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

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 road.cc 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]?”

Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.

Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.

Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.

The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.

198 comments

Avatar
Ush [988 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes
edster99 wrote:

I can't resist piling in, so I apologise in advance.

..... big snip....

But to tie it in to the bigger picture - which one will encourage more people to cycle, and make us all a healthier, happier nation?

Thank you for your attention. Please flame away.

Great post. Especially separating the two involved probabilities both of which might be affected by the population treatment.

Avatar
oozaveared [936 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes
big mick wrote:

Everything Chris says is true.But have an accident (not your fault) get a head injury and when the case makes court and you win your case you will still lose one third of your claim because you ( failed) to wear a helmet.Trust me right now that's the way it is.Put a lid on then join the debate.Driver ed is the way forward but don't hold your breath.Great Britain is still living in the past when it comes to cycle safety and I don't see change coming anytime soon.  29

Just not true. The case that had people worried was Reynolds v Strutt and Parker in 2011 in the High Court. This though was a case about a cycle race organised as an away day event by an employer. The case is more akin to the liabilities on a motor racing circuit than a road. in those circumstances the organiser may be liable if they put a novice in a fast car and let them go as fast as they like. Because the organiser knows the risks and the novice doesn't. If your are talking about racing drivers though that doesn't really apply. They would be deemed to be fully aware of the risk on a motor racing circuit and to have consented.

In this case the claimant Reynolds who was injured in the bike race and who wasn't wearing a helmet was also the architect of the crash through aggressive riding and blocking another competitor in a sprint. He did compensation awarded because the employer did not make enough effort to encourage or insist on wearing a helmet. It doesn't have any bearing on cyclists using the road in the normal way.

Logically how could it? If you run over a pedestrian you can't claim they should have been wearing a helmet and have the compensation reduced.

Avatar
felixcat [486 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes

A Cunning Plan

For those who feel the need to tell us they find helmet discussions boring.
Do not click on topics which are clearly about helmets.

Avatar
Quince [381 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes

"Everyone should be banned from wearing helmets!"

...Said nobody. So can we please arguing against it?

Helmet saved your life? Great, keep it up. But we can create towns in which lives aren't threatened at all. This is a better depiction of a cycling Utopia than one in which we force cyclists to try and 'take the battering'.

It is in realising this - entirely achievable - vision that the narrative should be heading. The helmet debate lacks scope. The 'compulsory helmet law' has also reduced uptake in both the countries that have passed it, which is completely counterproductive. Discussing it will not further this vision one jot. It is a distraction from making a real difference. It is simply a complete 'red herring'.

And on the topic of anecdotes; it's worth noting that those who's lives a helmet didn't save are generally less vocal about their experiences.

Avatar
Wynyard [1 post] 3 years ago
0 likes

Chris Boardman is a sporting icon whose opinions deserve respect and I realize he's had a fairly consistent view on helmets over the years.

However, I can't help thinking that his opinions would carry more weight here if he wasn't also profiting from selling bicycles. Any move to increase helmet use certainly has potential to hurt his business.

Avatar
Paul_C [511 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes

My helmet saved my life... yes it did, but I was on a motorcycle and the motorbike landed on top of my head in the crash and split the helmet in two... It was a Bell Tourstar and it cost me some £120 back in 1982.

Now a cycle helmet? They're next to useless in any form of cyling impact unless you are hitting your head at right angles to the ground with absolutely NO translational velocity at all... If you are sliding when you hit the ground, then the helmet WILL grab the road and spin your brain inside your skull. Cycle helmets are designed for one thing only, to pass the certification test to gain the kitemark or whtecer it is they are claiming. And the certification test does NOT relate to the kind of impact that they usually encounter.

Personally the old skool cycle helmets that consisted of leather tubes filled with kapok were far more effective than modern cycle helmets... at least they slid along and you didn't have to throw them away after an impact...

Still got mine from 1972...  3

Avatar
big mick [186 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes

Don,t say you weren't warned.It cost me £300,000 but hay I talk nonsense right?Lawyers love people not wearing helmets.They can save there clients big money.The real world (court rooms) are a harsh cold place and FAILED to wear a helmet makes you look iresponsible and in a world where car drivers wear seat belts motorcyclist wear helmets in the eyes of a judge you look foolish not protecting yourself.In court I was asked" why don't you cyclist wear motorcycle helmets" that's what you are up against.Nonsense for sure but for non cyclists it seems to make sense.Real world hard place and we all need to get real.I know cycle helmets are shite and when flattened by a lorry no helmet would save you but like I say Don't say you weren't warned.I can take a horse to water but can't make it drink right.Oh just more nonsense for sure right? Sorry but it's all true sorry to say.

Avatar
felixcat [486 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes

Big Mick, was your case reported? Can you give us a link? I've never come across any case remotely like yours. This needs investigating.

Avatar
arfa [851 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes

Big Mick, presumably you were found against for "contributory negligence" ? I am aware of plenty of cases for reduction in damages on this basis for failure to wear a seatbelt but not cycling helmets. Could you give us a case name to research further ? Thanks.

Avatar
paulfg42 [392 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes

As a youngster, I never wore a helmet but, returning to cycling as an old git, I got used to wearing a helmet before I knew anything of this argument. I'd hate to think I was putting people off by wearing a helmet but my wife would go spare with me if I left the house without it. Genuinely confused.

Avatar
felixcat [486 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes
paulfg42 wrote:

Genuinely confused.

Try http://www.cyclehelmets.org/ and, for balance http://www.bhit.org/

Avatar
Quince [381 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes
Wynyard wrote:

Chris Boardman is a sporting icon whose opinions deserve respect and I realize he's had a fairly consistent view on helmets over the years.

However, I can't help thinking that his opinions would carry more weight here if he wasn't also profiting from selling bicycles. Any move to increase helmet use certainly has potential to hurt his business.

Especially his helmet business. That'd take a battering.

I am wary of Boardman's roles as both a businessman and an activist; but despite this, I have never seen a public figure make more grounded, sensible and insightful comments about cycling in Britain; on both its present and its future.

I have trust in his judgement, and respect for his ability to deliver it in such an open, honest and inviting manner. You raise valid point about potential ulterior motivations given his two roles, but as neither is a detriment to the other, I don't think it's a problem; they're not conflicting interests.

Also, unlike most businessmen, Boardman at least produces something worthwhile. I don't like the idea that you're only allowed to make something decent so long as you don't get payed for it.

If Boardman was promoting magical Boardman bits that everyone should buy, I'd be suspicious, but he's not. He's shooting down compulsory helmet laws as a distraction from a greater issue, despite his business selling helmets. I think it's quite clear from his comments that his views on this matter have little to do with business.

If he does profit from this, it'll only be because more bicycles are being sold overall, and that is something that I assume everyone here is in favour of, business interests or not.

With regards to his overall judgement, I think his transition from athlete to designer to champion of simple everyday cycling only serves to round him more as a voice of reason; and I think few people have quite as much depth OR breadth in the field of cycling as Chris Boardman. 'Wisdom' is not a word that's thrown around a lot in relation to bicycles, but I think Boardman's combination of experience and level-headedness afford him the quality in bucket-loads.

But that's enough idolatry from me. I'll stop when he says something stupid, although I don't expect that to come soon.

Avatar
El Tel [8 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes

Am I missing something here? Should I stop wearing a helmet, and give up on the hi vis jacket?
I have to to be honest, I just don't get CB's comments...should I fall from my bike with/without a helmet would the result be the same, should I hit my head? Are we being fooled about the value of cycle helmets, are they in fact all but useless? Would this explain why every time I read a review, of a helmet, it's about the look, number of vents, fit...as opposed to security/impact protection? Is there a rating for the safety of helmets, if so I've missed it.
If I wear a head cam whilst gardening will it show as many near misses as when I'm cycling in traffic? As for sand castles and sharks....is this something from the Eric Cantona philosophy about seagulls and trawlers???
I emailed the article to my brother in Afghanistan, suggested he take off the body armour, as perhaps this gave him a false sense of security.
Sarcasm apart....I just don't get CB's comments.....simple as this to me....any point in buying/wearing a helmet? Will wearing one, in any event, help prevent serious injury? Is there any research/evidence proving the safety of a helmet?
Should I worry about my 12 year old daughter wearing a helmet when we ride? Seriously.

Avatar
El Tel [8 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes

Hi, interesting comments.....do you have the evidence, research or qualifications to back them up? I'm genuinely not trying to be contentious about this, but bold statements need backing up.

Avatar
northstar [1107 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Avatar
Joeinpoole [444 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes
big mick wrote:

Don,t say you weren't warned.It cost me £300,000 but hay I talk nonsense right?Lawyers love people not wearing helmets.They can save there clients big money.The real world (court rooms) are a harsh cold place and FAILED to wear a helmet makes you look iresponsible and in a world where car drivers wear seat belts motorcyclist wear helmets in the eyes of a judge you look foolish not protecting yourself.In court I was asked" why don't you cyclist wear motorcycle helmets" that's what you are up against.Nonsense for sure but for non cyclists it seems to make sense.Real world hard place and we all need to get real.I know cycle helmets are shite and when flattened by a lorry no helmet would save you but like I say Don't say you weren't warned.I can take a horse to water but can't make it drink right.Oh just more nonsense for sure right? Sorry but it's all true sorry to say.

Huh? How exactly did not wearing a helmet cost you £300K? I've never worn a helmet and it has cost me absolutely nothing. On the contrary I've saved the cost of said helmet ... and enjoyed the wind in my hair too ... which is half the point of cycling anyway IMHO.

Avatar
ColT [343 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes
El Tel wrote:

Am I missing something here?

Erm.... Only the bit that says there are at least 10 things more important than wearing a helmet... i.e. the whole point of the story.  22

Avatar
Paul_C [511 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes
Joeinpoole wrote:
big mick wrote:

Don,t say you weren't warned.It cost me £300,000 but hay I talk nonsense right?Lawyers love people not wearing helmets.They can save there clients big money.The real world (court rooms) are a harsh cold place and FAILED to wear a helmet makes you look iresponsible and in a world where car drivers wear seat belts motorcyclist wear helmets in the eyes of a judge you look foolish not protecting yourself.In court I was asked" why don't you cyclist wear motorcycle helmets" that's what you are up against.Nonsense for sure but for non cyclists it seems to make sense.Real world hard place and we all need to get real.I know cycle helmets are shite and when flattened by a lorry no helmet would save you but like I say Don't say you weren't warned.I can take a horse to water but can't make it drink right.Oh just more nonsense for sure right? Sorry but it's all true sorry to say.

Huh? How exactly did not wearing a helmet cost you £300K? I've never worn a helmet and it has cost me absolutely nothing. On the contrary I've saved the cost of said helmet ... and enjoyed the wind in my hair too ... which is half the point of cycling anyway IMHO.

The damages award was reduced by £300,000 because not wearing the helmet was deemed to be contributory negligence...

Avatar
Guy Chapman [9 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes
oozaveared wrote:

I agree that the debate needs to be on the back burner. But we all need to keep pointing out that helmets are somewhat useful when you fall off your bike say when mountainbiking or when in a competitive race.

I don't think anyone would say otherwise. The issue is with those who perceive cycling as a uniformly dangerous activity, and overestimate the ability of helmets to reduce this misperceived risk.

Avatar
Guy Chapman [9 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes
El Tel wrote:

I just don't get CB's comments...should I fall from my bike with/without a helmet would the result be the same, should I hit my head?

Depends if a motor vehicle is involved - in most cases where one is, then yes, the outcome is unlikely to be much different.

But you're ignoring the most important question: will wearing a helmet make it more likely that you have the crash in the first place? The answer tot his is very likely to be yes, there's a lot of evidence pointing to this being exactly what happens.

Avatar
felixcat [486 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes

Big Mick. Big Mick, are you there? This question of contributory negligence is important.
Can you give uis any details which might help us to find out more about your case?

Avatar
laterrehaute [25 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes

What are the top ten things that are more important to cycle safety than a helmet?

Avatar
mrmo [2094 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes
laterrehaute wrote:

What are the top ten things that are more important to cycle safety than a helmet?

To start with proper paths, and proper control of drivers, then cyclist education, education of drivers, design of road junctions and roundabouts, control of hate speak in the media, health benefits, perception that cycling Is dangerous.

Any risk assessment tells you PPE is the last line of defence, as far as cycling is concerned in the UK it seems to be the first and only topic!

Avatar
Chuck [588 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes
El Tel wrote:

Am I missing something here? Should I stop wearing a helmet, and give up on the hi vis jacket?
I have to to be honest, I just don't get CB's comments...should I fall from my bike with/without a helmet would the result be the same, should I hit my head? Are we being fooled about the value of cycle helmets, are they in fact all but useless?

He's not talking about whether, on an individual basis, it's better to be wearing a helmet when your head hits the ground or not. I don't think that's generally something that people dispute (as long as you're talking about an MTB-style crash, not being hit by a car).

He's talking about cycling safety in general, in the context of getting more people out on their bikes and normalising it, and IMO he's right to suggest that the focus needs to be on issues way upstream of the point at which an individual's head is a couple of inches away from hitting the ground.

These two things are not contradictory. And when evidence suggests that helmet compulsion does nothing to affect the rates of injury for cyclists at a population level, that's a completely different question from whether a helmet is a good thing or not once an individual incident is underway.

Avatar
Chuck [588 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes
mrmo wrote:

Any risk assessment tells you PPE is the last line of defence, as far as cycling is concerned in the UK it seems to be the first and only topic!

+1

Avatar
MartinH [19 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes
laterrehaute wrote:

What are the top ten things that are more important to cycle safety than a helmet?

Pretty much all the things that prevent an accident in the first place rather than just trying to limit the damage when it happens, so:

1. Driver attitude
2. Driver education
3. Driver awareness
4. Cyclist attitude
5. Cyclist education
6. Cyclist awareness
7. Roadworthiness of car
8. Roadworthiness of bike
9. Safe road design
10. Cyclist visibility

You could argue about the order of importance of those, but there's ten things I'd put above wearing a helmet right away.

Avatar
hairyairey [303 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes

Helmets grabbing the road? Wow never realised these things are alive  21

Avatar
hairyairey [303 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes

Oh - and it's not just helmets that lawyers defending motorists are interested in. Not wearing hi-vis clothing in a collision is used against cyclists too.

As for those who think that cycling isn't a dangerous occupation - kindly allow me to bash your head into a wall at 20mph and see if that changes your mind  4 (even the most ardent evolutionist would see that our built environment is more dangerous than ever)

Avatar
levermonkey [682 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes

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.  24

Avatar
BigBear63 [80 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes

Excellent to see Chris speaking sense as per usual.

I wear a helmet most days that I'm out training and never when I'm just pottering about to the shops. In fact, I only wear a helmet because it hedges my bets; if I have a spill and hit the road with my head I think I'd rather have my helmet take some of the edge off the impact.

How many times have I had a spill in the last 30 years? Once on wet road and though I went down quite hard I wasn't travelling anywhere near fast enough to hit my head.

I do think the inherent risks of any given activity determine the need to wear protection but as Chris rightly points out wearing protection is indeed the worst way of controlling a particular hazard or likelihood of an accident. Accident Prevention, and in particular, the reducing the severity of the outcome, are the key objectives. As Chris says segregation of cyclists from motor vehicles is the obvious solution.

I still believe that as cyclists are more like pedestrians than motor vehicles they ought to be sharing footpaths more than they do. Obviously you can't go racing around footpaths as pedestrians have to be duly considered but it is better to use a footpath than a busy road. The changes to local bye-laws and road/path designations is down to Local Authorities, as much as anyone, and until our local town councillors and police get on board with supporting rather than persecuting cyclists we won't get anywhere.

Keep it up Chris and when you get the chance brow beat Boris and as many Pro Cyclists as you can to sing the same song (Wiggo, Hoy, Trotty, Froomey & Cav, spring to mind).

Pages