Helmets Do Nothing, Says British Surgeon

Wearing a bike helmet may encourage motorists to ride more aggressively and cyclists to take more risks, according to studies.

Helmets are too flimsy to protect cyclists says one British surgeon.
Helmets are too flimsy to protect cyclists says one British surgeon.

Many cyclists believe bike helmets will protect their skull if they ever get into a crash, but a British neurosurgeon claimed they are not worth the trouble.

Dr. Henry Marsh, a neurosurgeon at St. George’s Hospital in London who treats patients with cycling injuries, argued that most helmets are ineffective and “too flimsy” to keep riders safe.

 “I ride a bike and I never wear a helmet. In the countries where bike helmets are compulsory there has been no reduction in bike injuries whatsoever,” Marsh said at the Hay Literary Festival earlier this year, according to the Telegraph. “I see lots of people in bike accidents and these flimsy little helmets don’t help.”

Cyclists rode over 3 billion miles a year in the United Kingdom, but they are not required to wear protective headgear, unlike in Australia and parts of the United States, where cycling without a helmet can earn a ticket from the cops.

Marsh told the festival crowd he has been riding bikes in Great Britain for four decades and “has only been knocked off once,” adding, “I wear a cowboy hat and cowboy boots. I look completely mad.”

Instead, he believes helmets gives cyclists a false sense of security on the road.

He pointed to a January, 2016, study by the University of Bath that found cyclists wearing a helmet are likely to take more risks on the road than if they just wore a baseball cap.

“People’s perceptions of safety influence their risk taking,” psychologists Tim Gable and Ian Walker wrote. “People using protective equipment against specific hazards might also be unduly inclined to take risks that such protective equipment cannot reasonably be expected to guard against.”

But helmet-wearing cyclists also influence motorists who veer three inches closer to cyclists while trying to pass them because they perceive those cyclists as safer, Walker has found in earlier studies.

“Many people have theories to say that cyclists can make themselves safer if they wear this or that,” Walker said in a release referring to his 2013 study. “Our study suggests that, no matter what you wear, it will do nothing to prevent a small minority of people from getting dangerously close when they overtake you.”

Yet there’s plenty of evidence that helmets are effective in low-speed collisions, and Marsh acknowledged children should wear helmets while riding in traffic.

Many cyclists continue to swear by helmets. Crash victims, as well as professional cyclists including Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas, want the UK to require cyclists to wear the headgear.

Olympic rowing gold medalist James Cracknell told the Telegraph that he nearly died in 2010 when a car’s side view mirror smashed his head at 70 miles per hour.

“There is no downside to wearing a helmet except having messy hair. And you have to remember that eight out of 10 kids who have cycling accidents are not on the road,” he said. “Even if you don’t care enough about yourself to wear a helmet other people care about you.”

40 thoughts on Helmets Do Nothing, Says British Surgeon

  1. Come to Australia and see the damage mandatory helmets of done, for the last 30 years we have had falling numbers of cyclists and of those cyclists left they have a higher chance of serious injury, and worst of all because governments think they have “fixed” the bike injury problem with mandatory helmets they have done close to zero When it comes to providing safe infrastructure.
    Many Australian schools that 30 years ago had more than 50% of the students riding to school now have less than 2% riding to school and some schools do not even provide bike racks anymore, please do not follow Australia and New Zealand with mandatory all age helmet laws because if you do you will suffer like Australia and New Zealand are suffering, low rider numbers That seriously affect the national health and pollution levels and those that are left to ride have a higher injury rate

  2. The quote in the last paragraph is entirely contradicted by the research cited above in the article. There are downsides that are worse than messy hair. And the “if you don’t care about yourself” statement presumes the conclusion that helmets are effective, which has not been proven.

  3. Yes, it’s super annoying that reasons not to wear a helmet so often get reduced to “messy hair”

    It’s a hassle. Helmets are annoying to carry around with you. They are also much too warm, even the most ventilated styles. And as mentioned in the article, people might drive closer to you.

  4. Crashed this year and my helmet absolutely saved my life. I’ll take the messy hair, thank you. Articles like this are outrageously irresponsible.

  5. While I agree helmets are junk science promoted by political leaders who don’t want to spend money on actual safe infrastructure, I am concerned that the quoted articles date from 2014.

  6. I agree with Flatlander. Wearing a helmet left me over-heated and dizzy. Adults should not be forced to wear them. What we really need is safety from cars.

  7. I consider helmets to be a last line of defense. They probably do some good in a crash, but I am a lot more concerned about preventing crashes in the first place. That is why I always ride with a rear view mirror, and I will never understand why most riders, including the ones who are anal-retentive about helmets, don’t use rear view mirrors. I usually ride with a helmet, but not always. And I certainly don’t think they should be mandatory, except possibly for children.

  8. Are helmets a pain in the arse? Yes. Do they do anything? Most likely yes. Should we focus a lot more attention on the ridiculous state of cycling infrastructure, the ever increasing size of cars, and in the US, the fetishising of SUV’s and trucks with ever higher from profiles, making it more likely that a cyclist is going to get knocked flat?

    Of course we should!

  9. “[…] a January, 2016, study by the University of Bath that found cyclists wearing a helmet are likely to take more risks on the road than if they just wore a baseball cap.”

    Did anyone bother to read this study? It does not measure “risks on the road”. It doesn’t measure “cyclists”. It doesn’t even measure risk in a meaningful way. It measures whether respondents are willing to keep inflating a simulated balloon in a lab in order to earn more points if they’re wearing a helmet versus a baseball cap.

    To the extent that it measures actual use of helmets and cycling experience through survey questions, and the relationship to the “risk” of popping a fake balloon, the results found nothing:

    “There was no relationship between risk taking and gender, t(78) = 0.45, p = .66, bicycling experience (? = .12, p = .27), and extent of helmet use when bicycling (? = .06, p = .60), nor, in regression modeling, interactions of any of these variables (e.g., the Condition × Bicycling Experience interaction was not significant; t = 0.39, p = .70).”

    To state the obvious, there is a huge difference between the risk of getting fewer points in a laboratory game and the risk of bodily injury. Anyone who’s fallen off a bike with or without a helmet knows it hurts either way.

    I’m ambivalent about helmet laws because the topic is complicated. But I’m definitely opposed to the misappropriation of research that says nothing about cycling safety as “evidence” that helmets are dangerous. Telling someone not to wear a helmet based on this work is what is actually dangerous.

    If this article had been about seatbelt laws or vehicle safety technology, I can’t help but think the reaction would be entirely different.

  10. If feeling safe leads to worse injuries, feeling UN-safe will lead to fewer. Therefore all these vehicles should be made of razor wire and broken glass. QED!

  11. Just came back from the Netherlands which has the highest percentage of ridership in the world! Guess what? Nobody wore a helmet. I truly believe the helmet concern police are reducing ridership in the United States.

  12. Part of the problem here is that all helmets are being lumped together. I would say that a $20 Walmart helmet will make far less of a difference to my safety then my downhill rated Troy Lee helmet in traffic. If helmets make no difference, are we suggesting that people ride bike parks and woodland trails (with drops and obstructions) helmetless?

  13. Seems like the relevant data avoided in this discussion is the number of serious head injuries per bike accident with and without a helmet. Surely this data is available somewhere. The ideas that people treat helmeted bikers differently is absurd as is the idea that bikers behave differently it wearing a helmet. Thanks drew for clarifying the ridiculous study!

  14. “To each his own”

    It is the right of a person to have his own opinion and make his own decisions. It can be any decision, opinion or view. Many times the right to take a decision alone can look to be rude especially when it goes against the opinion of others in a group.

    My point being? If a cyclist chooses not to wear a helmet they shouldn’t have to be lectured on the safety of helmets. I personally have been asked not to participate in group rides and events because I wasn’t wearing a helmet…..

  15. I think this article is good for discussion but for a Dr to say what he said is plain old nonsense. Most bicycle accidents are low speed affairs and a helmet would surely be of value. Is a helmet a match for a car? No way, and I don’t think too many people would believe that it would be. It is the low speed stuff that would be of biggest value. Are people with helmets bigger risk takers? No, in central NY anyhow the people with helmets tend to be those that are stronger riders, so they tend to travel faster than those that don’t. Ironically the non helmet wearers tend to be those riding against traffic, jumping curbs in the city, etc. That might be the reason cars get closer to people with helmets because again they generally are more accomplished riders and less likely to make an erratic move. Central NY does not have an adult helmet law and I personally feel people should have a choice. I chose to ride with one. I ride road, cross, and mountain bike. I have gone down a lot on the MTB bike, and cross, a few times on the road. Can I say a helmet helped me? I don’t really know, but again, I don’t want to find.

  16. Dan, I think I read that with helmet laws, head injuries decrease…but so do all other injuries, to parts of the body that have nothing to do with helmets. Suggesting that the helmet is not what makes the difference.

  17. I think that the difference in countries such as the Netherlands is much higher quality of driver’s education when it comes to cyclist rights and much better infrastructure dedicated to cyclists. When I was hit by a car (car rolled through a stop sign, I was in a bicycle lane going reasonable speed) my head bounced off the asphalt and I came away with no apparent head injury. I credit my helmet 100% for that and went out to buy another as you can’t reuse it once it’s been compromised. This article is terribly misleading and incredibly disappointing.

  18. At 45 my father said “if you’re so smart why aren’t you rich?” Thankfully I was ready to face cognitive dissonance and the lesson was learned.
    To those who think mandatory all age helmets are the answer I ask “if helmets are the answer why do countries without mandatory helmet laws have the lowest injury rates?” Time to face cognitive dissonance, it’s a challenge that it’s worthwhile because in the end public health and the environment are more important than the individual

  19. I don’t advocate any helmet laws, I also don’t advocate seat belt laws. I am against sharing blatant skewed information whichever misinforms people and I believe that this article qualifies as such.

  20. I started cycling seriously before special cycling helmets were a thing. I bought a hockey helmet and wore it religiously when I was do hills and mountains, but why wear it around town? It looked goofy, it was hot no need for it, right? Wrong. Got something on the front rim,front brake locked an three me over the handlebars. I landed on my head and bounced, twice. Concussion, blurry vision for 2 months. 40+ years on, there is still a flat spot that should not be there. Always, always wore a helmet after that, needed it twice, broke the helmet both times, not my head. This guy is irresponsible, send him to wherever they send the anti-vaxer and similar whack jobs, give him a bounce on his cowboy hat and see if that changes anything.

  21. Of course this article is clickbait and doesn’t deal with the facts. The ‘debate’ between wearing a helmet or not wearing a helmet is more ‘juicy’.
    Safety is directly correlated to behavior. If you ride safely (slower speed, watch where you’re going), your risk is very low. If you engage in risky behaviors (speeding, riding too close to car doors, veering around moving traffic, riding the wrong way on a sidewalk & then entering an intersection, riding double file on a narrow high-speed road, etc), your chances of injury are much greater.
    Even with that higher risk, the injury rate on a bike is still very low. The risk of injury on a bike is very close to the risk of walking or being in a car.
    Helmets prevent 0% of crashes, and in any mishap only reduce the severity of superficial injuries. These are all FACTS.
    Instead of facts, we usually get articles like this, pitting the Church of The Helmet vs. the Helmet Atheists.
    Also: Bike riders in The Netherlands have a low injury rate because they ride SLOWER. I know the speedsters in the U.S.will hate to hear that. They want to believe there’s some mystical ‘safety in numbers’ effect that will protect them if they speed down the road. Not gonna happen.

  22. Bicycle helmets were never meant to protect the user from Cars. They are meant to protect the user from falls in the bicycle accident. This article hints otherwise and therefore misses the point.

  23. If you’re one of those wedded to their helmet, ie. that’s what makes you comfortable, okay. Be sure to also wear your helmet:

    (1) Any time you’re in a car as car-on-car and car-only crashes are still the number one culprit of TBI in US, even with mandatory seatbelts and airbags. This is where the real public health burden lies.
    (2) As a pedestrian in any major city. Pedestrians are almost always the largest cohort of fatalities of road users in those locales (cyclists usually the smallest)
    (3) Whenever crossing throw rugs, climbing ladders or taking a shower
    (4) Pretty much all the time over the age of 70, including in bed (or at least getting in and out of bed)

  24. This is a classic example of black or white, all our nothing thinking. Of course bike helmet are not strong enough to protect you from any collision, of course helmets can’t make up for the lack of well-designed, bicycle friendly infrastructure. Nevertheless, when my head his the asphalt on the road or a rock on the trail as it has done a few times in my 50 years of riding, I’ll walk away with a smashed helmet and an intact skull. I’ll continue advocating for barrier-protected, separate bike Lanes and other safe infrastructure items but I’m not going to pretend helmets don’t help. That would be ridiculous.

  25. For many years now, I have heard this same debate about the benefits and liabilities of wearing motorcycle helmets. I’m not a surgeon but I’ll put as many barriers between my fragile skull and the pavement or a car as I can. I’ll take my chances riding with a helmet and you take your chances riding without a helmet.

  26. interesting points on both sides here.

    my synthesis:

    1) mandatory helmet laws are provably bad for overall cycling.
    2) helmets clearly help stop head injuries in a very specific type of low speed crash.
    3) countries with great bike infrastructure are also countries where people don’t wear helmets in the main (denmark, the netherlands etc.)
    4) countries with great bike infrastructure, ironically, create slower riding as the standard (where slower is say 10-12 mph instead of 15-20)
    5) kids should wear helmets

    i think that’s it! i choose to ride NYC without a helmet, and i also choose to ride defensively, at lower speeds, NEVER in the door zone (which means taking the lane on side streets always) and always with extra care around left and right hook situations. so i guess i’m splitting the difference on this.

  27. The problem is that a neurosurgeon only sees the worst head injuries. No wonder he thinks that helmets don’t work! If he were to spend his career working on cyclists who just got arm, leg, and facial injuries, he would hear about all the times that their helmets worked. A neurosurgeon is just not very well positioned to see accidents in which helmets did their job. There is a huge list of studies of helmet effectiveness here:https://www.helmets.org/stats.htm.

  28. “there’s plenty of evidence that helmets are effective in low-speed collisions”

    But little information that helmets are effective at high-speed collisions.

    Helmets are designed to fail at impacts over 11mph (CPSC standards)– you don’t have to be knocked down very hard to exceed that speed.

  29. Mandatory helmet laws are stupid, they decrease the likelihood that someone will choose to cycle. The health risks of NOT cycling and the likely increase of carbon output by choosing some other travel option or recreational activity far outweighs the risk of cycling without a helmet. (Mandatory helmet laws for children are, I think, not so stupid because they protect children from bad parenting.)

    On the other hand, cycling without a helmet is stupid, too. Maybe “stupid” is too strong a term here, but it is definitely better to wear a helmet than to forego doing so. No helmet will protect the skull and brain from every impact, but even the lightest helmet with the least certifications is better than nothing. A cyclist is much more likely to experience a modest impact from, for example, falling off their bike at low speed than a catastrophic impact such as from, for example, getting hit head-on by an SUV doing 70mph.

    I offer the anecdotal evidence of my own experience (which I freely admit is not real evidence) from several minor motor vehicle strikes, one major motor vehicle strike, and a couple of falls that my helmets have saved me a great deal of superficial injuries and in at least two cases reduced the severity of concussion significantly.

    FWIW I also wear full-finger gloves year-’round mainly for UV protection but in a minor fall or collision they keep my fingers and palms from getting torn up. I recommend others do the same, at least in the summer; but I wouldn’t propose a law requiring adults to protect themselves in that way.

  30. Arguing helmet laws based on The Netherlands is pretty well irrelevant. Their entire roadway/bikeway system has been reconstructed to favor cyclists and slow cars. Helmets would be less necessary if American streetscapes were like that. It’s really not comparable to anywhere in the United States that I can think of. It will take a long time for the US to get to that, if it ever does.

    Initially, the good doctor is quoted as dismissing “flimsy” helmets. If the problem is helmet flimsiness, the solution would be making better, stronger helmets.

  31. I believe in helmets and have witnessed the protection they afford. A major problem is helmets that are not fitted and adjusted correctly, especially among kids. I’ve seen parents plop helmets on their rugrats’ heads with foreheads dangerously exposed. Yes, this can cause serious injury and probably makes the case for “if you ain’t gonna wear it right, don’t wear it all.”

  32. In recent years I have witnessed 4 accidents where helmets without doubt prevented serious injury, 2 on mtb and 2 on road. One into an SUV windscreen, which smashed on impact, (my son). All were accidents at lower speeds but all agreed helmets saved there fragile skulls. It would help tremendously if drivers stopped using their phones. Unbelievable how many still do. Infuriating.

  33. I do what I want. I always ride with helmet on my motorcycles. I usually don’t wear a helmet while riding a bicycle.

  34. It takes one serious accident to start believing in helmets. When I crashed, there were abrasions all over my body, and my head hit the road real hard. And yet, I didn’t lose consciousness. Later, when I checked my helmet, I discovered deep cracks running through it – it consumed lots of energy during the impact.

    PS. It wasn’t a flimsy helmet though. It was a high-end $200 new helmet, which I later replaced for free (crash replacement program). I also immediately bought another one for my wife.

  35. People should always have a plastic helmet on their head when they aren’t inside a large motor vehicle.

    This will increase sales of large motor vehicles, which is all my mass-media-contaminated mind cares about.

  36. If you really think mandatory bike helmets are a good thing then you should come to Australia and see how very few cyclists we have and how dangerous it is for the remaining cyclists, ever since mandatory helmet laws 30 years ago our rider numbers as a percentage of population have been falling and the injury rate as a percentage of riders is increasing

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