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Aug
15
2008

Cycle helmets and the importance of culture

On 11 August the Guardian published an article entitled “Do cyclists really need helmets?” It noted the difference in cycling culture between continental northern Europe and elsewhere. I submitted a letter on the subject that they declined to publish. So I have submitted it to my blog where I have a 100% success rate. 

Do cyclists really need helmets? (G2 11.08.08 and Letters 13.08.08) Two years ago I was invited to give a lecture in Amsterdam comparing Dutch and British attitudes to risk. I complimented my hosts on having a much better cycling accident record than the British, and went on to say that I had been in Amsterdam for two days and seen many thousands of cyclists but only half a dozen cycle helmets. A member of the audience responded by saying that I had been looking in the wrong place. He offered to show me the following morning a disciplined file of children on bicycles all wearing helmets and fluorescent jackets. They would, he added, be cycling to the British school.

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  1. Roland Backhouse says:

    What a shame your letter wasn’t published! I had a really good chuckle.

    Sadly, I think that very few people in the UK will get the point of just how much safer it is to cycle in NL than it is in the UK. But keep writing!

  2. David Hembrow says:

    We have a British school near where we live. It is also a little different to the Dutch schools.

    We sent out kids to the Dutch school, where they are thriving and enjoying the local cycling culture.

    This means they’re out day and night, riding to friend’s houses 20km+ away, and generally having a good time.

    We’ve been writing in our blog about what it’s actually like to be cycling here. A big change from the UK.

    [PS David’s blog is @ http://hembrow.blogspot.com/ and well worth a visit. JA]

    [PPS After a discussion with David off-line he has given me his permission to add the following. Do click on the links. They are fantastic!]

    It’s really been a very good move coming over here. Very pleasant, and of course for the children the extra freedom is wonderful. In fact that, in my opinion, is valuable beyond almost anything. Many of these issues overlap with each other, as I noted in my blog a few days back:

    http://hembrow.blogspot.com/2008/08/pit-canaries.html

    It’s become clear from speaking to planners here and just watching how people behave that subjective safety is really the big thing. The people who live opposite us let their 3 year old ride a trike around on the road (without helmet, of course) unaccompanied, sometimes pulling his little brother in a trailer. They’re nice people, responsible, however it clearly feels safe to do this. The same person in the UK probably wouldn’t do it as they’d be scared of their child being run over.

    Going back to the original point about kids in helmets in the Netherlands, you’d be amused by the school trips. My youngest daughter left primary school at the end of last term and before leaving they went on school camp. By bike. The whole class and a couple of teachers went off with big bags tied to their racks and in baskets and they did 150 km over three days. Can you imagine this happening in the risk-averse UK ? Kids go on lots of school trips by bike, this was far from the first. A couple of weeks after she started at the school the whole class cycled to the city centre. Can you imagine that in the UK ? There’s a video of one of the school trips here from when I went along to see how it went…

    http://nl.youtube.com/watch?v=jUaTETIJkIQ

    Note the total lack of helmets, and apart from a couple of kids who were front and back markers, no fluorescents either. However, note also that the kids now how to behave on bikes. They ride along two by two, are not bouncing onto pavements and back off. When we cross the dual carriageway one of them actually blocks the traffic when the light is green to cars while the rest of the class cross in one go (the drivers just smiled. My guess is that it reminds them of their own school trips).

    My 14 year old just got home from school, ate her lunch, and is riding straight off to see her boyfriend 25 km away. She’ll be back for dinner. We’d never have allowed such freedom in the UK as it simply didn’t feel safe. Nor did the schools, of course. Back in the UK she’d be locked up until 3 and not allowed to go and do whatever she wanted as soon as she’d finished all the lessons for the day.

    I just posted another blog. This features a photo of a very young child on a bike without helmet. It’s a really popular way of carrying babies, and I’ve heard (but not seen for myself) that it’s quite a popular way for non car-owning families to take kids home from the hospital after they’re born there:

    http://hembrow.blogspot.com/2008/08/everyone-cycles.html

  3. simon batterbury says:

    Despite receiving a public lectures from people like John Whitelegg last week, hosting a transport debate in a series (http://www.sustainablemelbourne.com/events/getting-around-melbourne-transport-visions-for-a-sustainable-future), and having one of the most successful cyclist member organisations in the world (Bicycle Victoria), attitudes towards helmets in Melbourne, Australia remain entrenched. This is despite a massive takeup of cycle commuting in the inner city since a fuel price hike in 2007, giving even greater strength in numbers.
    The ‘risk thermostat’ model has never convinced Australian safety ‘experts’, at least not around here. When I mention at barbies that noone wears a helmet in northern Europe, and the accident rates are low, you can feel the embarrassment. The recent death of a cyclist who was run over by a tourist bus, on a city centre road only accessible to buses, trams, and cyclists, has only hardened the general view that lids are essential wear.

    Unfortunately, in a county with only 22 million people but as big the continental US, you still have to wear one in the bush or on any remote cycle path, where the risk of being hit by a motorist are rather low, and the risk of heat exhaustion rather higher. WHat is the history of this strange Australian obsession?

  4. Jim Johns says:

    “WHat is the history of this strange Australian obsession?”

    Well, I can’t discuss that, but it could be explained by a slightly more extreme (dare I say fundamentalist?) version of the Motorist Supremacist model offered above.

    Motorists make cyclists wear helmets because they can. Similarly, motorists want cyclists to have unnecessary insurance, pay “road tax”, have license plates, pray frequently to Mecca (maybe Detroit) – or alernatively just get right out of their road.

    Seems a sufficient explanation to me.

    I believe that there is a fairly strong lobbying body in the UK that is vigorously promoting cycle helmets that is led by a non cyclist. I will have a look for it and post if I can find it.

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