Bicycle Helmets: A Controversial Treatise

As the corner approached rapidly, I started to slow my superleggera racing bike to an appropriate speed to kiss the apex whilst maintaining an modicum of control to avoid the wheel swallowing potholes and the various medium sized rocks littering the little Lincolnshire back road. I was tired; I’d spent the past 2 hours expending vast amounts of energy to maintain 5 watts/kg over periods of 20 minutes whilst being buffeted by uncommonly strong easterly winds. My deep section rims only added to this fatigue.

The remaining 200m stretch which lay between me and the corner was the perfect place to take a drink, the last dregs of electrolyte solution from my bidon. I would be home soon, I could afford to finish the bottle. I drank the solution, holding the bottle with my right hand. My left hand resting on the left hood of my handlebar, gently pulling the brake lever in an effort to reach the corner at the perfect speed for aesthetic cornering.

I was going too quickly; not to make the corner safely, but to finish the drink before starting my turn. I made a split second decision; instead of putting the bottle back, I would continue to hydrate whilst controlling the bike through the corner with my left hand. I have made this manoeuvre plenty of times; it is part of bike racing, rehydrating whenever you get a chance: when you’re riding solo in a break, or in the middle of a wildly chaotic group of 60 riders at the start of a race. This time, like every other time, I reached the corner, a sharp right hand turn. I stopped pedalling, keeping my left pedal at 6 o’clock, my right pedal high with no danger of colliding with the rough surface. I put my weight through my left pedal and through my left arm and shifted my weight into the corner.

I glided round the corner and prepared for the remainder of my ride.

I’m alone; I’ve seen 5 riders all day.

I start pedalling as soon as I have straightened up from the corner, and then simultaneously finish my drink, the last time I can hydrate on this ride, 30 minutes from home. I reach down to put the bottle back in the cage. My bottle is leaking slightly from the neck, a product of a bumpy road continually shaking the contents; consequently the plastic is slippy to the point that at the worse possible moment, the bottle slips from my grasp. I see the bottle bounce forwards, and then sideways right into the path of my fast spinning aero spokes. My front wheel, the leading edge of the control chain of my bicycle veered uncontrollably to the right, and instantaneously I was thrown forwards from the bike. My shoes released from the clipless pedals as I was mid-air, my left foot, then right. This started the spiral and I hit the ground on my back, my pelvis and lower spine hitting first causing a wave to propagate along my body resulting in my head slamming into the ground. All of this happened in a single uncontrollable instant. I blacked out for a moment, perhaps from shock as much as from the impact.

Eventually I managed to stand and moved my bike to the grass verge at the side of the road where I just sat and cried. This emotion was the start of a trend which lasted for a month; the severe coming together of head and ground did more than physically shake me. It hurt me psychologically; each time I moved my head or rested on the pillow at night, a deep ache reminded me of the accident and of the uncontrollability of my emotions. Anyone who has experienced a head trauma will attest this; James Cracknell, an outspoken advocate of helmets experienced a deeply disturbing change in mental state following his collision with a truck wing mirror in the USA.

I was wearing a helmet at the time of my crash; had I not, the fall would have been unsurvivable. Data from my Garmin shows that I rounded the corner at 12 mph, and didn’t accelerate prior to the crash. This is a slow speed in terms of cycling, even commuters in a busy city will hit 15-25mph. Yet in my crash, I was the only person on the road, there were (fortunately) no cars, no other dangers other than my own ability to make an error. After the crash my helmet was entirely destryoed, the open cracks started from the back and moved forwards all the way through the EPS foam, a stark reminder of the violence of a fall from only 6ft above the ground.

I want to provide an unbiased argument for both sides of the helmet debate, however each time I try, I can only conclude that the forward thinking people aiming to promote cycling to all without the use of these restrictive head protectors are marketing a solution the UK and majority of the cycling world simply isn’t ready for. Chris Boardman is one such advocate, driven by the desire to entirely separate motorised vehicles from bicycles. The thinking behind this position is the predominant danger to cyclists is motorised transport, and so this side stands behind the prevention, not the cure. The elementary argument that motor vehicles are the predominant danger to cyclists is true, however the rest of the argument is simply flawed on two levels. The first being the aforementioned elephant in the room, that currently, unlike much of the Netherlands, the cycling world isn’t segregated from the rest of the traffic. The second reason is even if a country manages to achieve complete separation of motorised and non-motorised vehicles, those marketing the sport, especially those targeting newcomers and young riders have a duty of care and a responsibility to advocate safe riding. A segregation of traffic will do so much good for the sport of cycling, however whilst the sport takes place on tarmac and concrete, there will always be an inherent danger which is far beyond that of sports such as running in which participants typically move far slower, at a lower comparative head height and with much more chance of arresting a fall safely. For a falling cyclist even at the slowest speeds, a broken collarbone is often the best case scenario.

Whilst it’s good to get a sense of progression and to look to the future, for this case we must maintain a good understanding of the present. The analogy might be akin to investing in safety equipment and procedures for flying cars when in reality, 99.999% of the world’s population drive vehicles which rest firmly on the ground. Investing in advances to bike and car separation therefore must be made in proportion to the number of people who are affected by the current cycling networks.

We can remove the possibility of vehicle separation for now, so let’s focus on the remaining factors. Proponents of riding without a helmet will often cite accessibility as one of the main drawbacks against the use of helmets.¬†Chris Boardman said in an interview¬†that if you took two riders going to work, one in high-viz and a helmet, the other in a shirt and trousers, which is more likely to persuade you to take up cycling? Of course, the fashion conscious cyclist may look suave and with an air of panache, but this seemingly well-reasoned statement is iniquitous. Take climbing for instance; would you be more likely to take up climbing if you saw a pair of climbers ascending a rock face without the protection of a rope? Most likely not, but you may think this example is too extreme, so take bouldering, climbing’s ground level brother. Would you be more likely to take up the sport if you saw someone bouldering without a safety mat? Only the misguided would take up the sport on these grounds. In climbing, the danger is the ground (courtesy of gravity); in cycling, the comparable danger is the car (often followed by the ground). Whilst the ground continues to be a danger in the sport of climbing, a rope is generally always used. The same logic should therefore be applied to cycling: you can remove the car danger yet you will always have the risk of a fall.

The previous statements are from my own anecdotal evidence, but they are analogous with the statistics. New York city issued a statement on their bicycle safety study which concluded that almost three-quarters of fatal crashes (74%) involved a head injury and nearly all bicyclists who died (97%) were not wearing a helmet. As you would expect, the majority (92%) of cyclist deaths in New York were as a result of impact with a motor vehicle, however for me, the shocking analysis from that data set is the 8% of cycling deaths which occurred without collision with a motor vehicle. This is a huge number given that a cyclist would be extremely unfortunate to be killed in any other situation than a motor vehicle impact if they were wearing a helmet. Some of these 8% may have been wearing a helmet, however we can infer that the majority were not since only 3% of cyclists who died were wearing a helmet. Finally, a study from 2016 looking at North America showed that over the past few years, no more than 17% of fatally injured bicyclists were wearing helmets.

Whilst it is purported that helmets decrease the risk of cycling fatalities by 50%, the reality is that a truly accurate figure doesn’t yet exist and would be difficult to measure. What we can say from this data is that whilst the majority of fatalities occurred as a result of motor vehicles (an expected result from one of the world’s largest cities), the comparatively high number of fatalities without motor vehicle involvement is truly surprising.

It is true that bikes must be separate from motorised vehicles if real improvements to the safety of cycling are to be made, however the non-use of helmets cannot be used to prop up the debate. To encourage cyclists to ride without a helmet or to take up the sport because a helmet is not needed, whilst simultaneously lobbying the government from the position: ‘cyclists are not wearing helmets, therefore traffic must be separated’ is legerdemain; traffic must be separated whether cyclists choose to wear a helmet or not. If a cyclist is killed or severely injured on a road after a collision with a car, it is only natural that one of the first questions that is asked is: ‘was the cyclist wearing a helmet’ which is often followed up with: ‘did the cyclist have adequate lights’ in the case of a night time accident.

There is a large amount of unjustified anger thrown around by both the cycling and driving community and an equal amount of misguided frustration, usually attacking non tax paying cyclists (now a misnomer) whilst forgetting that the majority of cyclists also own a car or van. I am sure that cyclists would begrudgingly pay a road tax fee just as drivers, myself included, begrudgingly pay their share of road tax; both groups will still share the same difficulties including trying and failing to avoid backbreaking potholes. As long as the same road space is shared by all forms of transport, users must be courteous. Fortunately however, this segment is not hugely important to the helmet debate since only a minority of cyclist deaths come at the hands of intentional road rage. Often a driver’s anger is from their need to slow down to pass the cyclists, not the embarrassing need to wipe the bloodstains off the bonnet whilst in the work car park.

There is a lot to be said for the danger ratio of the two modes of transport; yes, groups of cyclists may slow drivers for a few moments, even a few minutes; however it only takes one car, bus or lorry to take a human life. Regardless, the key point for now is that we must remember that roads, especially in the UK, are shared resources; drive a car as if your son or daughter is cycling in front of you, and cycle with the same responsibility as if you were setting an example of road safety to those same children. And remember that as users of the road network, we are not only responsible for our actions, we are also accountable for them.

As for the times I haven’t worn a helmet on the bike, it has always been when I am rushing for work. I step over and onto the bike, push away from the garage and instantly feel naked and unprotected. I realise to my horror that in my haste, I have forgotten to grab a helmet, and instantly run back into the house to both set myself at ease, and show the drivers whom I am sharing the road with that I am trying to be as safe as I can be, in the hope they might acknowledge my responsible efforts before passing safely on their journey.