Cycle helmets, are they important?

The issue of cycling helmets - whether to wear on or not - is always a hot topic.

Reasons for:

  • They protect your head!

Reasons against:

  • They won't help in a serious crash, or stop you breaking your neck, they are just not strong enough
  • In the heat, there is a risk that they cause heat exhaustion
  • Pedestrians and car passengers are as likely to suffer head injuries and no one suggests they should all wear helmets
  • They look daft and cost money

People tend to fall into one of three camps:

1. No one is going to tell me what to do so I am not going to wear a helmet

2. I wouldn't leave home without it - any help with safety is important and worthwhile

3. I wear a helmet on busy roads or on group rides where it is obligatory, but not otherwise.

Now I am going to take the side of the helmet wearers here, although I understand the objections. I suspect that for some people the objection is that they don't want to look silly. If none of your friends cycle, or wear helmets when they do, you feel a bit of a prat. Same as wearing cycling shorts the first time. Another objection is that personal skill and ability will prevent an accident occurring.

Yet another objection is that a helmet will often not help at all, which is true. There are many situations where wearing a helmet won't even protect your head sufficiently - but the point is, there are also circumstances where it will help. And very few real downsides to wearing a cycle helmet.

In fact there is a third, more serious objection. Studies showed that motorists were much less cautious when overtaking cyclists who wore helmets, and left much less space between their car any your bike. Similarly, there is a possibility that wearing a helmet makes a cyclist more confident when cycling, and more likely to take risks.

However skilled you are, you can fall off. Near where I live recently a lorry had spilled some fine gravel on the road. Same colour as the road, on a long, slightly downhill stretch where I am usually doing 35-40 kmh. Someone had swept most up, leaving a strip two centimetres deep and two metres wide. When I hit it I didn't fall off, just skidded spectacularly, but I could easily have fallen. So could you, it was completely invisible until I was on it.

If there is a 10% chance or even a 0.1% chance that in a cycle accident you avoid death or serious injury, that sounds good enough reason to me.

I do have a lot of sympathy with the desire to remove your helmet when you are cycling up hill on a hot day. But I cycle mostly in southern France, and it can get pretty hot, and I have never felt that the helmet is adding to my over-heating. I think avoiding having the sun beating on your bare head outweighs the disadvantages.

I don't much care if anyone else wears a helmet or not, and would not suggest to someone else that they should. But a little anecdote. For a while I rode every week with a group of four or five cyclists. When I first joined them, none wore a helmet on 'casual' rides, except me. Then after a week or two, one of the others started, and within six weeks everyone was wearing a cycling helmet. I think a lot of people would like to wear a helmet but don't want to be the first in the group to start, in case it doesn't look cool.

Have you ever had a car come unexpectedly out of a side road right in front of you, or slipped on some gravel, or had a squirrel hop under your wheels? Or had the bike in front of you in a team event suddenly brake unexpectedly? If not yet, you will one day.

So overall, I suggest you should wear a cycle helmet - they are light and airy nowadays anyway if you haven't tried one on recently. Ignore what anyone else might say, but don't preach to others about the importance of cycling helmets if they haven't made the decision themselves - a lot of people cycle for the 'free and easy' feeling it gives them and really do object to restricting that with a helmet. Their choice.