The big bike helmet debate: ‘You dont make it safe by forcing cyclists to dress for urban warfare’


The question of whether cyclists should wear helmets provokes hysterium often from those on four wheels. But which has “the worlds biggest” benefit: increased physical safety, or creating a better environment for people to cycle helmet-free?

As a cyclist, I dont any objections to helmets or to high-visibility apparel. Like the majority of members of people I know in London, I wear a helmet the majority of members of the time when on a motorcycle. I do, however, have serious concern about make further efforts to build the use of hi-vis clothes or helmets compulsory, or even to encourage them as a security panacea. Because when it comes to genuine make further efforts to build cycling safer, they are a red herring, an irrelevance, a peripheral issue that has somehow come to dominate the argument.

Olympic cycling champion Chris Boardman eloquently conveyed this when an appearance on BBC1s Breakfast show to discusses bike infrastructure became dominated by angry spectator reactions to him being filmed cycling down a street bare-headed. I understand exactly why people feel so passionately about helmets or hi-vis, Boardman wrote. I understand why people wish to use them. But these actions seek to deal with an effect. I want to focus discussions on the cause, and campaign for things that will really build cycling safe. That is why I wont promote high-vis and helmets I wont let the debate to be withdrawn on to a topic that isnt even in the top 10 things that will really maintain people who want to cycle safe.

Boardman is not alone in receiving that helmet utilize provokes strong and strange reactions. Nick Hussey, the founder of a British cycle apparel company, Vulpine, became so perturbed by the vicious social media reaction when his firms website featured modelings on motorcycles without helmets that he wrote a response for the Guardians cycling blog. It began with the parallel of him hypothetically marching into a saloon and snatching a third or fourth pint of brew from a random alcoholics lips, yelling, Stop drinking or you will die!

Thats more or less what the infamous helmet debate has become, Hussey lamented. Shouty strangers hollering at other shouty strangers for choices that dont affect the first shouty strangers life. Its a bit weird, definitely a garbage of energy, and not a fun place for cyclists to share space in.

As Boardman noted, in the Netherlands, perhaps the least perilous country for cyclists in the world, helmets and hi-vis are almost unknown. You dont build cycling safe by obliging every rider to dress up as if for urban warfare. You do it by creating a street system that insulates them from fast-moving and unpredictable road traffic.

In the Netherlands, cyclists helmets and hi-vis are almost unknown … a couple in central Amsterdam. Photo: Alamy Stock Photo

In contrast, the great majority of UK cyclists ride helmeted, something which visualized bike helmets added back into the official basket of goods used to measure the inflation rate in March.

Dr John Black is an eminent doctor of emergency medicine who has managed helicopter acute medical squads and informed the government on emergency care. He has realise the horrible consequences that can follow from a head hurt on a motorcycle, something the evidence presented shows can be worsened if the rider is not wearing a helmet. Black believes helmets should be obligatory by statute. He was among a series of physicians who wrote to the British Medical Associationrequesting that it formally call for mandatory helmet utilize. It subsequently did, a decision that remains controversial.

Black sees his views as simple common sense. If people unprotected brain strikes a solid surface such as the roadside or the pavement, even if its a ground-level autumn, patients can hold devastating brain and brain traumata, he tells. We know that the dres of cycling helmets can reduce the risk of that by up to two-thirds. Black says he has treated young people who suffered injuries that left them unable to live independently. I just dont think we can afford to plan for, especially, young person of working age potentially being incapacitated and requiring lifelong care, with all the devastating consequences that has , not just for them but for their own families, he tells. I dont think we can afford to be complacent about this issue.

All this makes perfect sense, does it not? Lets hear, however, from another doctor. Dr Harry Rutter is a public health expert who specialises in physical activity. He is sceptical about an excess focus on helmets as a security measure. Most of health risks of severe hurt while cycling is not intrinsic to the activity motorists enforce it on cyclists, he argued in the influential handbook City Cycling. Cycling is a benign activity that often takes place in dangerous contexts. Of the three main elements specifying serious cycling traumata the road intend and conditions, the motorist and the cyclist the cyclist is the most studied.

Most of health risks of severe hurt is imposed on cyclists by motorists … rush hour near Waterloo station. Photo: Dan Kitwood/ Getty Images

If I crave an expert on individual patients head trauma, then Black is the doctor I would choose. But Rutter is an epidemiologist, and so looks at issues on a population-wide degree. And the problem with the helmet debate is that too few people do this.

But lets begin with something hopefully straightforward and more individual: if you happened to fall off your motorcycle and strike your brain, a well-fitted and correctly fastened helmet would give some hurt protection. A major 2001 its consideration of the research concluded that helmets reduce the risk of brain hurt by 60%. A 2011 examination of this study by Rune Elvik, a Norwegian academic and road safety expert, said the overall protection could be slightly reduced dedicated what seems to be an increase in the possibilities of a neck hurt if you wear a helmet( another source of endless debate ).

Now, however, things begin to get more complicated. In his analysis, Elvik noted that whatever potential benefits in each individual case, a population-wide increase in helmet utilize, for example after legislation, is not generally matched by similar reductions in overall brain hurt rates. Again, with helmets things are never as straightforward as they appear.

Robert Chirinko is a man with a minor obsession for spotting how peoples behaviour changes according to their perception of danger. Thus, he notes, while a small automobile might be less safe if someone is actually in a accident, recognition of this reality often makes a person most likely to drive carefully, and they may well end up safer overall.

He also has thoughts on the beset of serious concussions affecting American football. Is the solution more padded helmets and other protections? Offsetting behaviour suggests that more protections lead to a greater feeling of safety, and hence an increase in the severity of tackles, blocks and other showdowns, he tells. It follows that the solution may well be less protection. If US footballers feel less safe, they will surely temper their performance on the field accordingly, with desirable health outcomes for all participants.

One examine appeared to show that helmet utilize could build cyclists act in a more reckless manner. Photo: lmsvail9 9/ Getty Images

Chirinko is an economist at the University of Illinois , not a doctor or road safety expert. But his ideas about offsetting behaviour his professions term for what psychologists bellow danger compensation is a fascinating element to the discussion over bike helmets. Crucially, it seems the perception of reduced danger when a helmet is worn is to be able to inspire riders to be more reckless with their own safety and nudge motorists into being less careful towards cyclists.

One of the most famous experiments connected to danger perception and cycle helmets was carried out by Dr Ian Walker, a psychologist at the University of Bath. Walker is a man who has researched attitudes and reactions to cyclists with more thoroughness than most. In 2006 he attached personal computers and an electronic distance ascertain to his motorcycle and recorded data from 2,500 motorists who overtook him on the roads. Half the time he wore a bike helmet and half the time he was bare-headed. The results showed motorists tended to pass him more closely when he had the helmet on, coming an average of 8.5 cm nearer. Walker said he believed this was likely to be connected to cycling being relatively rare in the UK, and motorists thus forming preconceived ideas about cyclists based on what they wore. This may contribute motorists to believe cyclists with helmets are more serious, experienced and predictable than those without, he wrote.

In a parallel experiment Walker likewise expended some time journeying about wearing a long brunette wig, to see whether motorists gave female cyclists more chamber than men, perhaps because they likewise unconsciously accepted girls are less experienced cyclists. They did, it emerged, even when the woman was 6ft tall and, for the motorists who happened to look in their rear-view reflect, astonishingly hairy.

The converse to all this is yet another examine carried out by Walker, this time in 2016, which appeared to show that helmet utilize could potentially build cyclists themselves act in a more reckless manner. His experiment visualized participants of various ages and both genders asked to play a computer game in which they pressed a button to inflate a balloon on the screen. Each inflation earned them more hypothetical fund, but also increased the random opportunity of the balloon explode, which would wipe out the wins. At any point players could stop and bank what they had earned from each individual balloon.

Those taking part were fitted with eye-tracking sensors and told this was the purpose of the experiment. Nonetheless, the sensors were not plugged in the real exam was that half the participants had the eye tracker fitted to a baseball cap, the other half to a motorcycle helmet. Over dozens of games, those wearing the helmets systematically took greater risks on average when inflating the screen balloons. The helmet could build zero change to the outcome, but people wearing one seems to take more perils in what was essentially a gambling duty, he wrote. The practical implication of our findings might be to suggest more extreme unintended consequences of safety equipment in hazardous situations than has previously been thought.

One examine showed that motorists tend to give girl cyclists more chamber than males when overtaking. Photo: Steve Vidler/ Alamy/ Alamy

Yes, a helmet might build you safer if you get knocked off. Nonetheless, it might also, even marginally, increase the opportunity that this happens in the first place. And its when a government decides it needs to pass a statute building helmet-wearing compulsory that we start to see even more unintended consequences.

City-wide bike-share strategies have become increasingly common in recent years, spreading to hundreds of places around the world. These have almost invariably demonstrated hugely popular. Not, however, in Australia. If you journey a share motorcycle in London or New York or Paris or Hangzhou, you can bring a helmet if you crave, or otherwise just leap on and pedal away. Do the latter in Melbourne or Brisbane and you risk being stopped and penalty by police, because of compulsory helmet-use laws in force since the early 1990 s. Both strategies have tried to get around this by placing complimentary helmets on the motorcycles Melbourne leaves 1,000 new ones a month or selling cheap helmets at nearby shops.

But for many people its simply too much bother. This is one of the many accidental effects of helmet compulsion. Even in a youthful, vibrant and otherwise innovative metropoli like Melbourne, a bike-share scheme is a non-starter. A small-scale if significant opportunity for creating a human-friendly metropoli with all the public health benefits that go with it is lost.

Clover Moore, the mayor of Sydney, tells she would also love to create a bike-share system there but feelings unable to, given the long-standing helmet compulsion statute. This comes from the government of the surrounding nation, New South Wales, over which she has no control. Id like to do it, but with the helmet statute its not viable, Moore tells. Australia has a reputation for has become a free and easy nation. And the very opposite is true-life. Australians love rules and regulations, or at the least our governments do.

A compulsory motorcycle helmet statute was imposed in Melbourne, Australia in the early 1990 s. Photo: Miranda Forster/ AAPIMAGE

At some point during a discussion on the subject, a supporter of helmet compulsion will usually say something along the lines of: Forget all this talk about freedom or inconvenience. If a motorcycle helmet statute saves just one life, then it will be worth it, surely? This is emotive material. But the accidental effects of motorcycle helmet laws can go much further than just undermining bike-share systems. Strange as it may initially sound, there is evidence that they can end up inducing more deaths than they save.

This is down to the apparent discouraging consequence helmet laws have on cycling. Some examines have indicated that they put off enough people from journeying motorcycles in the first place that the resulting negative impact on public health more than cancels out any benefits from fewer brain traumata. As with everything connected to this subject, its worth noting that its all bitterly disputed by resisting sides. But the evidence presented seems solid.

One study carried out under New South Wales transportation authorities in 1993, a year after mandatory helmet use for adults in the state was extended to children, was mainly intended to check whether the new law was increasing helmet uptake. This it had, but the researchers likewise find a 30% reduction in the number of children journeying to school. Similar data showed even bigger reductions in motorcycle use in other regions of Australia when helmet laws came in. In New Zealand, where helmet compulsion was set up in 1994, the number of overall motorcycle journeys fell 51% between 198990 and 20036, according to one research paper. The reasons are mixed. It can be in part because some people simply dont want to bother with a helmet, a factor arguably less important now than 20 -plus years ago, when motorcycle helmets were more expensive and not nearly as comfortable. More pressing, however, believe that there is the fact that obligatory helmet utilize strengthens the idea that cycling isnt an everyday route to get about, but functional specialists pursuing requiring security equipment, which makes it less appealing.

Professor Chris Rissel, a public health expert at the University of Sydney, carried out a 2011 examine that asked people in the Australian metropoli about the effect of the helmet-use statute. Almost a quarter of respondents indicated that they would cycle more if they did not have to always should be considered a helmet, with the greatest increase in motorcycle utilize among younger or occasional cyclists. A repeal of the law would, Rissel mentioned, have a significant positive impact on improved public health. Another Australian academic once tried to quantify this effect.

Piet de Jong, a professor of actuarial science at Macquarie University, crunched figures for the estimated reduction in motorcycle utilize if helmets are made compulsory against any dropped in brain traumata. For most countries, under hypothesis favourable to the helmet legislation example, the unintended health expenditures cancel out the direct health benefit, he found. For the UK, de Jong calculated that an overall net cost to public health of a helmet statute would be about 500 m a year. Critics have questioned some of De Jongs estimates. Nonetheless, there are other potential health drawbacks to helmet compulsion. For a start, if a statute does mean fewer cyclists, you have the possibility of a reverse safety in numbers consequence fewer riders on the road could place those remaining at more individual risk.

The only part of the UK to have introduced a cycle helmet statute is Jersey. In 2014 the States of Jersey, the islands centuries-old combined parliament and executive, passed a statute obligating infants aged 13 or under to wear a helmet, at sufferings of a 50 penalty for their parents.

In many styles wearing a helmet makes even more sense for a child than an adult. Photo: Danny Lawson/ PA

In many styles, wearing a helmet makes even more sense for children than it does adults. They have a greater likelihood of falling off motorcycles and, when they do, are more likely to hurt their chiefs, in part because young torsoes are disproportionately weighted towards the skull. My son wears a helmet whenever he is cycling. That mentioned, there is no evidence that Jerseys law will achieve anything at all.

The islands government commissioned the UKs respected and independent Transport Research Laboratory to evaluate the plan. Its report found that the year before the ban, 84% of Jersey infants wore helmets anyway, and not a single under-1 4 had been seriously hurt on a motorcycle.

At the time, I spoke to Andrew Green, the Jersey politician behind the law. He dismissed the idea that it would see a decrease in cycling, but offered only an anecdotal view as to why: I believe infants participating in cycling are on the rise after the law, based on the number of phone calls Ive had from mothers saying, I crave little Johnny to wear a helmet. He wont wear it because his pals wont wear one. Therefore I wont let him have a motorcycle. Its an statement. But its not evidence.

The tragic backstory to Greens concern is that his now-adult son is unable to live independently after he suffered a serious head hurt on a motorcycle when he was nine. Green himself chairs Headway, a charity that does fantastic work with people who have suffered brain traumata but has branched out, controversially, as a vocal proponent of helmet compulsion.

Its easy to realize why Green does what he does, but equally its important that someone counters his views. Of its annual budget of 630 m in the year the law was passed, Jerseys government expended precisely 150,000 on pedestrian and safety improvements.

This is a compact island with a benign climate and lots of green space. Yet 23% of its five-year-olds are overweight or obese, rising to 35% of the rights of children aged 10 or 11, higher figures than the UK average. When it comes to improving the health of children, the government might be better served doing everything it can to get them on motorcycles , not generating laws that exaggerate the hazards of the doing so.

In 2006 the British Medical Journal carried its study of the evidence presented by Dorothy Robinson, an Australian statistician, into what actually happened in New Zealand and Australia after helmet compulsion laws were passed. The examine uncovered complications over figures that seem to show a decrease in brain traumata suffered by cyclists, a reality much touted by advocates. For example, it found evidence that adult cyclists who opt to wear helmets tend to be more safety-conscious anyway, while helmeted infants are more likely than non-helmeted infants to journey in parks rather than streets.

Finally, the study noted, helmet-use laws had often entering into force at the same time as other road safety measures, such as random motorist alcohol breath-testing in certain areas of Australia, which was likely to have even more impact on security. The judgment? The suggestion that motorcycle helmet laws immediately improve overall security for cyclists doesnt appear to be backed by any evidence.

In 2013 the tireless Ian Walker carried out a more extensive version of his helmet examine. It likewise measured how closely motorists passed a motorcycle when overtaking, but this time using a volunteer colleague rather than himself there used to be seven different outfits. Four stimulated the rider look like a cyclist of differing experience and dedication, ranging from full Lycra to more everyday clothes, including one involving a hi-vis coat. Three other outfits were based around bright yellow waistcoats bearing written messages. One read, Novice cyclist: please pass slowly; another mentioned, Polite: please slow down polite is sometimes used by UK cyclists and horse riders in the hope motorists might mistake it for police and finally one read, Police: camera cyclist.

This brought data for just under 5,700 overtakes, more or less evenly split between the seven outfits. None of the outfits made an appreciable change to driver behaviour, apart from the one saying police. For the six others, the average passing distance was between about 114 cm and 118 cm. For police it went above 122 cm. Similarly, the proportion of motorists who went very near the motorcycle was perceptibly lower for the police vest. In contrast, the tabard saying polite envisage the nearest average overtaking distance and almost twice as many potentially dangerous passes as police.

The lessons seem clear and worrying. For one thing , no matter which outfit was worn, a small percentage of motorists still overtook dangerously near, at a distance of 50cm or less. More than this, it seemed motorists were perfectly able to distinguish between different types of rider, and to read and assimilate any message displayed. But rather than adjusting their driving to the perceived experience of the cyclist, it was only when faced with a threat to their own welfare a police rider filming their actions that many let a cyclist more space on the road. Most alarming still, some seemed to treat the mild strive at misrepresentation of polite as a reason to almost penalize the cyclist.

When Walker carried out his original 2006 helmet experiment, he tells, he did not conclude that the results intend motorists didnt care. I felt that was a very callous interpreting, and it was more likely that they just took the helmet as an indicator of experience, he tells. But the later examine changed his view: It genuinely might have been something like, Well, hes got a helmet, it doesnt matter.

This is an edited extract from Bike Nation How Cycling Can Save the World, by Peter Walker, published by Yellow Jersey on 6 April. To ordering a facsimile for 11.04( RRP 12.99) going to see or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p& p over 10, online orders merely. Telephone orders min p& p of 1.99.

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