Thursday, 2 August 2012

The real debate isn't whether people should wear helmets on a bicycle. It's about the need for government to take cycling seriously and decide what cycling should look like in the UK .

A new cycle super highway in London at rush hour. The blue paint is also a left turn lane for motor vehicles that
makes conflict between motorists and cyclists hard to avoid

The last 24 hours has been slightly roller coaster in cycling terms.

I sat last night (I’m out in Asia at the moment) glued to twitter, watching the updates on Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome’s time trial successes. The Financial Times has an excellent piece talking about Wiggins's success and also discussing the massive surge in popularity for everyday cycling as transport. 

And I read this morning how Bradley Wiggins had, in a press conference, uttered these words, according to The Times:

There is so much that is right in these comments and so much that is utterly wrong. Utterly wrong is the inference that you won’t get killed if you wear a helmet. Personally, I wear a helmet some of the time but I don’t wear one to cycle a mile to the shops or even three miles on back roads. Or when it’s stiflingly hot.

Where I do agree with Wiggins’s statement though is the point that ‘things can’t continue the way they are’ and that ‘once there are laws passed for cyclists, then you are protected’.

Things clearly can’t continue the way they are. The number of people cycling is on the increase but they’re expected to tough it out among frankly awful road conditions designed exclusively to maximise the flow of motor vehicles.

“There’s nothing that acknowledges the bicycle…If you want to cycle, then you have to do so on four-wheeled terms”. 

Put Wiggins’s comments about ‘laws for cyclists’ in the context of Bathurst's statement, and I think it’s obvious that we need road laws that cater for people on bicycles. A cycling rule in Denmark, for example, is that cyclists may not filter across multiple lanes of motor traffic at junctions. If they want to turn left (equivalent of our right) have to first turn right and then cross when the lights change. It sounds like a massive inconvenience. But the reality is that this law has meant roads are designed to help cyclists make turns across busy junctions safely. And guess what, millions of people use bicycles to get around – 60% of Copenhagen commuters in fact.

In other words, if you want to acknowledge the bicycle, you may end up constraining some of the freedoms that cyclists enjoy at the moment. But this can have huge benefits, provided you focus on the right issues.

Bella Bathurst makes another, related point:

“Cyclists [in the UK] were faced with a landscape which either took no interest in them or appeared keen on actively eliminating them…the law ignored [cyclists]. The solution for many of them was to develop a style of cycling based on a combination of mountain biking, road racing, BMX skills and gymnastics…The law ignored them, so they ignored the law.”

There is so much that I can identify with in this statement.

We can build decent cycle infrastructure
in the UK. Pictured at Oxford Street. But
this link is only 20 metres long and simply
doesn't join up with anything. The lack of joined-up
approach is a big problem
In the Netherlands and increasingly in places like New York, I feel that I have a moral right, as someone on a bicycle, to get about my business safely and conveniently. And I have responsibilities.

In the UK, I feel marginalised, frequently intimidated on the roads and I often feel that both the law and the rules that define what a 'safe' road layout looks like simply don't make any sense when I'm using a bicycle as my mode of transport. 

Wiggins is right that things have to change. We have a ‘national cycle network’. It is being rolled out by a charity (Sustrans) that does a great job. But it’s a charity, with tiny funding. In London, Transport for London is only just starting to understand cycling. And to get its junction review and other safety proposals moving, it is working heavily with groups like the London Cycling Campaign – another charity, this time supported by dozens of volunteers taking time off work or their evenings spent working with TfL to try and help the organisation understand cycling.

Wiggins’s comments have unleashed a media rush to mandate helmet use. I think the real focus should be about the need to change the overall context of what’s happening in the UK. We can no longer rely on an army of volunteers to design a national cycle infrastructure, just as we can no longer rely on laws and road safety rules that ignore or simply fail to understand what it's like to be a cyclist.

I think we're reaching a tipping point:

The government needs to create a framework for cycling. It needs to decide what a national cycle network looks like. It needs to decide what urban cycle networks should look like. And in exchange it needs to regulate cycling to some extent. Until it takes these issues seriously, then the debate about helmets or the debate about segregated (protected) bike tracks is all just hot air. The risk is that one of these topics gets all the limelight, when the real issue is about giving cycling a proper place in UK transport. 


Note that this afternoon Bradley Wiggins sent a couple of fairly clear tweets to clarify things:

"Just to confirm I haven't called for helmets to be made the law as reports suggest"


"I suggested it may be the way to go to give cyclists more protection legally I involved In an accident"

I do kind of get where he's coming from. But what a pandora's box he's opened. It could be good. It could be bad. We'll find out. 


  1. The cycle lane pictured onto oxford street also is part of Westminsters ill thoughtout plan that does not let cyclists get from mayfair to fitzrovia, you'll note it's night turn only. the correct way to tackle this is via four lanes of traffic and numerous lights through Cavendish Sqaure, a signifactly more dangerous route. and that ignore jsut how badly sufaced the road is for cyclist heading down it from Oxford St, against the contraflow.

  2. The trouble with focusing on whether cyclists should or should not wear helmets is that it transfers the safety-responsibility onto the cyclist, regardless of the fault and allows us to ignore the real danger - large high-speed high-mass (cocoons) motor vehicles.

    This focus is because motor vehicle safety has, to some degree, focused on mitigating the result of unsafe driving behaviour for the occupants, with seat belts and crumple zones and the like.

    Yet, IMHO the Dutch cycling situation is an existence proof that safe cycling is not about helmet wearing.

    Ultimately the question is whether encouraging more cycling provides an overall societal benefit. Here in the Cambridge area we often see the justification for spending over a £1bn on upgrading the A14 as "being good for the economy". (As if it were a self-evident truth!).

    Yet when the someone from the Cambridge Cycling commented:

    Michael Cahn, the organisation’s coordinator, said: “This same money could have been used to create 2,500 kilometres (1,550 miles) of segregated cycleways in and around Cambridge.
    “That is far more than enough cycleways to connect every house with every school, shop, workplace and leisure facility in the area.

    Even cyclists tried to excuse such a bold statement as "rhetoric". Yet think how positively transformational that would be. Try living next to a busy road if you don't believe me.

  3. My comment to the blog of " CyclingLawyer" ! Martin Porter is a Silk With Superb knowledge of the Law that he relays to US Cyclists in everyday language .

    " Regrettable that Briggo missed the Golden Op. to side with Cyclists ! He will in the near future , have to take his son out on the roads , and will he be any safer than you or i ?

    Riding the London Super cycleways in recent days i can say definitively that they are NOT FIT FOR PURPOSE ! Following " Police Investigation Land Rovers and Commer Vans with one wheel on the " White dividing line " does not inspire confidence .

    Police officers will tell you that signalling overtaking a cyclist is not required when there is no vehicle immediately following . In my opinion , it should already be a legal requirement , regardless of whether there is any following traffic ! Further UNTIL the Emergency Services signal when passing a Cyclist , there is No Hope of " Joe Public " adopting this simple behavior . When a truck or bus passes a cyclist , those tail gating , have no warning of the cyclist being passed .

    " Oops just hit a cyclist , not my fault they were there , i couldn't see them , as i read the text , ate my sandwich , used the mobile , read my paperwork , looked at my tomtom , whatever!"
    " So sorry won't do it again !" , UNTIL NEXT TIME !

    Justice for a grieving family ? Light slaps on the wrist by the magistrate and a community service order or a pittance of a fine and costs , does nothing to safeguard Vulnerable Road Users !

    First thing a Police Officer will ask you is , " What do you think of Cyclists shooting the lights "! Not " What do you think the people who create the laws , we are obliged to enforce , could do to make Cycling Safer " ?

    In the past 10 days i have made countless Police Officers aware of your blog , i hope they are visiting and going over your past posts and that material . One told me he had obtained convictions from using his bike mounted Camera and was a aware of your " death threat story " but not the blog .
    KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK , you are safeguarding Cyclists lives !"

    David Cameron and Boris Johnson have NO CLUE as to the conditions everyday bike users have to contend with !

    Would be good if either of these " High Profile Cyclists ?" were to spend days on a bike in London , then Copenhagen and then return to ride London streets with " Knowledge of what COULD BE in the UK "!

  4. Very good post. You are right that the excessive freedom that UK cyclists "enjoy" is actually part of the problem: the problem of English law being essentially blind to the very existence of the bike as a distinctive mode of transport with its own distinctive needs and duties. The freedom of UK cyclists amounts to a freedom to be run down. European legal systems have in some ways more restrictions on cyclists' behaviour and where they are allowed to go, but that goes as a quid-pro-quo with proper protections through laws and infrastructure investment. UK cycling organisations have always been too conservative in their outlook and fearful of a loss of existing "rights" to suggest moving away from the laissez-faire approach, which may be summarised "We don't expect much of you, but we won't protect you either."

    I suggested elsewhere that the best thing that could be done by the UK government for cycling would be for them to ban it on the roads. An extreme idea, but I am making a similar point to you that the government needs to decide what cycling should be, what it should look like. There is no point in them continually encouraging people to cycle on roads designed wrongly for cycling that put citizens' lives at risk every day. I hope this penny drops soon.

    1. I agree that the government needs to decide what cycling in our towns and cities should look like, and would add to that, Who is it for? Indeed, I have to ask, What's the point in accepting a cycling environment which is accessible mainly to young men, and then complaining when they behave as young men are wont to do? Football broadened its appeal, with very favourable consequences; so can cycling.

  5. I am quite supportive of the idea of hook turns in certain situations (ie locations with higher traffic speeds or multiple through lanes, or where a right hand turn might be difficult on a steep uphill gradient). If appropriately legislated for, at some junctions all that would be needed is some signage, far side signals, and some paint, although T junctions would probably need a jughandle.

    Another issue is that of "all purpose roads" - as in, non Motorway roads that the Highways Agency operate. These are often motorways in all but name, and they are very dangerous for cyclists - the casualty rates for fatalities, KSI, and "all casualties" are higher for cyclists on rural A roads (per billion miles) than of motorcyclists (who across all classes of road, are at greater risk). (Page 130 in this report). They are often used, however, for cycle time trials, as they are the only place where those who dare can ride for long distances unimpeded by street furniture found elsewhere.

    In other countries, there is often an "expressway" standard of road which is not a full motorway, and will not necessarily have hard shoulders, but from which cyclists and other non motorised or low speed traffic will be prohibited. This does not exist in the UK, except as a bodge in certain tunnels where a large sign will list all of the restrictions.

    It was of course at one point felt by the CTC that cycle tracks would impede on cycling and that the then new motorways would get cars out of the way. Unfortunately they didn't appreciate that other historic roads like the A1, A3, A2, and A10 would become motorways in all but name.

    The solution elsewhere would be for this type of road to have some kind of expressway status and for cyclists to use a parallel path. This might be shared with moped riders, which in a rural area is likely to benefit cyclists by necessitating a higher quality path designed for high speeds. If a moped rider could safely maintain 30 mph on such a facility than a time trialist would have no problem using such a path. This is an example from the Netherlands of such a situation.. As well as an important safety benefit, this would also give a potential convenience benefit to cyclists - for example, minor roads that are either blocked off or that pass over or under the major road without any link between the two could be accessed from the cycle track but not necessarily the road, and cyclists could have a shorter route through certain junctions.

  6. Just wear a helmet you idiot. Why? Walk up to a brick wall, stand in front of it without wearing a helmet, and gently bang your head against it. Hurt? Imagine doing it at 40kms. Jaysus - give yourself a chance of surviving it at least.

    I don't care if it's hot, or if I'm going one block or 10kms - I wear my helmet everywhere. Too hot? Buy a vented helmet. Look like a dork? Who f*cking cares? Shoreditch wankers. That's who and that's all.

    Back in NZ police issue instant fines for not wearing helmets. Not only does it generate tax revenue, it reduces the public health cost for treating idiots that don't wear one. You don't just have a personal responsibility to protect yourself, you have a responsibility to everyone paying for your dumb ass to lie in a hospital and detract medical attention away from people who could have avoided it.

    This argument seriously aggravates me. It's not even an argument...just wear a f*cking helmet you poser.

    1. Your aggressive response is tiresomely simplistic and ill-informed (as are those of so many helmet proponents).

      Do you know what will really happen to your helmet at 40kmh?

      Well, seeing as European cycle helmets are only designed for impacts up to 12.5mph, it will most likely splinter instantly and provide absolutely no protection for your head.

      Perhaps this is why countries that introduce compulsory helmets laws (Canada, Australia) do NOT see a reduction in head injuries.

      Sorry to baffle you with facts, but some of these are very relevant to this debate.

    2. There was a death of a cyclist in Somerset yesterday. Head injuries. He was wearing a helmet. Bike helmets only work at very low speeds, eg falling off a stationary bike onto your head.

    3. I happily wear a helmet, but there is SO much more to consider here than your simplistic "hit your head at 40kms against a wall" (at which speed, by the way, the helmet would be irrelevant) example.

      If only every debate could be won with "it's not even an argument...just do this f*cking thing I think everyone should do you poser", without the need to look at any facts, wouldn't life be simpler? Well tough, you need to actually use facts and reason.

      The main point for me (and many) is actually nothing to do with wearing a helmet. I wear one, that's done and dusted, take it off the table. What's next? Let's discuss the more important factors such as infrastructure which means me and my helmet can get squished by a lorry, that sees me using some hair raising junctions on "CS"7, driver attitudes that see people cutting me up left right and centre etc. We're all falling into the trap of discussing helmets when we should be going to the source, and stopping the accidents in the first place.

  7. Stephen, London3 August 2012 at 11:06

    You said: "Personally, I wear a helmet some of the time but I don’t wear one to cycle a mile to the shops or even three miles on back roads. Or when it’s stiflingly hot."

    People used to say things like this before seatbelts were compulsory in cars: "Personally, I wear a seatbelt some of the time but I don’t wear one to drive a mile to the shops or even three miles on back roads. Or when it’s stiflingly hot."

    Spot the outdated view?!! Bradley Wiggins talked a lot of sense about cycling. Why? Because he balanced the rights of cyclists with the obligations of cyclists. I've given up trying to explain to the LCC that their campaigns never seem to reflect the obligations we have as cyclists. I'm a daily cyclist commuter in London and only drive when hiring a car (occasionally), but I can see the views of both sides. Indeed, the only damage I have ever incurred on London roads was from another cyclist who jumped a light, broke my back wheel and sprawled himself across a major road. Luckily I was uninjured and stayed upright. As a pedestrian I find many cyclists a menace, jumping red lights at whim.

    There is no excuse for cyclists not wearing a helmet. There is no excuse for impatient and dangerous car drivers. There is no excuse for using a phone whilst driving/cycling. And there is no excuse for insane road systems in London that put cars and cycles into conflict.

    To make cycling better we need to campaign on all of these things and that means us cyclists looking at our own behaviour too.

    1. You're right to point out that seat belts protect car occupants (3/4 reduction in injuries).

      Sadly, there is also some evidence that seat belt laws are bad for cyclists and pedestrians because they encourage faster and irresponsible driving as drivers experience risk compensation.

      There is no conclusive evidence that cycle helmets significantly reduce head injuries so your analogy is worthless

      However, there is considerable evidence that compulsory helmet laws reduce cycling, which is why campaigners oppose them so vehemently

    2. If helmets for pedestrians and car occupants were legislated then we'd get used to it and there'd be "no excuse not to do it".

      It would also have a FAR greater effect on public health than making cyclists wear them.

      But I'd be opposed to that too. Would you?

  8. To see Bradley Wiggins' comment in a post accident, legal context read this comment

  9. Sorry to see this superb article degenerate into the helmet debate.

    The argument should be about planners integrating motor+pedestrian+cyclists into every scheme.

    Instead, we see motor+pedestrian but cycles are considered special projects like the go-dutch schemes (three?!).

    Meanwhile, Islington Council, spend over £80,000 destroying a bicycle route (Drayton Park, North London) and now agreeing to redesign but only after campaigning by cyclists. What a sad sad country this is....

    1. Hello anonymous,

      One day, I hope, an impartial history of the London Cycle Network will get published. You may recall that it was abandoned in early 2002 in favour of "a slimmed-down high profile 'spine' network of cycle priority routes", the LCN+. Now, I don't know exactly how this went down with LCC Head Office at the time, but I don't remember a peep of criticism from them about it. Indeed, I have every reason to believe it was actively supported by them.

      The Drayton Park route used to be LCN Route 7. When you talk about Britain as being a sad, sad country, let's not forget the indifference with which LCC Head Office regarded routes like this about ten years ago. What I am saying here does in no way diminish the high regard I have for local groups, but I get a little bit pissed off, frankly, with the way in which the "professional" (i.e. wage-earning) campaigners at Head Office consistently 'misremember' the past in their favour.

  10. I'm a pedestrian who has never cycled or driven but I am an occasional car/bus passenger. I have a three mile walk home in the evenings because it now costs so much to travel by public transport so I am affected by the behaviour, good or otherwise, of cyclists, pedestrians and drivers. Consequently I took notice of comments made by Bradley Wiggins and appreciated his taking time out to make them, although I recall that he suggested he shouldn't be commenting when he was tipsy. He appeared to be saying that rights come with responsibilities. I was left under the impression that he thought that helmets should be made a legal requirement for cyclists but at the time I wondered how long it would be before he was obliged to backtrack. In vino veritas? There is only perception, not reality? Who knows, I admire his ability, his achievements and his taste in music but I don't expect him to sort out the problems faced by cylists, pedestrians or drivers and hope that he won't end up as a cycling czar (quit while you're ahead Bradley).

    In spite of my lack of interest in cycling I can see its benefits and want to encourage it in my area because I have concerns about the level of emissions here. Unfortunately I don't think it will take off while the standard of existing cycle lanes and signage remains as poor as it is at present. I have a daily blog and wanted to record the reckless behaviour of pedestrians around Greenford Flyover but found myself highlighting what cyclists were up to as well. In one case the behaviour was so bad that someone passed on the link to the local police (I didn't think they would take an interest). Half an hour spent there, just watching, led to the realisation that cycle lanes had been slapped down rather than taking into the account the needs of cyclists or pedestrians. Wrapping one around a blind corner means that cyclists are likely to hit pedestrians and the paths aren't obvious enough to make an impression on other pavement users. I don't think anyone in my area would object to money being spent on the improvement of cycling routes if cyclists were all seen to use them and, perhaps, to police themselves.

    I think there needs to be more education of pedestrians as to cycle lanes and cycling but I also believe that there should be zero tolerance by police towards cyclists who break the rules. Red lights are not an optional stop and shouting at people to get out of the way so that they can ride along a pavement rather than on the road is unacceptable, but as Stephen pointed out, individuals should bear responsibility for their actions. It's a shame that they have been allowed shelter under the same umbrella as responsible cyclists. Perhaps, as bikemapper has suggested, making cycling popular with groups other than young men will encourage better behaviour. I see the point made by coney, even if wearing a cycle helmet doesn't provide as much protection as a crash helmet.