Fear of Cycling -
Helmet Promotion Campaigns - by Dave Horton - Part 03 of 05
Like road safety education, campaigns to promote the wearing of cycle helmets effectively construct cycling as a dangerous practice about which to be fearful. Such campaigns, and calls for legislation to make cycle helmets compulsory, have increased over the last decade. In 2004, a Private Members’ Bill was tabled in the UK Parliament, to make it an offence for adults to allow children under the age of 16 to cycle unless wearing a helmet. Also in 2004, the influential British Medical Association, in a policy turnaround, voted to campaign for helmets to be made compulsory for all cyclists (for comprehensive detail on these developments, and debates around cycle helmets in general, see The Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation).
Helmet promotion, especially to children, has become an established part of the UK road safety industry. In 2005, Lancashire County Council’s road safety team ran a ‘Saint or Sinner?’ tour, with anyone cycling without a helmet deemed sinful; sinners were given the opportunity to repent by pledging to ‘mend their ways’, and always wear a helmet when cycling (Lancaster and Morecambe Citizen 2005).
Helmet promotion is hugely controversial among UK cycling organisations (Hallett 2005). The 2004 Parliamentary Bill was unanimously opposed by the cycling establishment, with every major cycling organisation and magazine rejecting helmet compulsion (Cycle 2004). The groups opposing the Bill included CTC (formerly The Cyclists’ Touring Club, and the UK's largest cycling organisation), London Cycling Campaign, the Cycle Campaign Network, the Bicycle Association, the Association of Cycle Traders, British Cycling, Sustrans and the National Cycling Strategy Board. These groups are not all anti-helmet, but argue for the individual’s right to choose. This section cannot hope to do justice to the various arguments for and against (the imposition of) helmets, which can anyway be found elsewhere, but key issues include:
- Efficacy at the individual level. Does wearing a helmet reduce or increase the risk of sustaining a head injury? Here there are three relevant concerns. First, the technical capacities of helmets, which are designed only to resist low-speed impacts, and only then if correctly fitted (Walker 2005). Second, the concept of risk compensation which suggests that both cyclists wearing helmets and motorists in their vicinity possibly take less care (Walker 2007), which therefore increases the likelihood of collision; in implicit recognition of the existence of risk compensation, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents in its leaflet, Cycle Helmets, feels it necessary to caution ‘Remember: Helmets do not prevent accidents … So be just as careful’ (RoSPA n.d.). Third, the greater size of the head, and so increased probabilities of impact, resulting from wearing a helmet;
- Efficacy at the aggregate level. Do helmet promotion campaigns make cycling more or less safe, overall? There is evidence that cycling levels decline when helmets are promoted and collapse when they become compulsory (Liggett et al 2004, 12). Australia, the first country to make cycle helmets compulsory, witnessed a post-compulsion fall in levels of cycling of between 15 and 40 per cent (Adams 1995, 146). According to ‘the Mole’ (2004, 5), in Melbourne 'compulsion reduced the number of child cyclists by 42% and adults by 29%'. Because cycling tends to be safest where there are many cyclists (Jacobsen 2003), and most dangerous in places with few cyclists, and because helmet promotion campaigns reduce the overall numbers of cyclists, helmet promotion increases the risk of cycling. The relationship between increased cycling and increased safety appears to be confirmed by the experiences of the Netherlands and Denmark, which have high levels of cycling, very low rates of helmet wearing, and low rates of death and serious injury among cyclists;
* Equity. Mayer Hillman (1993) claims that cyclists are at lower risk of head injury than motorists, pedestrians and children at play, yet none of those groups is encouraged to wear helmets (see also Kennedy 1996). Risk theorist John Adams suggests that equitable application of the logic applied to cycle helmet promotion would result in ‘a world in which everyone is compelled to look like a Michelin man dressed as an American football player’ (1995, 146)!
This should be sufficient detail to indicate why the issue of cycle helmets creates so much interest and controversy among health promotion and accident prevention experts, as well as cyclists. But in the context of my overall argument, my chief point here is to note how helmet promotion campaigns play on people’s existing fear of cycling, and contribute to the reproduction and magnification of that fear. One recent UK Government campaign demonstrates my claim in a particularly vivid way.
In 2004 the UK Department for Transport launched ‘Cyclesense’, a multi-media ‘teenage cycle safety’ campaign centred on a series of images of skull x-rays and helmets, which is now taken offline. Various captions accompany the different images of the helmet-wearing skulls.
The script alongside x-ray 01 reads: ‘It’s no joke: cycling is a fun, convenient and healthy way to get around - but if you don’t follow basic safety guidelines the results could be very unfunny’
It continues that ‘in 2001 nearly 3000 cyclists between 12 - 16 were killed or injured on the roads. If you want to protect yourself you must take your cycle safety seriously'.
The text accompanying x-ray 02, a helmeted and apparently laughing skull, reads: 'It's no laughing matter’, before insisting ‘Get yourself a helmet. No joking - in a study of admissions to an A&E Department nearly 50% of injuries suffered by cyclists were to the head and face’. Elsewhere on the Cyclesense website, on the ‘Protection’ page, the text reads: ‘If you like your face and head the way it is, then wear a helmet!’.
These captions make clear the central and over-riding message of the campaign; if you want to cycle and keep your skull intact, you must wear a helmet. The campaign portrays cycling as dangerous, and instils fear.
The CTC responded angrily to the images. A rare letter to all members from CTC Director, Kevin Mayne (2004), set out potential consequences of the imagery; children could be frightened from cycling, and their parents and teachers might feel reluctant to let them cycle.
Mayne writes: ‘CTC believes [these images] will do huge damage to the perception of cycling as a safe, enjoyable, healthy activity’; and such campaigns ‘raise unfounded anxiety about the “dangers” of cycling, and are known to drive down cycle use’.
Against the context of broad governmental support for cycling, Mayne’s tone becomes incredulous:
"Images which link cycling with X-rays of skulls can only mean one thing - if you cycle you will end up hospitalised or dead. What sort of message is that to give to young people? … The last thing the Government should be doing is frightening children into NOT cycling!" (Mayne 2004, original emphasis)
Of most relevance here is that every call for cyclists to wear, or be forced to wear, helmets demands the association of cycling with danger, and thus the production of fear of cycling. Whilst I am happy to align myself with CTC's position, my wider point is that the promotion of cycle helmets is just one more way in which a fear of cycling is constructed.
People with experience in the politics of cycling might realise how controversial are calls for cyclists to don helmets, but the majority of people in societies such as the UK are much more likely to take such campaigns at face value, and to be surprised by those of us who adopt a more sceptical line (although scientific research into how different audiences receive helmet promotion campaigns is clearly required).
In other words, even in this, the most contentious of areas, constructions of cycling as a dangerous practice, and thus the production of fear of cycling, proceeds for the most part in a remarkably insidious way.
- Adams, J. (1995) Risk (London and New York: Routledge).
- Cycle (2004) ‘Helmet law stalls’, Cycle, June/July, 12.
- Hallett, R. (2005) ‘Who Needs Helmets?’, Cycling Weekly, February 19th, 28-9.
Hillman, M. (1993) Cycle Helmets: The Case For and Against (London: Policy Studies Institute).
- Jacobsen, P. (2003) ‘Safety in Numbers: More Walkers and Bicyclists, Safer Walking and Bicycling’, Injury Prevention, 9: 205-9.
- Kennedy, A. (1996) ‘The pattern of injury in fatal cycle accidents and the possible benefits of cycle helmets’, British Journal of Sports Medicine, 30: 130-133.
- Lancaster and Morecambe Citizen (2005) ‘Saints and sinners ride smart’, Wednesday 1st June, 17.
- Liggett, P., A. Cook and K. Mayne (2004) 'CTC and helmets', in Cycle, April/May, 12.
- Mayne, K. (2004) 'This is not another circular: Act now before taxpayers' money is used to damage the future of cycling', letter to CTC members, (Godalming, Surrey: CTC).
- RoSPA (n.d.) Cycle Helmets, Birmingham: The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.
- The Mole (2004) 'Ear to the Ground', A to B, 41: 3-6.
- Walker, B. (2005) ‘Heads Up’, Cycle, June/July, 42-5.
- Walker, I. (2007) 'Drivers overtaking bicyclists: Objective data on the effects of riding position, helmet use, vehicle type and apparent gender', Accident Analysis and Prevention, 39, 417-425.
Fear of Cycling - Part 01 - Introduction
Fear of Cycling - Part 02 - Constructing Fear of Cycling / Road Safety 'Education'
Fear of Cycling - Part 03 - Helmet Promotion Campaigns
Fear of Cycling - Part 04 - New Cycling Spaces
Fear of Cycling - Part 05 - Making Cycling Strange
Dave Horton is a sociologist and lover of all things cycling. He is part of the Cycling and Society Research Group, which has pioneered a ‘cultural turn’ in cycling studies and which holds an annual symposium in the UK. Dave works at Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, on the project ‘Understanding Walking and Cycling’. He tries to do, to write about, and to promote all kinds of cycling, because cycling is essentially good.