The Great Helmet Debate

In July 2013, 16-year-old Ryan Smith was knocked off his bike by a van while cycling without a helmet, having refused to wear one because it would mess up his hair. Coming out of his coma four months later, he said his first words defying all the odds after his parents were told that he probably wouldn’t live through the first week. His father, a paramedic, launched a heart-wrenching call to make cycle helmets compulsory yet the debate still rumbles as many argue against their ineffectuality and object the infringement of civil liberties involved.

However, was this not too the case back in the 1970s/80s when people argued on the same grounds against making seat-belt compulsory in the front seat of cars? Now the legislation has been introduced (albeit over a decade later) we haven’t looked back and it seems almost outrageous that passengers were ever allowed to travel in the front seat without wearing the seat-belt that has been credited with saving well over 50,000 lives. This has yet to transcend the barriers being put up by the two-wheeled-world, and although many cyclists happily adhere to the legal obligation of wearing lights and reflectors after dark, the helmet remains a debated piece of kit. Australia and parts of the US seem ahead of us, having made helmets compulsory but here we are still deliberating whether it is really safer to wear a helmet when cycling.

The crux of the matter it seems is whether helmets actually work. All specialist nurses, doctors and neurologists unanimously agree that they do and there is evidence to back it up. An American study from 2009 showed that there was a 63-88% reduction in the risk of head and brain injury if a helmet was worn. They are most effective in low-speed collisions, designed to protect the head when people fall off their bike and these surely account for the majority of cycling incidents. In a full-frontal horrific collision however, it has to be said that a helmet will do little to protect you but in such circumstance where fatalities are likely, there isn’t much that could. Angela Lee, chief executive of the Bike Helmet Initiative Trust argues why it’s a no-brainer to wear a helmet: “It’s plain and simple that helmets are effective. If you think of people who have mobile phone, computers, I bet they all have covers on to protect them. You have a skull protecting your brain and if you know anything about computers you know that if you damage a computer you can’t load the programme. That’s exactly the same with your brain”. It is irrefutable that – like seat belts – helmets save countless lives every year and do a stellar job of preventing injuries that range from scrapes from low-hanging tree branches to skull fractures. So how can anyone possibly doubt their value?

Somewhat ironically, Britain’s biggest pro-cycling charity, CTC, contests helmet legislation on the basis that it would have far reaching consequences in terms of discouraging people from getting on a bike which would then have an impact on the health of Britain as a nation. Ryan Smith is tragic proof of the fact that helmets may well still be seen as uncool and a means by which to ruin your hair. Do we live in a world that prioritises appearance over safety? It sadly seems that way. However it is not just the cyclist who is affected by the presence of a helmet; studies investigating the behaviour of drivers showed that, in general, motorists drove much closer when overtaking if the cyclist was wearing a helmet. This suggests that helmeted cyclists seem more experienced and sensible and are therefore potentially at greater risk as motorists give them less space when overtaking.

Despite this evidence and the current lack of legislation, helmets make sense. When British rowing champion James Cracknell was hit by a tanker travelling at 65mph three years ago while he was cycling in Arizona, his helmet saved his life. At the end of the day, wearing a helmet does just seem like a good idea…and it’s unlikely that, in the aftermath of an accident, you’ll ever think ‘Thank God I wasn’t wearing a helmet’.