Why Norman Baker is right about cycling helmets

Me and my helmet

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’m glad that Norman Baker, the UK minister responsible for cycling shares my view. According to the Guardian, Baker, who is a keen cyclist himself, has recently said:

“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.

9 thoughts on “Why Norman Baker is right about cycling helmets

  1. Pingback: Why Norman Baker is right about cycling helmets « Cycling Intelligence | Cycling News and Events

  2. Shreds

    Introduce stupid legislation in helmet wearing and I will hang up my wheels or emigrate. Dint agree with them and I will present very cogent arguement to back up my case.

    Absolutely useless when hit by moist firms of moving vehicle and dont forget the standard test is for dropping a helmet something like a metre onto an anvil

    Have you ever wondered how much profit there is in forming a polystrene shell, then wonder how much advertising and money goes into lobbying for their use?

  3. “The vast majority of these deaths and serious injuries were the result of a head injury.”

    I would very much like to see Joel Hickman’s citation for this fact. From my ageing recollection of the literature on helmets it is quite the reverse — only around 10%.

  4. congokid

    I tend to agree with Norman Baker, but not necessarily for just the reasons he states.

    I’ve done spot counts of helmet wearing in London and estimate the rate of helmet wearing among adults, mostly during the morning commute, at upward of 80 per cent.

    For Boris bike users the rate varies a lot, mainly as I don’t see those in such great numbers and now that casual users can hire bikes it depends on whether I see more of those than regular users.

    Overall I’d say that helmet wearing is pretty well established among utility cyclists in London.

    However, I don’t wear one. I used to, but then I took a look at what helmet data there is – and realised that not only do helmets appear to be largely ineffective, they could in fact be detrimental to cyclist safety.

    As well as being largely useless in most collisions between cyclists and motor vehicles – which tend to involve forces greater than those that cyclist helmets are designed to withstand – I’m certain just wearing them can affect cyclists’ behaviour (and there is some evidence they can even influence the behaviour of other road users).

    When I wore mine, I noticed that I felt more inclined to take risks – cycling at a higher speed and closer to other road users, for instance. Risk compensation is supposed to be a subconscious mechanism, but I have to say that I did feel more nervous when I first decided to leave the lid at home. Am I safer as a result? I’m not entirely sure, but I know I cycle very carefully these days.

    Regarding mandatory helmet laws, wherever they’ve been introduced and enforced, two things tend to happen. On a population level the rate of cyclist head injury stays about the same. And lots of people stop cycling. Although the promotors of the laws can sometimes point to a fall in numbers of injuries once legislation is imposed, they tend to ignore the fact that often the numbers of people using their bikes also plummets. Not a clear cut thumbs up for helmets, I feel.

    And talking about dodgy data, in particular with reference to the figures quoted by the Brake charity, it’s quite alarming and depressing to see how many helmet and safety pressure groups resort to inaccurate, out of date and plain wrong figures to make their point. And more so to see figures in authority fall for them hook line and sinker.

  5. Chris W

    I wear a helmet – but I don’t like doing so I think they look terrible.

    I certainly wouldn’t consider myself to be any less vulnerable as a cyclist with one on, but the question I ask myself is this; If I were to have any sort of crash, would I rather be wearing a helmet or not wearing one. I invariably choose the latter.

  6. RK

    Obviously, the writer has never had a serious bike wreck or seen one. My bike club requires that everyone wear a bike helment on all club rides. (My club put in over 155,000 rider miles in 2010.) In the last 6 years, I have personally witnessed bike helmets save 5 riders from serious head injury during wrecks on our club rides. I was one of those riders. There is nothing like the feeling of your bike slipping away from underneath you at 20+ mph and your head bouncing of the pavement… (None of these wrecks involved cars or trucks. All of them were related to poor pavement conditions or accidental contact with anohter rider.) I personally will not get on my bike without a helmet. I would like to say that it is short sighted of the writer to say, “oh, it is my free choice not to wear a helmet…. I want to fill the wind in my hair…” That’s total BS! I wonder what your wife would say to that when she is spoon feeding you and changing your diper after you leave part of your brain on the tarmac….

    1. Presumably, given your experience with and conclusions from club cycling, you would also approve of legislation that compels all motorists to use similar PPE to that used by The Stig when they pop down to the supermarket?

    2. @ RK

      I’m not quite sure who you have in mind with “the writer”. As I’ve written in my initial post, I usually wear a helmet but oppose the notion that wearing a helmet should become mandatory because that would turn off lots of potential cyclists.

      Two quick sorts wrt to the points you make.

      1) Apparently you’re talking about group rides on road bikes, and you guys seem to be really going fast. I don’t take issue with your argument that wearing a helmet on a road bike is essential. However, what I had in mind when I wrote my post was a completely different type of cycling: urban cycling. Here in central London I almost never come even close to the 20+ mph you’re mentioning in you comment. My long term average is 10mph, and the average speed of travel is somewhere between 12.5 and 14mph. Of course, even at this velocity you can have a crash with nasty head injuries. However, the probabilities that this happens are much lower.

      2) “I have personally witnessed bike helmets save 5 riders from serious head injury during wrecks on our club rides. I was one of those riders. There is nothing like the feeling of your bike slipping away from underneath you at 20+ mph and your head bouncing of the pavement… (None of these wrecks involved cars or trucks. All of them were related to poor pavement conditions or accidental contact with another rider.)”

      Well, frankly, I’d strongly recommend to cycle in a more considerate way. This really sound a little bit reckless to me. It’s great that the helmets (presumably) saved your riders from serious head injuries, but nevertheless you cannot rely on that. Additionally, there are numerous other possible injuries you can suffer when you come off a bike at 20+. I would not recommend this kind of cycling. Of course, you guys are responsible for yourself and have the perfect right to expose yourself to any risk you like. But INMO that should be the case for any other cyclist as well. Hence, if someone decides to cycle without a helmet, he or she should be able to do so.

  7. BLMac

    I remember when they introduced the helmet laws in Australia.

    It almost killed cycling overnight.

    As soon as the police started enforcement, bikes disappeared from the commuting traffic and people started using their cars instead.

    I wear a helmet, but I am opposed to compulsion. There’s time other headwear is far more sensible, e.g. a sou’wester in heavy rain.

    And it’s usually vehicles that kill cyclists, so it’s more important to limit the speed differential and police the passing distances.

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