Cycle helmets don’t make cyclists safer

Every so often, some well meaning politician decides that cyclists need to be protected by making it mandatory for them to wear helmets. This week, it’s the turn of Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth. It’s good that he cares, but he’s calling for the wrong thing. In fact, in his article explaining his reasoning, he somehow manages to suggest and then ignore several ways to make cycling safer.

Part of the solution, of course, is the matter of education. Cyclists can go on a bike ability course. This used to be the cyclist proficiency test. Other road users need to be aware of cyclists too.

So close. Money should be put into making bike ability available to every child, and there have been calls to make cycle awareness a mandatory part of the driving test. In fact “Other road users need to be aware of cyclists too” manages to skip over possibly the biggest cause of problems for cyclists. Too many drivers don’t know how to behave around people on bikes. They don’t know how much room to give them, when they’re not supposed to enter cycle lanes or what an Advance Stop Lane is for. And that’s all before we get on to them using their mobiles, running red lights, parking on the pavement etc., etc.. Put some money into telling drivers how to behave- and enforcing the rules- and you’ll see an improvement in road safety.

Cyclists’ safety is a particular problem in our cities and above all in London. Cycle lanes provide some assistance, as do lower speed limits. It is likely that banning heavy goods vehicles from certain routes in our cities at peak times would also help as it has in Paris.

Good cycle lanes can make a difference. Bad cycle lanes can make things worse. Reports on the London Cycle Superhighway suggest that it’s been appallingly designed and badly implemented, putting the cyclists who use it in danger. If this can be borne in mind, then these suggestions are all superior to compulsory helmets. The good Lord should push for them.

The Highway Code sensibly sets out tips on safety. Wearing high visibility clothing is clearly a help, as is wearing the recommended cycling helmet.

It’s always good to be seen, which is why my bike can look like a Christmas tree during Winter. And I always wear a helmet. But, and this is the bit that none of these politicians with their good intentions never seem to understand- a crash helmet is not a safety device.

A cycling helmet does not prevent accidents. It doesn’t magically fill in the potholes that can throw cyclists off or seriously damage their bikes. It doesn’t throw up a forcefield which pushes away drivers who don’t understand lane discipline or safe distances. It doesn’t keep pedestrians from stepping off the pavement without looking around.

A helmet is not a safety device. A helmet is a damage limitation device. Like those equally misnamed safety devices in cars- like safety belts, airbags, side impact protection and reinforced A pillars- if it’s needed, then something very unsafe has just happened. Safety devices are things like efficient brakes and properly inflated, grippy tyres, surprisingly similar in cars and on bikes. Indeed, the most powerful safety device in any wheeled vehicle is the same thing- the brain of the person in control of it. Which brings me back to the subject of education….

If Lord Bourne wants to make the roads safer for cyclists, and more pleasant for everyone, then he needs to shelve his call for compulsory cycle helmets and look more closely at some of the other ideas he so quickly skipped past.


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