Bike helmets obsession stopping people cycling, claims expert

Promoting helmet use curbs general cycling numbers, says Mikael Colville-Andersen

The UK, USA and Australia have an “almost pornographic obsession” with helmet safety that could be hindering greater numbers of people commuting by bike, a leading urban cycling expert has said. 

Mikael Colville-Andersen, CEO of bicycle culture specialists Copenhagenize Design Company, said, “Every time you see a helmet you’re thinking, ‘Shit, damn, what that person’s doing is dangerous.’ If I walked through central London with a bulletproof vest on the outside of my clothing and a couple of other people did the same, people would say, ‘Whoa, what’s up with that – is it that dangerous?  Is there shooting?’ It’s negative marketing.”

“It’s an interesting cultural question as to why, in Anglo Saxon countries, there’s this almost pornographic obsession with safety, whereas in France and Spain they don’t promote helmets,” he told BikeRadar. “The NGOs [non governmental organisations] know that promotion – let alone legislation – is a cause for lower cycling levels; a hurdle.”

Colville-Andersen, a long-standing opponent of helmet promotion and mandatory helmet laws, pointed to Copenhagen, a city renowned for its cycle friendly culture where relatively few people wear a helmet on their daily commute.

“Thirty-six percent of the population in Copenhagen who ride to work or their place of education every day contribute €233m to the public in health savings every year, just because they’re healthier,” he said. “These aren’t your MAMILs [middle aged men in Lycra] or your Lycra louts, they’re your 40-year-old mother listening to her iPod cycling to work. The health benefits are 20 times greater than any risk; it’s stupid not to be promoting cycling positively.”  

Many Copenhageners take a relaxed attitude to wearing helmets

Colville-Andersen has long been an opponent of “fanatic safety nannies”, who he accuses of “pushing” helmet use that could put people off cycling as an everyday activity. 

“If the bike helmet were a pill they would never be approved for use by any public authority because there is not enough conclusive scientific proof. Information is power and people haven’t been given the information,” he said. “They’ve not been given the opportunity in many countries, especially in the English speaking world.” 

He cited UK child cycling safety charity the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust as an example of such a “nanny”. Angela Lee, chief executive of the organisation, refuted the label, saying, “Putting them [cyclists] off is people talking about changing road structures, making roundabouts safer – that is what makes people feel at risk because you’re making people think there are other fundamental points that need changing. Asking a cyclist to put a helmet on their head is a common sense approach.”

Late last month, Copenhagenize launched their 2013 index of the 150 most cycling friendly cities around the world. Amsterdam (Holland), Copenhagen (Denmark) and Utrecht (Holland) came out in the top three positions respectively. No UK cities made the top 20.  

Watch the video below to hear Colville-Andersen speak about bicycle culture and the role of helmets.

Video: Mikael Colville-Andersen on bicycle culture

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