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The Great Helmet Debate

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Parties to the Debate

Are cycle helmets a good thing or a bad thing? I've been following the (often acrimonious) debate since 1993 and have drawn the conclusion that it helps to know the position that the other party is arguing from. It seems to me that the participants in the debate fall at various points along a spectrum which I've divided into the following five categories:

My Position

I started off as a Clueless Newbie and have become an Informed Helmet Sceptic. I tend to wear a helmet in the sort of conditions where I am most likely to have the sort of crash where a helmet might provide some benefit, i.e. when it is icy or exceptionally windy. I certainly don't wear one in the summer, when I don't want to boil my brain. I could probably be swayed toward the Anti-Helmet Reactionary stance if I felt my freedom was seriously under threat - as yet, I don't.

My beliefs on the subject are summarised in these letters that I have written to the Department for Transport and to my MP:

So why do we have people campaigning for mandatory helmet laws if there is scientific evidence that they may be harmful?

Common sense suggests that helmets should save lives. It is reasonable for people to have preconceptions based on common sense. Unfortunately many people, particularly those without scientific backgrounds, become quite distressed when scientific observations challenge their preconceptions. Even more so if those preconceptions are based on common sense.

A scientist, with an open mind, will become curious and start looking for mechanisms to explain the unexpected observations. A non-scientist is more likely to close his mind and assume that the observations must be wrong. People start cherry picking the observations that support their preconceptions and dismissing the observations that challenge their preconceptions. This is scientific fraud and the intellectual equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and saying: "La la la".

Unfortunately there are a lot of people out there who are unwilling to have their preconceptions challenged and prefer to say: "La la la".

"I've browsed your website and there are pictures of your children wearing helmets. How does that square with your anti-helmet stance?"

I do not have an anti-helmet stance. I have an anti-compulsion stance and I have an anti-ignorance stance.

Anti-compulsion partly because I am satisfied on the basis of the available evidence that, in many circumstances, helmets impose greater risks than they mitigate, but mostly because I believe that the choice to wear a helmet should be an informed choice made by the individual.

Anti-ignorance because one cannot make an informed choice if one is ill-informed.

There are risks associated with wearing a helmet. There are also risks associated with not wearing a helmet. It is down to the individual to balance those risks and decide whether or not to wear a helmet.

The levels of risk vary from individual to individual, they vary with experience, with riding conditions and with the type of riding being undertaken. They cannot be precisely measured and must be estimated. To have a fighting chance of esimating risk levels accurately, we must at least have some idea of what the risks are.

I offer my children the choice of wearing a helmet or not. As long as the helmet fits properly, I do not believe there is a strong enough case on either side for me to insist either that they do or do not wear a helmet (except when we stop at a playground, when I insist on the helmets being removed because of the strangulation hazard that they present). Of course, I take great care to make sure that their helmets are properly fitted. I would not expose my children to the dangers inherent in a poorly fitted helmet.

My two usually choose to wear their helmets. I suspect that this makes them more confident (risk homeostasis). While they're learning to ride, I regard that as a good thing.

I'm going to finish this section by moving away from risk. It has become increasingly fashionable in recent decades (perhaps largely because of the compensation culture that has unfortunately been imported from the US) to make decisions based solely on risk. But what if a risk is associated with a benefit?

What if cycling is more fun without a helmet? Is it worth making a pleasurable activity less pleasurable in order to make a small reduction in an already small risk?

What if cycling is more practical without a helmet, because you don't have to worry about what to do with the helmet when you reach your destination? Is it worth making a practical mode of transport less practical in order to make a small reduction in an already small risk?

If you tried to avoid all risk, you'd never leave the house. In fact, you'd probably never leave your bed. Chances are you'd then die early from a heart attack.

The Evidence

Actually I don't propose to present any evidence here, but rather to suggest places to look. The letters referred to above include a number of references, many of them hyperlinked. Otherwise I recommend the following sites, particularly

Further Information

And finally...

A little bit of helmet humour (with a serious side):

Registered Voter

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