New research shows that cycle helmets useful for "simple falls or tumbles" but not for impacts from cars.
MPs such as Peter Bone have long been clamouring for cycle helmet compulsion following lobbying from Angela Lee, CEO of the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust.
Bone has asked many parliamentary questions of the Department for Transport, asking when cycle helmet compulsion will be enacted.
The DfT has always responded by saying it would wait for a new report on cycle helmets by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL). This report was published yesterday and made no recommendation for helmet compulsion.
The DfT has also previously said it would only push for helmet compulsion once the wearing of helmets was already commonplace. The TRL report has no figures on how many UK cyclists currently wear cycle helmets.
The majority of cycle organisations say the wearing of cycle helmets for non-sport use should be up to individuals.Article continues below
And if compulsion were brought it, which helmets would be recommended? Pro helmet organisations don't advocate the kind of helmets commonly seen today, those with lots of vents and tear-drop rear-ends. The trend for shaped vents - said to be more aerodynamically efficient - is discouraged by the massively pro helmet Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute.
The BHSI says "if your helmet does not slide well on the surface you hit, the effects are potentially injurious. To reduce potential snagging points to a minimum we would prefer helmets with vents and ribs well faired and rounded. Although the swing to 'compact' designs has been an improvement, some current models still have a 'shelf' effect in the rear that adds to helmet length but also adds a prominent snag point, a feature we would avoid. We would note that none of the world's bicycle helmet standards includes a test for this, despite ...studies...that have shown with lab tests that helmets that do not slide well can cause higher neck forces, higher chin strap forces and increased g's to the brain from the impact."
The TRL study remarks that current cycle helmet standards do not take into account rotational forces acting upon the head when impacting an object, although motorcycle helmets do. Motorcycle helmets are smooth, round and vent-less, and therefore do not snag on the ground.
The BHSI's ideal cycle helmet would also be smooth and round, and with few vents.
Lazer Helmets of Belgium has a motorcycle helmet with a 'SuperSkin' covering. This is a PHPS (Philips Head Protection System) covering that mimics skin. When a head impacts the ground, skin moves. A snagging helmet doesn't allow such movement and can lead to brain injuries.
Lazer is working on SuperSkin technology for cycle helmets.
The TRL's new study says that if a cycle helmet is worn properly, 10-16 percent of cyclists fatalities could have been prevented. The report discusses the fact that very few cyclists wear their helmets correctly, negating most of the safety benefits.
Contrary to the belief of many cyclists and many motorists, "helmets are not effective in run-over accidents," says the TRL study. As the majority of bike 'accidents' are caused by motorists hitting cyclists from behind, the 'whole population' effectiveness of helmets are unclear
The TRL report says helmet manufacturers rarely use Snell testing - the toughest standards for cycle helmets - because Snell tests are "too harsh".
The CTC has responded swiftly to the TRL report, accusing the authors of omissions and double-standards.
"The authors have correctly identified the shortcomings in previous research into the effectiveness of cycle helmets, but have then overlooked equally serious failings in their own work. They have also failed to discuss the adverse effects of telling cyclists to wear helmets, such as deterring people from taking up cycling, and the many ways in which helmet wearing might actually increase the likelihood of cyclists being involved in collisions in the first place," said a CTC statement.
The report finds that it is “impossible to definitively quantify the effectiveness or otherwise of cycle helmets based on the literature reviewed.” However, says the CTC, it then concludes that cycle helmets “should be effective at reducing the risk of head injury” and predicts that between 10-16% of the 113 fatalities they analysed could have been prevented through wearing a helmet.
CTC Campaigns and Policy Director Roger Geffen said: “After shooting down everyone else’s assumptions on cycle helmets, the report’s authors realised this left them without a pro-helmet conclusion, so they have cooked up some spurious assumptions of their own. CTC would just like to see an honest analysis of the case for and against telling cyclists to wear helmets which takes into account all the relevant issues.”
The CTC says the TRL report also fails to weigh up the costs and benefits of encouraging or enforcing the wearing of cycle helmets and does not compare the cost effectiveness of alternative strategies to improve cyclists’ safety. To remedy this 'defect', CTC has used the World Health Organisation’s ‘Health Economic Assessment Tool’ to estimate the effect of imposing a helmet law on cyclists. This shows that helmet compulsion could result in a net increase in 253 premature deaths annually – 265 extra deaths due to the lost health benefits from people not cycling, against a saving of 12 lives for those who continue cycling.
"Making cyclists wear helmets is therefore not a cost effective way to save lives; the overall costs of a helmet law would be between £305m and £415m. This estimate closely matches risk researcher Piet de Jong’s figure of $400m published earlier this year. CTC would rather the government spent the money on lowering speed limits to 20mph, creating safer road and traffic conditions, and providing good cycle training."
CTC believes "it should be up to the cyclist to make an informed choice about whether or not to wear a helmet and is opposed to a law making it compulsory. Laws in other countries that force cyclists to wear helmets just reduce the numbers of people who cycle...CTC believes it is important not to put anyone off cycling and that the government should be doing more to actively encourage cycling as a green and healthy way to travel."