One activity can have different forms

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 cyclingFietsen 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 –

Cycling on the Oudegracht in Utrecht

Cycling on the Oudegracht in Utrecht

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.

'You obviously care more about your hair than your ability to walk unaided!' she hissed at the three girls

‘You obviously care more about your hair than your ability to walk unaided!’ Beverley Turner hissed at them.

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.

This entry was posted in Helmets, Infrastructure, James Cracknell, The Netherlands, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to One activity can have different forms

  1. Pingback: Remember kids... always wear a helmet. (The almighty bikeradar helmet thread) - Page 115 - London Fixed-gear and Single-speed

  2. Paul M says:

    Like you, I wear a helmet for mountain biking (I’m not into racing). I also wear one in winter for commuting on my Brompton, for two reasons: (a) the small wheels have less traction on icy surfaces so an off-road type slip or trip is more likely and (b) it makes a handy platform to mount my Exposure Joystick headlight. I really don’t feel the need on-road, in summer or on my “roadster”.

    We can rehearse the arguments about the safety benefits, or disadvantages (rotational injury, risk compensation, by cyclist or surrounding motorists per Ian Walker) until the cows come home, but here is another personal, emotionally driven argument for you.

    It is not only people who have suffered head injuries who need help to go to the toilet. So does my mother. She has Lewy-Body Dementia. According to scientists and doctors who have researched this condition and the other three forms of dementia, there is as yet no conclusive evidence to show a cause for dementia, but they think it comes down to the “famous five” – obesity, smoking, alcohol, lack of exercise, and one other I can’t recall.

    There has also apparently been research which points out to a strong correlation (which is not the same as causation) between Alzheimer’s Disease and Type 2 Diabetes, the latter of which acquires about 80% of its sufferers via obesity and lack of exercise.

    My mother was once a moderate smoker. She has never been more than a moderate drinker. She could have done with losing a little bit of weight, but she was never one for sweets and snacks or processed foods. She has however been fairly sedentary for many years and certainly almost never cycled, despite living in an area which both geographically and politically favoured cycling.

    I can’t prove it, but I am convinced there is a link. Dementia is one of the fastest growing health issues we face, To quote from “The number of people with dementia is steadily increasing. While around 800,000 people have been diagnosed with the condition in the UK today, the Alzheimer’s Society predicts this number will increase to one million by 2021 and 1.7 million by 2051.”

    I think Mr & Mrs Cracknell could be more usefully devoting their attention to this issue, instead of interfering with personal choice over something for which far less evidence of benefit exists.

  3. Was the driver who caused James Cracknell’s life changing injuries ever identified or charged? I don’t recall having heard either of them campaign against hit and run drivers; they seem to reserve all their energy for promoting helmets. Perhaps his position as ‘Global Ambassador’ for Alpina bike helmets means he can only focus on one issue at a time?

  4. Jonathan says:

    Nice piece – as usual 🙂
    Totally agree about language – It’d be great if the media and governing body referred to sport cycling as sport cycling then we might be able to reclaim the word cycling for the everyday form of transport that it is.

    I wish the pro-helmet people would consider the human body’s natural abilities – we have evolved to be fairly resilient to falls, bangs, knocks etc at speeds we is capable of reaching unaided – ie. running speeds rather than sport cycling speeds. If we only ride at a speed that most humans can run at then our bodies should be able to cope with the gentle shunts or tumbles that could result*. Most humans can run at 10-15mph, and they do this safely without a helmet. (Usain Bolt can sprint at nearly 30mph – perhaps we should petition for compulsory athletics helmets!)

    I’m pro-choice and whilst I’ve previously worn a helmet in the lakes I don’t think I would now, I’d probably just reduce my speed on the downhills, allowing me to appreciate everything more. People who want to experience higher speeds and increased risk are more likely to use a helmet, possibly believing it drastically reduces risk of serious injury – but that’s their choice, good luck! Unfortunately, helmet use is likely to (consciously or sub-consciously) give some wearers a sense confidence (and authority/entitlement?) to ride at speeds that might not be appropriate for the public space they’re on, especially if this is a shared path. Fortunately we’re experiencing a noticeable growth in the amount of non-sporty cycling, with or without helmets, so the population’s perception of (non-sport) cycling will hopefully move towards it being seen as a normal, everyday, low-risk activity. Enjoyed by all 🙂

    * I’m quite aware that human bodies aren’t designed for collisions with fast moving or heavy vehicles, or hard concrete/metal objects, but these risks are best minimised with improved engineering, not helmets.

    • Tony says:

      Helmets aren’t designed for anything more than the human body can already tolerate. Most people don’t realise that the current helmet standards are for a fall from a stationary bike – an impact speed of about 10mph. As the damage goes as the square of the speed even by 15mph you would be exposing a helmet to twice the maximum impact it was designed for (and the helmet test houses will confirm that most fail only slightly above their design maximum and some even below it!). The curious thing is that most helmet compulsionists want them for exactly the purpose they are not designed for – protection from being hit at speed by a motor vehicle or a 70mph wing mirror.

      But if you want to see what the true effect of a mandatory helmet law is have a look at this recent data on the New Zealand experience. Helmet wearing percentages doubled (not shown), cyclist injury rates more than doubled, cyclist numbers almost halved. Exactly what we don’t need in an epidemic of the second highest cause of preventable death in the UK after smoking – obesity.

  5. Edward says:

    “who would force helmets onto the heads of three of the people in the above picture”.

    Yes indeed. As Darth Vader once said, “do not underestimate the power of the dark side”. All it takes is one lobbyist shouting loudly. It happened over here in Australia and New Zealand and let me tell you, it is very difficult to turn back the clock.

  6. If there’s one group of people who they will never tame and who will have a middle finger firmly in the face of compulsory helmets it’s the Dutch going about their everyday business on a bike. Just like the rebels in Starwars, they will prevail over the Darkside.
    However the same cannot be said for the US and the UK. I know a fair few transport cyclists in the UK who would flout the law if it were in place. Maybe they’d have to give the police a priority list – who to stop first, drivers without licences or insurance, drivers speeding or a 72 year old on a butchers bike.

  7. I watch Starwars, fairly regularly with my kids, so yes. I’m more interested in what the Dutch do in the face of reaching the limits with pollution, they, like the rest of Europe are being told to reduce the amount of pollution. We won’t see changes in habits transportation wise without design changes, like in places like Gronigen, NL. This is the way forward, making people feel that cycling and walking are better for them – street and city design favouring people not cars. The helmet debate is a small part of the bigger picture; making cycling normal, not an extreme sport.
    On a side note, the biggest environmental disaster coming pollution wise, is down to the meat and dairy industry who are responsible for more C02 gas emission than anything else. So saving the planet will have to involve eating less meat (that includes having a dog, a Labrador has the same carbon footprint as a 4wd) as well as riding a bike more.

  8. rdrf says:

    Basically I agree with this as I have your comments on lids in the past.

    However, I would suggest that you need to be rather MORE FORCEFUL. Unfortunately, if you bring in “just not against compulsion” and “prevention better than cure”, you leave the door open for the liddites to press ahead with pushing lids – they will just say “OK, you can do other stuff but let’s start with helmets”.

    I think you need to bring in the absence of evidence for the effects of helmets – mainly because of a combination of lack of effectiveness and compensatory behaviour by the wearer and perhaps other road users. Above all you need to stress the victim-blaming and red herring factors. I suggest that helmet advocacy – never mind compulsion – impedes genuine progress for the safety of cyclists (and other road users).

    may I recommend my last post on the evidence of the effect of the cycle helmet law in New Zealand the what it means?

    Finally, I would suggest that a lot of us who do not wear helmets for everyday cycling are fed up with the assumption that we are asking for trouble or doing something “dangerous” as we cycle about. (Do others feel annoyed at comments made to them or attitudes expressed about helmets?) Even without compulsion, that manifestation of the refusal to address the “bull in the china shop” is bad anyway. A red herring and victim-blaming indeed, I would say.

    Dr Robert Davis, Chair Road Danger Reduction Forum
    P.S. Re- 2 different words for the same thing, we have one word “danger” for two different things, what you do to others (“endangering them”) and what happens to you (“Being endangered”).

    • paul gannon says:

      I think that any ‘popular’ support for the pro-helmets lobby will evaporate if/when we get high-quality cycle networks, so it’s not necessary to get too worked up.

      The ‘popular’ pressure behind helmets is rooted in a world view where people can only conceive of cycling as an activity taking place on roads, change that world view and you release the pressure as no one will any longer get up steam about the issue. So if you want to fend off the pressure for helmets, lend weight to the efforts to get some of the wonderful, modern cycling facilities we see abroad put in in this lovely country of ours.

  9. MarkC says:

    this blogpost = nail on head

  10. Peter Clinch says:

    With the skiing analogies, interesting (but sad, and not surprising either) that the Daily Wail have had a bitch at Lewis Hamilton for posting pictures of himself cross country skiing *without a helmet!!!!* only days after Michael Schumacher’s unfortunate injury on a downhill slope.
    Of course, not even professional racers go cross-country skiing in helmets, but, hey, it’s skiing so it must be the same, right?

  11. Leonella says:

    From a Dutch perspective with several video’s of cycling in the USA/Australia/the UK (for some reason never Canada?) in my mind, I’d say that a mandatory helmet law is understandable there, as the cyclist-driver interaction is completely different from here. However, a mandatory helmet could (and maybe does) mean that (local) politicians think they’ve done enough for the safety of cyclists and there’s no need for bike lanes and other measures – after all, extra road space for cars is more important than the health and safety of your own citizens, right?

    PS: I wanted to post this earlier, but couldn’t find my password. Hope it’s still relevant.

    • Tony says:

      @Leonella. The cyclist-driver interaction is irrelevant to the helmet debate. Helmets are not, and have never been, designed for being hit by a car. That’s way beyond anything they have been designed to cope with. Their function is to protect you in a simple fall from a stationary bike with nothing but you and the pavement involved. Being hit by a car at even a miserly 15mph is already 100% over the maximum a helmet is designed to cope with and by 30mph its eight times over.

    • Peter Clinch says:

      Measured in terms of national fatalities per billion km the UK is roughly twice as dangerous to cycle in as NL or Denmark (12 against 22), but in the UK stats you can break down that figure by road type, and while a rural major road comes in at 170 (!!!) an urban minor road is 8, actually /better/ than the Dutch & Danish national average in terms of getting dead.

      A great deal of UK cycle travel (and where we do most of our Bikeability training) is in places that are quite reasonably safe, even by Dutch and Danish standards.

      • Arno says:

        And now ask yourself the question: How would these figures be if everyone rides their bike almost every day. So not just 20-40 year olds but also 8 year old, 16 year olds, 25 year olds, 55 year olds, 65 year olds, people with disabilities, even the elderly….

  12. rdrf says:

    I think Paul Gannon is completely wrong here.

    Advocates of cycle helmet wearing will inevitably state that they think cycling is INHERENTLY hazardous. For example, Tam Dalyell argued in New Scientist that the Dutch were nuts for riding without helmets. Also read Mikael Colville-Andersen’s posts on for the information on how helmets are pushed very heavily in Denmark, despite Danish infrastructure. There is also pressure in Germany, and laws in Spain where there has been a push for cycle tracks in some places.

    As far as helmet advocates are concerned, the issue is not about car-cyclist interaction (and anyway, as Tony above points out, lids are designed for lower speed impacts). Liddites will argue for racing cyclists and mountain bikers wearing them when conflict with cars may not be an issue. Of course, your typical northern European is NOT mountain biking / racing as they proceed sedately on their way to the shops/work/college etc. – but that’s being rational. Remember, helmet advocates are not going to employ logic and reason.

    Also, as I have pointed out in my post above, a problem for many of us is the red herring and victim blaming of helmet advocacy itself – not just mandation. It’s the idea that you are asking for trouble if you ride a bike without a lid. Anywhere. And I think that’s a problem.

    Also, the idea that if you have a network cyclists are never going to fall off bikes is just not true. And I haven’t even gone in to the problems of segregation, networks etc.

    Pressure for helmets exists WHATEVER the danger to cyclists is. The idea that if it appears safer and there is a low casualty rate (as in Netherlands) the pressure in this country will disappear is, I’m afraid, highly wishful thinking. The difficulty here is that people have already got used to lids for everyday riding – they never did in the Netherlands.

    • michael says:

      I agree that there’s a lot of victim-blaming behind this. But I am pessimistic that pointing out that it is victim-blaming will change the views of those doing it. Victim-blaming seems to be an extremely strong impluse in many people, and when called on it they tend to just dig in and get even more irrational and aggressive about it. There are psychological reasons why people do it – essentially, it benefits them to do so – so they aren’t going to stop just because someone points out they are doing it.

      This applies to issues other than cycling as well.

    • paul gannon says:

      Bob says, ‘The difficulty here is that people have already got used to lids for everyday riding – they never did in the Netherlands.’
      We’ll never get anywhere if we are impeded by this belief that cultures cannot adapt or change. We need to understand how cultures develop and adapt, rather than submit to the mistaken and disempowering notion that these things are immutable.
      It’s instructive to note that organisations such as the SWOV and VVN in the Netherlands favour helmet use (the latter at least favouring voluntary use). But any notion at all of widespread (popular) support for helmet use is absent.
      And, please note that I only argued that ‘popular’ support, not organisational support, would evaporate, when safe cycle networks are in popular use.

  13. dr2chase says:

    Never, ever, forget, that if you are rational and if your risk tolerance demands that a cyclist should wear a helmet on a clear dry day, then you are also compelled to demand that anyone in an auto wear a helmet if it is raining or dark out. The per-trip risks of the two activities are not that different, even here in the US (per-trip, cycling is about twice as dangerous as driving). Risks are well-correlated with conditions, so (per-trip) cycling on a clear day is safer than driving on a rainy night. And given the popularity of driving, a helmet law for cars “should” (*) save far more lives than a helmet law for bicycles — car crashes are a major source of serious head injuries and fatalities, and head injuries are the sole cause of 23% of car crash deaths and present in combination with other serious injuries in another 18% of car crash deaths.

    (*) Drivers might not obey a helmet law — but the same is true for cyclists, isn’t it?

    There is the further problem that any nanny state that compels bicycle helmet wearing is either irrational or blinkered; overall (all-causes) mortality has been measured, and it is higher for people who don’t ride (commute by) bikes — 39% higher for those people. The effect of helmet laws is well-known, the effect of not getting exercise is well-known — anyone promoting a helmet law is pro-death (they may not know it, they may not want to believe it). If such a law is enacted, early deaths will increase.

    References (you can show these to helmet-law proponents, I am sure they will instantly see the error of their ways):
    39% higher mortality for non-bicycle commuters:
    Leading causes of TBI:
    Causes of car crash death:
    Biking only 1.5x as dangerous per-trip in BC, CA:
    Only 2x as dangerous per-trip in US:
    (See table 1: )

    References showing how mandatory helmet laws depress cycling levels are already present in other comments.

    Note that discouraging people from driving has no public health cost, and because little physical activity is involved in driving, there’s not as large a sweaty head/hairdo objection to wearing helmets in cars.

    Other people besides me have been making this point for years, and all the information about mortality and comparative risk has also been available for years. I expect helmet law proponents to read those references, apologize to us for wasting everyone’s time arguing with them, and turn their attention to real cycling safety. Perhaps we can find a country where they’ve done things differently and it works better than in the UK and US, and copy their methods. I have zero respect for them otherwise.

    If we must toss a token bone to the but-we-must-do-something crowd, perhaps we can interest them in daytime running lights. There was a study (a real one, with a test group and a control group and statistical significance) a few years ago in Odense with wheel-induction lights (the relatively cheap always-on flashy kind), and they made a real difference — 35% reduction in overall accident rate, 50% reduction in daytime non-solo accident rate. No sweaty head, no problem with providing helmets for passengers, no time wasted putting them on and taking them off, proper use requires no extra steps at all. And it doesn’t make head injuries less serious — it prevents accidents in the first place. Apparently this study caused Denmark to change their rules regarding flashing lights (to allow them).

    • Tony says:

      We perhaps need to look at some of the well established theory of change management if we want to get change on this. One of the things we learn from that is that is that if information/data is presented which challenges the recipient’s world view (disconfirming information) then they will find the most irrational ways to rationalise it into their world view rather than change their world view. An extreme example is recounted in the the classic study “When Prophecy Fails”

      Change management then looks at how you deal with this in getting change but once you are aware of this propensity you can see it time and time again in the way people react to being told that helmets may not be all they are cracked (no pun intended) up to be.

      • Tony says:

        A pertinent quote from the Wiki “Altering the belief would be difficult, as Keech and her group were committed at considerable expense to maintain it. Another option would be to enlist social support for their belief. As Festinger wrote, “If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must after all be correct.”

  14. rdrf says:

    Good point Michael.

    Along with victim-blaming is self-hatred or self-blame. If you can see the problem as YOUR FAULT then, in a sense, you have what appears to be some sort of control over the situation. Ultimately this is an unhealthy way to approach problems and – more importantly – it won’t work.

    But the phenomenon makes sense in terms of what we know about human psychology.

  15. Dermot says:

    Robert is quite right about the extent of helmet promotion in Denmark. My Irish friend who lives in Aarhus told me the other day that it’s compulsory for children to wear helmets there. I’m pretty sure it’s not, but he’s been told several times that it is. His Danish wife and their circle of friends think helmets are great, no downside.

  16. Dermot says:

    He also said that he wouldn’t let his daughter cycle without a helmet in Aarhus because of the disapproval he would meet.

  17. I’m set to move to NL in the summer with my two boys, up to now they ride with me either on the back of my bike or on their own and they wear helmets, one morning my son forgot his and I said, don’t worry, he refused to go on and we had to come home and get it.
    When we get to Holland, he and is little brother will be surrounded by liddless riders of all ages, I wonder if he will still want to wear his so religiously. I don’t wear one unless road riding proper fast or I’m cycling in Cambridge or London, but I’ve always made the kids wear them. I’m curious if once they are pootling along on segregated paths, whether the habit will change. (They will always own helmets as Leon’s not far from being old enough to be getting into having a road bike)
    The Dutch have always had a reputation for being a bit more relaxed with health and safety and they promote a more sensible, teach your kids to look after themselves and not jump into a drainage ditch approach (like driving a car onto the ice first to test if it’s thick enough to skate on – yes, this really happens!).

  18. rdrf says:

    Me again.

    I think Dermot and Christine are making important observations here. What’s happened in the Danish case (and this may well spread to the Netherlands) is that what people are now NOTICING is whether or not children cycle without helmets. Attention has moved away – yet again – from the source of danger.

    Such is cultural change. It happens over a short period of time, even where cycling is commonplace. A few well publicised incidents, more people wearing, and – never mind compulsion – it takes over the discussion on safety.

    Of course, this may not matter too much in the Netherlands or Denmark, But it will a bit (cyclists do still get endangered by motorists to some extent) and it will matter a lot here.

    Yes, you have been warned.

  19. rdrf says:

    Just noticed Paul Gannon’s last comment. Here’s an observation re-popular support: lids seem to be in use even on off-road paths in the UK.

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