Guest article by Chris Boardman M.B.E.
If you think helmets and high vis clothing are the answer, you’re asking the wrong question.
Wear a helmet, it's just common sense isn't it?
The idiom ‘common sense’ is often used when discussing cycling safety gear, a subject guaranteed to polarise opinions and get people's dander up. Given it's a subject that seems so clear cut, it's understandable that many helmet and high-vis advocates believe not donning protective headwear and fluorescent vests is simply irresponsible. This was exactly my view until I DID look into it and realised that the ramification of achieving mass compliance, would likely bring about the very outcome I was trying to avoid...
In 1986, in response to her 12 year old son Arron being struck by a car from behind whilst riding to school, Rebecca Oaten started a campaign to make helmets compulsory for all cyclists in New Zealand. She toured the country with her now tetraplegic son gathering support for mandatory head gear and in 1994 she got her wish. It became illegal to ride a bicycle anywhere in the country without protective headgear. This seemed a fittingly constructive outcome to a terrible tragedy but the legislation, easy to emotionally understand, didn’t consider the wider implications and has almost certainly led to more people dying than being saved...
About 110 people are killed each year whilst cycling on UK roads, almost all of these resulting from a collision with a motor vehicle, where the protection offered by a cycling helmet is negligible. At this point, someone will be furiously typing ‘but If it saves one life….’ Well, evidence also tells us that where legislators have made protective head gear mandatory, such as New Zealand, cycling use drops significantly. (In the case of Perth in Western Australia, by 30%-40%). At least if people are no longer riding, they’re not dying right? This is the point we need to zoom out if we genuinely want to save the most lives…
Helmets and high-vis clothing are what people do when the environment makes them feel scared and vulnerable. But they don’t remove danger. All over the world, the countries with the highest use of safety gear remain the most dangerous for self-propelled travellers. This also holds true for the UK where, despite the increasing number of PPE wearing cyclists, we still have some of the highest cycling KSI rates (Killed or Seriously Injured) in Europe.
When you consider that 1 in 6 deaths - nearly 90,000 per year - are attributed to inactivity related diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, pushing anything likely to reduce the likelihood of exercising starts to seem like a bad idea. This is especially the case when you look at what a little physical activity can actually achieve. A recent study by the University of Glasgow showed that people who regularly commute by bike almost halve their chances of dying from heart disease and cancer compared to people who drive. In fact, their chances of dying prematurely by any cause, drops by 41%. Astounding statistics that are routinely ignored.
So, what about Mrs Oaten and her campaign? Imagine if her understandable anger over her son’s terrible ordeal had been directed not at helping people survive being hit by a driver, but instead focused on removing the danger in the first place. What if she had lobbied for a reduction in speed limits on local roads, stronger penalties for those that cause harm, or for areas around schools to be made car-free? Such a focus would have made streets safer for all children, regardless of how they were dressed.
This was the path taken in 1970s Holland. Now, more than 50% of Dutch kids ride to school in safety every day and in line with the evidence sited above, Dutch obesity levels are less than half that of the UK, all without the aid of PPE. In fact, these daily journeys are routinely made in normal clothes, helping ensure this inherently safe activity, looks and feels like a socially standard way to get around.
So if you want to wear a helmet, go ahead, whatever makes you feel safer but if you really care about safety, make sure your frustration is pointing in the right direction; at the thing that makes you reach for helmets and high-viz in the first place.
To the media outlets that either don’t bother to do basic research when reporting on cycling safety - or wilfully ignore it in the quest for a headline - I say shame on you, you do our society an injustice. That our children don’t routinely have the choice to travel safely on our streets is the real scandal and I for one will not let the debate be reduced to focusing on whether they wear body armour. But don’t take my word for it or even review the evidence, just watch this video and decided for yourself which solution you prefer and what you should really be getting angry about.