CycleNation conference on Cycling and Health: winning the arguments

This article was published in 2012, in Newsletter 102.

Closing questions in the Cycling and Health conference explore how the evidence presented can be turned into action.
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This conference in Birmingham had a strongly focussed agenda and a panel of speakers from the legal and medical professions who presented evidence in a forensic way about how cycling is promoted, and the impact on health. Looking back, it was like a trial, with the cycle helmet in the dock, effectively accused of doing a great deal of harm to the perception of cycling as a safe and healthy activity.

Organised by CycleNation, a federation of cycling campaign groups, the capacity audience of fifty delegates represented groups from all around the UK. Jim Chisholm and I were there for Cambridge Cycling Campaign.

The debate about cycle helmets has been one of the most divisive forces in cycling promotion over the last twenty years. National cycling groups have successively fought off repeated calls for helmets to be made compulsory in the UK. The conference was called with the intention of scrutinising and sharing the evidence with cycling campaigners to equip them to challenge the argument that you should always wear a helmet.

Cyclists live longer

The cycle helmet was in the dock, effectively accused of doing a great deal of harm to the perception of cycling as a safe and healthy activity

… and they enjoy better sex were Professor Bruce Lynn’s conclusions (University College, London). His research shows just how much even a little bit of exercise can strikingly improve your chances of living longer and healthier. He also said that it is not unhealthy to be overweight – provided you keep fit. Keeping fit is the key part because exercise flushes away bad cholesterol. Our bodies’ physiology evolved by hunting for food, eating well when we’ve got some, then resting.

Almost everywhere that cycle helmets have been promoted has seen a drop in cycling levels. This drop results in less exercise for that population, and because the exercise is such a strong lever to healthier longer life the overall effect is that the population lives shorter, less healthy lives.

Systematic errors

Malcolm Wardlaw is a co-author of ‘Health on the Move’ by the Transport and Health Study Group. That casts helmet promotion as a threat to public health like cigarette advertising.

The key point of his presentation is that the way transport safety is measured (by distance rather than time) leads to ridiculous conclusions, such as that walking is 545 times as dangerous as driving.

The main problem is that these numbers have made it into powerful publications that affect decisions as to how much investment should be made in supporting walking and cycling transport modes. They are doing a lot of damage.

Delegates hear evidence about how helmets put people off cycling.
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I asked why such blatant errors are not being addressed; the answer seemed to be that there’s an institutionalised unwillingness to challenge them within the relevant circles.

Dr Peter Ward GP

Peter has studied the statistics from countries around the world where helmet compulsion has been introduced. For me the striking outcome of his work was the graphs of before and after helmet compulsion laws were introduced. Helmet wearing rates went up, but head injury levels remained constant.

Duty of care

Martin Porter QC spoke of his experiences in the courts. He won a case in which a cyclist had ridden off the pavement into the path of a driver doing 35 in a 30mph street. The judge decided that the driver had a duty of care to the cyclist and should have slowed down to 27mph, the speed which would have given him the chance to stop in time. However the judge reduced the compensation to the cyclist by 50%, citing the fact he was not wearing a helmet was ‘contributory negligence’.

Road danger reduction

In road traffic statistics the term KSI refers to the numbers of people killed or seriously injured. Dr Robert Davis (Road Danger Reduction Forum) opened by asking if we’d like to set a target for the number of KSIs on our local streets.

After helmet compulsion laws are introduced, helmet wearing rates go up hugely, but there is no corresponding drop in head injury rates to cyclists. This chart has been simplified, the originals shown in the talk can be found at:
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His arguments built onthe idea that everything done in the name of ‘road safety’ is the opposite of what we should be doing. He cites the unwillingness to tackle the main cause of road danger at source, namely vehicle speed. The opposite usually gets done: wider visibility splays, extra grippy surfaces at junctions and pedestrian crossings, removal of camber – all these encourage drivers to maintain their speed.

A rider was concussed by cycling into a lamppost on the cycleway in Hyde Park parallel to Park Lane in London. By contrast, all hazards like that are removed from roads, and even from the road edges. One report he showed said that ‘trees are a main hazard to motorcyclists’ – this got a big laugh from the audience – but when the same was shown to highway engineers – not a titter.

He was calling for campaigners to move away from neutrality about helmet wearing, towards active resistance by always asking for evidence when challenged.

David Dansky

David was speaking on behalf of Cycle Training UK (CTUK), a workers co-operative that is one of the main organisations delivering Bikeability training in London.

He presented his arguments from the point of view of the young cyclists looking forward to their Bikeability training. At the cycle shed a grim poster from head injury charity “Headway” shows a cyclist splayed across the road with the message that ‘Cycle Helmets’ can save your life. Helmets must be correctly fitted and quite a time in the lesson is taken up with that. Then there are pupils with hair that just won’t accommodate a lid. The result is that time is taken away from on-street training.

The number of children that have hit their head after falling from a bike in all the years has been zero.

The Bikeability scheme started out with a very strong pro-choice ethos, but the pressure is now applied by schools many of which insist on compulsion for their training.

CTUK is now setting up TABS (the association of Bikeability suppliers) with a view to maintaining the standards enshrined in the original vision.

Closing remarks

The day finished with a Q&A session focussing on what to do next. I thanked them for what I found a very useful and strong conference and promised I’d write this article to inform our members of the latest issues in this debate.

Following on from this conference I am inclined to look further at the long list of websites that explain all these arguments in greater detail. The evidence presented at the conference was strong and considered, but outside that environment I find it hard to make persuasive clear arguments why not wearing a helmet is perfectly rational. I don’t want to be like a hedgehog using a prickly shell for limited defence, I’d much rather be like a meerkat, alert and vigilant.

Simon Nuttall