Invisible helmet advocacy…

August 23, 2012 at 17:41 | Posted in bicycles | 10 Comments
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Writing about bicycle helmets always fills me with a slight sense of weariness. It’s just so tiring; all those tiresome arguments, fatuous ‘a helmet saved my life’ anecdotes and calls that unhelmeted bicycle riders should pay for their own care when they inevitably end up as brain damaged vegetables . The other problem with writing about it is that it seems it be something that people use to define me. I’m known as ‘that helmet guy’ (or perhaps ‘that helmet nutter’, depending on the viewpoint of the observer), when in reality helmets are quite a peripheral question in my wider interest in active transportation and urban planning. Still, a couple of helmet-related things have thrust themselves into my consciousness recently, such that I feel compelled to write about them.

The first is the inflatable bicycle helmet that has been in the news recently. I’ve been aware of it for some time, but it now seems it is on sale. For some reason, half the people I know have seen fit to send me information about it, usually along with some kind of crowing ‘Ha! What do you think of THAT?!!’ comment. Well, actually I don’t think very much about it, to be honest. If it works, and people want to buy it, well, good luck to them. I certainly don’t want or need one, but then I don’t want arm protectors either, although I know several people who wear them. The only interesting point in the whole thing to me is that the inventors are now calling on Swedish authorities to make cycling helmets mandatory, no doubt out of selfless concerns for Swedish bicycle riders welfare, as opposed to any commercial advantage they could possibly gain by the Swedish government coercing every Swedish cyclist to buy something that they sell…

The other thing that caught my attention recently is the apparent softening towards helmet laws by some Australian cycling advocacy groups. Of course, the fact that our ‘advocacy’ groups in general strongly support helmet legislation is extraordinary, given the harm they do to cycling participation. Still, there have been a few hints that this attitude is changing – or is it?

On the surface, perhaps it is. I have seen several examples recently of groups and individuals expressing a desire to have the helmet law changed or revoked. But. And there is a but. The but in this case is that it needs to be done in conjunction with a ‘package of measures’ to improve cycling conditions – things like lower speed limits, separated cycle lanes and so on. Apparently simply making it a matter of choice to wear a helmet cannot be countenanced until we have better cycling infrastructure. I suspect this attitude is borne of the fallacy that making people wear helmets actually improves safety at an aggregate level (it doesn’t, of course, but our cycling advocates are remarkably uninformed on these matters), so in some sort of compensatory logic helmets have to remain mandatory until such time cycling in Australia is safer than it is now. This is then often linked to another theme – that getting helmet laws changed is therefore not the most important thing on the cycling agenda, so we should all forget about the helmet thing and put our energies into lobbying for better road environments instead.

Well, I’m sorry folks, but this just doesn’t wash. It doesn’t wash logically, and it doesn’t wash as a strategy. And here’s why.

Let’s look at the idea that cycling infrastructure needs to be improved before freedom of choice is granted in terms of headwear. The implication is that ‘cycling is dangerous and helmets make it safer’. Presumably under this logic the law should be repealed at the point where the safety benefits  delivered by improved infrastructure are equal to the safety benefits currently delivered by helmets. Leaving aside the point that there are no significant safety benefits to a helmet law (which is different to saying there are no benefits to wearing a helmet, although this distinction is lost on most), there are two major problems with this.

Firstly, it implies that there is some kind of absolute standard of cycling safety, and that the conditions we have right now represent that minimum. But why? Who says the current conditions are that bad anyway? Riding a bike in Australia, whilst relatively more dangerous than riding in, say, Denmark, is still comparatively safe. It’s safer, for example, than playing netball. So on that point alone, the argument fails.

However, it really falls apart when you consider the different profiles of locations and riders. A slow, utility cyclist who is lucky enough to live in an area with quiet roads and good bicycle facilities is at less risk than a fast, sports cyclist who lives in an area with no bicycle facilities and busy roads.  Indeed, our utility cyclist one imagines already meets the criteria for ‘safer cycling’ envisioned by cycling advocates. So why does she still have to wear a helmet? Apparently because the sports cyclist is unfortunate enough to live in an area with poor bicycle facilities. So we have the bizarre notion that our safe utility cyclist will only be allowed to wear a sunhat when a cycle lane is built somewhere miles away from where she lives. If the ‘package-of-measurists’ were actually consistent and logical, they would be calling for a relaxation of the helmet law now for low-risk cyclists – perhaps akin to the Northern Territory law which does not require a helmet when riding on a path or bike lane. When you consider the NT has the highest cycling participation rate in Australia you’d think the advocates would be pushing at least for this. But they are not.

Notwithstanding the lack of logic, thought, in terms of a strategy to get better cycling infrastructure it also falls down. This is because the one thing that makes it more likely that infrastructure will be built is getting more people cycling. Yes, it’s a chicken and egg thing, but there is no doubt that if there were more people cycling, cyclists would be more visible, have a larger voice and more political clout. So if getting more people riding bikes makes getting infrastructure built more likely, what can we do to get more people cycling? Well, lots of things – but the most significant one (aside from building bike lanes) is repealing helmet laws. And the harsh reality is that in the current political climate there is a much greater chance of getting helmet laws changed than there is of getting significant investment in bike facilities. A campaign to repeal the helmet law is probably one of only a few cycling issues that it would be possible to mobilise the non-cycling majority to support, given that it can be wrapped up in a number of more general memes that resonate with people. Pushing for increased spending on cycling infrastructure is an uphill task by comparison, as the majority of Australians, far from simply being apathetic on the issue, actively resent such expenditure. Thus the strategy of ‘build bike lanes and then we’ll talk about helmets’ is really back to front. Doing it the other way around actually offers the best opportunity to get more people on bikes, which then delivers additional leverage to get the infrastructure built.

I’m sure that there are some readers of this who have taken umbrage that I seem to be implying that lobbying for better road facilities is pointless. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, if a genie came down tomorrow and offered me the choice of repealing helmet laws or waving a wand to create a network of high-quality bicycle lanes all over Australia (or, more parochially, simply over the bit of Sydney that I travel around) I’d go for the bike lanes every time. In that sense the ‘package-of-measurists’ are right in that infrastructure is more important that helmets. And I shall continue to write letters to all and sundry about bicycle facilities and issues, few of which are about helmets. However, the notion that even discussing bicycle helmet reform is not important, and that there are other things to be done first is equally flawed. The reality is that we need to campaign on all fronts for improved conditions for cyclists in Australia. And pushing for helmet law reform is an important aspect of that campaign that should be tackled now.

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10 Comments »

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  1. Nice article Dan. Well say.

  2. An excellent article. I have long had suspicions about a number of people and authorities who claim they will support helmet reform ‘after’ other measures are in place. I think it lets them sound supportive of change, while not actually having to commit to it any time soon. Or perhaps it means no, but instead of saying that, they place conditions on change that are hard to define and can be updated as needed.

  3. Well written, logical and with strong arguments highlighting the helmet compulsion ‘red herring’.

  4. Couldn’t agree more. There has been no cycling infrastructure where I have lived for 30 years. After the helmet laws came in, utility cycling never caught on, so it’s no surprise that there haven’t been any separated bike lanes built between schools, commercial centres and residential areas.

  5. Helmets are actually protective so the general populace (who influences the votes of pollies) need to be convinced that the helmet laws are worth repealing. Since the evidence of late it really is that helmets have reduced head injuries in victoria and NSW it really is up to cycling advocacy people who care about htis issue to come up with better arguments to rescind MHLs.
    It’s hardly a red herring when helmets have ben demonstrated to be eficacious in collisions. the best argument is one of relative risk and from the personal liberty perspective. Since no-one in the general population is particularly concerned about the personal liberties of cyclists I suggest the push the relative risk line, especially as this is what inhibits the take up of inner city cycling rental.

  6. seamus gardiner – seriously, ‘haha – get a life’

  7. mature reply, paul. If this is the standard of debate do you wonder why improving infrastructure for cyclists in Australia is an uphill battle?

    • seamus gardiner said; “If this is the standard of debate do you wonder why improving infrastructure for cyclists in Australia is an uphill battle?”

      While you continue to defend academic orthodoxy. Who have been mindful of the transport stake holders, their bias will unchallenged.

      • Your argument would be better served playing the ball not the man. Can you refute the logic of my post? Or is ‘haha get a life’ the best that you can come up with?

  8. I used to be recommended this blog bby my cousin. I am no longer positive whether this submit is written via him as nobody elxe knmow such exact approximately my problem.
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