Tag Archives: Cycle Helmets

The joy of risk taking

Challenging the Health and Safety Orthodoxy

When Bradley Wiggins came to Guernsey I was asked, as one of the few deputies that cycle regularly, whether I’d be willing to be part of the deputies against the civil service cycle race. Given that it all seemed to be in good sport, the fact that I consider Sir Bradley to be an excellent rôle model for young people today and the opportunity to beat other deputies (even if it was on something other than debate), I decided to take part.

Sunday morning came and I pulled on a t-shirt, cycling shorts and my cycling shoes ready for the occasion. As I approached the front and heard the cheering crowds for the children’s race, saw proud parents beaming with joy as to their child’s participation, I considered what a good event this was, enthusing people of all ages about cycling and, thanks to the weather, the fact that rain isn’t a barrier to healthy traveling.

I registered for the race, pinned the number to my chest and quickly noticed how healthy, svelte and fit most of the civil servant participants looked in comparison to the deputies. I also noticed how a number of deputies that were meant to participate evidently preferred their bed on a wet Sunday morning to the joys of cycling.

As we moved onto the road, ready for the race, I was asked where my cycle helmet was, to which the response was

“I don’t wear a helmet”

The look of horror and disgust on people’s faces was surprising. I had evidently crossed a line that was not to be crossed and challenged the modern orthodoxy of elf ‘n safety. How dare I suggest cycling without a helmet. Being the person that I am I suggested that they made no difference to safety and weren’t effective. Evidently a mistake, not only was I considered misguided, I was also unwilling to repent for my defiance of the orthodoxy.

So let me put the record straight. I don’t disagree with those people that chose to wear cycle helmets, as with anything in life, I’m a great believer in personal choice. But I simply don’t believe that cycle helmets are beneficial. The evidence that we have available does raise some very real questions about the cost benefit of them, the long term disbenefits of their promotion and the fallacy that, as a society, we pay increased health costs for those that disregard orthodox health and safety.

Let’s start with the benefits of cycling. There is strong evidence to show that people who cycle regularly, even if they already undertake regular exercise, enjoy substantial health benefits (Froböse, 2004 and Cavill & Davis, 2007) . These benefits include

  • Boost of Immune System
  • Muscle Strengthening and Maintenance
  • Increased Bone Density
  • Reduced risk of Back Pain and Disc Problems
  • Balance & Equilibrium Maintenance
  • Heart & Cardiovascular Improvements
  • Body Fat Reduction

There are many other direct benefits, as well as the indirect environmental benefits of less people producing pollutants from driving, reduced noise pollution of traffic etc. All of these direct and indirect benefits are substantial in their cost saving to our health economy.

No one disagrees with these sentiments, but I do hear you ask “what has helmet wearing got to do with these benefits”. Well the answer is not obvious at first, but the evidence is clear. The more we do to demand helmet wearing either by direct legislation or simple encouragement, the less people cycle.

The most extreme example is Australia, where compulsory helmet laws have seen drops in usage. I’d like to refer specifically to Victoria where the number of children cycling has has seen a reduction of between 36% and 46% since making helmet wearing compulsory.
More telling is the cycle scheme that they have in Melbourne, where a city of 4 million people attracts fewer than 650 subscribers to the scheme. During four months the number of cycle rides were 20,700 journeys averaging around 300 per day.
Compare this with Dublin, where there is no compulsory helmet law, and a city of 1.7 million people attracts 47,000 subscribers. In the first twelve months the number of rides were 1.1 million with the average daily journeys being a staggering 5,000.

So why the difference. Admittedly, the cost of the Melbourne scheme is nearly four times the Dublin scheme, but despite this it remains competitive on cost to other forms of transport. As I’m sure you’re not surprised to hear, most analysts place the reason for the difference firmly at the feet of Victoria’s compulsory helmet laws.

“But we’re not facing a compulsory cycle helmet law” I hear you say. Well thank goodness no, but before we start relaxing, there is evidence that UK local authorities that undertook cycle helmet promotion saw a marked decrease in cycling. The table below gives a measure of the decline:

Focused campaign held 1994 – 1996 Change in helmet wearing Change in cycle counts
Yes (11 authorities) + 4.1% – 2.8%
No (18 authorities) + 0.8% + 4.9%
p < 0.001, sample approx 20,500 cyclists

Therefore the evidence is clear, increasing helmet promotion reduces cycling activity. And the cost benefit analysis is substantial, with the health benefit:cost ratio ranging from 13:1 to 415:1. Therefore any reduction in usage is likely to have a substantial cost increase for health.

Promoting cycle helmets gives people the impression that cycling is dangerous, but once again, the evidence doesn’t suggest that. Of all Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) in the US from 1997 to 2007, cycling was a tiny proportion.

Activity Average TBI fatalities/year % of total
All causes

53014

100%

Motorists

7955

15%

Pedestrians

1825

3.4%

Motorcyclists

1361

2.6%

Cyclists

325

0.6%

I know that it’s going to sound ridiculous, but are we honestly suggesting that people wear helmets in their cars or whilst walking?

A psychologist friend of mine suggested that, were I really interested in reducing the risk of cycling, I should buy a blonde wig, dress in female clothing and wobble as I cycle. This would have a far greater effect on motorist’s behaviour towards me than any helmet (which incidentally, tends to cause drivers to drive more recklessly around you than if you’re not wearing a helmet). The real risks are available in this interesting quiz.

Just before I finish on this subject, I don’t normally lend much in the way of credence to the reporting of the Guernsey Evening Press, but I note that there was a report today claiming that young children forced to wear a helmet to the skate park would rather skate elsewhere. Do we think that children would be safer skating on the street? Obviously not, we simply need to learn that when children fall, they will hurt themselves, this is part of learning to live with risk and what risk we’re willing to undertake.

Risk

This is my biggest fear. I remember being told that were we to apply the health and safety norms of today to the invention of the car, it would never have been allowed. The idea that we regularly jump into a moving vehicle with such an appalling safety record and demand multiple locations that sell highly flammable liquid is simply incompatible with today’s orthodoxy.

We’ve reached the point of stifling innovation, talking of risk as though it were a bad thing without recognising the benefits. This is not a mindset that will serve us well. We do not need a future generation of risk averse health and safety executives. What we need are a number of wealth creators who recognise risk and learn to evaluate and understand it, not try to eliminate it.

I’ll finish with an anecdote from my past. I used to work in the information security department of a bank, the policemen of the IT systems if you like. Too frequently the talk was of removing risk, when the only effective means of removing risk was to switch the computers off. On one occasion I could see a manager contemplating it, not realising that he was contemplating shutting down the bank.

Are we on the brink of trying to remove risk to the same extent, not realising the wider consequences of our actions?