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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…