'Flimsy little helmets' completely pointless, says leading brain surgeon

Neurosurgeon also admits to regularly jumping red lights

Cyclists who wear ‘flimsy little helmets’ are wasting their time, a leading neurosurgeon who never wears one has said.

Henry Marsh, who works at St George’s Hospital in Tooting, London, said his patients who have been in bike crashes have not seen any benefit from their helmets.

He told the Hay Festival, where he was in discussion with Ian McEwan about his new novel featuring a brain surgeon: “I ride a bike and I never wear a helmet. In the countries where bike helmets are compulsory there has been no reduction in bike injuries whatsoever.

“I see lots of people in bike accidents and these flimsy little helmets don’t help.”

Instead, he said, he wore a cowboy hat on his bike, which he had been riding for 40 years.

According to the Telegraph, he also cited evidence from the University of Bath that suggests that wearing a helmet may even put cyclists at greater risk.

The research suggests drivers think riders in helmets are more experienced and predicatable and can be passed up to three inches more closely.

Women and the non-helmeted tend to be passed more slowly and widely.

A Department of Transport study has shown that helmets could prevent 10-16 per cent of cyclist fatalities, although this was also an estimate based on a small study.

Angie Lee, Chief Executive of the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust said: “I hope he is going to take responsibility for the cyclist who gets injured because they take their helmet off following his comments.

“This may be his opinion but there are a lot more neurosurgeons and surgeons who would counter that argument.

“My advice would be the same as the Department of Transport’s which is that helmets have a place in protecting the head.”

Marsh, who retires in March, also said he jumps red lights to get ahead of the traffic.

“It’s my life at risk,” he said, ‘So I regularly cross over red lights.”

Recently we reported how three of London’s air ambulance doctors called for an overhaul of the capital’s cycle safety measures after three cyclists were killed in three weeks.

In an article for the Evening Standard, entitled How To Ride Safely, by Cyclist Doctors Who Save Lives, Mr Tom Konig, a trauma surgeon, Ali Sanders, an emergency medicine consultant and Mark Wilson, a Neurosurgeon, all defended cycling in London, saying: “Cycling remains a wonderful way to commute and travel cheaply and remain fit and healthy in the process and so should continue to be encouraged.”

But they added that it remained risky, and outlined a number of safety measures, including:

  • Avoid sharing roads with buses and HGV’s
  • Remember large vehicles are bigger than you and you will definitely come off worse - so give them a wide berth
  • Defensive riding
  • Wear a helmet
  • Use all your senses (don’t wear headphones)
  • Make your own decision about how ‘safe’ a cycle route is

And in 2013 we reported the comments of Lynn Myles, a consultant neurosurgeon at the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh.

Ms Myles acknowledged that she is “under no illusion that it [a helmet] will save me in the event of a high speed collision with a car or lorry (nothing will)” – a common criticism aimed at those who insist all cyclists should wear one – but adds that “most cycling accidents aren’t of the high-speed variety.”

Instead, after outlining other things that can be done to improve cycle safety such as addressing traffic speed and improving road layout, she says: “Most of the head injuries I have seen in cyclists are the result of low velocity crashes or simple falls due to ice or wet roads.

“There is no doubt in my mind that a well-fitting cycle helmet will reduce the incidence of scalp laceration and open fracture and will help to reduce the energy transfer to the brain.”

After an unpromising start, having to be bribed by her parents to learn to ride without stabilisers, Sarah became rather keener on cycling in her university years, and was eventually persuaded to upgrade to proper road cycling by the prospect of a shiny red Italian bike, which she promptly destroyed by trapping a pair of knickers in the rear derailleur. Sarah writes about about cycling every weekend on road.cc.

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