Boardman: Why I didn't wear a helmet on BBC Breakfast

Boardman: Why I didn't wear a helmet on BBC Breakfast

Home » Campaigning

In the wilds of Scotland, where I am now, I have not yet seen the BBC Breakfast piece that went out this morning but I know it has got a lot of people fired up. The fact that the reaction to my riding a bicycle in normal clothing, looking like a normal person was greeted by some with cries of horror. It’s both understandable and unfortunate because it obscures what I believe are the real issues.

People get very passionate about helmet use - or the lack thereof - but most people don’t get to the next, critical steps to ask themselves, why? Why do I feel the need to wear a helmet and high visibility clothing? What is it that scares me so much that I feel the need to wear what amounts to body armour? And even more critically, is this the place I want to live?

People wear helmets and high vis as they feel it’s all they can do to keep themselves safe. It shows just how far away Britain is from embracing cycling as a normal and convenient form of transport.

For an insight into why I know helmets are not the answer to keeping people on bikes safe, I urge you to spend just two minutes (or even just 30 seconds) of your time watching this video

This is Utrecht in the Netherlands, it’s just 250 miles from our capital, where helmet use is less than 0.5% and there isn’t a stitch of high vis in sight. They have an incredible safety record and some of the lowest casualty rate of anywhere in the world. 

I’m willing to bet that even those that swear by helmets and high vis would feel comfortable discarding their body armour in such an environment. And that’s the point; in Utrecht they have addressed the real dangers to cyclists.

'But that’s over there and not here, we're different,' people will say. ‘That’s not the place we live in.’ Sadly, this is right yet still, advocating safety equipment for the vulnerable is not the answer. Countries that have tried to bring in compulsory helmet laws - such as Australia and New Zealand - have actually seen a 30 to 50% drop in the number of people cycling. When less than 2% of people in the UK cycle regularly, bringing in a law that would actually put more people off would be a serious step back.

If cycling looks and feels normal, more people will cycle (British Cycling research has shown that two thirds of people would cycle more if they felt safer). The more people cycle, the safer they are - the safety in numbers effect. The more people cycle, the more lives will be saved from amongst the 37,000 that die each year from obesity-related illnesses. Never mind the more than 27,000 that die annually from pollution-related illnesses. 

In contrast, there are approximately 116 cyclists tragically killed in the UK each year, that’s one per every 1000 times around the planet. Cycling is statistically safer than gardening and yet it doesn't feel like it when you're cycling next to a lorry or car that gets too close at a busy junction. 

So I understand exactly why people feel so passionately about helmets or high vis. I understand why people wish to use them. But these actions seek to deal with an effect. I want to focus the debate on the cause and campaign for things that will really make cycling safe. 

That is why I won’t promote high vis and helmets; I won’t let the debate be drawn onto a topic that isn’t even in the top 10 things that will really keep people who want to cycle safe. I want cycling in the UK to be like it is in Utrecht or Copenhagen and more recently New York City - an everyday thing that people can do in everyday clothes whether you are eight or 80 years old. I want cycling to be a normal thing that normal people do in normal clothes. Is that wrong? 

In February, British Cycling launched a 10-point action plan to get Britain Cycling. #ChooseCycling sets out what local and national government should be doing to get more people on bikes. We're at a crucial moment for cycling and the run up to the 2015 general election presents us with an unmissable opportunity to try to get some substantial commitments on cycling. I sincerely hope we can win the argument and get one step closer to getting a picture of rush hour in towns and cities across Britain looking a bit more like Utrecht.