Cycle helmets don't provide protection, says neurosurgeon

Henry Marsh called into question the benefits of helmets at the Hay Festival

Antonia Molloy
Saturday 31 May 2014 11:28 BST
(Justin Sullivan/Getty )

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The Tour de France is just weeks away and the approach of summer is sure to see people choosing to cycle to work.

But all those cyclists donning a helmet as a safety precaution when they take to the saddle may be wasting their time, a leading neurosurgeon has said.

Henry Marsh, who works at St George’s Hospital in Tooting, London, said he has treated a number of patients involved in bike accidents whose helmets were “too flimsy” to provide any real protection, The Telegraph reported.

Speaking at the Hay Festival alongside Ian McEwan, whose novel Saturday pivots on the life of a neurosurgeon, Dr Marsh went on to say that wearing a helmet could actually pose greater risks to cyclists than not wearing one at all.

He drew on research from the University of Bath which suggests that drivers get around three inches closer to cyclists wearing helmets because they view them as safer.

Dr Marsh said: “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.

“I see lots of people in bike accidents and these flimsy little helmets don’t help.”

He added: “I have been cycling for 40 years and have only been knocked off once. I wear a cowboy hat and cowboy boots. I look completely mad.“

In 2006 Dr Ian Walker, from the University of Bath, found that drivers were twice as like to get close to cyclists, an average of 8.5cm, when they were wearing a helmet.

He suggested that drivers viewed cyclists wearing helmets as “Lycra-clad street warriors” who were more predictable and sensible road users.

UK cyclists are legally required to fit their bikes with reflectors and lights at night, but helmets are not compulsory.

But Dr Marsh’s comments are not likely to be well received by cycling safety campaigners.

Angie Lee, chief executive of the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust said: “I hope he is going to take responsibility for the cyclist who gets injured because they take their helmet off following his comments.

“This may be his opinion but there are a lot more neurosurgeons and surgeons who would counter that argument.

“My advice would be the same as the Department of Transport’s which is that helmets have a place in protecting the head.”

A Department of Transport study found that cycle helmets worn correctly could prevent an estimated 10-16 per cent of fatalities. But the findings were criticised for drawing on limited evidence, leaving the debate unresolved.

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