Should schools insist on helmets?

This article was published in 2018, in Newsletter 136.

Tom’s son enjoys cycling during a visit to the Netherlands.
Image as described adjacent

The headmaster of the Perse School has recently decreed that everyone who cycles to his school must wear high-visibility clothing and helmets. Headmaster Ed Elliott and his staff carry out spot checks on pupils cycling to the school. Breaking these rules means a letter to parents and repeat offences an hour’s detention.

Helmets and high-visibility clothing are often contentious issues and where children are involved the discussion becomes highly emotional. The Campaign has discussed a response to this headmaster’s actions and it was evident that no overall consensus would be reached. I can only hope to set down some of the arguments and give my own personal thoughts on the matter.

My own son, now aged six, attends a different school within Cambridgeshire, where my daughter, now 18 months old, will join him in a couple of years. Our school runs are a mix of walking, cycling, scooting and driving depending on how the day is going and other activities scheduled around school hours. When cycling he wears a helmet. This is our choice and not something demanded by the school. Regardless of our choice I’d be hesitant to support the school in adding such rules. There are others at the school who have made different choices, and I’d sooner see them continue to cycle than risk putting them off and potentially turning them back to their cars.

And this is the risk. Helmet laws in New South Wales have demonstrably lowered cycling trips; one study puts this at a 36% reduction for children [1], with no clear evidence that it has reduced head injuries [2]. On a small scale these school rules will do the same. Swapping these journeys back from bikes to cars increases the danger to everyone.

I don’t see his helmet as a requirement for cycling. We’ve had day-long rides on holiday in the Netherlands enjoying the sunshine without a hot, sweaty helmet on. I’ve no problem with our helmets coming off once we get onto car-free routes like the Busway. So it seems over the top to punish him for the occasions where a helmet is mislaid or forgotten. The danger comes not from riding a bike, but from riding with motor vehicles. However, we’re also aware that there comes risk from not riding; I don’t want to set him up for a sedentary life tied to our car, unable to make journeys without someone else to drive him there. While acute injuries are visible and distressing, chronic disease from inactivity and poor air quality and mental illness from restricted freedom should also be a concern for parents.

That helmets are only a mitigation, not prevention, of the dangers posed by car traffic is well recognised. Health and safety rules for dangerous workplaces acknowledge this in the Hierarchy of Controls [3]; personal protective clothing is on the lowest, least-effective rung. While I don’t doubt for a second that the wellbeing of the pupils is the motivation behind these rules, focus on the least effective measure could be at the expense of investigating others. Measures higher up the Hierarchy of Controls such as eliminating the hazards, or separating staff from hazards, are far more effective. My son’s school has taken welcome steps in this manner; a Traffic Regulation Order (TRO) restricts motor vehicles outside the school during drop-off and collection times, and negotiation with local businesses has gained use of their parking spaces for parents at the school, partially distributing the school-run traffic to make a safer, more pleasant environment near the school gates. Separation of transport modes is what leads to our helmet-free riding while on holiday and the high rate of cycling to school by Dutch children [4], few of whom would regularly wear a helmet for such journeys.

So it seems misguided to me to spend scant school resources on creating and enforcing these rules, particularly when state schools might follow the Perse’s lead. The decision should be left with parents and pupils. With obesity and diabetes increasingly prevalent among UK children [5], we should be lowering the bar to active travel to school, so I’d personally assist anyone fighting unnecessary rules that will discourage cycling. Physical and behavioural measures to reduce traffic danger are far less contentious, so at Campaign level I know we’d be happy to assist any parents or schools looking to make safety improvements for their children. These might be rules to prevent access and anti-social parking near school gates, or safe segregated routes for cycling to school. Please get in touch with ideas for your local schools.

Tom McKeown