03 August 2010

Helmets can't save Melbourne from knockout blow

The teething problems of the London Bike Hire Scheme continue. The editor of the excellent London SE1 website found himself charged £150 for 'non-return' of a bike he'd returned, while further organisational and software woes are catalogued on lovingboth's blog.

But, as Paul Martin of Brisbane commented here yesterday, London is a roaring success compared to Melbourne's Bike new Bike Share Scheme. It has only logged 70 hires per day at a cost of $A5.5m (about £3.1m).

The reason? Victoria's state laws require cyclists to wear a helmet. So, unless you happen to be wearing a helmet already, which is unlikely for those of us who aren't security guards with a suitcase of money shackled to a wrist, you can't hire a bike.

Melbourne's real cyclists demonstrated to draw attention to the problem. They rode bare-headed, and received tickets. (Pictures from the Auckland Cycle Chic blog.)

Mexico City recently scrapped its helmet laws specifically because of the introduction of its own hire scheme, and London's scheme is unhelmeted very deliberately.

(Indeed, some TfL people have hinted to us that some of the forces behind the scheme see it as helping to ensure against compulsory helmet laws in Britain - and note how many people in Bike Hire, Superhighway, and ooh-isn't-London-cycling-nice ads are not wearing lids. Quite a few.)

Now, to me, it's clear that helmets should continue to be legal in the UK. If you want to wear one, that's your choice, and you should be allowed to do so. Just because I don't want to wear them, I don't see why I should foist my opinions on you and make them illegal. Same goes for combovers, or knitted ties, or replica Premiership shirts with 'LAMPARD' on one side and a beer gut on the other. It's a free country.

But compulsion, no. That's not real cycling. My position on helmets? Anywhere except underneath one. Let's hope others learn from Melbourne's headache.

Anyway, today's London docking station pic is Vauxhall, which is hidden excitingly underneath a tunnel. Is this London's most sheltered hire point?

Low ceilings here, though: don't bump your head. Cycling can be ever so dangerous, you know.


  1. There is one good aspect to the apparent failure of the Melbourne bike hire scheme. It provides a partially controlled "experiment " for statistically demonstrating that a mandatory helmet law does suppress bicycling. Comparing the uptake of the bike hire scheme in Melbourne with that of say London (allowing for suitable other factors), may settle the question in doubters' minds for once and for all.

  2. Is that in the tunnel by the station where the bike parking used to be, or in the one across the road from the station? The bike parking was always full of dead-or-dying bikes and always smelt of wee; I hope they've beefed up security now they're Boris bikes...

  3. It's the one across the road, on the east side, that used to smell of wee. There always used to be people there in sleeping bags or under cardboard; I hope they've been found somewhere better and not just had to shuffle along to the next available hideyhole.

  4. Perhaps they could be hired to keep an eye on the boris bikes? Win win...

  5. "The teething problems of the London Bike Hire Scheme continue. The editor of the excellent London SE1 website found himself charged £150 for 'non-return' of a bike he'd returned, while further organisational and software woes are catalogued on lovingboth's blog."

    My experiences (as a complete novice cyclist who is providing entertainment around Waterloo as I desperately try not to fall off) is being charged £4 because of bike not redocking properly (although you couldn't get it out again) and also logging on to my web profile only to see someone else's journeys.

    I've yet to wear a helmet either. The exposed noggin is keeping me focused.

  6. I know real cycling your own co-opted term, but I'd like to question this notion that one cannot be a real cyclist whilst wearing a helmet.

    As a regular mountain biker it's clear to me that a helmet is going to protect me when I crash into a tree, and now I am accustomed to wearing one on the trails I feel naked without one round town. This means that without one I am less confident, less assertive and more likely to have an accident, even if said helmet does not offer much protection.

    Does that make me an unreal cyclist?

  7. Real cyclist with a helmet? Oh dear no. No no no no no. Oh no no no. Oh. No.

    Nor with lycra. Nor wasp-eye shades. Nor lurid tropical-fish coloured racing tops. Oh no no no no no.


    Real cycling is going from A to B via C, especially where A is home, C is work, and B is a pub or cafe. It's getting around.

    Racing, and mountain biking, are not so utilitarian. You'll probably be taking all sorts of risks you wouldn't normally take, because safety is always being compromised by trying to go as fast as you can. So it makes perfect sense to me to wear a helmet for mountain biking, but not for everyday cycling.

    Similarly, when I go fell-walking in the Lakes in winter, I take maps and a compass and a whistle and Kendal mint cake and a bivvy bag and water and food and a torch and a Swiss army knife. And a banana. And wear big strong boots that smell of sheds.

    When I go walking to the pub I don't. I wear my normal shoes and don't take a bivvy bag. Call me irresponsible, call me unreliable, throw in undependable, too.

    Real cycling with a helmet?

    Oh no no no no.

  8. There are several reasons why the bike hire scheme in Melbourne hasn't taken off with the same vigour as in London. One is the lack of population; 4 million compared to london's 7. Geographic distribution is another - Melbourne's low density population with large suburban area promotes car usage (bummer), small CBD footprint means walking is more often the better option, free public transport (unless you get caught). Combine this with the fact that it is the middle of winter here and Melbourne does not have a big cycle culture to start with and it's no surprise that the figures are low.

    I agree, the unavailability of helmets and the compulsory helmet laws will limit the uptake of the offer but the solution is not to repeal the law but to provide helmets.

    You don't have to be going far or fast to have an accident. You yourself keep banging on about taxi drivers, truck drivers, bus drivers and drivers in general who disregard the presence of cyclists and constantly cut them off at intersections and the general hazards of cycling london streets. There is even a web site showing the locations of fatalities which is saturated with markers.

    In London
    "In 2008, 15 cyclists were killed, 430 were seriously injured and a further 2,757 cyclists sustained slight injuries while cycling on London's roads. In 2009 there were 13 fatalities, there were also 398 serious injuries and 2,998 slight injuries in the period from January to November 2009."

    In Victoria (Melbourne +)
    "In the 5 years (2001-2006), 25,920 bicycle-related ED presentations were recorded, 10,552 bicyclists were admitted to hospital, 298 bicycling injuries were classified as major trauma (VSTR), and there were 47 bicycling fatalities"

    In Victoria over a five year period (2001 - 2006), 47 deaths (<10/year), 298 serious injuries
    In London in less than one year (jan - nov 2009), 13 deaths & 398 serious injuries

    Rather be safe than a statistic.

  9. All we want is choice down here in the colony! Thanks for listening!

    Making a bicycle helmet mandatory for ALL cyclists at ALL times is just plain poisonous to a healthy bicycle culture. A bicycle helmet might make the individual feel safe (and that is fine) but collectively it kills cycling.

    I also agree that there is a difference between cycling for transport/utility and as a sport - horses for courses and different equipment is appropriate.

    Choice please.

    Paul Martin
    Brisbane, Australia

  10. Nigel,

    I agree with you that there may be a number of reasons why the Melbourne bike share is not as popular in London but a major reason must be the helmet issue. It makes it impossible to be spontaneous. If you are carrying a helmet with you, you have a bike. They are too big and cumbersome to be carrying around just in case.

    As for the statistics, I think those you quote support the argument that mandatory helmet laws do not save lives as has been claimed. The difference in actual numbers can be explained by the difference in population. The ED numbers do not tell us anything. How many were wearing helmets and how many were not? Do the figures show with any statistical significance that wearing helmets actually saved lives? I guarantee the answer is no.

    The problem with helmet laws in Australia is that they are a massive cop out. We are forced to wear helmets "for our own safety" but not a single thing is done to make cycling genuinely safe and to limit conflict between bikes and cars.

    It has got to the stage where you can no longer have a rational conversation with anyone about it. I have given up trying to discuss it because the people I talk to seem to lose all logic. I get asked, with no irony, "what if you get hit by a truck?" as if a polystyrene helmet will make a difference. The other common question is (and again, with no irony) "what if you fly over your handlebars and land on your head?" How, I ask, is that physically possible when I am travelling at the speed of a jogger?

    This ridiculous fixation we have in Australia with helmets (and we are one of only 2 countries with mandatory helmet laws) is irrational. They simply do not save lives. All they do is discourage cycling as is evidenced beyond any doubt by the difference in uptake of the bike hire schemes in Melbourne and London.

  11. Well, Rob, you may not take a helmet to the pub/café, but I happen to know that you take lots of hi-viz gear, two large locks, and well-loaded panniers. What's the difference, if someone wants a helmet?

  12. A great problem with many of the pro-helmet lobby is that they simply don't argue properly. Their 'argument' could equally well be 'justification' for carrying icons of the Virgin Mary, wearing steel breastplates, or donning radioactivity-proof lead suits.

    All of those *might* provide some sort of protection in the case of an accident, and *might* have proved the difference in that narrow squeak that you somehow survived.

    But human beings are notoriously rubbish at quantifying risk intuitively. You only have to look at basic stats trick-questions to see that. (Try the one about you having been tested positive in a very reliable test for an extremely rare disease, the so-called false positive paradox.)

    That's why we have to be guided by research and stats. Because our intuition is wrong. These are put together by clever people who paid attention in maths lessons at school and understand linear regression and standard deviation and Bonferroni corrections and so on.

    (I understand a lot of the basic stuff, but only the very very basic stuff, in much the same way as the man who sells me fruit from bowls round the corner can have a basic conversation with me. And that's with a degree in maths from a well-known Oxbridge university. It's complicated stuff, you know.)

    And an analysis of the studies into helmet use does not provide compelling evidence, to me, that they (a) provide worthwhile protection for me, given that I don't want to and don't have to wear on, and (b) would be counter-productive - yes, actually result in *more* injuries - if they were made compulsory.

    (There's lots of stuff at Bicycle Helmets - an Overview, a site which is not a manufacturer trying to scare you into buying helmets.)

    Rob's guidelines for assessing a pro-helmet argument are:
    * Is it just an anecdote of how someone came off their bike and their helmet was mashed to a pulp? In which case it doesn't prove anything, though it might make an amusing pub story. But I've got loads of amusing pub stories.
    * If you replace the word 'helmet' with 'suit of armour', does it still hold, in which case why aren't they wearing a suit of armour?
    * If it includes any assertion along the lines of 'you're stupid if you don't wear a helmet' (or more likely, 'your stuppid if you dont ware a helmet!!!!'), then unless they can explain under what circumstances they would apply the Bonferroni correction, I'm unlikely to buy the relative-stupidity assertion.

    Like I said, Tim, I'm essentially a libertarian (much like Bad Science guru Ben Goldacre, also a non-helmet wearer, and a GP who understand stats and risk and head injuries really really well). I'm happy for helmets to be legal and if you want to wear one that's fine by me. It's not real cycling though.

    I'm not quite sure what your two-large-locks or pannier argument is, Tim, but the well-loaded panniers contain things like a camera, fizzy water and emergency chocolate, and Teach Yourself Spanish books. These aid my journey but I wouldn't seek to make them compulsory. The larger the panniers, the more encyclopaedic their contents, the more real the cycling.

    The high-viz gear I wear only in the dark and at railway stations, so that people think I am station staff and I can tell direct them to the wrong train. (If your implication is that Real Cyclists don't wear incandescent reflectives, of course you're right.)

    The locks are to repel bike thieves, and are particularly effective in hand-to-hand combat.

    But helmets? Oh no no no no no.

  13. I'm glad to have it on record that 'Real Cyclists don't wear incandescent reflectives'. I was just wondering what the distinction was between that and helmets - some prefer one, some t'other, neither should be compulsory.

  14. Bright stuff makes me feel safer in darkness because I feel less likely to be hit, whereas helmets don't make accidents less likely. But like I say, I'm invoking my right to choose.

    Wihle touring Scotland last year, at one point I realised I was wearing all black and green, on a black and green bike - not arguably the most visible selection for dark forested main roads.

    I don't know what that proves, but it probably proves you were right all along.

  15. Just to be clear, the argument is not about whether to wear a cycling helmet, but whether to make it legally compulsory. It is an issue about the law, not so much about what to wear (although the evidence about effectiveness is of course relevant). People should of course be free to wear what makes them feel comfortable whilst cycling. I think one of the most effective things you can wear on a bike to enhance personal safety is a gorilla suit (but might not be so practical when hot of course).

  16. the post seems to suggest there is a movement to make helmets ILLEGAL.
    smells like bullshit to me.

  17. Anybody that says helmets don't save lives has never had an accident on their bike where their head hit the ground.

    I've had a few. From low speed stacks in the city, to being hit my a car whilst descending a mountain at 70km/h - my head has hit the ground, and the helmet has saved my life. Doesn't prove anything? Of course it does you silly twat! The damage done to my helmet (big gashes and chunks taken out of it) would have been damage to my head, without the helmet. And yes, it is a great pub story. It wouldn't be if I didn't have my helmet on, as I wouldn't be in the bloody pub to tell the story! You can show me all the stats in the world, but when my head hits the ground, I want something between the hard stuff and my skull.

    I do agree with the argument that it should be a personal choice to wear one or not - that way Bike Hire schemes are more successful, more people may ride bikes in general, etc.

    It also allows natural selection to run its course.

    For me, it's a helmet all the way. For my kids too.

    And what's all this rubbish about "real cycling" being slow, and just getting around, or more real with more weight in your panniers? What a cock you are Rob! Real cycling is getting out on your bike and enjoying yourself, however you heck you decide to do it. I've just returned from a week of cycling in the French Alps. I had a wonderful time trying to ride up the mountains as fast as could, all decked out in lycra, with a helmet on too! Would this be more "real" if I took my helmet off, stuck on some panniers filled with crap, and rode up as slow as I could? I don't think so.

    Piss off and just ride your bike, however you choose to do it, and quit judging people who do it differently to you.

  18. @dbt... Erm, it's called 'humour'; I'm sorry you don't get it.

    @Nathan Goss... whoa, calm down mate! It's only a light-hearted blog, you know!

  19. How charming some of these first time commentators are!

    I heard a great quote on this issue recently from none other than that other 'real cycling twat' Mikael Colville-Anderson of copenhagenize.com fame. Of mandatory helmet laws (of which Australia is one of only two countries in the world to have them) he said "Good ideas tend to spread around the world really quickly; like bike hire schemes. Bad ideas don't: like mandatory helmet laws"

    @Nathan Goss I'm sure your helmet helped enormously as you flew down the mountain at 70k/ph, and I'm thrilled for you, but you see in flat-as-a-pancake Melbourne (or London for that matter) you'd be lucky to get above jogging speed on a hire bike and so your argument is largely irrelevant. If you are going to get hit, it's statistically most likely to be by a large truck in which case your helmet is going to do you as much help as clinging to your rosary beads. Of course the mandatory helmet laws are killing the bike hire scheme there - what non-cyclist is going to carry a helmet around with them on the off chance they might make a spontaneous hire at some point, one day?

    As for the natural selection argument, I'd argue this is in operation BECAUSE of the mandatory helmet laws; you see in Oz the law lead to a 40% drop in cycling rates - this is the fattest country in the world remember - those 40% can probably feel their arteries furring up as we speak. So not cycling (which is what the law has made people do) is probably more dangerous than cycling without a helmet. Hows that for natural selection?

    Semantics and arguing aside (and goodness doesn't this argument get people hot under the collar?!) we are all adults, if you want to wear a helmet, fine, but it should be an adult choice. People die falling out of the shower every day, but we let people choose whether they should take that shower or not. It should be the same for cycle helmets, considering there is no conclusive evidence (again, REAL evidence, you know, from scientists, not pub talkers) as to whether the helmet makes cycling safer or not.

    I'm off to cycle without a helmet to Burger King to double my chances of becoming victim to natural selection one way or another!

    Bike hire and helmet law don't mix!

  20. @Edward, @Mark... *sigh*, yes, it's a bit hard to have a reasonable conversation about helmets sometimes. Some pro-helmeteers seem convinced that if you don't agree with them wholesale, they clearly aren't shouting loud enough, and that a few more insults will clinch the argument.

    I'm reminded of my grandfather trying to make himself understood to the French by speaking pidgin English, without success. "I'm shouting my head off here," he fumed, "and the stupid buggers STILL can't understand me!"

  21. emotional stuff!

    you will never see me in a helmet, ever ever ever, & I will defend the notion of civil liberties always always always!!

    Why do helmet-believers harbour such strong convictions without evidence?

    Why should the rest of us subscribe to their ignorant and uninformed fundamentalist creed?

    How does a broken helmet proved it saved a life?

  22. The 70km/h accident WAS in Melbourne :-) It's not flat-as-a-pancake.

    The other crashes were at low speed, in Melbourne and Geelong, and my head still hit the ground hard, so your point is largely irrelevant.

    As I did say, I agree with the idea that it should be a personal choice. I grew up in Oz with the law, and have always worn a helmet. I have also lived in London for quite a few years, and still wear one, even though I don't have to. I don't judge anybody that chooses not to either - it's their choice. I don't try to change people's minds that don't want to wear one either.

    I just take offence at huge generalisations like "real cyclists don't wear helmets, blah blah blah" and helmets "simply do not save lives".

    My accidents are not REAL evidence? They happened. I was wearing a helmet. It did its job. I survived. That's REAL. Experiments aren't quite REAL are they? That's like saying "Act natural!" :-)

    Have you had an accident on your bike where your head hit the ground?

    Didn't mean to come across in my original post as being argumentative, or in need of calming down - just getting my point across, perhaps not as eloquently, or as charming as you guys would like. Apologies.

    I just wanted to say that I agree that it should be peoples' choice to wear a helmet or not, and that this choice shouldn't be judged. Nor should what people wear/ride, and the speed they choose to do it.

    Just enjoy riding - that's it.

  23. @Nathan Goss... Agree totally with the enjoy riding thing! The whole 'real cycling' business is meant to be a semi-ironic, amusing, not prescriptive sort of thing; I'm sorry if it's not always obvious to casual visitors to the blog.

    Actually, I've had several road-cycling accidents where my head hit the ground, all from the era when even batsmen didn't wear helmets. (And if I was facing Dale Steyn, I'd be wearing a bloody helmet no question, though I suspect it's the yorker that would get me.)

    In all cases but one, I rolled and took the impact on my shoulders, elbows, knees etc, which took quite a scarring. But not my head, which miraculously escaped unscathed. Possibly because I had a large afro-style hairdo at the time, so perhaps it saved my life.

    The case where I did sustain damage to my head - involving an impressive array of stitches and two days in an Oxford hospital - was an impact with a motorcyclist.

    To be fair to me, he was on the wrong side of the road.

    To be fair to him, I'd swigged half a bottle of vodka and had no lights.

    It hasn't made me want to wear a helmet since, though obviously I don't get pissed up and cycle home without lights any more. No. I always carry two sets with me*.

    But indeedy doody, enjoy cycling, and that's what I try to make this blog about: exploiting London by bike.

    * 'humour'.

  24. It looks as if there's agreement on compulsion. Rob, large afro-style hairdo? Thank god there's no prospect of that being a legal requirement!

  25. Re making cycle helmets illegal, dbt... here's an Audioboo opinion piece that may be of interest. Save the planet, ban cycle helmets, says Adrian Short:

  26. Last night on my cycle home, after posting about being a compulsive helmet wearer and mulling over the bewildering array of opinion and conjecture from the pro and con lobbies, I was rammed in the side by a cyclist who was riding on the pavement while I was crossing it legally on a cycle path.

    As well as practically dislocating my shoulder he caught me full on the side of the head and had I not been wearing a helmet my temple would have taken the full brunt of the impact and knocked me unconscious. Now I'm sure people will say things like "ooh but how do you know it made any difference?" etc but unless they were there and felt the impact they cannot know how grateful I was for ignoring evidence and going with my gut feeling that wearing a helmet MAY provide SOME protection from SOME accidents without being an unnecessary burden.

    I'm only a sample of one so this doesn't prove anything, apart from the fact that I will sure as hell be wearing a helmet next time I step on a bike. And no, helmets shouldn't be made compulsory, but perhaps more education about how and where they can or cannot help would be beneficial, rather than endless quoting of obscure studies that attempt to generalise a rather personal decision.

  27. I wear a helmet because it makes my wife worry about me less. Guess I'm not a real cyclist either.

  28. I think (using Rob's definition) if you're using your bike to get around then you can be a real cyclist even with a helmet BUT you probably don't actually need it if you're not racing down the sides of mountains. I've ridden my bike all my life and I've actually never had an accident when my head has hit the ground. Maybe it's luck, or maybe it's because I go slowly, take my time, keep alert (helps if you're not wearing something that gives you a false sense of security) and get off and push if I'm in a situation I don't particularly fancy. And yes, I did cycle for years in London. I mean, really, how many of us fall off our bikes now that we're no longer twelve and practising our wheelies? Especially when we've got panniers loaded up with Teach Yourself Spanish books to keep us stable. Sure a skip lorry could always cut me off and sideswipe me but if a skip lorry does sideswipe me I'm unlikely to be saved by a helmet.

    Having said all this, I'm bound to hit something and come straight off onto my head now, but I'll take that risk

  29. Nathan Goss said...
    "Anybody that says helmets don't save lives has never had an accident on their bike where their head hit the ground."

    Uh, not true actually. There is evidence (which came as a complete surprise to me) that such helmets actually can INCREASE the risk of brain injury. True, it may be at the price of increased skin damage, but I would rather a scrunched face than a scrunched brain.

    How can that be? The evidence is complex - but it has been known since the 40's that linear decelerations are not very injurious, it is ROTATIONAL injuries that tear the brain into bits. A bike helmet only protects linear decelerations (and then only a little bit) but it cannot protect for rotational injuries. IN FACT, by making the head a larger target for the road to hit, you are more likely to have a head impact, and any impact you have has a greater rotational effect (it increases the turning moment for the physicists) because it is a greater distance from the brain.

    The glories of science - making the counter-intuitive factual ;-)

  30. And because the helmet makes the head heavier its rotation has more momentum, which makes it more reluctant to stop rotating - ouch.

  31. I'm sure this will've been picked up elsewhere, but it seems that more rides were started from just one London docking station than for the whole of the Melbourne scheme (according to http://www.london-se1.co.uk/news/view/4729 there were 89 trips from a stand in Bankside last friday, compared to the 70 a day figure quoted for Melbourne)

  32. When you die from a head injury I'll remind your relatives that you weren't wearing a hat.

    My £80 giro saved my life.

    James Cracknell's helmet saved his life when he was hit by a truck in Arizona.

  33. @Dougie Lawson - wishing death on people isn't just unpleasant and juvenile, it also doesn't make a case. It only goes to back up my point made earlier on this thread.