This entry was posted on Tuesday, June 17th, 2008 at 4:32 pm and is filed under Bad cycling, Bad motoring, Bicycle helmet. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
Yesterday there was a ‘dispelling the myth’ helmet piece on Dave Moulton’s popular blog. Today, in The Telegraph, London Mayor Boris Johnson gives lots of erudite reasons for ditching his “bonce protector” (none of which refer to his blond locks).
Where do I stand on the Great Helmet Debate? I’m a staunch pro-helmet anti-compulsionist. Basically, if you want to wear a helmet, feel free to do so. I wear one, too. But I don’t want to force others to do so. It’s got to be a personal choice.
I don’t want governments to legislate on what one should wear on such a freedom machine as a bicycle. Ah, yes, but the same argument could be used about seat-belts and helmets for motorcyclists.
I wear a seat-belt, and not just because the government tells me to. If you wear one, too, try this. (On a private road, of course). Don’t wear it the next time you drive. Did you drive safer? You probably did. This is the famous risk compensation or risk homeostasis argument, the spike-on-the-steering-wheel hypothesis.
When you feel safe, you drive/ride more dangerously. I don’t know why it’s still a theory and not a scientific fact. Our roads are living proof of the ‘theory’. Better brakes, crumple zones, and other car ‘safety’ features mean motorists feel invincible. When they hit stuff smaller and less protected than them (roadkill like animals and cyclists), this feeling of invincibility is all-empowering.
Take away these ‘safety’ features (ie safe for the driver, not the roadkill), put in their place a whole bunch of disincentives to crashing, such as the steering-wheel spike or high-explosives attached to the car’s bumper, and motorists would drive incredibly safely. The EU’s Fifth Motoring Directive - with motorists always deemed to be at fault in car v squishy people cases - operates in a similar way, one of the reasons it will never be brought into the UK.
Sorry, I’ve digressed into a rant against motorists when I started on cycle helmets. Anyway, a similar argument holds. Strap on a cycle helmet and you feel safer, more protected. You may not be more protected for a whole variety of reasons but the very fact you feel safer may mean you take more risks. You may ride slightly faster than you would otherwise have done. You may take corners at a slightly more rakish angle. All of these micro-adjustments can make you more likely to crash.
For every anecdotal plea about ‘this helmet saved my life, look at it, it’s crushed’, one could be offered from a non-helmet wearer who hasn’t crashed or when he has, he’s hurt his hands not his head. Mandatory cycle-mitts and wrist-guards, then?
Heck, US dental orgs have long been arguing for mouth-guards for cyclists. Really.
In countries where cycling is a mass participation activity - such as Denmark or the Netherlands - helmet use is stunningly low, but there’s no epidemic of cycle-related head injuries. And forget the notion this is because cyclists are segregated from cars in these countries. Helmets are designed to work at slow speeds from low heights: Dutch-style riding conditions. They are not designed to work in impacts with cars.
Modern cycle helmets are a lot less safe than helmets from just a few years ago. You want light lids with lots of holes for ventilation? OK, but you’re losing a lot of protection in the process. Why do you think the majority of cycle helmets now on the market no longer certify to Snell standards? ‘Cos they’d fail, that’s why.
If cycle helmets are so essential why are manufacturers not making them as protective as they used to be?
In the Heroes, Villains and Velodromes book I reviewed last week, British Cycling performance director David Brailsford said he believed pro-cyclists who doped were using drugs as a magic pill, neglecting the “aggregation of marginal gains” possible by doing lots of little things to go faster, such as changes in position, aero testing of components, better food, faster tyres.
Those in favour of cycle helmet compulsion could be said to be guilty of the same sort of thing. A cycle helmet can protect against harm in some crashes but it’s not a panacea, there are many more important things to get right before even thinking about promoting cycle helmets.
The “aggregation of marginal gains” for true cycle safety would include forcing motorists to reduce their speed, better cycling infrastructure, and better cycle training for new cyclists.
And before helmet compulsion is even considered, it would a good idea to get those who already wear helmets, to wear them properly. As a cycling coach I see lots of kids with helmets at such daft angles that they would fall off with a breath of wind never mind a headplant to the ground.
Forcing cyclists to wear helmets would make a lot of people give up cycling and would have negligible - if any - health gains because people wouldn’t fit them correctly.
But don’t get me wrong, I’m not a helmet hater. I wear my helmet (almost) every time I ride. My kids wear theirs. I just don’t believe cycle helmets should be forced on an unwilling populace. Not for adults, not for kids.
Those who make helmet wearing a personal choice are more likely to learn how to wear them correctly.