COMMENT: Helmets are a distraction to safer cyclingComment, Featured Updates Saturday, March 19th, 2011
What’s the difference between the first cyclist and the last two in this video?
Helmets? High-vis? No. Firstly, the second two are lacking lights and, just as important secondly, is road positioning. The first cyclist takes a far better road position — he cycles in a straight line, following the road how other traffic does. He keeps away from the kerb and also stays away from the parked van’s doors.
The last two cyclists make the mistake common to many of Dublin’s cyclists — they follow the kerb rather than following the road like the rest of the traffic. This leads them to swerve out at the last minute as the road narrows to make way for the parked cars.
The potential danger here is that motorists may not give them the room to swerve out (in this case, that taxi shown beside them acts correctly by giving them space). Both also failed to look behind them or over their shoulders — a basic skill for cyclists pulling out or changing lanes.
This road is by far not the best designed for cyclists, but cyclists need to take responsibility for how they cycle.
“Hugging the kerb” or cycling on top of double yellow lines is generally a poor way of cycling. A key part of cycling training is road positioning and cyclists are recommended to keep well away from the kerb. Cyclists may feel like they are safer closer to the side of the road, but that’s more often than not untrue.
When cycling too close to the footpath with traffic beside you, you can’t avoid potholes, open or damaged drain covers, or people walking off the footpath. In the same way as if you keep cycling close to a parked car you’ll get “doored” sooner or later.
The issues of whether to wear helmets and high-vis or not is a distraction. At one end of the scale it’s a distraction to improving the skills of cyclists and drivers, while at the other end it’s a distraction to providing better conditions for cyclists.
All this gear also makes cycling look dangerous, and this slows down the process of getting more people on bicycles (cycling is not dangerous, we’ll deal with this later).
It may seem strange. But by far the most proven way to make cycling safer is to increase the amount of people cycling. It’s called safety in numbers. The more cyclists on the road, the less accidents. The more people cycle, the more motorists are aware of cyclists, expect cyclists and the more likely that motorists are cyclists or know cyclists, so treat them better.
Unlike cycling helmets, safety in numbers has been proven time and time again. If you want to make cycling safer — get more people to cycle. Don’t waste valuable time promoting helmets or high-vis (promote lights if you want to promote safety gear for cyclists).
Compared to safety in numbers, the benefits of cycle helmets is highly disputed and there’s even some scientific papers which say wearing helmets could do more harm for various reasons. Pro-helmet research is flawed beyond belief as it makes no distinction between off-road mountain biking and urban commuting, or between a racer at 50km/h and a middle aged woman at 15km/h. Even the authors of some of the strongest pro-helmet research no longer stand by all of their claims (others continue to repeat them).
Helmets are clearly a distraction from safer cycling. Like a long line of people before him — cyclists or not — a former garda wrote into The Irish Times this week saying helmets should be “promoted as strongly as possible.” He said:
“It is not correct to say that cycling is “not dangerous” as there are times when cycling does involve risk and cyclists do sometimes suffer serious injuries and even death as a result of becoming involved in accidents. While Mr Mordaunt [a previous letter writer] may be a very skilful cyclist and capable of safely cycling without the use of a helmet, many others, including myself, may not be so skilled.”
“I recently had cause to be grateful that I was wearing a cycling helmet, when I struck a bad pothole and fell from my bike while cycling on a main road. I had a heavy fall from the bike, suffering injury to my shoulder and hip, and in the process struck my helmeted head hard on the tarmacadam surface. I dread to think what my injuries might have been had I not been wearing the helmet.”
Again, we’ll deal with how safe cycling is below…
By his own admission, he “may not be so skilled” of a cyclist; why then is a helmet so important? Should he not look at improving his cycling and learn to avoid potholes? This recent of many letters written into The Irish Times were linked to an article on cycling training. They seemed to miss the point of the article — safe cycling is about skill more than safety gear.
As the cycling instructor in the article says — cycling is safe.
The above letter writer says “there are times when cycling does involve risk”, that’s true about nearly everything in life. Not only is it comparably safer than some household tasks, but the health benefits of cycling outweigh any risks by as much 20 to 1 (source below*).
Urban cycling — which makes up most commutes — is safer than you’d think. Between 1998 and 2008, rural cycling accounted for 75 or 52% of cyclist deaths in Ireland. Overall deaths have been decreasing; cyclists accounted for 4.6% of people killed on Irish roads in 1998, but only 2.9% in 2002. In Dublin where more people cycle than anywhere in the State, cyclists deaths in urban and rural areas have been in single figures for over a decade.
For most of that time, deaths in Dublin have been in the low single digits. Statistically, the figures are so low that not much can be inferred from them, but there is no sign of an increasing trend in deaths when the number of people cycling has increased in recent years.
Helmets are a distraction. Between 2002 and 2006, 73% of fatal accidents in Dublin were caused by left turning heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) — a figure which could have been vastly improved by better training for cyclists and drivers, and cyclops mirrors for HGVs. Helmets do not help when people are crushed by trucks – cyclops mirrors do. Yet there have been very few calls for mandatory cyclops mirrors for trucks.
And if helmets were needed in cyclist-only crashes, then we’d see large amounts of cyclist injuries and deaths in Denmark and the Netherlands where there are many cyclists, very few of whom use helmets. But the opposite is seen in those countries.
Calls for cyclists to wear helmets are not based on evidence. Such calls are based on emotion and people’s feelings that cycling is more dangerous than it is.
Getting more people cycling to work, college and school can be used as a tool to tackle one of our greatest health problems — obesity. But it goes far beyond that; cycling and walking can lower the risks of cancer, diabetes, heart diseases, strokes, and even depression (source).
A large modal share increase of cycling has even more widespread health benefits. This is important to Dublin given recent increasing air quality problems directly linked to emissions from motorised traffic and the acute noise problem Dublin has from traffic.
But with emotion, not evidence pushing the agenda, helmets are likely to continue to be an issue for some time to come.
* Source: British Medical Association. Cycling: towards health and safety. Oxford Univ P, 1992
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