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26.10.07 by Buffalo Bill

Haute Courier, but is it high culture?

Who would have thought that a piece of polysterene, covered in plastic and adorned with nylon webbing could be the cause of so many arguments? Any cyclist who reads cycle forums, or has been admitted to hospital will be aware that there is a significant constituency of helmet evangelists. Even my old mate Andy White has joined the ranks of the born-again.

Most London bicycle messengers and, indeed, most London cyclists, do not wear helmets. At the first 2 Cycle Messenger Championships, only a small minority of racers wore them. At the 1995 CMWC, minutes before the start of the final, the acting Race Captain, Olli Schuermann unilaterally decided to impose helmet law. London rider Heather retired from the race on the spot, unwilling to accept either this late rule change, or the proposition that wearing a helmet would make her safer.

Since then, all CMWCs have been helmet only. However, it is worth noting that the winner of the 1995 CMWC, Lars Urban, was wearing a leather-hairnet, not a proper helmet. And most CMWCs have permitted the use of such helmets, which are of dubious protective value.

History aside, is the proposition: ‘cyclist + helmet = safer in all circumstances’ proven?

In 1995, when the debate about the use of helmets was beginning, Moving Target published an article entitled ‘Helmets cause death’. A totally absurd assertion, yet this conclusion was supported by the evidence from Western Australia, where helmets had been made compulsory. In the year following the enforcement of helmets, the number of cyclists went down, yet the number of fatal head injury stayed the same. So the rate at which cyclists were dying of head injuries went up.

So it’s worth noting that the simple act of putting a helmet on is not enough to guarantee greater safety for the wearer. I’ll say it again: the risk of collision is not lessened if you have a helmet on. Nor will a helmet prevent death. Emma Foa was wearing a helmet when she was run over and killed.

There is also some evidence that motorists drive closer to helmet-wearing cyclist, which is an unintended, and unfortunate, consequence of bicycle helmets. This is an example of risk compensation. Risk compensation occurs where safety measures are in place that make people feel that the risk of a collision is reduced, therefore it’s safe to go a bit faster, or closer, or pay less attention, thus subverting the extra level of safety.

Finally, when promoting helmets, it is as important to stress that the helmet fits correctly, is adjusted correctly and is still structurally intact. Any helmet that is over 3 years old is no longer safe to use.

I am not saying that no cyclist should wear a helmet. I think people should do whatever make them feel comfortable on a bike, as long as they don’t endanger other road users. However, in my view, promoting helmets should never be an alternative to promoting safe and courteous use of the road by all road users. And I’ll leave you with this thought: the vast majority of fatal head injuries occur in the home.

  1. it’s true.
    i feel invincible in a helmet, so i don’t bother.

    — nick    26 October 2007, 08:45    #
  2. about that last thought bill, wearing protection in my house’s bedroom has prevented me from getting up with a headache.

    haute courier    26 October 2007, 08:50    #
  3. lots more info at www.cyclehelmets.org

    — nohelmet    26 October 2007, 09:29    #
  4. Good article. Safe riding and driving is the fist line of deffence agaist accidents.

    The only bike related head injury I have had was when not wearing a helmet, not in traffic but I was on a 6’ spine ramp. Apparently I then kept on passing out into some girls tits. Being one week before my fifteenth b’day this was quite a sexualy experience for me. I was annoyed at the time that the head injury had stopped me from rembering this close encounter but without it I would have never had this experience of large breasts at that stage of my life. So it was a bit of a mixed bag. Nearly twelve years later and through other sexual expearences with large breasts via more conventional methods I have managed to let the wounds heal. Moral: It is better to lay an uninjured head on large breasts than an injured one.

    Be safe out there.
    — Tom    26 October 2007, 13:01    #
  5. “Moral: It is better to lay an uninjured head on large breasts than an injured one.”


    — Bill    26 October 2007, 14:03    #
  6. Most courieirieier championships permitted dubious helmets but not yours. I arrived late only to be told i needed a helmet. I didn’t have one and someone lent me an old helmet so i could race. Near the end you disqualified me as apparently it wasn’t up to race standard. Then you insulted me on a loud speaker. Why are you so unkind?

    — Zack Speedfast    26 October 2007, 22:29    #
  7. www.fyxomatosis.com/…

    — mrlivid    27 October 2007, 05:13    #
  8. Wow, Zack, still sore after 4 years?

    1. Wasn’t my championships: it was the London Bicycle Messenger Association’s. Therefore, as a London bicycle messenger, you had every opportunity to come along to the planning meetings, which were widely publicised, and speak your piece. As the meetings were conducted according to consensus method your views would have been fully recorded.

    2. The other messenger champs that I was involved in organising, CMWC 94, did not require helmets, mickey mouse or otherwise.

    3. The rules governing 2003 ECMC were published beforehand in a leaflet that ALL comps received. It was made very clear that only ‘proper’ helmets were allowed. Head-fairings and hairnets were explicitly forbidden. Did you read those rules?

    4. I was not the Race Captain, nor was I was a race marshall, and I had no authority whatsoever to DQ ANYONE, even if they deserved it. This was clearly stated in the rules, which said all decisions relating to the racing were the final responsibility of the Race Captain. The Race Captain was Nelly (this information was in the programme). My name is Bill. He is blonde and has blue eyes. I have dark hair and brown eyes. As the race took place in daylight and neither myself or Nelly were wearing disguises, I do not feel that I can be held responsible for any confusion that you may have experienced when trying to distiguish between us.

    5. Did I insult you using the Public Address system in front of an audience of hundreds of Europe’s best messengers? I can’t remember. I insulted anyone and everyone. It was my job.

    — Bill    27 October 2007, 12:41    #
  9. Back on topic, here’s an article which queries the rise in reports of serious head injuries in the US in the period since helmet use became wide-spread. It mentions risk compensation, and is worth a read, no matter which side of the styrofoam you are on. A Bicycling Mystery: Head Injuries Piling Up

    — Bill    27 October 2007, 20:31    #
  10. When will d3o that british comapany with the fantastic material called d3o is going to make a helmet, that’s in a hat. Hey if I ride my bike like I’m on crack, I might as well do it in style.


    — Quinn Hu    28 October 2007, 00:45    #
  11. from that NY Times article:

    Brendan Batson, a 16-year-old high school sophomore in central Maine, had been knocked off the road twice by drivers, so as he entered the home stretch of a 60-mile ride on May 26, he was wearing his helmet. But as he passed through Norridgewock, Me., riding along the shoulder of a rural highway, a pickup truck struck him from behind. It hit Brendan with enough force to rip the helmet from his head, the straps gouging his face before tearing off. Brendan was dragged along the road, past a friend he was cycling with, then thrown to the side. He was killed instantly.

    infinite :o(

    if i were to dwell on the dangers of cycling, it would be instances like this i would be most afraid of. utterly uncontrollable. you can’t even see what is going to happen to try to compensate.

    i do think drivers in the states are much more dangerous to cyclists than here in the UK, aside from drivers in essex who are just like their american counterparts. i got hit 4 times (in 5.5 years) whilst i lived in philly – all, but one, because of careless drivers coming too close. i have been hit once recently in the UK, in essex – again, clipped b/c they were too close and too fast.

    luckily for me, aside from some concussion (and black eyes and dislocated shoulder-dom), nothing has been particularly bad, to me or my bike. i don’t wear a helmet and at this point in my life, i’m not sure what would convince me to. i’m sure there are readers of this that will find me incomprehensible and i wonder, then, if it’s just one of those lines in the sand? i refuse to wear one. end of.

    i lived in rural france for just over a year and that was the most wonderful place to ride. drivers would, literally, drive in the ditch to give me waaaaaaaay more than ample road space. the only time cars came too close (but never that close), they had UK license plates.

    again, sleepy and i went on a cycling holiday through andalucia this summer. in the mountains, cars there would pass us very fast, but with HUGE, safe spaces. cars in the city would generally give us the entire lane to ourselves. most courteous indeed.

    i think then, i want to say that i resent the emphasis being placed on cyclists to compensate for the inadequacies and negligence of drivers. i resent that the focus is on me, when i am the recipient of the injury, not the cause. in my opinion, the focus on cyclists as needing to ensure their own safety is like some kind of black flag. i am not the problem; negligent drivers are. and what needs to happen is for their to be some kind of cultural re-education which encourages motorists to view cyclists in a positive light, not as an inconvenience.

    — lurkette    28 October 2007, 09:21    #
  12. Slow down Bill i was only on a wind up didn’t expect a frickin essay.

    — Zack Speedfast    28 October 2007, 11:48    #
  13. on point as always, Bill.

    Statiscally your argument is sound too.

    Wear a helmet or don’t. It’s everyones personal choice.

    However, I’d hate for anything happen to that brain of yours.

    ride safe.

    — andywhitelives    30 October 2007, 06:09    #
  14. grovel,grovel,lick,lick.

    — zack    30 October 2007, 11:06    #
  15. tasty

    — mmmmmmm    30 October 2007, 22:02    #
  16. So does this mean you’re going to start wearing a helmet Bill???

    — ifbm    31 October 2007, 09:43    #
  17. I always thought Bill did wear a helmet…but maybe that’s just his hair.

    westcoastmess    31 October 2007, 11:14    #
  18. I wear a helmet sometimes. I used to wear a helmet all the time. Even in bed. Like the gauls, I was frightened that the sky would fall on my head.

    — Bill    31 October 2007, 11:26    #
  19. Word to that Bill, there is alot of sky up there and if it falls it will be well heavy.

    Ride safe.

    — Tom    31 October 2007, 12:35    #
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