The Cycling Helmet Debate Is Toxic

Posted on Categories Vulpine Features

Possibly one of the most shouty topics in cycling. As featured in The Guardian today, here’s Nick on why the cycling helmet debate is toxic.

Let me begin with a story.

Last night I walked into a pub and spotted a guy with two empty pint glasses in front of him. He had a lovely fresh third pint pursed to his trembling lips. Fantastic, just what I was looking for.

“You idiot!” I shouted as I stormed up to him, pulling the glass away and pouring the contents onto the floor with a dramatic flourish. “Stop drinking or you will die!” I walked on, chest puffed out with pride. Another liver-abuser converted. I have saved a life. This feels good!

Next stop, Colonel Chicken’s Cluck Shack. A queue of smelly teenage schoolboys in ill fitting blazers, greasy hands tucking into breaded legs and fried potatoes. One walked out and I grabbed his oil-stained cardboard box, shaking it in his face “This filth will kill you, you fool. How DARE you eat it?”

I followed him home, pushing past his mum as he walked towards the XStation. I ripped the cables out and stamped on the machine, before he has a chance to insert Galactic Death Wobblers 5. “I hate you and your sedentary lifestyle, you W**KER.”

Feeling pleased with my evening’s work, I headed home to finish a relaxing evening by shouting online at other imperfect people for making lifestyle choices that differ from my own. Lovely. A bike helmet debate is brewing. “GET A HELMET, DARWIN FODDER” I type. Send. Smile. Another life saved.

That’s more or less what the Infamous Helmet Debate has become. Shouty strangers shouting at other shouty strangers for choices that don’t affect the first shouty stranger’s life. It’s a bit weird, definitely a waste of energy and not a fun place for cyclists to share space in. It’s not a debate at all, and most of us are sick of it. It distracts from the real issues and it makes cycling that little bit more intimidating.

I’m not anti or pro helmet. I’m pro-choice, for want of a better phrase. I wear a helmet most of the time. Not always. I was wearing a huge Briancon mushroom helmet to race in, circa 1988, before most people knew they existed. My mum made me.

Cycling in Bergen, Norway
Jools in a Harrington Rain Jacket, Kate in a Packable Disc Jacket, Jon in a Harrington Rain Jacket

My cycling clothing company, Vulpine uses models (not models as such, just our friends) don’t wear helmets, usually. Models for HOY Vulpine, our road cycling range, (also mates, including Sir Chris of Hoy) always wear helmets when riding.

So I’m not here to say helmets are ineffective, or not. I’m only saying that the way they’re discussed has become rather ludicrous, and is discouraging to new cyclists.

HOY Vulpine cycling apparel
Kat in a Roubaix Jersey, Josh in a Softshell Jacket, Chris in a Roubaix Jersey

I founded Vulpine because I’ve been head over heels in love with cycling since I was 13. We’re a business of course, but I have a higher aim. To get more people on bikes. Whatever you do, whatever you wear, as long as you can discover the fresh joy of cycling and all its lovely knock on effects…like living longer.

The big problem is cycling is considered unsafe by thousands who might otherwise have taken it up. Pushing a black and white agenda that helmets and hi-viz are vital says “BE CAREFUL OUT THERE! CYCLING IS DANGEROUS”. For the most part it isn’t. A sedentary lifestyle? Now that’s dangerous.

Nobody is offering images of sofa-dwellers surrounded by life support machinery and surgeons on standby. This is closer to the reality of risk. Human perception is terribly unreliable.

Bickering endlessly about helmets reduces our scope to talk about other cycling subjects, especially public health. Cycling can save lives. Thousands and thousands of lives otherwise lost to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, asthma, even depression.

Let’s put our effort into saving lives by getting bums on saddles. To do that, cycling must be a friendlier, more fun, less scary place. Arguing amongst ourselves about a safety device that saves relatively few does not help save the many.

In 2011, very sadly, 107 Britons died riding bicycles. Let’s assume for argument’s sake, incorrectly, that all of them died from not wearing helmets. Why 2011? Look at this handy Guardian table about what all Britons died from in 2011.

The Guardian - What do people die of?

Of the 484,367 deaths that year, circulatory diseases claimed 139,706; respiratory disease 67,690; cancers & neoplasms (I admit I googled the second bit), 143,181.

Conclusion? Cycling is not a major killer. Putting people off cycling is.

Every single death of a cyclist is a terrible tragedy. But every single death of a person who never became a cyclist and might have lived a longer, healthier life if they had is too. Let’s not make cycling seem unsafe and intimidating, let alone abuse each other because we disagree.

If we’re going to rigidly police helmet use, why not ban alcohol and smoking, force-march the morbidly obese every day, get rid of games consoles, sausages, childbirth, swimming, double cream, and sitting at a desk all day?

I’m not going to run up to you in the pub and snatch your drink away. Nobody else is. So why am I sometimes told that Vulpine’s models, my lovely friends, are idiots and are going die, because they’re not wearing helmets?

_MG_5360
James, Jools, Kate and Jon having a fierce argument about helmets, ok maybe not, they’re just enjoying a coffee and a chin wag.

Here’s a recent Vulpine Facebook post talking about our Winter Sale, that quickly became a helmety bun fight. I thought the cherry on top was the impassioned riposte from the model in the infamous image, James that I posted on January the 9th.

Vulpine reflects my values. I want cycling to look like a choice non-cyclists want to make. My friends don’t happen to model in helmets because they choose not to. Conversely, HOY Vulpine is our road cycling range and all the riders always wear helmets. We ask them to.

Sir Chris Hoy and I decided that if you’re riding a bike at speed, perhaps down a descent at 50mph-plus that requires head protection. We may be wrong. But that’s our choice. The anti-helmet angry voices should be able to accept this as well.

Me (on the right) and Sir Chris Hoy riding in Majorca
Me (on the right) and Sir Chris Hoy riding in Majorca

Some commenters on our blogs and social media have said that they will never buy Vulpine because of the lack of helmets. That’s ok. If that’s your choice, I disagree with it, but I respect it if it is presented politely. I think you are intelligent enough to make your own choice. And I think I’m grown up enough to stick to my principles.

Do tweet me on @aslongasicycle, and I will genuinely enjoy the dialogue. No PR bull answers. Debate is fun, when its polite, and a genuine debate, with open mindedness. I will listen.

Better still, let’s ride a bike together! Maybe we’ll talk about helmets for a bit. We’ll agree to disagree. Then we can talk about our favourite climbs and which nuts make the best brownies. That’d be nice. Cycling, after all, is wonderful.

Ride well.

Further reading:
CTC Helmet Policy nails it for me

Chris Boardman (The Don) on helmet use

38 thoughts on “The Cycling Helmet Debate Is Toxic”

  1. I wear a helmet and agree its a personal choice. Having said that it saved a nasty bump yesterday when I was passing a bus and clipped its wing mirror with my helmet. It wasn’t the buses fault btw it was stationary.

  2. “perhaps down a descent at 50mph-plus that requires head protection. ”

    Most helmets only tested to take impacts of around 12mph.

    Irony.

      1. (Incorrectly replied to the wrong comment)

        Don’t get me wrong, I wear one all (well most of) the time!

        Perception, as you so rightly pointed out :)

        Problem is these days, at least in the UK, if you get hit by a car, regardless of whose fault it is, you are instantly seen as ‘in the wrong’ if you were ‘silly enough not to wear a helmet’

    1. Your head won’t hit anything at 50 mph direct impact speed unless you go into a wall. The helmet provides pretty good protection against your nut getting scraped along the tarmac though. I’ve tried this and it works.

  3. Nice article, I do wear a cycle helmet (colour coded to my jacket, and a nice contrast to my bike – but why not!) Spent my childhood and early adolescence without one. I agree that like many things reasoned debate seems to have been replaced by shouty people who don’t feel they have to listen or respect the rights of others opinions.

  4. 100% aligned with your thinking on this; I sometimes wear a helmet and sometimes not … usually I don’t even know why I made the choice on that day apart from if I’m cycling long distance in a day (100km or more) when I figure I’m likely to be tired and therefore less stable at some points. Just celebrate people riding and keep smiling (especially when it gets tough).

  5. Wow what a hypocrite you made yourself look. You wrote:

    “I’m not anti or pro helmet.”

    And then in the ensuing prose you do the precise opposite and argue strongly on one side of the divide laced with cheap-shot angles.

    What a turn-off and then you double up your error by attaching your brand to it. Not smart, not smart at all. Why on earth would you do that? Own goal much.

    [Suggestion: better to have someone else proof read before you post, it is always objectively critical]

    1. Hi Robbie, Peter Walker of the Guardian and 3 of my staff read it beforehand.
      Could you explain more? I can’t really reply if I’m not sure of your arguments.
      Nick.

      1. Don’t get me wrong, I wear one all (well most of) the time!

        Perception, as you so rightly pointed out :)

        Problem is these days, at least in the UK, if you get hit by a car, regardless of whose fault it is, you are instantly seen as ‘in the wrong’ if you were ‘silly enough not to wear a helmet’

      2. “Peter Walker of the Guardian ……. read it beforehand”

        Now I understand better (yep my cheap shot). Rather than me cut & paste large swathes of text then decompiling it I suggest you re-read the sections after “I’m not anti or pro helmet” to see the gist and slant of your commentary.

        You enquire where I stand. I am a libertarian, free choice and that is exactly what we have in this country but I find the increasingly indignant anti-helmet brigade becoming ever more vitriolic and frankly nasty as though they were being oppressed by some imagined law which they are not (you should see some of the helmet debates that rage on road.cc and almost without exception it is the anti-helmet crew who hit the nasty button). Wear one if you want, don’t wear one if you don’t and be it on your own head (excuse pun).

        Personally I always wear a helmet and would feel naked and exposed if I do not have one as happened on one occasion. Fortunately a training ride only so back to base to sort it.

        Summer 2014 I witnessed first hand all I needed to convince me that helmets are a vital part of improved safety (not a panacea as the anti-lot misleadingly claim, just one part). A couple of (Swedish) cyclists not on my spin had mistakenly gone through a light on a country lane and the front guy collided with a car and straight over the bars head first into the windscreen concaving it in (it was a new Jag so would have had high standard safety compliant components). He survived, goodness knows how given his front wheel and forks were a crumpled mess.

        Long story short the paramedic made a big play of the fact that his wearing of a helmet had undoubtedly saved him from worse injury but the most interesting thing he said which cannot be overstated is that a helmet plays a vital role in keeping any trauma intact and stable until expert medical assistance is rendered. I have often heard of such scenarios in motor cycle accidents and it reconciles.

      3. “Peter Walker of the Guardian ……. read it beforehand”

        Now I understand better (yep my cheap shot). Rather than me cut & paste large swathes of text then decompiling it I suggest you re-read the sections after “I’m not anti or pro helmet” to see the gist and slant of your commentary.

        You enquire where I stand. I am a libertarian, free choice and that is exactly what we have in this country but I find the increasingly indignant anti-helmet brigade becoming ever more vitriolic and frankly nasty as though they were being oppressed by some imagined law which they are not (you should see some of the helmet debates that rage on road.cc and almost without exception it is the anti-helmet crew who hit the nasty button). Wear one if you want, don’t wear one if you don’t and be it on your own head (excuse pun).

        Personally I always wear a helmet and would feel naked and exposed if I do not have one as happened on one occasion. Fortunately a training ride only so back to base to sort it.

        Summer 2014 I witnessed first hand all I needed to convince me that helmets are a vital part of improved safety (not a panacea as the anti-lot misleadingly claim, just one part). A couple of (Swedish) cyclists not on my spin had mistakenly gone through a light on a country lane and the front guy collided with a car and straight over the bars head first into the windscreen concaving it in (it was a new Jag so would have had high standard safety compliant components). He survived, goodness knows how given his front wheel and forks were a crumpled mess.

        Long story short the paramedic made a big play of the fact that his wearing of a helmet had undoubtedly saved him from worse injury but the most interesting thing he said which cannot be overstated is that a helmet plays a vital role in keeping any trauma intact and stable until expert medical assistance is rendered. I have often heard of such scenarios in motor cycle accidents and it reconciles.

  6. Couldn’t agree more Nick. I’m also a ‘wear a helmet if it’s appropriate’ person. Your considered and humorous responses to the trolling on FB was excellent!

  7. Nick – an excellent, well written and fair stance on helmets and Vulpine’s policy. Like you, I want to retain the choice. Cycling is freedom and for me, part of this is ‘helmet-free-dom’. May we always have this choice.

  8. For all the increase in cycling of recent years we still have a strange relationship with the bike. As soon as we stop riding as kids (using bikes to get to friends, shops, go on adventures, throw on the floor, jump home made ramps, do skids etc) the bike becomes ‘serious’ it is either something for serious sport and riding, or serious job of commuting to work all decked in hi-viz and special trousers. It has stopped being just something that is part of our lives to make shortish trips quicker and more fun.

    When I’m with friends in Amsterdam, Berlin, or with the kids riding around a forest trail I never wear a helmet, but then I’m usually in jeans and normal shoes and a helmet just gets in the way and doesn’t fit in with my risk assessment of that activity.

    When I race, or don the lycra I wear a helmet and have cracked one in a race after a nasty crash where i think the helmet probably saved me from more serious damage.

    Cycling is a beautiful and varied beast, to expect a single approach (helmet and Hi-viz) meets all the requirements is ridiculous. Once our relationship with the bike evolves more like our European cousins this debate will be less polarising or contentious. A big comment, sorry, but I’ll leave with this.

    A year ago I went to my friends wedding, he was marrying a dutch girl. Many people arrived at the venue in full suit and tie on their bikes and The bride arrived sat on the back of a bike (in full dress) being ridden by her Dad. A helmet on fresh wedding hair would have been ridiculous. We have a long way to go………..

  9. Great post, couldn’t agree more. Sadly I think the pro-helmet brigade is often the same as the anti-cyclist audience – part of the bikelash. Having said that, after 10 years away from the UK I am surprised and delighted to see the increase in cycling on my return. More cycling is the best way to stop these arguments or at least render them unimportant!

  10. I do agree that it should be everyones own choice whether to wear a helmet or not. Just as any other “unhealthy” live-style decision. But I think it’s a different story when it comes to advertisement. I’m not sure if it’s good to portray not wearing a helmet as cool and stylish. I’d have the same doubts with in case of alcoholism or obesity. Even without running around knocking beers, greasy food, and cigarettes out of peoples hands you can be against the advertisement of an unhealthy live-style.

  11. Great article. I once slagged off Vulpine’s lookbook for showing models riding off road without helmets. A few years on and I’m not so sure I made the right decision nor chose the right words. I do think that when riding off road (I only ride mountain bikes), it’s probably wise to stick a helmet on. However, I recently read a study that said car users are more aware of road cyclists not wearing helmets because of the perception that they must be more vulnerable due to the lack of protection. Anyway, excellent brand, fabulous products, keep up the great work. And wear a helmet… if you want to.

  12. I’m not militantly pro or anti, although two major head slams to concrete (from my BMX days back in the 80s) convinced me that helmets have their uses.

    Sure the majority of them are useless at pro-level speeds, but in situations that are statistically more hazardous, such as commuting, the helmets protect at the speeds they’re designed to. Also, many accidents are caused by external factors, beyond the control of the cyclist, which needs to be factored into decision-making process.

    IMHO.

  13. When I got knocked off my bike about two years ago, (part my fault) a person who stopped, not unkindly, remarked ‘good job you had a helmet on’. Despite my body taking all the impact.

    Also I turned up to a ride (sans helmet) with some club mates on an ‘unofficial’ club ride, they refused to ride with me unless I borrowed a helmet.

    My view is simple, as long as cycling is a niche/misunderstood activity. We all have a duty to be ambassadors or represent it in the best possible way, for me that means wearing a helmet… Sorry if that sounds like giving in. Equally riding along country lanes without one, with the sun beaming, is a joy.

    Just ride. x

  14. Hi Nick,

    First time visiting your company’s website, and obviously first time posting here on your blog. I think your discussion brings a lot of good merit, and I agree that the helmet debate is negatively impacting the amount of riders on the road and thus allowing fewer people to approach cycling as an activity.

    I come from Vancouver where helmet wearing is legislated and punishable by hefty fines, I know because I have been fined myself. This stops people from cycling and this doesn’t encourage otherwise pensive people to pickup the sport.

    We live in a world where there is too much CO2 emissions, too many cars, too many people, and not enough cyclists, let’s not let a petty/irrelevant debates discourage others from picking up an otherwise wonderful activity. If you want to wear one, great! if you don’t that’s fine with me.

    Helmet Wearer,
    JW

  15. I thought this was a great blog piece, and really refreshing to read a voice in support of individual choice, which seems devoid of so, so many now.

    I really enjoy nipping the bike out to the shops, or for coffee, with just a cap on my head but, as a rider who finds themselves hitting the deck more often than I’d like, I always wear a helmet for anything longer than a few miles.

    Then, you went and suggested getting rid of sausages!! What sort of monster are you??!!

  16. A considered, rational viewpoint that also reflects my own stance and use of helmets.

    Last night on C4’s 24hrs in A&E an 81yr old -Bill- was brought in after being broadsided by a car at 40mph whilst he was crossing a road with his bike. It didnt make clear if he was riding or pushing the bike at the time. But they did stress that he wasn’t wearing a helmet. His wife wanted him to wear a helmet. Twitter wanted him to wear a helmet. Bill didn’t want to. At no time did anyone question a car travelling at 40mph where pedestrians cross roads. Or that Bill was lucky to be alive full stop because in that situation a bicycle helmet would’ve provided no protection. At all. Especially to the broken bones and lacerations on his body. Or that Bill made it to 81 in such good shape probably in large part to his cycling since 5yo. As it turned out he did not have a fracture of the skull anyway. Bill is back on his bike. Not wearing a helmet. A testament to the love of cycling and the brilliance of the NHS

  17. Great blog and good comment, I wear a helmet most of the time and think it should be personal choice.
    But I also feel that the wearing of a minimum of track gloves is really important at all times. When you come off, hands always go down palm first, and these injuries can cause immense inconvenience for a long time.
    I notice that in your pictures most of your riders are not wearing mits and I feel that this is a poor example to promote. Once you’ve been down and skinned your palms once, you will forever more wear mits, and I think it is up to the experienced and those in the media to promote and reinforce this practice. It might sound like a little thing, but it can save an awful lot of pain, I always wear gloves of some sort whether riding with or without a helmet. :)

  18. Is it just me or do only adverts for cycling gear get this bizarre reaction? I’ve seen this same trivia on rapha images (that should get 50% of you spluttering right there!!)
    If you see a DIY advert where the person has no goggles, hat, gloves do we all splutter and write to ‘ points of view’? (You may need to look that program up….)
    Drive your car in shorts & trainers, fine. Race a car, wear nomex and a helmet. Which one is statistically safer though???
    Shouldn’t all pedestrians wear hi-viz, helmets and padded clothing?
    Statistics show that crossing the road is more dangerous than cycling along it.
    If everybody risk assessed every activity and dressed accordingly we’d never go out.
    Make informed, adult choices but most of all, have fun. Accidents happen, If we try to pigeon hole cycling as a dangerous sport it will be marginalised and viewed as such and it will give other road users an excuse to berate us for not conforming to (their) stereotype.
    Maybe the dissenters can come up with an agreed uniform for different types of bike use?
    Maybe they could wear a black uniform, leather boots etc. So we know they are officially allowed to judge mankind and impose punishments accordingly???
    FFS.

  19. A well balanced article. It’s all about choice. I was knocked off while descending at 30mph, not wearing a
    helmet. I sustained multiple injuries including a fractured skull. All of a sudden everybody was telling me I must wear a helmet and I did at first. But I am no more likely to be injured in the future than I was before, and why should I have to protect myself from someone else’s bad driving

  20. Great article. As a cycling GP, I try and encourage my patients to become more active by leading by example – I commute to work on my bike and attend many of my home visits by bike. I agree that the harms of a sedentary lifestyle are far greater than the perceived risks of cycling without a helmet. I strongly feel that everyone should be free to choose. I almost always wear a helmet but would happily cycle with friends that were sans helmet. Cycling is a joy. I just want more people to join the fun, and thus reduce the tum!

  21. Love a good debate.
    I wear a helmet, but don’t want to…..
    It is naïve to believe that our “choices .. don’t affect the first shouty stranger’s life.”
    I believe we are morally obligated to do what we can to look after ourselves. Yes that includes diet, exercise, life choices etc as our actions do impact on others.
    Often it is personal experience that makes us realise that something is “not worth the risk”.
    If you don’t wear a helmet just make sure that you and you alone can deal with the consequences.

  22. Nice article, simple common sense. I generally do, sometimes don’t, and will bloody well choose myself vis a vis the helmet wearing of. Unless I’m racing then it’s on without even a second thought. You haven’t mentioned whether wearing of clothes at all while cycling is a salient and important decision. Ask Certain Scottish track riders about the lap record at meadowbank…. :-). Ride on.

  23. As a mainly helmet working Emergency Medicine doctor, Nick’s perspective is very sensible. For the cyclists I see with an isolated head injury and no helmet (only one I can remember in 20 years), there is a monstrous burden of smoking, obesity and sedentary lifestyle related death and disaster on a daily basis. Cycling, along with activity needs to be encouraged.

    I like helmets, my Kask one was a lot of money, but I’m passionately pro choice. And before picking on cyclists, let’s stop children playing out, and climbing trees, in fact the home is the most dangerous of all, so full body armour indoors…

  24. Seems if we weren’t debating crash helmets,as cyclists we would find something else to moan at. Miserable roadies not nodding acknowledgement when passing, going through red lights, lycra louts,baggy trousered off roaders,the list goes on. Just ride and enjoy. Bloody social media age.
    Agree with the article though. Do what you want and don’t shout down others that are different.

  25. I bought the very first helmet to hit the market in the mid 80s (Bell) waaay before anyone even thought about riding in Country Bum Fuck Hick Town Perth Western Australia let alone the value of using a helmet as a safety device. Riding The Snake, as I called traffic back then, was a spectacular gladitorial battle of me in lycra on a Colnago vs Large Metal Objects who seriously thought I could miraculously levitate out of their way by blarring their horns as their grills hurtled towards me when wanting to turn left only to find I am inconveniently ‘there’.
    Definitely Pro-Choice, though I don’t understand why anyone would not want to wear one. I would not be here if it were not for helmets, the crashes were that spectacular sometimes. For kids though, definitely a must, a la Sverige.
    M

  26. Hopefully not too late into this lovely debate…

    We think that more restrictions is the very last thing cycling needs. We are PRO-CHOICE too.

    The point is, a law against helmetless cyclists wouldn’t take off the streets many current regular commuters, but do avoid beginers or ocasional riders to get on their bikes more often, either out of laziness or fear of being fined.

    To be honest, we think London would never aprove a law aginst helmetless since their public bikes scheme would die out then 😀 It is all about promoting cycling, not destroy cycling. Actually, fear of fines and restrictions should move on to drivers instead.

    That said, wear the helmet! Always… 😀 London is still far from resembling Amsterdam.

  27. Here in Australia, you know the place where there’s a creature around every corner trying to bite or sting you out of existence we don’t have the choice of not wearing a helmet. The mandatory helmet law debate is a substantial one here and hopefully over time we can have it removed. I personally wear a helmet. I live in a rural area and the bulk of my cycling is road. I would like the option though of riding the 1200 metres down to the shops with a wide brim hat (It was 38 deg Celsius yesterday). In fact During Summer it is probably of a greater health benefit to wear a brim hat helping to prevent skin cancer than a helmet.

    When we look at two examples of where the MHL has been removed (Israel and Mexico) the rate of head injury did not increase but the number of people cycling increased dramatically. I don’t care whether you wear a helmet and let’s be honest you don’t care whether I do. I’m married to an English lady so I know the Brits fairly well. You’re pretty happy until someone takes your choice away. Don’t let that happen there.

    In New South Wales the fine for not wearing a helmet is now in the region of a couple of hundred dollars so if you’re coming to Oz on a holiday remember that one. You can’t ride from your hotel to Bondi Beach without a helmet but you are allowed to step on a stonefish, be stung by a box jellyfish, stung by a blue ring octopus or of course be consumed by a shark. Still come anyway, we’re fun to ride with and we like beer. Cheers

    Keir Whitcher, Daylesford, Victoria, Australia

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *