Use Your Head: Wear A Helmet

20th January 2012 By Harriet Jackson

We’re all here, in Oxford, because of what’s in our heads and how we use them – it’s the one thing we all have in common. If we were to lose that, where would we be I wonder, and indeed, who would we be?

Huge numbers of us cycle on a daily basis, between our various colleges and departments, it’s great way to get around cheaply to wherever you want, whenever you want, but it is not without a degree of associated risk. And yet, despite this, very few of us in fact protect our most valuable asset, our heads!

Cycle safety may make you yawn and criticise me for sounding like your mother, but my awareness of head injuries and their consequences is now unfortunately part of my daily life.  Not that it happened to me on the roads, but instead about two years ago in a freak accident during the rowing regatta Torpids.  The impact itself wasn’t that severe, but has changed my life ever since. Headaches, dizziness, nausea, as well as various cognitive deficits in memory, the time it takes for me to process information and even in my ability to control my emotions, are all part and parcel of the ever uncertain world of having a brain injury.

Although head injuries, as well as all sorts of other accidents, can happen at any time, in any place, when we cycle we increase our exposure to this risk. 

You may have heard of James Cracknell, double Olympic gold medallist and rowing champion. Since retiring from competitive racing in 2004, he’s undertaken various physical challenges pushing his body to the limit. He’s rowed across the Atlantic with Ben Fogle and completed the gruelling Marathon Des Sables, running seven marathons in six days.  In July 2010 whilst attempting to cycle, run, row and swim across America, James, cycling, was hit from behind by a truck at 70mph. Seriously injured, James was in a coma and when eventually came to, found that his whole life had changed. From being invincible, he had a severely altered personality and had to re-learn how to do even the simplest of tasks. He was, however, alive.

James owes his life to his helmet, which was split down the middle.  He is now a spokesperson for the brain injury charity Headway, the charity that gave me help during a period of medical leave after my accident. Headway have long been campaigning for cycle helmets to be made compulsory for children cycling on roads, and are always trying to raise awareness of the potential consequences of a brain injury to try and all encourage cyclists to wear them.

James Cracknell has recently produced an appeal video in association with Headway with the title – ‘Use your head. Use your helmet’. “I used to be James Cracknell”, he says, “now I’m nearly James Cracknell”, showing how much this incident has changed his entire life, including his personality.  He urges cyclists to wear helmets, “I was lucky…some cyclists will never ride again”. The shock tactic may sound dramatic, but these are real accidents, happening to real people, and if it encourages just one person to wear a helmet, that may just save their life.

So how much of a help is a helmet exactly? Well the Cochrane Foundation Review have investigated this very question. The report found that wearing a helmet reduced the risk of head or brain injury by approximately two-thirds, regardless of whether the incident involves a motor vehicle or not. It was stated that: “Helmets provide a 63-88% reduction in the risk of head, brain and severe brain injury for all ages of bicyclists. Helmets provide equal levels of protection for crashes involving motor vehicles (69%) and crashes from all other causes (68%). Injuries to the upper and mid facial areas are reduced 65%”[1].  It was also noted that head injuries make up for around three quarters of deaths among bicyclists involved in crashes.

Whilst deaths on the roads are decreasing year on year, the number of cyclists killed or seriously injured has risen for the last three years. Headway estimates that there are around 190,000 cycling accidents each year in the UK alone. The rising evidence showing the undeniable effectiveness of helmets, and the increasing number of people involved in accidents has encouraged many countries and states to make them compulsory, especially for under-18s. For example, in Victoria, Australia there has been a 41% decline in the number of cycling related head injuries since the change in the law. Jersey followed suit in 2010 and is already seeing the benefits of having done so.

A common excuse for not wearing a helmet, particularly among students, is the expense. But fear not, recent studies by the Bicycle Safety Institute have shown that there’s no need to buy an expensive helmet, a cheaper model will work just as effectively. Their report states that, “We submitted samples of six helmet models to a leading U.S. test lab: three in the $150+ range and three under $20. The impact test results were virtually identical. There were very few differences in performance among the helmets. Our conclusion: when you pay more for a helmet you may get an easier fit, more vents and snazzier graphics. But the basic impact protection of the cheap helmets we tested equalled the expensive ones.” Their advice is to just look for a helmet that fits you well and is comfortable.

But enough of statistics and numbers, what about the cost to the individual? The charity Headway helps people who’ve suffered brain injuries and their families on ground level; they see how it has changed people’s lives. A spokesperson for the charity says, “Here at Headway, we know the devastating effects a brain injury can have and how easy it can be to damage the brain. A number of Headway service users sustained their injuries through cycling accidents and now face spending the rest of their lives wishing they’d chosen to wear a helmet. To those people, statistics are meaningless; of far greater value is the common sense notion that wearing a helmet will help protect one’s fragile skull.”

In the last term alone, several of my close friends have had accidents or near misses cycling in Oxford; whether it’s being cut up by taxis, swerving buses or falling foul of those pedestrians who think they can just walk out across oncoming traffic without looking. And I’ve seen a few more; a couple of people turning a corner on a road wet from raining, who came flying off, and most notably my support worker from the Disability Advisory Service who was hit by a steel girder falling from a construction site on George Street fracturing her skull.  If she’d been wearing a helmet, would it have been less serious?  We’ll never know.

I think because there are so many cyclists in Oxford, and that the motorists are relatively tolerant of us, we are complacent about the potential dangers of cycling on the streets. But we shouldn’t have to wait for occasions like these to persuade us that it’s a good idea to wear a helmet, and, even after these experiences there are many who just brush themselves off and carry on as they did before.

You never know if or when something may happen to you – but you should take every precaution to make sure that you protect the most important part of yourself. Broken bones will mend, bruises and grazes will heal, but hurt your head, even in a minor way and you might never come back fully from that. Brain injuries are a funny thing, you could have a serious impact and recover fully in weeks or months, or have a relatively minor impact that leaves you changed forever. Peter McCabe, Chief Executive of Headway, said: “There is a general misconception that only a major impact will lead to death or disability from a head injury. However, the truth of the matter is that sometimes even minor bangs to the head can have serious consequences”

So why take that chance? And forget long-term consequences of a brain injury, if you have a really bad accident – a helmet might just save your life.  With my injury there was nothing I could have done differently to prevent it, but if something happens to you on a bike after reading this, and you didn’t take the advice, you would regret it. Please, take it from someone who knows what this could do to your life: Use your head. Wear a helmet.

The appeal video from James Cracknell can be found on –