The debate about whether or not wearing a cycling helmet should be compulsory is once again raging. This time, the catalyst for the debate is the heart wrenching story of Ryan Smith who is now lying in a coma after being knocked off his bike. His father has made a plea to parents to ensure kids wear a helmet.
But, what seems like common sense (wearing a helmet saves lives in the same way wearing a motorbike helmet does and so should be compulsory as well) is more contentious than it might first seem.
The cycling charity, CTC, makes the point:
“Given that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks by around 20:1 (one recent study put it at 77:1), it can be shown that only a very small reduction in cycle use is needed for helmet promotion (let alone helmet laws) to shorten more lives than helmets themselves could possibly save, regardless of how effective helmets might be.”
Essentially, it is saying when Ryan’s father publically talks about the importance of helmets – he’s making people less safe…I assume they would say the same for other people speaking out about helmet use (for example the wife of James Cracknell after his near fatal accident).
A study in the British Medical Journal however shows that:
“helmets reduced the risk by 63-88% for head, brain, and severe brain injury among cyclists of all ages.”
The road safety charity, BRAKE, supports this saying:
“Last year, over 17,000 cyclists were injured on UK roads with over 2,500 killed or seriously injured. The vast majority of these deaths and serious injuries were the result of a head injury. This is precisely why many of our international and European partners have already introduced compulsory helmet wearing,”
These, initially contradictory statements have fuelled a debate that divides cyclists, journalists and politicians alike.
All this evidence though seems to be pointing in the same direction – against the legal enforcement of wearing a helmet, and towards the incentivising of helmet use. It is difficult to believe CTC’s claim that appropriately constructed promotion campaigns would significantly put people off from cycling and as such make people less safe.
There seems to be no shortage of steps that could be taken.
Currently in the UK, a reasonable helmet for a commuter will cost around £30 (for example – this Lazer introductory sports helmet). I couldn’t find any studies to show cost to helmet use ratios, but anecdotally I can say that I cycled for 3 months in London without a helmet because I lost my old one and at the time couldn’t afford a new one. I would be surprised if there was no correlation there.
Equally there are a host of other measures that could be dreamed up to promote the use of helmets ranging from school curriculum to better helmet storage facilities (when you lock your bike up somewhere you normally have to carry your helmet around with you).
Would having somewhere safe to store your helmet really put people off cycling?
But, to a certain extent, these arguments miss the point. What makes cycling safe or unsafe, primarily is not about what gear you’re wearing but where you are cycling. In cities for example that have physically separated cycle routes, the number of accidents reduce massively.
The flip side of this is of course that badly designed roads massively increase cycle accidents. For example, evidence shows that multi-lane roundabouts act as a death trap for cyclists (anecdotally I cannot help but to think of Elephant and Castle in support of this). This study concluded saying:
“Evidence is beginning to accumulate that purpose-built bicycle-specific facilities reduce crashes and injuries among cyclists, providing the basis for initial transportation engineering guidelines for cyclist safety. Street lighting, paved surfaces, and low-angled grades are additional factors that appear to improve cyclist safety.”
Reading these studies feels like it is just adding weight to common sense. But then again, wearing a helmet also seems like common sense.
Cyclists are safer in large numbers and people only get on a bike when they feel safe. Forcing people to wear helmets will not make them feel safe – investing heavily in separated cycle lanes will.
Is this too simplistic a conclusion?
The simple satisfaction of cycling into work along the River Frome into Bristol
My daily commute follows the River Frome into the centre of Bristol. Or I should say, as close as the modern infrastructure built around the river allows. Every day I pass the same weir, the same log spanning from one bank to another, the same bridge where the river finally disappears below the concrete centre forever from sight.
There is a simple satisfaction in observing how the river responds to the weather and countryside that feeds it. After heavy rains the weir can almost disappear under surging dirty brown water washed from ploughed farmers’ fields. A few days of no rain later, and you will be left with a clear trickle struggling to make it down its shallow path.
On days like today, when the temperature drops below freezing, this slow flowing river begins to freeze over altogether leaving sheets of ice floating in the river’s eddies.
Wrapped in thick coats, scarves and hats, the red flushed faces look out as the dog walkers crunch over the frozen muddy puddles. On one section of path, just south of Broom Hill the puddles perpetually sit never normally fully draining. Today though, they are iced over leaving a crisp brown path slicing through the centre of a frost filled field. The small wooden picnic bench which normally sits opposite a small outcrop of limestone perfect for some climbing in warmer months is today frozen white.
About 2 kilometres north of the city centre the River Frome emerges from the steep valley in which it has been travelling and my commute cuts up through the open expanse of Eastville Park. In these winter months, the sun rises directly to my left, beaming gently through the historic horse chestnut trees that cast long shadows over the frozen ground.
As the river fights its way through the monstrosity of modern out of town shopping my route slips alongside the equally awful piece of urban engineering – the M32, the first real reminder that you’re heading into a major city centre. From here the river dips below concrete in places and the off-road cycle route weaves between skate parks, railway bridges and underpasses.
The embedded heat in the concrete on this stage of the commute means that despite the air temperature being close to minus 4, nothing is frozen. The concrete is grey, the grass green and the sky blue.
Nothing of the surroundings for the last bit of this commute gives any hint of the weather or countryside that surrounds the city. It is then that I feel a huge sense of privilege to have such a commute. Also though, I feel a sadness that for most people, even those whose daily commute is outside of their cars, most people in Bristol would not have seen the frozen field that I cycled through this morning.
As I arrive in the office buoyed by the beauty of the seasons, I can’t help but to wonder what impact it is having on us as a society for most of us to never fully experience or appreciate the changing of the weather, seasons and nature that will always sit beyond our control.
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Tagged as Bristol, Broom Hill, Climbing, Commute, cycling, Eastville Park, Frome Valley, photography, River Frome, Snuff Mills