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Who is proposing bicycle helmet laws for the UK? Yes, an Australian

July 31, 2013

You know a law is bad when the last ditch attempt to prove its validity after 20 years of almost total isolation is trying to force it onto another jurisdiction. That’s the case with an Australian “academic” on the Conversation website. Naturally the blurb was full of selective studies, dubious statistics, inconsistency and, as most common when advocating bicycle helmet laws, blatant discrimination. Here is a compilation of replies as posted on the website. First, a direct response to the author and, later, to various reader comments…

Talk about being discriminatory with facts. As incidentally helmet laws are themselves. You only need compare some parts of Europe where 40% of all trips are by bike whereas Australia is 2%. Cycling rates have not even grown with population. The key reason is the helmet law. First, it portrays cycling as dangerous. Second, govts don’t act with better infrastructure. They believe forcing a foam helmet is their responsibility for safe cycling.

To clear some things up…

The one most important “risk” ignored is the very chance of any crash, and especially one that hits your head. Yes, if you bang your head in such a crash, a helmet can help. It’s so remote that it’s a fraction of an already tiny number.

That study about “arm injuries” neglected to mention that cycling conditions actually have improved over the 20 years and even pre-helmet law. For some reason the study also chooses to ignore torso and leg injuries, therefore if it’s just arm injuries at a high proportion, then much of the data gathered now is from low speed crashes or on bike-paths and in parks where there simply isn’t the opportunity to hit your head. On the road, an impact with a car will see much more than arm injuries, and even with a helmet, your head will still be injured to some degree if struck by the car or slammed into the road. So where does that stat go? This lack of context is the key flaw of these studies just throwing out statistics – just as any raw statistic should never be trusted. The researchers never categorise the crashes by type, the age of person, the person’s behaviour and, most importantly, the type of “head injury”. No, it’s lump them all in one box to distort the picture to fulfill their agenda. Also note that the abatement of dangerous motoring and traffic conditions has been the trend before helmet laws took force and has seen road trauma reduced for both pedestrians and motorists accordingly with cyclists over the same period. So just how much have helmet laws contributed to all of that? If logic dictates safer conditions has made it safer for pedestrians and motorists, then surely it’s had a similar effect for cycling.

The 72% reduction (another study even said over 80%) is exactly that: a reduction. It’s not a prevention of head injury, it’s a reduction in severity. So instead of really severe brain damage, you might just have severe brain damage. Worst of all, these studies include minor scrapes and bumps as a “head injury”. Naturally, they don’t categorise the type of injury to really show a true value of a helmet, probably because such minor ones are like 90% and that would blow the outcome the authors of the study are trying to create.

Public consumption of alcohol is not regulated at all. Only for minors is it banned totally. To be consistent, cyclists should have an unregulated right, especially since they are actually doing something good to their body.

There’s no such thing as a public health system. It’s funded by tax-payer dollars. Since many cyclists are commuters, they work and therefore fund it. As long as they are not putting others in direct harm, they damn well have the human right to live their life as they see fit. Also, even in “public” systems, many people have separate private cover AND many cyclists own cars so are contributing to road injury insurance despite minimal use of the actual car itself. Talk about inequality. A cyclist should get a rebate on the registration of the car. Instead, they pay just like any motorist despite not being a motorist.

Interesting that the single biggest control for obesity is exercise, yet you want to ban it for those choosing not to wear a helmet. Good one! Just who are you trying to protect? Not surprisingly, the one study ignored from this article cited a 20-1 health benefit to cycling compared to the risk of injury. 20 to 1!

Yes, this is the “thin wedge” (to force helmets onto others). So why not pedestrians wear helmets? While you conveniently exclude pedestrians from cyclists because cyclists are exposed to more speed, how about motorists??!! Speeds of over 100kph on highways. Even at 60kph in the city, imagine a head-on crash or side impact. It’s incredibly dangerous. For all the moralising about cycling, strangely you are amoral about motoring. Strange, because of all the road head trauma, cyclists are less than 3%. So for head injuries, the problem in numbers hurt or costs to the state is not cyclists. Do you really care about reducing injuries in the community, or is it more about self-aggrandising a code of moral elitism over a minority that typically such moralisers don’t even belong? That’s why there’s no calls for helmets for pedestrians or motorists. It would affect YOU!

A reply to a reader claiming 500,000 cyclists in an Australian city, wearing helmets is good just like skiers wear them, the lack of impact helmet laws have had on cycling and infrastructure, and that such laws are not “nanny state”…

Which city is that? I’m in Melbourne, a city of 4mil, and there’s definitely not 1 in 8 people riding a bike. More like 1 in 8000. The helmet law has stopped cycling numbers grow. We are 2% of all trips compared to 40% in some parts of Europe. Infrastructure is as appalling as the percentages. The only spot it’s any decent is near the CBD, and this is just to create a tourist vista, much like the little used public bikeshare. Get 5 minutes out of the CBD and it’s into the hell.

Remember, the helmet law is not about helmet wearing. Anyone can do that without a law, as no doubt the vast bulk of cyclists still would. Helmet laws are about banning or viciously fining non-helmeted cycling and cyclists. What do you care if someone’s not wearing one? There’s 100s of activities or lifestyle choices that should be ahead of helmet-choice cycling to ban. The last I looked, ski helmets were not mandatory. See, people can make a choice.

It is a nanny state. Any law that regulates individual behaviour, and especially discriminates against individuals when the behaviour is not hurting anyone else, is an infringement on civil liberties and a nanny state.

A reply to reader stating minimal inconvenience to wearing a helmet and that helmets encourage people to ride…

Helmets encourage people to ride? I don’t think so. You try wearing one on a hot day, even a warm day. Even just sit in the sun with one on. Then imagine exercising with one on. These are foam. They insulate the head. It’s to the point of intolerable. They’re also uncomfortable and remove much of the enjoyment from cycling. Because of that, I gave up weekend riding on those nice leisurely days when the state govt in cahoots with the Helmet Nazis Victoria (aka Bicycle Network Victoria) tripled the fines. That turned the police into rabid attack dogs.

The stats don’t like. Helmet-mandatory regions have vastly lower cyclists and much poorer infrastructure than helmet-choice regions. Those differences are huge, too.

A reader querying whether repealing the helmet law would make much difference to increasing numbers of cyclists…

In Australia, it’s difficult to know, and the increase might be small given the the decades-long marginalisation of cycling as dangerous, the general hate against cyclists and the anti-cycling culture, not to mention the deplorable infrastructure. It could take a decade or two to unwind all that.

All that we do know is that when the law came in, rates dropped 30%, for kids up to 80%, they’ve only recovered to match population growth, and we’re one of the fattest countries in the world. You can also compare our general rate of cycling with helmet-choice regions, and it’s appallingly low.

Most bikes bought are for kids. Most stay in the garage. I can also give anecdotes of two adult friends that bought bikes, rode a few times, and stopped because they didn’t want to wear a helmet. While it seemed sensible in the store and also comfortable at the time, once out on the bike, knowing the area they rode was safe enough and then dealing with the insufferable foam container on their sweaty heads, the novelty quickly wore off.

Personally, I don’t ride to local shops any more; preferring to join the smog queues by driving to a shopping centre. Outside of winter, my weekend riding is zero. My only cycling is short commutes to work. Even then, I need to keep vigilante for cops on warm days I remove it temporarily or hot days I don’t wear at all. These moments are actually the most dangerous for me because I’m distracted and ride with one arm on the handlebars in case I need to throw the helmet back on when sighting a cop. Is this the sort of police state you want in the UK? You want helmet-choice cycling banned? You want a helmet-less cyclist hunted down, hit with a vicious fine, and thrown in jail if they don’t pay?

Remember, you can endorse helmets without endorsing a law. Such a concept is done already with skin cancer prevention like wearing sunblock, a hat and long sleeves. We don’t go fining anyone bare-chested or with a sunburn, even though we should if we’re to be consistent about saving lives and reducing costs. 40,000 new skin cancer cases each year in Australia and 2000 deaths. So leave the humble cyclist alone. They are actually doing good for themselves and the environment.

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