You helmet.

Cycling helmets.  A very emotive subject among cyclists.  One that can bring otherwise genteel riders to the brink of fist fights that make the old Mods v Rockers dust ups seem like jolly japes in comparison.  I’m not quite sure why this should be, seeing as they are not compulsory here in Middle England and each rider is free to choose.  So please, read on by all means, but if you disagree please do so with good grace!

Let’s play a little game.  Several little games even:

A – Cyclists.

B – Pedestrians.

C – Car drivers.

From the above three categories of transport user, which is the one generally pressured by society at large to wear a helmet while enjoying their pastime?  The answer is, of course, A – Cyclists.  An easy point for you in the first round of my guessing game.

Injured cyclist


Now, let’s play another round.  Of the above three categories of transport user, who is most likely (most likely in terms of both absolute numbers, and in terms of journey-miles) to receive a serious head injury, or die of a serious head injury?  The answer may surprise you when I reveal that it’s actually C – Car drivers.  You might be even more surprised that B – Pedestrians score in second place, with us cyclists coming in a laggardly third.

Us cyclists are less likely to receive or die of a serious head injury than either pedestrians or car drivers, yet it is us cyclists that are pressured by society into wearing helmets.  Is it just me, or is this a little bizarre?  Cycling is not foolproof, but it is inherently an extremely safe activity, yet a well-meaning society places pressures upon us that they wouldn’t dream of doing for those involved in more dangerous pursuits.

Let’s look at the physics of cycle helmets.  Most are a very thin plastic outer shell bonded to an inner structure made of a form of expanded polystyrene.  Add to that peaks, whatever straps, retention systems etc. that the manufacturer feels appropriate and you have a fairly typical cycle helmet.  The idea is that minor impacts to the outer surface of the helmet are spread over a larger area of the skull beneath, thus reducing the chances of injury.  Heavier impacts cause the polystyrene structure to compress and absorb energy from the impact, thus reducing the energy transferred to the head inside.  Laboratory testing shows some success in reducing impact forces transferred to the robotic head, sensors, etc, inside.  However, in actual practice the evidence is less compelling.

Crash test head

There is no firm evidence that makes cycle helmet wearers any less prone to serious injury than non-lid wearers.  Just the opposite, there is some evidence that the helmet increases the apparent circumference of the riders head, thus making the wearer more prone to neck and brain injuries caused by the torsion this increased leverage places upon the head during an impact.  Some modern helmets have a system called MIPS – Multi-layered Impact Protection System – In which the outer shell is loosely attached to the inner harness, and is free to break free and move independently, thus mitigating the risk.  This isn’t protecting the rider form a crash impact, but is simply reducing one of the unintended negative effects of the traditional modern cycle helmet.

Furthermore, there are some countries and states around the World where cycle helmet wearing is compulsory.  Without exception, in each of these areas cycle use has reduced but head injury rates have actually increased – a strange result if helmets are genuinely improving our safety.

There are other facets to the problem – are riders becoming less risk averse while wearing such safety gear?  Are car drivers thinking us invincible in our polystyrene mushrooms and taking greater risks around us?  There is some evidence to suggest that both are happening.

So the problem is complex, combining as it does science, technology, legislation and human behaviour.  We cannot say with any degree of certainty that cycling helmets protect us from death or serious injury, yet we cannot say that they do not.  This conclusion leaves me sitting on the fence, which is never a terribly comfortable place to be perched.


My personal take is also along the middle ground.  I’m not convinced a bonce potty will save me when some Yorkie muncher decides to close pass in his 40 footer and misjudges it.  In that scenario, it’s damage to the rest of my major organs that is likely to do for me.  However, I do think there is a middle ground where they may not save my life, but might save me a trip to A & E, and weeks of skin grafts.  Coming off at speed on tarmac and slithering along the ground may not be fatal, but can still take some unpleasant bacon off my head.  Low hanging branches off road can be misjudged and leave a nasty gash (snigger), and I’m quite prepared to believe that the polystyrene bonce potty is liable to help out in these scenarios.


So, in conclusion, I do generally wear lids, but do not rely on them to save my life.  For that I rely upon my awareness, skills and training to keep me alive (more on that another day), and the lid is there as a backup to reduce the chance of unpleasant, yet probably non-fatal injuries.

Someone is bound to ask, so I had better tell you now.  I wear UVEX helmets, a no-nonsense German brand.  An excellent combination of design, comfort, shape, ventilation, finish and price.  They are not MIPS helmets, but the profile is designed to reduce the chances of the helmets surface ‘grabbing’ at the ground if it skids along the surface, so takes a different route to reduce the chance of rotational brain or torsional neck injuries.  I use separate road and MTB ones, although I remain unconvinced that there is much difference beyond the styling.

Thank you very much for reading once again, and I hope to be back soon.  Ride safe.


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