05 February 2009

Helmet ruling hurts my head

Cyclists not wearing a helmet could be guilty of contributory negligence, according to BikeRadar's news item the other day on a recent court ruling (Smith v Finch, 2009). The case dealt with a cyclist who had sustained head injuries after being hit by a motorcyclist. He got the full damages he was seeking, but Justice Griffith Williams ruled that he could have been found partly liable if wearing a helmet would have prevented or reduced his or her injuries.

In some ways this doesn't tell us anything new. The Highway Code says you 'should' wear a helmet, so the possibility of a lawyer arguing this contributory-negligence thing was there before the ruling. (it also says you 'should' wear reflective clothing in the dark – anyone know if this has been the subject of a contributory negligence claim?)

But the ruling nevertheless makes my head hurt. There should not be an ounce of compulsion on people to wear helmets, and there should be no shifting of blame from the person who caused the accident.

My stance on helmets is simple. Wearing one is quite legal, and I suppose it should stay that way. According to the law, you can put one on your head and ride out in public and nobody can stop you. You are also entitled to wear a kilt or a Manchester United shirt or a schoolgirl outfit if it makes you feel better.

Many (usually the ones who didn't get the previous paragraph) would put it differently. They'd say helmets offer protection in case of an accident, therefore you should wear one. Well, the first half of that is debatable, and the second doesn't follow at all.

The first half is at least based in fact. Under certain restricted circumstances, helmets may offer some protection. They are designed to cope with impacts of 12mph or less on a smooth flat surface – essentially, falling off a stationary bike and bumping your head on the road surface. But no more than that. And in my experience, accidents tend not to happen when I'm stationary.

Something you often see on messageboards is along these lines:

"I had a accident and hit my head, the helmet was TOTALLY WRECKED, phew that could of been my HEAD"

But this is less convincing than it sounds (and actually, it's often hearsay – the experience of a friend or a relative). The helmet probably crumpled because it's a flimsy shell not designed to cope with that situation. If you'd been wearing polystyrene cup on your head that would have crumpled too.

So I don't wear a helmet. I never have on a British road. It simply doesn't make me feel safer. I did when I was cycling in Australia and New Zealand, where they are compulsory, and it was irritating and cumbersome and offered me no safety benefit. If you feel safer, then fine, that's up to you.

However, it's the link to compulsion that is the big problem. Simply because something may offer some safety benefit in some circumstances is not a reason to enforce it. Stab jackets may offer some protection, but nobody, surely not even Jacqui Smith, would think they ought to be compulsory. In fact, when Harriet Harman donned one last year on a police walkabout, she was attacked in the press. Yet Boris Johnson, by nature a non-helmet wearer, openly moans that he has to wear one because his advisors say it would be political suicide not to.

So try this: any assertion you'd make about a helmet and cycling, make it about stab jackets and walking, and see if it sounds defensible. If it isn't, then I suggest you haven't thought through the helmet argument.

Take, for example, this typical pro-helmet messageboard assertion:

"If you dont ware a helmet your stupid, its better than risking your head smashing open, ha ha see you in the darwin awards"

This becomes:

"If you don't wear a stab jacket you're stupid. Better than risking your chest being ripped open."

The riposte to this is easy. We don't enforce stab-jacket wearing for obvious reasons. Despite what alarmist press says, your chance of being stabbed is very, very, very small. Even then they'd only offer very limited protection, and be no help if you were stabbed in the thigh, punched in the face or hit with a baseball bat. They'd be cumbersome, expensive and deter people from making simple trips. They would create a climate of fear on our streets. They would, in fact, only encourage gangs, by removing decent citizens from the streets and creating no-go areas.

And the notion that you were partly to blame for being stabbed because you weren't wearing a stab jacket would be outrageous.

Some cyclists seem to regard helmets as a magic spell. They give no signals, they cycle unpredictably, they don't have lights at night, they squeeze up the inside of HGVs at lights. These are things that cause accidents, not the presence or absence of a plastic melon on your head.

There's a culture of lazy, automatic pro-helmet thinking which I despise. These people writing the council leaflets, the junior hacks writing a 'get into cycling' feature for the local newspaper, those odious advisors to Boris and Dave, that all take it as read you should wear a helmet – what's their evidence? What do they actually know about the subject? Very little, I suspect.

And I suspect that many cyclists wear helmets without thinking. They see other cyclists wearing them, they think they're being good and responsible by doing the same. Well, I disagree.

You can't put my non-helmet wearing down to ignorance (I've read the lot: case studies, magazines, messageboard rants, even Wikipedia).

You can't put it down to laziness (in darkness I have enough lighting and reflective gear to illuminate a small rock concert, which takes time to put on and take off and is cumbersome to cart around, but I happen to think it makes me safer. A lot safer).

You can't put it down to inexperience. I have been cycling virtually every day of my life: 40 fantastic, helmet-free years. Experience shows that I fall off about five times a decade. It's not your head that takes the damage: it's your knees, elbows and wrists. If you really want to protect yourself, wear those robot-like extremity guards that inline skaters use. Ah, but that's too cumbersome, isn't it? That's like wearing a stab jacket.

Yes, I did hit my head once. I required stitches, spending two nights in a hospital in Oxford in May 1984. (Most of that time was taken up patching holes in my legs. I was unable to play football very well afterwards. But then I was unable to play football very well before.)

Would a helmet have made any difference? No. A more effective way of preventing injury would have been if I'd had lights on my bike and if I hadn't had half a bottle of vodka shortly beforehand. I was probably too pissed to put a helmet on anyway.

And don't worry, I learned my lesson. I stick to beer and wine now.

But you get the point. People (usually, but not always, drivers) cause accidents. Head injuries are rare. Helmets make little difference. They're a distraction, diverting attention from the real issue. Forget them.

Because evidence overwhelmingly shows that the way to make cycling is safer is not to legislate on helmets (Australia has famously become a more dangerous place to bike since making them compulsory).

It's not even to make snazzy cycle paths.

It's getting more cyclists on the roads. The more people cycle, the fewer accidents there are - not relatively, absolutely. Look at the Netherlands, the developed world's best cycling culture: you'll see about as many people wearing helmets as stab jackets.

Well, time to go to work. I hope I don't slip while walking on the pavement. It'll be my fault for not wearing cross-country skis. Contributory negligence.


  1. Indeed. No helmets here, generally not even for small children. No helmets on the school run either.

    However, safety is not just about numbers. The environment here has been made very much safer for cyclists than it is in the UK. Not only safer in real terms, but also in subjective and social terms (those being the things that make the high numbers possible).

    There are three types of safety and I explain them here.

  2. Thanks for that, David - I'm sure I'll link to that article many times in the future!

    Yes, the subjective-safety angle is interesting. I feel safer in Britain festooned with bright stuff after dark, as (in contrast to a helmet, but in the same way as cycling sensibly) it feels like it lessens drastically the chance of an accident. Though in my many trips to the Neths, I don't recall ever wearing any reflective stuff, no doubt because nobody else was!

    And as for street-safety, I've *always* felt far safer on a bike than going on public transport. When I did a degree in south London a couple of years ago, most of my fellow students were mugged at one time or another. Despite coming home through Peckham countless times late at night (not down the 'obviously' dodgy streets, of course), I never had any problems. It felt like I was somehow off the troublemakers' radar: I saw gangs hanging around, but if they ever tried to engage me, I honestly wasn't aware of it before the lights changed and I was off.

  3. Hmm, I think people should be able to make their own decision on this. If I want a gentle potter down the country lanes I'd be happy without a helmet. It's nice having the wind in my hair rather than sweat :-). And if I'm cycling carefully at a gentle relaxed pace then the liklihood of an accident is slim.

    That being said I do cycle furiously at times either on my road bike or mountain bike and have in one instance had a nasty fall from the mountain bike due to ice. I landed very hard directly on my head so I'm very pleased that I was wearing a helmet.

    So think about the type of cycling that you are going to do and dress accordingly. Now, I wonder if body armour might have prevented those broken ribs after my high speed crash five years ago?

    One more thought . . . I do know somebody that suffered nasty cuts (and had stitches) because he was wearing spectacles when he fell off . . . . :-)

    All that being said, I do generally wear my helmet . . . it's a part of my cycling clothing. But I like to have the choice and can also say that whether or not I'm wearing one does influence how I cycle.

  4. Check this out too!

    Is it coincidence that the countries with more and safer cycling are where fewest cyclists wear helmets? Is there a connection with obesity?

    Check out what the Bycycle Helmet Research Foundation has to say http://www.cyclehelmets.org/

  5. Indeed, Si - helmets may well be appropriate for some situations. Mountain biking or road racing for example, where your objective is not getting from A to B safely, but as fast, or as thrillingly, as you can - just as stab jackets are appropriate for police in certain situations. It's the compulsion, explicit or implied, that I dislike so much.

    Thinking back on that 1984 accident I had, it's interesting that me and the motorcyclist swopped addresses but never did anything about it. Evidently we treat it as a straightforward these-things-happen sort of accident. He was clearly going too fast and was on the wrong side of a road he thought was one-way (it wasn't). I was clearly well pissed and had no lights. So, shrug shoulders, six of one and half a dozen of the other, we get over it and move on (rather painfully in my case, for the next few days), no need to involve the old Bill eh... Wonder if we'd be as casual about it now, with all these no-win no-fee adverts jingling in our ears?

  6. I'll compel you to have a pint with me next time I'm in London whether you like it or not! :-)

  7. Hmm…

    So as cars produce carcinogens and cancer related substances, if you need healthcare due to either of these highly common illnesses and you own a car, then you’re at least partially to blame?

    BTW I discovered something interesting when researching bike helmets for myself: ‘Brake!’ the UK’s very pro-helmet safety organisation has a list of corporate sponsors on their website, here: http://www.brake.org.uk/index.php?p=1449 A lot of car insurers and solicitors are listed. Now, being od a cynical mind, I found myself thinking thus: if helmets are widely accepted as essential, this could arguably work to the advantage of car insurers, because it would make it easier to avoid paying damages to cyclists if they aren’t wearing a helmet when they are hit by a car, even if your insured driver is in the wrong.

    Not that that has anything to do with it, of course. They’re just trying to give back to the community.

  8. "Some cyclists seem to regard helmets as a magic spell. They give no signals, they cycle unpredictably"

    Exactly the style of a cyclist who recently chewed me out for not wearing a polystytrene lid. He rode down a crowded pavement, drifted across busy carriageways without signalling (then changed his mind and drifted back)... and then said I wasn't safe...

  9. Not sure about your helmet argument... once I was riding downhill on the company bike, and the brakes failed, and I hit the back of a Land Rover. The front of my head whacked the edge of the car before I spilt on the road next to the drivers side door. I suffered a cut on the chin requiring 5 stitches, and there was a dent on the front edge of the helmet. This shows that the helmet potentially prevented other cuts/injuries to my face.

    I've also fallen off my bike at 5mph due to ice and my head did hit the road, but I avoided a nasty gash. You're right, helmets are less likely to protect me against a 30mph crash, but as you say, like being stabbed while walking, 30mph crashes are much rarer than slow cycling. That said, I've been in a 40mph crash and my head luckily didn't hit the road surface at all.

    I also don't like the fact that you tar all helmeted riders with the same brush - not all of us helmeted riders do the stuff you mentioned - in fact, some unhelmeted riders do exact the same. I would say it doesn't matter whether they wear a helmet, or not, some people ride like an idiot.

  10. @englishdude... thanks for that.

    I certainly don't tar all helmeted riders with the same brush - I was careful to say 'some' riders etc. Many of my best friends wear helmets, and I don't hold anything against them, certainly not bitumen-laden brushes.

    But I have to say that, in my experience, there is a specific kind of risk-taking cyclist that wears a helmet, and really does behave, it seems to me, as if they think the helmet is a magic talisman that bestows invincibility.

    And, while we're talking crashes, the nastiest crash I've had in the last 20 years came on a sunny day, on a traffic-free cycle path, in the morning, sober. I bust a few ribs and was in a lot of pain for days. I'd come off abruptly on a downhill thanks to an involuntary application of back-pedal brakes on a hire bike.

    Luckily for me, thank God, I was saved by the prompt attention of a young German woman, who came to my rescue by serving me enough beer to dull the pain.

  11. Have the laugh at the amount of cyclists i see on the roads with helmets but choose to wear dark clothes! talk about hypocrites LoL. Whats one of the main reasons cyclists get knocked off? because they're not seen.

  12. @Anonymous... Well, I'd hate to live in a cycling culture where you are *forced* to wear reflective jackets, but yes, I do get irritated when I see someone with a helmet and no lights, or poor lights, and dark clothes, busting a red signal...

    But I don't want to sound like a helmet-wearer-basher. (Anyway, the helmet wouldn't guarantee protection against a really good bash.) To me it's a straightforward balance of risk and freedom. I don't think helmets offer me any useful protection given their inconvenience, so I don't wear one. I do, on the other hand, think that being visible offers me protection, by avoiding the accident in the first place, so I wear bright stuff. I quite enjoy the feeling of not being run over.

    I know from my own experience (when I was much younger and even more naive) that there's something of an inverse-ostrich effect with people who don't have lights or reflective stuff at night: 'I can see you, therefore you can see me'.

  13. Just a follow up to what i said yesterday (was in abit of a rush)

    MY main gripe is @ so called Purists..single riders or club cyclists, the type that look at you gone out if you're not wearing a helmet or not riding a £2000 bike.

    I was out training yesterday and was passed by this bloke who had to force himself to say hello back after i had said Mornin to him. The look on his face because i wasnt wearing a helmet was classic...i thought **** you mate!.

    Now heres the thing, yes he was wearing a helmet but it was black, his top, bottoms, gloves, shoes even his bike were black! i mean come on! give the poor motorists a chance to to see you ya stupid hypocrite.

    I myself dont wear a helmet, never have probably never will but you can see me a mile off as Team Lampre colours stand out a mile LoL

    My personal opinion on helmets is this, if you think a helmet is going to save you if you get smacked up the arse by a vehicle then you're in for a big surprize LOL, only thing you can do if make yourself visible and hope for the best, besides wearing a helmet in some motorists eyes makes you fair game!

    AT the end of the day i havent got a problem if someone wants to wear one or doesnt, but i do have a problem with cyclists that wear dark clothing, some would say it doesnt make a difference in the daytime but is certainly does
    as anyone thats ever seen a Dynorod van will tell you, bright colours stand out a mile even in daylight!