Road Safety News

Cycle helmets are “massive red herring”: Chris Boardman

Monday 24th February 2014

Helmet use is one of the least important cycling safety measures, according to British Cycling policy advisor Chris Boardman

Talking to the website at the London Bike Show, Chris Boardman said: “I think the helmet issue is a massive red herring. It’s not even in the top 10 of things you need to do to keep cycling safe or more widely, save the most lives.

“It’s a bit like saying people are sniping at you going down this street, so put some body armour on.”

He went on to suggest that even talking about making helmets mandatory “massively puts people off” cycling.

He described the Government’s encouragement to wear helmets as “a big campaign to get people to wear body armour, by the people who should be stopping the shooting”.

He cited the Netherlands as “a better solution to the problem of cycle safety”, pointing out that just 0.8% of cyclists wear helmets yet the Dutch have the lowest rate of cycling head injury, thanks to segregated cycling infrastructure.

He added that 30% of journeys in the Netherlands are made by bike, as are 50% of children’s journeys to school.

Chris Boardman said: ”The best way to deal with [the head injury issue] is what the Dutch have done. Where you have the highest rate of helmet use, you also have the highest rate of head injury: us and the US.”

Click here to read the full report.



Comment on this story
Report a reader comment

What's your view - comment on this story:

I confirm that I have read and accept the moderation policy and house rules relating to comments posted on this website.
Your comment:
Your name and location:
Your email:

I am getting quite tired of people saying that helmets are a waste of time and all we need is some utopian world where all road users respect each other. Firstly, thinking we can re-create a Dutch system is plain stupid. There isn't the money to retro fit our entire road network so the best we can dream of are some oddments of new development. As for not saving lives, well tell that to the man that lost his life because of a small blow to the head. It's simple, if you are not surrounded by a metal cage then you need to protect the vulnerable part of your body, I don't see these arguments being used for motorcyclists.
Allan Robins, Hull

Agree (24) | Disagree (29)

Chris Boardman is definitely missing the point that vulnerable road users such as cyclists and pedestrians are separated from busy, fast traffic in the Netherlands. Therefore there should not be the same necessity for safety gear and there should be less injuries of all kinds, including head injuries.

The bottom line is that if all road users were to concentrate, not take risks, go back to having some courtesy for their fellow users, etc, etc, then the number of crashes and injuries would fall. Driverless vehicles are the answer!
Lucy, Scotland

Agree (17) | Disagree (20)

I think I can answer Idris's question as to what are the real causes of death and injury to cyclists and they are the same things that cause death and injury to everybody else.

Cyclists are not particularly special in comparison to all the other types of road user as they just use a different form of conveyance so an accident involving a cyclist may well have the same causal net as an accident between trucks for example. The answer therefore is to look for the commonalities and not the differences and the biggest common factor of them all is the human brain. Understand brains and you understand everything.
Duncan MacKillop, Stratford on Avon

Agree (10) | Disagree (3)

I couldn't agree more with Stuart Rochdale's comments. Here in the UK a small number of experienced cyclists are over dominating a debate that is aimed at people who drive short distances by car - not Olympic cyclists. Asking someone to consider using a helmet/hi-vis/lights is not compulsion.

Are Chris' (Boardman's) comments aimed at road safety professionals or others?
Nadeem - Greater Manchester

Agree (8) | Disagree (3)

Not in the top 10 things you need to do to keep cyclists safer. Number 6 refers to strengthening cycling safety provision in the Highway Code. Only works if people, including cyclists who don't have to take an exam or a riding test, actually read it and act upon what they heave learned!
Peter Westminster

Agree (18) | Disagree (1)

I agree that helmets are not the only issue for safer cycling. However my son would not be here today if it wasn't for a cycle helmet - this was confirmed by the medics who do know quite a bit about head injuries! Until, like other countries, we separate vulnerable road users from speedy traffic, there will be no improvement in the stats. But to try and tell me (and plenty of other parents) that helmet wearing does not save lives/reduce injuries is ridiculous and irresponsible.
Lucy, Scotland

Agree (32) | Disagree (13)

I greatly enjoyed cycling where I grew up in hilly Cardiganshire, but loathed it in flat Cambridgeshire. Why? It was hard work ALL the time!

Steve - what ARE the real causes of death and injury to cyclists that are not being addressed - and how would you address them?
Idris Francis Fight Back With Facts Petersfield

Agree (8) | Disagree (4)

On the one hand the Government want to encourage cycling, then the 'nanny state' wants to wrap everyone up in cotton wool and tell them indirectly it's unsafe. It's a personal choice, I fully agree with Mr Boardman.
Ian, Gloucester

Agree (17) | Disagree (14)

Regarding Bob, Lancs point about scooter/P2W and helmets in the Netherlands, you see a mix of helmet/ non-helmet use, possibly more riders without helmets, but scooters are more common than high powered motorbikes. I'm not sure what the helmet law for P2W is in the Netherlands, but from observation it looks like it's either personal choice, or not enforced. But interestingly, scooters are allowed to use bike lanes. This is not often reported by the Go Dutch advocates and you don't see it too much in Amsterdam, but in the smaller, suburban areas, bike lanes are quite well used by scooters and few of those riders are helmeted.
Tyler, London

Agree (4) | Disagree (0)

There are of course other cycling safety issues than the wearing of cycle helmets. Nontheless, I think the point is proved that at low impact a helmet isn't irrelevant, particularly when the collision involves a child with less distance to fall than an adult. There also seems to be plenty of anecdotal evidence that helmets do offer a level of extra protection than if you don't have one on.

Here in Jersey, our parliament is debating in the next few months whether to make it mandatory for children under 14 to wear a helmet as a legal requirement. It looks as if this will go through.

My main issue with all of these arguments is there doesn't seem to have been a really decent piece of research done on helmets yet. Lots of people pointing to various research papers to prove their point. Just lots of conflicting 'evidence'.
Philip Blake, Jersey

Agree (12) | Disagree (8)

I can only agree with his comments. Regretfully. The issue here is how we go forward and either integrate or separate cycling from all other forms of transport in this country, or a bit of both. Both will cost billions of pounds to accommodate and take about 30 years of development.

Just one thing - I bet scooter and motorcyclists in the Netherlands wear crash helmets as it was decided many years ago that is saved lives and reduced serious injuries. Perhaps he or others can advocate a return of personal choice on that one.
bob craven Lancs

Agree (5) | Disagree (4)

Chris Boardman is right, and concentrating on helmets as "the answer" to cyclists' safety is futile and counterproductive. Nowhere with a massive rise in helmet wearing, whether due to a law or propaganda campaign, can show any reduction in risk to cyclists, only a reduction in the number of cyclists.

Duncan MacKillop says: "Even the Dutch say there is no point in other countries trying to 'go Dutch' because nobody else has the geographical and social attributes that they started out with."

I'm afraid this comment is not accurate, and Dutch cycling organisations are quite clear that their model for promoting cycling can be transferred to other places, so I'm not sure where you get your information from. Holland, and Denmark started from a very similar position to this country thirty years ago, but instead of responding to increased danger from motorised transport by blaming the victims, they prioritised the healthiest, greenest, safest forms of transport, and there appears no reason why the same could not happen here, given sufficient political support.

As far as the terrain goes, cycling in Bristol is rising rapidly, and I can tell you that it is certainly not flat. Our grandparents rode bikes with no gears up the same hills in huge numbers and those hills haven't become steeper over the past 50 years, so the terrain argument is false.

As far as racing cyclists wearing helmets, there is a simple reason for this; it's in the rules, so no helmet, no ride. It is interesting to examine the death rate of professional cyclists since this helmet rule was introduced, and although the figures are too small to be confident, there does not appear to have been any reduction.
Richard Burton, Bristol

Agree (24) | Disagree (9)

Even the Dutch say there is no point in other countries trying to 'go Dutch' because nobody else has the geographical and social attributes that they started out with. My Dutch employees would tell me that the only reason that they have so many bicycles is because the terrain is so flat and that meant that everybody in the entire country, young or old, could easily ride anywhere they wanted to go. If it wasn't for this simple fact the Dutch Government would never have considered building the cycling infrastructure that they did.

In the Netherlands bicycles are mostly used as a form of transport and occasionally used for leisure. In the UK, apart from London, it's the other way around simply because of the hills and for no other reason.
Duncan MacKillop, Stratford on Avon

Agree (18) | Disagree (12)


Bear in mind that cycling levels in the 60s and 70s in the Netherlands were lower than in Britain. Cycling levels only began to rise after cycling and walking became priorities, rather than motor vehicle 'flow'.

You also strangely never see a motor vehicle race - F1, Touring Cars, Rally, without the drivers wearing helmets either...

Chris Boardman has hit the nail on the head here. Insistence on helmet wearing is refusing to address the real cause of cyclist death and injury.
Steve, Merseyside

Agree (20) | Disagree (9)

It is an interesting thought that we forget cycle helmet wearing as it is not in the top 10 things to know about keeping safe. However one big difference between here and the Netherlands is it is flat so lots more people cycle and I don’t know if that’s the only reason they cycle but the country has always had a large amount of cyclist and Chris Boardman is quite correct, they also have a fantastic segregated cycling infrastructure.

The problem is we don’t. We have roads with shared unprotected cycle lanes, no cycle facilities at all or shared footpaths. So the more protection a cyclist can afford themselves the better. I agree it is not something that could or should go mandatory, it could never be enforced.

Strange thought though. You never see a cycle race without the riders wearing a helmet and I am sure Chris wore one when he was racing?
Stuart Rochdale

Agree (25) | Disagree (6)

It's interesting to see a potential head to head (pun not exactly intended) between Boardman and James Cracknell:

While we discuss road safety from our professional and academic stand points, how will 'ordinary' members of the public reconcile the two arguments?

To me, the most fascinating view is one I had yesterday - man in his 30s, no helmet, with a child on the back of the bike decked out in high viz and a helmet. There's some fascinating insight work going begging there, I think...
Neil Hopkins - Sussex

Agree (10) | Disagree (0)