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Sunday, 18 March 2012

To wear or not to wear... (a helmet)

I have been cycling to work this last week and on friday I wore a helmet part of the way back. It was a very, very different experience to cycling without one. To be honest, I prefer not wearing a helmet but I have one. A particularly gorgeous Sawako Furuno leopard print at that. I wear it if I'm on my bike at night or in the rain. My reasons for not wearing one are my own and I believe that as adults we have the right to weigh up all the information available and then make an informed decision. Personally, I felt that motorists treated me differently with one on, I also find them uncomfortable, alien and get very hot with them on thus affecting my concentration whilst riding. Am I a better cyclist without one?

After my experience and the rollicking I received from the boy when he found out I had taken it off mid journey, I thought I'd do a bit of on-line research which made me again question the attitudes of cyclists and drivers to helmets. Now, I'm not saying that I'm anti-helmet, just that whilst I'm aware that they can protect you, I found very little that changed my mind.

Here's what I found out...

Why you should wear a cycle helmet

1) They ought to prevent cuts, scrapes and bruises to the top part of your head, and mild concussion in the event of coming off your bike. One of the original purposes for helmets was apparently off-road cycling where hitting your head on low branches and stones next to the track then became a preventable danger.
2) If not wearing a helmet makes you feel sufficiently at risk to avoid cycling at all.
3) Some insurance companies sometimes claim a cyclist has contributed negligently to "accidents" they're involved in by not wearing a helmet, even when there has been no head injury. I know what you're thinking, shock, horror, insurance companies trying to get out of paying out! Not sure if this has been fully accepted by the courts as yet. Would be very surprised if it was.
4) It's a good place to put a rear light since it's the highest point available.
5) you can get a helmet-mounted mirrors.
6) Some organised events and venues, and countries, and partners, require them.
7) Thankfully, they are no longer as ugly as they used to be and there are a lot of great designs out there! Now you can match them to your outfit or bike.
8) They can keep your hair dry in the rain and some actually have a little visor to help keep the rain out of your eyes too. I don't like wearing hoods while cycling as it reduces my peripheral vision.

Why you shouldn't wear a cycle helmet

1) Cycle helmets are only designed to withstand impacts of 12 mph onto kerbs from waist height. If they were any more protective than this they would be too heavy to wear on a regular basis.
2) They were never intended for collisions with cars. Not sure very many people know this (particularly motorists). They're not a cycle-equivalent of motorbike crash helmets (and you can't wear one of those because your brain would boil). They're not safety gear in the sense of being designed to save your life. They work by the outer shell keeping the polystyrene in place whilst it absorbs the deceleration by being crushed. Counter-intuitively if the shell breaks in the initial contact the total energy absorbed is a lot less: a broken helmet is one that didn't work. This means above about 12.5mph the helmet has little effect; certainly it won't reduce a crash at, say, 30mph by an amount equivalent to crashing at 12.5mph.
3) Because they protect that which feels the most important and vulnerable they can lessen the perceived importance of proven safety devices e.g. brakes that work and lights with charged batteries, not to mention knowing what you're doing. It's disturbingly easy to mistake a reduction in fear for a reduction in actual risk.
4) According to Dr Mayer Hillman, Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Policy Studies Institute in London, who has undertaken the only major international research of the evidence on the use of helmets, you're better off not wearing a helmet. "By wearing helmets, cyclists are, at best, only marginally reducing their chances of being fatally or seriously injured in the rare incident of a collision with a motor vehicle." He believes protective devices encourage higher levels of risk taking. At this point I'm going into driver mode and recalling the number of super speed, think i'm invincible, helmet donning, Lycra wearing maniac cyclists I've had cut me up in my car (and on my bike) lean, bang on and practically crash into my car, swear and shout at me and other drivers... Dr. Hillman believes that in feeling vulnerable you will instinctively behave more cautiously. However studies show that when you don't wear a protective device you compensate for the risk you run. "You're much better off cycling with extra care than you are wearing a helmet and riding with an exaggerated sense of security," says Hillman.
5) They mess up your hair. They take up a fair bit of space when not being worn.
6) More seriously, despite all the vent holes they're very hot. Many people lose focus if they're too hot, even faint.
7) Motorists probably don't know how weak these helmets actually are. Research has shown drivers go closer to cyclists wearing helmets than those without, though it isn't known why. (Bath University research, not mine!)
8) Very worryingly, there is some concern that helmets, because they're wider than the head, make rotational brain injuries more likely.
9) If you are pro-choice the Department of Transport views a Mandatory Helmet Law as unfeasible partly because of the current low wearing rate.
Here are some numbers:
~ Many places have made helmets compulsory since the early 1990's. All found either no effect on deaths and serious injuries or that they got worse if you include that cycling tended to drop significantly. For example, Western Australia had a drop in cycling of 30% but a drop in head injuries of 11%-21%. No one knows seems to know why this should be the case.
~ A 1988 US study of 8 million cyclist crashes over 15 years showed a correlation between increased helmet wearing and increased risk of death. No one knows why.
~ UK child cyclist figures show twice as many girls as boys wearing cycle helmets but with the same head injury rate.

The problem is you can't show how many cyclists have avoided head injury by riding with more vigilance, using their lights, and brakes correctly, wear reflective clothing etc. (visit 's shop for some great & stylish reflectors) and most importantly, know what they are doing! Most boroughs in London offer free adult cycle training but have relatively small take up. Do you know what to do at the lights, when approaching a HGV etc?

Personally, as I say, most of the time, I don't wear one and it may sound silly but I feel safer knowing I'm perceived as more vulnerable by my main source of danger. I should also add that thankfully motorists are usually very nice to me. I've never been beeped, shouted at or anything else negative by a driver. A cyclist, yes, but never a driver. That being said, my bike is hot pink and I did read somewhere that drivers attitudes to female cyclists are very different to males cyclists. When I feel like I need one, I wear it. It all boils down to personal choice and knowledge, responsibility and awareness of all road users.


  1. Hi - I have been reading you're blog for a little while now, I love it! I found it when googling the Pashley Poppy and the baskets and panniers that would fit - I have a blue one on the way to replace my dutch style hybrid, I am so excited! Can I just say that this blog post has been so interesting, I don't wear a helmet for many of the reasons you cite, but I do get a bit of stick for it. I too find that I ride way more carefully without one, and I also have found drivers very polite and careful on the whole. I commute to work (about 8 miles round) and always wear normal clothes, usually dresses etc as that's my normal style - maybe that helps? Anyway just wanted to comment and say thanks, I love your blog!

  2. Erm I really should read through before publishing, how many times do I want to tell you that I love your blog ;P

    1. Thank you so much! I live in dresses too, maybe that's the key... I'm cycling to work at the moment, 12 miles round trip and I have to say I'm really enjoying it.

      I'm so, so glad you like my blog. Thank you, you're very kind. Stay in touch. X

  3. No problems, I notice on the picture of your poppy that you seem to have a large pashley basket on it, is this right? I asked Pashley whether this could be fitted rather than the small one, but they said that it wasn't possible due to the different handlebars and the brake levels, did you have any problems fitting it? I have a small one on, but got a big one on ebay so was considering swapping them over.

    1. I know, they told me that to but I am using the large one, the one that comes as standard with the Princess Sovereign (my other bike...) I just attached it using the leather straps and it fits fine! I thing they say that it doesn't because with the sovereign it comes with a small support bar to keep it from bouncing around but I never overfill it anyway and to date I've had no problems. I say go for it, I love the look of the bigger basket. Let me know how it goes. X

  4. Thanks for the information, I'm really in a 'to wear or not to wear' quandary! I always wear a helmet on my road bike, but on my Pashley it just doesn't feel right! Thanks again, great blog.