helmet – or rather an ‘undignified plastic hat’ – would have made no difference.

‘If I’d had a foghorn it might have come in handy, or possibly a cow-catcher fitted to the front of my bike. But a helmet?’

Other regular cyclists take a different view. Alec Lom recounted in The Telegraph last year about how wearing a helmet when he had a low-speed collision with the front wheel of a car parked near his home ‘saved his life.'

He said, 'I feel extremely fortunate to have escaped serious injury or even death. The precise circumstances of my tumble are now a little hazy, but one recollection remains crystal clear.

'The nurses and doctors who treated me each asked me the same simple question: “Were you wearing a helmet?”’

Cyclists in the UK are not required by law to wear a helmet, and it’s a contentious issue. As far back as 1988 research published in The Journal Of Product Liability refuted claims that growth in the use of helmets had reduced cycle-related injuries and death.

The author, GB Rodgers, studied more than eight million cases of injury and death to cyclists in the USA over 15 years, and concluded, ‘There is no evidence that helmets have reduced the head injury and fatality rates.

'The most surprising finding is that the bicycle-related fatality rate is positively and significantly correlated with increased helmet use.’

Helmets haven’t changed that much since then. More recently, research by the Department of Neuropsychology at Leicester General Hospital reported, ‘There is conflicting evidence for the protective value of cycle helmets. Some researchers have found helmets to protect against head and facial injuries.

'Others have criticised the research methods used and questioned whether helmets can protect the wearer from the most damaging types of head injury. No trial judge has yet found a case for contributory negligence on the part of a cyclist not wearing a helmet.’

The standard safety test states that ‘cycle helmets are only designed and tested to withstand an impact equivalent to an average weight rider travelling at a speed of 12mph falling onto a stationary kerb-shaped object from a height of one metre’.

This might save you if you topple off your bike as you approach a set of traffic lights but it can’t guarantee your safety if you’re clipped by a passing vehicle at 30mph.

In fact, there is no reliable evidence to support claims that helmets will protect you at various different speeds, because researching this is so fraught with potential errors – it’s virtually impossible to recreate every potential accident in a safe environment when there are so many variables at play, including speed, distance to the point of impact, force and angle of impact.

Professor Remy Willinger from the University of Strasbourg is a working group leader for a European study into the ‘optimisation of bicycle helmets in terms of head protection’.

He hits the nail on the, er, head when he says, ‘The work has been very focused on the question of how to design a better test method for bike helmets. This work should be based on real accident situations.

'The reason why this is essential is that the current test methods for bicycle helmets are not based on real accident situations.’ And there are other factors to consider…

Changing attitudes

Cyclist has already met Ian Walker, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Bath, whose research into hi-vis kit revealed that wearing fluorescent clothing actually made motorists take less care when passing cyclists.

He conducted similar research into helmets, with similar results.

Walker used an ultrasonic distance sensor in two British cities to measure how much space motorists gave a cyclist with and without a helmet, and the results revealed that, on average, drivers passed 8.5cm closer to the cyclist who was wearing a helmet than they did to the one without.

This backs up several previous studies that have found motorists perceive a cyclist who is wearing a helmet to be more experienced and therefore more skilled, so they take greater risks around them.

Motorists also subconsciously view the majority of cyclists as young and male, and one interesting aside from Walker’s research was that he found motorists gave more space to a cyclist who donned a long, flowing wig to look like a woman.

He does point out, however, that this research doesn’t analyse the safety implications of wearing a helmet in a collision.

‘I’ve never really said anything about the effectiveness of wearing one – just that they seem to induce behaviour change in drivers,’ he says.

'But basically I think it’s inappropriate that people are asked to buy and wear a device if the reason for this is that they have been put at risk, without their consent, by other people.

'If people want to wear one because they fear a fall – mountain bikers particularly – that’s a different matter, but there are obvious concerns with the former situation.’

As with clothing, wearing a helmet can have the same effect on the rider – the cyclist feels more protected, and safer, and is therefore likely to take more and greater risks in traffic than if they were more exposed to danger.

‘Risk compensation’ is a very real problem.

Lifting the lid on the future

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all just get along? Maybe, with the help of car manufacturers, we can. Volvo, for example, has worked in conjunction with sports gear manufacturer POC and Ericsson to produce the first cycling helmet that offers proximity alerts to motorists and cyclists to help avoid collisions.

A smartphone app connects the helmet to the cars, so Volvo’s City Safety system can detect cyclists, warn the driver and auto-brake if necessary.

Yet this technology, which was demonstrated at the CES show in 2015, has a way to go before saving lives just yet.

‘What we showed was a vision of what will be possible in the future when things get more and more connected,’ says Sascha Heiniger, a director at Volvo who oversaw the project.

‘It would potentially avoid accidents, but our team has also concluded it will need more connected cars and different car brands to share the same Cloud, which is a challenge in its own right.

'Of course, cyclists must be willing to connect themselves as well. So this concept won’t reach the market in the short term.’

Which is a shame, because all the research would indicate that it is driver attitudes and behaviour that need to change if we are to improve cycling safety levels.

‘Further work should focus on a range of aspects of safer cycling, including cyclist and driver safety awareness along with comparing the safety factors of existing designs and developing better helmet design,’ says Declan McNicholl, co-author of the Leicester study.

Willinger agrees: ‘Improvements to helmet design and helmet usage standards, customised for each type of bicycle, can increase helmet effectiveness and the likelihood that cyclists will actually wear protective headgear.

'Further research can support the need for improved protection zones and side-impact panels.’

For now, though, whether or not to wear a helmet is entirely your decision, based on how you feel and how you want to be perceived.

This article first appeared on Cyclist.co.uk in June 2016

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