Concern trolls out in force over lack of bicycle helmet on RTE

COMMENT & ANALYSES: Newspaper columnist Frank Coughlan had a rant about cycling campaigners in the Irish Independent on Saturday, but, after pretty extensive searching, it does not seem he has written anything in print regarding cycling safety and nothing much about road safety at all.

It’s worth saying at this point, rather than later, that while the focused in this article is on Coughlan, he’s really only an example of this and there’s many people out there like him across the political spectrum — from Fintan O’Toole to David Quinn or Cora Sherlock — who often claim to support cycling but their main or only output is ranting about cycling as if someone is claiming people on bicycles aren’t flawed human as much as the average pedestrian or driver.

The article on Saturday had some crackers of lines such as: “cyclists are the chosen ones saving the planet while serial-killing motorists are doing Satan’s own work”, “These paragons of virtue never break a red, joyride on footpaths, pedal while plugged in, criss-cross traffic, travel three abreast or go out at night without a shining beacon of light so lesser mortals might see them”, and “perhaps cyclists should acknowledge that they have responsibilities as road users to match the rights they champion so loudly on Twitter.”

And straw-man defences such as cyclists don’t have a sense of humor — an argument he was making in print the day after a man on a bicycles was killed in a collision with truck driver.

Coughlan also has a twitter account. And over the years he had said a bit about cycling there — it’s bog standard guff you often hear about cycling:

“Here’s your Oisin not wearing a helmet.” [A reference to a spokesman for the Dublin Cycling Campaign being on RTE News without a helmet to discuss the new dangerous overtaking law]
One of the replies to that and the exchange afterwards:
Besides replies to the issue above, here’s most of what I could find — he already had an itch to scratch about campaigners not just in September but also dating back to 2017:
“Sort of ultras who give all cyclists a bad rep and claim to speak for everyone on a push bike without any mandate.”

Sep 20, 2018:

“Cyclist stopping at lights!? Ha … good one.”

“No, let’s hope cyclists realise they gave responsibility too. Wearing headphones is irresponsible, clearly.”
“Well, look at that cyclist … headphones on in traffic!”
“Get off the footpath, take off those headphones, stop at lights, get a back light. And lower that saddle … you’re getting above yourself.”
“Hate speech? Grow a sense of humour. Cycling jihadiists like you give all pedallers a bad rep. Learn to freewheel a little and cheer up. 😁

“’@nytimes: Some families ditch cars for cargo bikes http://nyti.ms/1IOQS69‘ Handy on the M50 I’m sure.”

Replying to a tweet about the delay in building a cycle route is one of the vaguest things I could find in him supporting cycling infrastructure — but the tweet of his on this, on February 25, 2019, is more focused on the car parking on the TCD campus. And he had a similar tweet about cars on the TCD campus nearly exactly a year before it.

And in fairness there was a tweet last year saying: “Who drives a car to [Cork’s] Patrick St, finds parking and shops? Not since the 1970s.” I also found a tweet and article which included expressing craziness of people driving into Dublin city centre. So, he’s by no means a car crazed loon.

But both his newspaper writing and his twitter account seems to be devoid of much concern for road safety…. or at least to the extent that he might have road safety as a focus of a few newspaper columns of his or maybe even on twitter beyond what cyclists do.

However, while road safety doesn’t seem to publicly spike his interest much, things that mildly annoyed him made the grade for a twitter reply and cycling advocates giving out to him on twitter makes the cut for a whole newspaper article of his. It has echos of those who criticised Yes campaigners on the Eighth Amendment referendum or more recently those who have attacked climate change campaigners, while previously never lifting even a pen in a productive way about the issues.

Being concerned mainly with the behaviour of cyclists is fairly typical behaviour of a lot of people who claim to be supportive of cycling but their support is weak at best. It amounts to ‘concern trolling’.

On Saturday, Coughlan fairly surely stated: “If you are promoting cycling on national television and arguing how the State needs to protect two-wheelers, the least you should do is wear that one little piece of protection that might be the difference between life and death. With nine tragic fatalities in 2018 alone, who could argue with that?”

The first thing that came to mind is: “Supporters of helmets often tell vivid stories about someone they knew, or heard of, who was apparently saved from severe head injury by a helmet. Risks and benefits may be exaggerated or discounted depending on the emotional response to the idea of a helmet” — a line from a BMJ article written by Ben Goldacre, Wellcome, research fellow in epidemiology and author of Bad Science, and David Spiegelhalter, Winton professor for the public understanding of risk. The article is a few years old now, but two said in that editorial that new research is unlikely to solve the issues they point to in existing research.

The second thing that came to mind is what Chris Boardman — who is heavily involved with not just promoting cycling in the UK, but now also delivering safe cycling infrastructure — said a few years ago: “Helmets not even in top 10 of things that keep cycling safe“.

And the third thing that came to mind is less academic — as part of on-going research I’ve a depressing spreadsheet of the bulk of deaths of people cycling on Irish roads for nearly 20 years. When you’ve looked at as many newspaper reports of the fatal collisions aftermaths, court cases and Coroner’s Court cases, you start to lose the idea that helmets would have saved anybody — especially the bulk of deaths which involve collisions with people driving cars, buses and trucks. The manufacturers of bicycle helmets are upfront about this: bicycle helmets aren’t designed for impacts with motor vehicles.

The common trope against looking for infrastructure around this point of any discussion is that it’s not coming soon — that’s even more part of the problem: People who are spending time just on helmets and when cycling infrastructure is being chronically delayed and underfunded. It can be built fast where there’s a will.

It has been four years since we started hearing how the Spanish city of Seville built a large cycle network in a short few years, and it’s about a year and half since we’ve been told about the success of the outer London “Mini-Holland” schemes.

In the last 10 years, London generally has passed out Dublin in terms of cycling provision and the quality of such. The city is developing the backbone of a network while Dublin has lagged behind — with the outstanding main stumbling block being councillors collectively with little vision of positive change. It helped that at the start of change in London, The Times was calling for it with its Cities Fit For Cycling campaign.

Anybody who wants to do more than just rant about cyclists — please sign your name to Cycling For All, but — more importantly — please ask your local councillors and TDs to sign up to CyclingForAll.ie.

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.

4 Comments

  1. Some reason end of article all showing as quotes/comments

  2. @Shane — thanks issue with the code and trying to fix another issue (lack of paragraphs) had the effect of including the bottom half of the article within the quote. It was fixed shortly after you made your comment. Thanks.

  3. In a similar vein, I was close-passed by a driver who I challenged at the next traffic lights. Their response was the typical “where’s your helmet?”
    1). Would they not have close-passed me if I was wearing a plastic hat?
    2). How would a plastic hat have saved me from being crushed under the wheels of their car?
    3). Plastic hats are only rated for very small amounts of force.
    4). Plastic hats do nothing to prevent concussion injuries.

    I was cycling to work last week. A car left-hooked a person on a bike in front of me. The person on the bike was wearing a plastic hat but didn’t hit his head. His wrist was smashed though and he had to go to hospital. The fire-crew came and one of the fire-men was talking to me, and he just HAD to look at my head, and *tut tut* out loud and then tell me I was being crazy for not hearing a helmet. I told him what I thought, but:
    1). Yet another person with ‘official’ standing (much like ED doctors) giving out useless and non-evidenced based ‘advice’.
    2). Another ‘official’ person going around dangerizing cycling.
    3). Another ‘official’ person who’s ignorance of the subject grants them the freedom of talking shite. The Dunning-Krueger effect in operation.

  4. I also meant to add:

    I was cycling home one evening last year and the person on a bike directly behind me crashed. It was all caught on my rear-facing camera. Almost the first thing out of this person’s mouth was “thank god I was wearing a helmet. It saved me”.

    He had a small cut on his forehead and I took him at his word, and figured that he must have hit his forehead on the ground and his helmet saved him from the worst of the impact (although even still, it couldn’t have prevented any concussional injury).

    Anyway, when I got home I looked at the video, and the video showed a completely different story. His forehead or any other part of his head never actually hit the ground at all. While he was falling he instinctively tried to tuck his head inwards to his chest. This worked, but interestingly his helmet wasn’t actually fitted on properly. It was slightly loose and as he went down he was twisted slightly and around (falling obliquely on his back) and the helmet pulled the back of his head backwards. The lip on the very back of the helmet is the only part of his ‘head’ that contacted the ground. This contact pushed the front of the helmet forward and into his forehead – which is where he got the cut on his forehead.

    In essence, the helmet did nothing at all, and in fact actually injured him. He would have been actually better off without the helmet, as then he would have managed to tuck his head better, and his head wouldn’t have been pulled back and he wouldn’t have injured his forehead.

    But he went home that night with a story about how his helmet saved his life. And I bet that’s a story that’s been told many more times since then.

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