I actually wrote this post a few days ago and then sat on it. The main reason being that I’m not sure if it’s wise to open this massive can of worms. But, as you can see, I’ve decided to post anyway.
I admit that I’m no expert on this, but this is my view on the way this debate is being presented to the masses, most of whom, like me, aren’t experts. So, here goes:
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In a terrible coinciding of news, a few hours after Bradley Wiggins won Olympic gold on his bike a cyclist died near the Olympic Park after being hit by an official Olympic bus.
It’s obviously very sad and a real tragedy and our thoughts go out to the friends and family.
Not surprisingly in his press conference Wiggins was asked about it and his reply included him suggesting that all cyclists should wear a helmet as ‘Ultimately, if you get knocked off and you don’t have a helmet on, then you can’t argue…You can get killed if you don’t have a helmet on.’
What then happened was a huge swell of support with many people claiming that all cyclists should be made [with laws introduced] to wear a helmet. And of course an equally loud group saying how ridiculous that was and how helmets actually reduce safety.
Now I don’t belong to either camp, but I do find the non-helmet argument a strange and possibly disturbing one – so I thought I’d explain why in more detail.
As I understand it the non-helmet* argument is split into three key points.
*I’m using the term “non-helmet” to describe those people that argue against those that immediately want a helmet law. I’m aware that some of those people wear helmets occasionally, but are arguing against a helmet law.
Anyway, onto those three points:
1 – A thin bit of plastic won’t do you much good if you’re hit by a truck
2 – Forcing people to wear helmets puts people off cycling and actually cycling is safer when more people do it
3 – The helmet question is a distraction and want we actually need is better, more cyclist friendly infrastructure and attitudes
So firstly, three quick replies to those points:
1 – Can’t disagree with that, but a helmet may help reduce serious injury if you hit the road, or a branch.
2 – I know that stats are wheeled out (no pun intended) to say that when a helmet law is introduced the level of participation in cycling drops, but those are historical figures and why do we have to blindly assume that they will be repeated?
3 – I agree completely with the second half of this point, but as for the first half I believe that it is the non-helmet brigade who make it such a distraction.
And this is at the heart of my problem with this argument.
By instantly shouting down anyone that suggests that a helmet law may be a good thing, they are further stigmatising helmet wearing and further enforcing their argument that fewer people ride when there’s a helmet law.
Instead, why not embrace helmet wearing and make it a natural thing when it comes to cycling? Law or no law doesn’t really matter to me, but the non-helmet brigade need to accept that this isn’t an argument they will win – when incidents like this happen then some people will instantly say “helmet law”.
So go with that. Thank them for their concern about the welfare of cyclists and then suggest that helmet wearing is merely the start. If the same effort was spent in promoting cycling even with helmets as goes into shouting down a proposed helmet law then the numbers wouldn’t drop.
I’m not for a moment suggesting that the passion that is shown on trying to improve the infrastructure and change attitudes to cycling to make it safer should be lessened in any way, instead fight with the helmet brigade and not against.
But on the issue of the stats, I accept that I haven’t read them all in detail, but I would like to question some of the conclusions. As have proper studies been done in relation to not only the number of cyclists, but also the number of other vehicles on the road? Because when this Daily Mail article (and one that was specifically pointed out to me as having got the non-helmet response spot on) says: “You are far, far less likely to be killed on a bicycle on the streets of Amsterdam or Copenhagen than you are in New York or Los Angeles.” My first response is “of course”. That would appear to be obvious based on the number of other cars, lorries, trucks etc. as much as it about the safety in numbers argument.
In summary, I believe that by fighting the helmet lobby, the non-helmet brigades are themselves making cycling less safe. By focusing on this argument they are alienating themselves from a majority voice that just thinks “helmet = safer”. They should embrace this group, embrace helmets as a start of making cycling safer, push for mass participation and spend their energies on the important stuff such as the infrastructure and attitudes.