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?”
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 – rather this article allows you to do the research yourself and make an informed decision as to what is correct for your family.
We believe that each parent must make the choice for their family as to whether or not helmet wearing is compulsory, optional or not required.
We also believe you should be able to make an informed decision, with the full facts of the arguments both for and against helmet wearing.
The difference between helmets for sport and leisure/transport
In the rest of this article we’re mainly discussing cycling as a means of transport or a very gentle leisure activity with very low risk of the rider falling off.
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 the arguements in this article do not apply – the risk of injury is high and protective equipment is needed.
The vast majority of cycle clubs and cycle races stipulate helmets should be worn at all times.
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 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 – say the 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? Regardless of the risk of a fall from the type of cycling your child is doing there’s always an element of worrying about “What-if” should the worse happen
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
If you asked the following groups “should my child wear a bike helmet?” you’d get a more complex answer. These organisations 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.
All the campaigning organisations will argue that we need safe spaces for people to cycle, rather than laws about cycle helmets (please note they don’t say you shouldn’t wear a helmet, just that there’s much more to cycling safety that putting a lid on your head):
- Cycling UK
- British Cycling
- London Cycling Campaign
- Bicycle Helmet Reseach Foundation
- Road Danger Reduction Forum
- Cyclists Rights Action Group (Australian site)
Is no helmet worse or better than some options?
To work properly, your child’s helmet must be fitted and fastened properly.
There’s no point in wearing a helmet if the straps are undone, or so loose it will come off at the slightest impact.
This could even cause more injury as the helmet could get in the way as your child falls, causing additional injury, rather than protecting them.
It’s also worth remembering that not all children’s cycle helmets meet the relevant safety standards for cycle helmets, giving a false sense of security to parents and children that they’d be protected in case of an accident.
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’
You can also read the comments at the bottom of this article to see how passionate people get about this issue.
You’ll note I’ve not mentioned my own personal stance on this, or whether my children wear helmets, and I’ve been called all sorts of names (and even a bad parent) for writing what I hoped would be an informative article explaining the pros and cons of helmet wearing!
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 properly fitting bike helmets is there for all to see along with the facts about making sure any helmet they do wear is correctly fitted.
“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:
- Is your child’s bike helmet fitted correctly?
- Safety standards to look out for when buying a kids bike helmet
- How to measure your child’s head for a bike helmet
- Can I cycle with my baby in a sling or baby carrier?
- Is it safe to cycle while pregnant?
- How to start cycling with a small child in a bike seat, cargo bike or trailer
- What’s it like using a cargo bike for the first time?
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This article was first published in 2016 and updated in January 2022 to keep the various reference sources up to date.