Please forgive this slight detour from this blog’s usual topics to discuss something that’s come up an awful lot on Twitter over the past 48 hours. It’s that most tedious of bicycle-related debates, the Helmet Issue.
I always wear helmet while cycling and I always will. It’s a personal choice. There’s a whole stack of studies that suggests this choice makes very little difference to my chances of head injury, yet I stick with it. I appreciate that the plural of anecdote is not data, but I’ve had two (both involving car drivers breaking the law) that ended with my helmet seriously damaged and my head unscathed. So I’ll keep on wearing one and I’d always encourage others to do likewise. As long as it’s properly fitted*, it’s not doing anyone any harm.
But I know there’s only so much a helmet can do. The EU standard for cycle helmets, EN1078, tests helmets’ resistance to impacts on flat ground and kerbstones at speeds of up to 5.52 metres per second, about 12mph. And that’s pretty much all it tests – impacts on a hard surface. It’s important, because it shows that cycle helmets are designed to protect your head from an impact with a hard surface at relatively low speeds. In short, they’re designed to stop you hurting your head when you fall off a bike.
There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s a perfectly valid aim. As I said, I’ve bonked my head more than once and my helmet has taken the brunt of the impact.
But most of the cyclist fatalities we see in big cities, especially London, do not involve cyclists falling over and banging their heads. They involve huge buses, coaches and HGVs literally driving over the top of cyclists, more often than not while turning left. A helmet will not protect you in these circumstances, it is not designed to protect you and the manufacturers would not expect it to protect you. That’s not to say it won’t help you in other situations, but in this one? Absolutely not. For example, the post-mortem on Roger William De Klerk, the 43-year-old killed by a bus while cycling through Croydon, gave the cause of death as “compression of the head, neck and chest” – it seems very unlikely that a helmet would have made any difference at all (and Mr De Klerk may have been wearing one, I don’t know either way).
Yet every time a cyclist dies in such circumstances, questions are asked about whether the victim was wearing a helmet, regardless of whether it would have made any difference to the outcome of the accident. It’s bad enough when wannabe shockjocks and untalented local newspaper columnists do so, but lately the Met Police have joined in the fun, noting in press releases that the victims in various recent fatal accidents were not helmeted-up. It’s worth noting that a quick run through the Met’s press release archive did not immediately produce any descriptions of cyclist deaths that mentioned helmets when they WERE being worn, only when they were not.
It would be one thing if an inquest had taken place and the coroner had stated, based on the evidence presented, that a helmet would have saved the cyclist’s life. But that hasn’t happened. At this stage there is no evidence that a helmet would have made any difference at all in the death of a 21-year-old man in Whitechapel last week, yet the Met Police feel the need to add “The cyclist was not wearing a helmet at the time of the collision” to the end of their press release. There’s no mention of what the bus driver was or wasn’t wearing, so why comment on the fact that the cyclist was doing something perfectly legal?
This is the same police force that spent Monday morning stopping cyclists who were going about their business perfectly legally in order to tell them that they really should be wearing helmets and high-vis jackets, even though there is no legal requirement for either.
“So what,” I’ve heard many people say, “Helmets save lives and the police should do whatever they can to encourage cyclists to wear them”. I’m not going to wade into the debate about whether helmets reduce or increase risks; as I said at the start, I make the personal choice to wear one and that choice has no impact on other people.
But I will say this much. Banging on about whether dead cyclists were wearing helmets is wrong and it is dangerous. It is wrong because it suggests, even before enquiries have been completed, that the victim was in some way to blame for his or her own death. This is quite simply insulting to the dead cyclists and their families.
And it is dangerous because it fuels the attitude that cyclists are responsible for their own deaths if they are not wearing a helmet. It shifts the burden of responsibility for staying safe onto the most vulnerable road users. It absolves drivers of their responsibility and absolves the authorities of their responsibility. It shifts the focus of the political debate from what can actually be done to keep cyclists safe and onto a red herring that will make very little difference in HGV v bicycle incidents. “The problem isn’t with careless drivers or poor road design,” it says “It’s all down to cyclists not wearing helmets”.
Wear a helmet, don’t wear a helmet, it’s entirely up to you. But don’t for one moment pretend that they will prevent the kind of slaughter we have seen on London’s roads of late, and don’t allow yourself to be distracted from calling for the kind of changes that really will make a difference.
*An improperly fitted helmet can actually increase your risk of injury. Which is why people who say “Boris Bikes” and their ilk should come with helmets are very very wrong.