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Although it’s a hotly-debated and highly-sensitive topic, the short answer is that UK law does not require people to wear a helmet on a bicycle. The Highway Code recommends wearing a helmet while cycling, but that is a far cry from making them legal or illegal.
Helmets save lives and so should obviously be mandatory, say those who champion them. However, naysayers argue they should be optional; that making such a law puts people off cycling and that studies have shown the best way to improve safety on bikes is to increase the number of cyclists.
But, for the time being at least, exactly how much freedom do cyclists have on this matter?
Bicycle Helmet Laws UK
Firstly, as mentioned earlier, there are no definitive cycling helmet laws. It is not compulsory for them be worn while riding, and never has been.
The Highway Code advises cyclists to use them, and one ‘which conforms to current regulations, is the correct size and securely fastened’ at that. But you are by no means bound by law to wear cycle helmets in the UK.
Is this fair? Well, certainly, at least according to Cycling UK, an organisation supporting cyclists and bike use. Their argument is that there is no justification for making it compulsory to wear a helmet; that “it could undermine levels of cycle use and, in any case, the effectiveness of helmets is far from clear.”
That’s not the only argument against making helmet use compulsory. Some say the more pressing issue is encouraging more people to get out on their bikes more regularly, with whether they wear a helmet while doing so an entirely secondary issue.
Among other reasons, there is also the suggestion that, in many cases, helmets provide little, if any, increase in safety while riding, and that the evidence of risks involved in cycling, especially off-road, are minimal at best.
Mile for mile, the chances of losing your life while cycling are similar to being killed while walking, for instance. On average, one cyclist dies on Britain’s roads for every 29 million miles travelled by bike.
Is it Law to Wear a Cycle Helmet in Other Countries?
While some nations are similarly relaxed, such as the Netherlands and Denmark, hotspots for bikes but among the lowest levels of helmet use, other countries have more stringent bike helmet laws. In Spain, for example, people of all ages have been required to wear them on interurban routes except when going uphill or in very hot weather, or for professional cyclists.
Meanwhile, in Australia, since 1992, helmets have been compulsory for all cyclists, except on Northern Territory public spaces that are not roads – such as footpaths and cycle paths – for those older than 17. Though, this has coincided with sharp declines in bike use; in Perth, Western Australia, for example, there has been a fall of 30 to 40 per cent of people cycling since these laws were introduced.
As for the United States, it really depends on what state you’re in, or how old you are. Since 1987, 21 states and the District of Columbia have made wearing helmets mandatory, with the other 29 yet to enforce state-wide laws on the matter.
Were You Aware Of These Other UK Cycling Laws?
Aside from the freedom to choose whether or not to wear a helmet while cycling, don’t forget there are plenty of other regulations to follow when on your bike in Britain.
First of all, fairly obviously, it is against the law to cycle when under the influence of drink or drugs, regardless of whether you were riding on a footpath or the road.
Though this differs slightly from drink-driving in that a police officer cannot force you to provide a sample of your breath, blood or urine. They can ask, but if you refuse and are later charged with cycling under the influence, the Crown Prosecution Service couldn’t use your refusal as evidence against you.
Perhaps less well-know is the law on cycling on pavements. Essentially, you can’t ride on them unless they are a designated ‘cycle way’. Bikes are considered vehicles, so however harsh this may seem at times, they are meant for the roads. The maximum penalty is £500, though a £50 fixed penalty notice is more common for this offence.
By law, you’re also obliged to have bike lights (lit front and rear, and a red rear reflector) when cycling in the dark and brakes in a working condition. Pretty straightforward stuff.
But there are no laws on cycling attire (though the Highway Code says cyclists should wear a secure, correctly-sized helmet and light, fluorescent colours for visibility), having a bike bell, speed limits while riding, or using your mobile phone while on your bike (though you could be pulled for ‘careless cycling’ if caught doing this).
So… Do Cyclists Have to Wear Helmets?
No. There is no law in the UK that requires cyclists to wear a helmets, although they are recommended to be warn by the Highway Code.