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Amol Rajan: Stigma, not the law, will make me wear a helmet

FreeView from the editors at i

At 19.40 on Wednesday evening another man in his late twenties was cycling around the Olympic Park without a helmet on. What's the difference between the first man and the second? The first man is dead. The second man is me.

In one of those plunging moments that can define our family lives, my girlfriend heard on the radio that a man "around 30" had been killed near the Olympic Park. She had a sense – not because I'd told her; rather, because she's a genius – that her boyfriend might have gone for a bike ride to his former home in east London, having said for days that he wanted to take the atmosphere in.

So I suppose it is customary at this point to say "there but for the grace of God go I", though to an atheist that aphorism can be jarring.

For some mad reason I decided not to wear a helmet when I headed out on Wednesday. I was meeting my mate Kate for dinner later, and my helmet is a nuisance to carry about in a busy restaurant. I've also been known to leave my helmets behind very readily.

It's not actually known for certain whether the man who died when he was hit by a double-decker on Ruckholt Road on Wednesday was wearing a helmet. A witness said he was dragged under the bus, so a helmet may not have saved him anyway. But now Bradley Wiggins has caused an uproar by saying cycling without a helmet should be illegal.

I bow to no man in my admiration for the side-burned wonder from Kilburn, but on this he is wrong, for four reasons.

First, it will probably reduce the number of cyclists. In Australia and New Zealand, the number of cyclists fell by over half after such a law was enacted. Second, the evidence that it would reduce injuries and fatalities is mixed at best. Third, it's not the business of the state to protect us from ourselves, as long as we're not harming others. Compulsory helmet-wearing violates John Stuart Mill's harm principle: "Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign".

Finally, such a law would be impracticable. Imagine the amount of police time that would be wasted on stopping helmetless cyclists. Laws that cannot and are not enforced reduce the law from a means of empowering citizens to mere state-sponsored didacticism.

What we need is fewer laws and more social stigma. Rest assured I cycled to work wearing a helmet this morning.