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"
"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.