Should I wear a helmet?

This article was published in 2019, in Magazine 144.

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It seems that for as long as bike helmets have existed, there’s been controversy over their use. Are they effective? Do they promote riskier behaviour? Do the benefits outweigh the drawbacks? Are there better alternatives? These are all interesting questions, so let’s start with the effectiveness one.

What’s the difference between a kerb and a lorry?

Cycle helmets sold in the UK must adhere to European standard EN1078. This states that a helmet must be designed to withstand an impact similar to an average rider travelling at 12mph falling onto a stationary kerb-shaped object from a height of one metre (ROSPA). Note that this standard is focused on collisions involving stationary objects, such as kerbs or the ground, not moving objects such as cars or lorries, which is what the majority of severe collisions involve.

Safety first?

The Netherlands has the best bike-safety record in the world, and very few people there wear bike helmets. Dr Rachel Aldred, Architecture and Cities Researcher at the University of Westminster, says: ‘One thing the Dutch do is remove a lot of the motor traffic from neighbourhoods so residential streets are not really busy with people trying to cut through, avoid the main road, take a short cut and so on.’

Helmets do not prevent collisions from happening, although they might mitigate some harm in low-speed collisions. More important than helmet usage are the number of cyclists, their hazard awareness, roadcraft and bike-handling skills, segregated cycle paths and the road environment. Prevention of collisions in the first place is far more important than helmet usage itself. Manchester’s Commissioner for Walking and Cycling, Chris Boardman, agrees. ‘Cycling is a safe activity, it’s the environment that’s dangerous. It’s that that we need to change’, he says.

Health warning

Everywhere that helmets have been made compulsory, the number of people cycling has dropped and the rate of injury has increased to those who remain. Dr Harry Rutter, an epidemiologist specialising in physical activity, looks at the effects of walking and cycling at a population level. ‘There are very good indications that forcing people to wear bike helmets makes cycling less appealing to people and probably reduces the amount of cycling that takes place.’ Reducing the number of people cycling also reduces driver familiarity with cyclists. This increases the chance of collisions happening in the remaining population because drivers aren’t used to watching out for cyclists.

Risk compensation is a factor in helmet usage too. This is where using protective gear actually increases the chances of an injury, because it encourages less cautious behaviour in both cyclists and drivers. In a study by Dr Ian Walker, it was found that drivers pass 8cm closer on average to cyclists wearing helmets, than to non-helmeted cyclists.

Helmet laws cost lives

So while one could say that just one life saved by enforced use of helmets is worth it, we agree with Dr Harry Rutter when he says that there is ‘an overwhelming body of evidence that the health benefits of cycling vastly, vastly outweigh the health risks’. Compulsory helmet laws cost lives, therefore we prefer to leave helmet usage as a personal choice. Instead, we focus on campaigning for safe places for people to live, work and travel to help more people begin and continue cycling.

Peter Walker’s excellent video for The Guardian explains why cyclists should not be forced to wear helmets:

In detail: a history of helmets

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Bike clubs were the first to start using helmets and protective gear in the 1880s. There was no motor traffic but racers using high-wheel bicycles (penny farthings) had quite far to fall in accidents, and clubs noticed that head injuries could be severe. As a result, racers started using pith helmets made from plant material which, when dried, resembles polystyrene foam. These would disintegrate on first impact, so wouldn’t help in multi-impact crashes, and would have to be replaced regularly.

By 1900, high-wheel bikes had been supplanted by the ‘safety bicycle’, the design from which modern bikes are derived. With two wheels of the same size they allow the rider to put at least one foot on the ground when stopped. The distance to fall was not such a problem, and bike racers started using ‘hairnet’ helmets made of multiple strips of leather connected by a band around the head. They could protect against cuts or scrapes and stop the ears being dragged along the ground, but didn’t help in any way with the initial impact. These helmets were common amongst sports clubs and professional cyclists, and were used all the way up until the 1960s.

The power of plastic

The modern helmet, and its use by commuter and leisure cyclists, took off in the 1970s. The Snell Foundation created the first bicycle helmet standard in 1970, but only an unventilated motorcycle helmet could pass it. Riders started experimenting with other types, such as ice-hockey helmets, but it took until the mid-1970s for a lightweight cycling-specific helmet to be introduced. It happened because of the introduction of Expanded PolyStyrene (EPS) technology. Two EPS-based helmets came onto the scene in quick succession: the MSR helmet (adapted from a mountaineering design) and the Bell Biker helmet. The Bell Biker helmet was the commercial success. It had a hard polycarbonate plastic shell with an EPS inner which meant it could be ventilated.

During the 1980s, helmet design moved away from using a hard shell. Instead, they were made completely in EPS, with a soft cover typically made from lycra. The most popular of these helmets was by Giro Sport Design, simply called the Giro. While much lighter than previous designs, they had the disadvantage that they would be destroyed in the initial impact. Soon after their introduction, a plastic mesh was added to the EPS to hold it together better in the event of multi-impact collisions.

From the early 1990s, the hard shell made a reappearance, as it could now be made from thinner plastic. This kept the weight down and meant bike helmets held together on initial impact. It also helped them slide more easily on roads and pavements, an important additional safety feature.

Aesthetics, aerodynamics and additional gadgets

In the late 1990s, the design trend was led more by aesthetics than safety, with ridges and squared off lines making an appearance. Aerodynamics was often used as a selling point, with helmets elongating to improve airflow, and trying to provide more protection to the back of the head. The problem with this is that elongated designs can snag when sliding across the ground, potentially causing the neck to wrench.

A trend for round-helmet designs started in the mid-2000s and continues today. The Casco Warp 2 helmet was used by record-setting racers, including Chris Hoy, and hence generated a huge demand from both track and road riders, particularly in the UK. If you look around the helmet department of a cycle store, you’ll find the majority of helmets are rounded, differing mainly in how many vents they have. Technology has progressed, so helmets are lighter and give better airflow than in the 2000s. The adjustability of an individual helmet is also much better – in many cases a single dial can loosen or tighten the fit all around the head. A snug fit is safer!

The Multi-directional Impact Protection System (MIPS) has become the largest safety development since 2010. This introduces a new inner layer, allowing the head to rotate slightly within the helmet. Rotational motion from an angled impact can cause strain in the brain that can lead to tearing in the brain tissue.

A variety of various additional gadgets are available on the market. Built-in reflectors, and even rear lights and indicators, have been appearing. Other types of innovation have also started to appear. Built-in Bluetooth microphone and speakers for connecting with your phone, built-in sunglasses, mounts for further lights or cameras and even helmets that can fold so they take up less space in bags. It will be interesting to see what other features manufacturers come up with in the future.