Bicycle helmets should be the last line of defence

There’s nothing so divisive as the debate around whether helmets should be compulsory for cyclists.

Some advocates of helmet compulsion argue that if they can help (even by a little bit) to prevent injury or death, then we should all be made to wear them. And while they are entitled to that opinion, the focus on helmets is detrimental to cyclist safety.

Cycle helmets are designed to protect against certain types of head injury. However it’s important to remember that they do absolutely nothing to protect the rest of the cyclist’s body. 

So instead of being fixated on helmets, we should look more holistically at making cycling safer on our roads, so that helmets are not required!

Health and safety hierarchy of control

Ask any Health and Safety expert and they’ll be familiar with the Hierarchy of Control. It’s illustrated by the inverted pyramid below:

The idea, when trying to reduce the risk from hazards and make an environment more safe, is to work from the top down. Eliminating the hazard should be the greatest priority, and only when all the other things on the pyramid have been exhausted do you rely upon PPE – Personal Protective Equipment – for cyclist, helmets and high-vis clothing.

Hierarchy of control in a cycling context

So let’s have a look how this hierarchy of control applies to cycling on our roads. Here are the risk reducing controls that we should be putting in place, in priority order:

  1. Eliminate – in an ideal world the first thing you should try to do with a hazard is to eliminate it. For cyclists the biggest hazard on our roads is motor vehicles, and so to meet this control we should remove them altogether from our streets. We already close off some streets to motor vehicles, such as in pedestrianised streets, and shared use areas that facilitate cyclists and pedestrians. We should have more of this!
  2. Substitute – if you can’t eliminate, then the next thing to do is the substitution of one hazardous activity for a less hazardous one. In the case of our roads, getting people to switch from driving to cycling or using public transport is a substitute that would vastly improve safety for all road users.
  3. Isolate – this is removing the person from the risk. This would mean providing completely different roads or paths for cyclists to use. Greenway cycle paths are a good example of an isolating infrastructure, as they place cyclists on a completely different route to motor vehicles. You have not eliminated or substituted vehicles, but you’ve kept them well away.
  4. Engineer Controls – this is all about placing a physical barrier between the person and the hazard. To implement this control we would need completely segregated cycle paths along all of our roads – with bollards, walls, raised curbs, or even a line of parked cars acting as a physical barrier. They have this kind of infrastructure on most streets in The Netherlands and Denmark, but not so much in Ireland. And before you ask, no, a painted white line is NOT an engineer control!
  5. Administrative Controls – this control is about providing rules and procedures for people to follow to mitigate against risk. In the context of cycling, this would be the Rules of the Road. At the moment, we’re not always very good at adhering to these rules, and the authorities aren’t great at enforcing them, so our current administrative controls clearly aren’t working.
  6. PPE – this is personal protective equipment. In a hazardous work environment that’s gloves, eye protection, earmuffs, aprons, safety footwear, and dust masks. For a cyclist your helmet and high-vis clothing is your PPE.

The ideal of PPE is that it should be your last line of defence. If you’ve implemented all the other controls, and something still goes wrong, then PPE should be there to mitigate against the hazard.

However it’s often the case for cyclists is that PPE isn’t the last line of defence, it’s the only one! The other controls simple aren’t in place. We haven’t eliminated, substituted, isolated, engineered or administered properly against a hazard.

We need investment in infrastructure

To eliminate, substitute, isolate or engineer controls we need to invest properly in infrastructure. We need more car-free streets, we need few people to drive, we need more separate bike paths, and we need proper barriers to stop motor vehicles encroaching on bike lanes.

This is exactly why cyclist campaigners talk so much about needing 20% of the transport budget invested in cycling infrastructure. They know that segregated or separate bike lanes contribute considerably more (by orders of magnitude) to road safety than helmets.

So should I wear a helmet?

Sure, if you want to, and if it makes you feel safer. But please bear in mind that it’s a recognised problem that PPE can lead to a false sense of security – from both the person wearing it, and from those who see it being worn – which can lead to more reckless/risky behaviour.

It might help a little bit in the event of a collision, but it is definitely not a substitute for good quality cycling infrastructure.

And until the other hazard controls are in place, a cyclist should never be compelled to wear one.

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