We use words to describe things. They are useful.
A small problem, however, is that there aren’t enough of them. Human beings can only remember a finite number of words, and that means, inevitably, that there aren’t enough words to describe all the things in the world. They are ambiguous.
One pertinent example for this blog is the simple word ‘cycling’, which is used to describe an extraordinarily diverse range of activities that happen to involve two wheels, or more, and pedalling. (The Dutch have a slight advantage over us in that they have two words for cycling. Fietsen for ordinary day-to-day cycling, and wielrennen for riding a bike for speed.)
The same is true for other words. ‘Driving’ could involve trundling around a car park, or it could involve piloting a racing car at tremendous speeds around a track. ‘Sailing’ could mean a leisurely day out, or it could mean the frenetic action of the America’s Cup. ‘Skiing’ could mean sliding at low speed on gentle slopes, or hammering down a mountain at close to a hundred miles an hour. And so on.
This nuance seems to be lost on people who argue for mandatory helmet laws. They forget that the same apparent activity can carry different levels of risk, depending on circumstances.
‘Driving’ can be very dangerous, or very safe. It can be dangerous if you are driving in a race at over a hundred miles an hour, safe if you are just driving around a car park. Likewise ‘sailing’ can be very dangerous. People die. But it can also be a safe and pleasant day out. ‘Skiing’, as we have seen in recent days, can be dangerous, if you are travelling fast through an off-piste rock field. But it can also be safe, if you are on marked pistes, and aren’t taking risks.
And precisely the same is true for ‘cycling’. This
is not the same as this -
These enormous differences in danger and risk are effectively ignored by mandatory helmet law campaigners, who would force helmets onto the heads of three of the people in the above picture, but not on the other two.
For comedy value, try to imagine James Cracknell intoning into the ear of the woman travelling serenely the back of the bike, in his most serious, earnest voice,
My head was smashed into by a lorry travelling at seventy miles an hour. But I was lucky. I was wearing a helmet. If I hadn’t been, I’d be dead. Use your head. Wear a helmet.
It’s utterly absurd, but reflects only the absurdity of attempts to make wearing helmets compulsory, no matter what you are doing. (As an aside, there are many pedestrians who have had their heads smashed into by vehicles, but this would be a very poor basis for making pedestrian helmets compulsory).
I think there is perhaps a dim awareness of this absurdity, which manifests itself in the sort of crude emotional blackmail that quickly appears in the arguments of helmet law campaigners, typified by this passage in Beverley Turner’s piece -
if personal liberty matters to you, not being able to take yourself to the lavatory on waking will come as a real shock.
Again, picture her making this argument to the people in the picture in Utrecht for maximum comedy value. How dare you travel around like that! is about the level of sophistication of her argument.
To be absolutely clear, I am not ‘against’ helmets. I wear one myself when I am on a racing bike, or when I am mountain biking, mainly because, when I’m exerting myself, I tend to take more risks, and also because the discomfort of a helmet doesn’t matter so much in these situations. But I am capable of understanding that there are different types of cycling, and I don’t wear a helmet every time I ride a bike, just as I wouldn’t wear a full face crash helmet when I drive a car into town, but probably would if I was on a racing track.
What I am against is compulsion, precisely because it is a highly blunt instrument that utterly fails to take into account the diverse forms of an activity, and will have deleterious consequences at a population level. If you are genuinely concerned about head injuries, you should campaign for the kinds of conditions in the pictures that feature in this post, and here; conditions where the risk of a head injury is negligible. Prevention is better than cure, as this excellent piece argued yesterday. It can’t be stated more simply than that.