Last summer, Ryan Smith, aged 16 was cycling to work when he was knocked off his bike by a van. He wasn’t wearing a helmet as he didn’t want to mess up his hair. Unfortunately Ryan suffered the worst kind of brain injury, Diffuse Axonal Injury, which means his brain now has to find new pathways to function normally. Ryan was in a coma for four months, waking up last November, and has recently started speaking in sentences again for the first time since the accident.
His family has set up the Ryan Smith Foundation and are campaigning to make it compulsory to wear a cycle helmet. His sister Rachael, has given up her job and is making a twice weekly 8 hour round trip to help care for her brother. She is training to do this on a long-term basis. What shines through when learning more about this family is their determination and courage in this horrific situation.
Whilst campaigning, the family set up an online petition which needs 100k signatures for government to respond. In this case though, Ministers responded before the 100k signatures were reached. You might think the response therefore was a positive one, however the Government has said it has no plans to legislate to introduce mandatory enforcement of cycle helmet wearing.
In fact, it goes so far as to say that such a law would be very difficult to enforce and would have a negative effect on cycling. Having to wear a helmet would discourage people from getting on a bike so having a knock on effect to lifestyle and health. The response, which you can read in full here goes on to list all of the campaigns and improvements the Government is making with regards to cycling awareness and training, which of course is all positive. However would making it compulsory to wear a helmet really put people off riding a bike?
It is interesting though, that only 2 countries, Australia and New Zealand have managed to make this law. Both Italy and Mexico City, for example have not been able to make the compulsory wearing of helmets law, even though they’ve tried. There is a big debate on whether the cycling helmet is actually effective. In Dutch countries, cycling is seen as a normal activity that requires no special clothing or equipment. Dutch Institute for Road Safety Research (SWOV) finds contradictory evidence but on balance concludes “that a bicycle helmet is an effective means of protecting cyclists against head and brain injury”. They also mention that cycling helmets give cyclists a false sense of security and encourage them to make riskier decisions and behaviours.
Does wearing a helmet have a positive effect on head injuries? There are very few conclusive studies in this area. Some studies find a reduction whilst others find no change at all.
Does wearing a helmet have a negative effect on the amount of cycling? Possibly. An Australian study, conducted before and after the law came into effect, showed the amount of cycling to work had reduced by one third. A 2011 review however, found little evidence to support the claim that mandatory helmet usage discouraged bike riding.
So wherever you sit on this debate, no-one would want their family to endure the suffering that Ryan Smith’s have done in the last 6 months. If you support their campaign, they are still collecting signatures and you can sign it online here.