The great helmet debate

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Should commuter cyclists be required to wear helmets? Does wearing a helmet make a commuter cyclist safer (in general, and specifically in Johannesburg)? JUCA’s Grant Rex wades into the debates:


I always wear a helmet, but find the points made in this paper about  compulsory helmet rules quite thought provoking. It’s clear we should encourage helmet use, but not insist on it: cycling safety is primarily the responsibility of government not the individual.

If we jump on the ‘no ride, no helmet’ bandwagon, it also reinforces the idea that cycling is very unsafe and needs protective equipment: this is enough to put most novices and inexperienced cyclists totally off the idea of cycling.

This paper presents data to show that it probably results in a massive reduction in cycling, with deleterious health consequences that are far worse than the few head injuries that cyclists experience.

Helmets probably also do no good if you’re hit by a big enough vehicle at a high enough speed – to state the obvious. But there’s also some evidence to suggest that cars pass closer to cyclists wearing helmets than those not wearing helmets.

The majority of commuters in Joburg don’t wear helmets and can’t afford them, so insisting on them is likely to keep the image of cycling that of a predominantly white recreational activity.

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Key debating points about helmet rules in Johannesburg:

• Do compulsory helmets rules cause a fear of cycling which is then seen as a more dangerous activity by families with young children, and adults wanting to take a quick trip to the local shops for the bread, milk, beer or the paper?

• Is it possible to see the distinction between individual safety, on the one hand, and community health, on the other?

• Is there a specific challenge for developing country commuters who can’t afford helmets?

• Does this have a racial dimension in Johannesburg, that unnecessarily condemns cycling as an elitist recreation?