Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Magic Hat

Symptom - cyclists get head injuries.
What to do?
a) mandatory helmet use - problem solved!
b) ask why cyclists are getting head injuries

If you follow line b), possible answers could be
(in no particular order):
1) poor road design
2) inexperienced cyclists losing control and falling off
3) inexperienced other road users colliding with cyclists
4) fooling about by cyclists
5) fooling about by motorists
6) distracted cyclists (headphones, phones etc, etc,
7) distracted drivers (phones, TVs, eating, music too loud)
8) drunk/drugged up cyclists
9) drunk/drugged up motorists
10) poor bicycle design
11) poor vehicle design
and no doubt folks can think of more to go on the list than that!

But the next step would depend of how many of the above questions are answered "yes".
a) Is the answer more training (for cyclists/motorists)
b) Is it a different road design (see the Dutch experience, for example)
c) Is more law enforcement and/or are legal changes required (fooling about/distraction/drunk)
d) Do manufacturers need to make safer bikes/vehicles in the first place - and by safer, I am talking about the effect on others as well as for the users.
  • A lot of work has been done in Europe on reducing the risk to a pedestrian/cyclist hit by a car or light truck - bonnet shapes have been smoothed, so the pedestrian/cyclist is more like to roll across the bonnet, rather than be roll under 
  • There are the "under-running" bars fitted to almost all larger trucks (that I mentioned earlier) etc, etc, 
  • Cars sold in Europe have safety rating not only for protection for the occupants, but also for the amount of damage caused to folks they hit. Most folks are "decent" folks, so when buying a "family" car, would they buy one with a 4-star (good) rating for "pedestrian damage", or one with 1-star (not so good) that is likely to cause more injury to pedestrains in case of an accident.

All small steps
Many lead to a further set of questions, rather than nice easy answers that politicians can stand up and claim as a "victory" in a speech.

So easy answers, or the "long road ".

As for helmets, they MAY give a MARGINAL protective value for SOME incidents.
Helmets don't appear to have any negative impacts, except deterring some folks from cycling, and in some cases that increases their risk of "sedentary diseases" (heart attack, stroke, obesity problems, depression, etc. etc.)
However, a helmet wearer should always remember the well-described phenomenon of "risk compensation" - some folks ride in what they know are more dangerous ways or in what they know are more dangerous places, because the feel that a helmet makes them "safer" - the result is that they have more accidents, not less.
Remember that a helmet never stopped an accident - only (hopefully) reduced ONE of the possible outcomes of the accident - a helmet won't help with a broken arm for example.
So by all means wear a helmet, but always ride AS IF YOU ARE NOT wearing one, and concentrate on the big picture (the reasons why accidents happen) and not the small one (the "magic hat").

Tell you what, though - a helmet is a very good way of stopping your cycling cap blowing off on a windy day!

On a more general note, and that brings us to the point.
Society "normalises" certain behaviours, that folks accept without thinking.

Folks think cycling is more dangerous than walking, so folks think it is "safe" to wear a helmet while cycling, but "crazy" to wear a helmet while walking.

Yet, in Britain at least, the data suggests the risks are similar

The logical stance to take would be to wear a helmet for neither (if you think the risks really aren't that high, and, statistically, they are not!), or to wear a helmet for both.
Do you know anyone who wears a helmet for walking city streets?

And guess what else.
Folks talk about risk, and never think about "exposure".
Lets just say that riding a motorcycle, for example, is 22 times as dangerous in terms of deaths per mile than driving an automobile.

If I do both, which I am more likely to die doing?

Easy answer is the motorcycle.

Yet, what if I drive 25 times as far as I use a motorcycle for? What if I commute to work every day by automobile, and just use the motorcycle for a nice Sunday ride on a nice dry day in the Summer?
Even for me, as someone who cycles just about every day of the week, I am more likely to die in a an accident when I am driving a motor vehicle than I am on a bike.
Because, after I cycle to work, I collect a "company" motor vehicle to do my job.

Guess what else.
Cyclists tend to do all their longer journeys by motor vehicle. My father lives about 300 miles away. I'm not going to cycle there for a visit, am I. In just one trip to see my father I cover more miles by automobile than I do in one-to-three months (depends on time of year!) of cycling.
So, understand that for many adult cyclists, they are more likely to die driving a motor vehicle than they are on a bicycle.
You can google "deaths per million miles" for further information, but this is a good place to start (it doesn't have a full breakdown, but it gives a "taste" of the sort of data you need to thimk about):

So to anyone that does more than just scratch the surface of "safety", when both relative risk and risk exposure duration are taken into account it becomes clear that automobile usage is more dangerous than "typical folks" realise, and cycling is safer than "typical folks" think.

Like I said, even though I cycle almost every day, I am statistically more likely to die driving a motor vehicle, simply because I do far more mileage in a motor vehicle!

And THAT is the difference between "facts" and perceptions.

Of course, there are other good reasons for following certain behaviours - like if your Mom tells you to do it. As for me, like a lot of folks in my age group, that is sadly no longer an issue.

And next time you drive, buckle up AND put your helmet on (there is a scarily high rate of head injuries in motor vehicle occupants as well)!

I was asked the "classic" question of what would I make my own daughter do.
Of course, it is a "lawyer's" question - when the facts don't add up, resort to emotion instead.
So I tried to answe the question as honestly as I could, remembering how my mother worried about me when she was still alive, but she let me do stuff anyway, because she knew that folks ahve to develop, and we can't "cotton wool" our children forever - it doesn't do the children any favours by restricting their personal development, either.

Anyway, here is what I answered:

It is a legal requirement in the UK for kids to wear helmets on bikes.
I am a good, generally law-abiding citizen.
Like the "Mom asked you to" question, respect is a good motive, even if safety isn't. One should generally respect the laws of the land one chooses to live in.
If you followed the British press, you may be aware that several successful British cyclists (as in Olympics, Tour de France, World Hour Record) have spoken in the last few years on these issues. And there is nothing much for me to add.
I might also say that my daughter did a "cycle training course" at school when she was about 9, as I did 40-odd years ago, when I was about the same sort of age.

A fairer question might have been:
Do you (did you) let your kid(s) play outside, and at what age?
At what age did you let them go visit their friends in other streets (where they have to cross a busy road) on their own?
At what age did you let them go to school on their own, and come home on their own (assuming they don't live right next to a school, of course).

As sentimental and overprotective as parents naturally are, one simply has to train kids for life as an adult. If they never learn to handle modest risks, how will they learn to live as an adult?
We could drive our daughter to school everyday - we don't, and she gets the bus - 6 miles each way. She has been doing that since she started at that school when she was 11.

Kids have to be allowed to make mistakes, because that is how we learnt as kids.
Kids must be allowed to self-develop.

When my daughter exceeds the legal age for helmet use, then it is up to her, but until then, it is me that has to pay the fines, so it has nothing to do with safety, more a case or respect for the law and my bank manager!

But of course, i guess when you set your "lawyer's question" you didn't allow for the jurisdiction in which I lived.

But to answer your question in the hypothetical (as in if there was no law covering it) - if I thought she was experienced enough at good route selection and safe operation on a bike, I would let her ride how she wanted.
If I thought she was likely to fall off due to poor cycling handling skills, then I would try to make her wear a helmet, as helmets ARE effective for "falling over" rather than "falling off" injuries - but I would also be getting her to wear kneepads and gloves, too, until she was more competent at basic cycle-riding and operation skills. And I would get her to do a cycle training course as soon as possible.
Indeed, when she first did start to ride a two-wheeler with stabilisers, (and fell off a few times), it was the full gloves, knee-pads and helmet, even though only one was compulsory.
As my daughter is only 13, the period when she no longer legally has to wear a helmet is also theoretical, but I am confident in her as a well-rounded person that she will be OK to make that choice on her own, and I will support her in that choice.
You have to let kids develop their own identities and personalities, and the best we as parents can do is to give her some signposts along the way (and be there for her if thinks don't go quite as well as she planned).
But hey, she is pestering me for a new bike, as she has rather outgrown her previous bike, so I assume that she will be continuing her cycling!

After all, my mum let me have a motorcycle when I was old enough to legally have one, and I fell off it a LOT, even though my father's cousin died on a motorcycle in his early twenties ...
My mum let me cycle to school when I was 13 on a VERY busy road, even though another boy had been killed cycling a few years earlier on the same route going to the same school

My mum always worried about me, but she knew you have to develop the person, not just wrap them in cotton wool.
You have to let kids grow up.
Do you want them to grow up as teens, or when they are fifty?

So, I hope that is an answer - if there was no law, and I thought she could handle the bike properly, and I thought she was sensible enough to choose a decent route, then NO I wouldn't make her wear a helmet, and I would support her decision - although I might suggest she chose certain times and routes for certain journeys.

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