In the two years I have been writing this blog I have largely stayed away from the issue of cycle helmets, I generally despair at the debate, equal despair for how easily cycle campaigners allow themselves to get dragged down into a pointless argument and how ignorant the opposition shows itself to be. However one of those ill informed articles that occasionally crops up in the media has spurred a change to that situation.
The piece in question is in the Telegraph and written by Beverley Turner, former ITV F1 presenter and Mrs James Cracknell, the hook to it is that Michael Schumacher has suffered a serious head injury and is currently in an induced coma in a French hospital following a skiing accident. It’s not surprising she would write this article, after all she has that history in F1 (she’s the one who exposed middle aged-millionaire-Italian-motor racers (Flavio Briatore) as being sexist; insightful, I’m sure you’ll agree) and her husband suffered a brain injury following an RTI. He was cycling in the US when he was hit by the wingmirror of a truck, he was wearing a helmet, the doctors said he would have probably been dead without it. Since then James Cracknell and now his wife are advocates of cycling helmets.
I’m going to point out now that questions have been raised regarding financial motivations the Cracknell’s might have to promote compulsory helmet use. That the sponsor of Cracknell’s cycling trip stands to gain from helmet sales and that Cracknell was a brand ambassador for a helmet manufacturer. I don’t know if this is correct but they are raised sufficiently frequently that it would behove them to state once and for all their interest or lack thereof.
[edit 03/01/2014: The Merida site has a piece about James Cracknell being ‘Brand Ambassador’ and appearing on the One Show to promote helmet compulsion and at the same time getting some nice free advertising in for Merida. Does James do this out of the goodness of his heart or is he or anyone associated with him benefitting?]
[edit 03/01/2014: Beverley Tweets…
Just so you know..@JamesCracknell does NOT have helmet sponsor. Of course offers made. All rejected. Obvs uses alpina as saved his life.
— Beverley Turner (@beverleyturner) January 3, 2014
As I say I’ve stayed out of the cycling debate so far, but this time I’m interested, not least of all because Beverley Turner insulted me on Twitter and I’m a delicate soul who takes exception to that and Twitter is a poor medium for conducting this debate. For many years before being a cycling advocate I was a petrolhead, Senna was my boyhood hero and after a few wilderness years Schumi was my next hero, at a time when it was very unpopular in the UK to admire him. Senna’s death was devastating to me, arguably the greatest driver ever, killed when a suspension arm pierced through his helmet. Now Schumi’s freak accident on a ski slope, he was wearing a helmet but it split in two on impact.
So what’s my take on helmets? Cyclists spend hours debating their effectiveness, many seem to enjoy a good helmet debate as much as they do riding; they love to talk about blunt impacts, 12mph test limits, HGV crush injuries, rotational injuries, risk homeostasis, passing distances and a whole slew of other aspects, my opinion is: NONE OF THIS MATTERS.
Let me clarify this a bit, from a public health perspective: NONE OF THIS MATTERS.
When considering the particular circumstances of an individual incident or whether a helmet may prevent injury in a specific instance, they may matter. But the reason the whole debate gets so heated is because the evidence is so unclear one way or another, so the only possible conclusion can be, if you want to wear a helmet, wear one, if you don’t, don’t. If you don’t like other people’s choices, STFU.
Problems arise when people start conflating helmet use as a public health issue or helmet use as a private safety issue. It is unfortunately the case that the people who make this conflation are sometimes people who have a loved one killed or seriously injured due to a head injury, such as Beverley Turner or the Put Things Right campaign. It gets uncomfortable because you have to tell them that what they think they know, what seems self evident and ‘common sense’ may not actually be the right course of action. That as in any situation where emotion can cloud judgement, perhaps they aren’t the correct people to be deciding what action to take.
As a matter of public health helmets are a bad solution they drive down cycle usage and consequently increase chronic ill health leading to a net loss to public health. If you want to save lives, helmets will not do it, they kill people, just not in quite so obvious a way as cars. Our well meaning campaigners don’t worry about this though, they care more about preventing brain injuries, they are a single issue campaign with no thought to the side effects. Side effects, there’s an interesting analogy, if a drug company produced a drug that saved fifty lives today but left a thousand people with chronic ill health leading to their early death in twenty years time, would it be permitted for use? I doubt it.
In her article Turner appears to be arguing for compulsory helmets for children only, however all the same issues apply, some even moreso. Cycling rates amongst girls in particular are very low, cycling already has a dorky image and helmets are definitely not cool. If you want to accelerate the obesity epidemic amongst children, compulsory helmets are the way to go. To this we can add that legislative creep will ensure that what is compulsory for children today will probably be compulsory for adults tomorrow.
Mandatory helmet campaigners fall into one of three groups.
1. Well meaning busybodies who have had a personal tragedy but don’t really understand any of the subtleties or big picture issues.
2. Cycle helmet manufacturers who have an obvious financial incentive.
3. Motorists or motoring organisations who have two motives.
a. They don’t like cyclists, they think cyclists slow them down or some other ill informed opinion and they just want to make cycling less attractive to get more cyclists off the road. Helmet use makes cycling more expensive, less convenient and makes it appear dangerous.
b. They want to shift blame/responsibility/liability in the event of an accident from the driver to the cyclist.
So cycle campaigners, people who want to increase safety for all and make the whole country healthier, what can we add to the debate?
Firstly do not engage with the opposition on their terms. Cycling helmets are an irrelevance, a red herring, any minute spent debating them is a minute not spent campaigning for proper infrastructure. Even if cycling helmets are really very good at preventing injuries, IT DOESN’T MATTER. Because if you compel the use of helmets, so few people will be riding that their benefit will be an even smaller statistical blip than it already is. Do not get dragged into a debate about the effectiveness of cycling helmets or even one about personal liberty, it’s an argument that neither side can win, you just shout at each other from ever more entrenched positions.
The argument should always focus on prevention is better than cure. Everyone in the country knows that cycle helmets exist, that in the event of a fall they may offer some protection. The body armour that a person wishes to don to protect themselves in the event of a fall, is up to them. But from a public health perspective we want to focus on what can be done upto the moment before the fall or impact to prevent it happening. Helmets are a post – accident solution along with paramedics, A&E and ICU. The public debate must focus on pre – accident solutions here we must turn to the hierarchy of risk control, remember this,
Eliminating the hazard is the best solution , then we engineer it away, then we train people, finally when everything else has failed and there is still an unacceptable risk, we make people wear funny looking gear. This isn’t just my pie in the sky idea, the hierarchy has been adopted by ISO and is enforced in this country by the government through the HSE.
Fortunately for all of us one solution does exist, a solution that solves the public health problem and the personal safety problem, a solution that simultaneously protects cyclists from injuries and encourages more cycling making the population fitter, the solution is of course the Dutch solution, infrastructure.
I will also say that for a woman who made such a big deal about sexism in F1 her article is strewn with latent sexism. “Macho twits”, “mothers and girlfriends pick up the pieces”, “if our son ever goes cycling”. Most disturbing of all though, ” take heart in the fact that he wore a helmet. A good man does that for his family as much as for himself”.
The message here, whether she meant it or not, A good man wears a helmet, bad men do not wear helmets, men not wearing helmets do not deserve respect, if you hit them and kill them it is their own fault. Not a message that will encourage safe driving around cyclists, indeed it is part of a paradigm that casts the cyclist as outlaw or at least part of a social outgroup whose value as a human is lower than that of other members of society.
So not a good effort overall by Ms Turner, but perhaps a useful learning exercise for campaigners on focusing our attention and efforts on the things that matter.