No-one argues helmets never prove their usefulness. But is it also necessarily more safe to cycle with a helmet? According to a study by FUBicy (Fédération française des Usagers de la Bicyclette), people who cycle in built-up areas are no more exposed to the risk of head injury than pedestrians and motorists.
It goes without saying that wearing a cycle helmet does not prevent accidents. What does help, on the other hand, is increased awareness and better cycling infrastructures.
Should wearing a helmet be made compulsory?
It is not disputed that a helmet can be effective in a certain number of cases. And Pro Velo is in no way against wearing helmets. But, together with many bicycle organisations worldwide, we are against mandatory bicycle helmet regulations.
The benefits or otherwise of wearing a helmet, and of mandating helmets, have been debated for a long time. Its supporters and its opponents battle it out with their conflicting studies in order to prove that they are right.
Supporters of mandatory helmets maintain that wearing a cycle helmet reduces the risks of head injuries and can save people’s lives.
According to a study carried out by the University of Leuven, the number of cyclists seriously injured or killed in traffic would be reduced significantly if all cyclists wore a helmet.
The study that is most often referenced by advocates of the helmet is that by Thompson, Rivara and Thompson, which claims that wearing a helmet reduces the risk of injuries to the head by 85%. However, this study has received much criticism, notably due to a methodology considered deficient and a very (or too) limited control group.
Opponents to mandatory helmets put forward several arguments:
- As in other issues, the media plays a large part in the perception of danger linked with cycling, by headlining deaths of cyclists on front pages or by relaying reports from certain scientific sources that are sometimes unnecessarily alarmist, without providing any context or analysis. Yet, everyday cycling is not dangerous in itself. It is rather the lack of respect on the part of some motorists that can lead to a feeling of danger and dangerous situations.
- The risk of a head wound is not greater for a cyclist than it is for a motorist or a pedestrian. A British study states a 30% risk of heady injury in the case of an accident, whether for cycles or for pedestrians. FUBicy (Fédération française des Usagers de la Bicyclette) gives a figure of 17% risk for cyclists and 26% for pedestrians.
- According to FUBicy again, making compulsory the wearing of a helmet leads us to believe that the bike is more dangerous than it actually is, which discourages people from cycling. In Australia and New Zealand, where helmet use has been made obligatory, the number of cyclists has dropped by 30%. This decrease in the number of cyclists can have the effect of increasing a feeling of lack of safety (a “critical mass” effect). In fact, the number of head injuries has decreased by 20%, but this reduction cannot be attributed solely to the use of helmets, because the same tendency as been observed in pedestrians and motorists, and this even before the helmet laws came into effect. The tendency has continued but taking into account the decrease in the number of cyclists one cannot draw clear conclusions from this. Countries where cycling is safest (the Netherlands, Denmark, ...) are also countries with the highest bike traffic rates – and places where almost no-one wears helmets. The debate is still ongoing.
- Cyclists wearing a helmet may take more risks owing to the feeling of safety a helmet gives.
- Studies relating to the effects of helmet use often ignore the fact that cycling is good for your health and that the advantages it provides outweigh its possible risks.
- Lastly, we have to acknowledge that a helmet is no protection against violent impact. On average an approved modern helmet (standard EN 1078) will resist a maximum impact of 23 km/h. Beyond that, with or without a helmet, there is no significant difference.
De Jong (2012) summarises: "In jurisdictions where cycling is safe, a helmet law is likely to have a large unintended negative health impact. In jurisdictions where cycling is relatively unsafe, helmets will do little to make it safer [...]."
A good helmet must be lightweight and must absolutely fit your head properly. For optimal protection, we recommend choosing a helmet that covers your temples.
How to choose a good helmet:
- check that it carries the label indicating European standard EN 1078 or 1080;
- opt for a helmet made using In-Mold technology (plastic shell and polystyrene shell made in the same mould) for its better quality;
- try it on: fully tighten the chin strap and shake your head. If the helmet moves or is too tight, try another size. Note: a helmet is only really effective if the straps are adequately taut under the chin.
Remember: if a helmet has taken a large impact, make sure you replace it. Even if it looks intact, the material designed to absorb impact will no longer be effective.
Pro Velo’s position
In so far as it has been shown that the compulsory wearing of a helmet causes less people to opt for the bike as a means of daily travel, Pro Velo is not in favour of such an obligation.
As to individual cyclists, we believe they should do whatever feels best. After all, it's important to feel comfortable in traffic.
On the other hand, we always recommend that young children wear a helmet, at least until they can sufficiently demonstrate balance and control of their bike. We also recommend a helmet for cyclists who practise cycling as a sport or who cycle as part of a group that travels at speed.