Debate: Cycle helmets

That this meeting of Congress asks RCN Council not to support any proposals to make the use of cycle helmets compulsory.

The wearing of bicycle helmets and attitudes towards their use vary around the world. Compulsory use of helmets has previously been proposed and is subject of much debate. In the UK 15% of adults (or around 3,628,400) are now cycling at least once a month.

In statistical terms, there has been no change in the number of fatalities from cycling however in contrast, the number of cyclists seriously injured has been rising. This long term increase is likely caused by the long term increase in cycle traffic, reflecting an increase in the number of cyclists exposed to potential dangers. Whether or not it is of benefit to wear a helmet depends on both the rider and the type of cycling they are doing. However, given the extent to which the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks involved, Cycling UK's view is that it is more important to encourage people to cycle, than whether or not they wear helmets when doing so.

This view is shared by Cycling Scotland, which continues to support those who choose to wear cycle helmets but remain strongly opposed to any move toward helmet compulsion, believing that any such measures may negatively impact on the uptake of cycling as part of a healthy, active and sustainable lifestyle. They are neither anti- nor pro-helmet and believe that ultimately each individual should be free to decide whether to wear a helmet or not whilst cycling. In ‘Go Safe on Scotland’s Roads’ the Scottish Government committed to encourage the wearing of correctly fitted helmets by cyclists, especially children.

A Private Members Bill making the wearing of cycle helmets compulsory in Northern Ireland was passed (narrowly) by the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2011 but never enacted, primarily because of lobbying by cycling organisations that opposed the legislation on the grounds that it would be a disproportionate response to the perceived risk and could deter people from realising the wider health benefits of cycling.

Cycling should be promoted as an essentially safe, normal and enjoyable transport and leisure activity, which anyone can do in whatever clothes they prefer to wear, with or without helmets. Given the substantial health benefits from cycling the new public health focus on promoting its use is well founded. Acknowledging safety issues it is also reasonable to promote means to mitigate risks. Cyclists can be encouraged to wear helmets, which reduce the chance of head and face injuries in the event of a crash however, helmets do not prevent crashes from happening in the first place. Methods used to protect cyclists in the Netherlands, where helmet use is rare and injury rates are low, appear to have been successful. A major study from the University of Toronto and British Columbia found no link between compulsory bicycle helmets and head injuries, in fact the results of the study support the policy choices made in Denmark and Holland, where cycling is prominent. Here, where injury and fatality rates are much lower, the emphasis is on creating an infrastructure that attracts cycling, rather than a focus on provision of helmets. It is more important to promote a healthy active population than to scare people and stop them from cycling, and use of promotion campaigns creating a mutually respectful culture between cyclists and car drivers as opposed to compulsory helmet wearing would benefit all.


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Acknowledging this topic as controversial, avid cyclist Kathy Moore, Dorset Branch, told Congress that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risk involved and it was more important to encourage people to cycle than force them to wear a helmet. Encouraging cyclists to wear a helmet, reduces the risk of head and face injuries, but doesn’t stop the crash from happening in the first place. Kathy highlighted that promoting a “mutually respectful culture between cyclists, car drivers and pedestrians” could make a difference. 

Seconding, Debbie Bond, Bath Branch said that car drivers aren’t aware of the obstacles that cyclists face and those cyclists who do wear helmets take more risks.

The majority of speakers were against the motion, expressing personal stories of family and friends whose lives had been saved or serious injury prevented, by wearing a helmet. Many agreed that improving the infrastructure and educating cyclists and drivers was important. Doreen Crawford, East Midlands Branch was concerned that by supporting this resolution, nursing staff would be seen on the “wrong side of legislation and give justification for not wearing a helmet”.

Also speaking for the motion, cyclist and first time speaker, Travis Norton, South Birmingham, who always wears a helmet when riding said: “It shouldn’t be made compulsory to wear one”.

At the time of the vote it became apparent that the motion would be more appropriate as a matter for discussion rather than a resolution. 

With the agreement of Kathy Moore, Linda Bailey, Public Health Forum proposed a wording change to: 

“This meeting of RCN Congress discusses whether RCN Council should support any proposals to make the use of cycle helmets compulsory.”

This was seconded by Hamish Kemp, Central Manchester Branch.

17 May 2017 10:30 - 11:20

Location To Be Confirmed


Resolution, submitted by the RCN Dorset Branch

Page last updated - 04/08/2020