We need to talk about helmets

We need to talk about helmets. I really wish we didn’t. I would give anything not to have to sit through another tedious online argument about the pros and cons of wearing one. They’re so predictable, for starters. There’s Mr or Mrs Safety, outraged that anyone would consider leaving their drive without donning one. There’s the inevitable “my helmet saved my life” anecdote. There’s the slightly dubious comparison with car seat belts. There’s the reasonable sceptic who puts up a link to cyclehelmets.org. And inevitably there’s the bloke who thinks that a picture of his cracked lid will form a massive, expanded polystyrene full stop to the whole debate.

I’m a mountain biker. I write for mountain bike websites. I consume massive amounts of mountain bike-related content, online and on paper, and I ride mountain bikes as much as I can get away with. When I ride a mountain bike, I wear a helmet. Every time. So why do I have a problem with people telling other people to wear helmets?

The answer is simple. I want people to ride bikes. Not just mountain bikes. I want people to ride to work. Kids to bike to school. Cycling as a normal, everyday mode of transport. I’m not just thinking this because I’m an idealistic hippie type (although I bloody love nature, lentils and other such lefty luxuries). I’m honestly wondering what the hell is going to happen to the UK, and indeed the world, in a few years, if we continue our current trend of folk driving everywhere, all the time, no matter how piffling the journey is.

As a mountain biker, chatting about rebound settings and trail centres with other mountain bikers, I know full well I’m part of a little bubble within the bigger thing we call cycling. But some mountain bikers don’t, and they assume that the rules that apply to mountain biking (bring cake, always wear a helmet) apply to cycling as a whole.

Recently Off-road.cc published a piece suggesting that helmets should be made compulsory by law, on the grounds that it would reduce injuries among mountain bikers who fall off and hit their heads. But making bike helmets mandatory wouldn’t just affect mountain biking. It would apply to all cycling. Children in parks. Folk pottering to the shops. If you’re a mountain biker, you’re probably reading this and thinking “So what? I wear a helmet every ride, why can’t they?” And that’s a valid question, which can only be answered if we look at places that have made helmets compulsory.

If we cast an eye over such places – Australia, New Zealand, the British Columbia province of Canada – we’ll find they all have something in common: hardly anyone cycles. And cycling rates, which were low anyway, dropped right off when it became mandatory to wear a helmet. In Australia, the number of cyclists declined by 30-40% after mandatory helmet laws were enacted in 1991.  In BC, cycling levels among 16-30 year olds fell by 30%. In New Zealand, it was even more dramatic – a 51% decline, what’s been described as a whole generation missing out on cycling.

nz-injuries-participation-per-cyclist

Big deal, you might be thinking. If someone’s too cool to wear a helmet, they don’t deserve to cycle. But the people who kept cycling after helmet laws came in didn’t suddenly become safer. Cycling accidents declined, but that was bound to happen with fewer people cycling. The rate of serious injury and death per cyclist barely reduced at all. It’s definitely not what you’d expect to happen, but hey, that’s science.

In hindsight, maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Helmets only cover one part of your body – they’re not going to prevent every injury. A lot of cyclists who die from head injuries also have fatal chest or spinal injuries too. Also, if helmets tend to be worn by a certain type of cyclist who sets out to go fast and take risks, and the cycling population is suddenly whittled down to a hard core centre, accidents won’t decline.

And people who don’t cycle die too, of course. It’s just that there’s never been a local news article about someone expiring from heart disease or diabetes because their daily routine didn’t feature a bare minimum of physical exercise. If newspapers did print those kinds of articles, they’d be as thick as a phone book, and very dull to read. But they might also help give us some perspective about the things that are actually likely to kill us.

death-1

Humans in the 21st century are terrible at assessing risk. We think that sitting on the sofa is safe. We think that going outside and moving around is dangerous. We work on a simple, basic set of assumptions that might have been fine when the outdoors were full of sabre-toothed tigers and giant ground sloths. But that’s not enough any more.

Cycling, as an everyday activity, is not that dangerous. Physical inactivity, as a pattern over a long period of time, is incredibly dangerous. Heart disease, strokes, diabetes and other conditions that can be prevented or ameliorated by doing regular, gentle exercise kill tens of thousands of people every year. So putting people off cycling is far more risky than letting them ride without helmets. Promoting helmets on the grounds that “If it saves one life…” is all well and good, but not if it’s actually making people more likely to die early.

Sport cycling muddies the waters, too. Serious injury rates in the Tour de France are over 100 times greater than for normal cycle commuting. When I started mountain biking again in the early 2000s, inspired by dog-eared copies of MBUK, I was convinced that, if I ever wanted to be a proper mountain biker, I would have to be able to do a road gap, or ride a 40 foot-high North Shore skinny. We love to make out that we’re an extreme sport, but if you look at the type of off-road riding many bikers do in the real world – railway trails, rolling farm tracks – it’s really not. The sports with the highest levels of reported injuries aren’t on wheels at all. They’re ball sports – football, rugby, cricket – which, according to the last set of statistics I could find, accounted for over 70% of injuries in the UK.

There’s another problem with cycle helmets. They’re not as good as you think they are. Deep down we know this. The scenario that’s always given is “someone’s about to hit you on the head with a bit of wood – would you rather be wearing a cycle helmet or not?”. Replace “bit of wood” with “mature pine tree”, “bridge abutment” or “Range Rover” and see how ridiculous that sounds. Consider, also, the number of top DH and Enduro riders who have had to step back from competition because of the side-effects of head injuries. Sure helmets do something, but they’re not a get out of jail free card. If you’re expecting to fall off, you might be much better off taking up judo, or booking some skills training, so you’re not just relying on a lightweight safety device to get you out of trouble.

Really, there’s no need to promote helmets to mountain bikers. The vast majority of us wear them, almost all events insist on them, and anyone who dares to put a picture of an unhelmeted rider in their magazine gets a deafening ear-bending from keyboard warriors all over the world. I have no problem with being told that I need to wear a helmet to do a mountain bike event – that’s the organiser’s decision. I do have a problem with being told that I need to wear one every time I get on a bike.

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