Sorry Bradley, its road safety, not helmets, that’s the issue

Gosh, Bradley, I hate to be on the other side of an argument with you but I have to be. You are rightly seen as a god among us mere pedallers, a supremely dedicated athlete but also the self- deprecating boy next door. We love you, but that doesn’t mean you’re always right.
Bradley Wiggins is right to row back on his apparent call for helmets to be made compulsory for cyclists. It would be a terrible error. The Olympic gold medal-winner’s reaction to the death of a cyclist dragged under an Olympics bus was understandable, but mistaken even in terms of the incident: the victim died from injuries to his abdomen, not his head. To say: “Ultimately, if you get knocked off and don’t have a helmet on, then you can’t argue”, puts the blame in the wrong quarter.
Wiggins is right that cyclists must have some responsibility for their own safety. They should stick to the rules and stay alert at all times. But cars and lorries can be lethal weapons when driven beside vulnerable cyclists by people who don’t always follow the rules or behave sensibly themselves.
Superficially, making cyclists wear helmets seems to make sense. After all, the vital organ enclosed in little more than an eggshell on the top of our necks needs protecting. And no one would try to reverse the laws making it compulsory to wear seatbelts in cars or helmets on motorcycles.
But there are important differences. Cycling is a relatively slow-speed activity and cannot be compared with motorcycling or driving. Of course cyclists should wear helmets if they chose to. But there are two powerful reasons to oppose mandatory helmets.
First, it would reduce considerably the number of cyclists on the roads, as evidence from Western Australia, where helmets have been mandatory for 20 years, shows. Cycle use in Perth rose by 10 per cent a year between 1983 and 1989. But by 1994, two years after the law was introduced, the number of cyclists had fallen by 50 per cent.
Cost and practicality are deterrents, as is style, especially for the young. As Dr Mark Porter has said: “My children refuse to wear helmets. I would prefer them to ride without than not cycle at all as the benefits far outweigh any risks that would be mitigated by a helmet.”
And, Bradley, why not make motorists wear helmets? As 50 per cent of car occupants’ deaths are caused by head injuries, wearing a head band with a hard shell, such as the one designed at Adelaide University, would save many lives. But motorists balk at the idea. When I tweeted it yesterday, Edmund King, of the AA, said it was “a silly idea as drivers have airbags, crumble [sic] zones etc”. But they still die in droves.
Second, cycle helmets may increase accidents because of the well-documented phenomenon of risk compensation. Remarkably, in Western Australia, despite the fall in cycle use after the legislation, hospital admissions of cyclists remained the same. The reason may not be just that cyclists feel less vulnerable and take more risks, but because motorists treat cyclists wearing helmets differently.
In 2006 Dr Ian Walker, a traffic psychologist from the University of Bath, cycled around Salisbury and Bristol, using a sensor to record data from overtaking motorists. They came closer when he wore a helmet, because drivers felt he was likely to be more experienced, and gave him a wider berth when he wore a blonde wig.
There is a wider point. Making helmets compulsory suggests that cycling is dangerous and needs special equipment and protection. Only when old ladies and pregnant women feel safe cycling in our cities, as they do in Holland and Denmark, will the aim of protecting cyclists have been achieved.
Of course, there are risks in cycling, but that is true of any activity that involves movement. In London there were 16 cycle deaths last year, but as there are around 300,000 cycle trips in the capital every day that represents less than 1 fatality per 6 million trips. There have been 13 million journeys on the cycle-hire bikes introduced in London two years ago with no fatalities and very few injuries. Crucially, wearing helmets does not prevent the likelihood of accidents. That’s where the focus should be. Risks to cyclists can be reduced through appropriate road infrastructure, slowing traffic, creating cycle lanes and making it easier for cyclists to choose safer routes.
So, Bradley, it would be better to focus on making the streets safer for cyclists, rather than cyclists safer for the streets. The junction where the cyclist died on Wednesday evening is a prime example. It is a notorious blackspot, where two main roads meet and where “improvements” for cyclists before the Olympics involved creating a useless shared-use pavement that most cyclists ignore as it is not safer or practical.
Talking about cycle helmets and banning cyclists from listening to their iPods concentrates on the victims, not the guilty parties, who include not just bad drivers but politicians who refuse to acknowledge that cyclists deserve their place on the roads.
  • Richard Morris

    Can I ask why you have suggested elsewhere the helmets are made compulsory for children?

  • Adam Hewitt

    It was the headphones comment that worried me more – if I couldn’t listen to Today on the way into work, and PM on the way home, I’m honestly not sure I’d bother cycling in. 

    I can still hear the traffic perfectly well (too well, usually – heaven only known how many Eddie Mair witticisms I’ve missed as the number 86 or an inappropriately large lorry for a suburban road blasts past me). But because of the earphones, I obviously look to any passers-by like I’m listening to pounding trance-dance-hip-hop: or whatever.

  • Rob

    Quite. Agree strongly.
    I can sympathise with Sir Bradley – he was just giving his (albeit misguided) opinion in response to a hack’s question, rather than soapboxing. (Perhaps I can give him the benefit of my insights on how to train for the Tour some time.)

    But unfortunately his comments have brought out of the virtual woodwork a lot of ill-informed compulsionists who think that shouting their opinion – usually misspelt and in capitals – is the same as presenting an argument.

    People ask me why I’m not wearing a helmet, and I tell them it’s because it doesn’t make a significant enough difference to my safety for the discomfort involved, just like I’m not wearing kneepads or a bulletproof jacket, and I’ve ridden for forty years every day and read the academic papers and the research and the informed opinion and know what I’m doing, and that the sort of accident that might KSI me is exactly the sort for which a helmet would be as useful as a custard raincoat. And they frown and grumble and tell me they once fell off a bike and besides they used to go out with a nurse, so that proves helmets should be compulsory. Bah!

  • Christian Wolmar

    I didn’t. I said they are a good idea for kids – meaning young ones – as their heads are more vulnerable and they are prone to fall off. V different issue to adults on roads whose main danger is motor vehicles which are far more likely to be lethal in ways where a helmet would not add protection, as with the poor young man near the Olympics park

  • Christian Wolmar

    I so agree. I listen to the radio the whole time through basic earpieces that ensure I hear the traffic. My concentration remains absolute and yet some motorists, seeing them, shout at me – yet they sometimes have radios blaring at unconscionable levels.

  • S A

    You might want to look at Bradley’s comments:
    @bradwiggins I suggested it may be the way to go to give cyclists more protection legally I involved In an accident 

    @bradwiggins Just to confirm I haven’t called for helmets to be made the law as reports suggest

  • Well said: and it’s good to see that a clear, well reasoned argument against helmets is finally getting into the national press.

    We need to keep fighting helmet laws wherever they are: if they are introuduced in the UK I can see a number of politicians in Germany who are itching to make them compulsory here, will see that as a great opportunity: all for c<yclist safety, of course, and nothing to do with our massive car industry noticing the pinch…

  • Christian Wolmar

    Yes, but if you watch the interview avalaible online on the Guardian website and elsewhere, he clearly says that he would like to see legislation. OK, so he has rowed back on it, but he did say it in the first place.

  • There was a study published recently that showed a cyclist wearing headphones can hear as much as a person in a car with the windows up.

    I used to wear headphones when riding but now love to listen to the rhythms of everything around, and inside me.

    [edit] Heres the study:

  • Tim in MAG

    “And no one would try to reverse the laws making it compulsory to wear ……… helmets on motorcycles” You have obviously never heard of the Motorcycle Action Group then! We have thousands of members and have been fighting exactly that for many years, and for much the same reasons as you outline above.

  • Kenatnam

    When I’m on holiday cycling Holland I never wear a helmet, but at home in the UK I always do – I think it’s because I feel much more at threat from traffic in the UK.

    The answer is not a helmet, it’s to educate the politicians, road planners and drivers that people (cyclists) matter.

  • Kenatnam

    I ride with one earpiece in – that way I get the best of both worlds

  • Richard Lewis

    I have been tasked with cycling the mayor of Newham during the Olympic Games. His first reaction to helmets was the same as mine: “not bloody likely”–because he agrees that the benefits are minimal if any and the real problems lie in bad driving. However, on our inaugural ride, his head of Comms insisted that he wore a helmet–and that I should do so myself. I strongly disagree with this and have considered refusing to ride with the mayor if either of us is compelled to wear a helmet.

    However, I think that the problem is that there is still so much media hysteria when someone in a position of power doesn’t wear a helmet (witness Boris) that it isn’t worth the hassle: since my main objective is to encourage the mayor to support cycling more generally the helmet issue is actually very small indeed and I am prepared to go along with the comms’ guy’s misinformed (and, frankly, uninformed) advice if it produces wider benefits.

    So I am guilty of colluding in the media’s idea that people should wear helmets–to reach my wider objective of securing more support for people cycling. I’m not happy about it, but there we go. Bradley, a fine cyclist in all other regards, has not helped

  • nsandersen

    Helmets may be good to wear, but will obviously not prevent any accidents where body parts are crushed.

  • We have compulsory helmets in NZ and it has completely back fired… Less cyclists and even worse cycling conditions on our roads. Some people now talk about compulsory hi-vis clothing! Maybe we should make it compulsory to go by motorised vehicle, that will solve the problem of cycling fatalities.

  • Raymondox

    I always wear a helmet, reason being that a long time ago I wasn’t and cracked my head on the pavement given me a fractured skull and concussion. Recently my daughter went over the handlebars face first, she was wearing a helmet with a peak which prevented her face being ripped off, as it was she ended up with a lot of bruises. Should you have a normal cycling speed crash with head contact then a helmet definitely reduces the possibility of a head injury.

    Having said that I choose to wear a helmet because I am well trained cyclist who occasionally falls off like many others (I find its actually easier to control your fall if your head is protected and reduces injuries to arms and fingers) and feel a helmet benefits me personally. 

    However, I do feel It is upto others whether they want to wear a helmet or not and I don’t believe in making them compulsory. Improving overall road safety should be the aims of all, and people are right in saying that improving the overall cycling infrastructure, skills and culture is far more beneficial that helmets in the majority of cases.

  • Anoop

    I agree with you Christian. I wish TfL and the Department for Transport would do something about it. If cycle routes are made safe and convenient and driver behaviour improves (because they also cycle), helmets will become irrelevant to cycling for transport because the baseline risk of injury will be so low.

    Cycling for sport (e.g. racing or mountain biking) is more risky so it is wise to wear a helmet, as one would do when rock-climbing or motor racing.

  • Adrian

    Wiggo’s comment was taken out of context somewhat (see his twitter account).  What he meant was that cyclists don’t help themselves sometimes.
    Motorists often use the ‘They weren’t wearing a helmet’ as some sort of justification for bloody stupid behaviour.  It removes another ‘excuse’ for impatient, arrogant tosspots who can’t wait half a second to overtake where its safe.
    Some cyclists don’t need to wear a helmet, as they’ve nowt to protect.
    What needs to change most is driver behaviour.  I took my 10-year old out for a ride yesterday, on quiet lanes.  A 4×4 came up behind just where the road narrowed slightly for about 10 yards.  Rather than wait the second or so to overtake safely, they forced their way past, missing by 6″ or so.  Because that fraction of a second hold up to them was more important than a child’s life.  Thankfully, my daughter didn’t wobble or panic.

  • Adrian

    Missed the comment about iPods.  Would you drive in a car without rear view mirrors?   Your ears are almost as important as your eyes when you’re riding.  Blocking those of is bloody stupid.  its completely different to listening to music in a car, because hearing isn’t such a key input in a car. You cannot put all the responsibility on the drivers – that’s the point Wiggo was making – we as cyclists need to be aware of everything around us and be as considerate to other road users as we want them to be to us.

  • steveintoronto

    Indeed, your ears are your ‘eyes in the back of your head’…but it raises another point about helmets: The ambient acoustic field is radically altered when wearing a helmet.

    Try this experiment: (Make sure there’s no traffic when trying this) Cycle past a row of parked cars at the side of the road. Close your eyes momentarily. If you have good auditory sense, you can detect the presence of each parked car as you pass. This is because of the difference in phase nuance of the reflected ambient sound your ears are receiving. It is, in effect, sonar. Bats navigate very well, albeit they emit their own sound source to produce reflections.

    Put your helmet on and try the experiment again. Not the same, is it? The ability to locate source of sound is greatly impaired.

    Another point: If you wear glasses, having them strapped to your face in an accident by the wearing of a helmet is a terrible idea. Had I been wearing a helmet in a serious accident I had years back when they dug the shattered and bent glasses out of my forehead, I would have lost an eye. “Unbreakable” lenses are anything but. They may resist breakage, but given enough force, they shatter into razor sharp shards. Luckily I got off with just five stitches in my forehead. Far better that than in the eye-socket.

    You want those glasses to fly off on impact. A helmet prevents that. Helmets are an awful long way from being a panacea. In a race of close proximity with other cyclists, the risks change radically, as do the imperatives of safety. To compare that to normal cycling in traffic is like comparing elephants to apples.

  • steveintoronto

    How does wearing a helmet “reduce injuries to arms and fingers”? I refrain from writing something really sarcastic….

    What I do highly recommend, and no-one ever mentions it, is wearing padded gloves, the older style, with crocheted string back, before gloves became a lycra fashion statement.

    The hands are involved in *vastly* more accidents than the head, and not only do they deserve protection from impact and cuts, gloves radically reduce road numbness, which, btw, often results in permanent nerve damage over time.

    Not a word from the nannies on that though…..

  • steveintoronto

    May I add to that?

    It’s the *preponderance of responsible actions* that indicates (if not dictates) all manner of cloistered behaviour for children.

    Does it have to be explained why sex, drinking, smoking, etc, etc are not indicated for children but are for adults?

    How about voting, Richard? Tell me, do your parents still set rules for you? Why not?