I have been thinking about the helmet thing again. Ignoring mountain biking, racing, trial biking etc. and confining myself to everyday, around town sort of cycling, whether commuting, shopping or whatever, I am thinking that a helmet is a good idea, here in the UK, but not entirely for the most obvious reason.
Cycling accidents are far less frequent than most folks seem to imagine and, of these, accidents involving any sort of head injury are in a small minority. Those involving serious head injuries are extremely few and in these cases a helmet is unlikey to make much difference to the outcome, simply because cycle helmets are not designed to withstand heavy impacts.
Evidently the best that can be expected of a cycle helmet is that it will spread the effect of a light to moderate impact against a flat surface, thus sparing you the pain and potential damage of a direct blow to the head and the inconvenience of local cuts and abrasions. You might think it worth the inconvenience of a helmet in return for this degree of protection.
In my opinion children and teenagers should always wear helmets. They have a greater need of protection due to their relative inexperience, inherent high spirits and lack of judgement (and medical experts might add that their potential damage is greater while their skulls – and the contents thereof – are still developing). Older people might choose to wear a helmet when first taking up or returning to cycling until confidence and some experience is gained. This is fair enough but I am totally against any compulsion.
The main reason why I wear a helmet still, and will do so for some time to come, has to do with the road and traffic conditions which prevail here in the UK. Cycling had become very popular by the 1930s and remained so well ino the 1950s when a substantial percentage of households owned no other form of transport. Despite the boost to popular car ownership which arrived with the pre-war Austin Seven (and others) in the 1920s and 1930s it was not until the late 1950s and early 1960s that the wider population was becoming prosperous enough for motoring to stride ahead again, with a corresponding decline in cycling. Although in those pre-motorway days the roads were soon becoming a lot more crowded even though the traffic was somewhat slower then, there is one key difference between then and now. In those days there were still plenty of cyclists about and, probably more importantly, most drivers of motor vehicles had cycled at some time and had certainly lived in a cycling environment.
Although many of today’s drivers are also cyclists, cycling has not been anything like as visible over the past 20-30 years as it was in earlier times. With the popularity of cycling increasing again now, drivers in general will have to learn or re-learn to see and cope with cyclists, who have every bit as much right to their space on those roads from which they are not specifically excluded. That task is arguably more difficult for drivers than it once was due to the ever more crowded roads, the sheer pace of modern traffic even in busy city areas, and the multitude of visual distractions – multiple road signs, traffic lights, vehicle lighting and signals, all against a multicoloured background of shop windows, neon lights, advertising signs and hoardings etc.
Cyclists must help to promote their cause by riding with due consideration for other road users – it works both ways – and by avoiding illegal behaviour. And for some time yet I think it is simply common sense to put up with the inconvenience of being as visible as possible (bright reflective clothing and/or belt and good lighting when appropriate) and by wearing a helmet just in case. That said, I am sure that there are places in the UK where cycling can be done on public roads without the need for these precautions – but the majority of the population does not live in those places.
When, a few years hence, some of our towns and cities have begun to apply the lessons of Copenhagen and Amsterdam and elsewhere, and when cyclists are much more numerous and accepted again as an unremarkable part of everyday life, then perhaps we will be able to adopt a less defensive approach to our relatively safe mode of transport.