Consistency on helmets

Note: some of what follows isn’t actually true. But only slightly.

In a move that has caused controversy in the pedestrian community, James Cracknell has come out in favour of a law to make it compulsory to wear a helmet when you walk across the road.

Speaking on the Sportlobster programme, he said

I was cycling down Route 66 in America, and a fuel truck hit me. His wing mirror hit the back of my head. The truck hit me at 70mph, and I would be dead without the helmet I was wearing.

But I’ve been thinking. What if I’d been hit hit by that truck while I was walking at the side of that road? Surely a helmet would have saved me in exactly the same way?

You know, we need to protect our heads when we’re on the road. Not just while cycling. But also while we’re walking. Use your head. Wear a helmet.

Cracknell admitted that, when it comes to helmets,

The pedestrian community is strangely ‘anti’ being told what to do. So you can’t have legislation that you should wear a helmet, because it’s an invasion of your rights to do what you want.

However, he was quick to point out that there’s no real downside to wearing a helmet for crossing the road.

But what’s the worst that can happen if you wear a helmet? There’s no downside, apart from maybe having slightly messy hair. That’s it. Whereas the upside is enormous.

And if you think it’s an invasion of your privacy, or someone telling you what to do, to wear a helmet when you walk across the road, imagine having someone wipe your arse for the rest of your life. That is the downside. Or not even surviving! The best thing that could happen is that someone has to wipe your arse for the rest of your life. I would choose to wear a helmet, and have slightly messy hair.

Actor Ralf Little – also appearing on the programme – was quickly won over by Cracknell’s faultless logic.

Why wouldn’t you wear a helmet for walking across the road? What’s the worst that can happen? You’re out walking anyway. Who cares what your hair looks like? It doesn’t matter.

Indeed. Messing up your hair is trivial, compared to the risk of suffering a catastrophic brain injury, if you get hit by a driver. He continued –

I follow James’s missus Bev, and she’s been tweeting over the last few days about Schumacher, and the need to wear a helmet when you cross the road. And the anger – this bizarre anger – from people, this response of going ‘how dare you’, this real vitriol she’s been getting… All she’s saying is, ‘listen, it would be a good idea if everyone was safe when you are on the road.’

Quite right. It would be a good idea if everyone was safe when they are on the road. Just protect your head. What kind of idiot would object to that?

Cracknell also pointed out the extra importance of wearing a helmet while walking across the public highway. Racing drivers wear helmets on racing tracks, where they are surrounded by drivers who are competent and know what they are doing. However –

On the road, you don’t know what anyone else is going to do.

Wise words. Racing drivers are highly trained, whereas drivers on the road are amateurs, and are more likely to crash into you when you walk across the road. They might not be wearing their glasses, and hit you on a pedestrian crossing, causing catastrophic head injuries. Or they might be travelling at 55mph in a 30mph zone, and hit you on a pedestrian crossing, causing catastrophic head injuries. You don’t know what anyone else is going to do. 

It’s simple, says Cracknell. What’s the downside? Wear a helmet when you cross the road.  How can anyone argue against something that will save your life? How?

Please do read Beyond the Kerb’s piece The Brick Wall, if you haven’t already

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28 Responses to Consistency on helmets

  1. Joel C says:


  2. And, of course, since most head injuries occur in people’s homes, we should all be wearing helmets at home, at all times. My son once needed stitches in his forehead after hitting his head on a corner in our hallway (true), he wouldn’t have needed them if he’d been wearing a helmet (true).

    What’s the downside? Wear a helmet at home. How can anyone argue against something that will save your life? How?

    (Ignore that evidence that even skiing helmets don’t work).

  3. Dan says:

    My son got a bad head injury in a school relay race once (don’t ask). I now insist on the school athletics team wearing a helmet when they run.

  4. Tom says:

    Before making suggestions like this, please can you provide data on the percentage of all road crossing events by pedestrians that a head injury occurs, compared to the percentage of unhelmeted cycle journeys where a head injury occurs? I suspect you will find that the former is thousands of times less likely and that is why there need not be a rule. Extent of protection has to be proportionate to risk as we cannot eliminate all risk.

    • I’m sure James Cracknell has the figures. He wouldn’t call for a mandatory helmet laws for certain activities, and not others, without checking basic exposure to risk.

      In the meantime, why take the risk? What’s the downside?

    • I seem to recall that head injury rates were worst among motorists (head injuries per person, or something like that). Cyclists tend not to get injured at all, and if they do fall off at speed then broken collar bones are the most common injury by far. The recent deaths in London to cyclists were mostly caused by horrendous crushing of the torso by lorry wheels. Quite agree that the protection has to be proportionate to risk, which is why wearing cycle “helmets” is almost completely pointless: the risks they protect against are extremely unlikely (falling off at 12mph or slower _and_ hitting your head on something). The risk people tend to wear them to protect against (being hit by a motor vehicle) they are powerless to provide any protection against, and in fact explicitly do not provide protection against (read the label inside one).

    • Why restrict it to road crossings? People fall over on the pavement too, you know.

      But yes, I’d like to see that data too. Additionally I’d like to see the data for those head injuries where wearing a conventional cycling helmet would have made a significant difference. Concussion isn’t great, but it is almost by definition a temporary state. At the other end of the scale, while one might sustain head injury when crushed by a lorry, whether one wore a helmet or not is really of secondary concern.

      And then we can pull out all the sports cycling injuries.

      And if such data were available, which to my knowledge it is not, I feel comfortable I would be left with a negligble risk of the sort that I take every day, in many different contexts, without resorting to safety equipment.

      • If we all wore helmets as pedestrians, the council could stop gritting the pavements. We just wouldn’t need to eliminate the source of danger any more – the ice. And don’t forget hi-viz so the ice can see us foolishly move into the danger area.

  5. Nico (@NicoVel0) says:

    Once when fixing a leak under the kitchen sink I bumped my head when standing up, and I once cracked my head on an opened cupboard door while cooking some egg noodles. Since then I always wear a helmet when doing basic plumbing, cooking or other menial tasks in my home. Especially if it’s Asian food.

  6. Jim Moore says:

    I was with James until he mentioned that lifetime’s worth of free arse-wiping. Now I don’t know what to do! I wish he’d stop it with the Devil’s Advocacy.

    Seriously, a great point-making parody blogpost. May it go viral and shame this helmet-shill into shutting up getting a real job.

  7. Har Davids says:

    Wouldn’t ‘walking’ on all fours, like most mammals do, add safety to our lives? Sure, we would look ridiculous and bring shame on our ancestors who bothered to start walking on their hind-legs, but it would, statistically speaking, be worth it.

  8. rdrf says:

    Nice post.

    However, I feel a more potent comparison – and a sharper thrust to the satire – than helmets for walking is helmets for driving. I think the injury figures for car occupants (where head injury is relevant) are more impressive than for walking when you bring in the exposure (time) factor . And it is more convenient to wear helmets when sat in a car than putting one on to walk.

    When your workmates and others point out that Bradley Wiggins wears a helmet when cycling you can tell them that Lewis Hamilton wears one when driving. So why don’t they wear them when driving?

    (Of course, we don’t actually want car drivers to wear helmets – they’re bad enough with seat belts, crumple zones, collapsible steering wheels etc.)

    The evidence on helmets and cars, as with other cycle helmet stuff, is on . And do take a look at

    • congokid says:

      One other frequently ignored area is head injury in rugby (among other contact sports): the Guardian carried an article on it recently, but no one is seriously calling for rugby helmets (unless scrum caps have powers greater than I’d imagined).

      • Patrick O'Riordan says:

        From my perspective as a rugby fan, player concussion is a concern and in the past hasn’t been treated seriously enough by the authorities. There are welcome signs that protocols are being tightened up, possibly prompted by huge compensation lawsuits in the NFL in the US. The NFL, of course, is the classic example of helmets and risk compensation with players leading with their heads in tackles resulting in concussion due to the severity of the impact.

        There was a recent tragic case of a 14 year old boy dying as a result of concussion during a game. Will James Cracknell be arguing for helmet use in rugby?

        • The problem is, and this was the problem in Schumacher’s skiing crash, that helmets don’t protect against brain injury (concussion and worse) very well. They only really protect against skin and skull injuries, where g-forces don’t matter but impact energy does. For brain protection g-forces really do matter.

          A helmet to protect against concussion and brain injury would have to be much larger, to give a longer distance in which to slow the head down before final impact, to reduce the deceleration of the head, to reduce the shear forces within the jelly-like brain. A larger and softer helmet, or a larger crumple zone, in motor vehicle terminology.

  9. Gareth says:

    Why do people feel the need to cycle where large lorries are doing 70mph? Honestly, I just can’t get past that bit.

    • Sometimes in the UK and similar countries the law actually requires that people cycle amongst lorries doing up to 70mph. The only alternative being breaking the law or taking a much longer route. People on bicycles just aren’t considered at all.

    • Felix the cat. says:

      You can be forgiven for not knowing HGV speed limits, since they are seldom observed.

      In GB the limit on motorways for HVs is 60 mph.
      On dual carriageways its 50 mph.
      On single carriageway roads it is 40 mph at most.
      I am not allowed to use motorways.
      I seldom have to use dual carriageways.
      It is impossible to ride far from my home without using single carriageway A roads.
      Though the limit on these roads for HGVs is 40 mph., it is rare to come across one moving at less than this speed. With modern technology enforcement of the law would be easy. Why don’t the authorities feel the need to enforce this law?

      • To be honest, a lorry only has to be doing 10mph to roll over a cyclist and kill them. Look at all those deaths in London. Cyclists and lorries should never be allowed to be in the same place at the same time.

    • pm says:

      Surely you could just as well ask “why do people feel the need to drive large lorries (or any motorised vehicle, given that its not really any better to be clobbered by a car at that speed) at 70mph on roads that cyclists use?”

  10. I guess one downside is that bicycle helmets aren’t really robust enough for cyclists or pedestrians when they mix with automobiles and HGVs. You’d have to have a proper motor-cycle helmet if you were *really* serious about protecting yourself from head injury. Think about that level of helmet protection and it’s not such a “no-brainer” to wear a helmet to leave your house and cross the road – or when riding a bicycle, for that matter.

    Also, many people out for a walk might cross a busy road only once in a while. Would you then carry your heavy-duty motorcycle helmet around with you just in case you fancied dashing across at some point?

    • fonant says:

      There isn’t much point in just wearing a motor-cycle helmet when walking near cars and lorries: if you get hit or run over you will almost certainly suffer multiple serious injuries, and you will probably suffer broken limbs and serious internal injuries whether or not your head has some protection.

      So it’s still pretty silly to wear a helmet of any type for every-day life – it’s expensive, uncomfortable and inconvenient (you might get arrested for being a terrorist, for example!) and almost completely pointless.

      Helmets are a complete red-herring. So much so that some enlightened American states don’t even require helmets for people riding motorcycles!

    • “Think about that level of helmet protection and it’s not such a “no-brainer” to wear a helmet to leave your house and cross the road – or when riding a bicycle, for that matter.”

      Also I have to think that most people who think that standard cycle helmets aren’t an inconvenience haven’t tried to go to the pub in Cambridge. Have they ever tried to find public space for the damn things when a significant proportion of the population cycles? Still, I guess we could keep them on our heads to cope with the ever-present threat of drinking injuries.

      Of course if you made them compulsory the ‘significant proportion of the population’ problem would evaporate…

  11. Let’s not forget that the bike company that sponsored Crackhead’s ride across the states is also heavily involved in the import and selling of bike helmets! But of course that’s never mentioned on ‘balanced’ media articles is it!!??!!

    • fonant says:

      Manufacturing and selling bicycle “helmets” must be extremely profitable business. The helmets themselves are mass-produced polystyrene mouldings: the design and tooling will probably be very expensive, but once you start making them the unit costs must be tiny (look how polystyrene mouldings are used routinely in packaging of almost anything). The return on your investment is pretty certain.

      So with a bit of investment you can then churn these hats out for little additional cost. Sell each one for £50 or more and you and the shop can make a tidy profit. Storage might be a bit of an issue, as each one takes up quite a lot of space, but they’re lightweight so transporting them will be pretty cheap.

      There’s the added bonus that they pretty-well sell themselves to all the people who are taken in by the “if you don’t wear one you’ll certainly die” message.

  12. Andrew K says:

    Well I’m sold, can anyone recommend some stylish walking helmets?

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