Winning the tour De France meant that Geraint Thomas was plunged into a massive programme of media interviews. Of all the attention focused upon him, one answer, given in the midst of a one-hour interview, has come to dominate the recent coverage of his achievement. This has resulted in a twitter storm and various interested parties have aligned themselves to different sides of the resulting debate.
So, what has caused all this controversy? Cycle helmets. More specifically whether the wearing of cycle helmets should be made compulsory.
This came to the fore when the Sunday Times magazine published an exclusive interview with Thomas. “I would certainly make helmets compulsory,” he is reported to have said. The response was led by a Chris Boardman – Olympic gold medallist, Tour de France stage winner, technical guru, former director of British Cycling and, now, Cycling and Walking Commissioner for Manchester.
He rightly pointed out that statistics show that the compulsory wearing of helmets do not make cyclists safer overall or less prone to head injury. He cited Holland, and the city of Utrecht in particular, where only half of 1% of cyclists wear helmets, yet the head injury rate is far lower than for the UK.
This thing with Holland though, is the attitude of the population is different, a point he makes in this video.
In the UK each of us who drives, and is happy with the status quo, is effectively accepting that the killing of about 1800 people in road accidents each year is an OK price to pay to use the road system as we do know it. (Figures for 2016: 1792 fatalities; 46% car occupants; 25% pedestrians; 25% motorcyclists; and 6% cyclists).
Those calling for the compulsory wearing a cycle helmets miss the point that overall it does not make cyclist any safer. Whilst these two of viewpoints on first viewing appear to be opposite sides of an argument, in many respects there are two arguments in support of the same point.
Many people, in their workplace, refer to risk assessments; or are at least aware of measures put in place to protect them as the result of risk assessments. These workplace risk assessments are no different in principle than the process each of us go through many times each day in reaching some of the decisions we make. Often this is referred to as using common sense or being sensible. The workplace risk assessment uses a process to maximise the effectiveness of the assessment and implementation of the outcomes.
When a hazard has been identified, there is a hierarchy of action to me taken to mitigate the risk that it poses. This starts at the top with eliminating, or isolating the risk down to, as a last resort, using personal protective equipment to protect the individual.
The difference between Holland in the UK, is that the Dutch have started at the top and try to eliminate, as far as is possible, danger to vulnerable road users. Then they use administrative measures and training to further reduce the risk.
In the UK the tendency is to go to last stage of the process and argue for mandatory wearing of helmets regardless of what the statistics and actual level of risk support. This ignores the far more effective measures available, further up the hierarchy, that will offer more protection.
Chris Boardman in his approach is trying to eliminate or minimize the major cause of the injury to cyclists and other vulnerable road users. Geraint Thomas is surely looking at the current state of the UK transport provision and what, practically, will help to reduce the severity of injuries incurred. These positions need not be mutually exclusive, provided the eventual goal is the same. A transport system that caters for all who need to travel including pedestrians, cyclists, the disabled, children, equestrians and all other vulnerable road users. This role is not anti car or anti HGV; but pro society and pro equality.
In terms of transport, the focus of the government at the moment appears to be on creating new legislation to cover a scenario where a cyclist may kill a pedestrian. This is one of the least likely causes of an accident occurring to a pedestrian. Government whip up this debate despite the fact that, should prosecutors wish to use it, there is already adequate provision to deal with such an offence. Funny how they always seem to have another government announcement to slip out when they open up this topic.
This is not to say that all cyclists, any more than any other class of road user, are perfect. Only a couple of weeks ago I came across a group of cyclists resplendent in their black and white club tops, riding three abreast on a fairly narrow country road. Frustrated drivers trying to pass were greeted with obscene gestures and shouted abuse. The two riders on the outside made no attempt to drop back in to what would then have been just two columns of riders. Whilst riders like this exist, it doesn’t alter the fact that cyclists are vulnerable road users and are victims in almost every case where there is conflict or accident between a motor vehicle and the cyclist.
Do I wear a helmet? I do virtually all of the time that I am riding. When I’m on a busy road this is nothing to do with the likelihood of an accident occurring, but because of the possible severity of the consequences should such an accident occur. There are off-road routes and segregated cycle ways where I may not wear a helmet but, as these are usually short interludes in a longer journey, it’s just easier to keep the helmet on.
So, do I think the wearing cycle helmets should be compulsory? Definitely not. All the evidence is that it would make no difference to overall cyclist safety. Most riders already assess the risk to themselves and reach their own decision as to whether or not they wish to wear a helmet. Observation of any busy commuter route will show that the majority of cyclists have taken the decision that, given the current state of our cycling infrastructure, they will wear a helmet. Evidence shows that where provision is made for non-motorised car users, including cyclists, overall accident and head injury rates decrease regardless of whether helmets are being worn or not.
Does Chris Boardman, or groups like Cycling UK, Sustrans or Campaign for Better Transport, have all the answers? No they don’t. What they do have is the knowledge and information on where to start solving the underlying problems and how to go about it, and what works. What is needed, to make all road users safer, is a government that has the confidence to care more about the country and its inhabitants, than their party and the factions within it. Also needed is the vision to look beyond the period of one parliament and to legislate and make provision for the longer-term needs of the whole country and all of its citizens.
British Cycling have published a summary of Chris Boardman’s arguments
Campaign for Better Transport
Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine – Making cycle helmets compulsory: ethical arguments for legislation