Should wearing cycle helmets be made compulsory?

By Roger Symonds

I have noticed that many people cycling in Oxford do not wear helmets. Is this because people feel safe on Oxford roads? Or is the demographic predominantly young and less worried about crashes?

Whether or not to wear helmets has been a hot topic over the past few years.

Chris Boardman (former Olympic cycling Champion, now Cycling and Walking Commissioner for Greater Manchester), argues for better infrastructure to protect people on bikes, rather than putting the responsibility for safety on the victims of poor driving.

In 2004 the Journal for the Royal Society of Medicine published an article in favour of making cycle helmets compulsory, citing a reduction in head injuries when people wear helmets. However, compulsory cycle helmet wearing has unintended consequences. In Australia and New Zealand there has been a huge reduction in people cycling as a result of compulsory helmet wearing. Chris Boardman and others argue that far more people would die prematurely as a result of giving up cycling if helmets were made compulsory. Boardman quotes a study by Glasgow University showing that people who commute by bike almost halve their chances of dying from heart disease.

Dr Ian Walker, a traffic psychologist at the University of Bath, using a bike fitted with an ultrasonic distance sensor to record data from 2500 overtaking motorists in 2006, found that instances of ‘close passes’ by vehicles increased when he was wearing a helmet. He was even hit by a bus and a truck.

Wearing helmets in the UK is optional at present. My partner and I always wear our helmets – a personal choice. There is evidence for children benefitting from wearing helmets, but in my view the best way to protect people on bikes is to build segregated cycle lanes, where people are physically separated from motor vehicles. It should not be left to vulnerable road users to take precautions against careless drivers.

Segregated cycle lanes will become even more important if ‘autonomous vehicles’ appear on our roads, where problems may occur because of the unpredictable actions of humans in charge of cars and bikes.

The roads are safer in Oxford for cyclists than they are in many other cities, but there is plenty of opportunity to make Oxford an even better place to cycle and a UK leader in good cycling infrastructure. The aim should be to build safe infrastructure so that people can continue to choose whether or not to wear a helmet when riding a bike. In the Netherlands few people wear helmets because vehicles and cyclists are separated.

I believe that the best way to keep people who ride bikes safe is for both National and Local Governments to invest in segregated cycle infrastructure, rather than make wearing helmets compulsory for cyclists. Better cycling infrastructure that enables more people to ride bikes, more safely (one of Cyclox’s strategic aims) would also improve air quality, benefitting the population as a whole.

For more of Roger’s writing, check out his blog: Two Wheels Good and read his thoughts on Riding a bike in Oxford.

Photo Tejvan Pettinger CC-BY 2.0.

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