Position paper: cycle helmets

From a message posted by Ernst Poulsen, Dansk Cyklist Forbund (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. on Mon, 9 Jan 95 23:03:13 +0100



The European Cyclists' Federation is an umbrella organisation for 25 Bicycle Advocacy Groups in Europe with some 250.000 members in 17 countries. They represent some 100.000.000 daily cyclists.
The European Cyclists' Federation has published a number of position papers on various issues. Below you will find the position paper on bicycle helmets. This paper was issued Oct. 25th. 1990, and revised Oct. 23rd. 1991.

Position paper: cycle helmets
Properly designed cycle helmets can avert some cycling deaths and injuries. The effect on safety is however secondary of nature and is often exaggerated.
Cycle helmets make cycling less convenient and should, therefore, by no means be compulsory.

Safety-campaigns should be directed towards primary safety - reducing the number of accidents by measures of infrastructure, equipment and education of cyclists and motorists - rather than secondary safety as for example promoting use of helmets.

Helmets which comply with any recognised standard should be taxated at the lowest possible rate.

Bicycle helmets are a means of secondary (passive) safety. Use of helmets will not reduce the number of cycling accidents, but will prevent head injuries in some of the accidents.
Use of helmets have proved effective to prevent about 85% of the head injuries in cycling accidents (1).

Reduction of Risk
About 50% of all accidents with cyclists, as reported to the hospital casualty department in a "non-helmet" country, are found to involve head injuries (2). Of these a large part are slight injuries (with an AIS - Abbreviated Injury Scale - "score" of 1), leaving only 13% of the accidents, where a good helmet, if worn as intended, would have prevented a concussion or the worse.
Coroner reports show that 2/3 of fatal cycling accidents involve head injuries. Wearing a helmet would in some, though far from all of these accidents have prevented death. Reductions from 10-17% (3) to 50% (4) of the number of fatal cycle accidents, if all were wearing helmets, have been mentioned in the literature.

The wide range of estimates for casualty reduction suggest that a detailed study needs to be undertaken. Any study should investigate the issue of a "lulling effect" increasing the number of accidents (5).

Quality of Helmets and Standardization
Most standards require helmets to be effective in impacts of less than 20 km per hour (corresponding to a drop-test from 1,5 meter or less).
There is a balance between comfort and protection capabilities of helmets. Thus, helmets offering an exellent protection tends to be very uncomfortable and vice versa.

A considerable number of standards for helmets provide an indicator to a reasonable level of protection (e.g. USA ANSI Z 90.4, SNELL, Switzerland bfu R 8602, United Kingdom BS 6863, Australian AS 2063.1, Sweden KOVFS 1985:6 or SP-MET 1985.2).

A European Standard is being elaborated at present (not ready yet as of January 95). The result of this should not attempt to increase the level of protection at the expense of user acceptability, as compared to current standards.

The trade-off between impact tested quality and user comfort should not be bias towards greater impact quality because voluntary helmet wearing may decrease, and discomfort may cause accidents. The issue of comfort is particularly important for the more active adult or racing cyclist.

Taxation of Helmets
Helmets complying with any of the above mentioned standards should be zero-rated for tax.
Disadvantages of Helmets
Use of a helmet makes cycling less convenient, since the helmet normally can not be left at the bicycle but has to be carried around by the cyclist. Many helmets lead to less enjoyable cycling, because the head of the cyclist is no longer free. It should be mentioned, however, that helmets offering a acceptable comfort to many cyclists in respect of air cooling and fitting have been developed.
The price - in the order of 35 ECU - can also be considered disadvantageous to the cyclist.

Attitudes to Helmets and Enforcement to Use Them
The use of helmets in Europe is increasing. Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the UK have experienced an enormous increase in sales and use of helmets
In the State of Victoria, Australia, wearing helmets has been compulsory for all bicycle riders since July 1990. The result has been a large percentage of helmet wearing among cyclists, but also that some cyclists have given up cycling because they do not want to use cycle helmets.

In general cyclists have not, even in the countries mentioned above, accepted helmets as a neccessary means of protection. Many cyclists are strongly against wearing helmets. Non-cyclists tend to be those most in favor of helmet use.

Reasons Why Helmets Should Not be Compulsory.
Cycling has many advantages to the individual (health, mobility) as well as to the society (reduced air pollution and congestion).
Calculations on the "total" health benefits of cycling, taking into account both accidents and reduced risk of certain diseases, shows that health benefits are greater than accident disbenefits (6).

A law requesting cyclists always to wear helmets would be totally in contrast to the nature of the bicycle as a simple and convenient form of transport. Such laws would meet strong opposition and lead to a decreased use of the bicycle, as the Australian example already has demonstrated.

Any attempt of compulsory helmet use should therefore be rejected as strongly as possible.

Campaigns for Helmet Use
If, say, 100 million of the 700 million inhabitans in Europe bought cycle helmets, the total investment would be at least 3 billion ECU.
Research shows, that such a substantial amount would have a better effect in casualty-prevention if invested in campaigns educating cyclists as well as motorists and an improved infrastructure for cyclists (7). Poor road user behaviour is known as the number one cause of accidents. Potholes and poor design of cycle tracks and road crossings have also proven a major reason for cycle accidents.

As an example, supporting this, a comprehensive analysis of various actions to increase road safety in Denmark found cycle helmets to be among the least cost effective measures (4).

Campaigning for use of helmets will turn the responsibility of accidents from the society in general towards the individual cyclist. This has become the case in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, where cyclists often are blamed for not using helmets in an accident resulting from poor driver behaviour or road design.

Furthermore, irresponsible promotion of helmets portraying cycling as an extremely dangerous activity should be condemned.

Campaigns for use of helmets will, of course, be welcomed by those manufacturing the products. The question, however, should be to increase the safety of cycling through campaigning for better behaviour of both cyclists and motorists and the creation of a more safe infrastructure for cyclists.


1) Robert S. Thompson et al, New England Journal of Medicine, 320/21,
May 25, 1989.

2) Accident Analysis Group, Odense Hospital, Denmark, Report on
Road-accidents treated at the Casualty Department, 1988.

3) Cyclists Touring Club, United Kingdom, Cycle Helmets, April 1988.

4) Commission of Road Safety, Denmark, Plan of Action for Road Safety,
December 1988.

5) Gregory B. Roberts, Journal of Products Liability, 307/17, 1988.

6) Thomas Krag, Danish Cyclist Federation, Safety, the Achilles Heel
of Cycling (lecture at the Velo City Conference), 1989.

7) C. S. Downing, Road Safety Division TRRL UK, in Ways to Safer
Cycling Conference Proceedings, 1985.
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