SCOTLAND’S leading lobby group for cyclists is to cease advertising events that insist on the compulsory use of safety helmets because it fears the measure puts riders off the sport and exposes them to potential danger.
Spokes, the Lothian-based pro-cycling charity, said it was taking the controversial step as it was uncertain whether the benefits of helmets outweighed the risks they posed in some types of crashes.
Tens of thousands of safety helmets are bought every year as part of what is now a multi-million-pound industry based on the alleged benefits of protecting riders from the impact of falls and collisions.
But Spokes claims drivers give helmeted cyclists less space as they overtake because they appear “safer” and that some cyclists take more risks when wearing a helmet. In some crashes, Spokes claims, helmets can make some head injuries worse.
Safety would be more likely to be improved by encouraging more people to cycle, which it fears is being threatened by over-emphasis on helmets, the group insists.
Spokes is also urging police forces and official bodies, such as the Scottish Government-funded Cycling Scotland agency, to stop using images showing all cyclists in helmets in publicity material. It also wants helmet manufacturers to be forced to publicise both the benefits and the risks on packaging.
Some of Scotland’s biggest bike rides, including the Trossachs Ton for medical research this month, insist that riders must wear helmets, while the the Tour de Forth – a route around the Firth of Forth – in August says riders under-18 must wear head protection.
But in its latest bulletin, Spokes says: “We are concerned at the creeping growth of semi-compulsion, for example charity bike rides insisting on helmets for young adults and government-funded websites picturing all or nearly all cyclists helmeted, thus creating a climate in which total compulsion could eventually happen.
“Helmet advertisers, promoters and government agencies bombard us with the benefits but, disgracefully, we are never told of the risks – although there is evidence on both sides, and crashes and injuries occur as a result of the risks of helmets.
“Compulsion, or one-sided promotion, is very wrong – even more so as they put people off the healthy choice of getting about by bike. Therefore, Spokes will not, after this [bulletin] issue, publicise charity rides or other events involving helmet compulsion. We call on all other organisations concerned about public health to do the same.
“Helmet manufacturers and sales outlets, in the interest of public safety, should have to make clear on boxes and in sales literature a helmet’s impact design speed (usually around 12mph) and the potential risks as well as benefits.”
The group claims well-fitted helmets will help in certain crashes – such as a head hitting a hard object straight on – but are not designed for the closing speed of car-bike crash.Helmets, it argues, can also make some cyclists, particularly young riders, feel overconfident and so use roads that are too dangerous. Helmets can also “worsen some serious head injuries if hit at an angle making the neck rotate too fast or far”.
Spokes’ comments have divided opinion. The road safety group, Brake, backed compulsory helmet wearing for children because, it said, evidence showed a reduction in head injuries. Senior campaigns officer Ellen Booth said: “We encourage cyclists to do everything they can to reduce risks, including wearing a helmet and high-visibility gear, and choosing the safest routes possible.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents backed Spokes, saying it would encourage helmet wearing but that it should not be compulsory. Campaigns manager Michael Corley said: “We do not believe it is practical to make the use of cycle helmets mandatory.”