- Interviews - Morten Lange


Morten Lange is Norwegian and lives in Iceland. He is the head of the Icelandic Cyclists' Union. He sits on the bicycle group panel of The European Cyclists' Federation [ECF] and has discussed cykelhjelme med some of the world's leading experts in the field.

What do you know about Danish bike culture, looking at it from abroad with your experience?
When I visited Denmark as a child I saw that it was completely normal for all age groups to cycle. In the suburbs of Oslo it wasn't normal for adults to cycle.

When I came through Copenhagen on Interrail in the 1980's I saw hundreds and hundreds of bikes outside the train stations and that made a big impression on me. On a later visit I saw that the city had taken back the City Hall Square from the cars. That was great.

In my eyes, bicycle culture in Denmark is:
A relaxed stream of non-polluting transport.
Cyclists that have been given their place in the traffic and who use it. The traffic accepts them and cyclists accept the traffic and its rules.
The relaxed normalisation of cycling.
Cargo bikes for transporting children and goods.
Everyone cycles.
No lycra, mountain bikes, racer bikes or helmets.
Mayors and city ingeniors who work for cyclists and almost never against them.

Denmark is currently experiencing a period of intense bike helmet promotion, with a lot of focus on the dangers involved in cycling. One poster reads "Strap on your helmet and avoid brain damage". There is talk of legislation, as well. What can we expect from this helmet promotion, in your experience? How will our bike culture be affected?

Many people will become scared to cycle, especially women and mothers. It'll become less 'normal' to cycle. ”The experts say it's dangerous, man!”

Like in Finland and Canada the law won't be enforced. There will be yet another law that many people kan ignore. But fear-mongering campaigns will continue and fewer people will cycle - unless someone stops them.

Bicycle culture and all that is beautiful about it will suffer.

Currently, 36% of Copenhageners ride their bike daily. The goal is 50% by 2015. Will these pro-helmet campaigns help or hinder us reaching this goal?

Many countries will helmet laws have seen a reduction in the number of cyclists. In some places it has been extreme. According to some experts there are also indications that people become scared to cycle when bike helmets are merely promoted intensely, with emotional campaigns.

In Denmark, in 2007, there were fewer cyclists than a few years ago. Just not in Copenhagen and Odense, but it is these two cities who do the most for cyclists. This clear pattern outside of these two cities is negative, but the tendency is positive in other countries. Perhaps the fear-mongering campaigns have had an unwanted effect?

If helmet campaigns are more postive and cosy, they're not so bad, but they still say between the lines that it is more dangerous for your head to cycle to work than to take your car. There is no good scientfic data that supports this claim.

Many head injuries also happen in the bathroom or on stairs. Should we all wear helmets in the shower?

When you use intense helmet campaigns you call forth strong emotions about how dangerous it is to cycle. At the same time you're saying [if not directly] that helmets can handle 'everything'. Helmet campaigns don't put the risk in perspective. It is lying by selective exclusion.

How many people die each year because they don't cycle or do anything positive for their body?

Why are there fewer people who die in traffic accidents per kilometre in Denmark than in all other countries with good data, with the exception of the Netherlands where ever fewer use a helmet?

Do you think that it is wise for the organisations responsible for the aggressive campaigns to focus on the negative aspects of cycling? And in a country like Denmark, with a well-established bike culture?

What negative aspects? Is there anything at all negative about cycling that people don't know about and that is important to tell them about? Think instead about the big picture. About how people who don't cycle are lacking in physical exercise. Think instead about those who are killed by cars, in traffic accidents and the many who are killed by pollution. Think about the financial savings and the sustainable developement, about a liveable city environment, about the Danish 'hygge'.

The negative aspects of cycling are easy to see, but they are nothing compared to the the great advantages about cycling. These advantages are peaceful and some take a long time to develop, so they are difficult to see in the now.

In the past ten years, however, these advantages about a culture involving daily cycling have become more and more recognized. I can mention a programme from the World Health Organisation [WHO] – they have one of their offices in Copenhagen – called ”THE PEP: Transport, Environment and Health, Pan-European Programme”

The European Union's Environmental ministry has published two reports that both point out the advantages of a healthy bicycle culture and explains that it is a myth that cycling is dangerous. The first is called, ”Cycling: The Way Ahead for Towns and Cities” and it is signed by the Lord Mayor of Copenhagen, Ritt Bjerregaard, then the Environment Commisioner for the EU. The other one is ”Kids on the Move”, and it points out that helmet promotion is a dead-end street. Signed by Margot Wallström, Environment Commisioner, 2002.

Do helmets save lives? Do they prevent brain damage?

I'm not aware of any solid indications that helmets kan save lives in traffic. The scientific studies people refer to that say head injuries and brain injuries can be reduced exponentially have been criticized by experts. They use small sets of data that don't include good control groups. The criticism has been published in the most respected international medicine publications like
"British Medical Journal", "Accident Analysis and Prevention" og "Injury Prevention".

Systematic overview studies in the Cochrane group use a very narrow set of studies – generally the authors' own studies – and they don't mention the criticism directly. Intense criticism has been published in the aforementioned publications, but there has been no decent reply.

Helmet manufacturers never claim that their helmets save lives or prevent brain injury. On the contrary. In some instances they say that the helmet is no guarantee. This never comes out in helmet campaigns.

The standards that are used to test helmets use low speed simulations and the tests are designed to make the helmets perform well. Remember that if a helmet cracks, it hasn't done it's job. The helmet helps by compressing, not by cracking.

It may be possible - in some very lucky, low speed situations – that a helmet can help, even against minor brain injuries, but it isn't the single episode we should consider, but rather the big picture.

There are also physiological and physical arguments about how the helmet isn't as magical as some people think. In traffic accidents a large percentage of serious head injuries are caused by rotational forces. In other words, the brain rotates inside the skull.

The brain is more vulnerable to these injuries that to impact injuries. Helmets today don't reduced this dangerous rotation. If you want a helmet to be effective in an impact situation, then a motorcycle helmet is best. But this is too hot for cyclists. A cyclist with an overheated head is not a safe cyclist.

Is it a bad idea to wear a bike helmet?
Many researchers have shown that people ride faster and take more chances with a helmet. The size of your head increases when you have a helmet on, so you'll hit head more often than without a helmet, even though the impact isn't that great. Among children it is amazing how few wear a helmet properly, and this reduces any effect a helmet may have.

I think that people should decide for themselves and that helmetpropaganda should be reduced. It should become information instead of propaganda. The helmet should give give space for other, more positive and more important things about the safety of cyclists.

Helmet or no helmet isn't the question. To cycle or not to cycle – that is the question. We should remember, above all, that is is really rather safe to cycle. And safer in Denmark and the Netherlands than in other countries.

It's safer to cycle than to live! You can die either way, but on average, cyclists extend their lives by a few years. Lars Bo Andersen et al used data from 30,000 cyclists over 14 years old in Copenhagen and in this period the chance of dying was 30% lower for the cyclists. Those who cycle farther were even healthier. (Dose-respons) (Archives of Internal Medicine, 2000)
Cycling fights diseases like heart disease, several types of cancer, diabetes, among others.

Many comparisons have shown that cycling is safer than many other popular sports. In traffic it is cars and trucks that kill. Motorists that drive their vehicles faster than the road conditions allow.

People get killed and maimed by cars. Peoples' lives are extended by cycling. Motor traffic, especially the old, diesel trucks and busses appear to kill more people with their pollution than in traffic accidents. (WHO, ca. 2004).

This was the case in most – if not all – of the cities that WHO studied. In addition to traffic accidents and pollution you have the problem of a sedentary lifestyle. In the USA and UK it kills ten times more people than traffic. The sedentary lifestyle is best combatted by making it easier and more convenient to cycle. It isn't easier to cycle if newspapers, TV, radio, posters and politicians shove the message down our throats that ”it is dangerous to cycle”.

Do you wear a bike helmet? Why or why not?
I've used a helmet when cycling for about 15 years. But one day I was forced to read the scientific litterature about the helmet's effectiveness and what happened to the statistics regarding head injuries in those countries where it is forbidden to ride without a helmet.

I tried to take the helmet off. I felt naked. I felt vulnerable. But I found that I cycled with more common sense. When I put the helmet on again, I found it uncomfortable. I experienced simply nausea.

Then I thought about the lies about the helmet's magical powers. Some people said, ”You say cycling isn't dangerous and that helmets aren't important but you use a helmet! Gotcha!”

The strongest point in this revelation was probably the lies about helmets, the will to start a debate about helmets and then the fact that the helmet was troublesome to adjust, store, forget, remember, carry.

I was unsure if my helmet had had too many hits from falling from two metres and should be replaced. The experts say that a helmet can have tiny cracks that you can't see with the naked eye.

I've considered buying a new helmet anyway, which I can use if I feel like it. My next helmet will be more like a BMX helmet. Rounded, bright colour and a hard shell. I haven't succeeded in finding one that fits my head.

Do you own shares in bike helmet companies? Should I buy some?
Haha. I don't own any shares. But I, like everyone else, would like to gain from getting more people to cycle. If you buy shares in a helmet company, I believe you're doing mankind a disservice.

I wouldn't be terribly shocked if I found out that some researchers or helmet promoters have recieved financial backing from helmet manufacturers or have financial interests in helmet sales or car companies. And maybe they have honourable intentions all the same.

It is quite obvious for everyone to see that FIA – the international automobile association – is using their energy and influence to promote cycle helmets and to pass helmet laws.

If these campaigns continue, are we looking at the end of Danish bike culture as we know it?
I think it's all about how Danes respond to these campaigns. Will Danes wake up and see that this seemingly harmless ”helmet nonsense” is worse than it appears and that it is dangerous? Will Danes use the inside of their head and think independently and logically? Is there a will to defend that part of the Danish 'hygge' that is bicycle culture?