Should wearing cycle helmets be compulsory?

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

Contrary to Boardman’s view, the Journal for the Royal Society of Medicine in 2004 published an article in favour of compulsion, citing a reduction in head injuries when people wear helmets. 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 “close passes” increased when he was wearing a helmet. He was even hit by a bus and a truck.

At present in the UK wearing helmets is optional. My partner and I always wear our helmets, a personal choice, which began on a number of bike touring holidays in Italy. Perhaps there is more of a case for children wearing helmets, but in my view the safest 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.

Segregation will become even more important with the advent of “autonomous vehicles”,where problems may occur, not because of AVs, but because of the actions of human drivers of cars and bikes. Here in Oxfordshire, a centre for the development of AVs segregation will become even more important. In the Netherlands few people wear helmets because vehicles and cyclists are separated. 

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

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

A similar article was published in Cyclox’ column, “On yer bike” in the Oxford Mail.

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