Chris Boardman launched a passionate defence of cyclists’ rights not to wear a helmet, saying the argument was a red herring which distracted from making the roads safer.
But road safety charity Brake advised cyclists to wear helmets to be as safe as possible.
Boardman, who has emerged as a key figure in the campaign to get recommendations from the Get Britain Cycling campaign adopted by government, told BikeRadar: “[Helmets] are effectively body armour so the real way to make cyclists safer is to address the main question: why is there a perceived need for body armour? Better to not be shot at in the first place.
“You’re more at risk walking and you definitely wouldn’t want to go in your own bathroom without a helmet – that’s where it needs contextualising.
“People have got into this health and safety mindset – but cycling is not a dangerous activity,” he said.
The Olympic gold medallist and Tour de France yellow jersey wearer, who admits being passionate about the issue, often appear for photocalls and in media activity not wearing a helmet.
Speaking at the launch of the get Get Britain Cycling report this week – which principally aims to normalise cycling and encourage more people onto bikes – he added: “Helmet focus is usually encouraged by people who don’t cycle or want to be seen to improve safety without actually doing anything.”
But Franki Hackett, campaigns officer at Brake said: “We encourage everyone to keep themselves as safe as possible on the roads, and for that reason we advise cyclists to wear helmets.”
However Hackett stressed that because drivers were the more powerful road user they bore most responsibility for keeping other users safe.
“That’s why we campaign for measures like 20mph limits, and urge drivers to slow down when there might be cyclists or pedestrians, and always be on the lookout for cyclists.”
NHS figures suggest the cost of treating obesity related illnesses cost UK taxpayers £5bn a year and many – including Boardman – say cycling could drastically reduce that figure.
Some countries have noted a link between promoting helmet use – or even making them mandatory – and a drop in cycling numbers. The Institute of Public Affairs in Australia branded the country’s introduction of mandatory helmet laws in the early 1990s a disaster and said cycling levels dropped 30-40 percent in response.
Mikael Colville-Andersen, once known as the city of Copenhagen’s cycling ambassador, said journeys in the Danish capital – renowned for its cycling culture and where few people ride with a helmet – said heavy helmet promotion in the city in 2008 coincided with a drop in 10,000 cycle journeys into the city centre.
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