Chris Boardman: "Helmets not even in top 10 of things that keep cycling safe"

British Cycling policy advisor says it's time to stop distracting helmet arguments and concentrate on real safety issues

by John Stevenson   February 17, 2014  

Chris Boardman at the Get Britain Cycling Inquiry

British Cycling policy advisor Chris Boardman says it’s time for the cycling community to put the debate about mandatory cycle helmets to bed and get across the message that helmet use is one of the least important cycling safety measures.

Even talking about making helmets mandatory “massively puts people off” cycling, Boardman said, and likened the culture of helmet use among keen cyclists to people wearing body armour because they have got used to being shot at.

Talking to at the London Bike Show, Boardman said, “I think the helmet issue is a massive red herring. It’s not even in the top 10 of things you need to do to keep cycling safe or more widely, save the most lives.”

You’re being shot at, put on body armour

Boardman returned to an analogy he has made before, and which even he admits is a bit melodramatic, though it gets the point across

“It’s a bit like saying ‘people are sniping at you going down this street, so put some body armour on,’” he said.

Government encouragement to wear helmets was therefore “a big campaign to get people to wear body armour, by the people who should be stopping the shooting.”

Widespread use of helmets, he said, sends the wrong message.

“Once you see somebody wearing body armour, even if there’s no shooting, you think ‘Christ I’m not going down there if they’re wearing body armour to go down that street.’ It scares people off.”

There’s a better solution to the problem of cycle safety, Boardman said. In the Netherlands, just 0.8 percent of cyclists wear helmets yet the Dutch have the lowest rate of cycling head injury, thanks to segregated cycling infrastructure. Thirty percent of journeys in the Netherlands are made by bike, he said, and 50 percent of children’s journey to school.

”The best way to deal with [the head injury issue] is what the Dutch have done,” he said. “Where you have the Highest rate of helmet use, you also have the highest rate of head injury: us and the US.”

Yet there’s also an almost-fanatical, knee-jerk devotion to helmet use among enthusiast and sporting cyclists.

Boardman said: “People who are wearing body armour get used to being shot at, when it’s the getting shot at that’s the problem.”

A distraction

Talking about helmets had become a time-consuming distraction, he said. “We’ve got to tackle the helmet debate head on because it’s so annoying,” he said. “It gets a disproportionate amount of coverage. When you have three minutes and someone asks ‘Do you wear a helmet’ you know the vast majority of your time when you could be talking about stuff that will make a difference, is gone.”

He said the focus on helmets had made cycling seem more dangerous than it really is.

“We’ve gone away from the facts,” he said. “We’ve gone to anecdotes. It’s like shark attacks - more people are killed building sandcastles than are killed by sharks. It’s just ludicrous that the facts aren’t matching up with the actions because the press focus, naturally, on the news stories, and [the notion that cycling is dangerous] becomes the norm, and it isn’t the norm.

“You can ride a thousand times round the planet for each cycling death. You are safer than gardening.”

Cycling’s image

Like many cycling advocates, Boardman wants to see cycling presented as a normal, everyday activity.

“I saw two people riding down the hill to my village. One person coming down the hill to go for the train in high-viz, helmet on.

“A few moments later another guy came down, in shirt sleeves, with a leather bag on his back, just riding his bike to the station.

“Which one of those makes me want to [ride]?”

192 user comments

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Dear As people don't seem to get this, please do an article headed up something like:

'Helmets are not even in the top 10 of the most important things that improve cycling safety'

then maybe, just maybe, people might understand the thrust of what CB is saying.

Oh, hang on... At Wits End

ColT's picture

posted by ColT [210 posts]
20th February 2014 - 2:36

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fret wrote:
Why are people so anti helmet? I'm not talking about making them mandatory, that's daft and unenforceable. Helmets are there to absorb the initial impact even if they may not prevent extreme damage in some cases.
I know of one person who hit their head on the kerb, the helmet cracked, their head was OK.
Last week in the Olympics a female snowboarder went down heavy which resulted in a split helmet, she was OK.
So what? I hear people say.
I'll just throw this in. In 1977 when the only helmets were those leather things that did nothing I had the misfortune to have my chain come off which resulted in a nasty kerb to bike interface.
I lost control as I was going full chat standing up accelerating so had little chance to stop. The last thing I remember is "Oh, shit, I'm going to get my hands dirty putting the chain back on"
I hit a concrete bus stop sign with by head and shoulder. I fractured my skull, ripped my ear off and broke my collarbone. I lost a pint of blood, 30 stitches and was in and out of consciousness for a couple of days. I cannot hear properly out of my ear either.
Had I been wearing a modern helmet I don't think the first two injuries would have occurred.

That's my two-pennorth, go ahead and mock me and tell me of all the people who have come off and never had a head injury and tell me why the construction is similar to motorcycle helmets, which as we all know are useless too.
I will happily show you my scars and ignore you with my deaf ear.

I think you're missing the point. There exists a truly *massive* misconception that cycling is a 'more dangerous activity' than other perfectly 'normal' activities like having a drink, walking down some stairs, being a pedestrian or driving a car.

Statistics prove that that simply isn't the case.

Fine if you *want* to wear head-protection when cycling ... but, if your objective is to be as safe as possible, then you really *should* wear your helmet when drinking, driving or descending stairs. All of those activities are, statistically speaking, far more likely to result in a head injury than cycling.

I think you'd look a bit of a dork wearing a helmet as PPE whilst having a pint in your local ... but that *is* the activity that is most likely (by a fucking country-mile) to result in a serious head injury.

posted by Joeinpoole [238 posts]
20th February 2014 - 3:28

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levermonkey wrote:
The Golden Rule Here is 'Whatever's Comfortable'.

If you feel safer wearing a helmet - wear a helmet.
If you feel safer wearing hi-vis - wear hi-vis.

It's YOUR choice. Although wearing a helmet does save you from having to nail your helmet cam to your head. Rolling On The Floor

I know it's bad form to quote yourself. But...

It is not a matter of being anti-helmet BUT of being pro-choice.

When I'm off road on a MTB then I wear a helmet. When I'm commuting I don't. When I'm riding for fun I don't. When I'm riding in a sportive or similar I do, because the organisers ask me to (I still have the choice; I can choose whether I enter or not).

I'm over 21 (Ok! With interest, VAT and then some Wink ), I don't need my mothers permission. The information is out there, read it and come to your own decision!

Having said all that I do think children under 10 should wear a helmet. Please note I said should NOT must. I won't think any less of you as a parent if you decide your child doesn't need a helmet.

Remember cyclists are goats not sheep. Big Grin

posted by levermonkey [357 posts]
20th February 2014 - 6:59

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Hooray!! I completely agree with Mr Boardman - I ride MTB and Road and will evaluate my ride as to what protection I wear, (not just the panacea that is the magic helmet but also pads and type of clothing) but what I find interesting is that when I ride Road in me cap/beanie, some other cyclists start preaching about my irresponsibility of not wearing a helmet, but strangely enough one thing that all these guys have in common is that they all seem to crash a lot - why is that do you think?

posted by Highland Peat [3 posts]
20th February 2014 - 9:07

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It's not a fall from your bike that's going to kill you, that's more likely to happen if you're hit by a motor vehicle and motor vehicles pass helmeted cyclist more closely than bare headed cyclists.

Not so long ago, popular opinion was that the earth was flat.

posted by BigglesMeister [16 posts]
20th February 2014 - 9:50

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Don't miss the point: Boardman is not saying "Don't wear a helmet" he is saying that the government making helmets compulsory distracts from the real issue which is that the road system is feckin dangerous.

Anyone who has ever crashed and hit their head will attest to the fact that a helmet can save your life. Obviously its great to feel the wind in your hair but I'd rather have a helmet in between. In the last crash I had, when I came round my helmet had actually cracked in half. I'd rather that than my skull.

posted by unclebadger [16 posts]
20th February 2014 - 11:09

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There are many things in life people try to focus on when they don't want to solve a problem. It's like debating the children that throw stones at tanks in Palestine, but not wanting to debate why the tanks are there in the first place.

Cycling is not considered as a serious form of transport. It's more an inconvenience to cars, and that's why many drivers act accordingly.

posted by ronin [127 posts]
20th February 2014 - 11:25

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It never ceases to amaze me how many of the helmet advocates manage to keep falling off their bikes! It's easy; learn not to fall and if you are to fall learn how to fall!! Don't overcook descending or corners. Don't cycle through standing water as you don't know if there's a crater under there. In the last 5 years I have accumulated well over 40,000 miles and have had two offs. Once when a ped stepped out in front of me and I twisted my shoulder as a result and the other at a set of lights when I didn't un clip in time.

Boardman is correct in what he says. Note, he is not anti helmet. He is only saying that the helmet is not at the top of the agenda. And yet we have a torrent of anecdotes of helmets saving peoples lives. The wearing of a helmet will not make cycling on the UK roads any safer. As will the wearing of HI Viz. Many motorists out there treat vulnerable road users with total and utter contempt.

The only way of making the roads safer to use is more indepth driving tuition and difficult, better infrastructure for cyclists, better sentencing for driving offenses.

There is so much more that can be done rather the vague slap a bit of plastic on your head and everything will be all right.

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posted by giff77 [1045 posts]
20th February 2014 - 12:18

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Chris Boardman is right, talk of cycle helmets has stymied the campaign to improve road conditions for cyclists.
There are only two irrefutable facts we should be concerned about concerning the wearing of helmets.
They are: 1. Their introduction changed for ever the long held and correct perception that cycling was/is a low risk activity into one that is now considered, incorrectly, to be dangerous.
2. Cycle helmet wearing has done nothing to improve
road safety for cyclists.
As an example of how twisted the safety debate has become,
I recall hearing one nutter of an MP - at a hearing of the House of Commons Select Committee on Transport some years ago - come out with the following line: he said, "...if cyclists were made to wear helmets surely there would be no need to slow traffic."

posted by Condor flyer [17 posts]
20th February 2014 - 12:33

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unclebadger wrote:

Anyone who has ever crashed and hit their head will attest to the fact that a helmet can save your life. .

The only time I have hit my head I was lucky enough to be wearing a Festina cap.
I was hardly bruised. I urge all riders to wear a cotton cap, though I'm not sure the Festina design was important.

posted by felixcat [208 posts]
20th February 2014 - 12:50

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[quote=Condor flyer
I recall hearing one nutter of an MP - at a hearing of the House of Commons Select Committee on Transport some years ago - come out with the following line: he said, "...if cyclists were made to wear helmets surely there would be no need to slow traffic."

Dead right. I suspect that is why so many non cyclists are prominent in the campaign to make us wear foam. Fatties Angie Lee and Eric Martlew are good examples.

posted by felixcat [208 posts]
20th February 2014 - 12:55

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Once again, the point has been wildly missed by everyone trotting out the same old anecdotes of how they "know" their helmet saved them.
Bear in mind you're talking about different types of riding - we're trying to get more people on bikes for normal everyday things - going to the shops, commuting etc - and portraying that as some kind of reckless, dangerous activity that requires lycra, helmets, hi-vis and an ability to mix it with buses and trucks doing 30+mph doesn't help. Yes, if I'm riding like that I wear a helmet. Getting a hire bike to potter round London, I'd never consider it - it's a normal everyday activity of me going to the shops in normal clothes and a completely different way of riding. I suspect some people on here (who are by definition keen road cyclists with racing bikes and all the kit) have forgotten this whole other world of cycling which exists outside of it being a hobby/sport for the relatively well-off rather than a valid mode of transport for all.

You remember after that 2-week period in London where 6 cyclists were killed? Rather than it being taken as an opportunity to really push the #space4cycling campaign and The Times' "Cities Fit for Cycling" campaign it became an angry argument with the three H's brought to the fore - Helmets, Hi vis and Headphones. The road safety campaign that followed involved the Police standing there pulling cyclists for not wearing hi-vis while largely ignoring the massive elephant in the room of all the big dangerous badly driven cars & lorries. Basically moved everything onto victim blaming, arguments and diverted the attention of the media away from the main issue. Sad

As CB so rightly says - stop talking about helmets and move the whole debate forwards.

posted by crazy-legs [504 posts]
20th February 2014 - 13:05

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From an article in the New York Times.

"A Bicycling Mystery"

"Millions of parents take it as an article of faith that putting a bicycle helmet on their children, or themselves, will help keep them out of harm's way.

"But new data on bicycle accidents raises questions about that. The number of head injuries has increased 10 percent since 1991, even as bicycle helmet use has risen sharply, according to figures compiled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. But given that ridership has declined over the same period, the rate of head injuries per active cyclist has increased 51 percent just as bicycle helmets have become widespread.

"Still, with fewer people riding bicycles, experts are mystified as to why injuries are on the rise. ''It's puzzling to me that we can't find the benefit of bike helmets here,'' said Ronald L. Medford, the assistant executive director of the safety commission's hazard identification office.

More interesting stuff in the article.

posted by felixcat [208 posts]
20th February 2014 - 15:55

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Number 1 in my book has to be -

You can permanently lose your licence if you prove yourself to be unfit, rather than this obsession with keeping everyone in a car at all cost, especially when that cost is continually payed by innocents.

Until that becomes a reality I know I can go out right now and 'accidentally' kill and be back behind the wheel within two years tops.

Hating our selfish and ignorant car culture

posted by ironmancole [124 posts]
20th February 2014 - 21:47

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I agree with levermonkey. Wear a helmet & hi-viz if you want to; don't if you don't.

Personally, I wear both. I'd be very reluctant to cycle without a helmet: you never know in advance when you'll need it.

I certainly didn't find my helmet a 'distraction' when I fell heavily going round a corner on my bike and hit my head on the edge of the kerbstone. I got a big dent in my helmet, not in my skull.

Nor was it a 'distraction' when another cyclist came out of a side road just as I was passing at 18mph, causing me to somersault over my handlebars and hit the back of my head on the Tarmac as I landed. The helmet took the force of the blow, not my head.

Personally, I was very glad to have been wearing a helmet on both occasions. But if other cyclists would prefer their unprotected head to take the full force in such full force of the blow, at's up to them.

I certainly agree, though, that the bigger issue is careless, reckless and cycle-hating drivers.

posted by Kadenz [41 posts]
20th February 2014 - 22:39

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He is plain wrong, would you drive a new car without airbags - no, I just a month ago would have died from a serious head injury if it were not for my helmet. Helmets are a not brainer.. excuse the pun. Martin McGrevy

posted by nitram [2 posts]
21st February 2014 - 7:34

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would you drive a new car without airbags

But How carefully would you drive that car if that air bag was replaced by a big spike?

posted by GrahamH [18 posts]
21st February 2014 - 8:56

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nitram wrote:
He is plain wrong, would you drive a new car without airbags - no, I just a month ago would have died from a serious head injury if it were not for my helmet. Helmets are a not brainer.. excuse the pun. Martin McGrevy

Jesus H Christ. How difficult is it to understand?

CB is not saying 'do not wear a helmet'. Have you read and understood the article? Have you read and understood the other comments, particularly those pertaining to assertions that 'my helmet saved my life'?

May I respectfully suggest that you have a(nother) look and come back with details of those bits you don't understand?

ColT's picture

posted by ColT [210 posts]
21st February 2014 - 12:32

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nitram wrote:
He is plain wrong, would you drive a new car without airbags - no, I just a month ago would have died from a serious head injury if it were not for my helmet. Helmets are a not brainer.. excuse the pun. Martin McGrevy

My car is very old and has no air bags or any of the features that many vehicles have now days. I am of the opinion that driving skills have deteriated massively as a result of these new features. People rely hugely on the computer to control traction, braking etc. and also have a misguided perception that the air bags, crumple zones and roll cages are going to protect them. That's why we see idiots bombing up the motorway in torrential rain and zero visibility at 100mph. It's why we see the same idiots braking at the last minute.

The issue of safety on our roads is poor skills and behaviour towards other road users. NOT wearing Hi Viz and helmets - of which there is nothing wrong with. It's just that non-cyclists seem to think that this is the answer to road safety and is the easiest option rather than deal with the real issues which means upsetting the motoring lobby.

Boardman is correct in saying that the helmet debate is a red herring. Oh, and if you watch the TdF when Chris is talking about stages you see him wearing a helmet when on the road. So he is not anti-helmet

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posted by giff77 [1045 posts]
21st February 2014 - 16:05

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To those advocating helmet use - do you also wear body armour? What about elbow and knee pads? Or motorbike leathers and a full-face helmet? After all, if you get hit by a car you'll be better off wearing it than not.

Boardman is absolutely correct - in every situation PPE is the last line in injury prevention after everything else has been done to remove the danger and reduce the impact of any potential injury. With cycling the danger comes from motor vehicles. Remove these by segregation by mode. Reduce the risk of injury by lowering motor vehicle speed where segregation is not possible or desirable.

It really isn't difficult to understand.

posted by teaboy [149 posts]
21st February 2014 - 16:34

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Honestly, i get what Boardman is saying here (I get irritated myself by the constant call for hi viz clothing), but I myself feel much more confident on a bike with a helmet on, even when riding on empty streets, or off road. the point that bad driving is a menace is well made though and for me is a real issue. In my view the benefit of doubt in road crashes involving a bicycle should always rest with the motorised vehicle.

posted by Saintlymark [7 posts]
21st February 2014 - 21:43

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nitram wrote:
He is plain wrong, would you drive a new car without airbags - no, I just a month ago would have died from a serious head injury if it were not for my helmet. Helmets are a not brainer.. excuse the pun. Martin McGrevy

Neither of my motorbikes have airbags. My current car does but the last one didn't. As for ABS, it doesn't work on ice or snow or diesel spills, which is when you need it most. A lot of this new car control technology encourages people to drive to the limits of their vehicle and not use key driving skills such as cadence braking or braking in a straight line. Increased vehicle performance and that fat twerp Jeremy Clarkson also encourage people to drive too fast for their ability or road conditions.

I wear a helmet when I'm racing my bicycle because I'm pushing the limits. But I don't bother when I'm on the road.


posted by OldRidgeback [2172 posts]
21st February 2014 - 21:59

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Yep; the man is completely right.

Next step is to ban the term "cycle helmet" as a mis trade description and instead allow them to be called; hats for the neurotically paranoid.

Ban them from cycle shops. Sack the risk assessors at cycling events that insist on them, as not able to make evidence based risk assesments, and are therefore incompetent.

Ban them from road use as they endanger both the user and others by giving a fraudulent impression.

Just about the only thing that kills cyclists are motor vehicles.

posted by Giles Pargiter [36 posts]
21st February 2014 - 22:17

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I wear a helmet not because it makes cycling safer but because (I believe) it makes crashing safer. My Giro Atmos definitely saved my skull (possibly my life) when I was hit by a van at speed.

Wouldn't drive without my seatbelt....

posted by Jeemahn [10 posts]
21st February 2014 - 22:25

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mrmo wrote:
This is not about sport cycling, it is about utility cycling. For which helmets are not really an issue, certainly not as important as the space devoted to discussing them.

This is the key distinction. I'd be classified as a 'sport cyclist' (or, if you prefer, the recreational cycling I do would be called 'sport cycling', even when it's not competitive). I wear a helmet when I train and when I race. I also wear one when I'm cycling to barracks of a morning, trundling into town for the shopping, or out for a gentle jaunt with Mrs F. Why? Because I'm so used to doing so that I feel more comfortable with my trusty Giro Savant on my bonce, and because whether or not it is in the least effective, the opportunity cost to wearing it is zero. I also don't need to use my SPDs, nor do I need to be riding a lightweight CX racer, but still I do.

There shouldn't be in people's minds a binary pro- or anti- stance to helmet-wearing; we shouldn't, as Chris Boardman says, be talking about them at all. I - like the majority here - am against compulsory helmet legislation, and accept the evidence-based arguments that for most cyclists, a helmet is unnecessary. However, for the kinds of cycling some of us here do, wearing one is a worthwhile investment; doing so has certainly saved me a few times from what would otherwise have been a nasty knock on the head.

posted by Lord Fishface [24 posts]
21st February 2014 - 23:23

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People in cars suffer head injuries too. It's never (to my knowledge) been suggested that people in cars should have to wear "driving helmets". What a furore that would cause if it were seriously suggested!

posted by BrianL51 [6 posts]
22nd February 2014 - 1:58

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Ironic that a piece saying that the helmet debate distracts from the real issues then we go on to have a massive helmet debate...

posted by mbrads72 [120 posts]
22nd February 2014 - 7:55

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BrianL51 wrote:
People in cars suffer head injuries too. It's never (to my knowledge) been suggested that people in cars should have to wear "driving helmets". What a furore that would cause if it were seriously suggested!

Don't be too sure about that! There are driving helmets for normal motoring, and campaigns for them.

And, whilst I'm typing.

Somehow driving and walking helmets don't seem to have caught on, though head injury rates are pretty similar to cyclists'.

posted by felixcat [208 posts]
22nd February 2014 - 11:38

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I congratulate CB for trying to move the debate from helmets to other safety issues. Too much of the bicycle safety message in the USA and UK has been "wear a helmet" and not much else.

You'd think that helmets were magic amulets that could protect cyclists from the evil of accidents and injuries.

It's refreshing to hear someone suggest that maybe the focus should shift from reducing the injuries that result from accidents to preventing those accidents in the first place.

Let's hope this signals the start of a broad approach to improved safety through a variety of measures from infrastructure changes to rider and driver education.



posted by FBinNY [4 posts]
22nd February 2014 - 18:36

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How many racers died in the Tour de France, etc. in all the helmet-less years of racing - millions of kilometers? Not many if any. I'll keep mine on, even though it does mean it creates more inertia for my neck muscles to resist in a fall.

posted by mutron3k [1 posts]
7th July 2014 - 20:21

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