Monday, 17 May 2010

"Oi! You look like an alien, mate"...

...were the words some schoolkid shouted at me a few years ago while cycling with a helmet.  I didn't mind what he said, in actual fact, he was quite right, I did look like something from a Ridley Scott outtake with sweat pouring down my face.

A few months later I stopped wearing one, not because I was sensitive to the occasional insult thrown my way, but to the false sense of security it was providing.

Cycling on main roads is a daunting experience for most cyclists, especially in school rushhour with the blind panic of a herd of women rushing to pick up their precious cargo of spawn.

Would a helmet have protected me from the juggernaut that didn't stop at the roundabout I was traversing?

Would a helmet have protected me from the car that overtook me through a width restriction speed calming measure?

Would a helmet have protected me from the juggernaut that simply didn't give me enough room on the bend?

Would a helmet have protected me from the car that overtook me and then suddenly braked and turned sharply left in front of me?

The answer to all those questions is quite simply, no.

One of my personal objections to wearing a cycling helmet is not that it is an infringements of my individual rights, or that it look silly, it's the epitome of all that is wrong with the risk adverse, health and safety legislation that we are being subjected to on a daily basis.

Talk to some people that you do not wear a helmet and the response is a sharp intake of breath, a barrage of meaningless statistics and a wagging finger.

The unintended consequences of threatening people with immediate death if you do not wear a helmet is the fact that a false sense of security is nurtured within people believing that the safety gear makes them invincible to fast moving, solid objects.

Some people don the hi-vis vests and believe they are wearing the Breastplate Armour of Invicibility.

Some people don the alien helmet and believe they have been blessed with the Helm of Righteousness.

Some people don the cycling handwear and believe they are wearing the magic Gloves of Sauron.

The people I know that wear this gear, often jump on their bikes and cycle on the roads without a care, going through red lights, chatting away and paying no attention to what is behind them, in front of them and what is overtaking them.

By wearing all this protective gear they think they are shrouded in a magical force field that enables them to cycle through a roundabout in front of a 30 tonne juggernaut which will simply stop in a Matrix-esque "bullet time" fashion while the cycling hero darts in between Agents Ford, Daewoo and Audi unscathed.

No.  Ears and eyes, concentration and a constant reminder: you are the bottom feeder in this maelstrom of deadly missiles.

If I hear a lorry behind me impatiently trying to overtake, do I adopt the attitude of "It's my right to be on the road"?  No.  I pull over and let him pass.

If I see a width restriction or a parked car in front of me, do I pull out?  No.  I look behind me and with plenty of time, indicate and pull out slowly.  If the person hasn't seen me or I suspect will ignore me, I will stop on the side of the road.

If I approach a side road or a supermarket entrance, will I have a quick look around and carry on cycling?  No.  I slow down, look behind me, move out to the middle of the road and cover the brakes.

Cycling is great fun, even on the roads but I wouldn't cycle in busy city centres or dual carriageways if I could travel on quieter roads.

It's all about awareness of other drivers, their viewpoint and your own actions.  Wearing all the safety gear does not absolve you of these responsibilities, nor does it make you invincible.

Some interesting views here


  1. Top post!

    This is the idea of offsetting behaviour. For example, not a single life has been 'saved' by seat belt laws, the deaths have simply been shifted from those inside the car to those outside it. And this has been proven wherever such laws have been enacted. There's a great PDF piece about it here.

    The best safety initiative is one which makes people scared for their own safety, not the opposite.

    The best way of making drivers drive sensibly is to place a sharp outward spike in the middle of the steering wheel. ;-)

  2. Thanks for your most welcome comment, DP!

    That's a great point about the idea of offsetting behaviour, I didn't realise. The pdf link was very interesting reading as well - many thanks.

  3. Glad you found it illuminating.

    I got something slightly wrong up there, though. It's the concept of Risk Compensation. Offsetting behaviour is more a description of the individual's reaction ... I think. ;-)

  4. Offsetting Behaviour is the general notion that regulations often have less than the anticipated benefit because those subject to regulation will adjust their behaviour. Risk compensation can be one mechanism. Gordon Tullock always suggested spikes on steering wheels instead of seatbelts.

  5. I agree with the latter half of your piece, but I've heard this argument before about cyclists quite a bit - from friends and Simon Jenkins in the Guardian.

    What I dont get is this? Does wearing a helmet really make anyone feel safer? Does it seriously make anyone feel safer from lorries and other such massive hazzards? Are these people not just idiots, or insensible to the dangers? I am pretty certain I cycle in the same way wearing a hemet or not - am I alone in this?

    I'm a fairly cautious cyclist, like yourself, by the sound of it. Cycling in London I take the view that if you are hit then it is your fault and I take all possible precautions to avoid being hit. However, there is always a possibility of being hit whatever you do - and surely better to have a hat on protecting your head than not?