If you had to wear a helmet every time you got on a bike, would you reduce the number of times you get on a bike? Might you even stop cycling altogether? Wearing a helmet while cycling is not currently mandatory, but should it be? This is the question that Claire Byrne put to two cyclists: Transport Consultant Conor Faughnan and Tim Lynch, Consultant Neurologist at the Dublin Neurological Institute at the Mater Hospital. It is, as Conor observed, a hot button issue for some people:
"In cities like Copenhagen, for example, or some of the European cities, there are huge numbers of cyclists and they don’t wear helmets and they’re very safe. To my mind, the real problem with cycling helmets is not that they’re not effective – they are – the difficulty, Claire, is that when you make them compulsory, no matter what you intend the outcome of that law to be, what actually happens is that the number of people cycling goes down."
So Conor doesn’t think that making helmet-wearing compulsory for cyclists is a good idea, primarily because it will turn people off getting on their bikes in the first place. And when it comes to bikes that aren’t your own, the situation gets complicated: will people who like to get around by the likes of Dublin Bikes be expected to carry a helmet with them wherever they go?
"They’re very convenient, you can hop on them, you can hop off them, but if you had to wear a helmet, effectively you’d cut potential users by 90%. Do you carry your own helmet around with you? It puts people off."
Conor acknowledges that helmet use is growing among cyclists and people are taking the safety message on board, but:
"The act of making it compulsory, unfortunately, does more harm than good, no matter how good your intentions are."
Neurologist Tim goes straight for the detailed, more-than-a-little-icky description of what happens when you suffer a brain injury:
"It’s a delicate organ. It sloshes around in your skull. So when you get a head injury, unfortunately, coming off a bike, you have what we call a contrecoup injury. Your head hits the ground, your skull stops, your brain still keeps moving inside the skull and gets smacked off the front and gets smacked off the back as it ricochets back and forth, injuring the brain."
This, needless to say, is not good. At best, you get a concussion, at worst, you suffer severe brain injury, leading to disability or death. There’s hard data, Tim says, that helmets protect cyclists. And while he agrees that encouragement is important, he cites research that says legislation brings helmet-wearing up from about 45% to about 85%. When it comes to city bikes, Tim suggests that solutions can be found if the work is put in:
"There must be ways and means that we can figure it out. One is you could have free helmets, which could be cheap helmets available to bike."
Neither of Claire’s guests disputed the effectiveness of helmets for cyclists, but they had to agree to disagree on whether or not making it illegal to cycle without one is a good idea. Back to the drawing board.
You can hear Claire’s full conversation with Tim and Conor by going here.