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A note penned after watching the telly.
Regular readers of my writings, whether here or on internet forums, will be aware that I am strongly opposed to the compulsion of helmet wearing by cyclists. For new readers, welcome and, please, donít confuse anti-compulsion with discouragement of wearing helmets.
A thought struck me the other night as I was watching the television, I suddenly realised just how ludicrous the various compulsion and safety legislations have become.
I was watching Time Team, which for those of you who are unaware is a televised archaeological excavation undertaken in limited time. This particular show was set in the middle of an open field, with a wide trench that was just a couple of feet deep. There was nothing in the trench other than the normal change in soil colour that indicates an ancient trench or post hole, but this was of great interest and excitement. The presenters completed their piece to the camera, then turned to walk into the excavation. The site must have been subject to some form of health and safety legislation since, as they turned from the camera, they all put their building site plastic helmets on in a synchronised smooth action.
Now donít get me wrong, I fully understand and appreciate the compulsory wearing of these helmets on a building site or other location where there is a high risk of the accidental dropping of items. What I canít understand or agree with is the mandatory wearing of a safety helmet when the highest object is the surrounding ground surface that is just a couple of feet high; there is no chance of anything falling on the wearers head. In other words, the fault of the legislation is that it does not differentiate between actual situations in the real world and so is ineffective in some situations.
This is exactly the situation we are facing with cycle helmets. The authors of all the proposals have no distinction between different types of cycling or cycling scenarios.
Taking the high risk areas, the cycling equivalent of the building site, helmets do indeed make sense. This is where the rider is performing stunts or trials riding. There is a quite high chance of a fall, and so the riders need to protect themselves with safety gear (and more than just a helmet); in the case of helmets the falls are quite likely to be within the design specifications. However for other types of cycling, for example an experienced touring cyclistís gentle roll in the afternoon sun on a traffic free road, a helmet will add absolutely no benefit to safety. The rider will be travelling faster than the designed impact speed, and the chance of a head injury is very low.
Even worse, considering that most of the proposed legislation relates to children, whilst a young new cyclistís journey to the park on a main road may be considered risky (not that the helmet will protect the rider from a vehicle strike), the riderís playing around the boundary of the park field poses no risk at all. Even a fall will be almost guaranteed injury free thanks to the soft ground. The proposed legislation may well force that young rider to wear a helmet on their way to the park, but will then prevent the child sharing their bike with their friends in the park as their friends will not have a correctly fitting helmet with them.
This leads back to the argument that cycle helmets, especially badly fitting ones, can create injuries in certain types of fall. If the friend of the original rider borrows their bike and falls off on the grassy field they will end up with grass stains, or maybe possibly a minor injury if they fell onto the grass very heavily. If, thanks to this proposed legislation, that friend borrows the original riderís helmet as well as the bike (and letís face it, that will happen) then there is a real possibility that should they fall off they will suffer neck injuries, or even brain damage thanks to the increased rotational speed of the skull in a fall. Until these very real risks are fully investigated, documented, and measures implemented to prevent the situation occurring, I have a major problem with forcing riders to wear helmets without choice. Even after the risks are resolved there is no solution to two children with different sized heads sharing the same bike without prior planning.
So what is the way forward? In my mind there are two possibilities. The first and most impractical, but probably beloved by politicians, is to say that cycling of type A requires helmets but cycling of type B does not (unless sub-clause C.7.2 applies). The second option, which is my preferred option, is to complete the studies into the health risks and advantages of helmets, provide these as a full public safety leaflet with the helmets, then allow the rider (or parent) to make their own mind up. This option should also be backed up with a full cycling training scheme that teaches riders of all ages how to ride safely and with least risk of an accident.
We must not let legislation get out of hand!
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