I hate to disagree with Bradley Wiggins, but mandatory cycle helmets would be a terrible idea

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• UPDATE: The great man has clarified things on Twitter: “Just to confirm I haven’t called for helmets to be made the law as reports suggest. I suggested it may be the way to go to give cyclists more protection legally if involved in an accident. I wasn’t on me soap box CALLING, was asked what I thought.” Fair enough then.

Bradley Wiggins, arguably Britain’s greatest ever Olympian and certainly owner of Britain’s most reassuring face (it is, isn’t it? He looks so wise and steady. It’s partly the Darwin sideburns), has called for cycle helmets to be made compulsory in England, following the horrible news yesterday that a 28-year-old cyclist has been killed by an Olympic bus, near the Velodrome. “It’s dangerous and London is a busy city. I think we have to help ourselves sometimes,” he said.

I’m loath to disagree with Wiggo in the moment of his triumph, and obviously cycling is something that he knows more about than I do. But I fear that if his suggestion is followed, it will cause more premature deaths than it prevents.

First, it’s not clear – bizarrely, counterintuitively, but nonetheless – that cycle helmets do all that much to protect cyclists from serious injury. Certainly yesterday’s tragedy did not involve a head injury at all, but there is some suggestion that even in accidents that do, the effectiveness of a helmet is disputed. In an interesting article for The Guardian in 1999, Ed Walker, an A&E doctor, said: “A live brain is said to have the consistency of blancmange. Putting blancmange in a polystyrene box will not allow you safely to throw it against concrete without the contents being just as badly shaken as had the ‘protection’ not been present.” A helmet will protect you from cuts and scrapes, he says, but if you’re hurled into the path of a lorry, no cycle helmet in the world would protect you, and – contrary to our intuition – there isn’t much of a middle ground.

Personally I find that quite hard to believe: I know of one person who came off their bike and hit the kerb, shattering her helmet on the corner of it but avoiding injury herself. Anecdotal evidence is of course irrelevant, so instead I’ll point to a 2001 meta-analysis in the journal Accident Analysis & Prevention which found that “the evidence is clear that bicycle helmets prevent serious injury and even death”, adding that helmet use should be encouraged to the point that it is “uniformly accepted”. But there’s a significant difference between encouraging it, and enforcing it.

Australia made cycle helmets legally required in the 1990s. Immediately, cycling participation in the country dropped, by as much as 40 per cent, according to studies in New South Wales, the Northern Territories and Victoria. That is a public health disaster: it has been shown that cyclists live longer and healthier lives than non-cyclists on average, even taking into account the risk of injury. A 1992 British Medical Association study found that the average life years gained through the increased fitness gained by cycling far outweighed those lost in accidents.

What’s more, reducing the number of cyclists on the road increases the risk for those cyclists who remain on it. The well-established “safety in numbers” principle dictates that the more cyclists there are on the roads, the more likely motorists are to expect them, and to notice them, and thus not to kill them. One estimate of the effect suggests that for every doubling of cyclist numbers in a city, the risk to every individual cyclist drops by 34 per cent. That’s on top of the already vast health benefits of cycling. But it works the other way as well: if we reduced the number of cyclists in London by forcing them to wear helmets, we could expect a corresponding rise in risk to each cyclist.

And finally, although it gets a lot of press, we should remember that cycling is actually very safe. A 2010 Transport for London study found that there were an average of 500,000 cycle trips made per day in the capital, which we think of as a sort of accident black spot, but only 17 cyclists have been killed per year on average since 1996. That’s a figure which has remained fairly steady even though the number of cyclists has practically doubled, as the death rate per 100,000 cyclists per kilometre per year has dropped from 20.5 in 1992 to 11.1 in 2006. It’s more dangerous per kilometre than driving or walking, but far less than motorcycling, and you have to cycle a hell of a long way to raise your odds above negligible.

There are other social benefits of cycling, of course: reduced air pollution, reduced congestion on the roads, less noise, less risk to other road users. But most of all, cycling is healthy and safe, and it gets safer the more people do it. Bradley Wiggins is right to be concerned for cyclists, and to try to make them safe. But the best way of making cyclists safe, and one of the best ways of making people healthier generally, is to get more people cycling. Sadly, mandatory cycle helmets will do the opposite.


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