If you want to raise apoplexy in a serious cyclist, mention helmets. No other subject is so guaranteed to drive them into a frenzy of indignation. (Something for which, it has to be said, serious cyclists do tend to have something of a talent.)
What do they get so worked up about? Why don’t they just chill? And why do so many of them refuse to wear helmets, when they’re so obviously a good idea? Well, the thing that gets most of them wound up is not so much helmets themselves as the prospect of compulsion, which is never entirely off the agenda, and which raises the prospect of them being forced to do something they not only don’t want to do – by order of people who do not cycle themselves, and are guided only by common sense, rather than, say, hard facts – but consider a positive threat to their health and wellbeing.
How can that be? Surely helmets are A Good Idea. Even if you consider them ungainly, uncomfortable, whatever, you surely can’t deny that, like seat belts, they prevent injury in the event of accidents and therefore are, beyond question, A Good Thing. Well, many cyclists beg to differ. Many cyclists have looked into the matter, and come to a quite different conclusion. Many cyclists believe that helmets are at best a virtual irrelevance, in terms of rider safety, and at worst a positive danger to the individual cyclist, and bad news for society as a whole.
There’s a website which covers the issue in some depth, and which should be required reading for any legislator with any regard for hard evidence. Cyclehelmets.org features among other things sections on both ‘Published evidence supportive of helmet effectiveness or promotion’ and ‘Published evidence sceptical of helmet effectiveness or promotion’. How balanced can you get? Having said which, there’s no doubt where its sympathies, broadly speaking, lie. As it says at one point: ‘there is no evidence that helmets save lives or prevent serious injury at all across cyclists as a whole.’
The site’s basic contention – and one which seems borne out by most of the academic studies they feature – is that while helmets may be of some benefit in preventing bruising, grazes and such minor injuries, they are too insubstantial to affect the outcome of any incident likely to cause serious injury or death. (Think of the difference between a cycle helmet and a motorbike helmet and you get a gut feel for why.) What’s even worse (and this is what gets some cyclists all a-splutter) there is even evidence (Rodgers GB. Reducing Bicycle Accidents: A Reevaluation of the Impacts of the CPSC Bicycle Standard and Helmet Use. Journal of Products Liability, 1988,11:307-317, for any geeks out there) to suggest that in the case of serious incidents, they actually make matters worse.
And for societies as a whole, suggest detractors, compulsion has proved a disaster, for one simple reason: wherever compulsion has been introduced, cycling has fallen drastically, with all too predictable results in societies grappling with plummeting fitness levels and bulging waistlines. In New South Wales, for just one example, the introduction of laws requiring helmets saw cycling fall by around 40%. And by as much as 90% among teenage girls in Sydney. One thing seems clear: helmets’ effectiveness viz a viz individual cyclists’ safety is very much open to question; the impact of compulsion on cycling – hence health levels – in society as a whole, is not. For society as a whole, wherever it’s been introduced, compulsion has proved a public health disaster.
Cyclists are famed for their self-righteousness. But even the self-righteous sometimes get it right.