Some people swear by them, others don’t bother. But how much safer are you with a helmet? And how dangerous is cycling? I’ve done the research and you might be surprised…
I was talking to a couple of friends (shout out to Laurie and Anna) outside a pub the other day, where they berated me for not wearing a helmet when I cycle. They couldn’t see the point in taking needless health risks just to look cool. They did this while both smoking cigarettes. Now, I’m not saying that smoking and cycling sans helmet are the same, but neither of them is necessary, both are a danger to you life, and both make you look damn cool. Kind of.
Dressing like a mess? Nah, that’s not me
As somebody that has rollerbladed (hey, everyone did it in the 90s), skated, BMXed or snowboarded through my adult existence without a helmet, taking needless health risks is my primary hobby. It’s good times. And it’s badass. Of course, cycling helmetless does not provide a similar level of enjoyment as extreme sports, and is arguably more dangerous, but still; being safe is pretty boring.
How Likely are you to Die from Cycling?
In 2014, 88 cyclists died in the UK. There are on average 8m cycle trips per fatality. In the same year, 4X time more pedestrians died. Nobody is recommending wearing helmets to walk around on the streets. Why not? Smoking on the other hand causes 100,00 deaths in year in the UK, yet people that “only smoke socially” aren’t generally worried about this. Maybe this is something we need to worry about more than cycle safety. Annoyingly, the most recent data I could find was from 2011, but it seems there are lots of other things you should be more worried about than cycling without a helmet. Like stairs:
- 814 deaths from narcotics
- 693 deaths from falling on stairs/steps
- 210 deaths from inhalation and ingestion of food
- 116 deaths from accidental hanging
Clearly, the likelihood of dying while cycling is incredibly low. If you’re not wearing body armour and a full face helmet while tackling such perilous places as stairs, or wearing a life jacket whenever you’re around water, you’re needlessly risking your life. More people accidentally hung themselves than died cycling; how is that even possible? Is everyone on some strangle wanking vibe?
How Much Safer is Wearing a Helmet?
You would assume that wearing helmets must be safer for cyclists. The data doesn’t exactly agree. This research by the Department of Transport suggests that helmets only prevent 10-16% of cycle deaths. This then reduces the risk of death (assuming all cycling deaths were from cyclists without helmets) from 1 in 8m to 1 in 9m. Not hugely exciting really. Both very, very unlikely (touch wood).
In this article in the Telegraph, a leading brain surgeon says that “In the countries where bike helmets are compulsory there has been no reduction in bike injuries whatsoever.” Also, numbers of people cycling was greatly reduced when obligatory helmet use was introduced, which actually makes cycling more dangerous for those that continue to cycle. So in Australia, cycling deaths fell, but so did the number of cyclists. Nice one. In fact, cycling has so many health benefits that Australia will actually see increased mortality rate of the population from boring things like heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
But, you say, a 16% reduction in cycling deaths is good, even if it just means a change from incredibly unlikely to die to slightly more unlikely to die. However, that’s only half the story. It turns out in a study by Bath University, drivers drive closer to cyclists that are wearing a helmet, leaving them less margin for error, so more likely to get hit.
On top of this, in a further psychological study from Bath University, they found that cyclists that wore a helmet cycle more recklessly. I’m not sure how this would apply if you already ignore red lights, hop kerbs and ride on the wrong side of the road, but it certainly sounds pretty interesting. Unless you die, I guess.
What’s the Conclusion?
There we have it, helmets do protect your head, and could reduce your chance of dying by up to 16%. On the other hand, they make cyclists ride more dangerously, and they make drivers more likely to knock them down by driving closer to them. I’m not sure which of these outweighs the other, so how about we just assume it’s about 16%, and call it evens.
Wear a helmet, or don’t bother. Safety wise it’s basically the same. I know a helmet wouldn’t have stopped me scraping my face down the road a few months ago, or stopped a friend of a friend losing their leg to an HGV. But more importantly, if you want to not die accidentally, stay away from those stairs. And open water. And food. And drugs. Especially the drugs. They are all more likely to kill you than cycling. Here’s the kid Abdominal from Toronto rapping about cycling without a helmet: