Mandatory bicycle helmet laws in the UK and the Republic of Ireland

Bicycle helmets are not mandatory for cyclists of any age anywhere in the British Isles. However, several politicians and lobby groups have been campaigning for mandatory bicycle helmet laws in the UK, Ireland, Wales and Scotland.

The Guardian newspaper June 2018

December 2012: the Journal of Medical Ethics in the UK has peer reviewed and published The impacts of compulsory cycle helmet legislation on cyclist fatalities and premature deaths in the UK, a Bursary Paper produced for the Transport Planning Society. It provides estimates that compelling cyclists to wear helmets by law is likely to both reduce cycling levels and lead to more premature deaths than the legislation would save.

March 2012: the Journal of Medical Ethics in the UK has peer reviewed and published Liberty or death; don't tread on me (PDF 78kb) by Carwyn Hooper and John Spicer from the University of London and the London Deanery, recommending that the government not be swayed by ill-informed calls for bicycle helmets to be mandatory.

In April 2011 the Transport and Health Study group, an independent British society of public health and transport practitioners and researchers, published the landmark report Health on the Move 2 containing Cycle Helmet Evidence that should be closely studied by all politicians and bureaucrats.

bike helmet cartoon

Cartoon thanks to Yehuda Moon and the Kickstand Cyclery

In December 2007, the British government agency Cycling England published Cycling and Health: What's the Evidence? (PDF 3.6 meg), considered the most comprehensive guide ever written regarding the health benefits of cycling. This is a benchmark publication that should be read by all health professionals who want to encourage rather than discourage healthy exercise.

Extract from the UK's Transport Research Laboratory:
The 2008 survey on major built-up roads showed that cycle helmet wearing was 34.3%, an increase from 30.7% in 2006. The wearing rate has increased each year the survey has been carried out since 1994 when it was 16.0%. The increase since 2006 is due to the increase in adult cyclists wearing helmets from 31.5% to 35.3% as the cycle helmet wearing rate for children remained constant at 17.6% (the same as in 1994 and 2006, having dropped in between).

The December 2000 issue of the British Medical Journal investigates the negative impact on public health which has resulted from the mandatory and unpopular enforcement of bicycle helmets.

In June 1999, the British Medical Association recommended that mandatory bicycle helmet laws not be introduced anywhere in the United Kingdom because of the public health impact from reduced cycling, despite recommending all cyclists wear proper fitting helmets.

However, the BMA reversed this position in 2004 without consulting its members, despite a 2002 membership survey in which mandatory helmets were voted the least effective way to promote cycling safety.

In July 2011, a survey by the British Medical Journal found that among 1,439 respondents, many of them doctors, 68% didn't believe that bicycle helmets should be mandatory for adult cyclists in the UK.

Extract from the British Medical Association's Safe Cycling report from 2009:
Provisional figures for the period of April 2006 to March 2007 show that 2,462 cyclists were killed or seriously injured in road crashes and a another 13,930 received light injuries. Provisional estimates for the first quarter of 2007 for the total number of cycling casualties have increased by seven per cent upon what they were in the previous year.

The data show helmet wearing increased by 3.6% from 2006 to 2008 while the number of cyclist casualties increased by 7% in the 12 months to March 2007.

The BMA paper points out that cycling in the UK fell by about 20% from 1995 (when helmet wearing was just over 16%) to 2006 (when helmet wearing was 30.7%) ...

The proportion of people travelling by cycle has fallen over the past 25 years in England. [Reference 1] In 1995 the National Travel Survey reported that there were on average 20 cycle trips per person in the UK. [Reference 1] By 2006 this had fallen to 16 trips; the average journey length in miles has not changed significantly.

The UK Department for Transport Statistics Bulletin (PDF 288kb) has data for the 15 years to March 2009.

This data indicate UK cyclist casualties fell by 34% from the 1994-98 average to the year to March 09, compared to a 30% reduction in casualties for all road users over the same period.

In 2002 the UK helmet wearing rate was 25.1% and the UK cyclist casualty figure was 17,107. In 2008 the UK helmet wearing rate was 34.3% and the UK cyclist casualty figure was 16,297 - i.e. helmet wearing increased by 9.2% and casualties fell by 5%.

However, the Statistics Bulletin shows the UK cyclist casualty figure was 16,196 in 2006 compared to 16,297 in 2008 - an increase of about half a percent. For all road users, casualties fell from 258,404 in 2006 to 230,905 in 2008 - a reduction of 11.9%. During this period, helmet wearing increased by 3.6%.

There were 3,080 cyclist casualties in the March quarter of 2009, compared to 2,884 in the March quarter of 2005 (up 6.5%). For all road users, there were 50,200 casualties in the March quarter 09, compared to 62,037 in the March quarter 05 (down 19%).

Head injuries represent about 40% of cyclist hospital admissions and helmets are claimed to reduce head injuries by 85%. If these claims are true, why is the UK cyclist casualty rate increasing (contrary to all other road users) at the same time that helmet use is increasing?

Reported Road Casualties Great Britain Main Results: 2012 published by the UK Department for Transport showed injuries down significantly for all UK transport modes except pedal cyclists, with fatalities up 10% and serious injuries up 4% to 3,222, maintaining an eight year trend of increasing cyclist casualties despite reductions for all other road users.

The data indicates UK cyclist casualties fell by 30% from the 1994-98 average to the year 2009, compared to a 31% reduction in casualties for all road users over the same period. The number of cyclists killed or seriously injured in 2009 was 27% less than the 1994/98 average, compared to a reduction of 44% for all road users.

Data from Reported Road Casualties in Great Britain Quarterly Provisional Estimates Q3 2009 published by the UK Department for Transport shows that cycling casualties across the UK fell from 1999 to 2003 but the rate of injuries has stabilised since then and has been increasing in recent years, as below:

cyclist casualties in uk

In the graph above, the decrease in cyclist casualties from 1995 to 2006 is explained by the 20% decrease in UK public cycling participation cited by the BMA. The decrease is also in line with other road safety measures such as tougher drink driving and speeding laws which reduced the casualty rate for all other road users, all of which saw an increase rather than decrease in volume on the roads (see table below). While all other road user modes have enjoyed ongoing substantial falls in casualty rates since 2003, cycling casualties have remained static despite helmet use increasing by about 10%.

Data from Reported Road Casualties in Great Britain Quarterly Provisional Estimates Q3 2012 shows that cycling casualties continue to worsen while safety improves for others:

cyclist casualties in uk 2012

Cycle Helmet Wearing in 2008 published by the UK Department for Transport shows that overall bicycle helmet wearing in the UK was 34.3% in 2008, up from 30.7% in 2006 and in line with a constant increase since 1994, when it was 16%. The overall helmet wearing rate in the UK increased by about 10% from 2003 to 2008 yet there has been no decrease in casualties.

bicycle helmets major uk roads bicycle helmets minor uk roads

Influencing the casualty figures is the increase in cycling witnessed in the UK since 2005, due to rising petrol prices and climate concerns. For a long-term gauge of UK cyclist numbers, Personal Travel by Mode published by the UK Department for Transport in 2009 reports that between 1980 and 2008 "the distance travelled by pedal cycle has remained around 5 billion passenger kilometres".

travel kilometres uk cycle kilometres uk

The UK National Travel Survey 2012 published by the UK Department for Transport shows the average number of bike trips has declined since 1995/97 despite an increase in distance travelled. Click here to view chart.

As explained by CTC - the UK's national cyclist organisation: "the more cyclists there are, the safer cycling becomes".

Cycling trips in the UK were the same or slightly fewer in 2012 compared to 2003 and cycling casualty numbers increased substantially from 2003 to 2012, suggesting the 10% increase in voluntary use of helmets in the UK from 2003 to 2008 did not result in any discernible reduction in injuries per cyclist, despite claims that helmets substantially reduce injury to the head.

In April, 2009, the Irish Government published Ireland's First National Cycle Policy Framework (PDF 1mb), which aims to see 10% of all trips in that country by bicycle in the year 2020. The word "helmet" is not mentioned once in the document, which states: "There must be a clear message that cycling is a readily accessible form of transport, not requiring unnecessary encumbrances such as specialised cycling attire.". ... i.e. helmets.

On March 10, 2009, published this article, expressing concern at efforts to promote helmet-wearing using unsupportable claims for their effectiveness.

Britain's largest national cyclists' organisation, CTC, released a report in early 2004 explaining why there should not be a child bicycle helmet law (PDF 124kb). Read the helmet policies of CTC.

Reported on May 7, 2009, by The Guardian newspaper, research from the UK's main cycling organsation, the Cyclists Touring Club, showing that where there are more riders on the road there are generally fewer accidents. "Struck by the Dutch success, a group of British MPs has just returned from a fact-finding trip to the country. There, along with reams of information about bike lanes and secure parking, they were let in to a less well-known secret for spurring a national cycling culture: throw out the Lycra and the helmets."

bike helmet cartoon

Cartoon thanks to Yehuda Moon and the Kickstand Cyclery

Cycling Scotland makes clear in this document (PDF 24kb) why it recommends Cycle helmets should not be made compulsory now or at any time.


Playing It Safe (PDF 256kb), a report by Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People published in November 2007, makes the following observation:

This research, undertaken for my office by the Scottish Institute for Residential Child Care, describes some quite mind-blowing scenarios that I am sure many people will find almost incredible. It sets out a picture of excessive regulation (or perceived regulation) and risk aversion that must blight the lives of these young people and hamper their development. It depicts a culture whose consequences undermine the most basic rights of young people to healthy development and to play, leisure and recreation. Yet many of the supposed rules referred to as justifications for these restrictions appear to be myths, handed down by word of mouth.

Results from mandatory bicycle helmet jurisdictions suggest the law not only hampers the development of young people and undermines their most basic rights, it also increases their accident risk and endangers their personal safety.

On April 23, 2004, the British Parliament stalled a Private Members Bill put by Labor member for Carlisle Eric Martlew to enforce mandatory helmets for all cyclists aged under 16 in the United Kingdom. Follow the debate on BBC News.

On October 26, 2005, the House of Lords in the UK refused a Road Safety Bill amendment which would have made helmets compulsory for cyclists under 16. Why? Because mandatory helmets discourage healthy exercise, "which would be a loss for the nation".

Cycle Helmet Wearing in 2002 (PDF 272kb) prepared for the Road Safety Division of the UK Department for Transport provides nationwide survey data from 1994 to 2002. This study also has insights into other cyclist/helmet trends when influenced by ethnicity, bicycle type, age, gender, weather and other variables.

The Cycle Helmet: Friend or Foe?, by Senior Fellow Emeritus Mayer Hillman from the Policy Studies Institute in London, concludes that bicycle helmet wearing should be neither mandated or encouraged.

Trends in cyclist casualties in Britain with increasing cycle helmet use (PDF 152kb) by British bicycle crash litigation expert John Franklin analyses data from around the world and concludes that bicycle helmet legislation is counter-productive.

Cycle helmets: 25 years along the road (PDF 76KB) is another study by John Franklin analysing what bicycle helmets have achieved in the real world over the past quarter century.

In 2007, Tory MP Peter Bone was lobbying the British parliament to enforce mandatory helmets for all cyclists aged 14 or less. The national cycling organisation CTC puts its view in the UK's bicycle industry newsletter Bike Biz.

Cycle Helmets and Road Casualties in the UK is a 2005 study that finds: "There is no evidence that cycle helmets reduce the overall cyclist injury burden at the population level in the UK when data on road casualties is examined."

In December 2005, the UK National Children's Bureau published Cycling and Children and Young People (PDF 372kb) with an extensive and objective annex that concludes "the benefits of helmets need further investigation before even a policy supporting promotion can be unequivocally supported". Anybody with a real interest in child safety and public health should read this report.

Another peer-reviewed paper published in late 2005 was Cycle Helmets and Road Casualties in the UK (PDF 736kb) which finds "The conclusion cannot be avoided that there is no evidence from the benchmark dataset in the UK that helmets have had a marked safety benefit at the population level on road-using pedal cyclists."

bike helmet cartoon

Cartoon thanks to Yehuda Moon and the Kickstand Cyclery

Read the opinion of London mayor Boris Johnson, published in June 2008.

The Towner Report (PDF 673kb) of 2002 was commissioned by the UK Department for Transport as an independent and objective critique of evidence on the efficacy of bicycle helmets and helmet legislation. It is worthwhile reading a critique of the Towner Report (PDF 240kb).

Read what the Dublin Cycling Campaign thinks about mandatory bicycle helmet laws.

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