I was surprised today to see my two young nephews aged six and three wearing cycle helmets to bike down a very quiet flattish bridleway. My brother is a keen cyclist, rides a racer and doesn’t own a helmet.Our local paper last week featured on the front page a sixteen year old cyclist who had been left in a coma after a collision.He had refused a helmet because of his quiff hair style. His paramedic father said, “I don’t want any family to go through this. Don’t let this happen to your kids. Get your kids helmets.” The story was picked up by the national press and seems to have re-ignited a debate on the cycle helmet laws with many, including Bradley Wiggins, calling for the wearing of helmets to be made compulsory.

I am not keen on the idea of compulsory wearing of helmets,I don’t wear one and neither do my children.I can’t imagine the hassle of the shortest bike ride entailing finding all the helmets first;by the time I’d got everybody kitted out, I’d lose the urge to bike anywhere. It’s hard to see how the Boris bikes scheme in London would work too. One can hardly spontaneously hire a bike if a helmet is needed. And the real problem is that the jury is out on whether the universal wearing of cycle helmets would have any effect on improving the safety of cyclists.The helmet is designed to lessen impacts to the head of a cyclist in falls whilst managing to minimise side effects such as interference with peripheral vision.The wearing of helmets though not law (yet) is quite heavily pushed, especially in schools.The National Health Service lists wearing a helmet as one of its “cycling safety tips” for beginners and states “wearing a cycling helmet can help prevent a head injury if you fall from your bike.” It appears that the individual has nothing to lose by wearing a helmet and could potentially be preventing death or serious injury.’Headway,’ the brain injury charity is pushing hard for a change in the law.

But of course it is not that simple;firstly most fatal or serious bike accidents involve a car or lorry; helmets are not much defence against a motor vehicle. Also the helmets themselves could be causing other kinds of injury in crashes.Or they could be causing crashes. This is the phenomenon known as risk compensation. John Adams in his 1985 book ‘Risk and Freedom’ showed that so-called advances in road safety such as seatbelts, motorcycle helmets, safer vehicle design along with wider, straighter, road designs are never followed by the expected reduction in injuries and deaths.Road “safety” may have improved but crashes are no less frequent, and, worse, bystanders, that is, pedestrians and cyclists are killed or injured at an ever increasing rate.The theory of risk compensation means, “there is a set level of danger that people are willing to tolerate,” therefore motorists were compensating for the new safety features by driving faster and taking more risks. To put it in Adams’s technical terms, potential “safety benefits” were instead absorbed as “performance benefits.” Motorists alter their behaviour towards helmeted cyclists. One study by in England found that 2500 vehicles passed a helmeted cyclist with measurably less clearance (8.5 cm) than that given to the same cyclist unhelmeted.

The other problem is that a helmet law would dramatically reduce the number of cyclists on the road, preventing people from taking up a healthy hobby and the greenest mode of transport. Malcolm Wardlaw in the Guardian wrote that helmet compulsion “should be challenged. It’s sending out the wrong message about cycling being dangerous. It’s as pernicious as saying smoking is safe.” Even doctors don’t want the compulsory wearing of helmets as they know it will act as a deterrent to cycling.The irony is that in the biggest cycling nations like Holland and Denmark,fewer cyclists wear helmets but there are lower rates of injury, though that could also be owing to the fact that they have more cycle lanes to keep bikes away from heavy traffic.If that is the case, the whole debate about helmets could be a distraction from the real solution to cycle safety. As traffic psychologist Dr Ian Walker puts it: “If the answer is a bicycle helmet, we’ve not understood the problem.”

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