Some of Co Mayo’s bicycle shop owners have lobbied a local TD to call for making bicycle helmets mandatory — an idea which is highly controversial and opposed by Irish and European cycling campaign groups.
The suggestion originating from even a handful of bicycle shop is unlikely to be well-received by campaigners given that bicycle shops are understood to make high profit margins from helmets and often seen as overly focused on sporting cycling.
A European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF) factsheet on helmets states: “We think that wearing a helmet should not be mandatory and imposed by public authorities. Cyclists typically live longer and healthier lives; serious head injuries are rare and the evidence in favour of helmet wearing and helmet laws is weak. The main effect of helmet laws has not been to improve cyclists’ safety but to discourage cycling, undermining its health and other benefits.”
The ECF said that authorities should instead: “Focus on well-established measures to promote cycling and cyclists’ well-being; recognise that the benefits of cycling far outweigh the risks; and refrain from promoting or enforcing helmet wearing without sound evidence that this
would be beneficial and cost-effective compared to other safety initiatives.”
In a Dáil debate on Thursday, Deputy Alan Dillon (Fine Gael) said: “Last week, I raised with the Minister for Health the importance of flattening the mental health curve as the next Covid-19 challenge, and sport has a critical role to play. Many people have taken up individual physical activity and we have witnessed a dramatic increase in cycling over the past three months.”
He continued: Any legislation will be a matter for the next Government but I wish to raise the need to make the use of cycle helmets mandatory in Ireland. Only a handful of countries around the world have enacted legislation making cycle helmets mandatory. Australia was the first country to introduce legislation, followed by New Zealand and Argentina. I want to add Ireland to this list.”
The ECF claims that that the only firm result of helmet laws have been a decrease in cycling, with a decrease of 55% recorded in New Zealand and 37.5% in Australia.
Deputy Dillon said: “We have excellent off-road cycling facilities in Mayo such as the Great Western Greenway connecting Westport, Newport, Mulranny and Achill, as well as the Monasteries of the Moy Greenway linking Ballina and Killala, and the Castlebar Greenway linking Raheens Woods trail and the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life in Turlough. However, not every county has the benefit of off-road cycle paths.”
“Due to the recent Covid restrictions, more people have taken to cycling. I have been contacted by local bicycle shop owners highlighting the need to promote the wearing of cycle helmets and making it a mandatory legal requirement to do so. We have spoken much in recent months of effective public health policy. We also need to expand the conversation to include cycle helmets to reduce acquired head injuries,” he said.
Writing in the British Medical Journal in 2013, epidemiologist Ben Goldacre, and, professor for the public understanding of risk and one of the UK’s leading statisticians, David Spiegelhalter, said that studies which conclude a benefit to helmet wearing “are vulnerable to many methodological shortcomings”.
The two wrote that: “In many countries, such as Denmark and the Netherlands, cyclists have low injury rates, even though rates of cycling are high and almost no cyclists wear helmets. This seems to be achieved through interventions such as good infrastructure; stronger legislation to protect cyclists; and a culture of cycling as a popular, routine, non-sporty, non-risky behaviour.”
The Mayo TD added: “While not for discussion today, a similar argument can be made for introducing a mandatory need for helmets when using electric scooters. Will the Minister give serious consideration to this topic and raise it with his Department, as I will be raising this important topic again as soon as the new Government is formed?”
Responding on behalf of the Government, Minister of State for Tourism and Sport Brendan Griffin (Fine Gael) said: “With regard to the compulsory wearing of helmets, any such decision would have to include widespread consultation with cycling clubs and people who regularly cycle throughout the country. That conversation would need to include the views of cyclists.”
Shane Foran, a former chairperson of the Galway Cycling Campaign and member of the European Cycling Federation (ECF) bicycle helmet sub-committee, said that most cycling campaign groups are “totally opposed to bicycle helmet laws”.
Foran said: “I welcome the response of Minister Griffin which was that the cycling organisations and other stakeholders would need to be consulted before considering such measures. The European Cyclists Federation has over 50 member groups in 30 countries including Ireland. The ECF is totally opposed to bicycle helmet laws due to the established negative effects on cycling participation and safety.”