Improving road safety with cycle helmets

Ridwaan Omar
Ridwaan Omar

Published: October 10th, 2023

7 min read

The debate on introducing legislation for the mandatory use of cycle helmets continues.

According to the latest statistics from the DfT, there were 16,294 reported road traffic accidents involving pedal cyclists in 2020. Pedal cyclist casualties in 2020 stood at 12,472, with 141 fatalities, 4,215 serious injuries, and 11,938 slight injuries. These figures do not take into account under reporting of incidents to the police, especially for minor incidents.

It is believed that mandatory, quality, well-fitting cycle helmets may have reduced harm in many of these cases.

The Bill will be of great significance to Local Authority Road Safety teams who are tasked with ensuring their highway network is reasonably safe for all road users including cyclists and who provide road collision data to the Department of Transport.

What is the legal requirement for cycle helmet wearing?

Cyclists are expected to follow the Highway Code and other guidance on how to stay safe on the highway. The advice is to wear a correctly fitted cycle helmet that conforms to current standards.

In the UK wearing a cycle helmet is not required by law. In other countries, for example New Zealand and Australia, it is compulsory.

What is the view on mandatory cycle helmets?

The UK Government does not support the compulsory use of cycle helmets. Instead, it encourages voluntary use through education and awareness campaigns.

The Government contends that making helmets mandatory would have negative impacts on cycling levels, personal freedom and public health. They further refer to efforts to improve cycling safety by investing in infrastructure, enforcing traffic rules, and promoting cycling culture.

In January 2022 the DfT made changes to the Highway Code to improve road safety for cyclists based on a hierarchy for vulnerable road users. This position follows recommendations from the Transport Committee who conducted an inquiry into cycling safety in 2018 and concluded there was not enough evidence to justify a change in law on helmet wearing.

UK cycling special interest groups tend to support it as an option only, being a matter of choice and civil liberty. The argument is that forcing cyclists to wear helmets deters people from cycling, and the health benefits of getting people cycling outweigh those of wearing a helmet.

Some cycling groups question the effectiveness of cycle helmets. They contend helmets are designed to only withstand minor knocks and falls.

It is understood that Insurers would openly welcome the wearing of cycle safety helmets. Whilst the arguments would still go to a finding of contributory negligence as they do now, the mandatory requirement would provide a prima facie case of a contributory factor.

Employers that require their employees to use cycles as part of their work duties and following a risk assessment may well require the use of cycle helmets and many do in order to comply with the general duties they have under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

The Health and Safety Executive at present cannot provide guidance that employers should require their employees to wear cycle helmets. Cycle helmets are excluded as Personal Protective Equipment within the work regulations when a cycle is used on a public highway, where the Road Traffic Acts and the Highway Code applies.

What's the evidence on cycle helmet use?

A 2016 research review and analysis of previous research of cycle helmet effectiveness to mitigate head, serious head, face, neck and fatal head injury in a crash or fall found very large protective effects from helmets. There were 85% and 88% reductions in head and brain injury respectively, for helmeted cyclists relative to un-helmeted.

RoSPA, as part of its campaign to promote cycling safety, recommends cycle helmets, as wearing a cycle helmet can reduce the risk of head injury by 69% and the risk of fatal injury by 65%. RoSPA strongly advocates children wear cycle helmets.

The British Medical Association (BMA) position changed from opposing compulsory helmet laws to endorsing the policy in 2004, based on evidence from an Ontario study. This showed helmet laws reduced cycling fatalities and injuries without affecting cycling levels.

Medical research on whether to change the legislative status quo on cycle helmet usage is both mixed and controversial. A body of medical opinion contests the effectiveness in reducing head injuries. They also contend interference with citizen rights to decide on personal risk levels.

The Road Safety (Cycle Helmets) Bill 2022-23

Mark Pawsey MP introduced a private member's bill, The Road Safety (Cycle Helmets) Bill 2022-23 under the Ten Minute Rule on 7 June 2023. The second reading is scheduled for 24 November.

The MP was following up on a meeting with a 15-year-old constituent who hit his head on a kerb while cycling, suffering a serious brain injury. Hansard records the MP raised the argument that a treating medic had told the constituent that had he been wearing a helmet, he may have still suffered an injury, but it would have been far less severe.

As with previous attempts to legislate and introduce mandatory use of cycle helmets while cycling on the public highway, the Bill is unlikely to become law as it is not supported by government.

The debate and controversy will continue. Further research on the medical and health benefits are needed, in addition to cycling awareness campaigns, consultations and reviews on the issue.

For further information please contact Ridwaan Omar

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