road safety

Should cyclists be forced to wear helmets in Spain's city centers?

The traffic authority's plans to make the measure obligatory has angered many

Patricia R. Blanco
Cyclists mingle with pedestrians in the Madrid Río park in the capital. But should all bike users have to wear helmets?
Cyclists mingle with pedestrians in the Madrid Río park in the capital. But should all bike users have to wear helmets?ULY MARTÍN (EL PAÍS)

"This is the first day that I've ever worn a helmet. It seems a bit ridiculous to me." This was just one of the reactions recorded by EL PAÍS on September 2, 1992, the day after it became mandatory for moped users to wear head protection.

"The history of road safety is paved with this dilemma: frontseat safety belt, backseat safety belt, motorcycle helmet, moped helmet... There is not a single prevention measure that has been favorably received by everyone," explains María Seguí, director general of Spain's traffic authority, the DGT.

And so, not surprisingly, the issue of obliging cyclists to wear helmets within city limits is not without its dose of controversy either. Several sources within the DGT have indicated that this measure, along with a maximum speed limit rise from 120km/h to 130km/h in some areas, are the two main sticking points preventing new road legislation from being passed.

The draft law includes an article that would force cyclists to wear helmets within cities, a proposal that has met with a chorus of disapproval from cycling associations and all of the political parties in the city of Barcelona.

In favor

- Helmets reduce the risk of head injuries, as well as their severity.

- If their use is voluntary, those without helmets will be at risk.

- While the number of deaths is not high, the number of injuries is.

- Studies suggest that obligatory use of helmets reduces the number of head injuries without affecting the number of people who choose to use a bicycle.

Yet by cross-referencing data from local police forces and the Civil Guard, it has emerged that 20 percent of cyclist fatalities and injuries in cities and on roads were caused by head trauma - although the reports do not specify whether or not the victims were wearing helmets.

"The evidence regarding the usefulness of safety helmets in reducing the chances of head injuries is unquestionable," says the DGT director. "There are more than 150 scientific articles on the subject, and no cycling association is going to criticize that."

The issue, it seems, is not whether the safety helmet is useful or not, but the simple fact that it is going to be made compulsory.

"When you keep a measure voluntary, the people who protect themselves are the ones who had greater awareness to begin with. And by definition these are the people who were statistically less likely to have an accident anyway," says Seguí.


- Forcing people to wear helmets would discourage the use of bicycles, according to a study in New Zealand.

- In the rest of Europe, helmets are not required by law.

- Obligatory use of helmets would send a message to the public that bicycles are dangerous, while the annual number of deaths in bike accidents is just 15.

- Helmets can be uncomfortable and not very attractive.

But cycling associations believe that the message being sent out by the DGT, at a time when bicycle use is on the rise, is that this is a dangerous means of travel. Statistics, they claim, prove the opposite.

"There is a yearly average of 15 deaths," says Manuel Martín, technical director of pro-cycling association ConBici. "In 2011, the last year with consolidated figures, 12 cyclists died within city limits, which means that this is a totally disproportionate measure that hinders the expansion of cycling."

According to the Annual Bicycle Barometer, around three million people use a bicycle almost on a daily basis in Spain.

"Normalcy in the use of the bike will be affected by the imposition of safety helmets," claims Martín. Comfort and esthetics are two factors, he says. "Think of a woman who has just come out of the hairdresser and has to put it on," he says.

Elsewhere in Europe, helmet use is not compulsory, according to the Association of Professional Cyclists.

The ConBici spokesman calls the measure "paternalistic" and notes that "around 300 people drown every year yet it is not mandatory to wear life vests in reservoirs. If the traffic authority is so worried about the health of all citizens, it should start by making car occupants wear safety helmets, since every year there are around 5,000 victims of accidents, including fatalities and injuries, many from head and brain injuries."


- In Spain, around three million people use a bike on a nearly daily basis, while 15.5 million people use one from time to time, according to a recent study.

- In 2011, 49 cyclists were killed, 12 in cities and 37 outside city limits.

- In 2011, 589 cyclists were seriously injured, 285 in cities and 304 outside city limits.

- Head injuries were the cause of 20 percent of the injuries and deaths among cyclists who were involved in accidents.

Yet the cycling accident figures are incomplete, says María Seguí, because "they are the same ones that the DGT handles, and by law they only reflect accidents involving a motor vehicle."

Seguí admits that in any case, the cyclist fatality figure is not high, and that "what really kills cyclists is the speed of the vehicles, thus the importance of slowing down within cities with the new road regulations [30km/h or 20km/h, depending on the size of the road]. This will be the main way of helping cyclists."

Her main concern, she says, are injuries. In 2011, 285 riders were seriously hurt within cities, the highest rate since 1997. "Brain damage is a silent problem in Spain," insists Seguí, underscoring that helmets reduce both the number of injuries and their severity. In 2012, she explains, there were 5,600 cases of brain damage and more than 200 cases of spinal damage.

"Am I going to promote a means of transportation that could result in more brain injuries when I have a tool that I know is effective in terms of their reduction?" asks Seguí.

But cyclists argue that the DGT and the Interior Ministry "legislate on the strength of perceptions" and that they lack studies to back up their claims, according to Manuel Martín, who points to another study: "In New Zealand it was proven that bicycle use fell 30 percent after helmet use was made compulsory."

Seguí is aware of that study, but notes that it was conducted immediately after the new legislation went into effect. "Nobody has followed up on it in the long run, and people who are fans of using bicycles come back to them sooner or later."

There are scientific studies backing the effectiveness of the helmet as a protection measure as well as the effectiveness of making helmet use compulsory. A Canadian study published in the magazine Injury Prevention says that there was no significant reduction in bicycle use when helmets were made mandatory in Canada.

But Seguí remains committed to her plan. "If they want to throw tomatoes at me," she says, "let them throw them."

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