Health and Safety Gone Mad

The many myths about cycling include that there is some sort of cultural difference between British people and the rest of Northern Europe that means British people wont cycle. This is in fact nonsense (the British used to cycle more than the Dutch do now), but there is one cultural difference I do notice, and that is the approach to personal safety. This in itself doesn't stop people cycling, but it does make it more of a faff, and more importantly, cyclists get blamed if they get injured through the actions of another if they were not wearing the "appropriate safety gear".

Last summer, as a series of day tours, I cycled between the many lakes in North Germany, and went for a swim in as many as I could (ie most of those I visited). I had no helmet, no hi-viz clothing, and just for kicks I did the whole tour barefoot. When I wanted a break from the bike I swapped it for a touring kayak borrowed from a friend, and again I didn't bother with safety gear (or shoes and socks). Needless to say that when in the water I was not wearing a wet suit. I cycled, swam, and kayaked in all summer weather conditions, including storms.

All this apparent flouting of safety rules will only seem remarkable to those whose experience is limited to living in a country that criticises, discourages, and even bans healthy activities because they occasionally result in death or a live-changing injury. Yet I'm alive and well. Apart from touring barefoot, everything I was doing I've done before in Germany, many times, and and for many Germans, such activity is routine (though usually they don't pack everything into two weeks, or go swimming in the rain). In fact the German authorities enable and encourage such activity. It's good for health and well-being. But with the freedom to engage in healthy activity comes responsibility. Adults are expected to take responsibility for their personal safety, and that of those who are more vulnerable, such as children. Although this blog post refers to Germany, these freedoms and responsibilities apply to other continental European countries too. I've joined local people swimming in a lake in the Netherlands, and in a mountain stream in France, and I've cycled in both these countries without any safety equipment.

Out on the Water

touring kayak open water swimming official bathing area facilities

Most of the lakes and rivers of Germany are a shared resource, shared by anglers, swimmers, and unpowered watercraft¹ users. There's no charge for using them; you just turn up and go. Many lakes have one or more bathing areas. Typically there will be just an information board² and a life ring, but some have additional facilities. All are unguarded in my experience. Whilst boat hire organisations will recommend you wear a buoyancy aid, many people don't, and nobody wears head protection. Boats such as the touring kayak shown in the photo are stable and very tough. The lakes are warm in summer, much warmer than the sea, and calmer (even in windy weather), so there's really no need for any safety equipment. The freedom to go and enjoy yourself means that many people do so, from the very young to the very old. Regularly propelling a boat or swimming in open water will make you fit and strong, and it's great to see young people out on the lakes doing just that.

DANGER water, no swimming or paddlingBack in this country it's all rather depressing. Only 2% of inland water is public. It's typically managed by the Canals and Rivers Trust, and even an unpowered boat will require from them a licence. Informal swimming in open water is regarded as irresponsible and dangerous, and even paddling is banned. On a regular basis someone in a hi-viz vest will appear in the news to warn of all the supposed hidden dangers. Almost certainly they will point out that it's usually experienced swimmers who get into difficulties, implying they are foolhardy. That's like pointing out that it's usually experienced drivers who get in difficulties on the open road. However, most waterways are private, and swimming and boating will be banned or restricted. Typically the waterway will be reserved for use by an angling or boating club. It may be possible to book a session, perhaps even a swimming session, but of course it wont be cheap, and it will be heavily controlled, with waiver forms, safety equipment, and trained rescue personnel in kayaks. It's a far cry from the freedom of the German lakes, so I just don't bother.

As a child I have swum a few times in one of the few lakes I know of where open water swimming is free and officially sanctioned, Frensham Great Pond. However, swimmers get a small, cordoned-off corner of the lake, because the lake has been leased to a sailing club. Apparently swimming beyond the cordon has resulted in complaints and even threats from boaters³.

So have the Germans got it all wrong? Are people dying in large numbers out in the lakes and rivers? No. I've heard of just three deaths, and all three were doing things that made them contenders for a Darwin Award. One, for example, took a dive into shallow, turbid water, with entirely predictable results.

Out on the Bike

rural road junction in North Germany rural road in North Germany field way in North Germany

My motivation for cycling barefoot was partly to create what I thought would be a challenge, partly because I often go barefoot in the summer, and partly rebellion against the idea that cycling is a dangerous activity that requires special safety gear.

Other people get concerned about my going barefoot, but I've been doing it quite literally all my life and I can honestly say that the hazards they perceive are simply not a problem. Shock news: feet are designed to be walked on. In fact they are a cunning piece of engineering, and shoes prevent them from working as intended (peoples who traditionally do not wear shoes have fewer foot problems than those that do). In addition to the foot being mechanically very clever, the sole is designed to repel sharp objects, just like a Schwalbe Marathon. As it happened, on my tour the only thing that got punctured was a Schwalbe Marathon, which compared to feet has the disadvantage that it needs to maintain air pressure. To keep with the challenge, I walked the 4km back to the holiday flat barefoot, along a gravel track and across town, in the rain, no problem.

As it happened, being barefoot proved advantageous, because my feet gripped the pedals, allowing me to apply torque as each pedal passed through and beyond the six o'clock position. It also meant I had no socks to slowly fill up with sand after each swim and rub the skin off my feet. And cycling through puddles proved to be great fun.

Of course there was something in place to make this "reckless" activity safe: cycling infrastructure. It's not up to Dutch standards, and its incomplete, but there is way more of it than in the UK. Germans don't expect you to cycle on the carriageway with fast and heavy traffic. Many inter-urban roads have a cycle path alongside them (photo above left). Pedestrians can also use them, but you wont see many. Mostly you'll just encounter cyclists, though I have also encountered moped riders (this is legal), someone on skates, and even someone on a horse. However, there was largely no need (let alone desire on my part) to pedal alongside a straight, boring, busy, main road, because the Germans have implemented filtered permeability on a grand scale. Many country roads have restrictions on motor traffic. Typically these field ways and forest tracks are restricted to agricultural vehicles and cyclists, so they are very, very quiet (photo above right). So quiet that you'll encounter hares, ducks, and chickens, but no motor vehicles. Other minor roads are open to motor vehicles, but the paved carriageway will be intentionally narrowed to make passing difficult (photo above centre), and very often the road will connect at both ends to the same major road. So even those roads see little motor traffic, and what traffic there is will be moving slowly, so the chances of coming to any harm are slim.

The Dutch have a similar approach, but the infrastructure is of higher quality and ubiquitous. In Germany some parts of some routes I took offered nothing in the way of cycling infrastructure, and then suddenly my choice of clothing made me feel vulnerable. That feeling of vulnerability is called subjective safety, and it's one of the key reasons why most people in the UK don't cycle, and why many of those that do dress up like they are participating in an extreme sport.

Of course UK readers will be all too familiar with the situation here. We do have a short history of building hopelessly inconvenient infrastructure for "inexperienced cyclists", but having discovered how useless it is, you're expected to "man up" and ride with the cars, trucks, and buses, no matter how many there are, and no matter what the speed limit. It should be no surprise that many British people regard cycling as dangerous and irresponsible. Instead British people unwittingly choose to die as a result of inactivity, built in to the psyche at a very early age courtesy of the school run.


This is where things completely flip around. In Germany driving is regarded as a risky activity, because around the world it results in the deaths of very large numbers of people every year. German drivers have a legal responsibility to look out for vulnerable road users. Speed limits change frequently, reflecting road conditions, and will routinely drop as low as 30km/h in built-up areas (making it slow to rat-run through all the villages rather than taking the main road). Some residential streets have a speed limit of 7.5km/h (ie walking speed). The lower speed limits are enforced using chicanes and tight junction geometries. laat die Tiet (take your time)Everywhere you go you will see signs urging you to slow down, take your time, and look out for children, no matter how little traffic the road sees. Residents clearly regard motor vehicles as guests that are not entirely welcome. All this is true of the Netherlands too. The sign shown here is in a language common to North Germany and the Netherlands, and it says "Take your time!". It happens to be in Germany, but it could be transplanted to the Netherlands and no-one would consider it unusual.

Meanwhile in Britain we have only just started to introduce 20mph zones, but with none of the measures you will see on the continent to enforce that limit. Those measures that are implemented, such as speed cushions and pinch points, only make matters worse. Almost every road is seen as a valid through-route for all motor vehicles. Junctions with minor roads have slack geometries that allow people to switch to a different road without slowing down. Cyclists are expected to mix with motor vehicles on these roads, even though unlike every other vehicle that might use the carriageway, cycles are not considered during the design process, and motor vehicles have much higher momentum (and therefore energy to feed into a collision). 60mph speed limit just before a hidden sharp bend on a narrow road that is a recommended cycle routeSpeed limits are often wholly inappropriate, such as this 60mph speed limit just before a hidden sharp bend on a narrow road that is a recommended cycle route. Both cyclists and pedestrians are expected to give way to cars at all times, even to give way to people driving across the pavement to get between their driveway and the carriageway. This is regarded as being for their own safety. And when it all goes wrong, as it does with regular monotony, it will be the vulnerable road user who gets the blame, for not wearing a helmet or hi-viz, or simply because they had elected to use a form of transport regarded in the UK as dangerous. In fact hi-viz has been shown to have little effect on driver behaviour, and a helmet will do nothing to help you if you are run over by a motor vehicle, which is pretty much the only thing that renders cycling dangerous. Road traffic collisions are regarded as unavoidable accidents, and derisory penalties reinforce that message.

In this country we have our safety priorities completely wrong, and as a result we discourage routine physical activity. Our approach is at complete odds with other northern European countries. Isn't it time we stopped preaching to those countries, and started looking, listening, and learning?


¹ Powered craft are banned from most lakes, since they are polluting and dangerous to others.

² The facilities at an unguarded bathing area (unbewachte Badestelle). The top-left sign in the photo says "Unguarded bathing area. Bathing at your own risk.". The top-right sign says "Accessing and using the bathing island at your own risk." (the bathing island is a set of boards strapped to the the top of some plastic floats). The remaining notices are (left to right) information on a mild condition known as "swimmer's itch", blue-green algae, first aid, and how to contact the emergency services. At the bottom is a life ring.

³ See this website, but be warned that the site is a social media site, and following the advice of some posters is likely to lead to death. I found one entry recommending swimming in the River Severn at Ironbridge. I know this stretch of river, and would regard swimming there as rank stupidity.

Lead photo taken by David Hembrow for his blog.