Yet Another Bike Helmet Post
Anyway. This thing about bike helmets.
Everyone else is posting about it (like here, here, here, here, here, and waddya know, another one today), so in the spirit of having been the geeky kid at school who always wanted to join the cool gang, I thought I’d better pitch in.
To begin with - my personal cycling history. In the past 35 years that I’ve been cycling, I’ve had five falls / collisions that have resulted in a bang on the head:
- Aged 8, I rode at speed into the back of a parked car (please - just don’t ask how) & got myself a superb concussion. The whole family got to spend a Friday evening in casualty (the ER), and while I was getting X-rayed, my three year-old sister got to hold my watch. Apparently, she asked, “If Karl dies, can I keep his watch?” That remark still colours our relationship.
- Aged 15, I saw that the road off to the left was flooded, and as it was winter, that it had frozen. “Cool!” I thought, and turned off to get a closer look - so I took a fast bend over black ice.
- Aged 20, I was following too close behind a car in slow-moving traffic, and the schmuck of a driver thought it would be fun to ‘brake test’ me. Even though we were only doing slightly more than a walking pace, I failed that test.
- Aged 36, it started raining while I was in the pool for a triathlon. I took the first (now wet) bend far too fast, and went for a slide across the road. Thankfully a race marshall ran out to stop the three lanes of traffic.
- Aged 36, I took a roundabout too fast, in the wet, riding a bike that was carrying more luggage than is normal. Oh, it was next to a garage too, and usually has a thin film of diesel on the road surface.
I’ve worn a helmet since I was in my mid-20s. Wife insisted on it, and not being one for an arguement, I went along. Besides, as I’ve already said, I’m a bit of a geek, so the helmet also made my cycling look more dangerous, rad’ and cool.
So much for personal history. Reading it, you could think that cycling IS dangerous - that’s one head injury every seven years.
But cool your boots, man!
Look at my list up there. Five bangs on the head, yet for only two of them was I wearing a helmet. The first two, I’ll put down to naïveté - learning all about riding on the road (the first one was actually before I’d done my Cycling Proficiency Test). That middle one was an eejit driver. True, I should have been far enough back to stop . . . but we’ve all been too close to cars.
The last two are the most worrying to me, as they both happened in heavy traffic. In both cases, the helmet took a good smack (though nowhere near as bad as my shoulders & hips did). But in both cases, that wasn’t the biggest worry - it was the traffic. In the race (where helmets are mandatory) I consider myself lucky that the Stratford Triathlon is so well marshalled, as I’d gone down & slid across three lanes of traffic. If that hadn’t [been] stopped, no helmet ever made would have saved me.
My last fall was even scarier. I’d fallen just as I’d finished passing an entrance to the roundabout, and the driver waiting there was looking at the traffic coming her way - not at the traffic which had already passed. She’d already started moving when she happened to see me sprawled on the road in front of her, and only just stopped in time. Again, a helmet designed to protect against a stationary fall would have done nothing to protect me.
Over the last year or so, I’ve started to think more about this whole issue. Prompted initially by Ian Walker’s excellent and well reported research, I started to think more about the actual rather than perceived risks. I’ve also become more of a cycling zealot, and really want to convert others to this great way of getting around town.
I work as a [sort of] management consultant, yet unlike the stuffed shirts that my profession tends to attract, I dress comfortably, and ride my bike to most clients (certainly those within 10 miles of home, and usually within 15 miles). When I go to networking events, I ride, and then invariably end up talking to people about why they can’t ride their bikes to work. The top reason’s usually the lack of showers, but hot on its heels comes the issue of safety.
Currently in my part of the UK, fewer than 2% of people ride their bikes to work. Yet almost 70% live within 10km (6 miles) of work. I’m all for personal hygeine, but I have to say that with a ride of just 6 miles, you shouldn’t need to take a shower (take it easy, take your time, and take the time to stop and sniff the flowers).
So it must be safety then.
On the one hand, we have the Thou Shalt Wear A Helmet folks, who correctly point out that you might fall off your bike TODAY. So that makes wearing a helmet an urgent thing to do. Right?
But then again, we’re faced with an epidemic of obesity in the UK, which is reported to cost the NHS £1bn a year by 2010. At the same time, there’s this whole global warming thing. When the vast majority of a car trips are only a few miles, surely we should be using our zero-carbon-per-mile bikes more. The thing is, both of these issues, while important, are vague threats for the FUTURE.
The crunch for me is that although there’s a small risk to society as a whole from bike-related head injuries that a helmet might prevent (though this isn’t actually proven), there is a far bigger risk in not cycling. With 30% of the adult population struggling to see the bathroom scales when they stand on them, and 100% of the population facing the problems of viable crops for a hotter world, we need to change society. To get people cycling, we must provide for them, while at the same time, removing the Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt.
So this is why over the last few months I’ve worn my helmet less and less. Don’t get me wrong - I’m actually pro-helmet (100% for cycle sport events & training). But if the choice is between <2% of the population riding and all wearing helmets, or 30% of the populationall riding without helmets, I’ll take the latter. And if a small part of that is achieved through leading by example, while incurring a marginal increase in my personal risk injury, I’ll do it.