I haven’t tweeted or blogged since last Wednesday despite having a whole stack of photos and reflections from the Olympic road cycling races and the amazing performance of the British. I have felt dragged down and fed up by what I regard as the most depressing subject in cycling. For me it’s the subject that almost puts “despair” into “I do not despair”.
As a cyclist interested in sport I have lived through endless drug scandals that dragged the sport into the gutter – and the idiots that still think this is the way forward despite all the evidence that the net is closing. And I can sadly live with the need of some of our advocates to rubbish anyone who doesn’t agree with their approach.
But the discussion of cycle helmets is the cycling subject that drags me down like no other.
I feel the need to put some of this down somewhere – and perhaps to share one small ray of light I discovered in British Columbia – a place with a compulsory helmet law. So back to the blog – and of course the views here are entirely my own.
I was all fired up to blog on Thursday morning but on Wednesday evening the news broke that a cyclist had been killed by an Olympic bus, then in an interview Brad Wiggins was asked about the incident and said that cyclists should look after themselves, including wearing helmets.
It’s the evening after he has achieved something remarkable. It’s not his subject road safety. But of course the BBC has to go major on “Bradley Wiggins calls for compulsory helmets” because they have umpteen hours of news channels to fill.
By Thursday morning London Cycling Campaign and CTC are in full defence mode and even the President of British Cycling has to tackle it when he is speaking about the fantastic system for developing talent that BC has put in place. To be fair, they all did a great job. (More here)
The twittersphere, bloggers, discussion boards were full of fire and fury swamping any pleasure that could be taken from Wiggins and Froomes’s feats and the later victories of the track team. Wiggins was slagged off by the community that just hours before worshipped him.
Somehow I lost interest in the on line cycling world for a few days, I have just treated myself to enjoyment of the sport on TV and the pure pleasure of riding.
It’s not just the UK. Campaigning groups in Spain have been stunned by an out of the blue announcement by a minister to say he wanted to introduce a compulsory helmet bill causing them to have to mobilise both national and international support against the proposal.
And at Velo-city Global 2012 in Vancouver the existence of a compulsory helmet law in British Columbia and the presence of so many advocates from helmet free Europe was just the combination needed to stir the debate endlessly.
Cards on the table. I am 100% against compulsory helmets. I despise the victim blaming that characterises so much reporting about cyclists’ deaths. I have despaired with families because a defence lawyer tries to suggest that not wearing a helmet was a form of negligence by the victim.
But I also wear a helmet – for mountain biking and when I used to race.
When I came to work in cycling back in 1998 I had no idea that this would be one of the discussions that would claim far too big a chunk of my life for the next 15 years – and no doubt will be around for the next 15. And that’s the problem – it just isn’t a subject that anybody outside a very narrow community can understand or engage with, least of all the cycle racing and MTB communities because the helmets are actually made for them – so why would people in lycra understand the issues of helmets for daily cycling?
And as a result it pits cyclist against cyclist, cycling advocate against road safety advocate, it gives free reign to the online trolls who attack cyclists and it heaps guilt on to people who have the most to give to cycling. The UK’s BBC are absolutely awful – they put all of their presenters at every level into helmets for any cycling story because they are so keen to “do the right thing” and they are part of the mindset that bullies politicians into helmets for the same reason.
Even Boris Johnson was dragged into it for a brief time when he became Mayor of London, but Boris is self-confident enough to say “no” – unlike most others. I remember doing an interview on BBC Radio London at the London Cycle Show with the otherwise estimable Sandy Toksvig. Being the BBC they had to have “balance” so they got a senior industry manager from a major multi-national bike company whose company sell a lot of helmets to make the case for lids. When he totally agreed with me that compulsory helmets was a bad thing for cycling the presenters decided that this wasn’t on and started to argue with us themselves.
And perhaps worse of all is the pressure on parents and cycling supporters who feel they cannot let children cycle without the dreaded plastic lid unless they become labelled “bad parents” or “negligent”.
But I am just deeply saddened by the debate itself, the resources it consumes and the time and energy we have lost as a community on a debate we just are not winning and can hardly win without risking damage to ourselves during the fight. Because if society was based on intellect and analysis nobody would speed, everyone would ride bikes, climate change would be resolved and nobody would smoke. And despite the efforts of some researchers who are bashing away some poor studies from years ago offers the pro campaigners their academic fig leaf, along with the comparisons they make with other undoubted road safety successes like seat belts.
www.Cyclehelmets.org is an amazing resource and I am in deep admiration for the team of volunteers and professionals that contribute to it, it would be foolish of me to try and replicate any of those resources here.
But I did amazingly discover one small antidote in Canada, despite the compulsory helmets. Whistler is an interesting case study for all sorts of cycling issues and I will be blogging about it more.
But this community of hardened mountain bikers showed how life really could and should be in relation to helmets. Riders who actually understand cycling risk better than anyone behave in ways that just make sense.
High speeds, high risk of falling? Big impact if you get it wrong? Then it is full face helmets and even body armour. Even the designs take their lead from skiing and snowboarding as can occasionally be seen when the two take place together.
Without the high speeds and the jumps of the downhill tracks the risk is lower and the impact speed is within the spec of the usual cycle helmet. The modern cycle helmet evolved from this world and it is entirely reasonable that it was designed for exactly this use.
Despite the compulsory helmet law this community knows that the good network of cycling facilities, traffic free town centre and the general understanding that motorists know cyclists are around means that the helmets are irrelevant to their safety.
And no sign that the local police feel any need to do anything about to enforce a law that was dreamed up by remote politicos in Vancouver, they recognise that cycling visitors are an engine of the local economy – so why should they hassle them?
Whistler – common sense helmet use. If only the rest of the debate was this easy.