Safer on bikes than driving


Re: Proposed Cyclists’ (Protective Headgear) Bill and recent Opinion article from Sustrans and CTC (Derry Journal 8th March).

As the principal public health organisation in the transport field, the Transport and Health Study Group joins many other organisations in opposing legislation to make the wearing of cycle helmets compulsory.

We have just completed a major study of the links between daily travel, public health and road safety called “Health on the Move 2”. What clearly emerges is that public health advances are being hampered by a false perception of cycling as a relatively hazardous mode of travel. Proper assessment shows that the actual risks of cycling are low: indeed, young people are generally safer on bikes than driving, and society as a whole is far safer if young people are encouraged to cycle.

The risks are further reduced if more people take up cycling, as there is a “safety in numbers” effect. Evidence from around the world shows that enforced laws compelling helmet use deter people from cycling and, ironically, increase risk for those who still cycle.

The bicycle is unique in matching the flexibility, and almost the speed, of the car for trips of two to five miles. It is this shift to cycling in the course of daily routine that holds the greatest potential to save lives through the reduction of heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and certain cancers, as well as pedestrian deaths. The health benefits of cycling rather than driving every day are many times greater than any increase in injury risk. However, in Australia and New Zealand, large and permanent reductions in cycling to school and work followed enforced helmet legislation.

Research from about 20 years ago apparently demonstrated a large protective effect from cycle helmets. Subsequent research has shown the early studies substantially overestimated the benefits: high levels of helmet use have not made cycling safer. It would appear this is due to flaws in the original research, declines in cycling and behavioural changes by cyclists and drivers.


Dr Stephen Watkins

Chair, The Transport & Health Study Group