A report by the Transport Research Laboratory that concludes that between 10% and 16% of the cyclists killed on Britain’s roads in 2008 could have been avoided had the victims been wearing a helmet has been slammed by cyclists’ organisation CTC, which has accused the report’s authors of “double standards.”
CTC claims that the authors of the report, commissioned by the Department for Transport, “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.”
According to CTC, those failings include ignoring arguments against telling people to wear helmets, such as putting them off cycling in the first place, plus the fact that wearing helmets can sometimes increase the chance of a cyclist being involved in an accident.
On that latter point, however, the report’s authors do make clear that their work “focuses on understanding whether cycle helmets reduce the frequency and severity of injury in the event of a collision. It does not include detailed consideration of whether wearing (or not wearing) a helmet influences the likelihood of being involved in an accident, either through behaviour in the rider or in other road users.”
The TRL research was based on analysis of 2008 data from the DfT which showed that 115 cyclists were killed and 2,450 seriously injured on Britain’s roads in that year, and that 40% of cyclists admitted to hospital had suffered head injuries. The study also found that levels of helmet-wearing had increased since 1994 “for most cyclist groups” and in 2008 stood at 34% on major roads and 17% on minor roads.
The researchers said in the report that it is “impossible to definitively quantify the effectiveness or otherwise of cycle helmets based on the literature reviewed,” but conclude that bike helmets “should be effective at reducing the risk of head injury,” estimating between 10-16% of the 113 fatalities studied in depth using resources such as police accident reports could have been prevented had the victim been wearing a helmet.
Their conclusions stopped short of recommending that helmet-wearing be made compulsory for cyclists, although that is of course something that the DfT might consider in light of the report’s findings.
However, the report did say that helmets would be effective in reducing the risk of head injury, especially in accidents not involving another vehicle, such as falls or going over the handlebars, and where cyclists suffer a glancing blow from a vehicle or are tipped over, leading to their head striking the ground. It added that helmet-wearing would be particularly effective in reducing the risk of death or serious injury to children.
But 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 cyclists’ organisation’s own view is that it should be left to individual “to make an informed choice about whether or not to wear a helmet,” and it opposes legislation seeking to make wearing a helmet compulsory, saying that in other countries where such laws have been introduced, the effect has been to cause a reduction in the number of people cycling.
Instead, CTC says, more people should be encouraged to cycle, thereby creating the effect of ‘Safety in Numbers’- the name of one of its campaigns. CTC claims that the report’s authors have also failed to address this point, and said that it had used the World Health Organisation’s Health Economic Assessment Tool to quantify the impact of helmet-wearing being made compulsory.
It claims that this found that forcing cyclists to wear helmets could lead to a net increase of 253 premature deaths each year, with 265 extra deaths resulting from lost health benefits because of people not cycling versus 12 lives saved among those who did cycle. It also estimates that the cost of a compulsory helmet law would be between £305 million and £415 million.
CTC is instead urging the government to put money into cycling training, initiatives to make road and traffic conditions safer, and reducing speed limits to 20mph.
The TRL report can be downloaded here, although registration is required.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.