Sophie Wilkinson | Contributing Editor | Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Wearing A Cycling Helmet’s Not All Its Cracked Up To Be

Why Do So Many More Female Cyclists Die In London Than Men?

The Debrief: I'll wear a helmet for safety from myself, but they're flimsy and, besides, what good are they when a lorry turns up?

Cycling is bloody liberating. I get to see beautiful buildings and streets at my own pace and speed, avoid the extortionate train/tube/bus ticket prices, and Mark from acquisitions honking loudly to Dave from the exec team about their plans ‘pushing forward’. And, most of all, I feel like your body is achieving something with every single tread on the pedals. I can get myself, using my own womanpower, wherever I need to be!

But I don’t really do it that much anymore. Despite it benefitting my health, my happiness and my pocket, my cycling has become reduced to a few spins around my local park about twice a week, always before nightfall.

Why? Because cycling is dangerous. Really dangerous. Especially where I live, in London. In 2015 so far, six people have died on London’s roads alone.

Now, of course I wear a helmet. But that polystyrene shell on my head is to cover my own mistakes: like when I do a leg-kick out to the curb that’s actually further away than I anticipated and I Mr Bean my way on to the tarmac, the bike sliding down pathetically slowly. I’m lucky to have not been hit by passing traffic, but should I do this sort of thing again, I know that my head is safe-ish from the ground.

READ MORE: Ignore The Lycra And High Heels Jibes, Cycling As A Woman Is Just About The Most Empowering Thing You Can Do

What my helmet won’t ever cover, though, is the risk of being severely injured should I get hit by a lorry. Studies show that when helmets are worn, cars actually feel more confident driving closer (an average of three inches) to a cyclist, and Dr Henry Marsh, a brain surgeon and confessed helmet refusenik, has said that helmets are too flimsy and that: 'In the countries where bike helmets are compulsory there has been no reduction in bike injuries whatsoever'. Plus, of those six cyclists who’ve died on London’s streets this year, all of them have been hit by lorries turning left, sustaining injuries that are all too violent for helmets to prevent.

While arrests have been made of lorry drivers following collisions, and ‘die-ins’ – protests where cyclists lie down in their masses at junctions where cyclists have been killed – have drawn attention to the issue, people – like myself – still cycle with helmets. As if this will actually help us.

‘Cycling helmets are a distraction from the big issues,’ says Donnachadh McCarthy, co-founder of Stop Killing Cyclists, one of the organisations that puts on these ‘die-ins’: ‘The bigger issues are, first of all, the fact that trucks are designed in a way that the driver cannot see adjacent road users.’

‘You can have a lethal weapon - ie a 30-ton truck – sharing road space with other road users, cars, cyclists, motorcyclists, pedestrians, where they can’t see those adjacent to them.’

While this is especially dangerous to pensioners and children, who might feel a little wary of cycling (despite the health benefits a more cycle-focused commute could bring all of us) women are also at particular risk. According to Donnachadh, the ratio of female to male cyclists’ deaths on London’s streets is 2:1, which is especially surprising considering that 15% of men in London cycle, compared to just 6% of women (ergo, there are double the amount of male cyclists than female). All of the six cyclists who’ve died on London’s roads this year have been women.

Donnachadh has a theory to this: ‘There are higher numbers of women being killed and there are lower numbers of them on the road. The main theory in that is quite a controversial and ironic one.’

‘Women are regarded as being more obedient to the law, that goes for traffic junctions, where they’re more likely to wait for the green light. Men are more likely to go ahead during a red light but when no one else is getting close to them. Men are turning round the corner left when there’s no big heavy truck turning left. Women are going with the trucks at the same time.’

Roads can get hectic and ragey but we strongly doubt anyone intends to kill cyclists, whether they follow the rules or not. While it might seem easy to blame truck drivers for collisions, though, it's more to do with the actual trucks themselves: ‘There are some videos on YouTube that shows what a truck driver can see, and there are some schemes in London where cyclists and truck drivers swap places so they can appreciate each other’s position. It’s absolutely terrifying. These trucks can’t see, they’re blind!’

The solutions? Laws making it compulsory for all lorry owners to install cameras on the left hand side so that drivers can actually see who’s coming up behind them, courts holding those who don’t look out for cyclists to account, and installing separated lanes, like the ones in Amsterdam or New York, which mean that at no point any vehicle should come into contact with any cyclist.

That all seems a long way off: cameras are pricey, it’s hard to tell if people are purposefully not looking out for cyclists or just have blind spots that aren’t covered, and our streets are narrow. Oh, and cash-strapped councils haven’t always got the resources to make roads safer for what seems like a minority of users. In the meantime, our best advice is right here:

How to cycle safely:

1. Be aware

Get a good idea of your surroundings. Look around, wear glasses/contact lenses if you'd need them to drive and don’t get distracted by using your phone/headphones.

2. React

NEVER let a car pull up next to you at a junction without reacting. If all that’s in front of you is a crossing (that’s normally the case), roll out a little forward (slowly, there are pedestrians about) so that you can get out ahead of the car by the time the lights go green. Especially when they’ve got their left blinker light on.

3. Know your route

There are more ways than ever to find your way around now, so map out your route online then memorise it. Learn the potholes, the stretches where cars pull up and even the pattern of traffic lights so you get an idea of when to pull off.

4. Get training

If in doubt, go for training on how to cycle safely. Really, of all the ways cyclists get treated, no one’s going to judge you on that.

5. Remember, it’s not a race 

Yes, some people get fed up with cyclists going on to the pavement, but if you feel unsafe at a junction and the light will be red for a long time, it’s perfectly fine to wheel your bike along the pavement to a safe place where you feel ready to continue.

6. Get involved

Is there a massive pothole you keep on having to swerve to avoid? Get in touch with your council. Feel really passionate about cyclists’ rights and road safety? There are some great groups to join:

The London Cycling Campaign

The National Cycling Charity

Like this? You might also be interested in:

Here's How To Take Up Cycling If You're A Massive Newbie To The Whole Thing

A Few Reasons We're Not Convinced Cyclists Have A Better Sex Life

Cycling Home When We're Shitfaced Isn't Clever. So Why Are We Doing It Anyway?

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