To wear or not to wear?

Chris Shaw always wore a hard shell helmet. This was in the days when we road raced with the totally ineffectual “bunch of bananas”, padded hair net style helmet. Hard shell helmets were very much in their infancy and 99.9% of cyclist’s only wore helmets when competition rules made them compulsory. There was the “Skid Lid”, the very early Bell hard shell and various fairings that promised aerodynamic advantage but offered no protection whatsoever.

Chris was one of the first London cycle couriers and one of the first UK cyclists to embrace the mountain bike. Chris loved off roading and competed in the very first UK and European events. He allways pushed the envelope and frequently skinned himself in search of that heady mix of speed and adrenaline. He raised money for his cycling exploits through long winter hours on the bike, turning the wheels of business in the capital by delivering small packages wrapped in brown paper, press releases that no one read, and huge pieces of wind catching rectangular art work. All these were wedged into a bright orange Guardian newspaper delivery bag (£2.95 from the Guardian offices).

The n + 1 rule of bike ownership was strictly followed in Chris’s 1980’s cycling sub culture. (The ideal number of bikes is n+1 where n is the number currently owned, unless conversing with a partner when it is n-1 - velominati.com for the rules of road cycling). Chris had at least three decent bikes, road, mountain and work, and used the Road bike for long training sorties into the North Downs.

Ironically it wasn’t Chris’s need for adrenaline that killed him. Whilst training with a friend on a quiet B road on the Kent/Surrey border a car came around the bend 100m ahead of them out of control. The car (from Chris’s viewpoint) mounted the right hand verge  sped across the road onto the left hand verge and then hit him head on. He died hours later from his head injury. His training companion was thrown into the air and broke his toe when he landed. One young life lost, another ruined.

The argument that cyclist’s should not be compelled to wear helmets is a good one. A cyclist on the road with no helmet is perceived by motorists as vulnerable and is given more room - so in this respect you are actually safer with out a helmet. In situations where a motorist has the choice of slowing down and giving cyclist the room they need or passing dangerously close, (when threading the needle between a cyclist and oncoming traffic for example), the motorist is more likely to risk the cyclist’s safety.

Cycle helmets are flimsy bits - all be it high tech - of polystyrene and thin plastic designed to protect cyclists from them selves at cycling speeds. Tumble on a badly negotiated root or smack your head on the Tarmac courtesy of an unseen pothole and the helmet will sacrifice itself (the polystyrene cracks to absorb the energy of an impact) and go a long way to prevent a serious head injury.

Cycle helmets, as Chris’s story illustrates, are not designed to absorb the forces encountered in a road traffic collision. They offer no real protection when the speed and/or mass of cars, lorries, vans and buses are added to the equation. If cyclists are to be safer on the roads the onus is very much on the motorist.

That said, there is a very compelling reason to wear a helmet - compensation. It is completely iniquitous, but if a cyclist receives a head injury through no fault of their own they are deemed culpable if not wearing a helmet and will loose 90% of any compensation awarded.