Life on Mars

This article was published in 2002, in Newsletter 43.

Steven NorrisThe rest of what Steven Norris (Chair of the National Cycling Strategy Board) had to say in York recently was rather overshadowed by his remarks on cycle helmets.

Asked why he wasn’t wearing a helmet, he is reported to have said: ‘I think the idea that you have got to dress up like a bloody spaceman in order to ride a bike is just completely potty. You should be looking at cycling as something that normal, fat, middle-aged men like me do.

‘If you are a young child you wear a helmet. My little four-year-old does. I don’t. I am big enough and ugly enough to know what I am doing and I am not going to treat myself as some kind of Martian in order to do something which I have got every right to do.’

How refreshing!

While there is undoubtedly evidence showing that helmets can reduce the extent of injuries in a crash, there’s much more to it than ROSPA’s inevitable reaction: ‘We hope that in future he would set a good example to other cyclists rather than treating them in this cavalier fashion.’

Making a statement

‘I am not going to treat myself as some kind of Martian in order to do something which I have got every right to do’

Cycle helmets make a statement to other people. Not only do they make cycling something other than ordinary, as Norris observed, they send a message that cycling is unsafe. That gives people a reason, or perhaps an excuse, not to cycle. In the end that is likely to be counter-productive because the health benefits outweigh the casualties.

Of course, that is no comfort to the individual victims of crashes. But that also raises questions of priorities: should we be addressing the source of the danger, or adopting the victim-blaming culture that is so prevalent in our society?

It also raises questions of risk. Society has become so much more risk averse over the last 20 years. Perhaps the most dramatic example is the emergence of the ‘school run.’ Parents, feeling their children cannot be trusted or safe near traffic, may feel they are reducing risk by driving them to school. But this has three side effects. Firstly, it increases traffic, especially around schools, putting others at increased risk. Secondly, it means children are less exposed to traffic and therefore do not learn about it properly. And thirdly, the lack of exercise among children means that health problems such as obesity and heart disease are likely to be more widespread in later life.

Zero risk culture

Attempting to achieve a zero risk is hard to do as one effect replaces another. But is zero risk a reasonable aim anyway? People take risks voluntarily in everything they do. They take risks in anticipation of rewards. (‘I’ll get home a minute earlier if I drive at 35 mph in this 30 limit.’)

Image as described adjacent
‘Rules for pedestrians… When it is dark, use reflective materials (e.g. arm bands, sashes, waistcoats and jackets), which can be seen, by drivers using headlights…’ – Highway Code, 1999 edition, Rule 3.

Where does the cycling helmet debate lead? How soon before the law is changed to say we must wear a helmet? And then, will we all be encouraged to wear one when walking along the street? After all, large numbers of pedestrians are injured in collisions with cars, so isn’t the logical conclusion that everyone who could come into contact with a car should wear a helmet?

You think I’m joking? Things are already moving in that direction. The latest edition of the Highway Code says that anyone out walking at night should wear reflective sashes and arm bands.

Although that rule isn’t compulsory, of course, if you don’t follow it you could be held partly to blame in a collision (‘M’lud, she wasn’t wearing reflective clothing when the car hit her on the zebra crossing. As insurers for the driver, we contend that damages should be reduced as the driver did not have the opportunity to see her that he would have had she followed the advice in the Highway Code.’).

Occasional joggers use reflective sashes and arm bands, but when did you last see a street full of pedestrians wearing reflective gear? Do I really have to look like a little yellow man from Mars to walk or to cycle to the shops? I’d rather get in a car and drive instead.

David Earl

Cartoon [Alien looking at a car, saying 'Go in one of those things and look like a silly earthling? Not on your life!']