Any UK law on cycle helmets should apply only to kids

March 7, 2012, British Medical Journal

Any law to make the wearing of cycle helmets mandatory in the UK should apply only to children, because the evidence that cycle helmets significantly protect adults against serious head injury is equivocal, conclude researchers in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

And it's a matter of principle that people should be allowed to take risks with their health, if they choose to do so, they argue.

Attempts to make the wearing of cycle helmets compulsory in 1998/9 and 2003/4 both failed, possibly because the doctors' union, the British Medical Association (BMA), refused to support such legislation, suggest the authors from St George's, University of London and the London Deanery.

But in 2010 the BMA changed its mind, and the Northern Ireland Assembly has recently voted in favour of a bill to make cycle helmets compulsory, prompting the authors to conclude that similar legislation in Britain is just around the corner.

They agree that legislation for children may be warranted: the evidence in favour of the protection afforded by cycle helmets in this age group "is strong," and younger children may not be mature enough to make such decisions for themselves, they say.

But the evidence for adults is "not as clear cut as many of cycle helmet legislation seem to think," they write.

They point to Australian research showing that most (80%) killed or seriously injured were wearing helmets at the time of the incident. And the overall risk is small, irrespective of whether a helmet is worn, say the authors.

"There were 17064 reported cycling in 2008 in the UK, yet the number of fatalities(104) and the number of serious injuries (2606) were not large—especially when one considers the number of 'road miles' covered by cyclists in the UK every year," they write.

This compares with over 35,000 deaths from lung cancer alone in 2008—"a figure that dwarfs the deaths from cycling," they emphasise.

They argue that cycle helmets do not provide the same level of protection as motor bike helmets, which recent research shows cut the risk of head injury by 69% and that of death by 42%.

However, motorcycle helmets are made of heavier material than cycle helmets, so are not a viable option for cyclists, they say. And while helmets work well for those who fall off their bike, it is less clear whether they provide much protection against the many cycling injuries sustained during a collision with another vehicle.

While the evidence from countries where cycle helmets are mandatory indicates a fall in , other evidence suggests this might be because helmet legislation deters people from cycling.

Quite apart from anything else, a law mandating the wearing of cycle helmets is "paternalistic," argue the authors. While that may be appropriate for children, for competent adults, "this must give us significant pause," they contend.

Instead of legislation, governments should continue to provide public health information to their citizens about the potential benefits of wearing cycle helmets and leave it up to them to decide for themselves, say the authors.

"If competent adults wish to cycle with their hair (or their shiny pates) exposed to the wind, rain, and sky, then they ought to be able to do so without interference from the government or anyone else," they conclude.

Explore further: Australia: Helmets off to legislation

Related Stories

Australia: Helmets off to legislation

December 5, 2011
Cycling levels in Sydney could more than double if laws forcing cyclists to wear helmets were repealed, according to new research published today in the Health Promotion Journal of Australia.

The impact of compulsory cycle helmet legislation on cyclist head injuries

June 22, 2011
Bicycle-related head injuries fell significantly in the months after mandatory helmet legislation came into effect in NSW, and recent calls for a repeal of the laws should be rejected, new research based on hospital admissions ...

Researchers say helmet laws effective

April 22, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- University of Alberta researchers have confirmed that helmet bylaws increase wearing rates among adults.

Recommended for you

Women run faster after taking newly developed supplement, study finds

January 19, 2018
A new study found that women who took a specially prepared blend of minerals and nutrients for a month saw their 3-mile run times drop by almost a minute.

Americans are getting more sleep

January 19, 2018
Although more than one in three Americans still don't get enough sleep, a new analysis shows first signs of success in the fight for more shut eye. According to data from 181,335 respondents aged 15 and older who participated ...

Wine is good for you—to a point

January 18, 2018
The Mediterranean diet has become synonymous with healthy eating, but there's one thing in it that stands out: It's cool to drink wine.

Sleep better, lose weight?

January 17, 2018
(HealthDay)—Sleeplessness could cost you when it's time to stand on your bathroom scale, a new British study suggests.

Who uses phone apps to track sleep habits? Mostly the healthy and wealthy in US

January 16, 2018
The profile of most Americans who use popular mobile phone apps that track sleep habits is that they are relatively affluent, claim to eat well, and say they are in good health, even if some of them tend to smoke.

Improvements in mortality rates are slowed by rise in obesity in the United States

January 15, 2018
With countless medical advances and efforts to curb smoking, one might expect that life expectancy in the United States would improve. Yet according to recent studies, there's been a reduction in the rate of improvement in ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.