British cycling legend Chris Boardman knows a thing or two about bikes.
He’s an Olympic gold medallist, he’s broken the world record for the longest distance cycled in an hour on a bike several time, he’s won the prestigious Tour de France yellow jersey on three separate occasions, and even Her Maj gave him the nod when she awarded him an MBE for services to cycling back in 1992.
However, he sparked controversy earlier this week when he appeared on a BBC Breakfast News report about cycling safety. Boardman was shown cycling through a busy city in dark clothing and, most importantly, not wearing a helmet.
“You are as safe riding a bike as you are walking”
To many, this seems like shocking behaviour from such a prominent cyclist, not least one that sells a range of cycling helmets through Boardman Bikes.
When Boardman was asked why he doesn’t wear a helmet, he replied: “You are as safe riding a bike as you are walking, statistically. 0.5 per cent of people in the Netherlands wear a helmet, and yet it’s the safest country in the world. There’s a reason for that.”
Boardman’s claim about the Dutch is compelling addition to the argument, and it’s one that he later backed up by posting this video.
The video is filmed at a busy intersection in Utrecht, and shows hundreds of cyclists without helmets cycling completely unharmed and without incident.
However, as many have since pointed out, this is more to do with the superior cycling infrastructure, than the safety of cyclists increasing when they discard their helmets.
Surely wearing helmets would increase the safety of riders commuting on their bikes, irrespective of how safe the environment they cycle in is? After all, the fault does not have to be with the cyclist for an accident to happen.
As Mpora reader Garreth Davis points out “You cannot control a driver who breaks a red light or getting a random blowout or slipping on black ice.”. The best cycling infrastructure in the world won’t prevent these potential hazards from happening.
It’s important to point out that Bordman is still an advocate of cyclists being safe. However, he believes that the wearing of helmets is not the most important element in remaining safe while on the road.
“0.5 per cent of Dutch people wear a helmet, and it’s the safest country in the world”
In fact, he suggests that when legislation forces people to wear helmets it actually puts people off getting on two wheels. “Countries that have tried to bring in compulsory helmet laws – such as Australia and New Zealand – have actually seen a 30 to 50% drop in the number of people cycling,” he says.
However, the Transport Research Laboratory suggests that this isn’t the case. They say that in a report to the States Assembly in Jersey that there is no evidence to suggest this is accurate. In fact, cycling in Australian states where helmets are compulsory has never been more popular.
Again, there is a counter argument. In a working paper catchily titled: ‘The Intended and Unintended Effects of Youth Bicycle Helmet Laws‘, Authors Christopher S. Carpenter and Mark Stehr state that “There is also robust evidence for an unintended mechanism: helmet laws produced modest but statistically significant reductions in youth bicycling participation of 4-5 per cent.”
Is the popularity of cycling even important? Sure, it is from a business perspective, but from a human point of view, would a message suggesting that people take all steps reasonably available to be safe not be more important?
Ian Walker, a Traffic Researcher, Psycologist, and avid cyclists thinks that road safety actually improves for people who don’t wear helmets. He suggests that other road users; car, lorry, bus drivers etc, subconsciously think that cyclists wearing helmets and other cycling gear are experienced, skilled, and knowledgeable at riding on the road.
However, when they see cyclists without helmets, they subconsciously think they’re less experienced, and more likely to be involved in an accident so give them more room on the road, ad more time at junctions. He also believes that women and children are more likely to get extra time and room from motorists as well.
“Countries that have brought in compulsory helmet laws have seen a 30 to 50 per cent drop in cycling”
Ultimately, the decision and responsibility lies with the cyclist themselves. The argument that cycling should look normal to encourage people to take part is a strange one, however. Here at Mpora, we see a lot of cyclists every day and the vast majority wear helmets so, well, it is kind of normal.
No doubt the helmet debate will continue to rumble on, with strong arguments being made by either side. What do you think?