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Of bike helmets and brick walls

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So another week of ‘heated’ discussions with friends who’ve suddenly turned into cycle helmet evangelists. The reason? A new study from Australia –  yes, the country that mandates cycle helmets, funny that. It found that among cyclists who had been taken to hospital with head injuries, helmet wearers were 65% less likely to have a serious head injury. You might think that case is now cut and dried for compulsion. But this study didn’t look at risk at all. And that is a huge oversight. Cyclists are just ‘people on bikes’ after all. And different people have different risks.

In Australia, over 25 years of helmet laws has done a brilliant job of discouraging everyday cycling. You know the kind of people who pootle to the shops slowly, wearing normal clothes and on upright bikes. When helmets became compulsory in Australia and New Zealand, there was an almost overnight drop in cycling rates. This was most pronounced amongst women, children and older people. The cycling culture became fast, male and sporty. As a result, cycling was ‘otherised’. The roads became an increasingly hostile and dangerous place for those cyclists that remained. In short, helmet laws have been a disaster – both for public health and the environment.

Now if you look at road safety figures from around the world, one thing stands out. A far higher proportion of men are involved in collisions than women. Road danger is a gender issue. Men are more likely to both the perpetrators of death and serious injury on the roads, and the victims. In the UK, figures from 2009, showed that men are over three times more likely to die in road collisions than women. And it is young men who are most at risk. Across the EU, 30,400 people were killed on the roads in 2011. Of these, 7,200 were female and 23,200 male. Simply put, men take more risks on the roads than women.

But cyclists must have a higher rate of head injuries than all other road users, right? Otherwise people wouldn’t keep banging on about cycle helmets… Wrong. Actually another Australian study, over which no fuss was made, found quite the opposite. Per million hours travelled, the risk of head injury was lowest for cyclist at 0.41. For drivers it was 0.46 and for pedestrians 0.80. By far the most at risk group were motorcyclists, with a head injury rate of 7.66.

Going back to the original Australian research, risk is not mentioned. Neither in terms of the gender and age of the cyclists involved, or the conditions they ride in. If you look at cycling in the Netherlands it is far safer per mile travelled than in Australia. All sorts of people ride bikes, and almost none of them wear helmets. So why is it so safe to cycle there? Because in the Netherlands, the infrastructure is forgiving. It accommodates cyclists. That means it largely protects people on bikes from people in cars. The culture of cycling is different too. Utility cycling and sports cycling are seen as two different things. They even have different words to describe them ‘fietser’ and ‘wielrenner’. I think you can guess which is which. I think you can also guess which carries the greater risk…

As a woman of 50, I’d put myself firmly in the fietser category. In over 40 years of cycling, I’ve never hit my head. I’ve rarely even fallen from my bike. I ride slowly and take the greatest care when I do so. I treat every driver I see as a potential murderer. It’s worked for me so far. I’d far rather put my faith in my ability on the bike than a flimsy polystyrene hat, thanks.

Now back to helmet evangelists. Here’s what usually happens. X person or their child/friend fell off/had a collision. Overnight they believe helmets (and/or hi-vis) are somehow the be all and end all of cycle safety. Instead of just saying ‘I/we will always wear a helmet from now on’, they become a helmet zealot. Like religious zealots, they feel an urge to ‘spread the word’ on social media. They badger their friends about it. They even petition the government. Worst of all, they criticise strangers about their lack/their child’s lack of helmet. Why? ‘Because this happened to me/my child/my friend, all cyclists must wear helmets all the time’.

If there was any logic to this argument,  they’d also argue drivers and pedestrians must wear helmets. The stats support this view. Yet they never do. That’s because it’s not about reason, or facts. It’s about emotion and ‘anecdata’. It’s also about as far from ‘common sense’ as you can get. But try challenging the views of a helmet evangelist, and you might as well bang your head against a brick wall.

Think about it this way. Can you imagine anyone arguing for compulsory helmets for pedestrians or drivers, just because of one experience? In that case, my mum would’ve been dressing me up like Bob the Builder to go to infant school after I hit my head. I was pushed down concrete steps and ended up in hospital. Then there’s a guy I know who lost control of his car last winter and suffered a brain injury. He always wears a helmet while cycling, but doesn’t wear one for driving. Perhaps he should have been. It would’ve reduced his risk of serious head injury by almost 70% after all…

  • avlowe

    The Australian study is riddled with ‘bad science’ For a key factor it only looks at those admitted to hospital, and not the ones who never arrived there, either because their long years of cycle riding had developed their ability to fall off a bike in a relaxed and natural way, much as a parachutist, knowing that they will typically hit the ground moving forward at running speeds, has developed their ability to “Hit the ground running” or fall and roll with the body adopting the foetal position in the 2.3bn year-old measure that protects the head and vital parts from direct impact.

    The other part of that population never reach hospital because .. they are dead, and of the fundamental causes of cyclist deaths at the scene one is when they are clipped from behind by a truck and go down directly in line with the wheels, under the ridiculously large clearance between the underside of the cab and the road surface – especially on construction vehicles specified for off road (N3G) operation but used 99% of the time on regular pavements – when N3 is the specification to use. It is extremely rare to survive the crush injuries to torso or head from an 8-10T axle, let alone 4 of them in rapid succession. Over 80% of London’s HGV-cycle fatalities fit the same pattern, and this has now been well illustrated by the family of one victim permitting the use of the CCTV image of the moment of impact in the national media. Almost all such crashes involve a rear-end impact on the bike. Yet no-one is proposing the fitting required for every tram using a city street – a lifeguard (or cowcatcher on the old US steam locos) that pushes any victim clear of going under the wheels – an objective and most basic review of crashes should have made this an obvious measure many many deaths ago.

    When a car driver is involved the fatal crashes are usually ramming from the rear, and the victim is thrown up to be sliced at some point between neck and legs by the edge of the roof where it meets the windscreen, often with complete severance leaving one half in the car and the other on the road (minutes after we exchanged greetings, a friend died in such a crash, beheaded by the roof edge of a car driven by a banned and drink-impaired driver). Occasionally the impact is so fierce that the victim clears the first car to be hit by a following vehicle. As one crash investigation specialist commented, “At least the remains of the helmet keep the remains of the head in one place”

    My apologies for making this rather blunt, but only by real objective investigation, to learn, rather than obsessively seek a scapegoat, to close the case by finding a guilty party.. until the next time, can we make the progress that has been seen for the rail industry and has existed for even longer for air and sea transport.

    As for helmet wearing I observe with a cross between despair and ridicule, that at least 50% of those I see ‘wearing’ helmets are doing so dangerously contra to the intended design criteria, many with loose straps (garrotting as the helmet moves off the head) or perched atop a woolly hat (enhancing the rotational acceleration which causes brain damage/potential spinal damage on C1-C5 vertebra through leverage on the neck from 90% of body mass being forced in another direction to the head) , or sitting at a jaunty angle – a few are even wearing their helmets backwards! Common novice crashes deliver broken upper limbs as the arms are held stiffly out to break a fall, and face plants, where the peak of a helmet can enhance the forces that push the chin and nose into the road surface, and an (untested?) ABS visor can shatter with shards embedding in the face around the eyes area. All this with a product which is tested in a manner that bears no real relation to the way it is called on to perform in use, and as an overlay on an evolved protection for the brain – called the cranium, which is at barely 30% of its capacity to take a flat plate impact at 20 mph (per research in the 1940’s), compared with the styrene shell at 160% beyond its designed impact capacity in a similar test. Add in the evolved sacrificial cushioned ‘shear’ force absorbing covering (hair and flesh) and you have a system well suited to normal human activity up to fast running speeds (15mph = a 4-minute mile / 20mph = sprinting) and oblique impact with a flat surface (in the past this would likely be a rock or a tree)

    • coshgirl

      Hi, thanks for your msot interesting comment. You are right that cycle helmets are not designed to protect people from being hit by motor vehicles. What really upsets me is that so many people are happy to go out and ride bikes wearing helmets & hi-vis etc, but wouldn’t dream of campaigning for safer places to cycle. The victim blaming of the UK road safety industry has worked a treat when it comes to people who ride bikes.