I was sitting in the office the other day, when I overheard a conversation between two of my colleagues. Now, I should probably explain here, that one of the protagonists is a keen cyclist, and commutes to work by bicycle every day, regardless of weather – a distance of some thirteen miles.
The other party to the discussion was a self-confessed petrol head, and drives a very powerful, sporty muscle car.
He was remonstrating with my biking colleague, criticising him for not wearing a cycle helmet. Quite rightly, in my opinion, the cyclist was defending his position by saying that there was no legal requirement for him to wear a crash helmet, and as such he wouldn’t.
This got me thinking. Over the past three or four years, there has been some serious lobbying by some safety motivated pressure groups to make it a legal requirement for cyclists to wear crash helmets whilst riding their bicycles.
As a free thinking adult, and a free spirit, I normally baulk at any sort of legislation that attempts to regulate aspects of my private life, and this includes the “Nanny State” mentality of coercing me to stop engaging in activities that are perceived by others (in all possibility non-participants in those activities) to be either dangerous or unhealthy.
So I decided to conduct a little research into the subject, and this is what I came up with.
Statistics. Lots of statistics, all of which can be distorted and twisted to put a particular slant on a story.
However, I have done my best to strip the spin and hyperbole from the stats and explain it as it is.
Firstly, one has to first understand why a cyclist may need a crash helmet.
Advice to wear a helmet, means that the person or organisation offering the advice feels that there is a great risk that a head injury may be sustained by the individual when taking part in the activity – in this case the relatively safe pastime of riding a bike.
So, to put this into perspective, there is a need to assess the element of risk associated with cycling, and compare it with other common activities.
A little research throws up some interesting facts that the proponents for mandatory crash hats don’t tell you.
Firstly, according to Her Majesty’s government, there were over four times as many pedestrians killed on the roads in 2016 than cyclists. If we are to accept the pro helmet lobby’s argument that helmets should be mandated for the riskiest activities, then they should be advocating that pedestrians should be compelled legally to wear helmets! This is obviously ludicrous.
Bicycle helmets manufactured to comply with the older BS 6863 are designed to protect the rider from falling from a stationary riding position – not for crash impacts with vehicles moving at speed. The newer standard – EN 107, has progressively weakened the requirements due to lobbying from the manufacturers themsleves!
Naturally, everybody wants human activity to be as safe as is reasonably practicable. However, there is a fine balance between protecting people and demotivating them from being involved in an activity.
The health benefits of cycling are well known; excellent for cardio-vascular fitness, aerobic fitness and the development of muscle bulk and stamina. Add to that the psychological benefits of riding a bicycle – greater hand/eye co-ordination, a very good stress buster, and a great sense of personal freedom and independence, and you have a formula for good health.
Using the World Health Organisation’s Health Economic Assessment Tool, Cycling UK estimates that a UK-wide helmet enforcement law would result in an extra 263 deaths per annum as a result of the decrease in physical activity resulting from a reduction in cyclists. This would lead to an estimated increase in public health costs of £304M to 451M per year.
Given these stark warnings of an impending obesity epidemic, it would appear to be common sense for governments to encourage as many people as possible to ride a bicycle, not only as a leisure activity, but also as a means for commuting, and even a way of conducting commerce.
A second great driver for the encouragement to cycle is the government’s commitment to comply with EU emissions reduction targets.
Reduction in the use of hydrocarbon-powered transport is central to this theme, and increasing the number of bicycle journeys is an excellent way of both improving national fitness levels, and reducing pollution and greenhouse gases.
To facilitate this, there have been a number of initiatives set up to encourage cycling in the UK. Boris Johnson, when he was Mayor of London, launched a public cycle hire scheme, now administered by Santander Bank – still colloquially known as Boris Bikes, to encourage Londoners to cycle.
This has proved to be a great success, with over a quarter of a million active members and this has now been complemented by the provision of a London-wide cycle network, consisting of Bicycle Super Highways – with an orbital route, and cross city routes.
Sadly, all of these initiatives may prove to be worthless, should the pro-helmet lobby get their way, and legislation is passed to enforce cycle riders to wear crash helmets.
The statistics indicate that in every country that has instituted compulsory helmets for cycling, there has been an immediate and irreversible reduction in the number of active cyclists on the roads.
For example, in Perth, Western Australia, cycling rates plunged by 30 – 40% immediately after the compulsory wearing of cycle helmets became law.
Statistical analysis emphasises that the benefit of cycling, in terms of life years gained through better health against life years lost as a result of serious injury risks is a factor of about 20:1.
To put this into context, in the U.K., there is one cycling death per 29 million miles cycled – so tiny as to be almost irrelevant.
In fact, in 2012, an average person was three and a half times more likely to be killed in a road accident as pedestrian than riding as a cyclist!
I have to confess that I do wear a helmet – occasionally. The big difference is that I make the decision whether to wear one based on my own assessment of the risks associated with the type of ride I am about to embark upon.
If I am about to ride down a well-maintained canal towpath, or ride on relatively quiet country lanes then I most definitely leave the helmet at home. However, if I am riding in a busy city, commuting to work, or riding in a cycling event, then I grab the bash hat from the cupboard, and reluctantly wear it.
Some charity cycle events insist that a helmet be worn by participants, despite there being no legal obligation to wear one on the public roads of britain. At busy and well subscribed events such as the London Bridges Bike Ride, or the London to Brighton Bike Ride, I will wear a helmet, as I believe that the risk likelihood of coming off as a result of the density of riders is high.
Conversely, on smaller, rural rides, I will wear a bash hat at the start to comply with the organisers requirements, and as soon as I am under way, I stop, remove the helmet, put on my cloth cap, and ride accordingly.
If legislation were enacted tomorrow, then I admit that I will consciously disregard it, and continue to ride without wearing a helmet when I think it appropriate to do so. I have ridden bicycles since I was five years old, and as an adult have suffered numerous cycle crashes, where I sustained injuries to arms, legs, and knees, and in most of them I was not wearing a helmet.
I was in fact wearing a helmet when I sustained a particularly bad knee injury, (having lost control of a mountain bike, and being unable to unclip from the pedals before impact) but it was as useful as an aqualung is to a buffalo
More recently I survived a near fatal cycle accident – and in this case I was yet again not wearing a helmet. Furthermore in all of my accidents, wearing a helmet would have had no influence on the outcome.
We also need to consider the financial costs of the introduction of such a law. Cycling UK has calculated that initial costs for helmet acquisition could be around £180 million, and subsequent renewal costs of about £45 million every year – all of which falls onto the rider to provide.
An unintended consequence of this, is that there may be a degree of social exclusion, with poorer members of society not being able to afford a helmet, and therefore being prevented from gaining the health and cost effective travel benefits, or continue to ride without a crash helmet, and face being criminalised for committing an offence.
The same logic applies to,wearing a high visibility jacket or tabard. There is currently no robust supporting evidence to suggest that wearing a high viz jacket will actually prevent a collision. Evidence so far seems to suggest that whilst a high viz jacket is useful to a cyclist being seen by other road users in daylight, they are only 15% effective at night.
The use of high intensity stroboscopic lights fitted to a bicycle will make the rider 47% less likely to have a daytime collision with a vehicle, and at night, the use of frame mounted lights together with flashing lights built into anklets or fitted to pedals make the rider 90% less likely to be killed or seriously injured.
So, as far as I am concerned, I will continue to wear sensible brightly coloured clothing, and ride a well-lit, and well-maintained bicycle, taking into account where I will be riding, and at what time of day.
Time for Nanny State to take a back seat!