The question if cyclists should wear a helmet is one of the most contentious among cyclists. I usually wear one, as the picture taken on a bike trip in Sweden in 2006 proofs. However, I absolutely think that this should be the personal decision of any cyclist. No cyclist should be forced to wear a helmet.
“I don’t wear a helmet when I cycle. The first reason is that I don’t want to. I don’t want to wear something on my head. For me the joy of cycling is to have the wind in your hair, such as I have left. It’s free, it’s unencumbered; I don’t want to be loaded down.
“It is a libertarian argument. The responsibility is only towards myself. It’s not like drinking and driving where you can damage other people. You do no harm. I’m not encouraging people not to do this, I’m just saying I make a decision not to.”
I think he is absolutely right. But what has happened to poor Norman Baker after his remarks? He got scolded, as the Guardian reports. The paper quotes Joel Hickman, spokesman for the road safety charity Brake:
“Last year, over 17,000 cyclists were injured on UK roads with over 2,500 killed or seriously injured. The vast majority of these deaths and serious injuries were the result of a head injury. This is precisely why many of our international and European partners have already introduced compulsory helmet wearing. Ministers should practise what they preach and when a minister directly responsible for cycling safety refuses to wear a cycle helmet, we then have to look at their suitability for the role.”
I don’t doubt that a helmet increases the safety of a cyclist. However, Hickman is beating a strawman, in my humble opinion. At least here in London, helmets would not have prevented most of the cycling fatalities. The biggest danger here are not head injuries but lorries. As my data on cycling accidents in London since 2006 shows, between 2009 and 2011 at least 51% of the 31 fatal cycling accidents involved lorries. According to an academic paper by Andrei Morgan et al. between 1996 and 2010 (“Deaths of cyclists in London: trends from 1992 to 2006“) “freight vehicles were involved in over 40% cyclists killed”.
You can wear the best helmet in the world – unfortunately it does not help you at all when you’re crushed by a left turning lorry which does not have proper mirrors.
If you’re really concerned about cycling safety, you should deal with the lorries first. I would recommend to ban them completely in the peak hours in urban centers. Probably this is politically impossible. The least thing to do would be to make the most advanced mirrors for lorries and frequent cycling awareness lessons for drivers mandatory.
Making bike helmets compulsory would have significant side effects. A lot of people would just stop cycling, as two economists have recently shown in an academic paper entitled “Intended and Unintended Effects of Youth Bicycle Helmet Laws”. Christopher S. Carpenter (University of California, Irvine) and Mark Stehr (Drexel University) analysed empirical data from the United States where over 20 states force youths to wear a helmet when riding a bicycle.
They are using official state level data on bicycle fatalities in the U.S for 1991 to 2005 as well as data on bicycling behavior and helmet use for youths which comes from parental reports and surveys among high school students. This is what they find:
“The results … show that state laws adopted over past two decades that require youths to wear helmets when riding a bicycle reduced youth bicycling fatalities by about 19 percent, increased helmet use by 20-34 percent, and (unintentionally) reduced bicycling by 4-5 percent. (…) As other states consider helmet laws as a way to reduce bicycling related injuries and fatalities, they should keep in mind that although the laws increase helmet use and reduce fatalities, they are also likely to reduce bicycling among the targeted group.”
Seen from this perspective, Norman Bakers stance is very sensible.
Another argument why he is right is that overly emphasising the importance of helmets exacerbates the wrong perception that cycling is utterly dangerous and that you have to invest in body amour to survive.