Be careful what you wish for

The other week I got into some online discussion (I shouldn’t have, but it happened) with a handful of people who were in favour of mandatory helmet laws – laws which would make it compulsory to wear a helmet whenever anyone happens to ride a bicycle.

One of these individuals told me that I was ‘daft’ for cycling along Lancing seafront without a helmet, like this –


Picture by Joe Dunckley

because James Cracknell’s life was saved by one. (I should point out that James Cracknell was hit by a truck travelling at around 50 mph.).

He also said these people

Image taken from Peak District website

Image taken from Peak District website

were ‘idiots’ because of their baggy clothing, and lack of helmets.

Maybe we might see a day when trundling along a path by a beach, a hundred yards from the nearest road, and where the greatest risk of injury might come from a low-flying seagull, I would be compelled to wear a thin polystyrene hat on my head. Maybe.

But if that day does arrive, then surely it is only a matter of time before we would logically be compelled to wear polystyrene hats for the simple act of crossing the road – which statistically is almost certainly far more dangerous than cycling along a path away from a road.

You may scoff, but the groundwork is already being prepared. I remarked last year about the unfortunate case of Joshua Dale, who was killed while crossing a road in Nottingham when a driver crashed into him. He wasn’t crossing the road on foot; he happened to be crossing it on his bicycle, which prompted the coroner at the inquest in his death to remark that

It’s imperative if we are to learn anything that children must be educated further and become more aware of the safety aspects of wearing helmets.

Not ‘cyclists’, note – children. Children crossing roads – presumably on foot, as well on a bicycle – should become more aware of the safety aspects of wearing helmets.

And more recently we have this news item from Eastbourne –

Helmet saved my life says cyclist

A cyclist who suffered serious brain injuries when she was knocked down on a crossing believes her cycle helmet saved her life.

Fifty-nine-year-old mother and grandmother Linda Groomes spent two years in hospital after being knocked down while pushing her bike across the crossing in Eastbourne Road at the junction with Church Street in September 2008.

Contrary to the headline of the article, Linda Groomes was not ‘a cyclist’ at the moment she was struck. She was a pedestrian, crossing the road on foot; she just happened to have a bicycle with her, and happened to be wearing a helmet, a device which she feels saved her life.

So there is an emerging precedent for the matter of helmet-wearing to be discussed in the context of crossing roads; either while crossing them like a pedestrian, but on a bicycle, or crossing them on foot, but with a bicycle.

My question for those who would like to see helmet-wearing made compulsory is – are you also in favour of mandatory helmets for people crossing roads? After all, apparently no one died because they wore a helmet but plenty have because they haven’t. What harm would it do to make people wear helmets when crossing roads? They might even help to save the lives of people like Joshua Dale, or Linda Groomes.

Helmets could be placed in receptacles at crossing points, so that people can use them when they need to cross the road. Conveniently, they could even be put in the same receptacles that contain the flags that people are already being encouraged to use to cross roads in some American towns.

So let’s hear it for helmets for walking across the road – they won’t do you any harm, but they might save your life. Safety first!

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73 Responses to Be careful what you wish for

  1. Compulsory helmets for all drivers and passengers of motor vehicles would reduce road deaths by around 25% (from memory but there are plenty of statistics out there that can demonstrate this). Helmets should certainly be mandatory for any one in a convertible car as that is a far more dangerous form of transportation that either bicycles or walking. Yes, I am being a bit tongue in cheek but – there are also facts to support these claims. Calls for compulsory helmets must apply across all relevant forms of transport or we must look at solving the real problems of inadequate infrastructure and a hostile and poorly designed road system that is not fit for purpose. Helmets are a red herring of gigantic proportions and deflect attention from looking to solve the core issues (much like hi-vis clothing but that’s a whole other conversation).

    • P Buddery says:

      No-one mentions the dangerous effects of heat-related illness caused by being forced to wear even the best-ventilated bicycle helmets. I will shortly be sending an email to Angela Lee asking her to volunteer to kill herself in a bewildering and painful way that also caused drug-like impairment and homicidal insanity. If she fails to do so the she is a hypocrite, because drug-like impairment, homicidal insanity and a painful death can be the results of wearing bike helmets, especially when the riders are fat and middle-aged.

  2. I’ve given up getting into anymore discussions over mandatory helmet wearing. One is simply arguing with idiots that don’t know the difference between being totally for free choice and being against not wearing helmets at all.

    If you you are against mandatory helmet wearing you are automatically verbally abused for not wearing a helmet whether you wear one or not. How can one have a grown up discussion with people like that.

  3. That was meant to read “if you say you are against”

  4. sexify*bicycles says:

    Well done on finding these ‘helmet saved…’ pedestrians. Media treatment tends to be wildly different depending on whether you were travelling by bike or by nike.

    *shameless self promotion*

    Seems the bicycle-wielding pedestrian confused the writer.

  5. Nico (@nfanget) says:

    Beware of the seagull menace, I was hit in the head by a juvenile when cycling from work one day in Aberdeen. Despite the fact I was not wearing a helmet at the time I managed to retain control of my dangerous vehicle, and even the seagull, although it was quite disorientated, hopped away from the incident unharmed.

    • Dan says:

      Nico, was the seagull wearing a helmet?

      • The seagull was travelling at a rate within the limits of its normal operation, so evolution would have made sure that it was capable of sustaining such a strike without much risk of being killed.

        Similarly, pedestrians, joggers and cyclists are (mostly) travelling at speeds that humans are used to in an evolutionary sense. Our skulls, reaction times, and other features have evolved such that bumping into something stationary at those speeds is rarely fatal.

        On the other hand, those travelling at speeds above 20mph have not had the benefit of evolution. Their bodies have not yet evolved to be able to survive impacts with much higher energies than seen historically, and so additional man-made protection is essential to avoid being killed in high-speed crashes. Also crashes involving high-speed vehicles are much more likely, as human reaction times and speed perception haven’t evolved yet (there’s good research that children can’t judge the speed of oncoming cars travelling faster than 20mph, and that makes evolutionary sense).

        Of course a polystyrene hat doesn’t actually provide much protection for anything, especially when they’re carefully designed to provide the minimum protection possible to meet regulations so that they can be as lightweight and as ventilated as possible…

        • Nico (@nfanget) says:

          Anthony, all you’ve written is the reason why we should have blanket 20 mph limits in residential areas and anywhere there is heavy pedestrian movement (schools, hospitals, etc), and enforce it strickly.
          I consider myself lucky that damn seagull didn’t catch me in the eye with its bill!

      • Nico (@nfanget) says:

        No, no hi-viz either and I bet you it doesn’t pay road tax the bloody freeloader.

  6. MistralMaiden says:

    We won’t get into the factoid labyrinth that bicycle helmets are designed for speeds <= 12 mph, which is not the speed if the average british (avid) cyclist?
    Personally I would like to suggest that everybody was to wear a helmet if their speed is lower than their IQ, regardless of their mode of transport. That way airpassengers would be safe during the most dangerous part of their jouney: take off and landing.

  7. Ravindra Rao says:

    For short distance travel most people are tempted to use a two wheeler. In the Asian countries because of high fuel prices most people in small towns are opting for petrol driven or electric two wheelers. The number of two wheelers is 10 times the number of cars. Due to lack of discipline and poor road sense and violation of traffic rules and traffic signals there are large number of accidents and further the riders are a menace to pedestrians. Their negligent attitude creates unmanageable chaos in road traffic. To solve one problem a bigger problem is created.

    Those cities which have introduced bicycles are already experiencing the side effects of the schemes. Bicycles & motorised transport cannot share the same road space and the same routes.
    In Mumbai city (India) animal drawn carts are prohibited. Bullock carts are the most sustainable form of transportation but all the same they are not permitted within the metropolitan region of Mumbai because they take up road space and are very slow.

    City transportation systems should be viewed as a machinery whose parts are made up of vehicles for independent and fast mobility and for this machinery to be efficient (all components have to have the same efficiency – speed) high energy inputs are needed and further this machinery uses up 20% to 30% of the city’s land space. Bicycles apparently appear to be the most sustainable means for human mobility but its efficiency or rather speed does not match with the efficiency (speed) of the entire machinery (the city traffic). This mismatch is reducing the overall efficiency (especially safety) of the city transport machinery. (This is the main reasons why bullock carts & electric tram cars are not permitted in Mumbai)

    In my study I have concluded that the current problems in mobility have arisen from the existing transportation technologies all of which are products of inventions from the 19th & 20th century. The bicycle too is a pre 19th century invention.The existing technologies will not be the source for the solutions for the problems faced in the 21st century since these very existing technologies are the very cause of the problems. The existing technologies need to be superseded by technologies which can be adapted to the changed lifestyle and mobility demands.

    I appreciate the effort the governments are putting in to promote new ideas in the energy sector. I also acknowledge the government for the encouragement they are giving for alternative energy in the transportation sector. The 21st century lifestyle and work style is putting tremendous pressure on human mobility. Day by day the issue of human mobility is getting aggravated with no solution in sight. This is because we are trying to solve problems of the 21st century with inventions from the 19th & 20th century. We need 21st century inventions. The efforts put into improving fuel efficiency, alternative energy, energy storage, has to be encouraged but vehicles operating on alternative energy will not solve the concern of congestion, gridlock and accidents since they all continue the same road space. The new concept of Design Thinking has to be brought in and give the people what they want in the field of human mobility. We need a paradigm shift in thinking and a quantum leap in technology which will involve Destructive Engineering.

  8. I’m sure some readers will misinterpret this post as straight advocacy, not irony.

  9. That flag thing is a sick joke. It has to be. Or have the lunatics taken over the asylum?

    The best bit is this: “The flags are installed near schools, senior centers and hospitals in the city that do not have traffic signals or stop signs.”

    So instead of installing proper signalled crossings for the old people, the infirm, and children, they put some flags there and tell them “it’s up to you”?

    Victim blaming + cost cutting + car culture = flags for pedestrians.

  10. inge says:

    I once bumped my head on a kitchen cupboard. I felt I almost died, so now I always wear a helmet in the kitchen. And if I have to pass a tall building I also wear a helmet so if people fall down from a great height I will be protected if they crash into me. With my helmet on I am totally invincible.

  11. Paul Smith says:

    Another anecdote to add with the “a helmet saved my life” reports, how many times do we see such an article with a picture of the helmet? Fairly often, and in almost all of those cases the helmet has broken into two, indicating the helmet actually failed and didn’t absorb the impact.

    Such articles often also fail to mentions the risk factors for wearing a helmet. Such as cars passing closer, inability to hear as well and therefore being less aware of your surroundings, increasing likelihood of hitting your head (due to a helmet being larger than your skull) and neck injuries or other rotational injuries, again due to it being larger than your skull or potentially being caught on something.

  12. Transport Ministers should be made to wear helmets at all times will a large appendage sticking out the front. With the turnover in this country, we should be able to get a bulk discount. Not professional, but I feel better. Oh, and I do when on road or when out with my son (cycling, not generally).

  13. rdrf says:

    A nice post.
    Just to assure you that the idea of pedestrian helmets is NOT a joke: take a look at this . I would also urge you to look through for the work of the Bicycle Helmets Research Foundation for a proper evidence based set of reports and summaries of research: including of course , what lies behind “A helmet saved my life”
    By the way, the photo of the kids wearing helmets to cross the road: they also seem to be tied together with string, as well as having big yellow “conspicuity aids” to wave at motorists. “Road safety”, eh?

    • Nico (@nfanget) says:

      rdrf, that organisation you excoriate in your post is just ridiculous, it’s like putting tobacco companies in charge of cancer awareness. We have made our streets so dangerous that kids can’t go ANYWHERE without adult supervision, yet we always hear moans about how kids aren’t independent and can’t do anything themselves or function in the real world. And let’s not even go into mobility problems for the elderly and disabled.

  14. Fred Smith says:

    Pedestrians with helmets is going a bit far, but is it too much to ask for them to have hi-vis and lights when crossing the road at night? They’re all dressed in black like they’re trying to be stealthy… Of course the answer couldn’t be that the 5% worst drivers on the road are banned and everyone’s insurance suddenly gets a lot cheaper 😦

  15. jakeonhisplanet says:

    I commute daily in Auckland, obeying NZ’s rather irritating compulsory helmet law.

    Prior to emigrating, I cycled for 20 years on UK roads without a helmet and without an injury. The only time I wore a lid was on off-road jaunts where I would be pushing the limits of my skill to stay upright.

    Make no mistake, my current helmet use is a subsidy in effort & discomfort to drivers who don’t understand what to do around riders. Without their risky behaviours, I would be highly unlikely to suffer a fall or collision and therefore highly unlikely to benefit from the helmet.

    Drivers, my helmet is for *your* own good.

  16. rdrf says:

    Unfortunately they are not “just” ridiculous. They are signed up to by most of the “road safety” organisations globally. While most of these rgansitaions won’t be as ridiculous as to advise kids to cross roads with string attaching them to each other, wearing helmets etc., the underlying principles they share are the same.
    The lunatics are indeed in charge of the asylum, which is why we set up the Road Danger Reduction Forum as an alternative.

    • inge says:

      I don’t think I have ever heard of that “road safety” organisation in my own country nor the actions you seem to find normal. So I don’t know how global it is.
      In the Netherlands we have zebra-paths with or without traffic lights so people can cross the road safely. Other traffic HAS to stop for the pedestrians crossing the road this way. Would it not be better and make more sense to tame the beasts,aka cars and drivers? This looks to me as if an abused person will take a paracetamol to ease the pain before she/he is beaten up.
      Your fight is at the wrong end of the stick, I think. But hey, what do I know?

  17. rdrf says:

    You are lucky in that you come from a country which has a more civilised approach to safety on the road than most.
    The official “road safety” lobby in most countries contains bodies that support the “Campaign for Global Road Safety”, agendas like the “Make Roads Safe” campaign etc. A key feature of this approach is the victim-blaming of cyclists and pedestrians and acceptance of a transport status quo which tolerates excessively dangerous motor vehicle usage.
    By contrast, the Road Danger Reduction Forum, and others supporting the road danger reduction agenda, believes in reducing danger at source, namely that which comes from motor vehicle traffic.

    Dr. Robert Davis, Chair, RDRF

  18. Koen says:

    I am amazed at how often the discussion of bicycle facilities in the UK tends to creep towards the ‘us-vs-them’ attitude. What will it take to let people in general ( drivers, pedestrians, cyclists of both the vehicular kind and otherwise) see that everyone can benefit if a good solution is decided upon collaboratively? It still seems as if everyone is bent on defending their own position, afraid that anything else will compromise their own rights. Helmets seem no exception, also being taken as an opportunity to blame others. I can understand why, the cause being the lack of funding that leads to a situation that forces unequal road users to use a common space. No wonder it leads to massive irritation. Time to think of constructive ways to tackle this, for it seems the blaming doesn’t get you any further.

  19. inge says:

    Well said , Koen. It is something I find baffling too. Another thing I always wonder about is the fact that lots of motorist must have children of their own. Don’t they want them to have the freedom to ride a bike in safe circumstances? Be more independent, go to school or sports or just to meet friends by bike, to be active and happy children? And the air could be so much cleaner if more people would ride a bike. Also not a bad thing to want for your children or yourself, for that matter. I just don’t understand why so many British are not very angry at the bad deal they are given by the politicians and administrators. I really don’t understand this when so many people, young and old are killed in traffic every year.

  20. inge says:

    Sorry, now it seems I made the distinction again between motorist and other traffic users. I did not mean to do that, it’s just that getting hit by a car is obviously more fatal than hit by a bike. It really is for the best if we don’t get in each others way.

  21. Pingback: Cyclists, you have an image problem | The Alternative Department for Transport

  22. jthooker says:

    When you’ve got an NHS that ultimately pays for people’s head injuries and brain damage, they will look to cut costs on ‘behalf’ of the population. In Australia, rate of death per 100,000km is roughly 4-5 times that of driving per km and rates of serious injury are 7 times higher per km. You don’t need to be a genius to work out the effect on costs to the health care system of huge mode changes to cycling – even with a moderate safety in numbers effect.

    And as far as I can tell, the costs associated with injuries and disability arising from cars vs cyclists is always going to outweigh the minimal positive effect on weight and obesity rates / cardiovascular health, etc that helmet laws ‘might’ contribute to (especially remembering that most cyclists get hit/killed at younger ages in the most productive stage of their lives and most overweight people die toward the end of their productive stage).

    Netherlands’ spend on Health care is 12% of GDP while the UK’s is about 10% so it’s not like extra cycling is doing them an obviously great favour in relation to health care costs.

    It all comes down to who wants to pay for injuries or illness and no-one really does. If a helmet law will save the Govt (or an insurer) money and all they have to do is ask you to put a shell on your fragile head, they’ll do it. We had the same debate with seat belts in cars.

    Perhaps the Dead Kennedy’s said it best in summarising opposition to bike helmets – “Give me convenience or give me death”.

    • fonant says:

      Your comments might make sense IF cycle helmets were designed to save lives, and IF there was evidence that they actually did where they’re worn. In fact they are most certainly NOT designed to save lives in crashes with motor vehicles: read this excellent article written by a helmet testing laboratory for the details of the tests a cycle helmet has to pass, and hence the level of protection they have to provide:

      Also, if cycle helmets really did provide significant protection to cyclists, there would be extremely strong evidence from accident data from around the world to show that. In fact there is no data showing any reduction in head injuries from helmet wearing, in fact head injuries per cyclist have gone up in places where helmet wearing rates have gone up.

      If you’re actually interested in this subject, have a read of all the data and arguments, both for and against, at (for) and (against).

      • JThooker says:

        Thanks – Try this one, ‘If you’re really interested”, too.

        • fonant says:

          Ah, yes, Australia, the real-world experiment in compulsory helmets. An excellent nation to look at, especially since bicycle helmets have quite spectacularly failed to provide any significant benefit there at all. If cycle helmets were in fact useful, one would expect near-zero head injuries in Australia, and relatively high rates of head injury in The Netherlands. Sadly for the helmet manufacturers and retailers, the exact opposite is true. But the emotional “it could save your life” works wonders for selling these overpriced polystyrene hats (available very cheaply from China, if you want to buy in bulk).

          Helmets are designed to provide just enough protection to pass the standard tests, so they can compete in ventilation and lightness. The standard tests are equivalent to an impact not exceeding 12mph. Possibly useful if you faint and fall off your bike, but certainly no use at all if a car hits you. At 12mph you can put your arms out to prevent your head hitting the ground anyway!

          • JThooker says:

            “bicycle helmets have quite spectacularly failed to provide any significant benefit there at all” – despite the rates of head injuries dropping by around 1/3 since introduction of the laws….. I guess once you reject evidence, you don’t really need to believe anything.

            In relation to injury rates, you wouldn’t expect ‘near zero’ rate in Australia at all – just a modest reduction in relation to incidence of other injuries – which is exactly what happened. The Netherlands also has a totally different mix of traffic mode, traffic speed and bicycle infrastructure in comparison to the UK and Australia and most other ‘developed’ economies so if anywhere is not representative, it’s there. It might be a cyclist’s ideal (I have ridden there many times without a helmet) but it’s not reality for us and sadly, that’s what NHS / insurers will want to deal with right now because they are not in the business of building bike paths.

            • Edward says:

              >despite the rates of head injuries dropping by around 1/3 since introduction of the laws
              And by how much did numbers of cyclist reduce? You cannot separate the two.

              >just a modest reduction in relation to incidence of other injuries – which is exactly what happened.
              No it didn’t. Look at the numbers. There was no change whatsoever. There is no evidence of a population wide benefit in Australia at all. MHLs are a totally misguided way to keep cyclists ‘safe’.

    • pm says:

      I don’t follow your logic – you claim that cyclists rate of death in Australia is 4-5 times that of driving, but ignore the fact that a huge proportion of those cycle deaths are likely due to the presence of cars, so you’ve attributed them to the wrong culprit!

      (Also, doing it by distance travelled is obviously going to be misleading, as most bike journeys are going to be short, it seems dubious to include figures for road trips across a country the size of Australia)

      A huge mode change to cycling would mean fewer cars to kill cyclists.

      If your argument is ‘the NHS has to pay for the medical treatment’ then that’s an argument for restricting the use of cars as they cause most of the injuries (including those of cyclists) and so, by your own logic, impose huge costs on the NHS. Why call for compulsory helmets but not call for anything to control the thing that actually creates the risk and causes the cost? Why is the burden to be placed on the victim rather than the perpetrator?

      The debate with seat belts in cars was not the same. Seat belts protect against the risks motorists impose on themselves, bike helmets are largely about risk imposed by others. Those are not the same thing.

      • JThooker says:

        You’re getting off-topic and seem to think that I am anti-cyclist or pro-mandatory helmet wearing. I’m not. I’m trying to outline the motivations that people may have in introducing a helmet law.

        Nothing in my points say that cars should not have further restrictions placed on them or whose ‘fault’ it is. Virtually all cycling accidents are the result of being hit by cars – but that is not the issue. The issue of who is to ‘blame’ for accidents has nothing to do with the reasons why somebody (e.g., insurer / govt etc.) may want to impose a helmet law under a no-fault scheme. It is all about who ultimately bears the cost of preventable injuries.

        I ride a motorbike as well – Just because most motorbike accidents are caused by cars not seeing me, should I not wear a helmet or protective gear? It wouldn’t make sense. Similarly, most vehicle accidents occur between one car (perpetrator) running into another one (victim). Would you suggest that only potential perpetrators need to wear seatbelts or have airbags installed?

        The road is dangerous for everyone – more-so for vulnerable road users such as cyclists (per km traveled, which is the absolute best way to assess it – see other discussions in this forum regarding the folly of per population measures). Some injuries can be prevented by helmets. Whether you want to inconvenience yourself by wearing a helmet that could prevent an injury is up to you, but I can bet the actuaries at the NHS or your insurance company have a formula somewhere that calculates the cost of head injury at 25 years old and it’s expensive. If they think that a helmet might prevent it, they’ll want you to wear one.

        Otherwise, one can always go the US, where injuries aren’t covered by the state and you can do whatever you like. They have a lack of legislation on helmets on bikes and motorbikes to match.

  23. pm says:

    You don’t seem to address the point though, you just keep repeating the very view I’m contesting! I could equally well say “if they think that banning cars from many urban roads, enforcing speed limits and traffic laws and providing segregated cycle paths might do a better job of preventing it than a mandatory helmet law, they’ll presumably do that instead”.

    Which option is taken (putting the burden on the motorists who create the risk or on the cyclists – and pedestrians – who suffer from it) is entirely a political matter and simply a question of the arrangement of political and economic power.

    You side with one side, on that question, I differ. Fair enough, your side might very well win (the car lobby has relentlessly increased in power over my lifetime), but you seem to think not only am I in practice obliged to concede to that power, but I am somehow obliged to share your political stance and actively collude with it! And I just don’t understand why you think that. Its adding insult to injury!

    You might in practice get your way, the fact that the motor lobby is so powerful may end up causing the government to put the burden on the victims rather than those who cause the problem (doubtless to be followed by still further inconveniencing and marginalising of pedestrians and cyclists in order to further reduce the need for any limits at all on motorists), but I just don’t see why I personally should be obliged to support that. It would still be unjust, might is not right.

    Incidentally, motorbikes travel much faster than bikes so the issues around helmets are different. In that case the biker’s own speed creates much of the risk.

    And I don’t understand why you go on about injuries being covered by the state. Again, the injuries are mostly caused by the motorists – go tell them about the bill to the state.

    • JThooker says:

      Sorry, I didn’t realise that we were talking about a fantastical cycling utopia world where every cycling journey will suddenly be on a segregated path (I think it’s something like $50,000 per metre in London or something else I read in this forum?). I thought that we were dealing with real people cycling on real roads in mixed traffic environments in present day circumstances where a helmet is a good idea for reducing risk of injury in the event of getting hit by a car (which is reasonably likely).

      You absolutely don’t need to collude with the motoring powers. You’re right. But in the mean time while you’re riding right next to them or in between them, today, tomorrow and probably for the next year or two until the revolution, it’s best to put a lid on. Per km, you’ll reduce your chance of head injury.

      Can I just reiterate that I am not a mandatory helmet law fan or a pro-motoring person. I am talking about current risk estimates for cyclists and a health system that doesn’t care about the politics, power, or whose fault any accident was, but does care about costs of injury that it has to budget for. I would agree with you that more cycling is better – I certainly try to cycle as much as possible. BUT I am also not blind to the fact that it is inherently more risky for me per km than driving and even though it might be the car’s fault, it’s little comfort for me while I’m lying in the back of an ambulance.

      Put some figures in your calculator and see what I’m talking about. These are (I’ve rounded them off) numbers from Melbourne – a city with 4 million people:

      40 cycling deaths per year – Cycling currently makes up 4% of total travel distance per person.
      180 vehicle deaths – Vehicles currently make up 80% of vehicle distance traveled per person.
      Current total deaths = 220.
      Average distance per day per person is about 24km.

      Let’s say we triple cycling rates in current circumstances to 12% of distance and all those km’s came out of cars rather than public transport. This would be a huge achievement and no-doubt applauded by most as a positive step, no?

      OK, taking into account a ‘safety in numbers’ effect for cycling, we might get the following changes in total deaths per year:
      Around 100 cycling deaths per year @ 12% of total distance
      Around 158 vehicle deaths per year @ 72% of total distance
      Total deaths = 258. A difference of +38 (please don’t say ‘Yes but they were caused by motorists’ – it might be true, but fault does not matter)

      You are correct that if you do all of those other things you mentioned in terms of re-configuring the entire transport system and infrastructure, you might reduce cycling deaths; more power to those who advocate these changes. Unfortunately, cyclists do not ride in that world, they ride now.

      • @JThooker: your argument only holds water if you assume that cycle “helmets” are capable of providing useful protection against collisions with motor vehicles. They are not.

        “Cycle helmets are primarily designed for falls without any other vehicle involved. In many legal cases I have studied where a cyclist was in collision with a motorised vehicle, the impact energy potentials were of a level that outstripped those that we use to certify Grand Prix motor racing helmets.” – Brian Walker, of helmet-testing lab Head Protection Evaluations


        • jthooker says:

          I totally agree with you, however, this single article from 2005 (helmets have changed considerably since then here, at least) seems to be an argument for a better standard of helmet in the UK rather than anything else? Is anyone in the cycling lobby advocating for an improved standard? Nup.

          I think we have to admit that even if helmets were irrefutably proven to be effective I still doubt whether some people would want to wear them. It’s not about safety – people just don’t want to have to wear them. Fair enough.

          Despite that, if someone asked me to put my head in Brian’s testing machine and get thrown into his anvil, I would prefer to be wearing a helmet….

          I preface all of this in that we have had mandatory helmet laws here for 20 years. Where I live, everyone rides (highest per capita rates in the country), no-one cares about having to wear helmets at all. They’ve done it ever since they can remember. It’s no big deal and rates of head injury have dropped by about 1/3 since people started wearing them. The council also has the highest per-capita spend on cycling infrastructure so things can go hand-in-hand.

          Personally, I’ve started wearing my ski helmet in winter for commuting – it’s warmer, covers your ears, and much better protection all-round. If you don’t have one, drop into a ski shop and check them out – They are light, aerated, & offer great protection. I think the ski-helmet phenomenon is a great example, actually. They are not mandatory but their design is so good these days that basically 95% of people wear them.

          • @JTHooker Did you miss the bit about F1 Grand Prix helmets not even being protective enough? The only way to protect humans reasonably well from being hit by motor vehicles is to put them in motor vehicles (with a strong steel cage, crumple zones, seat belts, air bags). Even then, people are killed.

            The point is that, unlike skiing or off-road cycling, the danger comes from being hit by one-tonne-plus metal vehicles travelling at high speeds. Protect your head as much as you can, but you’ll still die from multiple organ failure if you’re hit by a motor vehicle hard. Light-weight polystyrene hats are a red-herring.

            You don’t say where you live, but it’s an unusual place if head injury rates to cyclists have dropped with more helmet wearing. Certainly in the USA and Australia the opposite is true. Can you cite a study that shows this 30% head injury rate improvement?

            • Koen says:

              This is probably because cycling has also dropped, by 50%.

              • JThooker says:

                It dropped by 36% in teenagers and increased by 44% in adults – that was way back in 1993. Since then it has continued to increase in all groups.

            • JThooker says:

              No, I didn’t miss that bit about the Grand-Prix helmets at all. Do you think that’s a typical scenario? If so, I might as well not put a helmet on when I jump on my motorbike! You seem to think that’s it’s ‘all-or-nothing’ if you have an accident when clearly it’s not.

              I’ve said in earlier posts that I live in Melbourne in the City of Yarra. It has the highest per-capita rate of cycling in Australia and continues to increase, which is great. Rates of head injury here have reduced by around 1/3 since introduction of helmet laws after an initial dip, primarily among teenagers (must have been a hair-style concern??).

              Here are some links to articles on the state of cycling here post implementation of the law (older articles) and a couple of abstracts:

              Mirjana Sikic, Antonina A Mikocka-Walus, Belinda J Gabbe, Francis T McDermott and Peter A Cameron Med J Aust 2009; 190 (7): 353-356.

              McDermott FT, Lane JC, Brazenor GA, Debney EA. The effectiveness of bicyclist helmets: a study of 1710 casualties. J Trauma 1993; 34: 834-845.
              During the 1980s, a sustained campaign increased the rates of helmet use of Victorian bicyclists. The efficacy of helmet use was evaluated by comparison of crashes and injuries (AIS-1985) in 366 helmeted (261 Australian Standard approved and 105 non-approved) and 1344 unhelmeted casualties treated from 1987 through 1989 at Melbourne and Geelong hospitals or dying before hospitalization. Head injury (HI) occurred in 21.1% of wearers of approved helmets and in 34.8% of non-wearers (p < 0.001). The AIS scores were decreased for wearers of approved helmets (p < 0.001), face injuries were reduced (p < 0.01), and extremity/pelvic girdle injuries increased (p < 0.001) and the overall risk of HI was reduced by at least 39% and face injury by 28%. When casualties with dislodged helmets were excluded, HI was reduced 45% by approved helmets. Head injury reduction by helmets, although substantial, was less than that found in a similar study in Seattle, Washington.

              Cameron MH, Vulcan AP, Finch CF, Newstead SV. Mandatory bicycle helmet use following a decade of helmet promotion in Victoria, Australia — an evaluation. Accid Anal Prev 1994; 26: 325-237.
              On July 1, 1990, a law requiring wearing of an approved safety helmet by all bicyclists (unless exempted) came into effect in Victoria, Australia. Some of the more important steps that paved the way for this important initiative (believed to be the first statewide legislation of its type in the world) are described, and the initiative's effects are analysed. There was an immediate increase in average helmet-wearing rates from 31% in March 1990 to 75% in March 1991, although teenagers continued to show lower rates than younger children and adults. The number of insurance claims from bicyclists killed or admitted to hospital after sustaining a head injury decreased by 48% and 70% in the first and second years after the law, respectively. Analysis of the injury data also showed a 23% and 28% reduction in the number of bicyclists killed or admitted to hospital who did not sustain head injuries in the first and second post-law years, respectively. For Melbourne, where regular annual surveys of helmet wearing have been conducted, it was possible to fit a logistic regression model that related the reduction in head injuries to increased helmet wearing. Surveys in Melbourne also indicated a 36% reduction in bicycle use by children during the first year of the law and an estimated increase in adult use of 44%.

              • pm says:

                Modal share for cycling in Melbourne appears to be between 3 and 4% from the figures I can find, so lets not get carried away! Its still dismally low. Indeed at such a low level I don’t see how one can conclude anything about the effect of helmet laws either way, given that they only affect a tiny proportion of potential cyclists and cycle journeys anyway, which is likely to be an unrepresentative sample.

                Also, I think this story says something about where this sort of reasoning takes us.


                It just joins the ongoing demand that everybody else in the world adjust to accommodate the motorist’s God-given right to go as fast as they want without looking where they are going.

                Where does it end? If all that matters is ‘reducing injuries’ you will end up with all pedestrians and cyclists banned from the roads entirely, and the entire streetscape painted in dayglow colours and covered in crash barriers. At some point one has to say no, and ask that the burden be placed where it belongs.

              • jthooker says:

                It’s worse than that, PM. Bicycle trips in Melbourne are around 2% of total and make up around 0.7% (that’s not 7% but 0.7%) of total distance traveled. In our Local Government area, however, it’s 8.5%, which is far and away the highest proportion. Melbourne is terribly sprawled and cars dominate everything to the detriment of cycling (and driving for that matter…).

                One point to make about the research findings is that the representativeness of the sample is probably the best you could find anywhere because it doesn’t come from the percentage of cyclists, it comes from the TAC’s records. The TAC is our state-owned monopoly personal injury insurer and processes around 19,000 claims for road accidents per year. The advantage of the monopoly position is that every single person who is in an accident and is injured at all, has a record. Therefore, every single cyclist involved in an accident with a car and who goes to hospital can be followed up. So the sample ends up being virtually perfect because it’s the complete population of injured riders.

                In terms of where will it all end and the link to the article – I totally agree with you and this was EXACTLY the original point I was trying to make. It goes something like this here:

                – The TAC (state-owned monopoly insurer, probably like your NHS?) pays for all hospital treatment / rehabilitation costs / loss of earnings, etc. of injured riders involved in a crash with a car.
                – The Victorian public pays insurance premiums based on costs to the TAC scheme.
                – The TAC is motivated to keep costs of its insurance operations down so that it can return money to the State Government in terms of actuarial release, and keep the costs of Premiums down – How does it do this?
                – It looks to prevent road injuries that will not have large infrastructure or up-front costs for the scheme.
                – Which of those make the grade?

                1 – Helmets? Yes. Why? There is no cost to the scheme because people buy helmets privately and it reduces the rate of head injury, which is very costly for them because it’s usually young guys, early in life, with large earning potential ahead of them.
                2 – Infrastructure? Not really. Why? Infrastructure is expensive. There are other departments whose job it is to build roads and paths and the cost return is delayed.

                We are lucky here because the insurer is State-owned and no-fault so regardless of your culpability, your treatment is the same but a private system would be even more of a disaster as in the example you showed. So, to take a grab from somewhere before i was born – It’s the system, man!

  24. Koen says:

    Percentages don’t say too much. Say 1000 children bike to school everyday and 100 adults to work. -36% and +44 then means there 360 less children and 44 more adults. With percentages you can take any number – percentages without numbers are meaningless.

    • JThooker says:

      True but that’s not what happened…. The article is here if you want to read it:
      Cameron MH, Vulcan AP, Finch CF, Newstead SV. Mandatory bicycle helmet use following a decade of helmet promotion in Victoria, Australia — an evaluation. Accid Anal Prev 1994; 26: 325-237.

  25. Pingback: Cyclists, you have a language problem | The Alternative Department for Transport

  26. Koen says:

    Sorry JT, you can bring up all the data you want, but I just don’t want a lid. I want safe infrastructure. Luckily must of it is, over here. So no need for the bloody helmet.

    • JThooker says:

      I didn’t realise the concepts were mutually exclusive?!

      No need to be sorry at all, Koen. At least we’ve got to the point where we can admit that even if helmets prevent some head injury, some people won’t / don’t to wear them, which I never disputed from the start.

      • fonant says:

        Sorry JThooker, “helmets” (polystyrene hats with lots of holes) are usually sold, and promoted, on the misunderstanding that they’re effective in a crash with a motor vehicle. Since motor vehicles are pretty-much the only source of real danger to cyclists, this means some misguided countries and places have made wearing a “helmet” a legal requirement, for safety reasons. “Helmets” do indeed provide protection, if someone hits their head when falling off their bicycle when stationary (see the tests that “helmets” are required to pass for the actual details) or if something hits them that’s travelling at 12mph or less.

        Since these “helmets” aren’t designed to be of any use in a crash with a motor vehicle, and they make cycling look dangerous, these laws are a disaster for encouraging the general population to ride bicycles and of no useful benefit. Have a look at Bike Share schemes, for example the one in London and the one in Melbourne, for a nice proof of that.

        That is why almost all countries in the world allow people to ride bicycles without polystyrene hats, just as they allow people to walk and drive motor vehicles without these things! The Australians and a few other places are the odd ones out, and I really don’t know why that is.

        Following your logic, I could say that knee protectors can prevent some pretty nasty injuries to cyclists: in fact BMX riders often wear them for this reason. Should knee protectors be encouraged for all cyclists, and perhaps even made a legal requirement? It would save our Hospitals a lot of money – knee repair operations can be very expensive.

        Oh, and of course motor vehicle occupants suffer from many more head injuries than cyclists do. Shouldn’t be campaign for compulsory helmets for motorists? That would save much more money for our health service, motor occupants could wear the much better motorcycle style helmets without overheating, and safe storage of the helmets wouldn’t be a problem in cars.

        Why single out people riding bicycles?

        • JThooker says:

          OK – answer me this, fonant;

          Should Motorcyclists wear helmets? Why / Why not?

          • Motorcycles will frequently travel at 70 mph or more. I think the more pertinent question is – should pedestrians wear helmets?

            • JTHooker says:

              Well, if they shared the same road space as cars (like cyclists) then it would be a good idea but 99% of the time they don’t. In Nigeria, 40% of all road crashes involve pedestrians because they share the same space – just like cars and bikes do here (& there, I presume).

          • fonant says:

            In some USA states motorcycle helmets are not required, and I’d personally make them optional everywhere. A motorcycle helmet provides significantly better protection than a polystyrene bicycle helmet, but is still not effective in many motorcycle crashes. Helmets for car occupants should also be optional, even though wearing a motorcycle helmet in a car would provide some useful protection in a crash with few disadvantages – which is why motor racing drivers always wear helmets.

            My question to you in return is: should cyclists wear motorcycle helmets, which _are_ designed to be effective in crashes with motor vehicles?

            Bicycle “helmets” are designed to provide the minimum impact protection required by the standards tests (roughly a 12mph impact) and no more. Bicycle helmets have to weigh very little, and have to provide as much ventilation as possible to prevent the cyclist’s head overheating. Cycling in a helmet that provides useful protection against crashes, a motorcycle helmet, would be very difficult.

            • JThooker says:

              OK, well, I got foolishly roped into this long-winded discussion because originally, I was trying to explain that in the US, where the state doesn’t pay for accidents, you don’t have talk of mandatory laws – however, in the UK, and Australia, you do because it’s a cost-saving measure for a State-based insurance / health system, so it’s great that we’ve come full circle. We might even agree!

              As for motorcycle helmets on bicycles, if someone wants to really reduce their risk of injury further then sure, but it’s never going to take off (of course). As much as you hate it, though, light, functional helmets designed for cycling do reduce risk of head injury – even if they are designed for 12mph – with no impediment to the rider at all. Isn’t that a good thing for everyone? Don’t answer that…

        • JThooker says:

          Helmets in cars would save a lot of lives, I agree – Just as curtain air-bags do. In fact side curtain air-bags (to protect the head) in cars are likely to be mandatory in new cars within the next decade. Would you be happy to wear a helmet in 2023?

          I think you are getting confused – I’ll repeat it – I am not advocating mandatory helmet laws (God forbid – I get enough grief here just trying to talk about efficacy of helmets) but to argue that helmets don’t people from head injury in some circumstances (70% reduction in the latest research from NSW) really is flat-earth stuff. To then try to tell people who might have been going to ride anyway that a helmet ‘won’t help them at all’ in the event of an accident when the evidence is clearly to the contrary borders on irresponsible.

          • fonant says:

            Claims of 70% or 85% efficacy for polystyrene hats is the “flat earth” stuff. Nowhere in the world can show 70% to 80% reduction in head injuries on a population level: that sort of benefit would be clearly visible on injury data graphs. In fact cyclist head injury rates around the world match pedestrian head injury rates amazingly well, proving that helmets make no significant difference at all. The population health benefits of cycle helmets are unproven, even with all the effort put into trying.

            Telling people that a bicycle helmet provides useful head protection against motor traffic when they are most certainly not designed to do so is irresponsible and unethical. Especially when this discourages people from riding bicycles so they miss out on the significant and proven health benefits of regular exercise.

            • JTHooker says:

              This was released yesterday. Maybe you should take it up with them, directly…

              The study, conducted by academics at the University of NSW and published in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, examined NSW hospital and police records on 6745 cyclists involved in a motor vehicle collision between 2001 and 2009.

              It found that wearing a helmet reduced the risk of head injury by up to 74%.

              • Koen says:

                The whole point of the matter is, ou can wrap yourself in styrofoam all you want, the injury and killing rate for cyclists in Australia, the UK or the USA is still may times that of the Netherlands. Safety gear do not make safe cycling, at best it makes the chance of survival when in a collision a bit bigger. prevention of collision works much better, because there are so many other benefits involved, like better connections for cyclist, more cyclists, greater appreciation of cycling, better driving etc. The whole point of this dicussion is that if the helmet is being promoted as being a big part of the solution, it gives room to complacecy about addressing the real issue. I had a nasty little collision this autumn (the Netherlands and its drivers aren’t perfect yet) and landed so hard on my hands that i still feel my wrists hurting. not a scratch on my head though, never bumped it. Elbows black and blue. So helmets are no panaceum, of course. By all means wear one if you want, but helmet advocacy must be discouraged for all reasons mentioned above, and above all, mandatory helmet laws should be seen as a ‘blaming the victim strategy’

          • pm says:

            ” I am not advocating mandatory helmet laws”

            II probably should point out, in return then, that its precisely mandatory helmet laws that I have been arguing against. If all you are doing is trying to convince people that helmets might be worth considering, then we don’t particularly disagree.

            Whether any individual chooses to wear a helmet is entirely up to them (I do myself, as it happens, though I’m not quire sure why!).

            • jthooker says:

              Thanks for that, PM.

              I do find it slightly ironic that a post that in a post that was all about how unreasonable trying to have a discussion with people who advocate helmet laws is, I seem to get pilloried for providing multiple sources of recent, peer reviewed, objective evidence that helmets might actually work and commented against like I am some sort of pro-law person or that the issues are one and the same!

              The two issues are separate – 1) Helmets prevent some head injuries, 2) mandatory helmet laws are not the solution to cyclists’ safety or cycling numbers – most probably, infrastructure is.

              These positions are not mutually exclusive & it’s entirely possible to hold both at once. Acknowledging evidence that helmets might reduce head injuries after all, doesn’t suddenly mean you are from the dark side. If someone shows me a recent population-based study (not just opinion) showing that helmets don’t work, I’ll look at the evidence on its merits and might even change my mind. Imagine that :)!

              If you cycle around traffic – I’d keep wearing the lid!

  27. JTHooker says:

    Weren’t you trying to give me stats lessons a while back? Firstly, the ‘article’ states that 716 cyclists die per year in the US compare to 12,000 on stairs – 17x as much. A quick check of the figures shows they accidentally put another zero on the stair deaths – its more like 1,200.

    Then, only 1-2% of Americans cycle each year. What percentage do you reckon use stairs? 90%?to set up a bogus claim that stairs are 17x more dangerous is a fraud. More like 40-50 times less dangerous.

  28. pm says:

    Rather than concentrating on helmets it wold be better to push for bad driving to be taken seriously and for real legal penalties to be applied to those guilty of it. The idea that helmet laws can even be considered while the existing laws applied to motorists are consistently ignored is just bizarre.
    Nine months served for putting someone in a coma and leaving them disabled for life, while jumping a red light? Would it be really make any sense to start discussing how a helmet may or may not have helped the victim in such a case?

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