Matt Cooper at it again on cycling safety — helmets, insurance, and cyclists owning the road

While broadcaster Matt Cooper supported the Ireland edition of The Times’ minimum passing distance campaign, Cooper’s coverage of cycling on the Last Word radio show on the Last Word continues to be a mixed bag at best.

Cooper isn’t as bluntly bad as George Hook or Ivan Yeats, but he’s the radio equivalent of the driver that nearly hits you and defends themselves by saying “I’m a cyclist too”.

Even when the items he covers aren’t too bad, he then starts reading out daft text messages from listeners, like “cyclists think they own the roads”.

What exactly is the point in reading out a reader message like that without having the time to explore where those feelings come from and what’s the other side of the story?

The same texter said insurance should be mandatory and we got an ear full of other anecdotes, like bicycles running into cars, buses and pedestrians. Texts into radio shows are like the gutter Facebook comments of news websites but are idolised by radio producers (that’ll probably be justified by saying there’s worse left unread).

At this point we should say that the idem being covered on The Last Word was the ineffectiveness of the Italian high-visibility law — but as usually it went off into tangents.

This is in stark contrast to the show’s weekly motoring spot which is usually focused on one topic and the motoring correspondent (who I agree with on many things) is allowed to repeatedly talk about the “hard pressed motorist” and make unchallenged claims over a number of weeks about electric cars being clean and perfect for city transport, when air quality experts have clearly stated otherwise.

Matt and the show’s producer Mary Carroll could do worse than read an excellent article published this week in the Irish Independent. The Road Safety Authority used its weekly column in the newspaper to highlight how people need to stop seeing cyclists and start seeing people on bicycles:

“When we have a fixed idea of a person in our head based on one of their external attributes, we risk dehumanising them…

“We no longer see them as people, just like us. When you see a cyclist as just another obstacle, hazard or ‘thing’, that’s when one of our most vulnerable road users tends to get hurt.”

The reading out the nonsensical messages with no proper discussion on the range of issues raised has to have an effect — if the radio stations claim otherwise, do they think the same is true of radio advertising?

Another reader message said “helmets are a life saver”, and that’s a fact, despite the evidence that helmets can’t help with concussions.

Helmet pushing is something Cooper strongly agreed with yesterday and on previous shows. Cooper seems obsessed with helmets (you could fairly say I am too).

Cyclehelmets.org — which is clearly a helmet sceptical website — has a good page of discussion of why the “A helmet saved my life” argument is flawed.

Loads of people doing household tasks and things like using the shower get more head injuries than people cycling — yet there’s also no commonly told epidemic of those head injuries. And other head injuries don’t feature on radio every few weeks or months.

This points strongly to the idea that a helmet most likely didn’t save anybody’s life. Most likely at best it saved them from some bruising… and some people will say that that’s justification enough for people cycling to wear helmets. If that’s so, why isn’t it justification enough to use helmets doing other tasks which feature higher in the head injury rankings?

Yesterday evening Cooper gave his own version of how helmets can save you even when motorists aren’t involved, ie when you just fall off your bicycle.

Enter stage left: a small country about 1,000km away of about 17 million residents, the bulk of whom cycle at least some of the time and the helmet wearing rate is less than 1%. Yes, it’s Netherlands.

Now, I know some readers will say ‘but Dutch cycling is segregated from motorists’… indeed, but the argument from Cooper and others is where there’s no cars involved. Where a person falls off their bike — this happens all the time in the Netherlands as they cycle in all conditions from sunny to extreme wind and snow and ice.

IMAGE: Chart by Toole Design Group.

Where helmets were made mandatory in Australia, the numbers of people cycling declined. Meanwhile, Malta — the only EU country with mandatory helmets –is revoking its helmet law because it’s viewed as stifling cycling and bicycle share.

The problem is that helmets are a distraction. As Chris Boardman said: “Helmets not even in top 10 of things that keep cycling safe”.

Wear a helmet if you want — especially wear one if you’re prone to falling while cycling. But the support isn’t there for helmets to be rammed down our throats by the state or by broadcasters.

You can’t promote cycling helmets and high-vis for all and also promote mass cycling and all of its benefits — it’s impossible. It can’t be done. The choice is promote questionable “safety” gear or get down to promoting “sustainable safety” (ie follow the Netherlands).

This is linear choice — the evidence is clear: promotion of gear massively restricts cycling’s potential (forget about most teenagers for starters) and distracts from proven solutions.

I am editor of IrishCycle.com and have reported on and commented on cycling in Ireland for over a decade. My background is in journalism -- I have a BA in Journalism from DCU and HDip in Print Journalism from BCFE. I wrote about cycling for national newspapers, and then started CyclingInDublin.com for overflow stories. Later the website was re-branded to reflect a more national focus.

10 Comments

  1. Omar van den Belt April 13, 2018 at 3:02 pm

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZMv3OB6XHvQ
    Even the child at 0:40 and the children a few seconds later don’t wear helmets.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4gpMHnTT0Wg.
    Look Ireland, even under these conditions no helmets.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lqo4hwnJt6Y
    How many people did fall on their head on this icy road?

  2. I miss the Netherlands :/ No-matter where I was going I always knew beforehand that I could get there hassle free and unharmed.

    Compare that with my experience yesterday. I had to go to Ballymun from Raheny direction, and I took the R104. I used to cycle this road a lot many years ago, but this was the first time I did it at rush hour in a long time.

    FUCK ME – it was fucking awful!! Speeding, blatant and dangerous red-light running, every Tom, Dick & Harry piling up in the bus lane centimeters from hitting me. It was honestly a fucking horrible experience. I hated every second of it.

    I noticed that I was the only person that I saw on a bike. I’m not bloody surprised given what I experienced. Horrible horrible conditions. The urban environment needs to be changed before we get an increase in the number of people cycling.

  3. Yes, I too am fed up with these radio programmes permitting random texting in from listeners with themes that are totally irrelevant to what has just been discussed on-air. Many of these folks just take the opportunity to sound-off about their pet peeves and biases against people who cycle. Helmet-wearing being a case in point.
    Let’s remember Princess Amalia of the Netherlands setting out on her first day at secondary school: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JIG5FNU92lk
    This says it all!
    Programme-makers need to hold government and road authorities to account for why we can’t have our children cycling to school as the most normal thing to do – other than in Ireland.
    Remember all these stations are massively funded by advertising revenue from the motor business. When I last checked (2010) it as a revenue stream of €21M spread across all broadcast and print media. Their editorial policy on travel mode is conflicted.

  4. Omar van den Belt April 13, 2018 at 9:50 pm

    No only the Princess Amalia. But, the whole Dutch Royal Family has cycled for generations. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OvEXigNfeBY

  5. Omar van den Belt April 13, 2018 at 10:45 pm

    Reply to: “I miss the Netherlands :/ No-matter where I was going I always knew beforehand that I could get there hassle free and unharmed.”

    Because a storm had destroyed the electricity cables of the train Mark Wagenbuur (BicycleDutch) had an unexpected bicycle ride home over a distance of 55 km. No problem at all in he Netherlands. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rfiKCXjrPjg

    There is also a long version, without comments: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dbr-_QQv4zE

    On YouTube there is also a video about someone who had to cycle from Rotterdam to Leiden or Delft, I can’t remember which on, without a navigation device. But, due to the infrastructure and the direction signs that was no problem. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find this video

  6. @Omar
    Yes, I had heard, and saw the posts about Mark Wagenbuur’s unexpected commute by bike. I can only dream of having such infrastructure here.

    A friend of mine who has listened to me talk so much about bike infrastructure in the Netherlands, has just this week gone on holidays to Utrecht, where he and his wife are renting bikes to cycle around and see things. He’s been there for a couple of days, and so far he says that they’re both really enjoying it.

  7. Omar van den Belt April 18, 2018 at 8:45 am

    A friend of my, originally born in Uzbekistan, said a couple of times that The Netherlands is a paradise for cycling. Already in 1991 I was able to travel from my former home town of Deventer vv Amsterdam over a distance of around 100 km by bike. And another time I traveled from Deventer vv Eindhoven over a distance of 126 km by bike. Maybe you can send your friend a message about this video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WiVRKQjixmw

  8. Anytime I hear the “cyclists think they own the roads” I understand that to mean “cyclists get in my way and expect to be given space like they are entitled to be there, why don’t they realise that drivers like me own the roads and they are only allowed use them so long as they don’t delay any real people”

    I guess that’s a bit long for a text.

  9. On the chart. That definitely looks to me like helmet use and safety and completely unrelated. You could look at the Netherlands and the US in isolation and you’d be tempted to say that helmet use is inversely related to safety but Finland has very high helmet use and a fairly low number of deaths.

    Wikipedia says that Finland does not have mandatory helmets so their high usage seems odd. This may be down to weather though, I know that about the only time I use a helmet on my commute is when it is icy or very windy because I judge the risk of me falling without the help of an inattentive driver is significant.

    I’d be interested to see the same chart with mode share added. It seems evident to me that the more cyclists there are the safer the roads are for cyclists regardless of whether they wear helmets or dayglow clothing. Which is why I am so annoyed by the constant claims that cycling is so dangerous that you need to wear a bunch of protective gear, because this acts to decrease the number of people cycling which has the exact opposite effect that people like the RSA claim to be going for.

  10. Omar van den Belt April 18, 2018 at 1:04 pm

    @Eric. In the last sentence of your first comment about claiming space on the road the word ‘people’ should be changed by ‘mode of transport’. Hence, the sentence should be: “and they are only allowed to use them as long as they don’t delay any real mode of transport”.

    My comment to: “Which is why I am so annoyed by the constant claims that cycling is so dangerous that you need to wear a bunch of protective gear,”

    Reading this part I thought:
    Why is cycling so dangerous? What makes it dangerous? Do the bicycles or the cyclists make it dangerous? Or are other road users making it dangerous? Here in The Netherlands the cyclist have little to none contact with other road users. At straight roads with high speed difference there is segregated cycling infrastructure. Even at junctions the various road users are sometimes completely segregated. That makes cycling in The Netherlands non-dangerous. That’s why we don’t use protective gear. Therefor, it isn’t the bicycle or the cyclist that makes cycling dangerous. Otherwise, it would also be a dangerous thing in The Netherlands. But, because of the segregated infrastructure it isn’t dangerous. Conclusion, the other road users are making cycling dangerous.

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