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Helmet Wars: UK's Mandatory Helmet Debate Explained

The last few days in cycling news have been a lesson in mass hysteria.

It all started at a DfT-sponsored conference, where transport minister Jesse Norman was asked if he wears hi-vis and a helmet when cycling, and whether he thinks they should be compulsory. Norman said:

‘“I have made it perfectly clear in previous conversations that I don’t take a position on hi-vis or helmets. That is something in relation to the Cycle Safety Review where we will see what the evidence and the submissions say.

He continued:

“If you want to have a society where a 12-year-old can get on a bicycle it’s a serious issue as to whether you’re going to mandate hi-vis or helmets and there will be many arguments about whether the safety benefits outweigh or do not outweigh the deterrent effect that might have on people cycling. So we’re going to leave that to the review.”

So naturally the very next day, the front page of the Times read:

“COMPULSORY HELMETS PLAN FOR ALL CYCLISTS”

Mr. Norman tried his best to rebuke the bombastic headline, later tweeting:

‘To be clear: there is no “plan” re: compulsory helmets or hi-vis for cyclists as suggested in @thetimes. As @BikeBizOnline reported, I don’t take a position on this. It’s sure to be raised in the consultation, and we will consider it based on the evidence.’

So basically, mr. Norman meant that the government is bound to receive submissions on the topic of compulsory helmets and hi-vis, as part of its upcoming consultation on road and cycling safety. It considers all submissions, so of course it would consider this one as well.

A pretty neutral and sensible position, right? But alas, the time for sensible had long passed by then. It was now time to panic.

Not to be outdone in whopper and hyperbole, the Daily Mail quickly fired a screamer of their own :

“CYCLISTS WILL HAVE TO WEAR HELMETS AND HIGH-VIZ VESTS BY LAW IN THE NEW YEAR UNDER PROPOSED NEW RULES”

And so the great Helmet Wars of 2017 began.

Butting Heads

The ensuing twitter firestorm on mandatory helmets was a sight to behold. Drivers praised the government ‘plan’ while shrieking at cyclists, and bike enthusiasts decried the (non-existent) proposal as short-sighted, shrieking back in the process. In short, there was a lot of shrieking.

But even though the plan to introduce mandatory helmets in the UK is (for now) just a media fabrication, the debate has been both real, and very lively.

That’s why I decided to break down the most popular arguments why many cyclists believe mandatory helmets are a bad idea. Not all of these points hold equal merit, but they’ve all been tossed around in the last couple of days, so at the very least are worth mentioning.

I’ve also left out purely practical arguments, like whether a nationwide helmet law could even be enforceable. Instead, we should focus on whether such a law should be introduced in the first place.

I’ll try to be as impartial as I can on these, so you can make up your own mind. Starting with:

1. Mandatory Helmets are a Deterrent to Cycling

There is historical precedent to the idea of compulsory cycling headgear. The most famous (and as such, most contested) example is Australia, the first country to make riding without helmets illegal. As even its wikipedia page admits, the law’s efficacy ‘is still a matter of debate’.

According to Chris Rissel, a professor of public health at the University of Sydney, the legislation led to a 30 to 40% decline in the number of people cycling. Similar effects were documented in New Zealand, where helmets laws were introduced in 1993. As the New Zealand Medical Journal states:

“From the period 1989–1990 to 2006–2009, the number of hours cycling reduced—from 39 million to 24 million. The average hours walked and cycled per person reduced by 11% and 51% respectively.”

And while some will claim that correlation does not imply causation, it is at least clear that helmet laws are far from a black-and-white issue.

So why exactly do helmets disincentivize cycling? There’s no one answer to this. Some believe it brands cycling as a dangerous activity, making people less likely to pick it up. Simply put, if the government forces you to armor up every time you want to do an activity, it’s unlikely to instill you with a sense of confidence in that activity’s safety.

To others, it’s just too much of a bother. According to a 2011 survey by Professor Rissel, almost 25% of respondents - the majority of which were younger and occasional cyclists - said they’d cycle more if they did not have to always think about a helmet.

Whatever the reason, it’s also worth noting that the Dutch cycling utopia seems to be flourishing just fine without any helmet regulations. That said, it would be unfair to compare the Netherlands, with its robust cycling infrastructure and a myriad of cycle-friendly laws, with our current (and rather unflattering) state of affairs.

2. Helmets may increase risk taking (on both sides)

I’ll admit - the science is still kinda flimsy on this one. A study conducted in 2016 does claim that wearing a bike helmet ‘can increase risk taking and sensation seeking’ in cyclists, though I do find the researchers’ method wanting, as all tests were done in the safety of a university laboratory, and not on the street, with giant metal boxes honking at you from every direction.

Nevertheless, the findings are in line with a phenomenon known as ‘risk compensation’, a theory that claims we adjust our behaviour based on our perceived level of risk. In other words, we’re likely to be more careful if we sense we’re at a greater risk, and act relatively reckless when we feel protected.

Risk compensation was used to describe some effects of seat belt laws as well. According a 1994 study, belted drivers were found to drive faster and less carefully than those without seat belts.

But it’s not just cyclists that could be more prone to reckless behaviour if helmets became law. In 2006, Dr. Ian Walker wanted to find out if there was any difference in how drivers react to helmeted cyclists, so he outfitted his bike with an electronic distance gauge, and recorded his daily commutes. Half the time he wore a helmet, the other half he did not.

Over the course of the experiment, over 2500 drivers overtook him on the roads. On average, the motorists passed him a whole 8.5cm nearer when he wore a helmet, than when he rode bare-headed. Dr. Walker hypothesized that drivers assumed a helmet meant a more experienced cyclist, and hence felt more comfortable overtaking a veteran rider.

The point of this argument is quite simple - wearing a helmet might make you safer in case of an accident. But it also might increase the chance of said accident happening in the first place.

Personally, I feel like more research is needed before I can really sway either way on this point. While these studies are far from anecdotal, they aren’t exactly large-scale, peer-reviewed experiments either. In the meantime, I’d still prefer erring on the side of caution to figuring out the effects of the law as we go.

3. Mandatory helmets doesn't mean less head injuries

Now, no one’s saying that helmets don’t make cyclists safer on an individual level. One of the most quoted numbers here are from a hotly contested 1999 study, that found helmets lead to an estimated 88% reduction in brain injuries and a 85% decrease in head injuries. And even though some discredit the findings, subsequent research has, for the most part, reaffirmed the results.

However, some evidence suggests helmet legislation actually has little effect on the overall rate of cyclist’s head injuries.

Two years ago, a Canadian study compared hospitalization data from provinces that introduced mandatory helmet laws to those that didn’t. As a result, professor Kay Teschke, the study’s author, found that “helmet laws didn`t make a difference to hospitalization rates for head and brain injuries.”

Similarly, Rune Elvik, a Norwegian academic, does not dispute a helmet’s potency for an individual, but notes that a population-wide increase in helmet use, is not generally matched by similar reductions in overall head injury rates.

Pair that with the fact that, per Guardian, ‘the great majority of UK cyclists ride helmeted’, and one can begin to doubt the law’s proposed effects on safety.

So if helmets don’t help protect cyclists on the road, what can? According to professor Teschke, it’s much more cost-effective to focus on building separate bike lanes, which leads me to the final point:

4. Mandatory helmets drive attention from the real issues

Chris Boardman, who won the first cycling gold medal for Britain in 72 years at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, spearheads the helmet debate this time around for the side of the opposition.

In Chris’s mind, the issue is peripheral at best, and its prominence does nothing but hide the real culprits. He recently told the Guardian:

“[...]These actions seek to deal with an effect. I want to focus the debate on the cause, and campaign for things that will really make cycling safe. That is why I won’t promote high-vis and helmets – I won’t let the debate be drawn on to a topic that isn’t even in the top 10 things that will really keep people who want to cycle safe.”

Professor Teschke, who found little correlation between helmet laws and injury rates, shares the sentiment. She believes her study reaffirms the policy decisions of cycling meccas, such as Denmark and the Netherlands:

"They haven't emphasized helmets at all. They've put their emphasis on separated infrastructure, making infrastructure that attracts people to cycling. And their injury and fatality rates are quite a bit lower.”

In large, the British public seems to agree, or at least recognizes a severe lack of proper cycling infrastructure. According to a recent Sunstrans survey, almost 80% of residents support building more protected cycle lanes, and 64% said new routes would make them cycle more, or at all.

Pair that with some fairly controversial, anti-cycling policies (like the fact that the UK is one of only 5 countries in Europe that has yet to implement the concept of presumed liability for road accidents) and it’s easy to see why some consider the helmet debate a nifty distraction from the real issues.

As it stands, the root causes of danger on UK’s roads remain unaddressed. And it’s hard to see how mandatory helmets would change that.

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