I was browsing a news web page the other day, and one of the news items was accompanied by a photo of a group of cyclists, all of them wearing those rather ridiculous helmets that make them look like they have a hand of bananas strapped to their heads. It occurred to me, as I looked at this photo, that this uptake of helmet wearing by cyclists was symptomatic of the general trend towards the risk-averse, nannying society that we now find ourselves in.
I personally have never owned or used a bike helmet, although to be honest I’ve never really been a cyclist either. Not since I was a kid, anyway. When I lived in the UK I had a bike, but I bought that for the sole purpose of cycling to my local pub, which was about a mile away (a long walk but a short bike ride), because with the draconian drink drive laws, if you wanted to drink more than a pint, driving wasn’t an option. However, where I live now, I rarely wear a helmet when I’m driving a motor bike or scooter either. I find them uncomfortable (particularly in summer) and restrictive, in that they restrict both my hearing and my peripheral vision. But more than that, I love the feeling of the wind rushing past me (I was going to say I love the feeling of the wind in my hair, but considering I’ve got hardly any hair, that would have been stretching poetic licence somewhat…); it’s a feeling of freedom that you just don’t get when you’re within the confines of a helmet.
Naturally, as the use of cycle helmets became more common, those people who delight in telling others what to do started lobbying for helmets to be made mandatory for all cyclists (“…if it saves one life…”), most notably in Australia (natch) and the USA. Thus, the bicycle helmet issue became an embodiment of the ‘precautionary principle’ approach which dominates today, and has done for some years. And just as in every other instance the ‘precautionary principle’ has had unintended consequences, so too has the cycle helmet law.
One example of this which particularly amused me was from Melbourne, Australia. Being a ‘progressive, green’ city, Melbourne spent lots of money establishing cycle lanes around the city, and set up a city-wide bike-share scheme. However, at about the same time, they also made helmets mandatory, meaning that if you wanted to use one of the ‘bike-share’ bikes, it meant you had to lug a helmet around with you all day. Predictably, that idea didn’t appeal to many, and despite all the efforts of the council to persuade people to make use of the bike-share system, it never really took off. Not only that, but cycling in general, promoted as a ‘healthy lifestyle choice’, plummeted in popularity, by something like 50%. But nanny-staters being what they are, the idea of admitting that the helmet laws were counter-productive and should be rescinded, wasn’t considered an option. So now, Melbourne has an under-used bike-share and 50% less cyclists, a situation mirrored everywhere that mandatory helmets have been introduced.
Interestingly, even cycling organisations are ambivalent about helmets. In an article on a cycling website called BicycleSafe, the author is pretty dismissive about the benefits of helmets. Some of the points he makes are:
- Focusing on helmets distracts people from what’s more likely to actually save their lives: Safe-riding skills.
- Research has failed to show any net protective value of bike helmets.
- The importance placed on helmets has negative social effects.
- While helmets obviously decrease some injuries, they actually promote other kinds of injuries.
- The most significant result of a helmet law is to discourage cycling.
He also includes a graph showing that the countries which have the lowest helmet use also have the lowest mortality rate, and countries with the highest helmet use have the highest mortality rate.
So the promotion of these helmets, and the laws passed mandating their use is not only based on junk science and the ‘think of the cheeldren’ blackmail beloved of those who would regulate our lives, but the perceived benefits are outweighed by the negative consequences.
This mania for regulating people’s lifestyle choices seems to have a recurring theme. It’s always started by single-issue fanatics who manipulate and exaggerate statistics to suit their agenda; it always involves restricting people’s freedom of choice; it always starts as advisory and migrates to coercion backed up by legislation; it always has negative consequences. And those that instigate these movements never admit to making a mistake, but cling doggedly to their original misconceived vision.
We see many examples of this today, the most obvious and high profile being the war (as it has become) on smokers. Any perceived benefits of getting people to quit smoking have been outweighed long ago by the negative consequences.
Despite huge numbers of people having been coerced into quitting, the incidence of ‘smoking related diseases’ continues to rise. The punitive taxation levied on tobacco falls most heavily on the poorest sections of society, thus exacerbating social inequality in the demos . The bans have caused untold economic damage, with bars and clubs going out of business everywhere bans are enacted, with the attendant rise in unemployment and all the negatives that go with suddenly finding yourself without an income. There has been a huge rise in obesity and type 2 diabetes, which is directly related to quitting smoking. Society has had a wedge driven through it; friends lost, families divided; and many have been indoctrinated into a visceral hatred of anyone who smokes; intolerance is encouraged. The rise in tobacco taxes have seen a concomitant rise in crime as the black market increases in size, and corner shops are being targeted by thieves for the now high-value tobacco products. Loneliness among the old is an increasing problem as those older people who used to go to the pub, working men’s club or bingo hall (many of them smokers) to meet friends and socialise are now effectively excluded – indeed, many of their favourite haunts now no longer even exist since the smoking ban drove them out of business.
All these things and many more are the direct result of what started supposedly as an effort to improve people’s health, but has ended up doing the exact opposite. Just as mandating cycle helmets has. And in both cases, those who impose the restrictions and laws are in complete denial about the damage they are doing. Not only are they in denial, but they are still pushing for yet more of the same. Such is the nature of the modern day zealot.
And finally, veering off topic somewhat, but still on the subject of cycling, what is it that drives male cyclists to accessorise their odd looking headgear with skin-tight Lycra?
I do wonder about people sometimes…