Helmets – no brainer

The future of the UK Roads?

Like any true blogger, I pick up my news and areas to comment on from a reliable news source, and then just piggy back onto the debate. Now I would love to pretend that I have direct access to the Press Association newswires or sources scattered throughout the cycling community calling me at all hours with new and interesting stories, but I do not. Instead I rely upon the twitterati, Guardian Bike Blog (GBB) and really whatever springs to mind when the muse descends, and keyboard beckons.

Seeing that Cycling groups launch petition against Northern Ireland bike helmet law (according to the GBB) I thought I would have wile away my afternoon with a few words on this topic. As a blogger I can dispense with facts and rely solely upon thoughts, anecdotes and whatever else I like to prove my point, which is what I will do as I am not entirely sure where I would source all the facts that I need (or even if at this early stage whether I need any). So…cue vast sweeping statements and over the top generalisations…

Cycling is intrinsically linked with a freedom of movement. Of course, the same can be said for other means of transport and it would be true. However, for me, the important fact is that we are the engine and pistons that propel the bicycle. It is under our own steam that we determine the pace and length of our journey, and along its course we are able to pick up our own sense of joy and happiness through a ride. There is freedom in that as well as history. Bicycles surely played their part in liberalising the rural world in the earlier industrial age, allowing people to expand their horizons beyond how far they could walk in a day – and as I have said before done their bit to improve the human gene pool at the same time.

Today in London, after witnessing a steady decline in cycling from its overwhelming popularity during the inter-war periods, we are witnessing a renaissance in cycling. Such a re-birth and reclaiming of the streets has not happened overnight, nor has it really happened with overwhelming enthusiasm and works from Government and local councils. Predominantly, it has been done by groups like the CTC and its regional variants which have raised the profile of cycling and given it an air of respectability again. The recession has also done its bit – as tube and bus fares rise, along I suppose with gym membership, people have returned to their childhood conveyances in an effort to cut costs and in some cases improve fitness.

However, for whatever individual’s reasons for returning to the bicycle, what is clear is the emergence of the cycling evangelist which dwells in everyone’s breast. This organ is nestled right next to heart and is massaged to life when this lumbering muscle is forced to exert itself due to strenuous revolutions of the pedals…When proclaiming to the unconverted this evangelist can frequently be heard extolling the virtues and freedom of the road. Like any great religion, there are differing Cycling sects and sets of belief (perhaps one day I will piece together an anthropological documentary on this), however ultimately the message remains the same – cycling allows freedom be it expression or motion.

Efforts such as we are witnessing in the Stormont as outlined by the GBB are a very real infringement on this freedom. There is no doubt they are well intentioned but at the end of the day this is legislation designed to regulate the use of helmets and therefore cycling which cannot do the cycling cause any favours. From a swift survey of cycling chums, the overwhelming response of those wearing helmets is that initially they did not wear them (variety of excuses – cost, hair, style etc) but after hearing scare stories and the like they gradually adopted the lid. It was not legislation, but informed fact.

For me, the turning point was when a good friend related the accident her cousin had on the London streets. The chap was waiting patiently at a red light when a bus thundered up to a stop beside them. The cyclist was not touched physically, but the buffeting and shock of the bus turning up like that must have caused a loss of balance as they fell off their bike. Their head hit the kerb which collided with their temple. The sad result was that they were later declared brain dead at the hospital. It is more than possible that a helmet (properly worn) could have prevented such a serious injury. This in itself is not a reason to wear a helmet, but what has made me don the lid was that this situation was entirely out of the cyclist’s control, a freak accident, which a helmet could have prevented.

Wearing a helmet has been my decision – but I know for a fact that if the wearing was enshrined in law I would most likely have been put off. From the clamour and cries of the GBB followers this would seem to be much the case too. A helmet will do little in a high impact crash, but for low impact it is invaluable – I value my life enough to recognise this, and do not need a Government or cycling body to spell it out to me.

There will be those who will compare this situation to the introduction of motorcycle helmets. To them I will say: a cycling helmet is not a motorcycle helmet (I once tested the endurance of both with a claw toothed hammer – the motorcycle helmet lasted about 20 hard blows before I truly penetrated its skin – the bicycle 2). I draw the natural conclusion that a bicycle helmet is not designed for the high speed impacts and crashes a motorcyclist is potentially at risk too. What it is designed for is the low speed accidents where it is important to provide a protective shell for areas like the forehead and temples. It is by no means the same thing (sweeping statement there).

Though I am evangelical about cycling, I cannot bring myself to be so on the use of helmets. The cleverest and brightest of my comrades frequently go without a helmet – their decisions are well informed and not whimsical. If people ask for my reasoning on a helmet then I will give it with a little gentle encouragement as to taking up its use – but whether they take up the helmet or not is up to them. If people question me about safety issues for cycling, the helmet is always low down on my list of priorities – I always cite road positioning and road awareness as the key protective tools for any cyclist, these are what keep the cyclist as safe as possible – helmets are a bonus. If the Stormont wants to do more to lessen the dangers to cyclists, then it is not helmet legislation, rather education – both for the cyclist and the driver which will have the greatest impact – but hopefully not physically on the cyclist!

Editors Note: Thanks to Partridge for flagging up this topic.

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4 responses to “Helmets – no brainer

  1. On long rides, I like to ride with helmet. On short rides into town I usually give it a miss. It’s sad some countries make it illegal to ride without helmet. It’s definitely one thing I want to remain choice of what to wear or not

    • Completely agree that helmet wearing should be a matter of choice and not something dictated by law. The obsession with helmets is a real pity, as there are so many other areas which require attention, but I guess for Governments it is an easy and rather symbolic win…

  2. Ask yourself – should pedestrians wear protective gear including helmets? If not, why not?
    Available evidence suggests head trauma statistics for cyclists are not far different from pedestrian statistics, or are unknown. The pro-helmet evidence is almost always anecdotal (as in this post) eg cyclists “saved” by the helmet even though no compression of the polystyrene is evidenced (the only way a helmet can be effective in a fall).
    Sure, wear a helmet. I do, but I live in Australia, one of two countries in the world where it is compulsory, something I profoundly resent. It simply shows the stupidity of politicians and others with no idea about cycling.

    • Well the obvious answer for why pedestrians should not wear helmets is the same as why cyclists should not have to wear them – the traffic environment should be fitted to protect the most vulnerable rather than to facilitate the least.

      Not being a scientist but rather a blogger who relies upon anecdote due to supreme laziness, surely compression of polystyrene is not the important thing? I always thought that the protection the helmet offered was more through spreading the blow across a wider area rather than focussing it upon one concentrated spot. A bit like how a stiletto on 5’2″ slight lady can cause more damage to a floor than say an elephant’s foot which has a wider surface area. Could be worng on that though.

      Completely agree with your final point – it sucks and I can only hope that the wasters of westminster don’t try to do the same over here.

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