Keeping a lid on it…


Friday evening finally arrived. Merciful hour. It was a long week, and there had been a few good and tough training sessions to boot. A chance phone call with my mate Jarlath who runs a local fitness centre called Grassroots meant I was ever-so gently press-ganged into a light workout with his crew.

No harm really, though I never run with anyone when I’m training. Also, Jarlath runs a fun but tight ship so we ended up doing some fairly good interval/speed work around the Park. After the session, I headed off into the woods for a warm down. And warm it was indeed.

Arrr Jim Lad! You be goin'a runnin' tonight or I'll rake your ribs with my trusty blade...
Arrr Jim Lad! You be goin’a runnin’ tonight or I’ll rake your ribs with my trusty blade…

Yesterday, the legs were suggesting that the head checked back on the programme, and to pay particular attention to the bit that says recovery and easy runs. To shut them up, we took the bike out for a spin. As it was about four by the time I had finished faffing about at home, and I wanted to catch some of the Ireland v Scotland rugby match at five, I had less than an hour. ‘Put in a good, albeit short effort around the Moor of Meath. Starting out through the Park, then out on to the Clonee Road. The dead badger I had noted last week has now started to get a wee bit ripe, and brought to mind Loudon Wainwright III’s Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road. If that’s your thing.

Fortunately, nature somewhat redressed the balance a few minutes later with a falcon perched on a wire by the side of the road. A wonderful sight.

I managed two loops around the Moor, which is fairly flat, although the road surface is a bit ropey. Some of this was used recently for the Dublin IronMan 70.3 so it will be interesting to see what route they cook up for the full IronMan next year. Certainly, the Strawberry Beds – a very picturesque section along the Liffey between Lucan and Chapelizod – is not that bike-friendly anymore since the locals convinced the authorities to put in ramps. I don’t know how many ramps there are, but it’s quite likely you will lose count if you venture that way. I imagine it makes for an unsettling ride if you are on tri-bars and hoping for some pace.

On the way back, I passed a gent on one of those hybrid bikes. He seemed well-dressed for the part, mostly, and was whizzing along at a good pace. But he wasn’t wearing a helmet.

Your bog-standard typical bike helmet.
Your bog-standard typical bike helmet.

I wear a helmet all the time. I don’t even think about it anymore. It’s like a seat-belt. It’s there, you put it on, end of story.

Of course, it piqued my interest and I spent some time online fishing around for information. The first thing I noted was that there didn’t seem to me much reference to helmet-wearing on the official Irish cycling sites, though I admit my quest for information could hardly be called exhaustive. But I did find some of the legislation covering cyclists, and it turns out you must have a bell on your bike by law, but you do not have to wear a helmet (or indeed any hi-viz gear). Echoes of Flann O’Brien.

There have been some changes recently in law to allow the Gardaí to fine you, on the spot, if you break red lights or cycle on the footpath, for example. A full list can be found here. Most of these are no-brainers, to use that awful phrase. But to really get into the heavy-duty debates about helmets, you have to hit the forums, and see that the issue creates an immense amount of heat (though despite this heat, you don’t always get light).

There is clearly a camp out there who will not wear helmets. The premise seems to be that helmets (or lids, as some folks call them) will only protect your head for very minor stuff. It certainly won’t do much to prevent a 40 tonne truck from crushing you. And sadly these are some of the ways that cyclists are killed, especially in urban areas. This is undoubtedly true, but it seems statistics have been bandied about here to make points, but not always in the right way. As we know, there are lies, damn lies, and then there is the shiny new world of the internet statistic, which most people with a mouse, a will to find it, and half a brain, can pull out of some report somewhere.

There are many issues that the no-helmet lobby raise, including the suggestion/fact that cyclists wearing helmets take more risks, and drivers on the road see helmets and assume a degree of protection not really offered, and take more risks than they should around the cyclist. Then there is the issue of creating a belief that cycling is inherently dangerous by forcing (with legislation) us all to wear helmets. This in turn means less people cycle, and so the theory goes that less cyclists means more danger for the ones left out on the roads. If you can follow that logic.

Copenhagen, city of cyclists. Count the lids. Not so many. But what you can't see is years of reinforced positive driver behaviour where all road users are treated equally.
Copenhagen, city of cyclists. Count the lids. Not so many. But what you can’t see is years of reinforced positive driver behaviour where all road users are treated equally.

One of the threads common in some arguments refers to The Netherlands and Denmark, two countries with high rates of cycling, but lower than average cycling fatalities, as far as I know. And these countries do not enforce helmet wearing. Ipso facto, not wearing a helmet is okay. I think this is a flawed logic. Any country with a tradition of public cycling, where every citizen in the country is brought up to understand road safety and how to share the road with other users, is probably going to have, in the long run, favourable figures in terms of road deaths, not just for cyclists, but probably for pedestrians too.

Also, in terms of statistics, it’s understandable that a tragic fatality in Dublin, for example, is going to be splashed over the news (for a few hours, anyway). But hundreds of minor tips and spills where cyclists have been knocked off their bikes by cars in bike lanes, for example, or have plunged into a ravine-like pothole and come a cropper… these cyclists are either left to trudge home with bent wheels and bloodied elbows, or are perhaps carted off to hospital in an ambulance to be checked out. Generally-speaking, these accidents don’t make the news, nor are they recorded properly and built into statistics whereby we could say with some degree of certainty that a decent percentage of cyclists saved their heads (and brains, possibly, and certainly cheekbones, eye sockets, ears, jaws, noses, etc.) from more serious trauma by wearing a helmet.

The suggested and proper way to wear one.
The suggested and proper way to wear one.

I work in the emergency service. I know what happens to our bodies when shit goes wrong. When it goes wrong at speed, with velocity and mass, most of the time, the body comes out badly (or not at all). I understand a helmet is not going to protect your skull if you are run over by a bus. It may not even make the difference between a closed or open coffin. I understand about brain injury and how damage is caused by impact, secondary impact, and shearing. To that end, some argue that the helmet can add to the shearing effect and also contribute to your chances of having your neck broken if the helmet is ‘caught’ and whipped around by sudden impact. Something that may not have happened if you were not wearing your helmet.

I guess it’s down to choice. Personally, it reminds me of people who are vehemently opposed to getting their kids vaccinated. Maybe you have a one-in-a-million point in terms of something that has yet to be proved. But the vast bulk of information suggests you are putting your child (and others) at risk if you don’t. I certainly wouldn’t let either of my two out without a helmet on a bike, and I’m no one-man nanny state.

Nutcases make the coolest bike lids. My wife wants one of these one day...
Nutcases make the coolest bike lids. My wife wants one of these one day…

The issue is complex. Many of the problems are behavioral from all sides. Attitudes need to change. If a helmet is going to save you (or your child) from nasty injuries then why wouldn’t you wear one? If the tragic fatality of getting smacked by a car at 60mp/h at a junction was going to happen, then no helmet ever made will save you. But who’s fault was it? Should the cyclist have been paying more attention? We as cyclists need to be very careful out there on the roads. We occupy a very grey area. The law is clear, as are general understandings, of your particular bailiwick if you’re a pedestrian. And also if you are driving a car. We have pavements for the former, and roads for the latter. The delineations are fairly clear, and you know instinctively when you are venturing from one to the other. I won’t cloud the issue by mentioning some interesting studies about removing kerbs, signs and road markings to make roads, counter-intuitively, safer; you can read more here if you like. But cyclists are in something of a no-man’s land. We are neither fish nor fowl.

Sadly, this means we remain at risk from poor driver behaviour. But we also need to be honest in the debate about helmets. There is no need to browbeat younger cyclists with some ill-worked logic about how helmets are actually dangerous. This does nothing for the cycling lobby. If, on the whole, they are beneficial, let’s go with that. And then let’s make sure the helmets are properly made and tested. And let’s also try and improve overall safety for all road users. Getting bogged down in an a somewhat elitist argument does not appear to be doing anyone any favours.

As I read last night: “the road to helmets is paved with good intentions”.

Here are a few random links to get the ball rollin’. They are not my views, though in amongst there you will find a lot of common sense. And some other viewpoints!

Brain surgeon: There’s no point wearing bicycle helmets

Should I Wear a Bike Helmet? – a good overall summation

A good piece from the Post

Here is some hardcore stuff casting doubt on helmets

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