The Safety of Cycling

The degree of risk of head injury must be relevant to an assessment of fault under the 1945 Act. It cannot be sufficient that ‘failure to wear a helmet may expose the cyclist to the risk of greater injury’ as the same holds true with the substitution of the word ‘motorist’ or ‘pedestrian’ for ‘cyclist’. The perception of risk in cycling is often much greater than the reality.

Annexed are some recently released DfT statistics, which relate to 2008, save that Table 1 relates to 2007. The risk of being killed or seriously injured riding a bicycle was 541 per billion km traveled. The likelihood of death or serious injury is approximately half that for a motorcycle undertaking the same journey. If you decide to cycle rather than walk the same distance you are slightly less likely to be killed though somewhat more likely to be injured. You are safer in a car and much safer in a bus/coach travelling the same distance. The observation about individual risks being one in 500,000 years appears too rosy, though as 68 km/year seems inexplicable unless it includes non-cyclists. Nevertheless, a cyclist who covers 10,000 km/year with average skill and luck could expect one serious injury every 175 years.

The risks are comparable to those faced by pedestrians, yet nobody seriously suggests that pedestrians should wear helmets. What of the cyclist who crosses a shared cycle/pedestrian crossing alongside a pedestrian when both are run down by a motorist who jumps the lights?

There is also no real logic to a line drawn between the cyclist and the motorist. The motorist driving from London to Edinburgh faces a comparable risk of death or serious injury as the cyclist travelling from London to Watford. The real comparison is not with car seat-belts but with motor helmets.

A legitimate concern is the cost to the NHS (and society generally) of treating avoidable head injuries. Because of the much higher numbers of pedestrians and motorists, the widespread adoption of motoring and pedestrian helmets would avoid vastly more head injuries than cycle helmets. It is a distorted perception of risk that sets cycling apart.

Promote helmet use or cycling

Population studies have demonstrated conclusively that the promotion of helmet wearing reduces levels of cycling. The experience in Australia, Canada and Denmark all indicate this. Contrast the position in Holland where cycling is widespread and virtually nobody wears a helmet. The reasons for this negative correlation are necessarily speculative but are probably a combination of helmet promotion increasing the perception of risk, adding inconvenience/discomfort and concern about appearance .

Large sums of public money are now spent encouraging cycling (hundreds of millions according to the DfT ). The overwhelming public interest is in promoting cycling not helmets.

It has also been observed that a decrease in the numbers of cyclists leads to an increase in the accident rate for those cyclists who remain. Possible explanations for these observations are that motorists become used to more cyclists and notice them and that a higher proportion of motorists cycle. Accordingly, the promotion of cycle helmets can increase the level of danger for cyclists by reducing their number.

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