Spokes, Scotland’s leading cycle campaign group which covers Edinburgh and the wider Lothian area, has announced that it is to stop publicising events that require participants to wear a helmet in the face of what it describes as “the creeping growth of semi-compulsion.” The group’s stance regarding making helmets mandatory is in line with that of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RosPA), which says it is impractical to make use of helmets compulsory.
According to Spokes, the increasing requirement of organisers of events such as sportives and other rides for participants to wear a helmet – in some cases applicable to all riders, in others only to those below a certain age – fails to take into account arguments against helmet compulsion.
It also believes that the requirement to use a helmet reinforces the perception that cycling is an inherently dangerous activity, and is calling upon government-funded bodies such as Cycling Scotland and other organisations to cease using images in promotional material that only show cyclists wearing helmets.
Spokes maintains that in some types of crashes, wearing a helmet can actually lead to an increased risk of injuries, and also points out that research has established that drivers give less space to cyclists wearing helmets than those without – as established, most famously in a study carried out by Dr Ian Walker of the University of Bath.
Instead of forcing cyclists to wear helmets, Spokes insists that the best way to improve the safety of cyclists would be to encourage more people to get riding, something that it claims is being undermined by there being too much emphasis on using a helmet.
Spokes’ position was outlined in the latest edition of the bulletin sent to its members, in which it said: “We are concerned at the creeping growth of semi-compulsion, for example charity bike rides insisting on helmets for young adults and government-funded websites picturing all or nearly all cyclists helmeted, thus creating a climate in which total compulsion could eventually happen.
“Helmet advertisers, promoters and government agencies bombard us with the benefits but, disgracefully, we are never told of the risks – although there is evidence on both sides, and crashes and injuries occur as a result of the risks of helmets.
“Compulsion, or one-sided promotion, is very wrong – even more so as they put people off the healthy choice of getting about by bike. Therefore, Spokes will not, after this [bulletin] issue, publicise charity rides or other events involving helmet compulsion. We call on all other organisations concerned about public health to do the same.
“Helmet manufacturers and sales outlets, in the interest of public safety, should have to make clear on boxes and in sales literature a helmet’s impact design speed (usually around 12mph) and the potential risks as well as benefits.”
In news report on Spokes’ move, The Scotsman pointed out that road safety charity Brake supports helmets being made compulsory, quoting senior campaigns officer Ellen Booth as saying: “We encourage cyclists to do everything they can to reduce risks, including wearing a helmet and high-visibility gear, and choosing the safest routes possible.”
However, Michael Corley, campaigns manager at RoSPA, argued against compulsion, saying “We do not believe it is practical to make the use of cycle helmets mandatory.”
In the section of its website devoted to the issue of helmets and the arguments for and against compulsion, national cyclists’ organisation CTC – itself strongly opposed to any such measures – points out that “several recent reports (including four papers in peer-reviewed medical journals) have found no link between changes in helmet wearing rates and cyclists' safety - and there are even cases where safety seems to have worsened as helmet-wearing increased.”
Helmets are mandatory for under-18s on all sportives registered with British Cycling, with the governing body’s guidelines adding that “senior riders are encouraged to wear helmets” and that “the organiser is at liberty to make it a requirement of the event that all participants wear helmets.”
The terms and conditions of Cycling Scotland’s own Pedal for Scotland ride say that “cycle safety helmets are recommended but not compulsory.”
It should be noted that in many instances the issue of whether helmets should be compulsory or not for all riders is out of organisers’ hands, with the requirement for participants to wear a helmet imposed by insurers.
Use of a helmet is recommended in the Highway Code, which says: "You should wear a cycle helmet which conforms to current regulations, is the correct size and securely fastened."
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.