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Hackles raised by focus on helmets & high viz + James Cracknell helmet article

Day 3 of The Times newspaper’s Cities Fit For Cycling Campaign sees the paper publishing a 12-page ‘Guide To Safe Cycling' and encountering something of a backlash from some cyclists in the process. Parts of today's guide have not been universally well received, and while there is undoubtedly huge support for the campaign amongst cyclists, The Times is also finding out that they can also be an independent and prickly bunch, who don’t like being lectured or told what to do.

Among criticisms levelled at the paper on social networking sites such as Twitter are its decision to include an article from James Cracknell, now a strong supporter of helmet compulsion, who amongst other things likens those who cycle without a helmet to football hooligans, plus the newspaper’s own advice that cyclists should wear a helmet as well as high visibility clothing.

Cracknell, the Olympic rower turned TV personality, almost lost his life in 2009 after he was struck in the head by a truck’s wing mirror while filming in the United States. He believes the fact he was wearing a helmet saved his life.

However, with helmet compulsion being a subject guaranteed to incite heated debate, Cracknell has come under criticism from some quarters for the pro-helmet stance he has adopted in pieces written for The Daily Telegraph.

As one blogger points out, Cracknell appear on Alpina’s UK website as a “sponsored athlete" despite insisting, after mentioning his Alpina Pheos helmet in The Telegraph that, “I don’t have a commercial relationship with the manufacturer, by the way".

Cracknell's piece in today's Times is accompanied by a picture of him holding the helmet, still stained with blood, that he was wearing when he was struck by that lorry, although there is no mention of his apparent sponsorship by the manufacturer.

Cracknell also likens those who choose to cycle without a helmet to football hooligans.

“If you are cycling without a helmet, you are being selfish to your family and friends,” he asserts. "It is like with football in the Eighties, when a violent 1 per cent minority of football fans meant the other 99 per cent were tarred as hooligans."

The Times itself suggests, in a two-page spread under the heading ’12 ways to cycle safely’ – there’s an interactive graphic here, under the ‘Graphic: 12 safety tips’ tab – wearing a helmet and high-visibility clothing; it cites a statistic, unsourced, that “60 per cent of cyclist fatalities are head injuries,” but fails to acknowledge arguments against them often outlined by opponents of compulsion or that in the case of cycling fatalities involving motor vehicles - which make up the majority - the outcome is unlikely to have been altered by the wearing of a helmet.

On a day when coverage in the main newspaper focused on the success of the municipal authorities in Copenhagen of getting people cycling, the focus on helmets and hi-viz strikes a dissonant note for many – seeming to miss the point that when a city is fit for cycling there should be no need for helmets or high viz cycling gear. In Copenhagen and in other cities with high levels of cycling such as Amsterdam, such equipment is noticeable more for its absence than anything else. Cycling is an everyday activity, carried out in everyday clothes something that was achieved by getting more people on bikes and changing the attitudes of drivers in particular about interact with other road users.

Among those interviewed for the newspaper’s supplement today are Rebecca Romero and Chris Boardman, as well as several everyday cyclists who have no ambitions of following that pair to Olympic success, but simply want to get around on their bike, safely.

There is also an article penned by Jon Snow, the Channel 4 broadcaster and CTC President, although he is writing in a personal capacity. A couple of his comments do give food for thought.“The Times Cycling Manifesto is good as far as it goes, but there is a serious dimension missing: human rights,” he says.

“The dominant creature on the urban road is the single-occupancy car. One person in a motorised 60 sq ft metal box.
And what are we cyclists — one person on a thin strip of tubing with two wheels.

“One has the power, the presence and the rights; the other is deprived of all three. Is that equality under the law?

“I would willingly pay a licence fee for my bike if it meant that separated cycle ways were provided as my right,” continues Snow.

“My children were deprived of the right to cycle to school, even of the right to cycle safely at university — it was, and is, quite simply too dangerous.”

Even in a private capacity, that’s a startling point of view to be expressed by someone who is the figurehead of one of Britain’s leading organisations for cyclists.

Meanwhile, the urgency of the overriding goal of campaign by The Times – to make Britain’s streets safer for cyclists – was underlined yesterday by news of the deaths of two cyclists in incidents that took place in very different parts of the country just minutes apart yesterday afternoon.

A 77-year-old man died in the rural village of Whaplode Drove, Lincolnshire, in a collision with a car driven by an 80-year-old male; in London’s Bishopsgate, a male cyclist said by police to be aged in his sixties died following a collision with a coach.

Broad support for the campaign continues to be strong, with more than 100,000 people now signed up to it. But reaction to the comments by Cracknell and advice to wear a helmet and hi-viz gear do show that while in some cases it’s appropriate to generalise those who choose to ride bikes as ‘cyclists,’ it does need to be remembered that cyclists are individuals too, with views as diverse as the machines they ride.

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.