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.

I BIKE Dublin

I BIKE Dublin are a community of people who cycle bicycles in Dublin, and who want a more liveable city with safe cycling conditions for all ages and abilities.

Current cycling infrastructure is often woeful and inconsistent across the city, and what is there is often unusable due to the careless and selfish actions of others.

Flouting the law

Page 195 of the Rules of the Road says that motorists are not allowed to drive or park on cycle tracks:

Extract from “Rules of the Road”

Driving and parking on cycle tracks are also motoring offences that can incur specific fixed penalty points and fines. Unfortunately some motorists ignore these rules, for their own convenience, and as a result place cyclists at increased risk.

Every time a cyclist encounters a vehicle illegally parked in a cycle lane, they have to merge into often fast-flowing traffic. To compound this, some motorists are reluctant to give way to cyclists merging to the right, and may even try to overtake the cyclist as they in the process of passing a parked vehicle – which is often very dangerous.

At present there seems to be no political will, or action from An Garda Síochana, to police the Rules of the Road – and as a result infraction is rife.

Protecting the bike lanes

The members of I BIKE Dublin act to raise awareness of this problem of illegal and dangerous parking in cycle lanes. They target known trouble spots in Dublin, and act to ‘protect’ mandatory cycle lanes and keep them free of parked vehicles.

The act of protecting the cycle lane involves volunteers standing out in the road with their bicycles, forming a physical barrier that stops motorists invading the space. The action is peaceful and respectful, and is designed to improve the safety of all road users.

I BIKE Dublin protecting the bike lane in Rathmines

The actions often attract curious looks from motorists and pedestrians. And there has been one or two negative reaction from motorists, including someone who called the Guards to complain! However there has been an overwhelmingly positive reaction from cyclists, who appreciate the protection given – albeit for a very small section of the road.

Long term solutions

Of course, getting volunteers to stand out in the road is not a long-term solution to improving safety for cyclists. What’s needed instead are two things:

  1. Enforcement – the Government needs to instruct the Garda that enforcement of the rules of the road – for all road users – is a priority
  2. Infrastructure – the Government need to make significant investment in providing a network of connected and continuous segregated cycle paths that have physical barriers to stop motor vehicles invading the space – suitable enough so that you would happily let a small child cycle along it safely

Contact

In the mean time, until we get good quality protected cycle lanes, no-doubt the I BIKE Dublin group will continue to help protect our city’s cyclists. If you want to know more about the group, see their social media pages: