Ostensibly, the 5000 helmets – and 5000 hi-vis vests – are meant to be handed to those hiring Boris bikes, the majority of whom don’t use bicycle helmets. However, any cyclist will be given the helmet and vest at two locations in London tomorrow.
The helmets and vests will be handed out by AA president Edmund King and a crew of AA staffers. King is a keen cyclist, riding in cities on his Brompton and at home on his Whyte mountain bike.
The AA ‘Cycle Safety Day’ is a promotion organised by the AA Charitable Trust and is to highlight new research that shows that motorists want cyclists to wear helmets. Ninety seven per cent of AA members think cyclists should wear helmets, according to an AA Populus poll of almost 16,000 AA members.
The give-away helmets are Raleigh Missiles, which can retail at up to £27.
Edmund King, director of the AA Charitable Trust as well as being AA president, said: "Cycling has always been a part of the AA’s history. The first AA patrols rode bicycles from 1905 – some 40 years before patrol vans – and they were a regular sight on the nation’s roads until the outbreak of the Second World War.
“The AA has always had an interest in cycling and safety. Many of our staff, including me, are enthusiastic cyclists and we are keen to do more to promote cycle safety. Bicycles are part of the ‘two-wheeled’ strategy at the AA, following the reintroduction of motorbikes to tackle congestion and emissions in London. We have harnessed the manoeuvrability of two wheels where this means quicker service to members.
“We welcome the increase in cycling brought about by the cycle hire scheme but we want to ensure that more cyclists don’t lead to more casualties. The use of cycle helmets and vests by all cyclists could significantly reduce the number and severity of injuries that occur each year."
King added: “The AA is also looking to promote more cycle training across the UK as AA Populus figures show that less than one quarter of AA members who cycle have ever taken any cycle training. We hope that AA Cycle Safety Day will help cyclists and motorists, who are often the same people, to coexist in harmony on our roads.
“Eighteen per cent of AA members cycle on a regular basis but we expect to see this number increase as fuel prices continue to escalate.”
Upon hearing of the helmet promotion via leaks on Twitter, many cyclists questioned the legitimacy of a motoring organisation promoting "safety" equipment when bicycle helmets are not designed for smashes into cars.
Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize.com is an arch opponent of helmet promotions, especially from motoring organisations. He said:
"While it’s great that the AA president is also a cyclist, this is merely another case of placing the responsibility on the vulnerable traffic users instead of tackling the rampant bull in our society – the automobile. It also sends dangerous signals that bicycle helmets are effective in collisions with cars, which they’re not. They’re not even designed for that kind of impact.
"If the AA wants to be taken seriously, it should consider promoting motoring helmets and, for example, fight for strict liability and back initiatives like the Dutch one of making external airbags on cars to protect pedestrians and cyclists a standard accessory."
King stressed that the AA doesn’t want to see a law to make it compulsory for cyclists to wear helmets:
"We don’t think helmets should be compulsory but we think there are benefits. A particular advantage of our helmet is that it is very conspicuous, and visibility is a key safety factor.
"Our view is that helmets do not protect against cars but they may protect against some of the 2.2m potholes which often are the cause of smashes into the ground by cyclists.
"We also hope that AA engaging more with cyclists may help to break down some of the ‘them and us’ barriers that still exist but shouldn’t."
King said the bright yellow helmets have been sent to PM David Cameron, London Mayor Boris Johnson, and minister for cycling Norman Baker.
When earlier this week Norman Baker said it was his libertarian right not to wear a helmet when cycling, the road safety campaign group Roadpeace applauded his stance.
"Rather than criticising him for not wearing a helmet, we want to congratulate him for being one of the minority of the population who actually gets out on a bike, which is good for his health, and for the health of others and our environment.
"The fact that Norman Baker is a member of the Government and has responsibility for cycling is even better. RoadPeace believes that if more government officials, policy makers, magistrates, local councillors and senior police officers used a bicycle as a way of getting around then we would have a very different and much safer road environment.
"On helmets, we take issue with the claim that the majority of deaths and serious injuries to cyclists involve head injury. Even the Department for Transport is unable to come up with any estimate of the number of deaths that would be prevented if all cyclists wear helmets.
"Wearing a helmet will offer little protection to a cyclist in a collision with a multi-ton lorry."
The AA branded helmets and hi-vis vests will be handed out from 7.30am at Waterloo Place, London SW1Y 4BN. A second hand-out will take place at 1pm on the west side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, WC2A 3NA (close to Sardinia Street, just off Kingsway, south of Holborn). If other locations are used they will be highlighted on Twitter.
The AA said it will repeat its helmet giveaway in other UK cities later in the year.