I signed up to the cycle safe campaign by The Times. There has been some fine reporting on the real and rightly worrying danger posed by motorised traffic but, as today’s paper exemplifies, there’s a risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There are some good bits in today’s newspaper, there are some awful bits in today’s newspaper.
Which will people most remember? The bad bits. Cycling, the paper’s reporting would have us believe, is so incredibly dangerous it’s best to stick to riding around a velodrome (Rebecca Romero’s piece); it’s best to ride on cycle lanes (even though, as we all know, the current crop are currently underused because they’re not up to Dutch standards; we need to cough up for a licence fee to pay for segregated tracks (Jon Snow’s piece, but here’s why licensing is not the right answer); and we need to don protective equipment for popping down to the shops (“In Britain, going out to cycle is a little like preparing for battle.There is body armour and helmets to consider, Lycra and face masks to squeeze into,” is from an otherwise positive piece headlined ‘Reasons to take to your bike’).
Political parties are said to have welcomed The Times campaign, and Labour is even calling for a Cycling Summit.
All well and good but if politicians think cycling is so incredibly dangerous will they clamp down on the source of the danger, or will they “protect” vulnerable road users by forcing them to wear helmets, making it compulsory to sport hi-viz jackets and restrict the use of bicycles to cycle paths that, largely, don’t exist and when they do exist are usually as about much use as chocolate tea-pots?
Naturally, the easy option, the option that would be supported by the majority of voters, is the latter.
The best commentary I’ve seen on The Times campaign has been that from Andrew Davis, the director of the Environmental Transport Association. He said he welcomes the campaign because it “raises the debate to a wider public” but – and I agree with him here – “it fails to address the bigger question – why do we allow cars and trucks to dominate our townscapes?”
This is the absolute crux of the matter. The cyclesafe campaign is potentially divisive. It’s not just cyclists that need protecting from speeding traffic, it’s pedestrians and all other road users, too, including motorists.
If MPs want to do something for cyclists, brilliant. But if that thing doesn’t involve a massive clamping down on motorised traffic it will come to naught. And if MPs say they’ve seen the light on the Cyclepath to Damascus, that’s fantastic, but I won’t be convinced until I see the colour of their money.
Big bucks needs to be thrown around to protect vulnerable road users. Some tough decisions need to be made on how we want our cities to look in 20 years time. And the race tracks that are our rural roads need to be changed, too. Naturally, it will be far easier for MPs to lobby for things like helmet compulsion for cyclists rather than place draconian restrictions on the “freedoms” enjoyed – and exploited – by Mondeo-man.
And we’ve been here before. In the mid-1990s both Labour and the Conservatives seemed to be fighting over who could be the most cycle-friendly. But bugger all got done. All the promises, all the pledges, they all got broken. Beware politicians who promise they’ll make conditions in this country better for cyclists. I’d love to be proved wrong, but I can’t see anything being put in place any time soon that would make a genuine difference.
Soon The Times will tire of the cyclesafe campaign and move on to something else. In the meantime, many people will have been scared off their bikes. Now, thundering trucks passing within inches also scares people off bikes, but will UK politicians take a long-term view on the transport problems we face and do what really needs to be done and that’s restrict motorised traffic?
If cycle tracks are built (and built to standard) will space be taken from cars and trucks or taken from pedestrians? At the moment, it’s the latter but for any real progress to be made it needs to be the former.
As Andrew Davis asks “Why aren’t the centre of towns designed for people first? Why do we, in this country, aspire to so little?”
He continues: “We have got so used to living in places made dangerous by speeding cars and out-of-control trucks – and we just accept it. It doesn’t have to be this way. Our towns and cities can be made fit for pedestrians, cyclists, children and the infirm rather than trucks and cars.
“We have the money. We need the imagination. We need the will.”
And here’s the rub: when it comes to cyclists and pedestrians – and anybody else not in a car or truck – we don’t have the money, we don’t have the imagination and we certainly don’t have the will.
Some have suggested that the cyclesafe campaign by The Times could be the UK equivalent of ‘Stop the Child Murder’, the 1970s campaign in the Netherlands that helped make a cycle and pedestrian friendly country even more cycle and pedestrian friendly.
Maybe. But the British love affair with their cars (and the trucks that aimlessly circle ring roads, calling in at supermarkets when product shortages are flagged by computers) runs incredibly deep and it would take politicians with balls of steel to go against the wishes of the motorised majority. And by dangerising cycling – and walking – we run the risk of making more people take to cars.
Most of the coverage in today’s edition of The Times will do little to encourage cycling. It will do the exact opposite. The Times wants to protect cyclists by highlighting the dangers, and forcing legislators to “do something”, but that “something” will likely not be a joined-up network of protected cycle lanes on every stretch of busy road in the UK. I wish that it was but I shan’t be holding my breath – I’ve been to far too many ‘cycle strategy’ meetings with politicians.
Nevertheless, like Andrew Davis, I welcome the debate and genuinely hope something positive comes out of it.
Rooting through some back issues of Cycle Industry (the mag I used to own and edit before BikeBiz) the other day I came across a couple of issues from May and July 1996, the last time we had politicians saying they were going to do lots of exciting stuff for cyclists.
As I said in the editorial at the time (‘Cycling needs cash not soundbites’), if no cash was forthcoming to back up the fine words it was all just hot air.
If The Times can get politicians to agree to spending big chunks of cash on cyclists and on pedestrians, and less on infrastructure for cars and trucks, I’ll happily eat all of the cynical words above.
For now, read the words on the mag scans below (click to make bigger), and weep.
Bike helmets are great. They can prevent some injuries. I wear mine whenever on a bike but I don’t fool myself into thinking the darn thing will save my life should I be hit by a speeding car. Bike lids just aren’t designed for that sort of crash.
But stories about amazing escapes continue to pollute the mass media. Last year The Sun carried a story about an 11-year old girl who went under the wheels of a car. The newspaper showed the smashed pieces of the helmet which she believes saved her life. If her head was in that smashed helmet at the time her head would have been smashed, too. It’s far more likely that the helmet came off before being crushed by the car. Very few children wear properly fitting helmets. Most kid lids can be flicked off with ease, negating any safety benefits.
Smashed helmets are not evidence that heads would have otherwise been smashed: helmets are designed to break on impact. Properly fitted, they absorb some of the energy of a crash. At slow speeds.
Polystyrene cannot absorb the energy from a full-on car or truck smash. Nor can polystyrene deflect a bullet shot at close-range – or long-range for that matter. But that’s what this North Carolina TV station is claiming.
The headline is: “Father On Bicycle Shot at in Asheville, Helmet Saves His Life”
Investigators said the gunfire erupted…when Alan Ray Simmons was riding his bike with his wife and 3-year-old son. They say a man approached Simmons upset that he was riding with his child in a bicycle seat in a high traffic area.
Authorities said Charles Diez was the man who stopped Simmons. They said both men got into an argument and that Diez pulled out a handgun and shot at Simmons.
They said the bullet struck Simmons helmet, passing through the lining, but stopping short of hitting him in the head. Diez is being held in the Buncombe County Jail on a $500,000 bond.
Buncombe County? That’s appropriate. Buncombe County is the source for the Americanism for ‘claptrap’.
In 1820, Felix Walker, who represented Buncombe County, North Carolina, in the U.S. House of Representatives, rose to address the question of admitting Missouri as a free or slave state. This was his first attempt to speak on this subject after nearly a month of solid debate and right before the vote was to be called. Allegedly, to the exasperation of his colleagues, Walker insisted on delivering a long and wearisome “speech for Buncombe.” He was shouted down by his colleagues. His persistent effort made “buncombe” (later respelled “bunkum”) a synonym for meaningless political claptrap and later for any kind of nonsense.
A news report filed by a San Francisco stringer for the Associated Press has just used the following bizarre headline: Girl riding bicycle without helmet on struck by car.
Now, let’s ignore the poor English (it was the girl not wearing a helmet, not the bicycle) and let’s examine the wonky logic.
Cycle helmets are designed for low-speed crashes from low heights to kerbs, they offer next to little protection in smashes with cars. Today’s polystyrene helmets with microshell covers are a lot less protective than the Snell-tested helmets of old but even the heavier, harder and less stylish helmets of the 1990s weren’t designed to guard against impacts with autos. (Just try to find a Snell-tested helmet nowadays, it’s next to impossible. Too tough a standard, cyclists want style, light weight and lots of vents. This makes today’s helmets much more wearable, but a lot less safe).
The headline writer is pretty much blaming the victim, culpable because she wasn’t wearing an item of safety equipment that wouldn’t have afforded her much protection in any case. The report said the girl was injured, but didn’t say there was any head trauma involved.
It’s headlines like these which make it a lot easier for lawyers to argue for reduced compensation payments for crashed-into cyclists who choose not to wear helmets.
When will some brightspark lawyer realise there are plenty of stats that show driving is an extremely dangerous activity? An activity in which the participants use passive safety devices only: seatbelts, crumple zones, airbags. Thousands of lives would be saved each year if motorists chose to wear rally-style helmets and flameproof clothing. Motorists who chose not to wear such sensible garb – even for short trips – would be deemed part-culpable in any compo claim.
After that? Helmet compulsion for motorists (flameproof clothing shouldn’t be compulsory, there are an awful lot more driving-related head injuries compared to burns). If only one life was saved, it would be worth it.
My stance on cycle helmets can be summarised thus: pro-helmet, anti-compulsion.
The longer version can be found on Cykelhjelm.org, a new Danish website aiming to keep the lid on lid legislation.
This site is another in the growing website empire of Mikhael Colville-Anderson, the photographer behind cycle advocacy blogs Copenhagenize.com and CopenhagenCycleChic.com, two sites I can’t recommend highly enough.
I love Colville-Anderson’s metaphor of pro-compulsionists being closely related to religious zealots.
Fans of Yehuda Moon rejoice, the US bike strip will soon be available in book form. Moon creator Rick Smith, a web developer at an insurance company, is going to publish two books a year, allowing cyclists to have an offline repository of the goings on at the warm and quirky Kickstand Cyclery.
“I will have the first six months worth of strips published using a print-on-demand service in July, and then every six months after that,” Rick told me.
“The proofs I’ve received look great.”
Just so you don’t miss any episode in the run-up to July, send your RSS aggregator over to the Yehuda Moon feed. And think about becoming a patron via PayPal. Kudos is great, but cash is more concrete. Dixon Ticonderoga pencils ain’t free, you know.
Rick agreed to answer some questions (I didn’t push him on the beard).
Why ‘Yehuda’ as a name?
Yehuda Moon was a name I never attached to a character, though I came up with the name back in 1990 or so. In high school and college I did a comic strip where one of the characters had the last name of Moon… but Yehuda Moon just waited quietly until the time was right. Yehuda is a Jewish name and Moon is a Korean name… there’s no logic here. It rolls off the tongue and there are no vowels, so no confusion when telling others about the comic or the character.
You ever worked in a bike shop?
I haven’t, but I’m a lurker. I’ve been in many shops, listening. I’ve visited the local shops often enough to see customers, get a feel for how the mechanics work and what customer service is like. I like to see how easy it is to pick up the bicycles on the floor and sit on them. I like to see what the ebb and flow of foot traffic is – on a weekly basis and on a seasonal basis. When I get my bike serviced, I walk behind the counter and watch and learn. Most mechanics are willing to let this happen. The bike shops I have visited are largely friendly, warm places.
What kind of cycling do you do?
I commute 24 miles round trip to work daily, just about every day of the year. I skipped a few days this winter when it was icy and below 10 degrees. I have an idea that I’d like to get a single speed and go on speedy jaunts around town on the weekends but I find that I’m too busy. I like to go bike camping as well.
Carbon or steel?
Steel. And lugs. I rode an aluminum frame for six months and couldn’t take it. Each bump in the road made the frame feel anemic and feeble. Carbon frames feel like a paper clip to me. Steel is solid (though heavy), and it absorbs the potholes Cleveland throws at me on each ride. It feels silky when you ride it. I haven’t tried titanium.
Do you wear a helmet or a cap?
Just a cap. I stopped wearing a helmet over a year ago. The scare tactics just stopped working and the idea that a piece of styrofoam was going to protect me in a fall didn’t fly anymore. All I saw was emotional anecdotal evidence. It feels great. I’m more careful, more balanced when riding, and it doesn’t sound like a leaf blower is blowing in my ear on descents.
Who are you, Yehuda or Joe, or neither?
Yehuda, though I hope I’m not as boldly zealous in my efforts to encourage others to ride for transportation. Yehuda comes on strong, but he can because he’s a comic character, and he has Joe to keep him in check.
Where do the ideas stem from?
A colleague and I would have spirited conversations about our differing views on bicycles, bicycling, equipment, accessories, helmets, and more at work after we both commuted in. The strips aren’t taken directly from these conversations, but the spirit of the relationship between Joe and Yehuda comes from these worldly interactions.
Why did you start such a strip?
There were so many things happening to me on the ride each day. Or things that I imagined could happen on the ride each day. Combined with the conversations between Joe and Yehuda in the shop, I figured that there was enough material to constitute a comic. I waited until I had finished 30 or 40 strips before showing anyone, since I thought maybe the interest would peter out or I’d run out of things to say. It didn’t happen so I kept drawing.
Was the strip born in January 2008 or did Yehuda have a life prior to that?
The first strip was published January 26, 2008 online; it was the January 22, 2008 strip (I posted the first five comics at the same time).
Is there something about bike shops that make a better strip than, say, a hi-fi shop?
Small businesses that cater to niche audiences often seem similar. The obscure knowledge, the infighting between cliques, the laser-like focus on accoutrements – all contribute to the stereotype of the cult-like small business serving a specialized need. A comics colleague wrote saying that although he had never stepped foot in a bike shop, the shop scenes reminded him of the comic book shops he’d been in and that he could relate to what was going on in the panels.
What other strips have you done in the past?
I drew Shuck the Sulfurstar from 2001 – 2006. There were six self-published comic books and Top Shelf Productions put out the collected graphic novel for me in 2004. Then I drew a graphic travelogue of my trip to Morocco in 2000. After that I worked with Damon Hurd on a book called ‘Temporary’. Damon describes it best: “Every day Envy St. Claire is someone else – sitting at someone else’s desk, drinking someone else’s coffee, talking to someone else’s friends, doing someone else’s job, living someone else’s life. But only for a day. Everything in Envy’s life is temporary, and that’s just how she likes it.”
That was a fun project and it had some traction in Hollywood for awhile, which was a good learning experience.
How much of a culture of cycling is there in Cleveland, Ohio?
I’m not sure. From what I understand there’s a strong co-op downtown. I see a lot more cyclists on the roads now that it’s warmer (and more than I did last year as well). There are club rides that pass me or that I see across the boulevard on my way into work. A bunch of Bike Forum folks seem to herald from these parts. I ride alone, mostly (but always wave).
Have you ever painted lines on a road to make a cycle lane?
No, but I really, really want to on the two roads in my town mentioned in the strip. These roads are one and a half lanes wide and the cars always try to make two lanes out of them, thus pushing bikers off the road. Adding a bike lane would clear everything up for everyone – and save these roads from becoming the thoroughfares drivers have turned most roads into (just the line between points A and B).
Think it would work?
Yes, so long as they were painted straight and all necessary precautions were taken into consideration (where to end them, etc.) This is what does Yehuda in. He runs out of the paint midway into the project, doesn’t paint them straight, and really – doesn’t prepare anyone for their arrival. I’m going to return to this story and have him attempt to go about doing it the right way (with city planners, getting petition signatures). However, I wrote the following to a reader:
“Yehuda’s a misguided advocate, though his heart is in the right place when he wants to carve out a piece of the asphalt for cyclists. He sees a time in the not-so-distant future when automobiles own the road (completely), and travel on them at speeds above 35mph regularly. This will leave no room on the roads for cyclists, thus relegating them to the ghetto that is the bike path – that recreational disaster that meanders and never transports its commuters to their destination in a timely fashion. Painting the bike lanes just staves off the inevitable for a bit longer.”
Yehuda seems to cycle in all weathers. That common?
It’s not. From November to April, I see almost no other bicyclists on the road.
Yehuda is a utility cyclist on a utility bike. Normal for America?
Not in Cleveland. You’ll see recreational bicyclists on ‘hybrids’ cruising along bike paths at 6mph. Or you’ll see bibbed roadies cracking the sound barrier on country roads where they’ve driven their bikes so they won’t have to interact with the cars. Bikes for transportation? Nope.
Are there more Yehuda’s being made every day? ie utility cyclists.
I’ve seen more cyclists on the road this year. But whether they’re biking to work or school or the grocery store… not sure. I don’t see racks or bags and certainly don’t see lights or fenders. But I think that’s because they’re not for sale where the average consumer shops. They’d buy them if they could and were told to.
What bikes does Kickstand Cyclery stock?
The shop sells a city bike: the Van Sweringen; a randonneuse: the Coventry; and a line of road and racing bikes called the Rapid. They are built by a reclusive, resurgent group of Shakers.
Ever had your bike stolen (and wished you could hit the thief with a u-lock?)
When I was ten, a 20 year old picked me and my bike up, shook me off and rode off. Never saw it again. I lost a beach cruiser for about four hours when I was 20. It had been swiped from the back deck and the police picked up a 10 year old riding it on the street. They thought it looked odd for someone that small riding a 61cm frame.
How you coming along with the patrons?
Fine. The patrons are amazing people and I am so glad they believe in my endeavor and enjoy the comic. Their contributions have made it much easier to consume ink and paper at the rate that I do.
What’s coming up for Yehuda and Joe?
There will be a segment on bike camping. There will be more commuting high-jinks. There will be more customer interactions at the Kickstand. Look for the ‘Bike Whisperer’, ‘New Old Parts’, more ‘Carbon Copy’, and ‘Dateline Mom’, and others.
How do you do the strips? Hand draw and then colour on the computer? PC or Mac?
I draw the strips with a Dixon Ticonderoga pencil on 2-ply bristol board after sketching out a plot and then working on dialogue. Then I ink the panels with a Pentel brush pen and erase the pencil lines that are left over. I scan the strip into the computer, then color it using Photoshop. After, I save out as a web image and publish to the web site. Later, I make a copy for use in the printed book. All this on a PC.
The Lauterbrunnental Leaflet looks kinda familiar…
I bought every issue of the Rivendell Reader from a seller on eBay. The Reader changed me as a bicyclist. There are so many others who should read the Reader. The Lauterbrunnental Leaflet was a gentle jab at the wonder that comes with each issue, as well as some of the obsessiveness of Riv members.
If you don’t mind me saying so you (and Yehuda) ride an odd bike. Was it a stock item in the bike shop or special order?
The Dutch Azor Mechanic’s Series 108 model seemed perfect. It was lugged steel (for comfort and strength), had sturdy and weather-resistance components (for Cleveland weather), fenders, lights and rack installed, an internal hub (for ease of maintenance), and I liked the look of it (with little to no seat-post showing). It’s heavy, but it has yet to fail me… and Cleveland winters are rough. I used Rivendell’s method for measuring what frame is appropriate for your height, ordered the bike online and crossed my fingers. And it worked!
Do you have a favourite strip? Mine are ‘And Miss This?‘ And ‘Told you Bicycles are Dangerous‘ and ‘Biking, Driving Everywhere‘.
Not really. Tomorrow’s, maybe?
1. After a crash.
2. At least every two years.
3. When salt has frazzled the straps.
4. When your helmet stinks so much it goes riding without you.
5. Before the fashion police arrive.
6. After too many suncreen smears
All the above are good reasons to upgrade, except perhaps for number six, although there’s a Vaseline vs helmet standard from Japan that examines “brittleness, swelling, softening and other damage.”
Japanese cyclists must think themselves to be an overly sweaty bunch because Japan is the only country to have a perspiration test for helmets. JIS standards for bikes are famously super stringent and Japan’s JIS helmet standards look just as tough.
Helmet replacement was a topic on the latest Spokesmen podcast and a listener has just emailed this comment:
“Do sweat and sunscreen really make helmets degrade? Granted, they’re only good for one fall, but they’re made of Styrofoam, a plastic that is very stable and long lived. Think of it this way, we’re telling businesses that we don’t want Styrofoam plates and cups going into the waste stream because they don’t degrade in landfills. Yet we’re supposed to believe that they degrade while sitting atop our heads?
“The admonition to replace your helmet every 2 years (as one of the catalogs recommends) strikes me as a marketing issue rather than a safety one. But even with that said, I still end up replacing my helmet every couple of years because the pesky straps and buckles wear out. If they didn’t, I’d probably still be wearing a Bell Biker from the late 1970s. Talk about stylin’!”
For what it’s worth, here’s my take on this issue.
Any third-party unguent has the potential to degrade expanded polystyrene. Lacquers and paints, for instance. Sweat and suncream probably won’t kill the protective qualities of a helmet but they’ll make it smell.
I stand by my comments made on the podcast that helmets should be switched regularly, because to do otherwise risks a fashion faux pas. It also pays to make sure you’re wearing the right kind of helmet. In some American states there are helmet compulsion laws which mandate that roadies cannot wear helmets designed for MTBers, and vice versa. (Only kidding).
It’s also worth noting that the hard-shell helmets of old are a lot more protective than today’s fancy, aerated ones.
But, deft marketing – Helmet-X is lighter, has more vents, is used by pro of the moment – has convinced people that helmets have progressed. This is true aesthetically, and from a comfort point of view. A mean-looking modern helmet looks superior to a Skid Lid and is nicer for your hot noggin.
But, if you truly craved top-notch cranial protection, you’d be better off with a 1980s helmet.
Surprisingly few of today’s helmets meet the tough Snell standards. CPSC-certification and CEN standards may look pukka but they are inferior to Snell. There’s a bunch of Chinese bucket helmets on the ‘certified by Snell’ list and a few from Limar. Specialized helmets are also on the dated-looking Snell website – alone among the well-known branded helmets – but check in the liner for the exact standard now used for each Specialized helmet.
The best thing about the more upmarket, up-to-date helmets – apart from their superior styling, lighter weight, and bucket-loads of vents – is the retention. Prior to the Roc Loc stabilisation head-clasper – now on its fourth generation – helmet fit was hit-and-miss. Retention devices are now commonplace and, anecdotally, appear to offer greater safety than older helmets, although studies show that some aero helmets, upon impact, defeat even the best retention devices.
The American pro-helmet organisation the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute believes the current obsession for vents and sexy helmet shapes, including ‘vent tails’ – is a Bad Thing:
“Unfortunately opening up new vents usually requires harder, more dense foam and squaring off the edges of the remaining foam ribs to squeeze out the most impact protection possible from the narrower pieces still there. Since we believe that rounder shells and less dense foam are virtues in a crash, we don’t recommend hyper-vented helmets unless you can’t live without the added ventilation…
“…better construction techniques don’t often mean better impact protection, just thinner helmets and more vents. In short, more money will buy you more vents, but not necessarily more safety…
“We believe that the ideal surface for striking a road resembles a bowling ball: hard, smooth and round. Round shells reduce to a minimum any tendency for a helmet to ‘stick’ to the surface when you hit, with the possibility of increasing impact intensity, contributing to rotational brain injury or jerking the rider’s neck.”
Randy Swart, director of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, believes even the toughest of today’s helmet standards are weak:
“There have been so few advances in helmet technology over the last decade, and there is so little incentive for manufacturers to plow money into research and development, that we would not anticipate helmets that could meet an ideal standard in our lifetime, and probably not in yours either.
“There have also been no major advances in lab testing equipment and protocols over the last decade. Old arguments about test rig designs have never been settled. No private or public lab is investing in research on major new systems for improving our testing. No new advances in designing better tests are on the horizon.
“Development of an international bicycle helmet standard is stalled. Europe has a different test rig that it considers superior and the US regards as unnecessarily complex. The US uses two different drop rigs that produce slightly different results and studiously ignores the problem because each rig has its champions who regard the other as inferior, and because nobody wants to invest in new rigs. The US uses 2 metre drop heights, while Europe uses 1.5 metres, resulting in helmets that are thinner and often will not pass US tests.
“In the absence of better standards, manufacturers are stalled in improving their helmets by two constraints: marketing and legal liability. They are convinced that they can’t sell a helmet that is thicker and therefore bulky looking. And their lawyers will not let them advertise that a helmet is ‘safer’ or ‘more protective’ or even ‘designed to prevent concussion’ for fear that they will lose lawsuits when a rider is injured in that helmet.”
Safer lids are also constrained by our litigious society, says the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute:
“If a manufacturer wants to offer a helmet with superior protection, it must build that same protection into every model in its line or face lawsuits charging that they failed to provide the use the most protective technology possible. And if a manufacturer has a new helmet that is much more protective, their corporate attorneys will not permit it to be advertised as superior in preventing injury because they would anticipate losing every lawsuit involving injuries received in that model. So helmet advertising is an exercise in creativity as marketers try to tout their products while never saying anything about their performance.”
I don’t wear a 1980s helmet. I prefer to sacrifice some safety for comfort and style. At the end of the day I’m a sucker for the deft marketing. I wear a Met Stradivarius, the “world’s first bicycle helmet below 200 grams!”
Pix are of me and my three kids wearing our super-trendy Met helmets. The CX pic of me was taken by Brian Smith.
The Tory MP for Wellingborough and Secretary of the All-Party Road Traffic Group, got parliamentary airtime today for his 10 minute rule debate on cycle helmet compulsion. Fellow compulsionists – such as non-cyclist Eric Martlew and tandemist Sir George Young – were in the House of Commons to support Bone. Background story on this topic here.
Following lobbying, Bone has reduced the age of compulsion from 17 to 14 years and under because it would be a “nanny state” to force adults to wear helmets when cycling. Naturally, the long ago discredited “85 percent reduction in head injuries” stat was wheeled out again.
Bone said wearing a helmet can effectively reduce the impact of a vehicle collision by the equivalent of 12 miles an hour which can provide the crucial margin between death and concussion. The example he used was a “70 mph juggernaut” crashing into a child.
Bone also said compulsory helmets for children would save the NHS cash. Children also cost the NHS money when they fall on pavements as pedestrians and when involved in car crashes – there are helmets available for both pedestrians and car passengers – but Bone made no mention of helmet compulsion for any group other than cyclists, not even skateboarders, inline skaters or Heely wearers.
Flying in the face of much evidence to the contrary, the MP said cycle helmet compulsion does not deter people from cycling. He cited the examples of Canada and Australia yet in Australia helmet compulsion led to an immediate drop in numbers of cyclists. Even Cochrane researchers – leaders in evidence based medicine – admit that cycling levels may be reduced by helmet enforcement.
The bill will receive its second reading on 19th October, Peter Bone’s birthday.
The risk thermostat theory – that humans take more risks when they feel safer, think ABS brakes, auto airbags – has been around a long time but is still controversial in some quarters.
The famous quip that motorists would driver safer if their steering wheels contained long spikes may be disputed by some epidemiologists but there’s anecdotal back-up for the concept on a motoring story on BBC.co.uk today.
Adrian Chapman from the 2CV Club of Great Britain said:
“If you are going to get hit by a lorry in a 2CV, then yes, it is going to hurt. Just not as bad as being on a bike. But as a result, you just drive more safely in a 2CV, you don’t get any of the false security you can get in a big modern car.”
In 2005, Edmund King of the RAC Foundation – who gets around London on his Brompton – said of the spike theory: “Of course, drivers with spikes would slow down, but accidents still happen. The driver with the spike might be very careful indeed, but that would not stop someone else crashing into him.”
Of course, extend the logic and the system works better: it’s not just one car fitted with a spike, it needs to be all cars.
The risk thermostat theory – also known as risk homeostasis or risk compensation – is expounded on at length in the classic and accessible book on the subject, Risk by John Adams.
Adams cites motorcyclists as a good indicator of the theory in action. He asks them to visualise riding in full leathers and helmet, and then he asks them to visualise riding the same journey in shorts, t-shirts and no lids. Guess which scenario sees the motorbikers going slower?
Adams has a blog: he summarises his views on risk compensation thus:
“Trapeze artists with safety nets, rock climbers with ropes, cricketers with pads and helmets all take risks that they would not take without their safety equipment. Motorists with seat belts, the road accident statistics tell us, do likewise.”
Seat-belts don’t save lives? What heresy is this? Read Adams’ views on this hoary old topic for yourself here, and think about this when well-meaning cycle helmet compulsionists cite the efficacy of seat-belt laws as their key argument in forcing all cyclists to wear helmets.
For the record, and as stated here, I’m pro-helmet, anti-compulsion. I also wear a seat-belt when driving. But I don’t scream around city streets in my car, using ABS braking, airbags and crumple zones as reasons to think I’m safe, bugger those outside my exoskeleton.
Tory MP Peter Bone wants all under 17s to be forced to wear helmets when cycling. He’s secured a Ten Minute Rule Bill on 16th October to argue his case.
10 Minute Rule Bill’s are used by backbench MPs to sound out support for a cause. The Government of the day usually opposes such Bills as a matter of principle and they very rarely succeed in getting true Parliamentary time. However, as a means of generating news and spin, they can be effective.
Bone became an MP in 2005 and has asked many questions in Parliament about cycle helmet compulsion. Bone is a backbencher with bite: he’s Secretary of the All Party Road Traffic Group.
Many motorists want cyclists to wear helmets because then they’ll be more “protected”. However, cycle helmets are lightweight and are not designed for impacts from cars. In 2006, Dr Ian Walker found that motorists passed closer to cyclists who wear helmets. However, Helmets.org believes cycle helmets do offer protection in car v bike smash “We have enough experience here with helmets and car crashes to have convinced the cycling community that the protection offered even in a car crash is real and not controversial.”
In Australia, cycle helmet compulsion led to a drop in the number of people cycling. Because less people cycled, there were less reports of injuries to cyclists, a stat used to promote the effectiveness of cycle helmets to decrease injuries. A Cochrane researcher has admitted helmet compulsion laws may make people give up on cycling (although, fret not, because a Canadian paediatrician, believes “they may take up in-line skating [instead].”
English MPs – especially those who don’t cycle – like to introduce “cyclist protection measures.” In 2004 MP Eric Martlew’s Protective Headgear for Young Cyclists Bill was launched in the Commons but was scuppered by Tory MP Eric Forth. In a parliamentary debate Martlew said those who opposed cycle helmet compulsion were “lunatics in Lycra.” This is softer than his previous condemnations: he called the Association of Cycle Traders “cycling fascists” for daring to ask why Martlew had threatened to expose one of the ACT’s member shops to the media for “putting cycle sales ahead of child safety.”
Bone started his parliamentary helmet compulsion campaign in September last year:
Peter Bone (Wellingborough, Conservative): “To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will bring forward proposals to make it compulsory for children to wear safety helmets when riding bicycles.”
Stephen Ladyman (Minister of State, Department for Transport): “We believe that it is sensible for cyclists, and especially children, to protect themselves by wearing a cycle helmet and it is our policy to encourage helmet wearing on a voluntary basis. At current helmet wearing rates, making them compulsory would cause enforcement difficulties and, without greater public acceptance, could have an adverse effect on the levels of cycling. However, compulsion remains an option that we keep under review.”
Cyclist Dr Peter Ward is often quoted in the media when cycle helmet compulsion is raised. He has said “cycling is no more dangerous than any other form of transport, but seems to be often viewed as unusually dangerous especially by non cyclists. Maybe this is because so few people cycle in Britain. In countries where many people cycle (Germany, Holland Denmark) safety is less of an issue. In Britain, Govt. figures (Road Casualties of Great Britain) reveals one is more at risk of being killed walking for a kilometre than cycling the same distance. Compared with car driving, cycling involves very similar risks. Is it reasonable to expect cyclists to don helmets when the risks they run are not higher than pedestrians or car occupants? In Australia, New Zealand and Canada large increases in helmet wearing have not resulted in less head injuries among cyclists.”
Calls for pedestrians to wear helmets fall on deaf ears.
‘Pro-safety’ campaigners scoff at suggestions that pedestrians need head protection yet are happy to argue for cycle helmet compulsion.
In her book Bicycling with Children, Trudy E. Bell wrote:
“Consider this chilling fact: a child doesn’t even need to be riding the bicycle in order to fall hard enough to incur permanent brain damage. If a child falls over from standing height even while stopped astride the bicycle, a direct blow to the temple could kill.”
Bell, like Bone and many others, fail to see that this sort of argument, by logical extension, means all child pedestrians should wear helmets as they frequently fall over from standing height.
MPs don’t campaign for pedestrian or car helmets. This kid’s auto helmet designed by Michael Fleming looks a lot like the ‘hair net’ cycling helmets of old, but has the addition of ear buds…
Fleming, a Houston attorney, said: “The time has come for the development of a helmet that protects children in automobiles. Too many children throughout the world are killed in car crashes because of head injuries. Too many of those who survive must face a future filled with the terrible pain and lingering symptoms of severe head injuries. A protective helmet like the one I have designed must be produced to confront this problem.”
To date, Peter Bone MP has not campaigned for children’s auto helmets. However, in July, he asked about cycle helmets again.
Jim Fitzpatrick, Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department for Transport, replied:
“The Department is planning to commission a new research project on cyclists’ road safety in the autumn. This will include a new review of cycle helmet effectiveness. The research project as a whole is likely to take three years, but we are aiming to complete the review of cycle helmet effectiveness within two years, so by autumn 2009.”
Bone’s Ten Minute Rule Bill – Bicycles (Children’s Safety Helmets) – will be aired on Tuesday 16th October.
In his constitency newsletter, Bone said:
“My Bill will make it compulsory for children to wear cycle helmets when riding bicycles. It will ensure that MPs will be given the opportunity to debate the issue and have a vote on the matter.”
He said many MPs support a change in the law and that “local people” have also been supporting his campaign, citing “the new Wellingborough bike shop Cyclelife, which ran a competition for children to design the best cycle helmet and gave away a bike and a safety helmet to the winner.”
The owner of this bike shop, Darren Jayes, said he supported cycle helmet compulsion for children under 16 but doesn’t want “to put people off cycling.”
He said: “When riding with my children I wear my helmet and make them wear theirs, but when I’m just messing about by myself, I don’t wear a helmet, although I wear one when thrashing about in the woods.”
The Association of Cycle Traders feels compulsion is a bad idea:
“Whilst helmet compulsion might generate a short term uplift in sales for retailers we believe the long term impact will be an overall reduction in cycling which would negatively affect the retail sector,” said the ACT’s Mark Brown.
NOTE: Like many others, I’m pro-helmet, anti-compulsion. I wear one of my cycle helmets (road or MTB or, for BMX, potty) every time I cycle. My kids also have multiple helmets for all the cycle disciplines they take part in.