Hats on for cyclists? With deaths at a five-year high — calls for helmets to be made compulsory are getting louder. But not everyone agrees

Despite 122 riders being killed last year, the majority of cycling-safety campaigners are opposed to the introduction of helmet legislation, describing it as a 'red herring' issue

The national governing body for cycling is calling for a "full review of the justice system" as it emerges most police forces are failing to follow guidance from 2011 telling them to record whether cyclists are wearing helmets at the time of an accident.

As the number of deaths on the road hit a five-year high last year, British Cycling said it is vital all relevant information is recorded to ensure all road crashes are properly investigated and conditions for cycling improved.

The Department for Transport (DfT) relies on police data to compile annual statistics on road fatalities but had no idea when contacted by The Independent on Sunday how many of the 122 cyclists killed in 2012 were wearing helmets as most investigators still do not record that information. More than 3,200 cyclists were also "seriously injured" in road accidents.

Martin Gibbs, policy and legal affairs director at British Cycling, said: "We are calling for a full review of the justice system to ensure all road crashes are investigated properly – so we can use the data to improve safety for all road users – and that all relevant information is recorded to help us improve conditions for cycling."

The call from British Cycling comes as debate continues to grow over whether compulsory helmet legislation should be introduced. The island of Jersey made it compulsory for under-18s to wear cycle helmets in 2010, and two politicians last week called for the law to be extended to all cyclists.

The majority of cycling-safety campaigners are opposed to the introduction of helmet legislation, describing it as a "red herring" issue. Mr Gibbs said: "Cycle helmets are only effective in reducing certain types of head injuries, at lower speeds and lower forces. The majority of fatalities involve forces far in excess of the capabilities of helmets, such as those involving HGVs. Issues relating to road conditions, driver awareness and junction design are more important than whether the cyclist wore a helmet."

Charlie Lloyd, campaigns officer at London Cycling Campaign (LCC), said: "In many injury crashes the police do not attend and often do not ask about helmets when crashes are reported to them by others. It is not even clear if the on-site records used by all police forces will ask for this to be recorded. The official statistics form is not completed until some time after a crash."

The US has since 1994 recorded whether or not a cyclist dying on the road was wearing a helmet. According to its government's Department of Transportation, 675 cyclists were killed in crashes with motor vehicles in 2011 with only 15 per cent of those reportedly wearing a helmet compared with 67 per cent who were not. In the remainder of cases it was "unknown".

Helmets do little to prevent concussion, but their effectiveness at saving lives has been proven, according to research by the Cochrane Collaboration. "Helmets provide a 63 to 88 per cent reduction in the risk of head, brain and severe brain injury for all ages of bicyclists," its paper on the subject said. Other research shows a lower reduction rate of between 58 and 60 per cent.

If next year's UK statistics on cycling fatalities show a similar pattern to the US, it may reignite the debate on whether wearing a helmet while cycling should be made compulsory, as it is in countries such as Australia and Sweden.

James Cracknell believes he would have died had he not been wearing a helmet when he was knocked off his bicycle during an endurance challenge in the US. "In an ideal world, wearing a helmet would be compulsory," the Olympic rowing gold medallist wrote in the aftermath of Bradley Wiggins and his coach Shane Sutton getting knocked off their bikes within a day of each other last year. He said both would have suffered more serious injuries had they not been wearing helmets.

The Netherlands is often cited as an example of a perfect cycling country where there is no mandatory helmet law. Dan Ashley, who rides regularly in London and always wears a helmet, said the UK should do more to follow the Netherlands model rather than introduce a compulsory law. "Wearing a helmet is a choice and nowhere near the top issue for cyclists' safety. Holland has the best record in the world and feels absolutely no need to introduce legislation for helmets. That is because everything else is in place to make cycling safe, such as well-constructed cycle lanes with their own dedicated rules using lights and signals. The UK would do well to follow that method," he said.

A DfT spokesman said: "Procedures used by the police to record accidents were amended in 2011 to enable officers to record whether or not a cyclist involved in an accident was wearing a helmet. It is up to individual forces to record this information and a number of forces have started to do so."

The day the cyclists ruled the streets of London

Thousands of commuters and tourists (and even a few penny-farthing enthusiasts) of all ages took advantage of the car-free streets of central London yesterday to join in a mass celebration of cycling. RideLondon, which ends today with professional and amateur riders making round-trip rides from London to Surrey, began yesterday as a slightly more casual affair. The FreeCycle ride kicked off with the former England rugby captain Martin Johnson joining a failed attempt on the world record for the longest single parade of bikes. One of the many children there was Daisy Rundell, aged 6, who had travelled with her family from Somerset. She said: "It was really nice to see London without the cars." Despite the festival atmosphere, many felt London has a long way to go to become a cycle-friendly city. Salim Hafejee, a lawyer from north London, said that while there were now "vast numbers" of cyclists compared with a few years ago there had been no noticeable effort to make the capital's roads more cycle-friendly in recent years. Some were more optimistic, however. Stuart Dennison, the owner of the BikeFix shop in Bloomsbury, said the congestion charge had brought a great improvement, while "the increase of cyclists over the past few years has led to better road conditions".

Abbas Panjwani

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