When we first came to Spain, many years ago, it seemed to us that there was a kind of reckless disregard for ‘safety’ on the roads. Drinking and driving was not uncommon. Manoeuvres seemed to be made without warning and oblivious to other road users. And helmets in Spain, even for motorbikes, were almost non-existent.
You might feel that some of these features of driving in Spain have not changed. However, one thing certainly has, and that’s the use of helmets. It is now very rare to see a scooter or motorbike rider without the correct head gear. The police have been vigilant for a while for those ready to flout the laws and try their luck. Heavy fines now follow.
With motorbike and scooter riders safely clad, attention has now turned to the pushbike. A new transport law has brought in a number of new rules and regulations in Spain and cyclists are not exempt. However, when and where to wear your helmet has proved to be far more controversial for the bikes with pedals than it was for their noisier relatives.
The new Spanish law
In comparison to some other countries, Spain already has some quite restrictive laws when it comes to wearing a cycle helmet. In 2004 the compulsory wearing of a helmet was introduced for those cycling outside of urban areas. Much to the displeasure of some cycling groups, the law has remained, albeit infrequently enforced.
With the new driving laws prepared in 2013 the intention had been to make existing laws even stricter by making helmet-wearing compulsory for everyone, everywhere. The proposals met with dismay from some quarters and many town halls made a case against the compulsory wearing of helmets in the city. Some of this opposition could be linked to the impact it might have on the public bicycle hire system that operates in some places.
Following this strong opposition, the section of the law requiring helmets in city centres as well as outside, was removed. Instead, from the 9th May 2014, it became obligatory only for cyclists of 16 years old or less to wear a helmet at all times. The rest of the existing law stays the same. Adults older than 16 must wear a helmet outside of city centres but are exempt during periods of excessive heat, on steep hills or if they are professional cyclists.
Will it save lives?
However, there is no universal agreement about just how beneficial wearing a helmet is for cyclists. In fact, many European countries such as the UK, Italy and France don’t require you to wear one at all.
A particularly good article that looks into the pros and cons of helmet wearing comes from the Times. As you might expect, top of the pros is that it can prevent a major head injury or death.
Arguments against include, giving a false sense of security and that a large number of cycle injuries come from being crushed rather than injuries to the head.
In some cases it is argued that safety is improved by increasing the number of cyclists and making roads more cycle friendly. Some feel that having to wear a helmet deters people from cycling at all and makes the environment generally more hostile to them.
Some personal experience
And if you thought the police would be turning a blind eye, think again. There seems to be a current offensive to make sure cyclists are complying with the law. My son (22) was recently fined 80€ for not wearing his helmet on a stretch between two cycle paths on Orihuela Costa. The police were waiting at the only part of the road where the cyclists must leave the path. He wasn’t the only one to be fined.
As he points out, being a cyclist without a helmet puts only yourself at risk. In a country like Spain where it is very hot for significant parts of the year, wearing a helmet is particularly uncomfortable. If countries really want to increase the use of bicycles then making it even more difficult to ride in comfort cannot help.
Added to this, many people will borrow a helmet that may not fit well or may even impede their vision. In a clash with a car, a cyclist is very vulnerable – maintaining good vision and being alert is particularly important. Of course, anyone who has had a close shave and was saved by their helmet will want to argue with this. Rightly so. We invite your comments.