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Cycle helmets
A note penned after watching some cycle training.
Well that was an interesting experience. I am interested in helping other people to ride safely and was invited to help out at a cycling club that teaches children to ride. The occasional adult also turns up, and it is the adult training in which I am particularly interested.

I turned up at the school on the bright and sunny Saturday morning, to be greeted with the explanation of the “one rule” that they have. If I wasn’t wearing a helmet I wouldn’t be allowed to ride my bike on their premises; I was offered the loan of a helmet for the morning.

Now to be honest, although I had ridden nine miles through traffic to get to the school, it is on the quiet school field that the helmet would have been most beneficial. Helmets are only designed to work at speeds of up to 10 or 12 miles an hour, and there is probably more chance of falling off thanks to a bump in the grass than there is of having an accident in traffic. In fact I did see several children fall off as they played around in a manner beyond their capabilities whilst unobserved.

I also thought that the rule was very fair, especially as it was explained to me that it was specifically to avoid any debate about the whole helmet issue. No hat = no ride = no arguing.

What I was not happy with though was the fact that the majority of the children I watched were wearing helmets of both the wrong size as well as completely incorrectly fitted. In fact there were a couple of children who actually had their helmets on round the wrong way, placed there by the conscientious parent who was now stood watching proudly.

I questioned the instructors on this. I asked “What is more important, that they have a hat on, or that it is of any use?” They looked uncomfortable that I had spotted this, rushing to say that they were checking all the bikes and riders over, so would spot any problems before the lessons started.

This answer would have been good, had it not been for the fact that the helmets were wrongly worn all lesson by these children; and the bikes I looked at at the end of the lesson were in a dangerous condition. For example one boy was actually proud of the fact that his front brake (the most efficient one) was so badly jammed he could not operate the lever. In response to this another girl laughed and said she didn’t have that problem as she could pull both levers back to the handlebars; she proceeded to demonstrate this, then showed how she could still ride with both brake levers fully applied. Neither of these bikes should have been allowed at the lesson, let alone on the road!

So back to the issue at hand, were the helmets effective in providing safety? I think the answer has to be “no”. Yes I did see many people fall off of their bikes, some children rode away from the observed lesson and started playing, others fell off whilst practicing very slow speed manoeuvres. There was never any real chance of a head injury, in fact there was probably more of a chance of a helmet induced injury!

So what can we learn from this? I do not think that we can rely on helmets to provide safety. As children learn to ride there is one thing that we must be careful to teach them, “Never ride beyond their capabilities”. Yes children will want to try new skills, but we must be careful not to persuade them to try a clever manoeuvre before they’ve mastered the basic skill of balance; we must also keep them under observation at classes to try to stop them riding off.

The big risk though is amongst unattended children, what will they be up to when unsupervised? I really think that we should be teaching them the correct mindset for safe riding and risk assessment from their earliest cycling experience. It is no good not teaching this but relying on the proposed legislation since there is nothing to stop those unsupervised children removing their helmets!
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