If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Helmets and liberty

I posted a little while ago about cycle helmets, and the compulsion debate.

I like cycling, and I view it as an extension of walking. The idea of compulsory safety kit, or cycle registration, or mandatory licensing and testing fills me with horror. You can just buy a bike, get on it, and go: and that's how it should be. I can accept that systems of vehicle licensing and driver registration are necessary where cars and motorcycles are concerned. The principle difference is that in a car or on a motorbike, you can cause significant harm to other people, and that needs to be controlled in some way. A bicycle is essentially harmless, and it should remain free from state interference.

And then poor old Norman Baker goes and gets himself into all sorts of trouble:

Norman Baker, the minister responsible for cycling, walking and local transport – and lifelong bike enthusiast – has reignited a debate that divides bike lovers. The Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes has declared it his "libertarian right" to put himself at risk on roads by not wearing a helmet, prompting claims from road safety groups that he is unfit for the job.
Is it the law that one must wear a cycle helmet? No, it is not. Is Baker therefore free to choose whether he wears a helmet or not? Yes, he is. But that's not enough for the chiding, nagging governesses of the 'charity' Brake:
"Ministers should practise what they preach and when a minister directly responsible for cycling safety refuses to wear a cycle helmet, we then have to look at their suitability for the role."
Nice little scold, that one, as well as the classic illiteracy of 'their'. But Baker has it absolutely 100% right when he says this, and in the process proves himself to be a true Liberal (from the days when Liberal meant believing in freedom):
"It is a libertarian argument. The responsibility is only towards myself. It's not like drinking and driving where you can damage other people. You do no harm. I'm not encouraging people not to do this, I'm just saying I make a decision not to."
That's the key, and it is a truly Libertarian concept. If you do no harm to others, then you should be free to do as you please with your own life. It is no-one's business but your own. Thank God that someone in government feels this way and can articulate it. Brake obviously feels that the general public aren't intelligent or subtle enough to understand that someone may recommend one course of action while pursuing another. Note: recommend. If he were legislating for the rest of us to wear helmets by compulsion while not wearing one himself, that would be different. That would be like banning smoking from all enclosed public spaces while making the Palace of Westminster exempt, ha ha. But all he is saying is that wearing a helmet is a good idea, although he prefers not to. That's not too hard to understand, is it?

On a bicycle, I don't wear a helmet, and if it were made a legal requirement I would still not wear a helmet. On a motorcycle, I always wear a helmet, and would do so even if the compulsion to do so were removed. Partly, that's from comfort - the world is a different place at 70 mph compared to 15 mph, and I am rarely cycling for 200 miles at a stretch - but it's also from a concern for self-preservation. A fall on the head from a bicycle saddle is unlikely to cause serious head injuries (although it may), whereas a fall from a motorbike at speed would almost certainly be catastrophic. It's the old risk management thing: one is a small and acceptable risk; one is a large and unacceptable one.

I'm with Norman here. On a bicycle, I like the feeling of the wind in what remains of my hair, and the pleasure is enough to make the small risk a worthwhile one. On the other hand, if wearing a motorcycle helmet is a choice I make, then do I believe it should be compulsory for everyone? No, I don't. There is a massively-strong case for wearing one, but even that does not justify taking away people's freedom to live their own lives and make their own choices. The time for protesting against the helmet laws is long gone, and it's not a freedom I would go to the barricades over, but the principle is clear. If we're not free to go to Hell in our own way, then we're not free. There's a surprisingly robust defence of Baker in a comment piece in the Grauniad here, and the comments are surprisingly supportive of Baker (I suspect it is because they associate pro-helmet with anti-bike, and therefore Daily Mail-style wrongness). Support also here and here, where Brake's claim (on which the whole of their argument rests) that most cycling fatalities are caused by head injuries is blown apart.


  1. " If you do no harm to others, then you should be free to do as you please with your own life. "

    Same goes for seatbelts in cars (for adults). Frankly, oif you don't wear one, you're an idiot, but it's still entirely your risk.

    Having got away with imposing that, of course, they were just emboldened to go further and further...

  2. Yes, that's when it all started. There was an excellent speech made by Ivan Lawrence MP back in 1979 (linked to from here) which summed up the whole sorry mess. He ended with "legislation which will produce in the end a Britain where no-one wants to live". Very far-sighted. And that's before you even start on the unintended consequences thing - how injuries inside the car were transferred out of it to cyclists and pedesrians.

  3. XX whereas a fall from a motorbike at speed would almost certainly be catastrophic.XX

    And would NOT be changed by a helmet.

    Remember the M.A.G argument, that "any speed over (I think it was 15 MPH) and the helmet is useless"?

  4. So that wasn't Norman in your previous posting then?


  5. I did ride in the US without a helmet (with just a bandana), and it is so much nicer and less stressful. You don't realise how much strain a helmet is putting on your neck until you try. Not only that, but you can hear a lot better what is going on around you as a helmet generates a lot of noise.

    If it's cold or wet, then a helmet is useful for protection. Or if you don't have a screen.

    That said, I would probably still wear a helmet in London (if it was not compulsory) because there is so much crap in the air which can hit you in the face! Although on a nice day, on the Harley, it would be nice to be able to do so.

    Quite surprised that a lib-dim is a libertarian. What is he doing in that party?

  6. @monoi: King George VI used to wear a bearskin for a couple of hours in the morning in the weeks leading up to trooping of the colour to build up his neck muscles.

  7. Furor - I'd like to see MAG's research on that, but I am doubtful. If I were going to crash at 60, I'm sure I would rather be wearing one than not. Anything that improves your chances ...

    Joe - no, it was John Prescott.

    Monoi - I have only ridden helmetless a few times, mainly across a field or campsite, and I agree it is pleasant. For comfort, in normal riding, I still prefer to wear one. And I have to confess that I feel awfully vulnerable without it. Habit, I suppose. Baker is demonstrating the true roots of the Liberal party - when it was Liberal, and believed in Liberty (that's Liberty, and not a catch-all vaguely Left but less Left than the other lot mishmash that we have today).

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. I think the problem with a helmet at high speed is that it protects your head, but has a good chance to break your neck because it catches on the floor and snaps your head.

    I suppose you could say that if it would be better for the helmet to touch the floor than your scalp, but I don't think that it would necessarily be the case that your head would have hit the floor without a helmet. The weight of the helmet will make sure that your head goes wherever it wants. Also, I can tell you that having practiced judo for a good many years, it has saved me from really hurting myself when falling from bicycle or motorcycle by teaching me how to fall, ie rolling with your head on your chin. No helmet I wore was scratched in all the falls I have had (Well, 2 big ones in 30 odd years), although there were a few broken bones, but I have had whiplash because of them.

    The bottom line is that we should be free to choose.

  10. There will always be arguments for and against -the weight of the helmet is an issue for sure. As I understand it, the main risk in a high-speed fall is the sudden contact with a stationary surface that causes the brain to rotate within the skull and shear all the fine nerve endings. A good helmet is designed to slide along the ground rather than catch in order to minimise this, and I would bet that my Shoei will slide along the ground better than my head. There's also the risk of heavy contact with something blunt like a kerbstone, and spreading the force of that across a bigger area has got to be good. I haven't had many falls in my time, but my head has never contacted the ground either, and I have no judo training.

    There are arguments to say that helmets can cause or increase injuries, but to me it is a bit like saying that it's safest to walk in the middle of the road because cars sometimes mount the kerb and kill people.

  11. XX Richard said...

    Furor - I'd like to see MAG's research on that, but I am doubtful. If I were going to crash at 60, I'm sure I would rather be wearing one than not. Anything that improves your chances ...XX

    M.A.G is still going....?

    It was actualy reported by MAG. But it was, I am sure, something from the D.O.T. Or some insurance tests. I am sure M.A.G will know about it and still have the report somewhere.

    Around 85 to 95 it was.

    Here is another difference between us here and the brits.

    When we were doing first aid there, the LAST thing to do was to remove the helmet from an accident victim. Unless there was a life threatening reason to do so. Here is exactly the opposite. "First remove the helmet".

    Every time I hear that, I tell them I know where they live and where their kids go to school, if you EVER even THINK of doing that to me!"

  12. @JuliaM,

    One might be an idiot for not wearing a seat belt, but it all depends on why you are wearing it. The principle is simple, and the same as the helmet (aside from the personal responsibilty aspect): if its true that having a large spike protruding out of your steering wheel will make you think twice about taking even a small risk, then the reverse, which is to make the consequences of an accident less severe, will mean that you will take more risks. Risk compensation is real, and as a motorcyclist, it is the idiot not focusing on his driving because he feels cocooned who is the most dangerous, not the one who doesn't wear his seatbelt.

    When the seat belt law was introduced in France, I remember very well 1 famous person who was against it: he had been in an accident, and his girlfriend had died in the subsequent fire because he could not undo the belt (I think it was Sacha Distel). My grand dad never wore his for the simple reason that it was his decision and nobody was going to force him.

    I must have taken after him. :)

  13. All the studies that I've seen show rather emphatically that:
    - fatal head trauma increases significantly when not wearing a helmet
    - fatal neck trauma does not increase when wearing a helmet.
    Worth Googling "Injuries motorcycle rider helmet use" if anyone's interested in the actual figures. The study by Sarkar et al seems to be the research baseline. Not sure if anyone's looked into non-fatal but critical injuries such as paralysis, though.

    I've crashed without ever decking out my lid, but judging from the impacts my knees and hips have soaked up, I really wouldn't fancy letting my skull touch down unprotected - so I'm not going to argue against those studies.

    That said, like any other form of personal safety equipment, I think it should still be down to personal choice. Mine would be to wear a motorcycle helmet regardless of whether the law demanded it. Nothing to do with planning to need crash protection, though - it's to avoid the constant bombardment of stinging debris that goes with riding helmetless. Same reason I usually cover my arms and legs, even if it's just with a long-sleeved T-shirt and jeans combination.

    Rather like wearing or not wearing a seatbelt: you're only an idiot if a) you take the riskier approach, then b) crash and c) sustain otherwise preventable damage that allows people to say "told you so". Even then, it's worth weighing up exactly what c) implies. For example, I may crash one day wearing jeans rather than leathers, resulting in a more serious leg injury than would otherwise have been the case. However, that downside is offset every (warm) day by the amount of time I don't have to spend changing trousers and by the increased comfort of not being boiling hot when the weather's good. Seems like a pretty good trade-off to me. Plus, it makes me focus on the more important part of the equation, which is staying upright and avoiding accidents*, rather than mitigating against the possible outcomes of falling off.

    * Doesn't always work, but it's a reasonable ambition to hold.

  14. @ Furor - MAG is most definitely still going, although with a lower profile than before. They ran a bike show/rally in Aberystwyth last summer which I attended, and at which I got thoroughly ill on dodgy beer. So traditions are being upheld. I recently retrained in First Aid as my ticket had run out, and I asked the specific question about helmets. The answer (as you say) was to leave it well alone unless the person is not breathing and needs CPR. In that case, it's a choice between potential paralysis and certain death, and you don't have to think too hard about that one. That's the standard UK answer.

  15. @ Monoi - there's an argument that one should not wear a seatbelt in a car in solidarity with all the peds, cyclists and bikers with whom one shares the road. Putting oneself in harm's way for the benefit of others, kind of thing. The celebrity's response to the seatbelt issue is a classic case of relying on anecdote rather than statistics - a bit like saying that smoking can't be bad for you because your gran is still smoking at 92. Proof of something, but not a good guide to general behaviour.

  16. @ Endo - helmet wearing, snap. Jeans, snap. It's back to the risk/reward thing again. I believe in safety equipment and clothing, but I'm not a fan of ATGATT. Yiou have to look at your life as a whole. Yes, wearing stifling gear on a hot day is better for you from a pure injury point of view, but it doesn't take into account all those quality issues in your everyday life. The convenience of jumping on the bike in 'normal' clothing for a quick trip to the shops in summer outweighs the increased protection of spending quarter of an hour togging up. ATGATT assumes that avoiding crash injuries is the only thing that matters in life, whereas my life is far more complex than that.


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