On My Own Two Wheels: Back in the Saddle at 60. A book by Malachi O’Doherty

At the start, I thought I’d enjoy this book more than I did. I had taken up cycling seriously again at the age of 56 and the author at the age of 60. I thought we’d have a few things in common but, apart from the desire to lose a bit of weight, we didn’t. “On My Own Two Wheels” is a deeply introspective and rather sombre book and if you don’t know your way around Eire and Northern Ireland, then read it with a map your other hand, otherwise many of the journeys described will be rather meaningless. I battled through to the end of the book but I don’t think it ever succeeds in expressing the sheer joy and freedom of riding a bike; the author seems to take everything so very seriously.

On My Own Two Wheels
A rather introspective and joyless book about cycling

However, one particular idea from the book stuck in my mind: “We had the wheel for about ten thousand years before discovering that one behind another was enough for an elementary vehicle…” I did a little more research. According to Wikipedia: “The oldest known example of a wooden wheel and its axle were found in April 2002 in the Ljubljana Marshes some 20 km south of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. According to the radiocarbon dating, it is between 5,100 and 5,350 years old. It has a diameter of 72 centimetres (28 in) and has been made of ash wood, whereas its axle has been made of oak.” The predecessor of the modern bicycle, the dandy horse or Draisienne, dates from 1817. It is quite staggering to think that it took 5000 years for mankind to make the leap from wheel to bicycle. How could Leonardo da Vinci have missed this one yet still figured out the idea of helicopters, particularly when the earliest wheel was already the right size for a bike?

Should the wearing of bicycle helmets be made compulsory in the UK?

I’m as sure as anyone can be that a bicycle helmet saved me from more serious injury, or worse, when I had a cycling accident in 2010. On a bright, clear, May morning, as I was coasting downhill on my Airnimal Chameleon folding bike, a jogger emerged from between parked vehicles directly into my path. He didn’t even cast a glance in my direction. As I swerved to avoid him, which I did reasonably successfully, I lost control of my bike. I hit the ground hard and slid across the road, only coming to a halt as the back of my head hit the corner of a raised kerb with enough impact to leave a deep dent about 3 inches long in the helmet and leave me unconscious on the tarmac. A doctor friend of mine who was riding behind me is also convinced that the helmet was a potential life save in this accident. None of the drama of a car crash, or getting caught in the left-hand blindspot of a lorry, but this simple accident, which happened at about 15 mph put me in hospital for two weeks and out of work for six. Unsurprisingly, I’m a very strong advocate of wearing a helmet when cycling. But then again I always have been, and perhaps it saved my life.

Meanwhile the arguments for an against compulsory helmet wearing rage on, some supported by “scientific” papers and others by anecdote or “common sense”. The most recent CTC campaign brief (which by its very title suggests that it comes from a position of bias) is called “Cycle helmets: An overview of the evidence.” It pushes the same tired old arguments we’ve been hearing for years and even throws in some statistical equations to bolster its credibility. You would have to devote months of study to really get to the truth about the quality of most of the evidence presented and I am sure there will holes in the methodology and/or conclusions of most the papers referenced. And don’t forget, when giving an overview of any evidence, you can be selective in exactly which evidence you choose to review. How much of the evidence in favour of wearing helmets ended up in the waste bin under the reviewer’s desk? It’s not unknown for a researcher to respond to the question, “What do you think the result will be?” with “What result would you like?” The CTC has a clearly stated position and it’s not going to publish evidence that contradicts that position. To be fair, this most recent paper does cite 140 references to others, in case you’ve nothing on your plate for the next couple of years. But, having reviewed a random sample, the relevance of some of these papers to the arguments presented do seem rather tenuous and a large number of them are for studies conducted outside of the UK, where cycling conditions are often totally different to those encountered on our roads.

Cycling helmet
Is it really not worth £50 to reduce your chances of injury in some cycling accidents?

Despite my advocacy for helmet wearing, I agree with the conclusions of a paper published in the Journal of Medical Ethics last year (2012) that argues convincingly against the imposition of a legal requirement to wear a cycling helmet, except perhaps in the case of children. In a paper entitled “Liberty or death; don’t tread on me“, authors Hooper and Spicer provide a very coherent case for civil liberties to be to taken into consideration, whilst acknowledging that helmets do provide a degree of protection against head injuries in some instances (as concluded by the BMA’s research). If over 30,000 smokers die of lung cancer and tens of thousands die from alcohol related diseases, why should we legislate for the 200 or so deaths and 2000 or so injuries that are inflicted on cyclists each year, particularly when most of these outcomes would not be prevented by helmets, when we don’t prevent people causing themselves serious harm in other ways? (By the way, if somebody cycles for 50 years, don’t the numbers become a bit more scary: 10,000 deaths and 100,000 serious injuries over that period.)

I will always wear a cycling helmet because I believe I have benefited from that practice and may well do so again in the future. I would much rather that somebody took up cycling than be put off by a legal requirement to wear a helment, and we all have a duty to our children to do everything we can to protect them. I’m in the fortunate position that the cost of a helmet does not deter me from cycling at all, but I recognise that for some it probably does. I would rather they cycled without a helmet than not at all, so long as they understand that the head is a pretty important piece of kit, and of far greater value than the price of a helment. It’s also the heaviest part of the body and striking the ground with it is more than a little risky.

When I see others cycling without helmets, I don’t consider them to stupid. However, I do think that their decision is unwise and I will  encourage them to reconsider. In this controversial matter, doing what we believe to be right does not mean imposing our opinions on others through legislative process. I just wish the CTC would stop clouding the issues with irrelevant data, and start promoting helmet use in a positive way. Or maybe the organisation is frightened of giving the government a stick to beat them with: “You think it’s important for cyclists to wear helmets, so why shouldn’t we compel them to do so?”

After the accident I mentioned at the start of this post, I was very ably supported by the CTC’s legal firm in gaining significant compensation from the jogger for the injuries I suffered. (Incidentally, the guy at no stage during my extended and painful recovery ever bothered to enquire about the state I was in, or even if I had survived the fall – despite the fact that was unconscious on the ground after the event.) The final irony of this story is that I was advised by Paul Kitson, the CTC’s legal eagle at Russel Jones & Walker, that if I had not been wearing a helmet, I may have received a lower level of compensation due to contributory negligence. How do you square that with the CTC’s neutral stance on the subject?