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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
CTC Helmet Policy nails it for me
Chris Boardman (The Don) on helmet use