Cycling Edinburgh

Helmet Policy

Why this site does not to list bike rides where helmets are compulsory.

I recently decided that the Cycling Edinburgh website will no longer publicise organised bike rides that make it compulsory for adults to wear helmets. This is in line with a similar decision made by Spokes (the Lothian cycle campaign group). Let me explain my reasons for this policy.

It's not because I am against cycle helmets. On the contrary, I always wear a helmet myself, even for the shortest of bike rides. That's my personal choice


My objection is not to the helmet, but to the compulsion. It's based on a very simple principle: The best way to improve safety for cyclists is to encourage more people to cycle. There is ample evidence for this. The more people there are on bikes, the more other road users will be aware of cyclists and will adjust their behaviour accordingly; and the more likely it is that councils will take cycle safety into account when planning road layouts, speed limits, and the like.

Making helmets compulsory will discourage people from taking up cycling - especially the less well-off. After all, if you were thinking of giving cycling a try, but you weren't sure if it was the right choice for you, you wouldn't go straight out and spend hundreds of pounds on a new bike. The chances are you'd start by borrowing a bike, or buying a cheap one second hand, or perhaps hiring one for a few days. You'd want to go out on a few rides to test the water, before committing yourself to a big expenditure.

The trouble is that a decent helmet could cost more than a cheap second-hand bike. If would-be cyclists were forced to buy a helmet before they could go on an organised ride, the majority simply wouldn't go. That means fewer new cyclists on the roads, and therefore increased danger to all cyclists (not to mention the loss of the undoubted health benefits that cycling brings about).

In addition, I believe that making helmets compulsory sends a message that cycling is more dangerous than it really is. That in turn will further discourage people from giving cycling a try.

Further arguments

Some anti-helmet campaigners go further in their arguments, claiming that wearing a helmet can actually increase the risk of an accident, or can result in more severe injuries in certain types of collisions. I'm not qualified to say if those claims are correct. If you'd like to form your own opinion, take a look at the extensive material at the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation's website.

I appreciate that people who organise bike rides want to make their events as safe as possible for those taking part. But making helmets compulsory is not the way to do it. In the words of Spokes, "it's an example of the paradox in which a perceived benefit to each individual …can bring about a negative effect for the group as whole."

Mike Lewis, June 2012.