If you want to get ahead, get a helmet. Or don't.

To the editor of Cycle, the CTC magazine:

Sir,

It’s always a shame to see factions of CTC cyclists still arguing with each other over whether one “ought” to either wear, or be forced to wear, a helmet. The argument last in a recent couple of letters pages rears its head so often that the editor might almost think of adding a disclaimer at the bottom of his editorial each week.

Anti-helmet cyclists do themselves no favours when they describe compulsory helmets as “Orwellian.” If it were truly Orwellian, then you can be certain that Liberty would get there before the CTC. The UK has a tradition of case law, not evidence-based law, and within this tradition forcing helmet use makes a certain kind of sense: it’s merely based on the wrong assumptions, which one can oppose and reason against; this is scarcely the plot of 1984. Using such terminology as “Orwellian” in these circumstances trivialises real oppression of free will around the world; vocal broadcasting of such in the wider press leaves the cycling community as a whole looking isolated and slightly loony: the layman looks from the seatbelt, to the cycle helmet, to the motorbike helmet, and fails to see why one is an instrument of totalitarian sociopolitics while the other two are not.

At the same time, pro-helmet cyclists ignore the large-sample statistics that suggest helmets give inconclusive results across the cycling population as a whole. This is not an egregious sin in itself, as I’m not aware of any trials which involve randomizing the control group, or proper intervention-based trials; so it’s difficult to dismiss the quite reasonable possibility that helmets might help make safer a certain helmet-wanting demographic. Accident statistics alone also don’t take into account individuals’ psychological responses: how much more likely a timid cyclist is to cycle if they have access to a helmet. So there’s more to it than just big population studies.

But when ignorance of the arguments against helmets is coupled to a moral zeal, strongly pro-helmet cyclists also risk detrimentally affecting cycling in the UK: without good answers to the statistical questions, and with a clear lack of knowledge about human psychology, some pro-helmets end up as far from reality as the extreme anti-helmets, and start to propose things like mandatory helmeting. If this were applied across the country, I dare say it might serve to wipe out cycling in the UK as a sport, hobby and way of life.

The overarching safety issue right now—ironically clouding the statistics and psychology of this very debate about the actions of individual cyclists—is that cyclists have little or no control over their safety, through their own actions: helmet or no helmet. Such control is rather in the hands of irresponsible and ignorant drivers, while cyclists are continually marginalized and ignored, all for the drivers’ benefit. Cyclists will only wrest back control over their own fate by becoming a real, serious presence on the road; that presence requires that we make cycling an attractive proposition to as many people as possible.

Increasing the number of cyclists on the roads requires compromise over bike helmets. Pro-helmet cyclists need to accept the existence and legitimacy of anti-helmet views, and appreciate that, while there is only equivocal evidence, letting individuals have the choice can only increase cycle use; anti-helmet cyclists must accept the existence and legitimacy of pro-helmet views, and appreciate that not every cyclist has their detached and rather unemotional attitude to personal risk.

Let’s have a ceasefire for a few years, at least, until we get far more cyclists out on the road; then, once we’ve made cycling considerably safer by sheer weight of numbers, we can start banging away at these arguments again. If any of us still actually care enough to bother.

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This entry was posted in belief, cars, cliques, correspondence, cycles, enmity, friends, individual, intuition, lies, mind, morality, opinion, person, psychology, research, safety, society, transport, truth, understanding. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to If you want to get ahead, get a helmet. Or don't.

  1. looby says:

    Great stuff, especially the comparison with the now uncontroversial wearing of motorcycle helmets. Hope they publish it (although it’s probably far too even-handed and patiently argued).

  2. sbalb says:

    In the end, I didn’t bother. I realised I’d published it sufficiently here to make me happy, and for it to be basically an open letter.

    Also, I’d have felt a bit mauled if they’d trimmed it for reasons of space and made me sound like a loon.

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