Saturday, September 20, 2008

Cycle helmets?

Simon Jenkins had a rather silly article on cycle helmets in Friday's Guardian. It seems the model Elle MacPherson was photographed riding without a helmet and was pilloried in the tabloids. Jenkins springs to her defence. Fair enough. It's a personal choice. There is an argument that cyclists are safer without helmets. It derives from the "Wilde-Adams theory of compensatory risk assessment": the idea being that motorists give helmet-less cyclists a wider berth, and that the helmet-less cyclist is likely to ride more carefully than one who feels protected by the helmet. There is probably something in this. But then again...I wear a helmet because I think with or without one most motorists in the UK are careless when it comes to cyclists (sometimes I think they are deliberately trying to kill us) and I don't need to take my helmet off to try to be careful. But, as I say, its a personal choice. The silliness in Jenkins argument stems from his absolute dogmatic assurance that bare-headed is best. It's not so straightforward. And he becomes extremely silly when he points out that helmets are rarely worn in Holland (where cyclists are fairly safe) and are worn in Western Australia (which requires helmets by law and which has three times the cycling death rate). But this has nothing to do with helmets. Cyclists are relatively safe in Holland because of a superb network of cycle paths, the near-universality of cycling, and a "cycling culture". It is not that cyclists are safer in Holland because most don't wear helmets; rather, most don't wear helmets because they are so much safer. Jenkin's "causal arrow" points in the wrong direction. It would be a brave Dutchman who tried to navigate Manchester's Oxford Road without a helmet. I wouldn't recommend it (although I do see bare-headed cyclists, but I doubt that they are safer than I am).


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