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Forget those already cycling, focus on those that are not

December 21, 2013

21 December 2013

An interesting article on the Crikey website that looked to census data for the impact of mandatory helmet laws (MHL) on commuter cycling. The writer acknowledges that the census is a snapshot of one day in a period of 5 years, and ignores all other forms of cycling that might be happening at the time, notably exercise and fun, not to forget children riding to school.

The key finding is that while there was a dip consistent with many studies and anecdotal evidence, the actual pure numbers were quite small. One of the prime reasons against the MHL is that it discourages cycling. If this discouragement is so small, then does that diminish the relevance of the argument? Do you ignore those few that are ostracised and just be content that enough did obey the law? After all, the best protective measure from being hit by a truck is to stop people cycling altogether, right? Indeed, the ramifications of such an impingement of freedom with the MHL was noted, and accepted, by lawmakers of the time.  One problem: most governments today concede that cycling is the future of urban transport. Our cities are as bloated as our bellies, our obesity rates are driving health issues  through the roof, and traffic congestion and pollution is ruining our standard of living. Now from this depressed cycling based, some how they want to drastically increase the rate. That can only be done by focusing on those not cycling, not mulling through issues about those that already are.

Impact of helmet law on cycling commuters vs all commuters (crikey)

Impact of helmet law on cycling commuters vs all commuters (crikey)

Another finding (as a reply in the user comments), was a national survey by Essential Economics that asked if you “approve or disapprove of governments making laws to regulate wearing bike helmets”. 94% said they approve. 1% said they strongly disapprove. Second problem: Again we’re asking a question that relates to the existing cycling population, not those that don’t ride. Just 2% of all trips are by bike in Australia. Who cares if 94% likes a law about them. The real question is why the 94%, or more, are not riding at all.

Beyond all that is that impact of freedom, that laws should only be made to regulate behaviour to protect others. A speeding motorist is the classic example: 1) the act of speeding increases the risk of a crash; 2) the crash can harm others. Contrast that with a cyclist: 1) the act of choosing no helmet might even lower the risk of a crash; 2) the crash can only harm the cyclist. Also, what does “mandatory helmet law” constitute in a real world application? Note that Australia and New Zealand are the only countries in the world with a vigorously policed all-age MHL, and commensurately some of the lowest rates of cycling in the world, all for little or no improvement in safety.

The reply as posted on Crikey…

The graph clearly shows a sharp drop in percentage, and it never recovered. The growth only matches population growth (all commuters).

As Alan states, it’s only commuters. The phenomenal drop was with children and teenagers, estimated at up to 80%. It’s generally accepted that the overall drop both in Australia and NZ is 30-40%. While I loath anecdotes as evidence, I was one of them then, and am still affected today.

Of course 94% of people support such laws to punish helmet free cyclists. 94% of Australians hate cyclists, much less ride themselves. It’s easy to support a law that doesn’t affect you. Let’s see if you get a similar response to an idea of mandatory helmets for motorists. You’d save hundreds of lives a year, and reduce thousands of head injuries. No doubt the response will be about freedom. Isn’t it interesting that such a fundamental principle of freedom only matters when the majority is affected. I’d really like to know the motivation of this article. Is it merely to provide some data, or is it the ulterior motive of condoning the punishment and persecution of cyclists choosing not to wear a helmet?

Remember, when you condone helmet laws, you condone the consequences. Picture yourself as the police, you spot a cyclist riding casually along a beach bike path minding his own business, doing something good for his health and the environment, and you think “hey, that guy is a menace to society like a speeding motorist, let’s slap him with the $180 fine that applies to both, and if he doesn’t pay, we’ll throw him in jail”. If the cyclist doesn’t want to risk such fines, then your answer is “you’re banned from riding a bicycle”. Oh, that’s a wonderful society we’ve built.

Rather than quibble over the numbers that dropped from the helmet law, look at the principles and consequences of the action. Look that the simple action of riding a bike is banned for some people, or they spend much of their time watching for police. Look at the wretchedly low numbers of cyclists in Australia compared to Europe. Look at the destitute levels of infrastructure that 20 years of helmet laws has allowed lazy governments to avoid correcting and consequently the high levels of deaths and injury compared to mature cycling places. Look at the perceptions of fear, oppression and danger that a rampant promotion and enforcement of bicycle helmets has had on an activity that was safe and fun when we were kids. Address those critical issues then maybe we can bother such trivialities of interpreting the dip in that red line.

Alan replies…

It’s a bit excessive to argue all the 94% who’re happy with the helmet law “hate” cyclists (don’t forget many active cyclists support the law, too). But yes, the vast majority of the 94% doubtless don’t cycle regularly on roads so they’re not interested in the debate about helmets; they’ll stick with the status quo.

 Warrior Factor…

Alan, the many cyclists that support the law are just part of the “Stockholm Syndrome” that two decades of MHLs created. They are happy, excited, or even been scared witless, to wear a helmet, so the law doesn’t affect them either. In fact, because they are captive, they feel it’s their duty to enslave others – the natural human instinct of do-gooding and “social justice” – if I’m wearing one, so should you. Of course, most of these helmet zealots can’t see that a law is a giant leap from “encourage” or “advocate”, or realise or care the law’s consequences of huge fines and, in effect, a ban on anyone that would like to ride without a helmet.

You want to talk about surveys, talk about one that involves cycling potential, not the existing environment of cycling suppression. I recall a Sydney University one that said 23% of people surveyed would ride if helmets weren’t compulsory. That’s 23% of general population, not cyclists. So it correlates to over 5mil people would ride if a helmet were not required. Guess what? This nation enjoys stopping them.



From → Cycling Free

  1. No, size does matter. Obviously. One of the key arguments against the helmet law is that it discourages *large* numbers of people from cycling, with consequent *large* health costs. If the numbers are small, the argument is weakened.

    In any event, the small numbers who were deterred by the helmet law back circa 1991 is only one of the points I made in my Crikey article. The main conclusion I drew is that the cyclists who were deterred by the helmet law back then were very different to both the current and the most prospective cyclists of today.

    I agree that the focus needs to be on those who aren’t cycling (yet). I’ve frequently written that we shouldn’t assume the preferences of the next cohort of prospective riders (i.e. those waiting in the wings) is the same as that of existing riders. I suspect the marginal rider is more risk averse and more worried about safety.

    • Yes, the small size is important, as I noted that the impact on freedom in the decision to legislate was essentially dismissed. In Europe, with large numbers cycling, a government wouldn’t dare try pass helmet laws. The question is now, in Australia, when the desire is to vastly increase the share, what stops people. Yes, again, there’s little correlation between 1991 and now, especially in this long established environment of compulsory helmets. That’s the reason the article is confusing to me, and the focus is wrong.

      Too right. Most people I speak to say cycling in Australia is too dangerous. That’s quite a paradox because these people know they must wear helmets, which are promoted to keep them safe while cycling. They are either saying these foam hats are useless, or they don’t want to wear one.

      Thanks for your feedback. I read all your cycling stuff on Crikey. I’m a fan.

    • Alan Davies and many others are too blind to see the effect of the helmet legislation.

      We have low levels of bike use a large drop-off and then zero growth since the helmet law introduced.
      The helmet law is usually not promoted directly since such a law in it’s self is not acceptable to the public and more likely to be seen as revenue raising.

      Instead the sales pitch used is fear and scaremongering emphasising how very dangerous it is for anyone to step on a bicycle or ride one – fear is contagious it spreads in a viral manner quite easily. Once the majority of people are scared senseless of something be it terrorists, drugs, paedophiles on the internet, riding a bike, boat people, Africans, communists ,spending an eternity in hell, deregulation of the potato market or whatever it then becomes possible for the placebo salesmen to make a killing or for some of the most costly, brutal, intrusive and draconian of laws to take hold.

      The majority of people simply don’t have the time or resources to properly research the claims being made so with clever marketing you can do quite well and take advantage of people. Of the few who do realise it’s a crock it does little to stop the remainder (including many politicians) running around like chickens in a panic and practically begging the first person selling a cure all placebo to take their money and their freedom in return for the promised protection for themselves or their family etc.

      So you find many Australians who think riding is quite dangerous (especially with a little help from the scaremonger campaigns run by government trying to justify their laws) and totally avoid the activity like they would a shark infested beach. Following on from that most of them are naive enough to swallow the placebo that a helmet would somehow give complete immunity from said danger. From there it does not take much for the do gooders who drive anyway to try helping those bike riders by making sure they don’t ever forget to wear that helmet.

      Of course in practice a helmet does stuff all in a serious accident but since when has the lack of evidence in a god ever prevented a violent religion conquering millions of people and subjugating them to spread it’s influence.

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