The helmet on the handlebars

At the FreeCycle event in central London on Saturday, there were, of course, large numbers of people wearing helmets and hi-viz tabards – not least because the latter were, as always, being handed out to participants.

But as I cycled around the event during the course of the day, I began to notice a distinct phenomenon. Something dangling from people’s handlebars.
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These were people who had set off from home with their cycle helmets, and then, on arriving in an environment which plainly felt very safe, decided those helmets weren’t necessary, and took them off (or perhaps didn’t even bother to don them at all).
Sometimes the helmet didn’t go on the handlebars. Those with practical baskets found a use for them.
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Or the helmet was tucked onto a rack.
Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 21.40.09Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 21.35.48Even children could be seen cycling around with their helmets visibly discarded.
Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 21.23.27
Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 21.28.03Including ones who were passengers.
Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 21.31.49 Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 21.32.21This discarding of ‘safety equipment’ extended to the hi-viz bibs too, which were taken off and wrapped around handlebars…
Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 21.30.36… or pushed into baskets.
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Or maybe not even worn in the first place.
Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 21.36.46By the end of the day, the amount of neon yellow in the crowds of people cycling around had noticeably diminished (at least, that was my impression).Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 21.44.26Maybe this shedding of helmets and bibs was, in part, due to Saturday being a reasonably warm summer’s day, the temperature prompting people to discard items that were making them hot.

But more importantly, all these people cycling around in an environment free of interactions with motor traffic felt safe enough to discard the safety equipment they had either been issued with, or brought themselves. They even felt safe enough to let their children do the same.

This is why I think focusing on what people are choosing to wear isn’t really an issue that cycle campaigners should get too exercised about. What they are wearing is a response to their environment.  If cycling feels unsafe, then it is not surprising that people will readily adopt items of clothing that make them feel safer, be it protection for their heads, or jackets that they think will make them more conspicuous and ‘visible’ to drivers. A sea of helmets and hi-viz is not a personal failing on the part of people wearing them; it’s a symptom of a failure to provide safe conditions for people to cycle in.

Concern that individuals are making cycling look dangerous through the clothing they’ve chosen to wear is therefore totally misplaced. Don’t blame these people. Blame the conditions they are responding to, quite rationally – those  conditions that they encounter on a daily basis, that make them feel that safety equipment is even necessary for what should be the simple activity of riding a bike.

When safe and comfortable conditions are provided – environments free from interactions with traffic danger – then safety equipment will start to naturally melt away. It happened in a few hours on Saturday; it will happen anywhere the same conditions are replicated for everyday journeys.

This entry was posted in Helmets, Infrastructure, Subjective safety. Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to The helmet on the handlebars

  1. Russian cyclists don’t wear helmets even though they have to ride on the streets. With vodka drunk drivers mixed in. They were never promoted in Russia, so they don’t even think of helmets, even in the wretched conditions (that were mainly intended for buses and trams until the collapse of the USSR) they have to cycle in. It’s only in places that ever had a helmet campaign that helmets are used to help make scapegoats out of cyclists.

    I also use the same trick that these cyclists are using. You can be fined 60 dollars where I live if you are under 18 and don’t wear a helmet. I have it nearby, so if I see a cop I can put it on right away, then when the cop passes, I take it off. Works well.

  2. Good notes in that helmet sucks!

  3. Adrian Lord says:

    ironic really that people discard their helmets in the only environment where they could actually be any use for their design standard! i.e. a human falling from a bike at cycling speed.

    • paulsw11 says:

      What? How about helmets for pedestrians falling over. Don’t be daft.

      • Mark Williams says:

        Seems reasonable given how careless most walkists are. Probably best to make it compulsory, too, knowing how cavalier they can be about their own `safety’😉. If this were to catch on, the headgear would have to be virtually identical to current cycle helmets—which fail (i.e. provide effectively no protection), by design and specimen testing, above walking speeds for unilateral falls from typical head height.

        My one and only time at one of these rides was the first or second year of the London Hovis Freewheel ride on my unicycle. Getting loudly harangued by each and every roadside DJ during the first couple of laps for not wearing the hi-viz tabard—which I hadn’t got, because I didn’t `register’—was not conducive to going again! I’ll stick with the monthly Critical Mass rides where the only notable roadside noise is the ripple of applause from onlookers and the lo-viz t-shirts for the anniversaries are tastefully designed…

      • BonnetReshaper says:

        What? Yes, standard cycling helmets are only good for 12MPH impacts, equivalent to falling off sideways or something along those lines. I’ve used a £5 LIDL helmet, successfully, in a hit-and-run, so I am quite aware…

        • Andy R says:

          Quote: “Yes, standard cycling helmets are only good for 12MPH impacts, equivalent to falling off sideways or something along those lines.”

          Essentially. If for some reason you were to try a David Jason/Del Boy type pratfall at the bar or a similar fall from your own height a cycle helmet would be a good idea. Any impact much greater than that…not so much.

    • Har Davids says:

      What’s cycling speed, fast enough not to fall over, or going full tilt? If you have to wear a helmet while being surrounded by other cyclists, what should you wear when surrounded by cars?

    • Yes, it does clearly show how likely people feel that type of accident is, and of course the thousands of people cycling safely on that day back up their point.

    • tfoxglove says:

      FWIW I’ve never worn a helmet, my children only wore them racing and I despair when I hear adults saying they wouldn’t ride without one but I actually agree with Adrian.

      A large amount of cyclists travelling together of varying abilities, ages and levels of concentration; it doesn’t take the writers of Casualty to imagine a little kid to suddenly swerving in front of you, taking your front wheel & depositing you head first onto the tarmac.

      “If it saves one life … #itsanobrainer … you must have nothing worth saving … is your hair that important?” etc

      With that in mind, would I have worn one? Obviously not.

      But it is interesting that people who in the normal course of events believe that a helmet is all that is required to mix with HGV’s, WVM etc to be safe, discard it when it will provide the maximum level of protection.

  4. Bertinsky says:

    What undoubtedly also contributed to “an environment which plainly felt very safe” – and prompted the foregoing of helmets and dispensing of hi-viz tabards – was the leisurely speed at which most participants were riding. I took along my helmet just in case I needed to wear it since I did not know what to expect at such an event (my first one), but felt safe enough not to use it.

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  6. Alex Kew says:

    I experienced this myself last year. We were on a family holiday in Holland and we went out on our first day as a family for a ride. We had taken our bike helmets with us and wore them only to get extremely strange looks from the locals. Within 5 minutes they were off. You just didn’t need them but particularly for my wife and daughter who are not confident on roads they knew they didn’t need them because they knew they were safe. We cycled absolutely everywhere and loved it. When we came back home we tried, really tried, to get out on the bikes in a similar way but it was frankly horrible. We live in The Borough of Kingston, which is currently having a mini-Holland makeover and I hope that we can try again. In the meantime, it’s my daily commute down a cycle lane painted on the road with absolutely no protection at all. I have seen the promised land; and it’s good!

    • USbike says:

      Promote it, and people will use it. It’ll never be every single person, but if it’s done in the context of safety, more and more people will start to buy into the marketing. Even the Dutch are not immune to fear-mongering. For now, you still hardly see anyone wearing helmets in the Netherlands. I currently live in one of the less cycle-friendly provinces (Zeeland). A while back, David Hembrow had written a post about how helmets were being promoted in this province. And you can already see the results. With the exception of wielrenners, most people don’t use helmets. But here, you see kids and even adults using them at considerably higher proportions than elsewhere in the country, especially in the larger cities. And it will probably only continue to rise if it keeps getting promoted.

  7. Was also rather tickled the other day to see a workman, carrying tools etc, cycling along with a hard hat under his arm. I think that if I was that short of somewhere to put a hat, it would probably go on my head just as more convenient storage.

  8. Andrew L says:

    While I agree with most of your conclusions, many people at the FreeCycle wear tabards because they are free and nothing to do with safety. It is the ‘team strip’ for the event. I wore a tabard for lots of the day and I don’t usually for my regular commute. The main reason is my children wanted me to wear one so it would match them.

    I also always make my kids wear helmets, not because of the danger of motor traffic but because I have seen how easily it can all go wrong for a 5 year old cycling even on a wide straight road.

  9. Bmblbzzz says:

    The environment which people are responding to when they chose to wear helmets or hi-viz is not just the perceived likelihood of an accident or the efficacy of the helmet against that impact but the also the generality of opinion. This is why, even in on the same UK roads, you can see such a variance in helmet wearing among cyclists: roadies in a race – compulsory, roadies training – not compulsory but almost all do, TTers – not compulsory but almost all do, commuters – varies but quite common, elderly people on leisure rides or to shops etc – rare, audaxers – less common, etc. Also see how within any one group, younger people are more likely to wear a helmet than the middle aged or elderly.

    Finally, note that in some places hi-viz is compulsory for cyclists and even pedestrians.

    • Jitensha Oni says:

      Isn’t the situation Mark describes for Freecycle showing that the generality of opinion can change in a hour or two? The attendance was enough to comprise the population of a fairly decent-sized town. I wonder what the organizers would do if, at one of the family cycling events where helmets are compulsory, nearly all the adults took them off on starting to ride the circuit. Could be the new die-in. SIC (Stop Infantilising Cyclists)

      Going back to Adrian Lord’s comment (which I don’t disagree with) – the Freecycle situation perhaps also shows that most people within a certain age range aren’t afraid of falling at gentle cycling speeds (which coincidentally (?) are in the range of the helmet specs: up to 20 kph istr). However, some understandably maybe feel their kids need more protection, while the elderly can have more issues with falling in general – but the latter will walk around without helmets on typical wonky UK footways, so why not riding a cycle (though a trike may be best for the most unsteady)?

      • Bmblbzzz says:

        “Isn’t the situation Mark describes for Freecycle showing that the generality of opinion can change in a hour or two? ”
        Yes (putting aside quibbles about what “generality” is) it’s another example of the “generality” of opinion about helmets including the commercial and cultural environment, or ambience might even be an appropriate word for this context. The event didn’t feel like a helmet situation. Those same riders on the same roads will (some of them) put on helmets the next day for a training ride, commuting or going to school. Not only are the riders the same people but the helmets they choose (not) to wear are the same; they haven’t suddenly become more or less effective!

  10. Blackie says:

    As I lie looking up into the eyes of the person who’s just knocked me of my bicycle I want to be able to say “which part of my hi-vis didn’t you see?”.
    I fell off my bicycle once, avoiding a random child. My helmet hit a bit of concrete curb edging. Made a helluva bang because my head was inside the helmet. The helmet was heavily scored and grazed. Head fine. Ego dented. Should have had my shrink with me.

  11. HivemindX says:

    I don’t blame the people who wear high-viz, I blame those who insist on promoting it as an essential safety requirement for all cycling. The safety organisations that complain about ads showing people cycling in a park without helmets. The summer day family spins on quiet or closed roads that require high-viz

    • Blackie says:

      I agree with you. Tabards, whilst being pretty ugly things are a great place to put a brand name or promotional message. That’s why they are handed out free of charge to the recipient.
      And I agree too that helmets should be a matter of choice and personal freedom.

  12. rdrf says:

    I agree with USbike – it is largely a feature of promotion. Hence a higher take up of lids in Denmark than Netherlands as a result of action by “road safety” industry.

    But another point is that people do what other people do. Once people wear them above a small minority percentage, they become “normalised” and newbies and others start wearing them. Your story indicates that process working in reverse with lid removal or non-wear – I am sure a lot of people felt better about doing what others have decided to do first.

  13. I don’t think it’s perceived safety that lets them take the helmets off. Instead, it’s socially acceptable to do so in certain environments and this is one of them. The peer pressure from fellow cyclists (and the bike industry) and tongue-clucking from busybody strangers isn’t there. It’s like wearing or not wearing a bikini top, depending on what beach you go to.

  14. weathergoddess says:

    It’s nice to see some cycling happiness on the streets

  15. stuart says:

    If you go to another environment ie work safety,h ere in the land of Oz they go overboard and you can’t see the forest for the trees.On the streets at the end of the day at swill o clock every worker has been blinded during the day that it makes no difference driving home.

  16. Linz says:

    A helmet on the handlebars is sometimes handy during magpie swooping season

  17. JB says:

    I have to be honest and say that I have my doubts about all of those who claim that they were only saved from a serious head injury by wearing a helmet. Human instinct is such that whenever one falls off a bike one’s arms automatically extend to cushion any blow and protect the head from impact. Moreover, as has been pointed out tests have demonstrated conclusively that a helmet is absolutely useless in a collision with a motor vehicle or at any speed over 12 mph. I grew up in the 80s, when no one wore helmets, when every kid daily cycled to and from school and I can assure anyone who wasn’t around then that there was not an epidemic of kids suffering permanent brain damage from cycling accidents. All helmet use does is reinforce the notion we need to dispel that cycling is an inherently dangerous activity.

    • Blackie says:

      In my case it would have been a lot more painful than it was and there was no blood. This would not have been the case had I not been wearing a helmet And my hands did not automatically go up to my head to save it. I was down before I had a chance to do that.
      It never occurred to anyone around me 60 or so years ago (parents, teachers or members of the household) when I was a 10 year old that a helmet was essential for riding my bike. Both myself and my friends crashed often, into each other and passing trees, verges and anything else available to crash into. Only one chap among us lost most of the sight in one eye – a branch popped out from a tree and got him with a direct hit. Of course he should have been wearing goggles.

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