Bradley Wiggins was the hero yesterday when he stormed to victory in the men’s Olympic time trial but, for many cyclists and cycle organisations his golden lustre has been dimmed by his views on cycle helmets following the death of a cyclist last night near the Olympic park. A 28 year old man was hit by an Olympics media bus while riding his bike on Ruckholt Road in Newnham. The man died at the scene and from photographs of the bus, and the man’s bicycle, it appears the man was dragged underneath the bus therefore a light polystyrene helmet would not have saved the man’s life. An (unverified) eye-witness account said the cyclist was crushed by the wheels of the bus.
Bicycle helmets are designed for low speed crashes from head height to the ground and offer next to no protection in smashes with motor vehicles. However, this fact did not prevent Bradley Wiggins urging helmet compulsion for all cyclists, a measure that many studies show would offer no whole-population health benefits.
In a press conference, Wiggins was asked to comment on the death of the cyclist. He said: “Ultimately, if you get knocked off and you don’t have a helmet on, then you can’t argue. You can get killed if you don’t have a helmet on.”
He added: “You shouldn’t be riding along with iPods and phones and things on. You have lights on. Once there are laws passed for cyclists then you are protected and you can say, ‘Well, I have done everything to be safe’.
Wiggins also said more should be done to make things safe for cyclists:
“There are a lot of things that need to be addressed with cycling at the moment on the roads. Things can’t continue the way that they are, everybody knows that.
"It’s dangerous and London is a busy city and a lot of traffic. I think we have to help ourselves sometimes.
"I haven’t lived in London for 10 to 15 years now and it’s got a lot busier since I was riding a bike as a kid round here, and I got knocked off several times.
"But I think things are improving to a degree: there are organisations out there who are attempting to make the roads safer for both parties.
"But at the end of the day we’ve all got to co-exist on the roads. Cyclists are not ever going to go away, as much as drivers moan, and as much as cyclists maybe moan about certain drivers they are never going to go away, so there’s got to be a bit of give and take."
Wiggins’ views on helmet compulsion went viral on Twitter last night, with views polarised, as always happens with the thorny issue of helmet compulsion.
Today Wiggins has stepped back from the debate, tweeting: "I haven’t called for helmets to be made the law as reports suggest."
A text was sent to all British Cycling athletes telling them the official British Cycling position was not a pro-compulsion one.
A tweet today from London Cycling Campaign said: "[The] helmet debate is damaging diversion from real issues."
And the CTC’s policy coordinator Chris Peck has already been on a number of media outlets today, putting across the CTC’s point of view.
Peck said: "Making helmets compulsory would stifle cycling without improving greatly improving safety. Bradley Wiggins celebrated his victory at Hampton Court – without a helmet. Making cycle helmets compulsory would be likely to have an overall damaging effect on public health, since the health benefits of cycling massively outweigh the risks and we know that where enforced, helmet laws tend to lead to an immediate reduction in cycling.
"Two thirds of collisions between adult cyclists and motor vehicles are deemed by police to be the responsibility of the motorist. Any legislation should put the onus on those who cause the harm, not the victims.
"A first hand account [of last night’s incident] suggests that it was the sort of collision that occurs in half the deaths of cyclists in London – a heavy vehicle turning left across the path of a cyclist. In these cases helmets would make no difference."
"Wiggins’s ride both in the Olympics and the Tour de France will no doubt inspire more people to take up cycling. To ensure their safety CTC believes that the priority should be on improving the road network and the criminal justice system, not laws that impose restrictions on cyclists."
Martin Gibbs, director of policy at British Cycling, issued a statement giving British Cycling’s position on helmets and road safety.
"At British Cycling we believe that a lot more could be done be done to make the roads safer for cyclists.
"Experience from abroad has shown conclusively that what is needed is a commitment from the government to ensure that cycling is brought into the heart of transport policy and proper provision for cyclists is designed into roads and junctions.
"However, let’s not forget that cycling is not an intrinsically dangerous activity. Cyclist deaths have more than halved since 1990 and, statistically, there is only one death per 32 million kilometres cycled.
"Evidence from countries that have significantly increased cycling participation rates has shown that as more people cycle it becomes safer, there is an established ‘safety in numbers’ effect as cycling becomes a more popular form of transport.
"Like Bradley Wiggins, we want to encourage a culture of mutual respect among all road users. Cyclists are also drivers and vice versa and it is important that we look after each other whether we are travelling on foot, by two wheels or four, pedal-powered or motorised.
"Helmets can help save lives in many incidents and we recommend they are worn but what would contribute much, much more to making cycling safer is better road infrastructure."