Law, ethics & medicine: University of London on helmet legislation

“We cannot support legislation that would require competent adults to wear cycle helmets, particularly given the lack of evidence regarding the effectiveness of cycle helmets and given the importance of defending people’s right to take risks with their health,’ say authors Dr Carwyn Hooper and John Spicer of The Division of Population Health and Education, St George’s, University of London. “If competent adults wish to cycle with their hair (or their shiny pates) exposed to the wind, rain and sky, then they ought to be able to so without interference from the government or from anyone else.”

Absolutely agree – and in addition, we know that the more cyclists on the roads, the safer we all are. We also know that helmet legislation reduces the numbers of cyclists on the roads…. Helmets for racing, yes, maybe… But otherwise, it’s good old blaming the victim again…

Many jurisdictions require cyclists to wear bicycle helmets. The UK is currently not one of these. However, an increasing number of interest groups, including the British Medical Association, want to change the status quo. They argue that mandatory cycle helmet laws will reduce the incidence of head injuries and that this will be both good for cyclists (because they will suffer fewer head injuries) and good for society (because the burden of having to treat cyclists suffering from head injuries will be reduced). In this paper we argue against this position. We suggest that cycle helmets may not be especially effective in reducing head injuries and we suggest that the imposition of such a restrictive law would violate people’s freedom and reduce their autonomy. We also argue that those who accept such a restrictive law would be committed to supporting further legislation which would force many other groups e including pedestrians e to take fewer risks with their health. We conclude that cycle helmet legislation should not be enacted in the UK unless, perhaps, it is restricted to children.”

Download the full paper JMEcyclistsHelmets.



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  1. I find that a bit weird. Why is wearing a helmet blaming the victim? Motorcyclists wear helmets and no one goes on about their rights being infringed. I don’t wear a helmet only to protect myself from injury if a car driver hits me. I wear it in case I come off the bike at speed after hitting a pot hole or my tyre bursts. It’s also useful here in SA if a potential bike thief hits you over the head with a stick. The cyclist is not a ‘victim’ in every accident but he or she is always vulnerable to injury. Far more so than a pedestrian, for instance. One example: about 20 years ago an old university friend of mine was cycling down the hill from UCT. He wasn’t wearing a helmet. As he raced round the curve past the sports centre, a strong gust of wind caught him and he was catapulted off his bike. He was going fast and flew through the air head first into the ground. A cycle helmet might not have saved his life, but it would have given him a better chance of surviving. If he’d been a pedestrian, the likelihood of sustaining a serious injury let alone being killed from being blown off his feet is minimal – unless he got blown into the path of an oncoming car.

    • Blaming the Victim means, for example, placing the responsibility for safety on the person who is not the cause of the danger. In South Africa for example, it is law for cyclists to wear helmets, this is ‘for their own safety’ (NOTE in most other countries helmets are not compulsory). But the REASON cyclists are at risk are not because (necessarily) of the way they ride, but because of street design, driver behavior, road speed, lack of enforcement, attitude, etc etc. But it’s much simpler, of course, simply to make helmets compulsory than deal with all these other issues. Rather than grapple with the challenges, the ‘victim’ is made to take responsibility for the dangers of poor street design, driver attitudes, etc…
      Like the old tactics at local universities in the 80s: for women’s safety their university residences are locked at 11pm… Er, but if they’re at risk from the male students, then lock the male students in their residences, surely…

  2. Ok, that makes sense. I agree entirely that it’s the wrong way round. But I still think that it can be addressed holistically. It might be debatable whether helmets should be compulsory, but, as part of a much broader road safety campaign (and improvements and all the other stuff you mention), I think it should be encouraged. Just as drivers and passengers are told to buckle up and it’s compulsory to strap a child into a baby seat (yeah, right!) and not talk on a cell phone (never happens) and your taxi shouldn’t have bald tyres, etc, cyclists should also ride defensively. I drive and ride defensively. The other day I cycled five minutes to the shop and just in my road I had three near-collisions. One of them reversed out their driveway quite quickly and quite far out into the road before looking, another a guy drifted into the road from a side street while looking left so that I had to swerve round him and a third someone ramped off the pavement and cut right across me. Those last two were cyclists.
    I realise that the authorities are taking the easy option for themselves. But I don’t think wearing a helmet per se is a bad idea or that by wearing one one is sending out a message that ‘I’m a victim’. Isn’t it simply safe practice – like using a light and reflector when cycling at dusk and night?
    But these are uneducated and rambling thoughts. I see from a quick Google of Australia and cycle helmets that studies show that mandatory helmet use has led to more accidents, more fatalities and reduced popularity of cycling! Thanks for enlightening me.

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