Bike helmets are a surprisingly divisive subject (Picture: Getty/Metro.co.uk)
Last month, when TV presenter Dan Walker took to social media and chronicled his collision with a car while cycling, perhaps the last thing he expected was to stoke the culture wars.
Or maybe he did – it was Twitter after all – but among the many messages wishing him a speedy recovery, and his own thanking the NHS staff and others who helped him, was one justifying gratitude to the helmet on his head.
‘I understand this is a contentious issue and I don’t want an argument about it,’ wrote Walker. ‘I’m just happy mine worked today and the police officer at the scene called me this afternoon and said I would not be here now if I wasn’t wearing one.
‘Back to my cuppa through a straw.’
Followed by a grimacing face emoji (which apparently only old people use).
It may have been news to many that wearing a helmet while cycling on the road was controversial, but in fact proponents and opponents have butted heads for decades.
The reasons are many, and both argue science – and common sense – is on their side.
Presenter Dan Walker in an ambulance following his accident (Picture: Twitter/Dan Walker)
If you come off your bike at any speed, it stands to reason that a layer of protection between your head and the road will protect you from more serious injury than would occur without it. That position is rarely contested.
A helmet cannot prevent all injury however, and research shows they offer little protection against concussion – often put forward as a reason not to wear one. What helmets do, and do well, is help prevent serious head injuries, skull fractures and facial fractures when compared to those without helmets.
What if we take a step back though, and try to prevent those accidents in the first place. A helmet can’t make an accident any more or less likely, can it?
Some would argue that yes, a helmet makes the wearer more likely to be involved in either a single-bike or road collision. The reasons for this are two-fold.
Firstly, a 2016 study showed that riders wearing a helmet take more risks. Secondly, there is a body of work suggesting that drivers overtake cyclists more closely if the rider is wearing a helmet. Renowned neurosurgeon Dr Henry Marsh is among those who do not wear a helmet and cite this research among the reasons why.
‘It’s changed my life completely’
Endura has created cycling helmets showing the brain injuries suffered by those not wearing head protection (Picture: Endura)
It was a normal day in Hull for Ian Charlesworth as he cycled to work on his morning commute.
‘I was going to work, stopped at the traffic lights and went through,’ he says. ‘Then a lorry hit me.’
Ian wasn’t wearing a helmet. He suffered a skull fracture and brain injury, resulting in cognitive impairments that continue to this day.
‘It’s changed my life completely,’ he says. ‘I used to look after my children – now they look after me.
Ian is one of four cyclists who have taken part in Project Heid, a campaign by cycling equipment brand Endura, Liverpool University and The Brain Charity to create a graphic display – in every sense – of the risks of not wearing a helmet.
To mark Brain Awareness Week, Endura has created four helmets showing CAT scan images of the cyclists’ brains following their accidents, highlighting the extent of their injuries.
‘The level of detail of my brain scans on the design left a real impression on me that I hope will resonate with others,’ says Ian. ‘It feels really good to be involved in such an important initiative.
‘Prior to my accident, it wasn’t on my radar to wear a helmet. You never think a serious incident will happen to you, but I’m living proof that it can, and having gone through what I have, I’m desperate for people to wear a helmet to stay safe.
‘Our brain is the most complex structure in the universe, and the most important part of who we are.’
The helmets will be auctioned to raise money for The Brain Charity.
However, statistics for collisions on UK roads show they most commonly occur at junctions (53%), while the highest proportion of fatal accidents – 45% – involving a vehicle are the result of a driver failing to look properly. Poor maneuvering was the cause in around 9% of these accidents.
A 2008 study by the Dutch government found that while only around 1% of cyclists in the Netherlands don helmets, 13.3% of cyclists admitted to hospital were wearing one at the time of their accident. However, 50% of those injured were riding mountain bikes and 46% riding racing bikes, both of which are more prone to higher-speed falls than those on a regular commute.
As with all statistics, they require full and proper context.
To cite a few more, in a recent study of 2,000 regular cyclists, 45% said they do not wear a helmet when they cycle – yet two thirds admitted they are concerned about sustaining a brain injury while cycling. Other statistics show 80% of Brits say they feel a responsibility to encourage their friends and family to wear a helmet when they cycle.
And while wearing a helmet remains a personal choice for those taking to two wheels (pedal-powered wheels, let’s not even get into ebikes), there is a wealth of scientific research citing the effectiveness of helmets in preventing serious injury.
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