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Do motorists get closer to cyclists in helmets?

By raccars Published

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A leading brain surgeon has claimed that cycling helmets are too flimsy and useless in the event of an accident. Henry Marsh, a consultant neurosurgeon at St George’s Hospital in London, made the remarks at the Hay Festival in a discussion with author, Ian McEwan, who wrote about a neurosurgeon in his 2005 book, Saturday. Mr Marsh quoted evidence from a study at Bath University that suggests wearing a helmet may actually put cyclists at more risk from motorists.

The study revealed that motorists drive their cars three inches closer to cyclists who wear helmets than those without helmets. This is thought to be because the driver perceives helmeted cyclists as being safer. Mr Marsh also pointed out the lack of data supporting increases in safety in countries where helmets are compulsory, commenting: "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."

Cyclists cover over 3 billion miles in the UK each year. It is a legal requirement to have working lights and reflectors on cycles after dark and high visibility clothing is becoming common. There is, however, no requirement to wear a helmet. The research from the University of Bath shows that motorists drove their cars 8cms closer to cyclists with helmets when overtaking. Dr Ian Walker, the traffic psychologist who conducted the research, suggested that drivers regard cyclists in helmets as more experienced, predictable and sensible, and hence they don’t need so much space when overtaking. Drivers were shown to regard non-helmeted cyclists as less predictable and hence gave them more room.

Mr Marsh’s comments are sure to cause controversy among safety campaigners who have come to regard cycling helmets as vital. A study by the Department for Transport showed that helmets were capable of preventing between 10 and 16 per cent of all cycling fatalities, but the study was based on a small sample size.

Chief Executive of the Bicycle Helmet Initiative, Angie Lee, criticised Mr Marsh’s comments, saying: "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 for Transport’s which is that helmets have a place in protecting the head."

Mr Marsh has previously caused controversy by admitting to jumping red lights.

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