– watching policemen arrest cyclists for not wearing helmets
I spent two years in London and really only started enjoying my days there when I traded the Tube for a bike.
The first few months I terrified myself over the dangers and deaths on my commuting route. I bought a Swedish Hovding airbag scarf and rode everywhere in a bright yellow jacket.
I have no regrets over the Hovding. Design and engineering that good is well worth the coin, but I soon stopped wearing it. Partly as it was designed for dainty Swedes rather than Australian-Greeks which made it a little tight around the neck, but mostly as it was an unwelcome entry of fear into my daily commute.
A Hovding. Looks best on Swedes.
It turns out cycling is actually incredibly safe. It is only about twice as dangerous as walking down the street, and noone loses sleep over that.*
Cycling safety statistics are fuzzy, but Boris bikes provide some interesting data points. Since 2010 Boris bikes are ridden helmetless by clueless tourists and children cycling for the first time. There were some 40 million rides to 2014, and maybe another 10 million since. There has been only one death.
So in one of the busiest cities in the world your chance of dying is perhaps one in fifty million. This is in line with the estimate of 1 UK death per 30 million miles ridden made elsewhere, but the Boris bike data is far more robust.
Anyway, back to my favourite things, some boffin calculated that Australia’s criminalisation of helmet-less riding has increased death by a factor of 20 to 60. Twenty to sixty times!
It turns out that 90% of cycling deaths have nothing to do with your head. The real danger is being crushed to death by a garbage truck or some similar indignity.**
Even this isn’t enough to explain how injury rates are no higher when wearing a helmet. The most convincing explanations are that cyclists modify their own behaviour when freeriding, and car drivers (who actually cause all the deaths) drive more carefully around the helmetless.
But why would death rates increase?
As it turns out, cars run on petrol while bicycles run on body fat. The bizarre criminalisation of freeriding caused cycling to drop by over 30%. Multiplied by the amount of riding, that’s a lot of fat. For some groups, such as young women, the drop in cycling was almost complete.
Occasionally weird behaviour bubbles out in civilised conversation. It’s apparently OK to say that a train stop in Bondi is a bad idea as ‘all the bogan Westies would come’. It’s OK to lecture indigenous footy players on race in national newspapers, and it’s OK for a lazy air-conditioned drivers to swear at cyclists outside in the heat, who pose basically zero risk of death to anyone in a car. Fine.
But the nannies running the show over here scored a spectacular own goal. Their spouses are fatter, their kids worse at sport, the traffic thicker and the air smellier. This time they’ve also actually killed a number of people.*** But what I’ll never forgive or forget is that they’ve made life here just a little bit more dull.
*** kind of, whatever