2 Aug 2012

Wiggins denies he called for legally enforced helmets

After kicking off a huge debate on whether cyclists should be forced to wear helmets sparked by a cyclist’s death, British cycling hero Bradley Wiggins denies he called for a change in the law.

The initial comments which prompted media speculation and a huge debate among the cycling community were a response to news that a 28-year-old man was knocked over by an Olympic shuttle bus and killed.

He was named on Thursday afternoon as Dan Harris, an online community manager, who reportedly only started cycling to work last week. His employers MOO said the death had been a “terrible shock”. “Right now our deepest sympathies go out to his family and friends”, they told Channel 4 News.

A 60-year-old man was arrested at the scene of the crash on Wendesay night and is being held at a police station.

The fatal accident happened just before Bradley Wiggins was due to speak about his Olympic gold win at a press conference. He said: “Ultimately, if you get knocked off and you don’t have a helmet on, then you can’t argue…Once there is a law passed for cyclists then are protected and you can say, ‘Well I have done everything to be safe’.”

Read Jon Snow’s manifesto for safer cycling

But he later denied that he was calling for a change in the law. “Just to confirm I haven’t called for helmets to be made the law as reports suggest,” he tweeted from @bradwiggins. “I suggested it may be the way to go to give cyclists more protection legally if involved in an accident.”

Hours after his Olympic triumph, the cycling champion’s twitter stream was full of celebratory tweets as he got “blind drunk” and posted photos of himself posing with a drink in hand. However the tone changed the following day as Wiggins told people: “I wasn’t on me soap box CALLING, was asked what I thought.”

‘A helmet wouldn’t have helped me’

Such is Wiggins’ huge popularity, both for his cycling and his ‘Mod icon’ status, that a hot debate on the pros and cons of wearing a helmet soon took to the internet. His comments also came just weeks after a report by the Commons’ Transport Committee published in July which pointed to an increase in road fatalities generally in 2011 and called for more government leadership. With regard to cycling specifically, the report did not refer to helmets, but called on the Department of Transport to consider encouraging HGV’s (heavy goods vehicles) to fit sensors to improve cycle safety and review cycling infrastructure in response to the eight points of The Times‘ cycle campaign.

Many cyclists point out that the cycling safety debate revolves around the behaviour of cyclists rather than drivers. Cyclists’ deaths are often due to being caught in the blind spot of a HGV, and the No More Lethal Lorries campaign points out that this is something a helmet cannot protect against. It has a five point plan, including cyclist awareness training for drivers, that a number of companies have signed up to.

London courier Roger ‘Red’ said that Wiggins deserved a knighthood, but added: “I got T-boned by a Jaguar – went over the front of the bonnet, straight into the tarmac and a helmet wouldn’t have helped me,” he told Channel 4 News [see below].

Read more: Channel 4 News’ FactCheck puts the cycling helmet safety claims to the test

Helmets an ‘individual choice’

Transport for London said it encourages cyclists to wear helmets but that the decision should remain an “individual choice”. Instead TFL said it wants to see more “innovative” measures being put in place, such as Trixi mirrors to help drivers identify cyclists and improved safety at junctions.

London’s popular Barclays Bike rental scheme does not come with a helmet, and some cyclists using the bike on a busy Thursday lunchtime told Channel 4 News they wouldn’t opt for a bike if they were forced to wear a helmet. “I couldn’t put it anywhere, there’s no facility for that at work,” said one retail manager.

However a woman visiting London from LA said she was surprised she couldn’t access a helmet when renting the bikes. “I don’t want to tell Londoners what to do, but the nice thing is that in California, it is the law so I think it’s pretty easy to get a hold of a helmet,” Malle Tsurunth told Channel 4 News [see below].

Pushing helmets ‘really weird and illogical’

In 2011, 3,085 cyclists were seriously injured or killed throughout the UK. In Greater London alone, TFL says that 16 cyclists were killed and 555 injured. But an estimated 300,000 cycle journeys take place in the capital each day, more than 100 million a year.

In summary, if the answer is a bicycle helmet, we’ve not understood the problem. And secondly, there is no case at all for making cyclists wear helmets ahead of pedestrians and car occupants. Dr Ian Walker, travel psychologist

However Dr Ian Walker, travel psychologist at Bath University says that helmets are a red herring in the debate about cycling safety. “Pushing for helmets for cyclists and nobody else is basically really weird and illogical. For every cyclist killed in the UK, there are seven or eight pedestrians, and they are killed the same way: being hit by cars,” he told Channel 4 News.

His research suggest that cars tend to drive closer to bikes when the rider is wearing a helmet, and that they are more likely to keep a distance if the driver is a woman. “In summary, if the answer is a bicycle helmet, we’ve not understood the problem. And secondly, there is no case at all for making cyclists wear helmets ahead of pedestrians and car occupants,” he added.

Transport commentator Christian Wolmar added his voice to the debate, pointing out that making helmets compulsory sends a message that it is “dangerous”. “Few cyclists wear helmets in successful cycling countries, such as Holland and Denmark because the risks are low,” he wrote today on his blog. “Drawing attention to helmets is the wrong focus. It is the streets that need to be made safer for cyclists.”