Was this neuroscientist right to say helmets don’t help cyclists?

cycling head injuryOur specialist Serious and Catastrophic Injury team see head injuries caused by cycling accidents every day. We read neurosurgeon Henry Marsh’s recent comments in the Telegraph with great interest because his opinions were so different to our own. Marsh said:

– Wearing a helmet could do more harm than good because motorists drive closer to you

– Helmets are too flimsy to provide any real protection


Jamie Patton, Partner and Head of Personal Injury, disagrees:

“I’m conscious of the fact that Mr Marsh’s comments may well have been taken out of context but on the basic premise that cycle helmets don’t offer protection, I have to disagree.

“It’s likely that the bike accident victims Mr Marsh comes into contact with will be very seriously injured.

“Mr Marsh may not be aware of the countless bike accidents that occur where the main injury is elsewhere on the body – because the head was protected from more serious damage by a helmet”

Jamie pointed out that just like a car’s air bags protect people during many accidents, even they might not be able to save you in a more serious crash. But this doesn’t mean they offer no protection whatsoever during minor to moderate crashes.

He adds:

“Yes, some helmets might not be as good as others but even the cheapest ‘£9.99 special’ will offer at least some basic protection. It’s better than nothing.”


On the topic of motorists treating cyclists wearing helmets differently:

Mr Marsh made this comment following research led by Dr Ian Walker of Bath University in 2004. Walker collected data from over 2,500 cycle rides, done with some fairly elaborate homemade sensor equipment.

However, the interpretation of his data became the subject of hotly debated exchanges by cyclists and mathematicians alike. Cyclist safety campaigners were upset about the potential negative message the paper sent. Maths experts disagreed with the way Walker had presented his data – they said he had used a “truncated axis” when compiling graphs. This technique can make differences in data seem much larger than they are, which could be misleading.

In some instances, Dr Walker felt compelled to defend his position publicly against some of the more aggressive attacks on his findings. Throughout all of this however was his general message of encouragement to others to look at this data and challenge it and conduct their own surveys. Jamie comments:

“Statistics are helpful but they are often open to a wide range of interpretation. It would be a very dangerous precedent indeed to simply advocate a fundamental change in cycle safety, just because one body of research suggests cars might drive a little bit closer to you if you wear a helmet.”

Cyclists also need to be aware that in a civil claim, if an Insurer can demonstrate that the absence of a helmet contributed to an individual’s injuries, (a very subjective test based on the facts of each case), then the individual may struggle to recover compensation that reflects the full extent of the injuries they have suffered at the hands of the driver.

For more information about cycling safety and head injury claims, contact our Personal Injury specialists on 0800 614 722. We appreciate that every client’s needs are different and pride ourselves on our ability to grasp all the issues, to help people regain control of their lives.