Helmets, hi-vis & safety

Deborah Coleman, writing in the Independent rolls out the “no brainer” approach

Phil Skelton, of Safe Cycling Ireland, makes a different case, below

I wish to reply to Deborah Coleman’s straight talking piece in your paper last week if I may. Ms Coleman’s piece was entitled ‘Helmets and hi-vis is a no-brainer”

In her opening paragraph she refers to the recent Garda proposal to make helmets and hi-vis mandatory for cyclists and wonders why cycling groups aren’t that keen on it. Ms Coleman then goes on to say “For the life of me I cannot understand why” and I’d like to help her with that.

First of all, the Garda proposal is very well meaning as is Ms Coleman’s rationale and it might sound a little odd that a cycling safety campaigner might take a slightly opposing view.
For the record, the Road Safety Authority recommends wearing a helmet and hi-vis and I think that is a sensible approach to take but making it mandatory may be a different matter. It’s important that we separate sports cycling and everyday cycling when we discuss helmets. For all sanctioned Cycling Ireland sport events, helmets are already compulsory just like they are for motor racing events. Racing in a pack of 100 riders who are mere inches apart at speeds of up to 60/70km per hour is a whole different proposition to somebody riding down to the local shop on a high Nellie with a basket on front. When making a suggestion that something should be mandatory, it is very important to be able to back up its rationale with referenced researched fact and not leave this solely to the anecdote. In doing so, you lessen the possibility for unintended consequences.

I will though, start this off with an anecdote of my own in the vein of the replied to article. In Jan. 1991 I was living in Sydney, Australia when they introduced mandatory helmet laws (MHL). I was working at a large hospital at the time and in the following weeks, I noticed that 2 of my work colleagues had stopped cycling to work. Their reasons were really none of my business but over a few beers one night we had a conversation around it. One of them stopped cycling because she didn’t want to get her hair messed up by the helmet and the other was really annoyed that the ‘nanny state’ was encroaching on his right to choose. Again these points were not for me to argue, these were grown ups and had made their choice. In the coming years though the decision made by my 2 work colleagues was reflected in Australia’s cycling participation rate which had dropped by 35%-37%. These figures are also roughly borne out from New Zealand who also have MHL. This is one of the unintended consequences of introducing this well meaning law.

So why is this important? In Ireland it is no secret that we are hurtling down the road to becoming the most obese country in Europe according to the World Health Organisation. We are also set for a tsunami of real societal cost that sedentary lifestyles lead to. Obesity related diseases and illness such as Type 2 diabetes, various forms of cancer, heart disease etc. are areas that exercise can play a big role in mitigating and managing.

A report was released last week from the University of Glasgow based on long term research of over 250,000 people and it’s findings were are stark reality of the importance of cycling as an exercise. It reported those who cycled had a 45% lower risk of developing cancer; a 46% lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease; indeed a 41% lower risk of premature death from ANY cause.

Nowadays, only a minority of the population takes sufficient exercise and several billions are spent every year on hospital treatment of heart and circulatory disease, much of which can clearly be prevented by regular exercise such as cycling. We are also set to become one of only 2 European nations who won’t reach CO2 targets. Including everyday cycling where possible, on daily commutes will help mitigate this but needs adequate spend on safe Dutch style interconnected infrastructure and the proposed Minimum Passing Distance Law to help entice more people out on their bicycles. And if you think this is costly now, as Dublin crime boss, Christy Dunne once said in relation to another matter “wait ’till you see what’s coming behind us”

Spontaneity also plays a large part in cycling participation. City bike share schemes don’t do well in countries with mandatory helmet laws. Cities such as Melbourne where somebody needs to carry a helmet along with them before and after the bike station has been greatly off putting to many..add in a hi-vis garment in to this mix and you are doomed for failure.

Dublin on the other hand has seen over 15.5 million trips taken on Dublin Bikes since it began operating in 2009 and are currently adding another 15 stations such is the demand. I am unaware of a single fatality of a rider of one of these bicycles, but just imagine the added congestion and pollution without them.

We have already covered the decrease in cycling participation associated with MHLs and a further knock-on unintended consequence comes in the guise of safety in numbers. Places with high levels of cycling are associated with lower risks. The relationship between the number of cyclists and the number of casualties among cyclists involved in car accident is inverse. (The more cyclists, the less accidents among them).

Basically the more people who cycle, the safer it is for each individual cyclist. Some of the reasons for this effect are: Drivers are more aware of cyclists; Drivers are more likely to be cyclists themselves which increases the empathy of road sharing; There is greater political will to improve cycling conditions, such as building infrastructure, reducing speed or increasing enforcement of traffic law.

We need to also understand how effective a cycling helmet is and also understand it’s limitations. Cycling helmets are made of a polystyrene material with a plastic covering and are designed to crack open on impact. They are effective in low impact collisions or where a rider might fall off with no other vehicle involved. In collisions at speed with larger vehicles, the safety benefits become less obvious. Wearing a helmet is certainly better than not wearing one but I guess we could make the same case for anything really.

Would wearing a helmet prevent head injury for car drivers? Most probably it would and if we are having this conversation around cyclists, then, is this a conversation that we need to have given that far more head injuries occur in cars?.

In a nutshell, helmets may be beneficial if they help reduce the risk of head injury, but many cyclists find them hot, uncomfortable etc. Helmet laws might therefore be counter-productive if they discourage cycling sufficiently for the loss of health and social benefits from reduced cycling to outweigh gains from fewer head injuries.

Other countries therefore haven’t been falling over themselves introducing MHLs.
Only last week for example, Portugal voted against introducing MHL.

When it comes to hi-vis, you have a well intentioned proposal by the Gardaí. When we drill down further in to this though it may not be as clear cut as we think. When we talk about hi-vis, most of us will think about the regular hi-vis vest that the RSA promotes and indeed this same garment is often handed out to cyclists by the Gardaí themselves.

When we talk about hi-vis, what we are really talking about is high visibility. Taken into context of the Gardaí proposal, we are looking at a high visibility garment. For a garment to be highly visible, it should contrast its background in order to stand out. Right now for example our countryside is awash with bright yellow furze bush blooms and some of our fields our cloaked in beautiful radiant yellow rape seed crops. This creates the perfect camouflage backdrop for our promoted yellow vi-vis. How then will a hi-vis garment be defined for the purpose of the proposed law?

In Winter low sun conditions too, the effect of this hi-vis is questionable. There was a case in the U.K. in 2014 for example where A LOLLIPOP man’s uniform may have acted as ‘camouflage’ to prevent a driver seeing him. A jury was told the combination of the glare from the sun and the bright yellow, orange and silver uniform may have made lollipop man Ray Elsmore difficult to see. The evidence was read out at Southampton Crown Court from a statement by Dr Martin Langham, who specialises in the effect of glare on drivers.

Will we therefore have to create many different types of hi-vis based on the environment and conditions cyclists might ride in? You can see its logic. We see many complaints of cyclists wearing dark clothing on country roads and this well meaning proposal aims to deal with this. In the broader context though, this may well be a low hanging fruit and we need to acknowledge that high vis makes not a bit of difference unless the drivers are actually “looking” for you in the first place and driving at an appropriate speed for that road. To this end some cyclists feel that they could bring the lit-up Christmas tree with them and they still get overtaken too closely or aren’t seen at junctions etc. This is so common that it even has its own acronym called a SMIDSY (sorry mate I didn’t see you) and this can happen irrespective of choice of clothing.

The most quoted research in the area of hi-vis in relation to cyclists comes from Professor Ian Walker who is based at the University of Bath’s psychology department specialising in traffic, transport and environmental behavours, and data analysis. His study measured the space left by motorists passing cyclists and more specifically if what the cyclist was wearing had any impact on this passing distance. The only outfit that made a difference was one that said that suggested that the cyclist was videotaping the journey and this is where police in the U.K. have begun to target, given such evidenced based research.

When we speak about hi-vis from a cyclists safety perspective, it may be more relevant to think of this in terms of the rider being highly visible. This comes not just from the questionable choice of clothing, but from actions such as road positioning (not riding too close to the ditch), giving proper hand signals, riding predictively and defensively, communicating intentions with with other road users, sticking to the rules of the road, using a good set of lights and reflective gear after dark (day glow hi-vis has no properties after dark). For this to happen safely, it requires the attention of the driver to allow adequate space and realising the vulnerability of a person on a bicycle who can easily be on the receiving end of life changing injuries. Does any of this mean that all cyclists are blameless? Absolutely not – there are inexpert, risk-taking and law-breaking bike riders out there, and some of them come to grief solely as a result of their actions. Nor does it mean that motorists don’t care about the safety of cyclists – they often simply do not see cyclists, irrespective of choice of clothing, or indeed make errors of judgement.

Laws, their enforcement and driver education have a big role to play in this area but let’s base them on evidenced research with proven outcomes and without unintended consequences.

When the AGSI Garda union called for compulsory helmets and hi-vis for all cyclists, they did so saying those on bikes needed a “change of mindset” However, their counterparts up north, the PSNI are taking a much more nuanced and balanced approach. The PSNI has launched a new See The Cyclist initiative, aimed at improving road safety for bike riders. In a range of measures, aimed at both cyclist and driver behaviour, PSNI officers in cycling gear will go undercover to catch motorists close-passing bike riders. And their bikes will be fitted with cameras to record the evidence they need to ground prosecutions. As a result the PSNI believes the roads will be safer for everyone; drivers and cyclists alike.

I feel this balanced approach based on evidenced research will have a much more positive impact on road safety that single-mindedly focusing on the low hanging fruit of hi-vis and helmets.

One thought on “Helmets, hi-vis & safety”

  1. Thank you for this article, I try to cycle my 8 year old nephew to school most good days, and the chances that some motorists take, especially in the middle of the small town we live in, is really shocking. So much so, that on more than one occasion, drivers have chanced taking a right turn, through the gap between my ward and I!! One of them couldn’t clear the junction and stopped her car right in front the child with no time for him to stop. Broad daylight, he has right of way, all our safety gear on. What kills me is when folk heard, the first thing they asked?? ‘Was he wearing a high viz!’

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