James Cracknell says Aussie helmet laws may have helped saved his life

Ex-rower injured in US accident in July talks about long-term effects of accident

by Simon_MacMichael   January 8, 2011  

James Cracknell race across America

Olympic champion rower James Cracknell has been talking about the lasting effects of the accident last July when he was hit by a truck while cycling in the United States which may have left him with permanent brain damage, and says that Australia’s compulsory bicycle helmet law may have helped save his life.

The 38-year-old, who won gold in the coxless fours at Sydney in 2000 and again in Athens four years later, was struck by the wing mirror of a petrol tanker on 20 July in Arizona as he filmed a documentary covering his attempt to travel across the country by cycling, rowing, running and swimming.

Although the rower-turned-adventurer was wearing a helmet – a habit the lifelong cyclists says he only acquired while cycling in Australia as part of his training for the 2000 Olympics, due to the legal requirement to wear one there – Cracknell suffered a double brain fracture in the incident, which also caused bleeding on the brain.

His injuries resulted in him spending more than two months in hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, where he amazed doctors with the speed of his recovery, before being allowed to return home to Britain last September.

Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, for which both he and his wife, TV personality Beverley Turner, are columnists, Cracknell revealed, “I get annoyed by things that never used to bother me; I need much more sleep; my facial recognition and time-keeping can be poor, and I have a very black and white view of the world."

Reflecting on the accident itself, he said: "Despite being lit up like a Christmas tree, I was knocked off my bike by a petrol tanker just outside Winslow in Arizona.

"The truck’s wing mirror hit me on the back of the head, enough impact was absorbed by the helmet to leave me with “only” two skull fractures, a head full of staples and bleeding to the frontal lobes of the brain – the area that controls personality, concentration, motivation, planning and decision-making.

"It has been a frustrating five months and we still don’t know to what extent my brain will repair itself.”

Cracknell is aware that the accident could have been fatal. "I’m lucky to be alive,” he admitted. “The helmet that bore the brunt was a lightweight, carbon-reinforced Alpina Pheos. The quick actions of the ambulance crew saved my life," adding, for the sake of clarity, "I don’t have a commercial relationship with the manufacturer, by the way."

Undaunted by his experience, Cracknell says that he continues to ride his bike, although he now factors in longer journey times, wears brighter clothes and rides along quieter roads, insisting, . "I won’t let it change my life any more than it already
 

21 user comments

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So glad to hear a sensible comment on helmets. There was a news story a few years back saying that helmets made no difference - based on quoting medical statistics that showed that in the worst vehicle versus cyclists fatalities the helmet wouldn't have saved the cyclist -rather than analysing the thousands of cases where it did. Akin to not bothering with a lifejacket ad the ship goes down 'as it looks silly and won't save me anyway'. From personal experience of being extremely lucky and getting away with three days concussion after a helmetless crash in 1992 I have always worn a helmet since. To my mind there are two sorts if cyclist who don't wear them: those that haven't crashed without one yet - and those that have landed on their head too much...

Silly me. You're probably right....

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posted by MercuryOne [1048 posts]
8th January 2011 - 12:32

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Very pleased to hear of James' continued recovery. However the incident is really no case for compulsory helmet laws. If the driver was at fault why is the response to force the cyclist to protect himself from the mistakes of drivers? Evidence shows that in the majority of vehicle-cyclist collision the driver is mainly to blame. Plus the cycle helmet was not designed for this collision with a motor vehicle, if the onus is on the cyclist to protect themselves from cars by wearing helmets then surely they should be motorcycle type. If James had been wearing a motorcycle helmet I suspect he would have had less serious injuries.

Surely it should be a choice based on risk. If you are undertaking a grueling event across a continent where you are likely to be tired and pushing yourself, then the risk of accident is elevated therefore it makes sense to wear a helmet. However the thought that an old dear pedaling half a mile to the shops should be forced to wear one not based on any sense or evidence and is wrong.

posted by DNAse [22 posts]
8th January 2011 - 13:02

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Whilst agreeing that a case hasn't been made for the overall benefits of compulsory cycle helmets don't think that "an old dear pedaling half a mile to the shops" isn't at increased risk without a helmet. I watched my girlfriend cycle less than a hundred yards up the road at around five miles per hour, turn awkwardly despite being a relatively experienced cyclist and die from the resulting brain injuries. The coroner was sure a helmet would have saved her life.

Feel free to make your own choice but don't think that low speed and even a complete absence of surrounding traffic don't merit any protection. A pedestrian falling backwards onto their head could suffer similar injuries and several street and even one supermarket queue fight recently ended up the same way. No we shouldn't wear helmets permanently, but on a bicycle even the simplest of mistakes or unexpected situations can cause your loved ones to wish you had taken that simple extra precaution.

posted by Gashead [29 posts]
8th January 2011 - 14:37

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I have worn a helmet for a LONG time, 87/88ish. I am all for helmet use but not compulsion.

I have to say I feel the comment that it was only Australia's compulsory laws that saved JC's life to be somewhat disingenuous. He's basically admitting that if he hadn't been forced to wear one he hasn't the common sense to decide to wear one. I think this says more about him than it does about the helmet compulsion debate.

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posted by bikeandy61 [386 posts]
8th January 2011 - 15:53

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We have to accept that there are always risks present in life and there will never be a way to completely eliminate tragedies from happening. But I think it is important to keep things in perspective and not make knee jerk decisions based on tragic but infrequent events. I completely understand how a tragedy would have a fundamental impact on one's thinking. Cycling however remains a safe activity.

As pointed out, very many pedestrians suffer serious head injuries and DFT data shows that pedestrians (and drivers) suffer proportionately more head injuries than cyclists. However there is no call for pedestrians to wear helmets despite the fact that it would save hundreds of lives per year. Indeed my grand mother was hospitalized from head injuries when she fell walking to the shops. When she was treated in hospital the doctor did not suggest that she should have been wearing a helmet despite the fact that it would have certainly prevented the injuries. However when I was taken to hospital with a wrist injury after being knocked off by a car (drivers fault) the doctor asked why I wasn't wearing a helmet despite the fact that it would have made no difference to the injuries she was treating me for.

I put my case not to wear a helmet cycling to the shops the same as I put my case not to wear a helmet walking to the shops - the risks are pretty much the same, not zero but low enough. However I actively choose to wear a helmet when I am riding off road and riding fast in a group on road because the risks are demonstrably greater.

posted by DNAse [22 posts]
8th January 2011 - 16:00

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I think its a bit daft to say "the helmet saved my life" without knowing the full facts of forensic analysis of the collision. This is rarely done however. Helmet use has spread because of fear mongering and anecdotal implication.

The BIGGEST questions that have to be answered about accidents is not about helmets, but about behaviour. What could have been done to prevent the incident in the first place? Thinking

I also think his story challenges in small part the claims made by groups like Headway. Cracknell still suffered brain injury.

In all reality we shouldnt be having helmet debates at all. We should be challenging societies that allow such poor roadcraft so as to lead to death and injury. Australia and New Zealand have terrible stats for cycling, I'm told cycling has all but been destroyed in NZ specifically. Both these countries have a severe hatred of cyclists, and one could argue that many on the receiving end could be the result of deliberate contact.

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posted by downfader [195 posts]
8th January 2011 - 16:08

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Oh Christ here we go again - "wearing a helmet saved my life"!

Anecdotal evidence is no evidence at all. There is a wealth of studies on both sides of the debate but the studies which support helmet use are almost all "case control studies" - comparing helmet users with a control group which is inherently difficult to find and involves selection methodologies which can introduce bias. Studies which cast doubt on the real benefit of helmets are whole-population studies - they compare incidence of head injury in entire populations such as Autralia, New Zealand and the USA as helmet use increases, (due to copulsion in Oz and NZ but not in other countries) so for example in the USA helmet use trebled and cycling did not increase but head injuries increased by 10% anyway.

Actually, simliar methodologies to teh case-cintrol studies which support cycle helmets also indicate that pedestrians and motorists would benefit from wearing them. Indeed, I have heard that pub-goers would also benefit - not a measure they would get through parliament in Oz!

posted by Paul M [307 posts]
8th January 2011 - 20:44

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I wouldn't want helmets to become compulsory in the UK for the simple reason that - with the pernicious increase in HI Vis clothing - it would allow motorists to keep speeding and blame us for not being visible with stopping distance to spare and protected when they do hit us. I'm just tired of the anti helmet brigade using partial stats to suggest that helmets aren't worth wearing when they obviously are.

These discussions always go off at a tangent to discuss motorists and pedestrians and the suggestion that helmets are meant to save your life or brain in collisions with cars. Travelling at 20mph and a meeting car going at 30+ mph isn't going to be made safe by an inch of polystyrene. Non car accidents are different though. Anecdotes aside here: I've avoided head damage twice now - once without a helmet by breaking the fall with my shoulder (and breaking that instead) and only two weeks ago when I came off a cross bike onto the back of my head on ice. No, I'm not a medical doctor, but a very stiff neck and a new helmet tells me it could have been worse had I not been wearing one.

Of course you don't need one to walk to the shops but if when cycling you come off and hit the tarmac from 7 foot high going at 10 mph or over then surely it's better to be wearing one than not? I also cycle a mile to the shops and sometimes don't wear one - but after hitting the ground so quickly the other week I will have to revise that decision.

I don't like wearing a helmet but travelling at sometimes 40mph on half a cm of rubber in a country with over 34 million cars makes me want to wear anything that might help save me come the day.

I will not EVER wear Hi Vis even if it becomes law - which is the more likely of the two the way we are going.

Silly me. You're probably right....

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posted by MercuryOne [1048 posts]
9th January 2011 - 11:57

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Hmm: medically unqualified victim says helmet "may" have saved his life. Not exactly a glowing reference !!
But I am sure some pro-helmeters will be citing it as "proof" !!

posted by zoxed [62 posts]
9th January 2011 - 14:00

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I really wish the helmet debate would come to an end and we could get on with actually improving cyclist safety.

Does anyone seriously believe that helmets don't work? If you knew you'd be in an accident, would you rather be wearing one on or not? Helmets are good at what they are designed to do - reduce the deceleration in low speed impacts. Sometimes, that's enough to reduce death to a serious injury or serious injury to minor one.

But does anyone seriously believe that helmets stop accidents from happening? The problem isn't helmets, the problem is helmet laws and the promotion of fear in cycling. Too much focus on helmet use (and helmet laws in the worst case) discourages people from cycling. It also diverts attention away from the real danger - getting hit by a car or truck in the first place.

So if you want to wear a helmet, that's great. But please, lets stop pretending that cycling is so much more dangerous than crossing the street or driving that you need to wear a helmet or blinking hi vis vest.

Instead, why don't we focus on what actually works - lowering urban speed limits, proper infrastructure and legal protection of non-motorised commuters.

posted by davekinkead [4 posts]
10th January 2011 - 5:31

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I had a crash last year the first thing to hit the road was my head in a helmet looking at the helmet I am in no doubt it helped lessen my injuries considerably, I think helmets are a good thing, I still hate wearing it though, our club insists we do to set a good example to kids etc. On side note just checked the helmet website and under sponsored athletes they have James, maybe he forgot they sponsored him.

posted by martin [12 posts]
10th January 2011 - 8:00

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My son was playing football last year on some slippery ground when he feel backwards, breaking his wrist. Perhaps if he'd been wearing wrist protectors as used by skateboarders, there would've been no fracture. Football is a competitive sport and results in frequent injuries. So can we therefore assume that all footballers should be required to wear the sort of protective gear used by skateboarders?

Don't get me started on rugby.

OldRidgeback

posted by OldRidgeback [2150 posts]
10th January 2011 - 10:01

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@davekinkead, actually there is no proof that helmets actually work in real life. No scientists have been able to prove any significant reduction in head injuries. The only thing that has been proven that helmets work in a laboratory under specific conditions.

I agree with the rest of your post.

posted by Aapje [165 posts]
10th January 2011 - 10:59

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@Aapje: "actually there is no proof that helmets actually work in real life. No scientists have been able to prove any significant reduction in head injuries. The only thing that has been proven [is] that helmets work in a laboratory under specific conditions".

Isn't 'common sense' enough to go on sometimes?

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posted by simonmb [360 posts]
10th January 2011 - 11:27

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I'd like to know if the driver of the lorry was prosecuted?

posted by gazzaputt [179 posts]
10th January 2011 - 12:14

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I think that James Cracknell was riding on the wrong road. Of course in Arizona there may very well have been no alternative on his route. Here in the UK I avoid busy A roads and dual carriageways, thereby avoiding large numbers of vehicles travelling at or above the speed limit.

two wheels good; four wheels bad

posted by cat1commuter [1333 posts]
10th January 2011 - 12:52

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My common sense tells me that a little piece of foam that only protects part of your head has very limited protective abilities.

However, common sense has been known to be faulty. For instance, bloodletting seems to improve the health of people with a fever and was practised for a long time. Only later people figured out that bloodletting doesn't cure anything, but hinders the natural ability of the body to fight disease.

That is why we invented science. To actually prove what is true, instead of going with the gut. Since scientists have often tried and until now failed to prove that helmet have a significant effect, I don't think that cyclists should have this blind belief in the ability of helmets to save lives. Especially when that belief is based on faulty reasoning (such as: I fell and my helmet broke, if I hadn't worn a helmet, I would have been dead).

posted by Aapje [165 posts]
10th January 2011 - 13:45

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@Aapje (again) - Now you're telling me that bloodletting doesn't work! Surprise Is there nothing sacred any more? At Wits End

I think there is enough anecdotal evidence to convince me that wearing a helmet CAN prevent or reduce injury in SOME circumstances. Everyone's got a story - mine is of a friend who went over his mtb bars and landed head first. When we picked him up he had a sharp rock wedged in the top vent of his helmet. We were all thankful he was wearing a helmet. What do you think fella?

simonmb's picture

posted by simonmb [360 posts]
10th January 2011 - 14:55

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Agree with DaveKinkead,

It is not hard to demonstrate that helmets protect heads - It is another thing entirely to conclude from that observation they are an effective safety measure for cyclists.

A bit like tackling knife crime by making inner city teenagers wear stab-proof vests.

Focus and discussion needs to be shifted to the things that *really* influence cyclist safety.

posted by DNAse [22 posts]
10th January 2011 - 17:34

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The randomised controlled trial on parachute use during skydives is still waiting to be done. As yet scientists have been unable to prove they work due to a lack of volunteers....anyone here interested?

posted by scottydug [14 posts]
10th January 2011 - 23:51

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MercuryOne wrote:
So glad to hear a sensible comment on helmets. There was a news story a few years back saying that helmets made no difference - based on quoting medical statistics that showed that in the worst vehicle versus cyclists fatalities the helmet wouldn't have saved the cyclist -rather than analysing the thousands of cases where it did. Akin to not bothering with a lifejacket ad the ship goes down 'as it looks silly and won't save me anyway'. From personal experience of being extremely lucky and getting away with three days concussion after a helmetless crash in 1992 I have always worn a helmet since. To my mind there are two sorts if cyclist who don't wear them: those that haven't crashed without one yet - and those that have landed on their head too much...

Sorry, but you appear to have misunderstood the research. All long term, large population studies show no benefit from cycle helmets. All the research showing large benefits are small scale, short term studies, which are rated much less reliable than the studies showing no benefit.

Did you know that James Cracknell is sponsored by the helmet manufacturer? http://www.alpina-helmets.co.uk/athletes.html

burtthebike

posted by burtthebike [68 posts]
6th August 2011 - 8:40

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