I’m a cyclist. I have been into cycling, of and on, for forty years. In the summer, I’ll do two or three rides a week over more than 20 miles each. I maintain a pace of 15 mph on rough surfaces and 18 mph on asphalt. That’s not Tour speed, but I’m an old man and I’m not an athlete. The point being I have a lot of time in the saddle and know pretty much everything there is to know about cycling.
I never wear a helmet. I find them uncomfortable and they look stupid. I’ve never thought they were much of a safety device either.
A leading neurosurgeon has controversially claimed that cyclists who wear helmets are wasting their time.
Henry Marsh, who works at St George’s Hospital in Tooting, London, said that many of his patients who have been involved in bike accidents have been wearing helmets that were ‘too flimsy’ to be beneficial.
He made the comments while speaking at the Hay Festival during a discussion with Ian McEwan, whose 2005 novel Saturday featured a neurosurgeon.
He cited evidence from the University of Bath that suggests that wearing a helmet may even put cyclists at greater risk. The research showed that drivers get around 3 inches closer to cyclists who wear helmets because they perceive them as safer.
He said: “I ride a bike and I never wear a helmet. In the countries where bike helmets are compulsory there has been no reduction in bike injuries whatsoever.
Of course not. Think about the ways you can crash on a bike. One is you just fall over. Unless you strike your head on a curb or similar, you bruise an elbow and that’s it. Since this is less likely than falling down the stairs and we don’t wear helmets walking around the house, it makes no sense to wear a helmet on a bike to mitigate against this possibility.
Another way to crash is you hit something and go over the bars. That’s going to hurt, but you’re much more likely to break an arm or wrist than break your melon. That’s why broken arms and wrists are vastly more common than broken heads. More important, that flimsy piece of plastic is not saving your head if you take a direct hit.
The other possibility is you get hit by a car. A broken melon is the least of your worries. I was hit by car twenty years ago and was thrown over a bunch of parked cars. My head was fine. It was the rest of me. I had bruises on top of bruises. No broken bones, oddly enough. Bouncing off the cars actually cushioned the blow a bit.
“I see lots of people in bike accidents and these flimsy little helmets don’t help.”
Mr Marsh said that he had been riding his bike for 40 years, wearing a cowboy hat, and had only fallen off once.
“I have been cycling for 40 years and have only been knocked off once. I wear a cowboy hat and cowboy boots. I look completely mad.”
Cyclists travel around 3.1 billion miles each year in Britain. Lights and reflectors are a legal obligation after dark, and reflective jackets an increasingly common sight.
But helmets are not compulsory in the UK, unlike in Australia and parts of the US, yet the government encourages cyclists to wear one.
Research conducted by Dr Ian Walker, a professor of traffic psychology at the University of Bath, showed that motorists drove around 8cm closer when overtaking cyclists with helmets.
He suggested that drivers think helmeted cyclists are more sensible, predicable and experienced, so therefore the driver doesn’t need to give them much space when overtaking.
Non-helmeted cyclists, especially non helmeted “women” are less predictable and experienced, according to this study and so motorists give them more room.
This is something I learned long ago. When riding on the streets, I make sure to be in the right lane and not the shoulder. That way, the driver has a better chance to see me and will be less likely to fly past me.