This post is not even slightly about teaching or learning, and there is no later tenuous link to it, either. So, if you are expecting that, or want that, you may wish to pop off and read something else, like this.
No, today I am posting because I had my first ever road accident on my pushbike last Wednesday. A delivery van turned left across the cycle path and , through a combination of factors, I ended up cycling into the side of said van. Happily, as you can tell, I am alive and mostly intact, apart from a suspected fractured rib, and a continuing sense of having a hangover. I had lots of concerned comments, promoted by my dramatic photo of smashed glasses, all of which were gratefully accepted, but also some interesting comments that only later started to get me thinking. I’m not unhappy about the level of concern, only reflecting on what the underlying assumptions are when people ask you about them.
“Weren’t you frightened?”
Actually no. Not at all. Not because I’m being macho or trying to put a brave face on it, but because it happened far too quickly for anything other than simple self preservation to kick in. After the event I was too dazed and flustered to do anything other than worry about the bike. (I think it’s a sign of a cyclist, rather than someone who rides a bike, when your first thought post-crash is to worry about the bike. It’s got a couple of wobbles, but it’s generally fine, you’ll be happy to know.) The time you get fear as a cyclist on a British road is when you have a near miss: the countless almost accidents that happen virtually every day. Then, you see, you are conscious and healthy enough to reflect on what almost happened and develop a sense of fear.
“Were you wearing a helmet?”
I got this one every single time. The answer is yes, because, as usual, I was cycling at fairly high speeds down a busy city thoroughfare, with only a token bit of road paint to protect me. The follow up that I got from people who know me was the question about whether I have changed my ambivalence about the value of helmets, to which the answer is no. My personal anecdotal evidence of one crash is that they work: the helmet broke on impact with the road, as it is designed to do, rather than my head, for instance, but that’s one anecdote, and nothing else.
Advocates in favour of compulsory helmet legislation are very fond of third conditionals “If I hadn’t been wearing a helmet, I would have had died”, or more emotively “If he had been wearing a helmet, he wouldn’t have died”. However, this is a sentence structure which describes an unreal past. You simple cannot know for sure one way or the other.
If I hadn’t been wearing a helmet, I might have taken fewer risks earlier in the ride, perhaps travelled a little more slowly had I been feeling less protected, and thus avoided the accident altogether. Perhaps the driver wouldn’t have overtaken me as soon as he did, because I might have looked more vulnerable. Perhaps the driver might have noticed me much sooner, muttering about “idiots who don’t wear helmets”, perhaps, and taken more care. In the events that occurred in reality, then yes, the helmet protected me, but it’s impossible to say for sure, even if the events had gone exactly the same way, that if I had not been wearing a helmet I would have been more seriously injured.
Yes, I wear one generally because of reasons I have mentioned before, and I suspect that they do have an individual value when travelling at speed. But I don’t think that they should be compulsory, nor will I wear one every single time I get on my bike. If I’m popping to the shops half a mile away for an emergency packet of coffee, I’m still not going to panic about getting my helmet if it’s not handy.
“Has it put you off cycling?”
Try this thought experiment. Let’s imagine you have a friend who received minor injuries as a result of walking to work. Would you ask them if they had been put off walking? Is your insinuation, perhaps, that they might now prefer to use an alternative method of transport, perhaps a swegway? Perhaps your injured pedestrian friend might prefer to drive? And then be highly likely at some point in their driving career to be involved in a car accident? At which point, would you say to them “has this put you off driving?” Cycling seems to get accorded a special common parlance as something which is dangerous and risky, and while there are more cycling injuries reported, the risk of death is less when compared to walking. This leads you on to things like…
“I can’t believe you cycle, it’s so dangerous. I’d never cycle.”
Put simply, there is nothing inherently dangerous about riding a bike. You put your feet on the pedals, they go round, you move forward, and that’s about it. The danger in most day to day cycling is other road users, using, as in my case, poor infrastructure. The worry comes from vulnerability, but experience and practice teaches you assertiveness and respect, which makes you safer and less vulnerable. It is your road, which, despite the somewhat rabid claims of the pro-motorist lobby, you are fully entitled to use, so you make it yours: a metre from the kerb is recommended, not the two feet of the slower and more peaceful age when I did my Cycling Proficiency; use the whole lane if it’s dangerous for someone to overtake; signal clearly; get decent lights; don’t ride on a footpath when there is a perfectly acceptable road; don’t run red lights, (which cyclists do no more frequently than cars, according to one study); and so on.
Of course there are more casualties on the road among cyclists as compared to motorists, and more serious injuries amongst cyclists than among walkers or drivers. But as things average out, when I am compared with someone whose lifestyle is identical to mine, but who drives instead of cycles, then I am far less likely to die of stroke or heart disease, and am generally more likely to live longer. Riding a bike is still the way I will travel to work. I’ll take a few days out of the saddle while I get myself back in order, and the bike serviced, just to be sure, and I’ll probably take it a little easier for a week or so, but crashing hasn’t changed anything. It was an accident, pure and simple.