7 reasons mandatory helmets are not a good idea for Mayo greenways

IMAGE: The success of the Great Western Greenway in Co Mayo kick-started wide-spread interest in greenways in Ireland.

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: After Co Mayo TD Alan Dillon’s attempt at mandatory bicycle helmets was firmly rejected at a national level, his Fine Gael colleague at local level is now trying to make helmets mandatory on greenways.

Castlebar-based Cllr Ger Deere has a motion down for the next meeting of Mayo County Council this coming Monday which calls for “that it be made mandatory for all cyclists using the greenway network under the control of Mayo County Council to wear helmets”.

If you disagree with helmets being mandatory on greenways, please contact Co Mayo councillors before Monday.

I spoke to Cllr Deere about his proposal and he told me he wants to see both children and adults who aren’t wearing helmets on greenways fined, although he wouldn’t say how much he’d like the fine set at and couldn’t explain  how council staff would go about fining people.

He told me he’s involved with road cycling and has seen friends injured. When I was asking him if he’s really comparing road where people travel at high speed to families  cycling on greenway, he quickly claimed he was also motivated by a child who fell off their bicycle and needed stitches.

He also admitted that he was choosing greenways because it’s an area the council controls compared to streets and roads which are covered by national level laws (although this isn’t strictly true, some section of greenways in Mayo are on public roads and land owned by other State bodies).

Bicycle helmets are one of the most debated elements of cycling safety, but here’s 7 reasons bicycle helmets shouldn’t be any government’s policy and aren’t a good idea for Mayo’s greenways:

This article is not about personal use of helmets, it’s about public policy and what governments and other state bodies focus on and spend money on. If you want to wear a helmet or get your child to wear one, please do so. Public policy, however, should be based on facts.

1. Countries with lower helmet wearing rates have fewer cycling-related deaths

1079_3-1

As the above graph from cyclehelmets.org shows, if we’re really worryed about decreasing the amount of cycling-related deaths, helmets arent a good place to look.

The Netherlands have the lowest level of helmet wearing and a very high level of cycling, but a low level of deaths per km traveled by bicycle. The response to this is usually something along the lines of “but we don’t have their segregated cycle paths”…  sure, but helmet policies have not been successful so-far, so maybe it’s time to start to copy the Netherlands and build more segregated cycle routes of their standards?

I put this to Cllr Deere and he said he was involved with putting in cycle routes in Castlebar — the unfortunate truth is most cycle lanes in Castlebar aren’t safely segregated and aren’t connected.

As outlined in this tweet below, it’s not clear how the motivation of people who boast about cycling 90-100km (they should go for the Tour de France next year) on the roads of Mayo are truly concerned about road safety:

Public policy should take emotions into account, but, at the end of the day, it needs to follow what’s proven to be effective — the research behind helmets is often problematic and sometimes contradictory, while effectiveness of Dutch-like street and road design is proven at a population-level. politicians interested in cycling safety would focus on this and not helmets.

2. Helmets don’t prevent concussion

From articles to comment sections to Facebook, you’ll find loads of stories that “a helmet saved my life“, but maybe more worrying are the claims that the helmet was so good it stopped all injury. The problem is that we have come across more than a few examples of where people were challenged in close-knit communities, where their peers advised them to seek medical attention, and where they reported back that they had a concussion without knowing it.

As outlined in this recent Ted Talk video, helmets don’t prevent concussions. But the fact helmets cannot prevent concussions is not new — for example, have a look at this 2012 Scientific American article: “Why Don’t Helmets Prevent Concussions?”

At a very basic level: The outside shell of a helmet can’t stop the brain bouncing or stretching around inside a person’s skull after an impact.

3. Helmet promotion can mean less cycling

I put this to Cllr Deere and he rejected it, but the evidence says otherwise.

Mandatory helmets law in Australia are linked with a fall in the numbers of people cycling and this effect is proven because it happened first in Australian states which first introduce local helmet laws and followed country-wide when the law was expanded.

As the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation states: “The average for all states with enforced laws at the time of the 1991 census was a reversal of the trend of increasing percentages of people cycling to work. In contrast, the percentage cycling to work in states with no enforced helmet laws continued to increase, the sharp decline occurring only in the 1996 census, when helmet laws were enforced throughout Australia.”

But beyond mandtory laws, there’s also some signs — even if only tentative — that promotion without a law can slow or even decrease the numbers of people cycling. Strong helmet promotion by Denmark authorities was claimed to be the reason why the percentage of Copenhagen residents who cycle fell from 37% to 35% between 2008 and 2010.

While it is tentative in one respect,  it is well known that that many teenagers, particularly teenage girls, have issues with wearing helmets. This is shown across countries and forms part of official feedback to the Smarter Travel programme (including in Westport) which look at getting more people walking and cycling.

It is not unreasonable to believe this effect goes beyond teenagers (for example, there’s many stories online of non-cycling partners getting their partners to wear helmets). But is it all fashion and convenience above safety? Not when the effectiveness of helmets is so questionable.

4. Extra injuries can be caused by helmets

Speaking about research funded by the Irish Road Safety Authority, the head of the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at UCD, Professor Michael Gilchrist, said that “in some cases you can get increased angular accelerations wearing a helmet”. In a paper Gilchrist wrote: “There are many studies linking head angular acceleration with brain injuries, especially diffuse axonal injury, as this is caused primarily by head angular acceleration”

There’s also UK research showing drivers passing cyclists do so closer when the cyclist is wearing a helmet, although this is disputed by pro-helmet researchers.

And there’s what’s called “risk compensation”, or as one study put it: “increased cycling speed and decreased risk perception in a helmet-on compared to a helmet-off condition among cyclists used to wearing helmets.” This, like much of helmet research on both sides, is also disputed.

5. Too many issues with pro-helmet research

The problems with pro-helmet research are numerous — including low sample sizes, not taking population growth into account, and publication bias and time-trend bias — but possibly the largest problem with the research is bunching all sorts cycling and conditions together.

Cycling in fast traffic isn’t the same as cycling with limited or no traffic and downhill mountain biking isn’t the same as cycling to the shop… so how these be comparable at all? That’s not something a larger percentage of pro-cycling research can overcome.

6. Helmets are a distraction from a real debate on safe cycling

cycling-ams

IMAGE: Cycling in Amsterdam is an “everyday thing that people can do in everyday clothes whether you are eight or 80 years old”

This is best left to Chris Boardman to explain. Boardman had to defend himself after appearing on BBC, he wrote: “the reaction to my riding a bicycle in normal clothing, looking like a normal person was greeted by some with cries of horror” and said this was “understandable and unfortunate because it obscures what I believe are the real issues.”

“I understand why people wish to use them. But these actions seek to deal with an effect. I want to focus the debate on the cause and campaign for things that will really make cycling safe. That is why I won’t promote high vis and helmets; I won’t let the debate be drawn onto a topic that isn’t even in the top 10 things that will really keep people who want to cycle safe,” said Boardman.

He added: “I want cycling in the UK to be like it is in Utrecht or Copenhagen and more recently New York City – an everyday thing that people can do in everyday clothes whether you are eight or 80 years old. I want cycling to be a normal thing that normal people do in normal clothes. Is that wrong?”

7. Suggestions like this are bad for Mayo

The idea of making helmets mandatory is disliked even by many people who wear helmets. Mayo should be forward-thinking rather than than looking to tell residents and visitors what to put on their heads.

This suggestion will go down poorly with many people around Ireland and — after the pandemic — it won’t be attractive to tourists from places like the Netherlands which has a helmet wearing rate of around 0-1%. We should be marketing greenways as safe places to cycle — making helmets mandatory doesn’t go well with that.

It makes little sense for the council to back the suggestion as it seems unworkable. Even if it could be put in place, who would enforce it? Already overstretched dog or litter wardens?

This article was adapted from an article originally published in 2016 called 6 reasons bicycle helmets shouldn’t be any government’s policy.

I am editor of IrishCycle.com and have reported on and commented on cycling in Ireland for over a decade. My background is in journalism -- I have a BA in Journalism from DCU and HDip in Print Journalism from BCFE. I wrote about cycling for national newspapers, and then started CyclingInDublin.com for overflow stories. Later the website was re-branded to reflect a more national focus.

2 Comments

  1. Have been cycling all over Europe and Ireland for 50 years. Have never worn a helmet, have never had an accident off my bike. Love cycling the mayo greenway but if helmets become mandatory there I will cycle somewhere else. The more complicated you make cycling for people the less will do it. The less people cycling, the more vulnerable the cyclist becomes.
    Again look to the Netherlands and Denmark. Oh and segregated cycle paths instead of helmets please.

  2. I’ve emailed him. I said: “Helmets imply that the activity is dangerous. Cycling is not dangerous. It’s motor vehicles that bring the risk to cycling. Sort that out and we’d be much better off. Many people won’t cycle because of their fear of motor vehicles. Get your traffic engineers to design better, safer roads and accommodate cyclists (and pedestrians).”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: