Recently the Bicycle Helmet Initiative trust (BHIT) rebranded itself as “Cycle-Smart”. But what did this change of name actually signal?
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.
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.
One of Cycle-Smart’s tweets caused me to respond. It was this one:
@Cyclestrian sorry to disappoint. we are happy to support those or any attempts to make cycling safer – send us a pic we will retweet
— Cycle-Smart (@cyclesmart_uk) November 11, 2014
My response was this:
— Bez (@beztweets) November 11, 2014
What Cycle-Smart actually tweeted was this:
— Cycle-Smart (@cyclesmart_uk) November 11, 2014
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.
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.
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:
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…