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There is a lot of debate surrounding the use of cycle helmets.  Do they really provide vital protection – or do they just give cyclists a false sense of security, that leads to more accidents?  The eternal question is – do they really save lives?

In March this year, cyclists in Australia risked police fines by cycling without helmets in a protest ride against the country’s mandatory helmet laws.  These laws, however, were introduced after a campaign led by the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, which indicates that many health professionals believe the use of helmets has positive outcomes for cyclists involved in accidents.

Here in the UK, a Government review taking place this year also considered forcing all cyclists to wear helmets. Transport minister, Jesse Norman, tweeted that the mandatory wearing of helmets was ‘sure to be raised in the consultation’ which was a wide-ranging look at road safety for cyclists.  However, there are strong lobbies both for and against the wearing of helmets.

The arguments against helmets:

Those against making helmets a legal requirement believe it is an ineffective safely measure which discourages people from cycling and creates an image of a high-risk activity. They argue cycling is a healthy, cheap and environmentally friendly form of transport and that many of the risks that cyclists face should be reduced through improvements to infrastructure, signage, education and training.

Another argument against helmets arises from research at the University of Bath that demonstrated cyclists wearing protective helmets did have an effect – but a negative one. The research showed that car drivers passed, on average, 8.5cm closer when overtaking cyclists wearing helmets, than when overtaking those without.   This effect is known as ‘risk compensation’ and can increase the likelihood of a collision.

Interestingly, as many cyclists are perceived to be young and male, the same research discovered that motorists gave more space to a cyclist who wore a long flowing wig to look female.

Research demonstrates ‘risk compensation’ also affects people participating in a range of sports who tend to take more risks once they are wearing protective clothing, including helmets, as they are lulled into a false sense of security. However, it maybe that it is the nature of the sport being undertaken that increases the risk rather than the act of putting on a helmet.

Studies also suggest those wearing helmets are more susceptible to injury, both due to an increase in head size due to the size of the helmet, and the fact they are less aware of their surroundings due to muffled hearing.

The arguments for helmets:

There is much evidence to support the wearing of helmets and the crucial safety role they play for the wearer.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) view helmets as: “the single most effective way to reduce head injuries and fatalities from bicycle crashes.”

Both Transport for London and the Highway Code both currently recommend wearing a helmet when cycling too.

And although The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) doesn’t call for compulsory cycle helmet laws, it strongly recommends cyclists wear a cycle helmet. Helmets might not prevent crashes or guarantee survival, but they are an important secondary safety feature and can reduce the risk of a serious brain or head injury in an accident. Read more here: https://www.rospa.com/rospaweb/docs/advice-services/road-safety/cyclists/cycle-helmets-factsheet.pdf

Figures compiled by RoSPA show head injuries are very common injuries to cyclists: data from hospitals show 40% of cyclists and 45% of child cyclists suffer head injuries and three quarters of cyclist fatalities have major head injuries.

Meanwhile, a Cochrane review suggested helmets reduced the risk of injury to the head and the brain by a substantial 65%-88%; and the upper and mid-face by 65%.

Safety benefits:

The safety benefits seem to be more pronounced for children: tests on children’s bicycle helmets show helmets offer up to 87% reduction in the acceleration experienced by the skull during an impact and can help the skull resist forces up to 470 pounds in a crush accident.

According to a US study helmets cut the risks of severe traumatic brain injury by half, when riders suffer a brain injury. The report, in the American Journal of Surgery, also concluded that riders with helmets were 44% less likely to die from their injury, and 31% less likely to break facial bones.

There is no doubt helmets cannot resist substantial impact and cannot save everyone. Nevertheless common sense suggests surrounding your head with some degree of protection must offer some cushioning from head impact – a view which neurological studies definitely support.

At First Aid for Life we understand the importance of knowing exactly what to do, should you be involved in a bicycle accident – or be the first to arrive at the scene of one.  As such, we offer hands on, practical first aid courses, as well as a tailored, online course specifically for cyclists, a course is designed as an introduction to basic first aid in a cycling environment. For a more comprehensive course please see  First Aid for Cyclists which includes CPR, spinal injuries, when to move them, asthma and breathing problems, heat exhaustion and much more.

First Aid for Life provides this information for guidance and it is not in any way a substitute for medical advice. First Aid for Life is not responsible or liable for any diagnosis made, or actions taken based on this information. It is strongly advised that you attend a First Aid course to understand what to do in a medical emergency.

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