Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Why you should think before saying 'a helmet saved my life'

A deep breath, folks, because I'm going to mention the H word.

I don't usually dip my toe into such muddied waters but a Facebook friend recently published a picture of their cracked cycle helmet, saying it had "saved their life".

This came soon after Richard Branson made a similar claim.

I do wish people would look at the research at cyclehelmets.org before attributing unicorn-like magical powers to their styrofoam shell.

Before I go on (and I will!) please note that I am talking about everyday utility cycling. There are arguments that helmets have a purpose in cycle sport such as racing or off-road. All my cycling is utility riding.

I choose not to wear a helmet; whether you do is entirely up to you and I wouldn't want to influence you one way or the other.

My complaint is over the "it saved my life" claims. These give ammunition to the lobby that wants every cyclist helmeted. They also send the message that "every cyclist should be like me".

Advising people to wear a helmet can put some off cycling, when building a bike ride into a daily routine is probably the best way to fend off obesity, diabetes, heart disease and mental health problems (life years lost through cycle accidents are far outweighed by life years gained through regular exercise).

There's also the issue of false safety, where someone wearing a helmet subconsciously takes more risks (I did this in the heady days when I wore a helmet — I found myself riding along a busy trunk road; it was only when I asked 'would I do this bare-headed?' that I realised the danger I was putting myself in). Would you really want to be responsible for that?

Even if you don't believe Cyclehelmets' conclusions, I would hope you would agree that there is sufficient doubt about the efficacy of helmets that wearing one should remain a matter of individual choice, that people should make their own analysis of the professionals' arguments before lidding up or not.

Helmet science is exceptionally detailed and often counter-intuitive. As an example, look at this video.

Disregard the fact that someone should have dealt with the ice patch by putting salt on it.

In nearly all the falls, the rider's head is very close to the ground. If they had been wearing a helmet, no doubt some would be saying "a helmet saved my life".

However, if they had been helmeted, the extra weight of the helmet could have fractionally increased the velocity at impact, meaning a sharper blow (which could do damage) or possible brain injury.

In my view, the jury is out. I really believe that helmets lead to cyclists taking greater risks. In some falls a helmet may help; in others it could result in a worse outcome. In collisions with cars or lorries (ie those above 12mph) helmets are of very little use at all.

In conclusion, I have made a choice not to wear a helmet but if you want to wear one, please do.

Think carefully, however, before saying "my helmet saved my life".

I don't want to see mandatory helmets here in the UK. I'd give up cycling if I had to wear one ... and I'm sure you wouldn't want to rob me of the joy of riding my bike.

Will Bramhill, August 31, 2016



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