CTC slams Transport Research Laboratory cycle helmet report

Researchers say helmets save lives, but CTC claims they ignore health impact on those deterred from cycling if helmet use made compulsory

by Simon_MacMichael   December 16, 2009  

White cycle helmet

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.

13 user comments

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I'm all for personal choice in headwear when it comes to riding on the road, but from past experience of the helmet debate I think wearing the necessary safety equipment should be compulsory when it comes to commenting on these reports.

I've got mine on now B)

Spinning on a wheel

Hammy's picture

posted by Hammy [97 posts]
16th December 2009 - 12:07

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"slammed"?

do we have a tabloid journo moonlighting here?

jezzzer's picture

posted by jezzzer [339 posts]
16th December 2009 - 13:56

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jezzzer wrote:
"slammed"?

do we have a tabloid journo moonlighting here?

Heh! Closest I got to the Street of Shame was being interviewed a few years back while enjoying a quiet pint in a Covent Garden pub as I was getting to grips with a crossword Nerd

Centre spread article the following day about "A Day In the Life of a Barstool" with a picture of me (among other people who sat there during the day, including some rather scantily-clad girls from Stringfellows - although my picture was given top billing, which I've never quite understood) and the memorable line, "Sadly he wasn't reading your favourite Daily Star, but some downmarket rag called The Times." Big Grin

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posted by Simon_MacMichael [7473 posts]
16th December 2009 - 14:15

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CTC is right on this issue; helmet wearing must be a personal choice.

posted by nickharvey [5 posts]
16th December 2009 - 14:21

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it's been said before but worth saying again: the best cycling safety device would be a metal spike protruding from the middle of the steering wheel of every car. *then* we'd all pay attention, wouldn't we? Big Grin Big Grin

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posted by cactuscat [299 posts]
16th December 2009 - 14:26

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nickharvey wrote:
CTC is right on this issue; helmet wearing must be a personal choice.

sod personal choice. i say: make some clever people with no axe to grind sit down and review all the evidence in a rational and grown-up manner. if helmets do more good than harm overall, make them compulsory. if not, ban them outright. then we can all stop going over this EVERY WEEK Big Grin Big Grin Big Grin

Barry Fry-up's picture

posted by Barry Fry-up [186 posts]
16th December 2009 - 14:31

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Jezzer, I'll admit it, I love a bit of tabloid headline action. The good thing about tabloids is that the headlines get to the point and grab your attention, if you want as many people as possible to read the story you've written an attention grabbing headline is a real plus. Wink

Of course you've got to back it up with decent story too.

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posted by Tony Farrelly [4111 posts]
16th December 2009 - 14:44

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Crying Crying Crying

I wear t'helmet through choice and its saved a nasty dint in my head twice (have crack on side of helmet when I slipped on a grid in the rain and my head hit the road!).

Obviously it would do me no good if my head was in the way of an oncoming car wheel - but for your average every day "going into the hills when its really windy - so bad infact that it blows you sideways off your bike into a wall" type of ride then they work perfectly!

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posted by jobysp [145 posts]
16th December 2009 - 14:54

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or indeed the so windy you ride along leaning in to it so that it doesn't blow you over… and then it momentarily stops kind of a ride.

Tony Farrelly's picture

posted by Tony Farrelly [4111 posts]
16th December 2009 - 15:13

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I wear a helmet when tearing round a track on my BMX or when jumping off ramps on it at the skatepark. Landing face first on a BMX track without a lid, is an experience I can do without. I've seen a few who have found out that lesson the hard way. When I cycled a proper distance to work, I usually wore a helmet. These days my commute is short and I don't bother.

OldRidgeback

posted by OldRidgeback [1941 posts]
16th December 2009 - 15:39

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That is the exact ride that I was talking about and indeed was the second time I was glad I was wearing a helmet! B)

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posted by jobysp [145 posts]
16th December 2009 - 15:43

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I commute every day and find one of the biggest hazards is brain-dead pedestrians who step off kerbs without checking, presumably thinking that if they can't hear a car engine there is nothing coming up behind them. For that reason I generally cycle well out from the kerb if possible and am poised to shout a warning if my survival instinct tells me such a manoeuvre is likely.
That said, I got decked by a ped. last week, who couldn't be bothered either to wait for the lights to change or to look left before he stepped into the road less than one metre in front of me. I had nowhere to go and no time to stop. I have no clear recall of the few seconds before I hit the deck, but I must have tried to turn my bars as I ended up on the road whilst the cause of my downfall didn't. Instead he stepped over me and carried on walking across the road. When I shouted something at him, he turned and looked at me with complete disinterest, as though the fact I was tangled up with my bike on the ground had nothing to do with him. He then swore viciously at me and walked off, leaving myself and two witnesses gobsmacked at his attitude. With hindsight I wish I hadn't instinctively tried to avoid him, then he might also have experienced some of the pain.

The witnesses picked me and my bike up and asked if I was OK. Fortunately the bike was a sturdy steel-framed tourer and was undamaged. I had severe bruising of my left leg where it impacted the frame and a very sore palm and right arm, which I had used t stop my fall.
My main point for this thread is that my head never came anywhere near the ground and the fact that I don't wear a helmet made no difference to the outcome - despite this being exactly the type of fall for which they are supposed to be effective.
My decision not to wear a helmet is based on an informed choice, having weighed up the pros and cons and the fact that none are designed (or claim) to be effective in any other sort of a collision, particularly the sort that sees you flung over a car at any sort of speed.

Freya

posted by freya [4 posts]
10th February 2010 - 11:50

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interesting story freya, glad you're (mostly) okay.

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posted by cactuscat [299 posts]
10th February 2010 - 12:57

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