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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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giff77 [1291 posts] 3 years ago
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nitram wrote:

He is plain wrong, would you drive a new car without airbags - no, I just a month ago would have died from a serious head injury if it were not for my helmet. Helmets are a not brainer.. excuse the pun. Martin McGrevy

My car is very old and has no air bags or any of the features that many vehicles have now days. I am of the opinion that driving skills have deteriated massively as a result of these new features. People rely hugely on the computer to control traction, braking etc. and also have a misguided perception that the air bags, crumple zones and roll cages are going to protect them. That's why we see idiots bombing up the motorway in torrential rain and zero visibility at 100mph. It's why we see the same idiots braking at the last minute.

The issue of safety on our roads is poor skills and behaviour towards other road users. NOT wearing Hi Viz and helmets - of which there is nothing wrong with. It's just that non-cyclists seem to think that this is the answer to road safety and is the easiest option rather than deal with the real issues which means upsetting the motoring lobby.

Boardman is correct in saying that the helmet debate is a red herring. Oh, and if you watch the TdF when Chris is talking about stages you see him wearing a helmet when on the road. So he is not anti-helmet

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teaboy [307 posts] 3 years ago
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To those advocating helmet use - do you also wear body armour? What about elbow and knee pads? Or motorbike leathers and a full-face helmet? After all, if you get hit by a car you'll be better off wearing it than not.

Boardman is absolutely correct - in every situation PPE is the last line in injury prevention after everything else has been done to remove the danger and reduce the impact of any potential injury. With cycling the danger comes from motor vehicles. Remove these by segregation by mode. Reduce the risk of injury by lowering motor vehicle speed where segregation is not possible or desirable.

It really isn't difficult to understand.

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Saintlymark [20 posts] 3 years ago
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Honestly, i get what Boardman is saying here (I get irritated myself by the constant call for hi viz clothing), but I myself feel much more confident on a bike with a helmet on, even when riding on empty streets, or off road. the point that bad driving is a menace is well made though and for me is a real issue. In my view the benefit of doubt in road crashes involving a bicycle should always rest with the motorised vehicle.

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OldRidgeback [2852 posts] 3 years ago
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nitram wrote:

He is plain wrong, would you drive a new car without airbags - no, I just a month ago would have died from a serious head injury if it were not for my helmet. Helmets are a not brainer.. excuse the pun. Martin McGrevy

Neither of my motorbikes have airbags. My current car does but the last one didn't. As for ABS, it doesn't work on ice or snow or diesel spills, which is when you need it most. A lot of this new car control technology encourages people to drive to the limits of their vehicle and not use key driving skills such as cadence braking or braking in a straight line. Increased vehicle performance and that fat twerp Jeremy Clarkson also encourage people to drive too fast for their ability or road conditions.

I wear a helmet when I'm racing my bicycle because I'm pushing the limits. But I don't bother when I'm on the road.

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Giles Pargiter [72 posts] 3 years ago
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Yep; the man is completely right.

Next step is to ban the term "cycle helmet" as a mis trade description and instead allow them to be called; hats for the neurotically paranoid.

Ban them from cycle shops. Sack the risk assessors at cycling events that insist on them, as not able to make evidence based risk assesments, and are therefore incompetent.

Ban them from road use as they endanger both the user and others by giving a fraudulent impression.

Just about the only thing that kills cyclists are motor vehicles.

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Jeemahn [10 posts] 3 years ago
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I wear a helmet not because it makes cycling safer but because (I believe) it makes crashing safer. My Giro Atmos definitely saved my skull (possibly my life) when I was hit by a van at speed.

Wouldn't drive without my seatbelt....
 26

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Lord Fishface [26 posts] 3 years ago
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mrmo wrote:

This is not about sport cycling, it is about utility cycling. For which helmets are not really an issue, certainly not as important as the space devoted to discussing them.

This is the key distinction. I'd be classified as a 'sport cyclist' (or, if you prefer, the recreational cycling I do would be called 'sport cycling', even when it's not competitive). I wear a helmet when I train and when I race. I also wear one when I'm cycling to barracks of a morning, trundling into town for the shopping, or out for a gentle jaunt with Mrs F. Why? Because I'm so used to doing so that I feel more comfortable with my trusty Giro Savant on my bonce, and because whether or not it is in the least effective, the opportunity cost to wearing it is zero. I also don't need to use my SPDs, nor do I need to be riding a lightweight CX racer, but still I do.

There shouldn't be in people's minds a binary pro- or anti- stance to helmet-wearing; we shouldn't, as Chris Boardman says, be talking about them at all. I - like the majority here - am against compulsory helmet legislation, and accept the evidence-based arguments that for most cyclists, a helmet is unnecessary. However, for the kinds of cycling some of us here do, wearing one is a worthwhile investment; doing so has certainly saved me a few times from what would otherwise have been a nasty knock on the head.

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BrianL51 [10 posts] 3 years ago
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People in cars suffer head injuries too. It's never (to my knowledge) been suggested that people in cars should have to wear "driving helmets". What a furore that would cause if it were seriously suggested!

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mbrads72 [222 posts] 3 years ago
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Ironic that a piece saying that the helmet debate distracts from the real issues then we go on to have a massive helmet debate...

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felixcat [486 posts] 3 years ago
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BrianL51 wrote:

People in cars suffer head injuries too. It's never (to my knowledge) been suggested that people in cars should have to wear "driving helmets". What a furore that would cause if it were seriously suggested!

Don't be too sure about that! There are driving helmets for normal motoring, and campaigns for them.

http://www.drivingwithoutdying.com/

http://drivetoworkday.org/2012/10/26/better-safe-than-sorry/

And, whilst I'm typing.

http://www.copenhagenize.com/2009/08/walking-helmet-is-good-helmet.html

Somehow driving and walking helmets don't seem to have caught on, though head injury rates are pretty similar to cyclists'.

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FBinNY [5 posts] 3 years ago
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I congratulate CB for trying to move the debate from helmets to other safety issues. Too much of the bicycle safety message in the USA and UK has been "wear a helmet" and not much else.

You'd think that helmets were magic amulets that could protect cyclists from the evil of accidents and injuries.

It's refreshing to hear someone suggest that maybe the focus should shift from reducing the injuries that result from accidents to preventing those accidents in the first place.

Let's hope this signals the start of a broad approach to improved safety through a variety of measures from infrastructure changes to rider and driver education.

fb

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mutron3k [1 post] 3 years ago
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How many racers died in the Tour de France, etc. in all the helmet-less years of racing - millions of kilometers? Not many if any. I'll keep mine on, even though it does mean it creates more inertia for my neck muscles to resist in a fall.

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bawheid [7 posts] 2 years ago
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Choices. The only time I've ever bashed my noodle was by hitting a heras panel fence at the bottom of a hill. I put a dent in it a good few inches deep, leading with my head. Other things hurt more, but the lack of a helmet resulted in a really interesting cross-hatched pattern in my scalp. No recommended and now, like most Iwear a helmet when I'm furious and don't when I'm not.

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Condor flyer [50 posts] 2 years ago
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Absolutely spot on, Chris.  Before the age of the helmet cycling was never considered to be a dangerous activity.

 

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andyp [1555 posts] 2 years ago
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kevinmorice wrote:

I am on the list of "helmet saved my life" people

 

No such list exists. HTH.

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robgt [1 post] 2 years ago
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Chris Boardman visibly/certainly has not had himself a bike accident where he hit his head, I have had such an experience when I was young, and I am sure that i want always to wear a helmet when I go cycling! Of course there are many things that can be done also besides wearing a good helmet to improve security for cycling, but when your head hits the cement there is only 1 thing that can still protect then: a good helmet.  1 and although such accidents are rare, they need to happen only once to have very grave consequences, so we must encourage cyclists to wear helmets definitely, and of course work on improving all the other aspects of the cycling environment to make cycling as safe as possible also as much as we can.  Best regards.
 

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andyp [1555 posts] 2 years ago
1 like
robgt wrote:

Chris Boardman visibly/certainly has not had himself a bike accident where he hit his head
 

 

 

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/special_report/1998/07/98/tour_de_france/1319...

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giff77 [1291 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes
robgt wrote:

Chris Boardman visibly/certainly has not had himself a bike accident where he hit his head, I have had such an experience when I was young, and I am sure that i want always to wear a helmet when I go cycling! Of course there are many things that can be done also besides wearing a good helmet to improve security for cycling, but when your head hits the cement there is only 1 thing that can still protect then: a good helmet.  1 and although such accidents are rare, they need to happen only once to have very grave consequences, so we must encourage cyclists to wear helmets definitely, and of course work on improving all the other aspects of the cycling environment to make cycling as safe as possible also as much as we can.  Best regards.
 

 

Might be better teaching folk how to balance on their bikes if you ask me, as so many seem to be prone to falling off. 

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