Should You Wear Bike Helmets In France and Italy?

Last year on one of our Burgundy trips there was a heated debate around the dinner table in Châteauneuf on the subject of bike helmets. Châteauneuf, by the way, is amazing. Davide, an Israeli cyclist, said ‘It’s amazing, just amazing. I thought Loubressac was the most beautiful village I had ever seen, but it is Châteauneuf.’ But anyway, helmets.

By coincidence, shortly after I got back to the UK there was an extended article in the Guardian newspaper about bike helmets – should they be compulsory? Why do Parisians not wear them as much as Londoners? Are they effective? It reminded me of our ‘debate’ in Burgundy (Debate means argument).

Looking over the Dordogne on the way to Gluges

Here’s the Devil’s advocate bit. The bit where I just say what I think without the need to back it up. I and all Chain Gang guides are guys in our 30s and 40s, sensible people, some with families, all intelligent. Until 5 years ago a minority of Chain Gang cyclists chose to wear helmets. Now it’s almost every single customer – really, almost every single one. And occasionally somebody comments that I’m not wearing a helmet. And in fact, neither does Ben, nor Toby, Mike, Pete, or Guido come to that. And over the last 12 years we’ve had to take a number of people to hospital following a crash, mercifully mostly for checks, but very occasionally with broken collar bones and other traditional cycling injuries.

One on, one off. Mike and Lynette in Burgundy

Without exception those wearing a helmet, and the rest of the people in the group, exclaim how fortunate, how wise, that the person was wearing a helmet. But the person being examined is never me, and never Toby, Pete, etc. We cycle every week, without a helmet, and we don’t have accidents. We’re not immune of course, and the day will inevitably come, but I think people should spend more time not having accidents and less time worrying about what might happen when you do.

Basil has forgotten more about cycling than I will ever know, and he wears a helmet.

So that’s the knee-jerk view.

But the Guardian article got me thinking, and also reminded of an article I read in a cycling magazine written by Olympic Champion Chris Boardman, written in response to a letter from a critical reader who had seen photos of Chris sans helmet in a bike review article. So it prompted me to look into the issue. I haven’t spent months on it, but here’s what a few hours digging found me.

What did I find?

The main website promoting helmet use, and advocating compulsory helmet use is the grandly named Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute [see 1. below]. Their website reads like the websites of those creepy creationist evangelists, and reading their website alongside the myriad rebuttals I was tempted to write-off the whole ‘pro-helmet lobby’ as a bunch of evangelical cranks. They don’t do themselves any favours with their sloppy use of statistics, including a few lies and some obvious inconsistencies, and they demonstrate no understanding at all of causality.

You have to dig a bit deeper for well-reasoned support of helmets. Australia is one of the few countries where helmet-wearing is compulsory. That this compulsion has led to a marked decrease in cycling seems to be accepted by everybody. But some people have also reported a proportionate increase in the incidence of head injury. Where does the truth lie? Well, there is a study from the Health Department of Western Australia which comes down on the side of helmets reducing the chance of head injury [see 8. Below]. So too does a report from the UK Department for Transport [see 11. Below].

I’ve listed a whole load of different sources below for anyone who wants to explore further. The more serious reports say that there simply isn’t the weight and rigour of research yet. There will be, but in the meantime if you want serious commentary you have to work at it. This isn’t meant to be an essay, just my view having worked at it a little bit. So here’s what I reckon.

i. Helmets probably do help to reduce the incidence of head injury.

ii. Helmets are absolutely useless in the event of the type of accident that most people wear them for. Any collision with a car, for example, or falling from your bike at speed, takes you way, way beyond anything a bike helmet was designed for. If you were going to bruise or scrape your head, a helmet will help – in extreme cases it may even help minimise concussion.

These objectives are worthwhile. But if the incident was ever likely to be fatal, then the chances are overwhelming that it will be fatal. They prevent some injuries, but it seems to me they do nothing at all, literally nothing, in the event of a potentially fatal head injury.

If you don’t believe that, read the documentation that came with your helmet . It’ll sober you up pretty fast.

iii. Compulsory wearing of helmets reduces cycling. In fact it reduces it so much that the health effects of wearing a helmet are undone by the adverse health effects of not cycling.

iv. The incidence of head injury caused by cycling is incredibly rare, far rarer than most people realise – with the exception of the “Well, my sister fell off her bike and she hurt her head…” brigade. Basically if you want to suffer a serious head injury caused by cycling, statistically you’ll have to devote a lot of time to cycling. Several lifetimes, in fact.

v. Every website I could find promoting the use of helmets seems to have come from the “numbers mean absolutely nothing to me” school of statistics. This doesn’t mean there aren’t useful statistics in support of their case, or that causality doesn’t exist, but all the helmet-advocacy sites that I could find have convincing prose and crap statistics.

Good stats do exist, and can be found in various Government-sponsored reports, but they’re heavyweight (I’ve included some examples below). The lightweight, frothy stats put forward by the advocacy groups just insult everybody.

vi. There may be people who wear helmets to prevent minor head injury and to minimise symptoms from more serious injuries. The chances of sustaining such injuries are tiny, but if you understand that, and want to minimise the effect of a minor injury, then those are powerful reasons for wearing a helmet.

But a bike helmet won’t save your life – it was never meant to, and isn’t designed for that job. Such helmets do exist, of course – motor cyclists wear them. They save lives. Bike helmets minimise injury.

That’s a worthwhile objective, I just wonder if helmet wearers understand the limited objectives a bike helmet?

Helmets should be compulsory:

1. The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute (BHSI), and their stats.

2. Conclusions from the Health Department of Western Australia

3. Brake, UK National road safety charity

“No” to compulsory wearing of helmets:

4. “Overall, cycling is beneficial to health – the benefits outweigh the risks by up to 20:1.” Hillman M., 1994, Cycling: Towards health and safety. British Medical Association, London

5. “The proportion of cyclist injuries which are head injuries is essentially the same as the proportion for pedestrians at 30.0 % vs. 30.1 %.” Department of Health

6. “The evidence currently available is complex and full of contradictions, providing at least as much support for those who are sceptical as for those who swear by them.” Cycle Touring Club, UK.

7. “Enforced helmet laws discourage cycling but produce no obvious response in percentage of head injuries”. DL Robertson, British Medical Journal

8. Rebuttal of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute arguments

9. Article from Bluedome, a website for Outdoor professionals:Cycling Helmets: should you wear one?

“We think you should learn more about it if you want to express a view”:

10. Wikipedia:‘The Helmet Debate’.

11. Brilliant summary from Department for Transport. And the detailed part of the same report.

12. The Guardian piece that first got me thinking.

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