Home » Mikael Colville-Andersen on Why We Shouldn’t Bike with a Helmet (Transcript)

Mikael Colville-Andersen on Why We Shouldn’t Bike with a Helmet (Transcript)

Mikael Colville-Andersen

Full text of Mikael Colville-Andersen on Why We Shouldn’t Bike with a Helmet at TEDxCopenhagen conference.

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Thanks for calling me a young man! It’s really cool to be here. Being hanging out with TED – it really is quite cool.

The good life. Those three words probably mean a whole lot of different things to a whole lot of different people. I have my own personal factors for what the good life means to me and my family. And one of those things is bicycles or rather people on bicycles. A symphony of human powered movement across the cityscape.

It’s a large part of what I do: promoting urban cycling in cities around the world. This is the age of lists, of measuring, of ratings, and indexes. And it’s interesting to see how we try to determine, where the good life is being lived. Not long ago, it was done with simple lists of world’s richest countries, world’s poorest countries, richest cities, poorest cities.

So money was the key factor in determining quality of life. Now, things are much different as we all know. Now we have stuff like the world’s happiest nation survey, which continues to baffle and confuse the Danish people, year after year by placing them number one. I still don’t get it.

A lifestyle magazine Monocle has developed a world’s most liveable cities index a few years ago, using an interesting combination of statistical parameters and personal taste. And this is the a – it’s not working. Gentlemen? — The list of the world top twenty — Most liveable cities for 2010.

Now, I’m completely biased when I say that any liveable city’s worth its so well-featured bicycles, great numbers of bicycles on the urban landscape. And if you look at these cities — you are looking at — Now, there you go — it’s interesting to note that 12 of these cities, including the top 8, all have respectable levels of bicycle traffic, of citizen cyclists on their bike lanes and streets.

Most of the rest of the cities are trying — they’re doing what they can to re-establish the bicycle as transport as it used to be in cities and towns all around the world — I didn’t actually press that.

But this really is a modern catchphrase these “liveable cities.” It’s as though we’re trying to redefine what our cities should be like and try to return to how they used to be and in most cases — were meant to be.

One thing’s for sure — Can you tell me where to point this?

One thing is certain the bicycle is hot all over the world. The bicycle is back. Cities and towns around the planet are trying to encourage people to choose the bicycle as transport, and provide the infrastructure necessary for them to do so.

That was a teaser.

It really is a no-brainer. It really is the most obvious things to do, the bicycle is the most potent medicine that we possess, the most powerful tool, the most effective tool in our toolbox for this rebuilding of our liveable cities. There couldn’t possibly be anything standing in the way of promoting urban cycling. Or could there?

Damn! There was.

Welcome to the culture of fear. There are great many books and essays written on the subject by people far more clever than I am. I can guarantee that.

The German sociologist Ulrich Beck wrote, about over 20 years ago, that once homo sapiens are no longer hungry, they become afraid. Probably doesn’t mean that we’re all scared shitless because you’ve just had lunch — But I did cut my finger on the Sushi box, and I’ve heard about bacteria today, so I’m a little bit worried.

The Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen wrote that fear has become that feeling that controls the public. The culture of fear is many many things, but the most potent example of the culture of fear is this almost pornographic obsession that we’ve developed with safety equipment.

Never before have we lived lives so safe and so free of danger as we do right now in the Western World. And yet the culture of fear has developed a kind of, I don’t know, a bubble wrap society. I’m quite sure that the culture of fear can exist on its own, but it really is made all powerful by the simple fact that if there is something we can get people to be scared of, there’s a long line of people waiting to make money off of it.

Fear is lucrative. Fear is big business. One of the more odd, and perhaps, more extreme examples is this. This is the thud guard helmet. thudguard.com. I couldn’t have made this up if I’d tried. This is an actual product available online as we speak out of the UK. These are helmets that children should wear, “should” according to the people, of course, who are selling them, in the home — sitting on their bums, playing in the living-room or in the kitchen. I think their slogan is ‘learning to walk in a world of hard surfaces’. They quote all sorts of scientific facts.

For me this really is — the ultimate example of the slippery slope that we’re on — is this really where we want to be headed after 250 000 years of homo sapiens? I don’t know.

Another example — another example is close to the home. Apart from the Netherlands, Denmark is the safest country in the world in which to ride a bicycle. Never before has it been so safe to do so than it is right now. So for me it was a bit bizarre to see this recent wave of bicycle helmet promotion in this country. And when it started I became sincerely curious. I knew nothing about it and I decided to check out the facts for myself. This is what I was taught to do.

To my surprise, it didn’t take me very long to figure out that bicycle helmet doesn’t have a very impressive track safety record, scientifically. Scientists, the scientific community has been completely split, for years, on the subject. Fifty-fifty, down the middle. If you look at it this way, if a bicycle helmet was a vaccine or a medicine, there’s no way you’d be anywhere close to getting approved by Ministry of Health, there is simply not enough proof.

Now, it’s been over two and a half years researching this subject, and damn, do I need a new hobby? I can tell you that right now. When you come from a literary background this is, you know, reading scientific reports, is not that much fun.

But it is amazing the things you find out. I mean, it’s an ocean of science out there but, there are actually scientific studies that show your risk of brain injury is higher when you are in a helmet, and that you have a 14% greater chance of getting into an accident with a helmet on. These are not things that we hear about too often so much for showing us the big picture —

The way that these helmets are tested — well, actually industrial design of the helmets, first of all — My son helped me out with this.

From an industrial design perspective these helmets are designed, I found out, to protect the head from non-life threatening impacts in solo accidents under 20km/h. We can all hear that, that excludes getting hit by the car, so please, don’t do that. Whether you’re wearing it or not.

The way that they’re tested in the laboratory is interesting. They’re tested only for impact on the crown of the head. They’re not even tested for impact on any of the sides. And, actually, the test that they go through the laboratory, is nothing more than a simulation of a pedestrian falling and hitting their head on the sidewalk. So, I thought, ‘Wow’ — It’s true — Well, wouldn’t that really make them great for pedestrians?

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