A Smart Move

23 January 2015

Recently the Bicycle Helmet Initiative trust (BHIT) rebranded itself as “Cycle-Smart”. But what did this change of name actually signal?

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Background

For the uninitiated, the BHIT was an unashamedly pro-helmet campaigning charity. Its main purpose was (or at least strongly appeared to be) to campaign for the introduction of a law mandating cycling helmet use for all children. Of course, you’re free to make your own opinion on this policy.

Metamorphosis…?

All this recently changed: the BHIT name was dropped and “Cycle-Smart” was adopted in its place. As the charity’s founder and chief executive Angela Lee explains:

The Cycle-Smart Foundation is much snappier and young people identify with the word smart as in terms of smart technology and smart TV.

However, Lee and Cycle-Smart have been vocal about this being more than just a name change. From just one day on Twitter: “we see the importance of…infrastructure”; “we are [open-minded] too. hence the name change and broadening scope”; “we are happy to support space 4 cycling”; “we have stated many times we are pro infrastructure”; “Infrastructure is key”; “we have a holistic approach to safety”; “we see the importance of other safety measures inc. infrastructure”.

Bold stuff. Infrastructure is key, no less. This is what many of us have long been saying, very often with an eye to the Netherlands.

So, with the name change and the statements of intent, this is very visibly a step away from helmets.

Or is it?

We’ll return to that.

An agenda

One of Cycle-Smart’s tweets caused me to respond. It was this one:

My response was this:

What Cycle-Smart actually tweeted was this:

To be fair, an apology was made. But it seemed brazenly indicative of a specific agenda and, as you can see from following the thread, and it raised questions about where the numbers come from (we never really found out).

So, when Cycle-Smart piped up again a few weeks later, I thought I’d try emailing them. You don’t get much worse a medium than Twitter for quiet, reasoned discussion, and I wanted to understand Cycle-Smart’s new direction and the details of the legislation they sought.

The emails

I’ve only included a selection of points from our emails, and I’ve trimmed the conversation a little to make it digestible, but for those who are interested the full conversation is available here.

(If you want, you can skip this and simply get to the point of the article.)

Text in bold is me, the quotations are Cycle Smart (I’m sure you can figure it out)…

You’re well-known for your promotion of helmet compulsion in some form. Legislation is a necessarily precise matter, so what are your precise definitions for each of these key entities?
(a) the individuals who would be required to wear protective headgear,
(b) the headgear they would be required to wear,
(c) the locations or environments in which they would be required to wear it, and
(d) the vehicles the use of which would require the user to wear it.

The individuals – Our policy for helmet compulsion would include all children 14 and under. This would include individuals riding the bike as well as passengers on the bike. Exemptions would include any individual who due to a specific medical condition, physical feature or genuine religious custom would have difficulty wearing a helmet or fitting it correctly. A signed doctor’s note would be needed for any medical exemption.

The headgear – Helmets that meet the standard BS EN 1078. Helmets that are designed and marked specifically as a toy, helmets that are designed solely as racing helmets and not for road use or any other form of PPE helmet for purposes other than cycling would be deemed inappropriate. The helmets would also need to be fitted correctly to the individual.

The locations – Any public route inc. roads, cycle lanes, paths or tracks. We would also strongly recommend that children wear helmets while in private gardens, private driveways, etc. although this is unlikely to be covered in legislation

The bikes – Any bike of 2 wheels or more propelled by pedal power as well as balance bikes for young children.

Some interesting points in there.

Firstly that “the helmets would need to be fitted correctly”—for sure, this is a wise aim, but here it’s mentioned in the context of precise legislation. It’s hard to see how this could be made legally robust.

Secondly, “any public route”. So, soft grass in the park is included. (Unless there’s a difference between “route” and “space”, but it’s entirely unclear as to what that might be.)

And thirdly, “any bike of two wheels or more that is propelled by pedal power, as well as balance bikes”. This seems rather far from a sound legal definition, and also seems rather odd: a four-wheeled Kettler-style go kart would appear to require a helmet, as would a tricycle (and surely “bike”, as a contraction of “bicycle”, is two-wheeled by definition?); whilst a two-wheeled stunt scooter would not. But how would one distinguish a scooter from a balance bike?—especially given that hybrids are available with both a seat and a platform.

Anyway, we moved on.

One common argument (perhaps the main one) against helmet compulsion for anyone is the risk of a negative effect on participation. … People—children included—do of course suffer health disbenefits and reduced lifespans of varying degrees as a result of inactivity related disease, so how do you view such risk in the light of compulsion? Head injuries tend to be very visible and emotionally compelling; heart disease and diabetes less so, but with the latter alone forming 10% of NHS spend and rising, is this not the absolute priority in terms of a population health issue?

Emphasis is often placed on the Australian experience of helmet legislation and cycling participation. Yet organisations like the Cycling Promotion Fund use Australian Bureau of Statistics figures to show that sales of bikes have been increasing year on year for well over a decade. The Queensland based centre for accident research and road safety says that bicycle sales in Australia are up 67% since 2001. If helmets put people off cycling for whatever reason why would they continue to spend their hard earned money on bicycles in a country with helmet legislation?

One might be inclined to suggest that sport cycling, largely the preserve of the Mamil, is driving this (noting also that the bicycles they buy tend to the high end of the market, which will skew the figures if these are revenue-based rather than unit-based). Certainly if you take an unscientific look at the cycling imagery coming out of Australia, it’s men in lycra, not the imagery of all and sundry in everyday clothing that comes out of the Netherlands or Denmark.

Still, regardless of whatever can be inferred from imagery, there’s no validity at all in using population-wide sales figures to imply anything about cycling rates within a very specific demographic group.

And now a third point that’s a persistent chip on my logic-loving shoulder:

I have yet to meet a single person who would advocate the use of a helmet for a two year old moving on foot at jogging pace on a flat, grassy surface. Yet a fair number—including yourselves—would advocate one for cycling. Why is this? (Especially given that, anecdotally speaking, my observation is that falls seem to occur more often on foot than on a balance bike.) I have yet to see a single person advocate playground helmets—where children are excited, in close contact, and on tarmac—or indeed any other type of helmet for any everyday activity. It’s always cycling; uniquely cycling. This is the aspect I understand least: yes, head injuries are bad, but why are people only ever compelled to campaign for cycling helmets?

You’ve said from your own experience of watching your children that they tend to fall more often while walking/running. Therefore, you have probably noticed the way in which they fall – hands and knees out, falling forward. This is a reaction that children have evolved in order to naturally avoid injuring their head. Cycling puts the child in a different position. They are holding onto the handlebars which means they can’t get their hands so easily into position to break the fall. They are sitting so they can’t get their knees out from underneath them again to break the fall. They are far more likely to overbalance sideways or backwards while sitting on the bike than they would if they were standing on two feet. There is an object (a bicycle) in between them and the ground. Children are also likely to be falling from a higher height than if they were on two feet. Finally the potential speeds and subsequent forces are greater on a bike than they would be for most other activities a child is involved in on a day to day basis. I can hear some people saying – well why not make kids wear helmets in cars then? Again, you’d have to consider the mechanism and types of head injuries sustained in car crashes. These tend to be diffuse axonal injuries where the forces involved move the brain within the skull and pull brain tissues apart causing severe damage. Cycle helmets are scientifically proven to prevent against head trauma i.e. blows to the head as the result of a fall. They won’t help you in a car crash. Arguing for their use in cars would be the same as arguing for the use of seatbelts on a bicycle – nonsensical!

On the “playground” note, I was thinking more of school playgrounds than play areas: these tend to be normal tarmac rather than sprung surfaces. I’ve not tried to locate any figures for head injuries in this environment, though.

With the school playground example while the surface may not be specially designed in the ways in which I described in my previous example I do think you still have to consider the other points that I made in regards the mechanism for injury and the environment that the child is in. Schools and nurseries have guidelines in regards the ratio of staff to children so as to ensure that children are properly supervised at all times and not in danger. This kind of supervision would be very difficult to achieve outside a controlled environment. Besides which I personally believe that cycling should give young people (and old for that matter) an element of freedom. We retweeted a quote from the organisation Safe Kids Worldwide that I think sums it up quite nicely “It’s a kid’s job to be curious, explore and discover. It’s our job to keep kids safe.”

I remain a little sceptical here. The idea that children are closely supervised at school playtimes, but not when out with their parents, seems spurious. As parents, when we’re are out with our kids the adult-to-child ratio is at best 2:1 and at worst 1:2; there’s no way this ratio is even remotely approached in the school playground, despite there being lots more kids all running around in the same space playing different games. The mechanism of falling? Perhaps some truth in that (though, pedantically, I think it’s quite incorrect to say that kids’ heads are higher on a bike than they are when standing; what’s gained at the saddle is lost in an angled back).

There is a point of note, though: Cycle-Smart accept that helmets don’t protect against diffuse axonal injury; only against fractures. So—correct me if I’m wrong, but this appears to match with other material I’ve seen—whilst they may save you from some potentially nasty scrapes and cracks, they’re not much use when it comes to brain damage. They’re not useless, but nor are they the magic shield that many assume them to be.

Anyway, there is a lot more (including some referenced publications that I’ve not yet found time to find and read) in the conversation, should you wish to read it.

Enough about helmets, though! We were talking about Cycle-Smart, the new “we’re-not-just-about-the-helmets” charity.

The reality

So, let’s return to Angela Lee’s public statement of what Cycle-Smart is promoting: “Our focus will still be helmets but we will also continue to encompass all aspects of safer cycling for example high visibility clothing, bike lights, cycle training and bicycle maintenance.”

So—no infrastructure, then? No mention at all? Is it no longer “key” to the issue of safety?

Well, OK, that’s just a PR statement. Maybe it’s been edited. There’s a link to the Cycle-Smart website, so let’s check that out.

It’s been freshly built for the new, “holistic” message that isn’t just “pro infrastructure” but which believes that “infrastructure is key”.

In order to assess this shift in policy, I’ve taken screenshots of all the main pages and used a colour code to indicate regions of content, as follows:

  • Red: helmets
  • Blue: other equipment for cyclists
  • Orange: cyclist training (riding technique and cycle maintenance)
  • Yellow: equipment for drivers
  • Purple: law changes and other constraints for drivers (eg 20mph limits)
  • Green: infrastructure

Once highlighted with this code, the site looks like this:

cycle-smart-site-small

Ah.

A remark in the email conversation was that Cycle-Smart “believe there is an unfair perception amongst certain groups and individuals as to the aims and motivations of the charity.”

Given the new website, one has to question whether this perception is—in the slightest—“unfair”.

It’s a shame, really, because the emails made some reasonable points and—although I wasn’t convinced by everything, and still didn’t have a clear idea of where their cited figures were coming from—I had warmed to them a little. I don’t agree with compulsion, but I do understand the greater benefit that helmets offer to children than to adults, and I’d genuinely wanted to present an impartial discussion of these differences.

But it now seems perfectly clear that Cycle-Smart has not changed at all. It’s the same thing—the same, single-minded, tunnel-visioned, thoroughly non-holistic campaign—with a new name.

Plus ça change…

Comments

  1. Jim 23 January 2015 6:25pm #

    How exactly would a law of the proposed sort work, anyway? Specifically, what would be the punishment for breaking it? If an 11-year-old gets caught cycling without a helmet, do they get fined? Or is it the parents – who may be nowhere near by (plenty of 11-year-olds travel to school alone, for example) and so can’t reasonably have been expected to do much to make absolutely sure their child had their helmet on? Neither seems terribly fair to me.

    • andreengels 24 January 2015 10:28am #

      There isn’t a real difference between the two, because parents have the financial responsibility over younger children anyway, so if the child gets fined, it’s the parents who have to pay – unless there’s a large common law difference here, my knowledge is from the Netherlands.

  2. rdrf 23 January 2015 8:29pm #

    Bez, I didn’t get the (very limited) bits on equipment for drivers from their site.

    Of course you are right that this kind of thing is not at all interested in reducing danger to cyclists (and other road users). It doesn’t accept evidence which contradicts it’s claims – see my post here on the reasons for the adverse effects of the New Zealand lawhttp://rdrf.org.uk/2013/12/27/the-effects-of-new-zealands-cycle-helmet-law-the-evidence-and-what-it-means/ . It doesn’t include web sites like http://www.cyclehelmets.org – because they come up with scientific evidence which contradict the claims of their faith.

    People like this are happy to say that they are in favour of drivers being properly constrained, appropriate highway engineering etc., etc. – but they aren’t. I have to say that despite their intentions – which in most (but not all) cases are well intentioned, as all roads to hell are – they are part of the problem.

    One lesson is that potentially good things like cycle training should be carried out by professionals who are not part of this victim-blaming “road safety” lobby.

  3. Bez 23 January 2015 8:58pm #

    “I didn’t get the (very limited) bits on equipment for drivers from their site.”

    Well, no. There isn’t any. There’s one paragraph about hi-viz and not using iPods, and the rest is all helmet.

  4. meltdblog 23 January 2015 9:43pm #

    You can see the odd cyclist from Australia in my blog:
    https://meltdblog.wordpress.com/2014/12/04/abandoned/
    Its not a discrete grouping of those wearing lycra to those wearing business clothes as many people can work in casual wear. Out on the paths (roads without bicycle lanes are still the domain of the lycra brigade) its actually lycra in the minority with most people wearing everyday clothes.

    I support peoples choice to wear a helmet or not, personally I do and always will since it had saved my face from all sorts of abrasions and impacts, but it is a large impediment to cycling participation.

    We have similarly poor advocates in Australia who do little to promote cycling other than spending the limited cycling budgets on advertising which has low impact and from my view only decreases the chances of people trying cycling:
    https://meltdblog.wordpress.com/2014/12/23/quick-discouragement/

    Bicycle sales are a hard number to get good data on, but from my experience most people in Australia own a bike of some sort but it would be a very cheap model that sits in the garage/shed and very rarely gets used. Funny how people as soon as they hear you ride your bike for transport suddenly want to show you theirs.

  5. Edward 24 January 2015 12:14am #

    Just a couple of points from an Australian perspective because we and our friends across the Tasman Sea remain the only nations still subjected to this.

    In answer to the point about compulsion having a negative effect on participation, the response you received was that sales of bikes have been increasing year on year for well over a decade. Your point about sport cycling driving sales is absolutely right. Bikes are also bought in fairly large numbers for children but with nowhere to ride them they are generally left to gather dust in garden sheds. So while bikes might be bought in increasing numbers, they are certainly not used in increasing numbers.

    As to arguing for the use of helmets in cars as being nonsensical, it’s worthwhile reading the paper written by the Centre for Automotive Safety Research at the University of Adelaide about the potential benefits of a properly designed protective headband. They are not insignificant.

    Finally, you discussed in the email trail what types of vehicle would require the use of a helmet under Cycle-Smart’s proposal. Our law extends beyond bikes to “wheel recreational devices” and “wheeled toys”. They are defined quite broadly (http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/sa/consol_act/rta1961111/s5.html#wheeled_recreational_device). If a person having the custody or care of a child under the age of 16 years causes or permits a child to ride or be carried on a wheeled recreational device or wheeled toy without a helmet, they face a fine.

    In my experience, the law as it applies to toys and “recreational devices” is not quite to rigorously enforced but that might simply be because kids on scooters and go-karts are not on public view as much as adults on bikes. The law is there though.

    Oh, and you’ll find the introduction of helmet laws leads to a large spike in ‘helmet saved my life’ anecdotes.

  6. Dermot 24 January 2015 10:58am #

    “Schools and nurseries have guidelines in regards the ratio of staff to children so as to ensure that children are properly supervised at all times and not in danger. This kind of supervision would be very difficult to achieve outside a controlled environment.”

    They seem to be arguing here that helmets are a good idea where kids are not closely supervised. Of course, the increasingly recommended practice, even by helmet-law advocates, is that kids wearing helmets should be supervised closely, in case they switch from bikes to climbing play, get the helmet caught in something and get strangled by the straps. It’s a very small risk, but it’s far from unheard of, and it’s a truly minute risk when helmets aren’t worn.
    http://www.cyclehelmets.org/1227.html

  7. Adam Myerson (@AdamMyerson) 24 January 2015 4:35pm #

    You should also note that a cycling consulting company that does business globally called Cycle-Smart already exists, and as a result of the confusion, Cycle-Smart UK has agreed to change its name again.

    http://cycle-smart.com

    We have been in business for over 15 years and have a strong association with the name, to the degree that any search or marketing will draw more attention to us than them, and is actually more damaging for them than us.

    We also are not in support of their messaging, and believe the focus should be on better infrastructure and driver education over protective gear and victim blaming. We are more in line with Chris Boardman’s recent comments.

    Adam Myerson
    President, Cycle-Smart, Inc
    Organizer, Cycle-Smart International Cyclocross
    President, Verge New England Cyclocross Series

    32 Ditson St., #5
    Dorchester, MA 02122
    adam@cycle-smart.com
    http://cycle-smart.com
    http://twitter.com/adammyerson
    http://www.facebook.com/adammyerson

  8. rdrf 24 January 2015 6:31pm #

    Edward: “it’s worthwhile reading the paper written by the Centre for Automotive Safety Research at the University of Adelaide about the potential benefits of a properly designed protective headband.”.

    I have picked this up over the years. Can you give a link to this?

  9. Dave H (@BCCletts) 25 January 2015 1:34pm #

    Good to see that Ms Lee’s research into the change of name has been as diligent as that applied to their core raison d’etre.

    One detail from her answer to your exchanges looks interest. Obviously a very though understanding of the types of head injury, notably that of diffuse axonal trauma where the brain accelerates severely within the cranial cavity. Indications suggest that this and severe torsional forces on the thoracic spine C1-C5 and its connection to the cerebral cortex represent a major element of serious cyclist injuries involving the head. Indeed in terms of impact injury the evolved protection (several million years of development) of an articulated (multiple fused plate) bone shell, covered in a sacrificial self repairing covering which cushions and shears to mitigate risk to the C1-C5 and cortex seeems to be a pretty effective inbuilt safety system.

    Evolution has refined this further, by making most humans resilient enough to survive an abrupt impact at running speeds – ie up to 20mph, and research in the late 1940’s established that a human skull impacted with a ‘flat plate’ force at 20mph was amply within its design limits (at 30% of impact capacity) whilst a styrofoam helmet – tested square on to a flat plate at an equivalent to 12mph would be at approx 260% of the force required to shatter it. If any protection is relevant than it is the racing ‘bunch of bananas’ or light cotton or wool cap, which perfoms much as an added layer of hair and skin, to cushion, rip, or shear on impact.

    Now just what analysis does exist on the head, spinal and brain injuries for cycle crashes? I’m aware of helmet wearing cyclists in wheelchairs because of the severe damage to C1-C5 and brain trauma through the forces that even the helmet provided no protection against

  10. The Cycle-Smart Foundation 27 January 2015 6:08pm #

    Hi Bez

    In regards your article, firstly I think it’s great that you have published our conversation and considered many of the points that were made in it. Perhaps one of the most important things that can be done to improve cycle safety in this country is to debate it and all the ways in which it may or may not be improved. There is strong evidence from research conducted in countries around the world that debating cycle helmets helps not only clarify the way in which they can help but also highlights how other areas i.e. improvements in infrastructure will benefit as well – such are the advantages of living in a democratic, pluralistic society.

    Just a few points and perhaps the chance for us to ask you a few questions given that it’s mainly been us in the hot seat so far

    Firstly, you say that our main purpose is to campaign for mandatory helmet legislation. You’ve been through our website with a fine-tooth comb highlighting various aspects of it therefore you must have noticed that there is little to no mention of legislation on there. During our email conversations I pointed out to you several times that the main focus of our charity is education. We don’t spend our very limited time and resources knocking on doors, marching through Westminster or doing whatever else you imagine a campaigner to do in order to get a law passed.

    Secondly, in regards your scepticism over the need for helmets
    “when we’re (are) out with our kids the adult-to-child ratio is at best 2:1 and at worst 1:2” – that’s assuming firstly that the parents are with the children at all times, which seems highly unlikely once children reach a certain age and secondly that the number of parents and children are the same in every family which can’t possibly be true.
    Also you mentioned that your children do wear helmets and therefore, If you see the logic in making sure your own children wear cycle helmets then why do you feel skeptical about the reasoning behind it for society at large? Sure you might say it’s about individual choice but once again we aren’t forcing people to wear helmets (we couldn’t even if we wanted to), we are advising them that they should take the necessary steps to protect their children given that young people are more likely to suffer the kind of incident in which a helmet would provide protection .

    Running into the third point then, I think your skepticism in regards promoting helmet use across a society probably comes from idea that helmet promotion decreases cycling participation. Can I ask where you get the figures from to support this assumption? Before you quote me a few population studies that show cycling figures in country X fell by this amount after helmet legislation I think it would be worth you considering your own critique of the population studies we provided. You state “there’s no validity at all in using population-wide sales figures to imply anything about cycling rates within a very specific demographic group.” Couldn’t the same be said of the figures in those oft quoted reports that paint helmet legislation as the only reason that cycling participation has decreased within a specific demographic? Can you provide a report that shows that all the near countless variables that could affect trends in cycling participation across an entire population have been considered before jumping to the conclusion that it must be down to helmets?

    Fourthly, you make some rather blasé comments about head injury and helmets within your article. “(helmets) may save you from some potentially nasty scrapes and cracks, they’re not much use when it comes to brain damage. They’re not useless, but nor are they the magic shield that many assume them to be”
    Have you ever cared for children with fractured skulls leading to intracranial hemorrhages that cause brain damage? Have you ever had to explain to parents that their child will not ever be able to live the life that they had hoped for?
    I genuinely hope that you never are in that position but it is from the experience of working in the health service that a number of the people who work for this charity give up their free time to try and ensure that we prevent those kinds of situations from happening wherever possible. We aren’t claiming that helmets are magical shields, they can’t be the only answer to preventing injury amongst child cyclists but they do make a difference to preventing head injuries that range from “scrapes and cracks” as you put it all the way through to the most serious kind of focal brain injuries that we just described.

    Finally, you seem very intent upon highlighting how our website doesn’t talk about infrastructure. I agree it isn’t there! Much of the new website has just been copied over from the last one. We aren’t tech savvy in the least and we generally rely on outside help to get things like the website up and running. But excuses out of the way, if we were to update the site and include some information on the importance of infrastructure would you be happy to make some suggestions about what we should include and more detailed information of how specifically the situation in the UK needs to change in regards space for cycling? We’ve made a similar offer to several others who have contacted us and shown that they are at least willing to debate the issues at hand in a mature manner. I hope you’ll give it some serious consideration as it would be nice to think that some progress was made as a result of this as opposed to continually banging our (helmeted 😉 ) heads together.

    Keep Safe

    The Cycle-Smart Foundation

    • Bez 27 January 2015 10:43pm #

      Hi

      This is quite long so I’ll include quotes inline to punctuate it…

      “Firstly, you say that our main purpose is to campaign for mandatory helmet legislation.”

      To be fair, I said “was (or at least seemed to be)” rather than “is” (which seems unnecessarily pedantic but I guess it’s mildly important given the context).

      “Secondly, [you’re] assuming firstly that the parents are with the children at all times, which seems highly unlikely once children reach a certain age and secondly that the number of parents and children are the same in every family which can’t possibly be true.”

      Well, of course. I was explaining my personal circumstances rather than suggesting that they’re everyone’s circumstances. I’m not saying that all kids are permanently and closely supervised, nor that all people in all scenarios should reject helmets; far from it. But it’s no more valid to suggest that others’ circumstances mean my kids are at high risk than it is to use mine to suggest others’ are at low.

      “If you see the logic in making sure your own children wear cycle helmets then why do you feel skeptical about the reasoning behind it for society at large?”

      A good question and one that’s often asked. There’s no simple answer, but I think key to it is that it’s not a matter of my decisions versus others’ decisions, it’s a matter of binary attitudes to an object versus considered attitudes to behaviour. To illustrate this I can only really use my decisions, though, so here goes.

      There are times when my son rides his bike and I make sure he wears a helmet, and there are times when he’s free to choose. This is not arbitrary, and we have conversations about when and why he should wear it. If he’s not being supervised by us personally, he has to wear one. If he’s riding with friends, and thus there’s a good chance of them racing or mucking about or colliding, then he has to wear one. If he wants to try anything resembling stunts, or hammer down hills, he has to wear one. If we’re covering a long distance of hard surface, he generally has to wear on, though there are exceptions such as popping to the shops on the traffic-free path, where he’s shown me that he’ll ride sedately and well within his competency. If we’re just riding through the park, on grass and sand and well-packed gravel, to get to the playground and the cafe, it’s up to him. Sometimes he chooses to wear it, sometimes not. He knows that if he chooses not to, we’ll be riding sedately, and he’s fine with that—just as he knows that if it’s wet out and he chooses not to wear his wellies he won’t be splashing in the puddles. We choose the equipment for the behaviour, and we discuss it. (Just like we discuss why the green man doesn’t mean it’s safe to cross, and a car’s indicators don’t mean it’s going to turn.) And, thanks to the close supervision I mentioned, I know his behaviour well. I know his abilities on the bike and I know his limits, and he knows that I can always tell him to get off and push his bike home if he’s not happy to behave suitably for his decision not to wear a helmet—not that that’s ever needed to happen.

      Does the fact that I sometimes let him ride without a helmet mean I don’t care about him? No. Does it mean that I think there’s no chance of him hitting his head? No. Does it mean I think I’ve completely eliminated the risk of a serious hed injury? No. What it means is that I confidently believe that the risk is at a similar level to, or below, that associated with any of a host of other activities for which neither I nor society—nor indeed any organisation I know of that promotes cycle helmets—believe helmets are necessary.

      This is the real issue I have: that bicycles are some binary switch that move the risk of head injury from low to high. I see no plausible argument for that. It’s like saying that because climbing on rocks at the beach has a raised risk of head injury, kids should wear helmets for climbing into bed.

      “…once again we aren’t forcing people to wear helmets (we couldn’t even if we wanted to)”

      I appreciate that the emphasis is on education rather than legislation, but are you not still arguing for compulsion? To me, this differs from forcing people to wear helmets only in that the goal hasn’t yet been achieved. And if you “couldn’t even if you wanted to”, then why try to do it?

      “I think your skepticism in regards promoting helmet use across a society probably comes from idea that helmet promotion decreases cycling participation. … You state “there’s no validity at all in using population-wide sales figures to imply anything about cycling rates within a very specific demographic group.” Couldn’t the same be said of the figures in those oft quoted reports that paint helmet legislation as the only reason that cycling participation has decreased within a specific demographic? Can you provide a report that shows that all the near countless variables that could affect trends in cycling participation across an entire population have been considered before jumping to the conclusion that it must be down to helmets?”

      Firstly I’d point out that there is no equivalence between using sales figures to imply levels of participation, and actually measuring participation. It’s like trying to work out how many people saw a film by looking in the till at the popcorn counter rather than counting the tickets. Except it’s worse than that, because bicycle sales figures will be skewed: Mamils tend to buy expensive bikes, whilst utility bikes and kids’ bikes are relatively cheap.

      Anyway, the point about confounding factors is perfectly good. I will, however, be rather cheeky and turn the question fully around.

      Let’s consider the data from New Zealand as presented and analysed here, which I assume you’re probably more familiar with than I am. Clearly, two things can be observed: One is that in 1994 helmet law enforcement began. The other is that around that time participation fell by half. Now, correlation is not causation, but what we must do is hypothesise as to the cause and test those hypotheses to identify the most credible. We have one hypothesis already: “the introduction of mandatory helmet laws caused a significant fall in cycling”. The question, then, is this: What other hypotheses can you suggest? What happened in New Zealand around 1994 that may have caused participation to halve? Once we have more hypotheses, by all means let’s consider them and test them.

      “Fourthly, you make some rather blasé comments about head injury and helmets within your article. Have you ever cared for children with fractured skulls leading to intracranial hemorrhages that cause brain damage? Have you ever had to explain to parents that their child will not ever be able to live the life that they had hoped for? … We aren’t claiming that helmets are magical shields…”

      In my defence I wasn’t trying to imply that you considered them to be magical shields, rather that some people do. A hyperbolic turn of phrase, yes, but plenty of comments are made on the internet and in conversation that are indicative of people’s binary thinking, that Helmets Will Save You. And this simplistic, inaccurate attitude isn’t helped by the binary approach of “bicycle ergo danger ergo helmet” that plagues the promotion of cycle helmets.

      No, fortunately I’ve never had to care for someone with a brain injury, nor had to inform someone that they will need to. And I of course wish to never have to do either. (And I’ll accept the criticism of my phrasing as blasé: I was rather too casual about trying not to talk in terms of cranial fractures and diffuse axonal injuries.) But, whilst these scenarios are undeniably horrific and undesirable, I find it hard to look beyond the fact that this emotional blackmail is only ever used when it comes to cycling. Nothing else. Not even skateboarding, for example, seems to be pursued with such vigour: I can’t say I’ve looked, but I’ve never seen anyone argue for mandatory skateboarding helmets. Yet surely the risk must be at least as high?

      “Finally, you seem very intent upon highlighting how our website doesn’t talk about infrastructure. I agree it isn’t there! Much of the new website has just been copied over from the last one.”

      Well, that’s fair enough, but I hope you can understand why I’d interpret this as a lack of change of direction. The name change and the relaunch happened months ago. When the available information—on the new site, under the new logo and the new name—remains almost entirely helmet-focused it obviously gives the impression that the rebranding exercise was no more than just that. And hopefully you can see that the repeated claims of infrastructure being considered key to safety look thin when the website doesn’t mention it and your press releases don’t mention it. Saying it’s a PR goof-up is fine, it’s just that I’d have thought that after 16 years of fighting a largely PR-based battle you’d relaunch with more than just a new name 🙂

      “But excuses out of the way, if we were to update the site and include some information on the importance of infrastructure would you be happy to make some suggestions about what we should include and more detailed information of how specifically the situation in the UK needs to change in regards space for cycling? We’ve made a similar offer to several others who have contacted us and shown that they are at least willing to debate the issues at hand in a mature manner. I hope you’ll give it some serious consideration as it would be nice to think that some progress was made as a result of this as opposed to continually banging our (helmeted 😉 ) heads together.”

      To this: Yes. Productive discussion is good. Hopefully we’re still firmly within that territory: as I said, I was disappointed to not end up writing something neutral or even positive, but hopefully you can also see how that came about. I’m game for helping, but—if you’re to win anyone over—it’s definitely time to put some commitment on those claims of a new, holistic and infrastructure-focused approach 🙂

      • The Cycle-Smart Foundation 28 January 2015 9:23am #

        Hi Bez

        I’m going to try and avoid going through your reply piece by piece and writing an even longer reply that would probably just have us going back over some already covered ground.

        The description of the way you are teaching your son seems more than reasonable to me. It’s both positive and allows him to come to his own conclusions on the subject. Our approach to educating children on helmets is very similar because of course it’s the most effective way of teaching children! The problem is though that not all children or indeed parents are equipped with the same knowledge on the subject of cycle-safety as you are. We can’t just assume that they’ll make an informed choice when they don’t have the information to hand and this is where the real problem arises. If we take your binary approach it leads you (and many others) to the conclusion that helmets equate danger and that danger puts people off cycling. Without delving into a whole discussion as to whether that conclusion is true or not perhaps it would be better to focus on the fact that you have managed to educate your son to understand that there are inherent risks associated with cycling and that a helmet can help mitigate those risks AND he’s still riding a bike!

        Going back to my original email to you I asked this question

        “If, helmet legislation isn’t the way to reduce head/brain injuries how would you propose it is achieved?”

        As I’ve stated before campaigning for helmet legislation isn’t our charities main aim. The aim is to safeguard children, the legislation would be a means to an end and we are constantly asking ourselves the question what other ways are there to go about achieving our aim. The answer we have found is that we should seek to educate children and parents so that they can come to the same conclusion that you and your son have and we have had great success in doing that. The feeling I get from your arguments is that helmets are almost a taboo subject – yes, they’re effective but you mustn’t talk about them lest we scare people off cycling.

        Therefore in the spirit of progression I’ll ask again – What ways would you suggest that we educate children in the UK so that they can benefit from cycling while also benefiting from the protection a helmet would bring?

      • Bez 28 January 2015 9:38am #

        When you say “your binary approach leads…to the conclusion that helmets equate [to] danger” and “you have managed to educate your son to understand that there are inherent risks associated with cycling” I wonder whether you’ve completely misunderstood me: those are both the exact opposite of what I’m saying.

        What ways would I suggest teaching about helmets? For a start I would broaden the context. Firstly I might look at materials: What happens if you make a helmet from wood? What happens if you make it from clay? From rubber? From polystyrene? And then I might ask: What sort of things need protecting from impacts? And then: When might you want to use that protection? Because then we’d see that cycling is just one activity in a sea of many, all with some greater or lesser risk of head injury, and we’d perhaps see that cycling on the grass in the park relates to jumping a BMX in a skate park as walking through the park relates to rock climbing.

        Whereas everything I’ve seen in terms of education is—and correct me if I’m wrong—extremely simplistic, using vague metaphors and questionable models to project a message that is little more nuanced than “cycling means head injuries means helmets means happy ever after”.

    • Bez 28 January 2015 7:49am #

      Also, a question regarding the egg video…

      What material is the egg helmet made from? Only, it appears to deform quite significantly on impact (from ~0m33s). It compresses and then returns energy to the egg, which bounces back up as a result. This suggests it’s some sort of rubber-like material.

      Have you tried repeating the experiment with an egg helmet made of, say, polystyrene? (I’d have thought you’d probably want to maintain the ratio of mass-to-thickness of a human head in a cycle helmet, which—rounding up—would be a 1mm layer of polystyrene.)

      Or have you tried falling head-first onto tarmac wearing a rubber helmet? 🙂

  11. The Cycle-Smart Foundation 28 January 2015 9:32am #

    Hi Bez

    It’s exactly the same material that would be found in a standard cycle helmet. In fact it’s made by a cycle helmet manufacturer and scaled down accordingly.

    • Bez 28 January 2015 9:39am #

      To be clear: You’re certain it’s expanded polystyrene?

      • The Cycle-Smart Foundation 28 January 2015 10:39am #

        We could send you one if you still have doubts

      • Dermot 28 January 2015 11:43am #

        It’s irrelevant anyway, isn’t it? The human head, at any age, does not in any way resemble an egg, either externally or internally.

        Nor, for that matter, does it resemble the headform used in standard helmet tests, apart from having approximately the same mass.

  12. bradci 27 February 2015 2:02pm #

    Is there research available which shows that the rate of head injury for people riding bicycles decreases significantly in municipalities where helmet use is mandatory?

    Most research that I have read shows a slight decrease but not as much as I’d expect. And in places like the Netherlands, helmet use is not mandatory, yet the rate of head injury is really low.
    Significant changes in safety, and decreasing the frequency of head injuries, seem to come from making the roads safe for all modes of transport, rather than pretending that the requirement to wear a helmet in unsafe road conditions somehow makes riding a bicycle “safer”.

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