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British Cycling policy advisor says it's time to stop distracting helmet arguments and concentrate on real safety issues...

British Cycling policy advisor Chris Boardman says it’s time for the cycling community to put the debate about mandatory cycle helmets to bed and get across the message that helmet use is one of the least important cycling safety measures.

Even talking about making helmets mandatory “massively puts people off” cycling, Boardman said, and likened the culture of helmet use among keen cyclists to people wearing body armour because they have got used to being shot at.

Talking to road.cc at the London Bike Show, Boardman said, “I think the helmet issue is a massive red herring. It’s not even in the top 10 of things you need to do to keep cycling safe or more widely, save the most lives.”

You’re being shot at, put on body armour

Boardman returned to an analogy he has made before, and which even he admits is a bit melodramatic, though it gets the point across

“It’s a bit like saying ‘people are sniping at you going down this street, so put some body armour on,’” he said.

Government encouragement to wear helmets was therefore “a big campaign to get people to wear body armour, by the people who should be stopping the shooting.”

Widespread use of helmets, he said, sends the wrong message.

“Once you see somebody wearing body armour, even if there’s no shooting, you think ‘Christ I’m not going down there if they’re wearing body armour to go down that street.’ It scares people off.”

There’s a better solution to the problem of cycle safety, Boardman said. In the Netherlands, just 0.8 percent of cyclists wear helmets yet the Dutch have the lowest rate of cycling head injury, thanks to segregated cycling infrastructure. Thirty percent of journeys in the Netherlands are made by bike, he said, and 50 percent of children’s journey to school.

”The best way to deal with [the head injury issue] is what the Dutch have done,” he said. “Where you have the Highest rate of helmet use, you also have the highest rate of head injury: us and the US.”

Yet there’s also an almost-fanatical, knee-jerk devotion to helmet use among enthusiast and sporting cyclists.

Boardman said: “People who are wearing body armour get used to being shot at, when it’s the getting shot at that’s the problem.”

A distraction

Talking about helmets had become a time-consuming distraction, he said. “We’ve got to tackle the helmet debate head on because it’s so annoying,” he said. “It gets a disproportionate amount of coverage. When you have three minutes and someone asks ‘Do you wear a helmet’ you know the vast majority of your time when you could be talking about stuff that will make a difference, is gone.”

He said the focus on helmets had made cycling seem more dangerous than it really is.

“We’ve gone away from the facts,” he said. “We’ve gone to anecdotes. It’s like shark attacks - more people are killed building sandcastles than are killed by sharks. It’s just ludicrous that the facts aren’t matching up with the actions because the press focus, naturally, on the news stories, and [the notion that cycling is dangerous] becomes the norm, and it isn’t the norm.

“You can ride a thousand times round the planet for each cycling death. You are safer than gardening.”

Cycling’s image

Like many cycling advocates, Boardman wants to see cycling presented as a normal, everyday activity.

“I saw two people riding down the hill to my village. One person coming down the hill to go for the train in high-viz, helmet on.

“A few moments later another guy came down, in shirt sleeves, with a leather bag on his back, just riding his bike to the station.

“Which one of those makes me want to [ride]?”

Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.

Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.

Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.

The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.

198 comments

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anarchy [100 posts] 3 years ago
3 likes

Well said Chris

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kitkat [441 posts] 3 years ago
4 likes

totally the correct approach. Helmets are a reaction to the problem not the solution to the problem

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usedtobefaster [197 posts] 3 years ago
2 likes

Why o why can't we have more people in power in this country with this sort of pragmatic outlook ?

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Mendip James [39 posts] 3 years ago
1 like

The more comment I hear from Boardman the more I believe he needs to be our cycling Tsar, good lad

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Alexbb [7 posts] 3 years ago
1 like

I really agree with that. Helmet most strongly advocated by people who don't ride bikes that often. I think it is time that calm common sense prevails.

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Critchio [227 posts] 3 years ago
1 like

Hes certainly on the money, he needs an official government position with lots of clout.

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Shades [331 posts] 3 years ago
1 like

Good points. I think back to when I cycled to school in the 80s; didn't know what helmets or high viz was. What's changed? Some parallels to the ski helmet debate here. Everyone's wearing them but the overall skiing injury statistics say they haven't made a difference.

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allez neg [496 posts] 3 years ago
1 like

I cycled to school in the 80s too, cranially naked. Must be said though, there's a fuckload of extra traffic, with more distracted drivers too, and a different culture and attitude to risk.

I agree with CB though.

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SevenHills [234 posts] 3 years ago
1 like

Boardman for Prime Minister  41

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700c [1127 posts] 3 years ago
1 like

To be clear, he is anti mandatory helmet wearing, not anti helmet wearing per se. (would be hypocritical of him if he was, given the fact that he sells them!)

He is also rightly pointing out that the helmet focus should not be used as an excuse for our road safety.

So I wholeheartedly agree, just don't spin this to support a different agenda!

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Goldfever4 [233 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes

Good points. I think back to when I cycled to school in the 80s; didn't know what helmets or high viz was. What's changed?quote]

1) Mobile phones
2) More cars and more school-run mums
3) Bigger bendier buses
4) More complicated road junctions
5) More stressy commuters
6) etc etc etc

N.B. I'm pro helmet but not pro-forcing their use.

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oozaveared [934 posts] 3 years ago
1 like

I agree that the debate needs to be on the back burner. But we all need to keep pointing out that helmets are somewhat useful when you fall off your bike say when mountainbiking or when in a competitive race. They are only rated for 50 joules of impact so provide more of a protection agaist scrapes and cuts than impact. The best ones brand new get you about 75 joules.

They are completely useless in providing impact protection for your head if you are hit by a car. In that case the force being applied is 40,000 joules and upwards. (that's a smart with a small passenger car doing 22mph)

Make it a range Rover with family in it doing 40mph and that 500,000 joules against your 50 joules of protection.

Like I said if you come off in a sprint finish it will save you a nasty cut and a graze. That's what it is for.

Let's all keep pointing that out to people shall we?

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KGoslan [1 post] 3 years ago
1 like

Well...I'd have died 3 days before Christmas if I didn't have a helmet on...try telling me they're a bad idea.

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zanf [920 posts] 3 years ago
2 likes
KGoslan wrote:

Well...I'd have died 3 days before Christmas if I didn't have a helmet on...try telling me they're a bad idea.

That is what is known within scientific circles as "anecdotal evidence" and is of very little value.

You may as well have said, "Helmets are a good idea because a bloke down the pub said!".

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mrmo [2093 posts] 3 years ago
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KGoslan wrote:

Well...I'd have died 3 days before Christmas if I didn't have a helmet on...try telling me they're a bad idea.

Prove the helmet saved your life.

you crashed, you were wearing a helmet, those are definites.

Now did the helmet hinder, help, make a difference no one knows, it may have prevented a few scrapes but that is about all you can say.

I crashed a few weeks back whilst wearing a helmet landed on my face, glasses cut into my cheek. S*** happens.

If you want to prove the helmet saved your life i suggest you repeat the experiment this time without a helmet on, remember you must not adjust your riding style or speed, you must arrange for all parties to be exactly the same, same time of day, location of clouds etc.

In science you repeat experiments before you draw a conclusion.

* note the bit where he says countries with higher helmet wearing levels also have higher levels of head trauma. Causation or coincidence? Does making a helmet mean you are more likely to get a head injury than not wearing a helmet.....

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Nellyhelly [3 posts] 3 years ago
1 like

I'm glad you were wearing a helmet and it saved you from injury. I wear a helmet and always will, and I make my kids wear them as well. If others chose not to though, that's their business as far as i am concerned.

However, Chris doesn't say they are a bad idea, which is what you suggest. He just says that they aren't as important as more fundamental improvements to cycling infrastructure and that they have assumed an entirely disproportionate significance to the cycling safety debate.

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MrGear [86 posts] 3 years ago
1 like
KGoslan wrote:

Well...I'd have died 3 days before Christmas if I didn't have a helmet on...try telling me they're a bad idea.

My colleague is off work long-term sick because she slipped and bumped her head at the office party. If only she'd been wearing a helmet...

Seriously though, you and I have made the choice to wear helmets. However, I reserve the right to NOT be criminalised should I choose not to one day for whatever reason.

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msw [113 posts] 3 years ago
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KGoslan wrote:

Well...I'd have died 3 days before Christmas if I didn't have a helmet on...try telling me they're a bad idea.

The same probably goes for me last year, but that's not the debate and not what Boardman seems to be saying - like a few other people round here it seems I wear a helmet but am against making it mandatory.

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oldstrath [771 posts] 3 years ago
1 like
KGoslan wrote:

Well...I'd have died 3 days before Christmas if I didn't have a helmet on...try telling me they're a bad idea.

Well... you don't actually know that. And he isn't trying to stop you, or anyone else, wearing a helmet. He's simply pointing out the rather obvious facts that; first, there are vastly more important safety gains to be had than can be made by compelling helmet use; and second, focusing on the danger of cycling does nothing to get people out of cars and on to bikes.

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dave atkinson [6301 posts] 3 years ago
2 likes
KGoslan wrote:

Well...I'd have died 3 days before Christmas if I didn't have a helmet on...try telling me they're a bad idea.

were you a nine-year-old girl cycling to school at that point? or a granny on her way to the shops?

probably not, i'm going to take a punt and guess that you're a fairly fit adult male and you were on a road bike of some description. apologies if i've missed the mark there.

the voices that cry, 'look at me i could have died' are predominantly from that demographic. and this really isn't about them. at all. those people will cycle anyway, and are used to taking the precautions they deem necessary. the people who are missing from bikes in the UK are kids, and grannies, and 'normal' people who'd like to cycle but can't because they feel the conditions are too dangerous, which is completely understandable. no amount of helmet complusion is going to get them cycling. It'll cut their numbers even further.

it is, like chris says, a massive red herring. it won't make for safe cycling for normal people. because those people won't cycle if cycling is deemed sufficiently dangerous for a helmet to be mandated. isn't that obvious? it is to me.

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Metjas [362 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes

can we see the video of your interview with CB?

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ChairRDRF [356 posts] 3 years ago
1 like

As usual, Chris Boardman is absolutely correct in trying to get debate back to what it should be about, and correct at pointing out what a massive red herring helmets are.

Unfortunately, as some comments above indicate, being sensible is not what helmet advocacy is about. There needs to be a more forceful reference to the evidence to show what the problems of helmet advocacy, let alone compulsion, can be. I have a stab here: http://rdrf.org.uk/2013/12/27/the-effects-of-new-zealands-cycle-helmet-l...

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dodgy [223 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes

Your use of capitals and american terms to signal the end of a sentence convinces me.

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septic77 [4 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes

UNTIL WE HAVE SEGREGATED ROADS LIKE HOLLAND (ie never!) THEN HELMETS MUST BE WORN

I have fallen & broken 3-4 helmets in recent years, but NOT BROKEN MY SKULL YET

Cav has fallen & broken several helmets BUT NOT BROKEN HIS SKULL YET!

IF YOU WANT TO SMASH your skull instead of a cheap replacement plastic 'head thing' go ahead, be foolish, and don't wear one - but on the current dangerous UK roads (Cars and appaling 'third world' pot holes etc) it makes sense to wear one.....PERIOD

Clive

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kevinmorice [142 posts] 3 years ago
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I am on the list of "helmet saved my life" people, so I agree that there should be no further discussion about helmet use. It should be the law. No debate from me on that much.

Car insurance increases driver carelessness, but it is still the law to have it. Drunk driving isn't in the top-10 causes of car accidents, but again, it is illegal.

And to stick with the drunk driving example as a much better example than his shooting analogy. It is easy to measure, easy to enforce, and it can be fixed relatively simply by peer pressure.

The rest of his top-10 are all multi-million pound fixes in road or vehicle design, or practically impossible like changing driver culture.

PS Anyone put off riding a bike by being told to wear a helmet was actively looking for an excuse not to ride.

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rich22222 [166 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes

Not wearing a helmet saved my life today. I wasn't wearing one, and I'm alive.

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oldstrath [771 posts] 3 years ago
2 likes
septic77 wrote:

UNTIL WE HAVE SEGREGATED ROADS LIKE HOLLAND (ie never!) THEN HELMETS MUST BE WORN

I have fallen & broken 3-4 helmets in recent years, but NOT BROKEN MY SKULL YET

Cav has fallen & broken several helmets BUT NOT BROKEN HIS SKULL YET!

IF YOU WANT TO SMASH your skull instead of a cheap replacement plastic 'head thing' go ahead, be foolish, and don't wear one - but on the current dangerous UK roads (Cars and appaling 'third world' pot holes etc) it makes sense to wear one.....PERIOD

Clive

Fine, wear a helmet, no one is stopping you. But the shouting isn't useful, really.

By the way, I've also fallen of a few times in 40 years of cycling - 0 broken skulls and 0 broken helmets. Not convinced this proves anything at all, but my anecdote is surely as good as yours.

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kevinmorice [142 posts] 3 years ago
1 like

Actually in many of his debates he does say they are a bad idea. He quotes statistics from other road systems and cultures where they have less accidents and no helmets as being proof that helmets 'cause' accidents. He claims that drivers treat helmeted riders differently and consequently take less care.

And on the subject of not caring about whether other cyclists wear helmets. What if you are the driver that he rides in front of, or the first person on the scene that has to give first aid? Would you rather deal with a mild concussion and some broken bones, a crushed skull or a corpse?

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kevinmorice [142 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes

Not shagging your mum today saved my life. Won't stop me trying it tomorrow.

Same logic.

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oldstrath [771 posts] 3 years ago
0 likes
kevinmorice wrote:

I am on the list of "helmet saved my life" people, so I agree that there should be no further discussion about helmet use. It should be the law. No debate from me on that much.

Car insurance increases driver carelessness, but it is still the law to have it. Drunk driving isn't in the top-10 causes of car accidents, but again, it is illegal.

And to stick with the drunk driving example as a much better example than his shooting analogy. It is easy to measure, easy to enforce, and it can be fixed relatively simply by peer pressure.

The rest of his top-10 are all multi-million pound fixes in road or vehicle design, or practically impossible like changing driver culture.

PS Anyone put off riding a bike by being told to wear a helmet was actively looking for an excuse not to ride.

Yes, demanding that cyclists wear helmets is indeed easier than fixing our roads, or building cycle routes, or persuading people to drive less and more carefully. Just a shame there's bugger all evidence that it works.

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