Cycle helmet laws in Spain

Spanish Law Thu, 12 Jun 2014
Cycle helmet laws in Spain

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.

Comments

Thank you for this article. In Puenteareas where I live I have recently been chastised by two of my neighbours for not wearing a helmet (in town). I do use one when cycling on main roads between towns of course. It is a concern that because of the confusion amongst locals we could see a reduction in local cycling within the adult population here, which is ironic because this town has strong associations with professional cycling and hosted stage starts of the Vuelta in 2011 and 2012. Furthermore, if adults reduce their leisure cycling then this may affect how often they wish to accompany children. All this is conjecture of course, but my gut reaction is that enforcing helmet use does more harm than good.

Thanks for your comment. It is very unclear at the moment where the boundaries are. I also wonder about the children who cycle round our estate. I can't imagine them investing in or wearing a helmet. It will be a real pity if they stop cycling instead. I have no doubt that it will stop some people. A shame for them and the environment. 

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.

I read this excerpt from your article and noted the words "outside of city centres" and wondered if adults must wear helmets when riding bikes in villages, towns, urbanisations, and other built up areas. The definition of 'city' may need more explaining or rules. Yea I am sorry more rules.....

Thanks for your comment. The rules seem far from clear and that is perhaps evident in the different practices you notice everywhere. The ruling on city centres was the result of cities like Barcelona and Madrid having cycle hire schemes. Best just to wear one I think to avoid the possibility of a fine. 

I live in a Spanish village of about 2K people. Over half Spanish. The only people who wear cycle helmets are the serious bikers but the village has many cyclists. Mostly Spanish. Elderly and Young. They do not wear helmets, they ride bikes at night without lights and often without a reflector and wearing dark clothes. They ride on the wrong side of the road, the wrong way up one way streets and in general, do not obey any law of the road. I cycle on the right hand side observe one ways and traffic lights and do not cycle after dark. I do not wear a helmet. Bet I know who it will be if anyone gets fined. I wonder why helmets should only be considered necessary in the country, surely city cycling is more dangerous.

I don't think the practices you describe are just confined to your village! I have noticed one or two children now wearing them around our estate but, in most cases, they are continuing to cycle round helmet free. Elsewhere I am still seeing many people without helmets. 

It will without a doubt stop some people from cycling. My son (who received the fine) did continue for a while - with helmet - but as the temperature has increased he's stopped cycling. The helmet has definitely contributed. As with all things, it's finding the right balance. 

I am following this issue with great interest as myself and a friend are riding across Spain (San Sevastian - Gibraltar) next year. We intend to stay off busy/fast trafficked roads as much as possible - it would seem that the current compromise law effectively allows you not to wear a helmet as surely the very lowest concentrations of Police (and thus enforcement) are in rural areas/low population areas?

Dear Julian

Sounds wonderful, enjoy your journey. Perhaps you would like to write something for our website about your experience of cycling in Spain on your return? 

I suppose it is always a case of weighing up the possible fine with your own preferences and views on safety. The laws seem so difficult to interpret that I think you could still be doing what you think to be correct and get a fine. Unless you are prepared to wear a helmet all the time, there seems to be no 100% certainty of not being fined anyway. 

Do cyclists in Spain have to follow the traffic laws of all other road users E.G. cars,vans, trucks etc

Hi John

I'm not an expert in cycle laws in Spain and would suggest that for a specific query you approach a local bicycle outlet where there might be a cycling expert. However, I would suggest that many of the laws are shared between bicycles and other forms of transport, but some are specific to bicycles. For example the rules around driving when you've been drinking are the same but there are times when cycles can be ridden in places where other forms of transport can't. 

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