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Cycling Safety Questions: The Great Debate! (Part One)

Cycling is an incredible pastime; it’s eco-friendly, it’s fun, it gets you fit and it’s exciting and adventurous too but for every happy cyclist, there’s someone out there who’ll quite happily rain on your parade. These people come in many forms, often in cars, some on foot and plenty of politicians too. These people aren’t necessarily the enemy but each and every one of them has a different opinion about cycling; especially when it comes to the many different aspects of safety. If you’re a regular cyclist, you’ll have read the news about ‘this’ being proved more dangerous than ‘that’ or that ‘this’ is what you should be doing’, especially if you’ve been doing ‘that’ all along and other such nonsense. Here we’re going to go through some of the most headline grabbing statements and try to work out what’s right from what’s wrong. It’s a two parter, because there really is that much to say!

The Helmet Inquiry

Was that a silent yawn there? Yes, we know – the cycle helmet debate has been raging for a long time now and shows no signs of slowing down either, especially as there is no definitive answer to the question: ‘to helmet or not to helmet?’

Questions have been raised about how protective a standard cycling helmet really is; leading neurosurgeons have stated that cycling helmets do little if nothing at all to protect the brain in the event of an accident at any reasonable speed (usually below 14 miles per hour), while other camps prefer to fly the flag of ‘something is better than nothing’. There is no definitive right or wrong when it comes to this problem but what you should do is look at some of the facts and make up your own mind.

Australia, New Zealand and parts of the USA make helmet wearing compulsory, while many famously cycling European nations have made them optional. In the UK, around 75% of all cycling related deaths are caused by head trauma, so you’d think that wearing a helmet made sense, right? Wrong! According to research from the University of Bath from 2007, helmet wearing cyclists were put in more danger than those without because of the actions of other road users. Dr. Ian Walker came to the conclusion that motorists passed helmeted cyclists 8-9cm closer than cyclists riding bare-headed. It seems that many motorists assume that your helmet means you’ll be safe in the event of an accident and are prepared to take more risks on the road.

Another interesting line of inquiry investigated the negative effects of helmet wearing from another angle; it’s fairly superficial but if wearing a helmet was compulsory it may turn many existing cyclists off of the task and completely alienate any potential new cyclists. If helmet laws stop people from riding, the positive effects of cycling will all be for nothing, shortening more lives through the ill-health of the population (combined with the rising pollution problem) to save a few lives on the road. It looks at the bigger picture, but it’s worth looking at nonetheless.

Take away from that what you will and make your own decision – we live in a country where wearing a helmet isn’t the law, so you’re free to choose what you wear. Wearing a helmet is generally recommended though and if you find yourself in an accident, you may be very thankful that you were wearing one.

To Hi-Vis Or Not To Hi-Vis?

There’s no question about whether high-visibility clothing should be worn in the dark; it’s eye catching, it works, it helps to save your life but the question about whether wearing it in the day makes a difference is still up for debate.

First things first, it’s widely known that up to and over 44% of all cycling accidents occur due to driver’s failing to look properly – this is an indisputable fact from the Transport Research Laboratory; so it would make sense to believe that the more eye catching and visible you are, the more notice driver’s will take of you, right? Maybe.

Many people are quick to believe that wearing high visibility, fluorescent clothing is the way forward and that certainly is true at night; pair that with a decent set of reflectors and the correct lights and you should have no problem at all but in the daytime, do driver’s really pat attention to your flashy clothing?

According to research from the University of Brunel, the answer is a definitive ‘no’.

Dr. Ian Garrad decided to put his cycling gear to the test by wearing a variety of outfits on his travels and measuring the space that 6000 different motorists gave him. His eight chosen outfits included:

  • A bright blue long sleeved shirt
  • A plain white tee shirt and purple baseball cap
  • An orange and green checkerboard rugby shirt
  • A fluorescent winter jacket
  • A red cycling jersey
  • The blue shirt again but with a choice of three fluorescent jackets with words printed on them.

No combination of clothing made the slightest bit of difference except for two of the printed fluorescent jackets. You can almost guess what was printed on the jackets to make any effect on the passing motorists: ‘Police’. The second one didn’t say ‘police’ but said ‘polite’ instead, which looks pretty similar at a glance. It didn’t matter which combination of the outfits he wore, 1-2% of all of the passing drivers, approached the cyclist far too closely. It seems that it doesn’t really matter what you wear in the daytime!

Obviously, this is all circumstantial and it really does depend on the driving conditions on your local roads and also what background you’re contrasting yourself with. If you’re driving along a road where every house is painted bright yellow and only yellow cars are parked outside, your fluorescent jacket probably won’t help you – but when does that happen? Never. The scenery around you is constantly changing and wearing something that stands out is never a bad option.

Soundtrack Or Funeral March?

According to a recent BBC poll, almost 90% of people thought that wearing headphones whilst cycling should be banned. The general consensus amongst road users (including many cyclists) is that your ears are a very important tool for navigating the road safely and that blocking off one of your senses is a huge mistake.

Of course, being able to hear the nature of an engine does give a cyclist an idea of what’s about to happen to next and any type of distraction could lead to potential danger but is it really worth banning?

The road infrastructure in the UK is pretty straightforward and providing that every other road user follows the rules, there shouldn’t be anything for a headphone cyclist to worry about; especially when you consider that cars like to blare there music at incredibly high volumes with their windows closed up all the way.

If headphones are banned for cyclists then radios, Sat-Navs and hands-free mobile equipment should be banned for car drivers too. And while we’re at it, smartphones should be banned whilst walking too! (We’ve bumped into quite enough thanks!)

Deaf cyclists seem to cope rather well. Surely that should be the end of it.

What Next?

As we mentioned above, to fit all of these recent hot topics into one post would just be too long! Part two will be online tomorrow and we’ll be discussing the other interesting areas of debate including filtering, lane position lights and their legality, as well as the Highway Code in general. Until then – ride safely!


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