Helmets

Here in the UK (as in most other English speaking countries) we live in a car culture.  This culture is so pervasive that you may not even be completely aware of it.  When you are walking along a street and you want to cross, what do you do, stop and wait, check three times and hope that the traffic flow slows so that you can cross from one side of a road to another, or maybe even use a pedestrian crossing, press a button and wait 2 minutes for 5 seconds of time in which to cross the road.  Have you ever been walking along a road with railings along side the pavement edge to pen you in so that your freedom to cross the road is denied?  Have you ever done the “dad-run” to the kerb because an oncoming motorist has chosen not to slow down to let you finish crossing, and not even felt indignant about it? Have you ever asked yourself why? 

Why is it that walking, the most natural and fundamental form of mobility is treated as the lowest in the transport hierarchy which places privately owned motor vehicles at the top.  Why do we all generally accept it when almost all of us walk at least a little bit each day.  For several generations all other modes of transport have been placed at the bottom of the list of priorities for architects, town planners and legislators.  Part of this is because most of them drive a car and enjoy having almost total freedom when driving without realising how much it compromises their freedom when they are not driving.  It is also partly down to the powerful motoring lobbies, manufacturers and driving associations such as the AA and RAC.  It is a testament to their power that during the worst recession since WW2 we had a car scrappage scheme where the taxpayer subsidised anyone who wanted to trade in their old car for something shiny and new.  This wasn’t means tested, so the Earl of Choking-upon-Carfumes could use the scheme just as easily as a pauper (although a pauper wouldn’t be able to afford a car to scrap).  A progressive government would have introduced a car scrappage scheme where you scrap your old clunker for a shiny Brompton, Pashley or Moulton (to support British manufacturing) or for a year or two year season ticket for the train between home and work.

The reason I write this is that the same lobbies who deter people from walking, cycling and using public transport are the same voices behind support of bicycle helmets.  I accept that some cyclists speak out in favour of helmets, but the difference is that they choose to wear a helmet but generally they are against forcing other people to do so.  Australia is famous for its compulsory helmet law, which has massively reduced the number of injured cyclists by effectively killing off Australian cycling.  Wherever helmet laws are made compulsory people stop cycling, and this is why the motoring lobby supports them so strongly, they want us off the roads.   Sadly it is common to hear their agenda parroted by the media and then picked up by people who don’t cycle.  I don’t wear a helmet for several reasons

1) Helmets offer no useful protection in the even of being hit by a car.  In the words of a Transport Research Laboratory report, cycle helmets are effective “particularly [in] the most common accidents that do not involve a collision with another vehicle, often simply falls or tumbles over the handlebars.

This is great if you are very new to cycling, or a child where you are likely to lose balance and fall off your bike when stationary.

2) Helmets make you feel safer, and appear safer to others.  Taking (1) into account, the effect of risk compensation comes into play; you feel safer because of the helmet, and subconsciously take more risks.  The same effect can be seen with the way people with 4X4 vehicles drive.  People in cars see you with a helmet and subconsciously (I hope) feel it is safer to pass closer to you because the helmet will protect you.

Wearing a helmet increases the chance of being involved in an accident. [1] [2] (same source, different takes)

3) Helmets are ignoring the bull in the China shop.  The problem on the roads is not the inadequate ability of your skull to hold in your brains, it is the cars themselves, the manner in which they are operated and the numbers in which they are present.  Helmets are a great way for the motoring lobby to move the focus away from the bull in the china shop by focussing on the inadequately rugged protective china display units.

In short, mass helmet adoption validates bad driving, bad cyclist infrastructure and excessive car use.

4) Helmets put off newbies.  Most of you reading this will be cyclists yourselves, but imagine for a moment that you were not.  Does seeing people on bikes in special high-visibility clothing and helmets make cycling look normal, practical and safe?  Places with the highest rates of cycling also have the lowest rates of helmet usage, where cycling is seen as a normal means of getting around which you can do without special sports clothing and extraneous safety gear.  Helmets are a barrier to the uptake of cycling.

The safety in numbers concept states that cycling gets safer when more people cycle (combined with the distribution of transport funds which follow an increase in modal share).

Anyway, just some food for thought.  If you want to wear a helmet, thats fine, just as long as you are aware of the risks.  Just as I am against helmet compulsion, I wouldn’t want to force anyone who wants to to not wear a helmet.  When the only person who’s safety is at risk is you, I don’t see why legislation is needed either way.

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4 thoughts on “Helmets

  1. completely agree with you! 100%. I would like to add that as citizens we got to take our own responsibilities too… I have no doubt I am probably starting to be seen by the Local Authority as a pain in the a@@ for my constant writing and emailing complaining about the poor state of the roads surface. I have complained many times that as a cyclist I feel punished by the council every time I take my bike on the road, at the end of the day one more bike on the road = one less car, and yet as a cyclist I feel I have to endure and put up with nasty potholes, cracks and dangerous drivers' behaviour, getting home in one piece always feels like luck… we've got to pester them if we want things to change… 😀

  2. Personally I'm a bit more comfortable cycling with a helmet – but I am quite risk averse generally and make sure I am well aware of my surroundings! I have seen people in London cycling along wearing 'cans' (the whole ear headphones). Not sure how they are still alive…!There was an experiment in Denmark that turned a road into a completely shared space – no distinction between pavement or vehicle space, with the idea being that motorists would be forced to pay attention. (There's certainly some evidence that sign after sign after traffic light etc creates some information fatigue and leads to poorer driving). Not sure how well it worked, though RNIB campaigned vigorously against any application in the UK.

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