Friday, 18 April 2008

Bicycle Helmets and Television

Even though my beloved sister was killed by the chinstrap of her helmet, I believe their benefits outweigh this tiniest of risks.

This week my son started to refuse to wear his helmet when cycling to school. He said none of the other children wear helmets and, like all children, my son wants to fit in with his peers.

Since 1999 I have known two young adults killed on their bicycles and I have had enough bumps to the head myself to know that a helmet greatly increases the chances of survival unscathed but no amount of reasoning can withstand the example of other people when you are the exception.

The British Medical Association now recommends helmet legislation but it fell short of doing so when that idea was first mooted in 1999 after pro helmet-choice campaigners pointed to statistics showing a reduction in cycling whenever helmets were made compulsory. Those statistics have since been damned.

In desperation I wrote to the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust looking for materials about brain injuries to show my son because after reasoning failed to convince my son, my dictatorial enforcement began to spoil family life as the argument wore on. Although I can do nothing about being undermined by his peers, I also think the lack of any helmet enforcement by his school is virtually criminal neglect. His teachers have stood in the playground to enforce petty uniform rules such as wearing ties but have never criticized children who arrived at school on bicycles without helmets or sent notes or leaflets home with them. And, despite repeated asking, we're no closer to getting any cycle proficiency training (Bikeability) in schools in Suffolk either.

I looked on the web and YouTube for videos to support my argument that a helmet will save his life and that he is at risk of injury without a helmet but those I have found are sadly short of credibility and creativity bar one, the 'Bully'. Most of them simply don’t engage me or my son by being preachy or lack any role models for him.

It is somewhat ironic that at his age I took part in a 1970’s cycling safety film with Keith Chegwin and Peter Noone called ‘Betcher’. It’s on YouTube now. Back then you couldn’t buy a bicycle helmet. The film tells a good story unpatronisingly in the fashion of its time and it was well received. Bicycle and car safety was starting to become an issue then - hence the film - but I notice now how few cars there are on the roads we filmed on in the London borough of Ealing. To compare then and now, the wide suburban roads of semi-detached houses had barely a car parked on them. When the action moved to the main roads, the population of cars seems post-apocalyptic in scarcity. In 1970 there was less than six million vehicles on the road. Today there are over thirty two million.

In my small rural market town we have been spared any significant road accidents with children on bicycles for a long time so there isn’t any folklore in this community to counter the faith of parents and children that nothing is going to happen to them but I don’t want my son to be the eventual statistic, however infrequent, nor do I want to be the one that says "I told you so".

This week we went to my child’s school to discuss another matter but when we raised the helmet issue and suggested the school enforced a helmet rule, the headmaster said that it would be impossible, with the usual reasons that it is outside of the school's control or remit. This headmaster is leaving the school to be a consultant next term so we will not have another opportunity to persuade him that it should be the school's remit and, without a school's support; all efforts on other fronts are hindered. The other teachers there could only look at the floor but I feel they take our position. Research shows that helmet education in schools makes a big difference. It would be probably just as effective and legislatively simpler if our schools could make bicycle helmets a part of the uniform regulations rather than fighting for legislation through parliament.

For a host of private reasons, we can't pick a fight with the education system right now and I think most families would be reluctant to take on their school over such an issue when there are many other issues more pressing. The whole school system in our county is undergoing an upheaval and for some children the goodwill between teachers and parents is very precious. But that's not an excuse to do nothing, there must be some pressure parents can bring without leading to confrontation.

As the week went on and I did some research, I became inclined to think I should write to the media about this situation or even make a mini-documentary about this myself or make a gory poster of children with brain injuries caused by not wearing helmets, anything that might shock local parents and children into action.

It is probably within my means to covertly record the children arriving at the school on bicycles without any helmets and obtain interviews with parents of children recovering from traumatic brain injuries and perhaps I might get a statement from the county education spokesperson supporting the headmaster's position. I could publish such a film on YouTube. Perhaps a useful stink could be generated this way. But I have great reluctance to rock the boat at the school for my child’s sake. There could be social repercussions which are a fact of life in small towns as well as guidelines on filming outside schools and children to fall afoul of. I must convince those with the necessary distance and impartiality who have society’s remit to do this for me.

I learned from my research that some great efforts were made a few years ago but it appears as if the campaign to make helmets compulsory had some powerful opposition. The argument goes that people wearing helmets take more risks because they feel protected, so the benefit is negated. If any of these researchers has been to a skatepark or BMX track lately and seen what children do without helmets already, I think they should find it hard to see what further danger they can put themselves in.

Angela Lee MBE, president of the BHIT responded to my plea immediately. A former trauma nurse, she founded the charity after a 13 year old brain damaged child died in her arms in hospital. Her efforts in Berkshire reduced brain injuries by 25%. It was reckoned in 2000 that each case of brain injury costs the NHS over £1 million in care alone, besides the cost of a lifetime of disability benefits for the victim and the economic impact on their families.

In the post today came the loan of a film called ‘Happy Birthday Paul’. In this twelve minute drama loosely based on the true story of Darren Sharpe, a young lad gets a mountain bike and a helmet for his fourteenth birthday. He sets off with his friends on their bikes (none of whom have helmets) and has an accident causing a traumatic brain injury. The film follows him to his sixteenth, eighteenth and twenty first birthday parties whilst his friends grow up and pair off and drop out one by one from visiting him as his parents’ dreams cruelly fade.

Although I hate to criticize such a well meaning film, I found it almost unwatchable and it did not interest my son either. The lead actors were professional, the most prominent being Trudy Goodwin from ITV’s ‘The Bill’ but the director or camera operator was somehow enchanted by the now passé ‘shaky’ camera style. When done well that can work but here the camera moved and zoomed without motivation. The dialogue was what my scriptwriting teacher calls 'on the nose' where the actors state what is obvious from the action and they even go as far as speaking directly to the camera. With such a powerful dramatic situation, this wobbling of the scenery detracted greatly from the film's message but the message was already far off target for children. It was that caring for a brain injured person is a life sentence of isolation that will destroy your life which mostly adults with children will relate to. I wonder too how victims and carers feel about being portrayed that way.

I wondered why BHIT haven't put this film on YouTube. Are they so assailed by the helmet-choice lobby, who disparagingly pronounce the charity’s acronym “be-hit” that they fear this missed arrow will undermine their credibility? Let them not be so timid. This film does have an audience but it is not likely to be parents sharing it with children. It does scare parents to take up my position though but, as it is seven years old now, it may well be time to make another.

You can see on YouTube many of the films cities have made as part of their bid for the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. I find all of these short films incredibly inspiring. Each one encapsulates something both unique about the host city and the universal Olympic ideal. (Personally I think Moscow beat the London 2012 film as let's not forget our film language and editing conventions were devised by Russians.) My point is that films and television remain powerful tools to change opinion and inspire action. And herein is the benefit of YouTube and its ilk. In an evening, instead of spending a month in a library, I could find examples of films to share and learn from. If a helmet safety storyline was in an episode of Doctor Who, it would make a huge impression but a small film can reach a big audience too and a viral film on helmet safety with David Tennant would be unbeatable.
It is time for Britain's filmmakers, who lead the world in effectively addressing social issues with television drama, to tackle this issue again and reinvigorate the cause.

The most significant force our health authorities can utilize is turning peer pressure around on children to encourage wearing helmets so it becomes a habit in which the rider feels uncomfortable without one.  As brain injuries are hugely expensive to treat and so any preventable accidents are a drain on the NHS, we should not expect society to keep picking up the tab for childish foolishness without first making every effort at education and prevention. 

There are probably many political issues around disability raised by this assertion and I don’t think any government wants to endorse the story that your granny can’t have all the operations or drugs she needs because the NHS has to spend money on brain injured children but our children must be taught that because of a bicycle accident, even in the garden at home, they could have a brain injury that will make them grow up trapped in a useless body and as time passes, they will lose their friends and never become the pop stars they dream of if they don’t wear a helmet. There will be times when they forget or won’t wear one but the times they do will reduce the injuries if they ever have an accident.

Some of the BMA's statistics:

Cycle helmets are now compulsory for children in Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Iceland, the Czech Republic, Canada and twenty states in the USA. Studies in a number of these countries have shown that high usage rates of helmets as a result of legislation is associated with a reduction in cycle related deaths and head injuries. Evidence supporting the wearing of cycle helmets continues to mount.

- It is estimated that 90,000 road-related and 100,000 off-road related cycling accidents occur every year in the UK, of which 53% (100,000) involve children under sixteen.

- Provisional figures for the period April 2006 to March 2007 show that 2,462 cyclists were killed or seriously injured in road accidents.

-Significantly, with child cyclists, 85 per cent of accidents occur off road where primary prevention measures such as cycle lanes, vehicle speed reduction and driver education are ineffective.

Many studies provide solid scientific evidence that bicycle helmets protect against head, brain, severe brain and facial injuries, as well as death, as a result of cycling accidents.

Helmet detractors say a helmet isn't much good over 12 mph. Obviously a helmet isn’t going to prevent injury in 100% of accidents but they save lives way out of proportion to the instances of them causing asphyxiation which is the only good reason I know leveled against them. I wouldn't advocate making them compulsory if more encouragement was being done. And if the detractors continue to argue that helmets discourage cycling, then that's like arguing against helmets for soldiers as it hinders recruitment. I’d rather see a fat child than a paralyzed one. The greatest tragedy is every brain injury has more than one victim.

My son told me today that his teacher showed him how his head and brain is as fragile as an egg but he said again; what matters to him (and most other children) is what the rest of his year is doing. He doesn't see them wearing helmets so why should he? How many times does a parent have to say "if your friends jumped off a cliff, would you too?"

But he says because he loves us and he doesn’t want to keep on arguing, he will ignore the pack mentality and wear a helmet because he knows how important this is to us. Sadly, as he grows up and finds greater independence, that sense of obligation will have less of an effect on him unless he learns that who it actually matters most to is him.


  1. Actually the trouble with bike helmets is that they don't seem to work - laws have stopped a lot of people cycling and have done nothing for head injury rates, see It appears that helmets break easily, but don't absorb the impact, see the engineers quoted at A broken helmet has simply failed. Helmets have also strangled some young children who were wearing helmets while playing off their bicycles.

    I don't wear a helmet and neither do my children. We do take good care when we travel and would like the roads to be a lot safer, but that's another matter.

  2. I am really surprised at your position with your credentials. The study you cite analyses the effect of helmet laws and not protection. Like seatbelts, helmets can fail SOMETIMES but having fallen wearing one, I think I'd rather ride with one than without.