Owen Jones: One tragedy doesn't make the case for compulsory cycle helmets

If we're going to make cycling safer, we need to tackle bad driving

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Reports of a cyclist's death always send a collective shudder down the spines of those of us who regularly travel by bike. Zooming around packed inner cities, competing for road space with monstrous HGVs, it is difficult not to have a constant sense of potential danger.

The death of a 28-year-old cyclist near the Olympic Park on Wednesday is a horrifying reminder of the risks of the road. Another cyclist witnessed the moment the poor victim went under a bus; his blog is a harrowing account of a young man's last seconds. "I did my best to look him straight in the eyes and tell him he was going to be ok. He was so afraid," he wrote. "Maybe half a minute later I could tell he'd passed."

Any unnecessary death should always prompt reflection of how similar tragedies can be avoided in future. But to hear people suggest that wearing a helmet should be made compulsory (it seems that this wasn't exactly what Bradley Wiggins meant when he was quoted on Wednesday's tragedy) is a disappointment.

How a helmet would have helped a man dragged under the wheels of an Olympics bus is, to say the least, unclear. The London Cycling Campaign had warned the Olympics authorities for years about the dangers of the junction where Dan Harris died. And, indeed, there are times when a piece of advice sounds like a statement of the obvious, but is anything but. Cycling helmets fall very much into this category.

Don't get me wrong: wearing a helmet while cycling can help when it comes to low-speed impacts, as well as limiting certain lacerations and abrasions. They are of little use when it comes to high-speed impacts. One study of 100 police fatality reports by the Department for Transport suggested that wearing helmets could have prevented 10 to 16 per cent of deaths, but the sample was too small to count as conclusive evidence.

But cycle helmet laws should be seen as a total non-starter. Australia is the heartland of such legislation: and, indeed, when the law was changed in 1990, cycling deaths did fall considerably. But then the number of people riding bikes collapsed by 40 per cent among adults and up to 60 per cent among children. Compulsory helmets make cycling seem far more dangerous than it is, and end up deterring what is a very healthy and environmentally friendly activity. And, according to a report by statistician D. L. Robinson, "enforced helmet laws discourage cycling but produce no obvious response in percentage of head injuries".

You are far more likely to suffer fatal head injuries as a car passenger or a pedestrian. As transport specialist Christian Wolmar points out, around half of car occupant deaths are down to head injuries: who is suggesting we all wear helmets when driving?

There is some evidence that wearing helmets have real drawbacks, too. One study found that motorists moved their vehicles 8-9cm closer to cyclists with protective headgear. In other words, cyclists with helmets made drivers less cautious on the road.

In truth, riding a bike is extremely safe. Cycling in London has soared by around two-thirds in the past decade, and yet the number of deaths is lower than it was in 2002. Up to half a million bike trips take place in the capital a day, and yet deaths generally fluctuate between 10 and 16 a year. I can be as gormless as it gets but, in two-and-half years of cycling nearly every day, I've had only one real accident – when I collided with a car which abruptly stopped in front of me. I was perhaps a couple of inches away from having my future ability to procreate called into question.

When deaths do occur, it is often down to reckless driving. A 2009 study into cyclists with serious injuries found that the motorist was at fault between 64 per cent and 70 per cent of the time. If we're going to make cycling safer, we need to tackle bad driving, to separate bikes and vehicle traffic on busy roads and large junctions, and to lower speed limits on smaller residential roads. Helmet laws are a non-starter.

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