Bradley Wiggins has a lot to answer for. Not only has he single handedly shown the world that a man with facial hair can win cycling races, but he has also helped inspire a generation of fluorescent Lycra wearing cyclists – the likes of which now fill the UK’s roads.
In 2012 – the year of his Tour de France fame – Bradley Wiggins stirred controversy when he publicly backed a law that would make bicycle helmets compulsory for all cyclists. At the time, a London cyclist had just been killed in a bus collision – but even that wasn’t enough to stop the wheels coming off Sir Wiggins’ well intentioned campaign. Most people think, like Bradley, that wearing a bicycle helmet is a no-brainer. The truth, however, is rather more twisty-turvy.
Several times have I been in the presence of a fist-waving motorist shouting profanities at a cyclist for not wearing a helmet. To them, bicycling with a naked head looks as bad as a child not wearing a seatbelt or a driver texting while on the motorway. For on the face of it, protecting one’s noggin with a hardened polystyrene shell is common sense. But, believe it or not, many people actually think it’s safer to ride without a helmet.
The dangers of bicycle helmets
So imagine yourself behind the wheel for a moment. You are driving to work and there is a cyclist ahead of you. As you overtake, how close to the cyclist to do think you think you will drive? In all likelihood, you will give the cyclist more room if they aren’t wearing a helmet. Or if they are a woman(!). Such a bias against helmet-wearers probably isn’t deliberate but it was discovered by a Bristol researcher who rode around the city in different regalia, recording how close cars drove. He measured that cars drove significantly closer when he wore a helmet and – amusingly – found that wearing a wig and looking like a woman also ensured that drivers also gave him a wider berth. (Make of that what you will!)
So serious accidents may be more likely for a cyclist who wears a helmet. And it may not just be drivers who are at fault. Some experts argue that the cyclists themselves make more risky swerves when they have a helmet – in the mistaken belief that their helmet gives them greater protection than it really does.
The stats don’t look good for Wiggins’ campaign either. Countries that have introduced cycle helmet laws have seen no significant reduction in cyclist injury and death rates. And the CTC, the UKs largest cyclists’ organisation, are also against helmet-wearing campaigns – claiming that enforcing helmet-wearing discourages people from ever getting on two wheels and taking some much needed exercise.
But all that said, I still choose to wear a helmet when on my bike. For even though a helmet may only protect the top of your head, I prefer the security of having one. Plus most medical organisations think they are sensible – the NHS, World Health Organisation and the Cyclists’ Highway Code all advise that cyclists should wear a helmet – especially for children.
I suspect that as helmet technology improves and roads become more cycle-friendly, the benefits of wearing a helmet will become clearer. Until then, however, whether or not a cyclist wears a helmet is a matter of personal preference – and not reason to trigger a motorist’s rage. As for cycle helmet laws for all cyclists, the jury is still out. Which, strangely enough, is how most of us feel about Bradley’s beard.
Thanks for reading – all opinions expressed are my own. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.Follow @realdoctorstu