Should my child wear a bike helmet?

In writing this article we risk dividing parents, safety experts, cyclists, non-cyclists and everyone else.  Whether or not to wear a helmet as an adult is a hot topic, and emotions run very high whenever it is mentioned.  Add kids safety into the mix, and it gets extremely contentious.  If you're in the UK, there is no law that states cycle helmets are compulsory, and each family needs to weigh up the pro's and con's when answering the question "Should my child wear a bike helmet?"

Should my child wear a bike helmet?Many column inches and website pages have been devoted to the question of whether cycle helmets improve safety or not. We do not intend to replicate them all here.

We believe that each parent must make the choice for their family as to whether or not helmet wearing is compulsory. We also believe you should be able to make an informed decision, with the full facts of the arguments both for and against.

When your child should always wear a bike helmet....

In the rest of this article we're mainly discussing cycling as a means of transport (or very gentle leisure activity).

If your Cycle Sprog is taking part in cycling as a high speed sport, or doing any kind of tricks, racing, mountain biking or other activity where there is a high likelihood of fall, then we recommend that protective headwear should always be worn (along with gloves and appropriate body armour where appropriate).  The vast majority of cycle clubs and cycle races stipulate helmets should be worn at all times.

Kids racing BMX's

Remember, there is nothing wrong with having two rules, depending on the type of riding they are doing.

What if my child won't wear a bike helmet? 

As parents, we understand that sometimes, (only sometimes??) your darling offspring will not do as you want. If you decide that the answer to the question "should my child wear a bike helmet?" is "Yes", and junior will not comply, then you need to ask yourself how strict you will be in enforcing a 'no cycling' ban until they do.   In our experience the lure of the bike will usually win, if you remain resolute and don't waver.  This may take minutes, hours or days.

It goes without saying you will need to be 100% compliant yourself.  If your child sees you riding without a helmet, then you've lost the battle straight away.

A very brief summary of the pro's and con's of wearing a cycle helmet is given below, with details of where to go for more information.  We hope this helps you make an informed decision.

Please note, that if you live in a location outside the UK where helmet wearing is legally compulsory, then this article does not apply.

The argument for why kids should wear cycle helmets

  • Some evidence, used by the pro-helmet lobby, shows that helmets have been effective in reducing potential injury to a young cyclist's head/brain in the event of a fall or impact with an object
  • Brain injury is devastating and we believe it is not worth leaving it to chance - Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust
  • Helmets are best suited to providing protection during low speed impacts. As a child is learning to ride, this is precisely the type of fall they are likely to have
  • Public opinion - people can get very vocal and aggressive if they see a child without a helmet
  • What if?  Many parents agree with the "No" lobby, but the "What If" doubt remains. There is nothing wrong with this at all!

If you asked the following groups "should my child wear a bike helmet?" the answer would be a resounding "Yes!"

Cycle Smart
Royal Society for the Protection of Accidents (RoSPA)
Child Accident Prevention Trust
Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute

The argument against compulsory use of bike helmets

There is no law in the UK saying children, or anyone else for that matter, must wear a cycle helmet. There are numerous arguments about why it should not be necessary to wear a bike helmet:

  • Helmets are part of the culture of "cotton wool parenting", and this makes children believe cycling is a risky activity
  • Rather than putting the emphasis on cyclists to protect themselves by wearing a helmet, our politicians and transport planners should be providing a cycling infrastructure that is safe for all to use
  • All evidence to support the pro-helmet lobby can be argued against, in terms of relevancy and accuracy
  • The benefits of cycling in terms of improved health and better life expectancy, out weigh the risks from not wearing a helmet
  • Risk compensation - riding a helmet may cause riskier behaviour, as the rider feels protected
  • Some kids wear poorly fitting helmets, that would do little to prevent injury

If you asked the following groups "should my child wear a bike helmet?" you'd get a more complex answer.  The links have much more information about the limited benefits of wearing cycle helmets, and right of individuals to make an informed decision about whether to use a bike helmet.

Cycling UK 
British Cycling
London Cycling Campaign
Sustrans
Bicycle Helmet Reseach Foundation
Road Danger Reduction Forum
Cyclists Rights Action Group (Australian site)

What's all the fuss about making cycle helmets legal?

Finally, for those of you who've inadvertently waded into this, and didn't realise what a contentious area it was, here are a few articles and threads to bring you up to speed:

Cycle helmets - a hard case to crack

Chris Boardman: Compulsory Helmet Laws won't make cycling safer

Geraint Thomas: Helmets should be 'compulsory' for cyclists

Malta to scrap compulsory cycle helmet law since it hinders efforts to get more people cycling - road cc (read the comments)

The big bike helmet debate: 'You don’t make it safe by forcing cyclists to dress for urban warfare'

Should my child wear a bike helmet? - the verdict

The answer to this question (if you live in the UK, or anywhere else where it isn't compulsory), is that the decision is entirely up to you, when your child is cycling as a means of transport, or doing very leisurely cycling where there is very little risk of falls.   The evidence for the pros and cons of wearing bike helmets is there for all to see.

When they're doing more extreme forms of cycling as a sport or hobby, including fast road cycling, BMX, mountain biking or at a Bike/Skate park then protective headwear should always be worn.

"Should my child wear a bike helmet?" is just one of the many difficult questions we as parents face. Each of us will come to our own conclusion, for our own personal reasons.

Other posts you may find useful whilst you're here:

 

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20 Comments

  1. Stacey says:

    I live in London wear I see many people biking and I mostly see helmets, now if that works for them that’s great. But I personally would prefer to not get in accident that to be protected when I get in one. I have 2 kids, a 15-year old daughter, and an 8-year old son. My 8 year-old son isn’t as good as a rider, so I make him wear his helmet. I worry about his spills. My daughter, however loves biking, she bikes so often, she hiked to school everyday. I never have to worry if she will fall off a bike. I started teaching her how to cycle with the road when she was about 10, I taught her how to be cautious, (we live in a very crowded part of London so that is very important) then when she was 12 years old she asked why I don’t wear a cycling helmet. I told her that I don’t know. She then asked if she has to wear one while she is bicycling. I thought about it for a second, I thought about how I feel when I’m biking and how I feel when I am forced to wear a bike helmet. I thought about how nobody cycles safer than her. But than I thought about safety, I thought about how if she were to get hit by a car that she may be safer if she had a bike helmet, that may be true. But than I thought if she is being hit by a car going 30 miles per hour what difference does it make if she were to be wearing a bike helmet. I said no, you do not need to wear one, but it makes your mom feel safer if you wear one. She then said than I would feel safer if you wore one, I then said well it’s my job to protect you. She then said “Mom, I’m going to go bike to get some tea, do I need to wear my bike helmet.” I thought about it and I said “ Of course not my dear.” Shocked by what I had just said “ she then came storming in and asked if she could throw her helmet away.” I told her if she wanted to I then saw her throw it away. And storm away on her bike going at least 10 miles per hour. Shocked by what I just said. She continued to ride her bike, and in 3 years we haven’t had a single safety issue. That my opinion on it.

    • Karen says:

      Hi Stacey - thanks for sharing. It's so important that kids learn about risk, and the various levels of risk. Some types of cycling are inherently risky for head injuries, and others aren't as risky. As you say, against a lorry or car, a helmet makes very little difference. In an ideal world there would be protected cycle ways everywhere, and the risk from any sort of injury when popping to the shops or cycling school would be incredibly low. Sadly, few kids are that lucky here in the UK.
      I try and teach my kids to know that when they are mountain biking, or doing fast road biking (we live in Cumbria, so can get up some very fast descents), or if they're at the track, they need to wear a helmet for safety reasons. The rest of the time, then, as you say, it's a decision based upon how confident they are on their bike. Interestingly when we went to Holland they asked if they could take their helmets off, as they felt so safe! Glad you've found a solution you're all happy with. Karen

  2. Dawn Matter says:

    My sons have all ridden bikes and motorbikes. When riding pushbikes I did ask them to wear helmets. One of them came off at low speed when crossing a wooden bridge that was wet - he suffered a very severe concussion. I took his cycle helmet to the hospital when I took him to the ED and the consultant said that if he had not been wearing it it would be his skull that was in two pieces and not just his bike helmet. As for the argument that a helmet is going to make little difference when hit by a car - well if I am going to bullseye a windscreen I would rather do it with a helmet on than without! I only have one brain and I know what it is like to recover from serious brain injury: I know which side of the argument I come down on!

  3. Stephen says:

    Hi looking for help and advice, 9 year old child will not wear a cycle helmet, complaining its uncomfortable, hurts,and not cool every time we go out I keep trying but won't wear it, just says your not wearing one, I am probably going to give up trying but I really would like it to be worn. Any advice.

    • Karen says:

      Hi Stephen - have you tried borrowing another helmet from a friend, or trying others on in your local bike shop? Each child has a different head shape and size, and if it doesn't fit properly it can be very uncomfortable (just like a badly fitting pair of shoes). Also, as with everything in life, if you want your child to do something, you usually need to do it to! Karen

  4. Stephen says:

    Hi Karen, thanks for the reply. Yes our local bicycle shop mersherd his head and fitted it properly. We both go cycling quite often on weekends and in the evening, but he just will not wear it and complains he feels stupid wearing one, I i spend so long trying to get him to wear it that I just give up and go with out it I really want him to be safe and wear it, what am I doing wrong? And what can I try next?

    • Karen says:

      Finding a group of kids to cycle with who all wear helmets may help (your local cycle club?). And always wear your helmet - if he sees you without it, then you stand no chance! At the end of the day, it's up to you to assess the level of risk he's facing, and whether you believe he should be wearing one or not, and whether he will be safer or not. Different types of cycling have different levels of risk - if he's mountain biking then the risk is entirely different to if he's riding gently around a park. If you really want him to wear one, then it's ultimately a choice of never riding his bike again, or wearing his helmet. Perhaps that would focus his mind (kids sense when they're going to win a battle and get parent to back down and can be very very trying!) Karen
      P.S. Can you get to the bottom of what's causing his dislike? There are different helmets out there - some are cool, others aren't!

      • Stephen says:

        Hi Karen, thanks for the reply, we both do all sorts of cycling together, had a chat this morning with him and it's manly the strap he doesn't like, and his friend does not have one, and I haven't got one as well, so what I was thinking is taking him and his friend to a different bike shop and they can both choose what ever they like I am paying for his friend's (you can't put a price on safety) and I will get one to then his friend and I will be wearing one as well, what do you think of that idea?? Please let me know thanks

        • Karen says:

          Hi Stephen - that sounds a sensible (and generous) idea. When he's trying on, it's probably best to get him to try on a couple of styles and ask him how it feels (out of earshot of the sales assistant) so you can be sure he's got one that's comfortable. Good luck! Karen

  5. Stephen says:

    Thanks for your reply, I will do that going in the morning, his friend and his mum is well up for it as he wants to wear one. Hopefully this will solve the problem as they go cycling together or the 3 of us go together, I will let you know how it goes, thanks for your help.

  6. Stephen says:

    Hello Karen up data for you,9 year old is now wearing his new helmet and keeping it on, every time he goes on his bike even when he goes round the corner to the shop,and he reminds me to wear mine. And he checks mine and his every time as the bike shop showed him the two finger above the eye, the straps make a 4 finger v, and he can only get his little finger between the strap and chin.He even gives it a little pull to check its tight He does this every time he puts it on, and he puts it on with out being told, please leave a good comment so I can show him. Thanks

    • Karen says:

      Hi Stephen - that's really good news! Tell him well done! Sounds like you found a good bike shop that explained everything well, and that the new helmet is comfy for him to wear. Hope you have many enjoyable bike rides this summer. Karen

  7. Tim says:

    Hi Karen.
    Thanks for an interesting blog post. We have a strict no lid no ride policy in our house. It's the same idea as the seatbelt rule, no seatbelt and the car won't move.
    Consistency is key. My 18 month tested the boundary and only lasted 2 minutes before they put it back on.
    The choice part is about letting them choose the helmet, and not being stingy and buying the cheapest.
    Stephen, I am delighted you came up with a winning tactic. Good for you!
    Tim

    • Karen says:

      Hi Tim - that's a very sensible approach. Kids tend to pick up really quickly if you're not being consistent, and also if you're not leading by example. They love pushing at the boundary fences, but need to know they're not going to move. I hope they just don't test them too often for your sake! Karen

      • Stephen says:

        Hi Karen I have had no problems now getting son to wear his helmet, he will not go out with out it now he puts it on and checks it every time he goes cycling.

  8. Pete says:

    In our house helmets are part and parcel of going for a bike ride, my 13yr old daughter wears one without question even if they may be classed as uncool, and my 5yr old son will go grab his helmet without even being asked.

    I am of the opinion that 999 times out of a 1000 you may not need your helmet if you have an accident but it's worth it for that one time it could save your life.

    I have a few friends that have been in accidents and every time their helmet has saved them from possible life changing or ending injuries, just don't understand why you wouldn't wear one, it should be second nature like putting on a seatbelt or wearing a crash helmet on a motorbike

    • Karen says:

      Hi Pete, Thanks for taking the time to comment. Sorry to hear about your friends' accidents - although good news that their helmets were able to protect them from long term injury. Karen

  9. Stephen says:

    My son now wears his helmet all the time, and he reminds me and checkes I am wearing it properly.

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