Video: Chris Boardman got into trouble last week for not wearing a helmet while giving safety tips to BBC viewers. Source: BBC News

Tour de France winner and Olympic gold medallist Sir Bradley Wiggins reckons bicycle helmets should be compulsory in the UK:

I think certain laws for cyclists need to be passed to protect us more than anything. Making helmets compulsory on the roads, making it illegal to maybe have an iPod in while you’re riding a bike, just little things like that would make a huge difference.

But fellow Olympian Chris Boardman opposes even promoting helmets, much less making them mandatory. Last week he took to the net to answer criticism he’d appeared on BBC television riding a bicycle without a helmet:

I won’t promote high vis and helmets; I won’t let the debate be drawn onto a topic that isn’t even in the top 10 things that will really keep people who want to cycle safe.

Mr Boardman points to the virtual absence of helmets in cities like Utrecht to support his position. The obvious lesson is that it’s possible to make cycling so safe that the great majority of riders don’t wear a helmet; in cities like Utrecht helmets simply aren’t necessary.

I think Bradley Wiggins is wrong; countries where helmet wearing is currently voluntary should resist the pressure to make them mandatory. But it’s important to get the arguments clear.

The obvious issue is that British cities, like their counterparts in Australia, aren’t much like Utrecht. They don’t have the infrastructure, sympathetic road rules, supportive institutional environment, and constraints on car use that could ultimately make helmets redundant.

Cycling on the roads in car-oriented places like the UK is much more dangerous than it is in the centre of Dutch and Danish metropolises where cars are often the minority mode.

That’s in part because of the much more hostile road conditions confronting British cyclists. But another reason is that the average cyclist in Britain is in a different demographic relative to his or her counterpart in the Netherlands.

The comparatively small numbers of Britons who cycle on roads are disproportionately drawn from risk-takers like Wiggins (and so are more likely on average to be in a crash). The much larger number of Dutch who cycle is necessarily more representative of the whole population and hence is more risk averse than the British cohort. (1)

It’s therefore very likely introduction of a helmet law would reduce the number of head injuries in the UK as it has in Australia. It’s also likely it would deter some existing and prospective cyclists as it has in Australia.

But I don’t think the number of discouraged riders would be anywhere near as large as opponents of the law make out. The impact of the law on cycling levels in Australia following its introduction in the early 1990s is routinely over-stated (see here and here for further discussion).

It had no lasting impact on cycling by adults, especially in the demographic that shows most growth today. Its main negative effect was to accelerate the abandonment of cycling by high school boys and regional blue collar workers (see here and here for further discussion).

These groups were in any event destined to lose interest in cycling due to wider structural economic and social changes, such as the growth of video gaming, the fall in the real cost of motoring, and the decline of regional manufacturing.

I expect the benefits in terms of avoided head injury from making helmets mandatory in the UK would outweigh the number of cyclists who might be deterred. But it doesn’t automatically follow that helmets should therefore be compulsory.

There are innumerable instances where societies tolerate excess social costs because the burden of regulation would be too expensive, too intrusive, have unintended consequences, or would be too inconvenient and annoying. Citizens put a high value on their right to make their own choices whatever the consequences for them. (2)

There’s also another argument against removing the existing right of British cyclists to choose whether or not to wear a helmet.

It could signal that cycling can be made safe without the need to make hard and painful decisions. It could reinforce the narrative that cyclists themselves create the danger; that the only change that’s needed is for cyclists themselves to change.

There’s a risk is it could lessen the pressure to build cycling infrastructure, reallocate road space away from vehicles to bicycles, and rebalance road rules to favour cyclists at the expense of motorists.

All those prospective UK cyclists waiting in the wings aren’t deterred by the absence of a helmet law; they’re put off by the (accurate) perception that cycling on British roads at present is unsafe relative to other modes.

We know from the Australian experience that making helmets mandatory – notwithstanding the benefits in terms of fewer head injuries – doesn’t increase the sense of subjective safety anywhere near enough to drive a big increase in the proportion of the population cycling on roads.

The argument isn’t as black and white as some opponents make out, but I think making helmets compulsory in places where they’re currently voluntary isn’t a good idea.

Of course that inevitably prompts the question of what to do about Australia’s longstanding helmet law; do the same arguments apply in places where the law is already in place? That’s a big question I’ll have to address separately.

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  1. Which suggests the observed ‘safety in numbers effect’ can’t be entirely put down to being a small target. It might be explained in part by a selection effect i.e. larger cycling populations necessarily have a more risk-averse profile.
  2. My example of choice is middle aged men using ladders; high social cost but too hard and bothersome to regulate.