Debate on the compulsive use of helmets

Should helmets be compulsory?

Bradley Wiggins is a top bloke. He lacks the unappealing narcissism of so many athletes, gives the impression that he has a life away from the saddle and is a Mod to boot. But that doesn't stop him being (most probably) wrong about cycle helmets.

On Wednesday night a cyclist was killed in a collision with an Olympic bus in Stratford. Speaking afterwards, Mr Wiggins said: "Ultimately, if you get knocked off and you don't have a helmet on, then you can't argue, he said. "You can get killed if you don't have a helmet on."

Well yes, that is unarguably true, but it is equally unarguably true that you can also get killed if you do have a helmet on. And here we enter one of the most vexed and controversial areas in the whole of statistics, the strange science of cycle safety. The whole issue of cycle helmets is so strange that David Spiegelhalter, the very excellent Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge University, a man who knows more about accident stats than almost anyone else, half-jokingly refuses to talk about it.

"Cycle helmets he once told me. I try not to go there."

The problem is that almost everything about cycle safety is counter-intuitive, and a great deal of what we think we know is in fact guesswork. This we do know: in places were the wearing of helmets HAS been made compulsory, such as in some Australian states, cycling appears to become more dangerous and accident rates (and injuries) actually go up. Why?

We don't know. Maybe well-publicised compulsory helmet laws make cycling appear to be more dangerous than it is, discouraging all by the brave (and reckless) from taking to the streets. Thus the number of cyclists may remain the same, but they may be drawn from a slightly different (more accident prone) population. Another, almost opposite explanation also suggests itself.

Making people wear helmets may make cycling appear to be SAFER than it really is. This could encourage normally cautious types to take more risks. You see? This is far from straightforward. Finally, anything which makes cycling less appealing (and many people do not like wearing helmets) will reduce cyclist numbers. It may also encourage motorists to take more chances around bikes, as they subconsciously calculate that anyone on two-wheels is 'protected'.

From the Daily Mail News paper/blog

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