Sometimes a single remark encapsulates a whole raft of misguided thinking.
The story of the moral
Mike Inkley spent four days in intensive care after a Volkswagen Passat driven by Jabbir Ahmed crashed into him in Church Street, Preston, in July.
Mr Inkley, a 52-year-old photographer, sustained injuries meaning he may never be able to hold a camera properly again, including a broken collar bone, broken shoulder blade, a collapsed shoulder, eight broken ribs, collapsed lungs, a haemothorax, pneumothorax and smashed teeth.
So what did Inkley have to say about it?
“If I hadn’t have been wearing a helmet camera, it would have just been my word against his and he wouldn’t have been prosecuted as there were no live witnesses.
“I would urge every cyclist to wear one, they’ve come down a lot in price now, as have helmets, which I believe should be compulsory. If I hadn’t been wearing one I wouldn’t be here today.”
You might think I’m about to pick up on that remark, but I’m not.
The interesting point is his subsequent comment, one which echoes comments made by others. This is the kicker:
“Any cyclist who goes out without a helmet telling his wife and children he loves them is lying.”
I’ll do my best to explain why this crude moral judgment is as crass as it is vehement, as hypocritical as it is impassioned, and as misguided as it is pithy.
First, let’s watch the video of the incident.
But let’s look in detail at the sequence of events. Here’s the view just before the collision:
And this is the point, over a second prior to the collision, at which the driver moves off from his position partly across the lane:
And, a full five seconds before the collision, this is the point at which the driver first pulls out into the lane before stopping in the position shown above:
At this point, Inkley is clearly looking at a car that is moving into the lane, and still has a little over five seconds to respond to this.
A second later, the car has come to a halt obstructing a significant part of the lane while the oncoming traffic passes.
By this point, four seconds prior to the collision, it should already be quite obvious that the driver’s near-certain intention is to pull out and join the oncoming lane.
More advanced consideration of this situation would also suggest that the driver—likely not considering bicycles or motorcycles—has intentionally blocked the lane in order to mentally remove the need to consider vehicles approaching from their right, and as such is only looking left.
Don’t think I’m blaming Inkley for his injuries; I’m not. He had every right to do what he did, and the primary fault and the legal responsibility is clear: For the driver to deliberately cease considering traffic in the lane they think they’ve blocked is—as has now been legally demonstrated—to drive without due care and attention.
But the first rule of defensive riding or driving is to assume everyone else is driving without due care and attention, and to anticipate accordingly. A car waiting at a side road represents a hazard in itself, let alone one that has already been driven into the lane ahead.
However, Inkley carries on. He doesn’t even perceptibly slow down. He sees the remaining gap and goes for it.
Although not to blame for the incident, he could have avoided it.
Again, to be clear: I am not condemning his actions, even though to me they seem alarmingly incautious. I am condemning his remark, which endows his own flawed behaviour with great virtue whilst attacking those who behave differently.
Morals are not absolute
Let’s just rephrase Inkley’s condemnation of others a little:
“Any cyclist who goes out without the ability and will to respond to a common and highly predictable scenario in a defensive manner, telling his wife and kids he loves them, is lying.
It’s still as crass as the original, and it’s certainly less pithy. But, crassness aside, surely avoiding a collision entirely—rather than having one and simply hoping to protect one’s head in the event—makes much more sense? Far better to think ahead than to think only of your head.
Helmets can help mitigate head injuries. Avoidance can entirely prevent not only head injuries but also “a broken collar bone, broken shoulder blade, a collapsed shoulder, eight broken ribs, collapsed lungs, a haemothorax, pneumothorax and smashed teeth”.
Now, none of this is to say that all incidents can be avoided. This post is in no way trying to say “if you ride wisely you will never suffer a blow to your head”. Even if someone does everything in their power to prevent an incident, incidents such as being hit from behind can occur. Indeed, even if both parties behave defensively, or if there is only a single party, rare mechanical failures do occur. Risk is always there.
But—as I’ve said before—the “if there’s any risk, wear a helmet” argument is totally hollow. Similar risk is always there in other scenarios, not just cycling; and I’ve yet to see a pedestrian suffer serious injury and morally bludgeon anyone who walks without a helmet (or, for that matter, a rucksack), despite the 6,000 pedestrians killed or seriously injured by vehicles each year in the carriageway and on the footway.
You reduce your risk as a pedestrian by keeping to the footpath, looking before crossing, being sceptical of indicators, and so on. You don’t simply run in front of cars that are pulling out and wear a helmet in the hope that it’ll help when they hit you. You avoid collisions to the extent where you feel the risk of having one is so low that you don’t need a protective hat.
And the same approach can be taken on a bicycle: avoiding traffic as much as possible, looking, anticipating, and so on.
Trees that don’t fall can’t make a sound
Crucially, there is a very significant problem of population selection here.
Collisions and injuries are newsworthy. Those who suffer them will have had a rare opportunity to perform a real-world test of their safety equipment. Therefore, because it only selects people who have been unable to avoid a collision, the media platform is inevitably skewed towards people who have a relatively low propensity for avoidance and a relatively high rate of valuing protection.
Non-collisions and non-injuries are inherently not newsworthy. Had the above sequence of events have started to unfold in front of someone better at anticipation and more cautious in their riding, there would have been no collision, and no newspaper article in which to say, “I avoided a collision. I didn’t even spend four days in intensive care. My behaviour saved me.”
The people who were able to avoid a collision—including all of those who have done so through making their own behaviour more cautious—are invisible and silent.
It’s very easy to point at a hat; much less so to point at behaviour. And, for many people, no truer is this than when the behaviour is one’s own, which is why people involved in collisions are normally quick to thank their safety gear, but less quick to critique their own actions.
Use it or bruise it
No single tactic is omnipotent, but the most effective way to protect your brain is to use it.
Treat every near miss—or even, should you be so unfortunate, every collision—not as a platform to advocate polystyrene, but as a chance to ask oneself, how could I avoid that next time? And, indeed, how could I influence my local council to build dedicated facilities that would prevent anyone needing to avoid such a scenario again?
Every day, there are myriad opportunities to be involved in the collision that never happened.