The question of whether cyclists should wear helmets provokes fury often from those on four wheels. But which has the bigger benefit: increased physical safety, or creating a better environment for people to cycle helmet-free?
As a cyclist, I dont object to helmets or to high-visibility clothing. Like the majority of people I know in London, I wear a helmet most of the time when on a bike. I do, however, have serious worries about efforts to make the use of hi-vis clothes or helmets compulsory, or even to encourage them as a safety panacea. Because when it comes to genuine efforts to make cycling safer, they are a red herring, an irrelevance, a peripheral issue that has somehow come to dominate the argument.
Olympic cycling champion Chris Boardman eloquently expressed this when an appearance on BBC1s Breakfast show to discuss bike infrastructure became dominated by angry viewer reactions to him being filmed cycling down a street bare-headed. I understand exactly why people feel so passionately about helmets or hi-vis, Boardman wrote. I understand why people wish to use them. But these actions seek to deal with an effect. I want to focus the debate on the cause, and campaign for things that will really make cycling safe. That is why I wont promote high-vis and helmets I wont let the debate be drawn on to a topic that isnt even in the top 10 things that will really keep people who want to cycle safe.
Boardman is not alone in finding that helmet use provokes strong and strange reactions. Nick Hussey, the founder of a British cycle clothing company, Vulpine, became so perturbed by the vicious social media reaction when his firms website featured models on bikes without helmets that he wrote a response for the Guardians cycling blog. It began with the parallel of him hypothetically marching into a bar and snatching a third or fourth pint of beer from a random drinkers lips, yelling, Stop drinking or you will die!
Thats more or less what the infamous helmet debate has become, Hussey lamented. Shouty strangers shouting at other shouty strangers for choices that dont affect the first shouty strangers life. Its a bit weird, definitely a waste of energy, and not a fun place for cyclists to share space in.
As Boardman noted, in the Netherlands, perhaps the least perilous country for cyclists in the world, helmets and hi-vis are almost unknown. You dont make cycling safe by obliging every rider to dress up as if for urban warfare. You do it by creating a road system that insulates them from fast-moving and unpredictable road traffic.