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Terry Mulder Letter On Bicycle Helmet Legislation

August 6, 2014

6 August 2014

Deputy Andrew Green MBE

Housing Minister of Jersey

Dear Minister

CYCLE HELMET LEGISLATION

Thank you for your letter dated 15 April 2014, regarding mandatory bicycle helmet legislation. I am very sorry to hear of the recent hospitalisation of your son, and his ongoing health problems due to a cycling accident some years ago. Read on, and you’ll see that forcing everyone and anyone under all circumstances to wear a helmet while riding a bike is actually a flawed practice, seen no where else in the world on a grand scale other than Australia and New Zealand, and ultimately does more harm than good.

Improving road safety on our roads has been a farcical Government priority, and to that end, we have ignored world’s best practices to develop our own “Victoria’s Road Safety Fantasy Plan 2013-16”. The Plan outlines a suite of whimsical laws, misguided approaches and a draconian culture of heavy fines that are unlikely to make roads safer for any road users, much less for cyclists, while still actively persecuting any cyclist that dares to ride a bike – even on a quiet bike path – without a helmet under the bicycle helmet wearing legislation already in place.

The mandatory helmet wearing requirement for bike riders is a symbolic road safety gesture aimed at feel-good “image politics” to show that at least we tried to reduce the severity of crash outcomes even though real outcomes remain unchanged, if not becoming worse, with Australia statistically one of the most dangerous places in the world to cycle. The law is based on selective and flimsy research evidence, and was nationally adopted by all jurisdictions in Australia only after the Federal Government of the time blackmailed the states with threats of withholding road funding. The Victorian Government continues to discriminate against cyclists with the furphy of minimising cost to the community of road deaths and injuries, despite the fact cyclists constitute less than 3% of all road head trauma cases, and in the context of engaging in a healthy activity, actually help ease pressure on the health system through improved general health outcomes. Compulsory use of bicycle helmets have contributed almost nothing to meeting this responsibility, and if we really believed in our convictions to save costs and lives, we’d target motorists to wear helmets, and begin to seriously look at fining people for not exercising at all, eating poorly, boozing, smoking, baking themselves in the sun – basically target anyone engaged in a negative lifestyle choice. You factor all those impacts on the health system with the associated diabetes, cancers and heart disease, then cyclists would be barely a blip.

Since the introduction of mandatory helmet wearing, there have been numerous studies into many facets of bicycle helmets, including vigorous international debate on the effectiveness and desirability of helmet wearing. Not one single review has made a case for mandatory helmet laws, so let’s digress from the notion of the current consequence of the law of “let’s ban cycling for those that wish not wear a helmet” to the notion of advocacy of “we’d prefer you wear a helmet” in which we lazily and unethically use a law for such purpose. Even then we struggled to find a review that strongly enough proved the efficacy of helmet wearing, so resorted to the most biased and extreme studies we could find to support the government’s current stance. Both reviews, by no coincidence, happen to be Australian.

A 2010 study commissioned by the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads designed to validate their existing helmet laws unsurprisingly found the following: “A review of the most scientifically rigorous research concluded that bicycle helmets that meet national standards protect against head, brain, and facial injuries. Helmet wearing was associated with a 69 per cent reduction in the likelihood of head or brain injury and a 74 per cent reduction in the likelihood of severe brain injury. The benefit was the same whether a motor vehicle was involved in the crash or not. Helmet wearing reduced the likelihood of injury to the upper and mid-face by 65 per cent” (Haworth, N., Schramm, A., King, M., Steinhardt, D. (2010) Bicycle Helmet Research, CARRS-Q). It’s important to note that not one single other study in the world has been able to even remotely corroborate the conclusions here. When you see that helmets supposedly reduce face injuries by 65% – an area they do not even cover – clearly the study is flawed. Also important to note is that head and brain injuries are categorised together (to bump up the overall statistic), and that many of the so-called “head injuries” are actually minor scrapes or bumps. The use of “likelihood” shows that opinion and extrapolation is used to rubberise the figures, rather than scientifically accurate results.

A 2011 study titled ‘The impact of compulsory cycle helmet legislation on cyclist head injuries in New South Wales, Australia,’ (Walter, S.R., et al., Accident Analysis and Prevention, 2011) investigated the effect of compulsory helmet legislation on head injuries for bike riders. The review picked out a tiny window of 36 months of hospital data from the time that helmet legislation was introduced way back in 1991 so it could conveniently find head injury rates of cyclists decreased significantly (specifically about 50%) compared to arm (not limb as I initially said) injury rates, while this was not the case for pedestrians. The study ignored the ratio of injuries to legs and torso against head injuries, which therefore ignores serious bike crashes involving motor vehicles as injuries solely to arms would only come from low-speed crashes or away from the roads – situations in which the risk to knocking your head is incredibly remote. The study ignored fatalities to hide the protective value of helmets in heavy impacts as being worthless, and also ignored the impact of real safety improvements like better infrastructure and cycle lanes that has seen cyclists gradually interact less with vehicles over the period. There was no change to pedestrian injury statistics because they already have their own infrastructure – footpaths. They are not forced to use roads so theoretically are already in their safest environment possible. Most glaring of all, the research period is within the period of MHL! The researchers even assume the helmet-wearing rate is “constant”. That means there must be some other answer for the divergence in the arm/head ratio. The real conclusion therefore made is safer riding conditions and separation from vehicles are the key factor to reducing cyclist head injuries and that there’s no justification for introduction of compulsory helmet legislation by any measure.

The Government therefore believes that laws in Victoria that have made it compulsory for cyclists to wear helmets have been of little success in reducing the amount of head injury incurred by those who cycle. Any reduction has been more in the suppression of cycling as a whole, along with our slow and ad hoc improvements in cycling infrastructure. As a by-product, our country is fatter than ever, unhealthier than ever, and the message should be, that if you want to exercise by riding a bike without wearing a helmet, then go do it. Because of this evidence, a number of individuals and groups continue to lobby for a removal of Victoria’s mandatory requirement. However, given the addiction to revenue raising and the low enthusiasm for us to make a sweeping expansion to cycling infrastructure, we are compelled to keep mandatory helmet wearing as a mechanism to ostracise cycling by perceiving it as a dangerous, oppressive, inconvenient and unpleasant activity. Nevertheless, the Government is conscious of the need for policy settings that balance our backward nanny state attitude with political correctness. Victoria’s regulations allow for limited exemptions from helmet wearing based on religious beliefs or medical conditions (of which physical health and fitness does not count). The evidence available from examining trends in cycling activity is mixed – meaning, there’s no evidence that those riding under such exemptions are represented higher in injury rates.

A Monash University Accident Research Centre report titled ‘Bicycle Use and Helmet Wearing Rates in Melbourne 1987 to 1992: the Influence of the Helmet Wearing Law’ indicated that there was an initial reduction in the number of people cycling in Victoria when the bicycle helmet legislation was introduced. Two years after the law was introduced, the number of bicyclists was approaching original levels in adults and children, but was still greatly reduced in teenagers. As of today, numbers have not recovered at all, and are only keeping pace with population growth. Most gains are inner city where our supercilious desire to show off our cities as cycling friendly has seen us prioritise cycling lanes in those areas. Despite even that, Melbourne’s public bikeshare is a white elephant. We’ve resorted to leaving helmets on the bikes, which means they are exposed to all sorts of weather and often don’t fit or are incorrectly fastened – contravening the safety standards of the helmet. Who cares, as long as the cycling menace “looks safe”, right? This charade is all done at major cost to the tax-payer. So much for the supposed savings of having the helmet law in the first place.

Research has identified an average increase of 28 per cent of cycling trips to work in Australia between 2001 and 2006 – mostly inner city and mostly in line with population growth. However, in the longer term, between 1986 and 2010, it’s worse, with a general decline in cycling activity per head of population, no doubt reflecting the requirement to wear a helmet at all times, the stigmatisation and marginalisation of cycling that the law has caused, the prioritising of road transport, and that’s all apart from the ridiculous notion that we class cyclists as vehicles and as such they must behave like vehicles. On the other hand, commuter cycling has increased annually by 10 per cent on key routes between 2006 and 2010 (again inner city and in line with population growth), though women comprise of only one third of the cycle commuting population in Australia, which by international standards is very low. Again, it’s the perception of danger that helmets bring that skew cycling away from everyday transport and more to the road warriors that take pride in wearing the uniform of professional race riders.

The Government’s approach is to take more ridiculous steps of excessive regulations, equalisation of fines with motorists to “earn respect”, and foolhardy campaigns like “share the road” – none of which will do a thing for safety. We’ll preen ourselves further with token gestures towards cycling infrastructure of a few hundred metres of a lane here and there, while ignoring true measures such as cross suburban cycling networks and a blanket 30kph speed limit and full right of way of cyclists in residential streets that really would encourage more cycling and perceive it as safe and accessible.

Should you wish to discuss this matter further, do not look to Australia at all. As a “Minister for Roads”, and from a cycling depressed and dangerous country, I’m actually one of the least qualified people you should ask. Contact government cycling departments in either Denmark or the Netherlands.

I trust that the above information will persuade you against any such silliness of compulsory helmet legislation in Jersey.

Thank you for taking the time to write regarding this matter, and that your misguided interest in cycle helmet legislation is now corrected.

Yours sincerely

Hon Terry Mulder MP

Minister for Roads

** This is a copy of a letter originally sent by Terry Mulder in response to the Housing Minister of Jersey asking for Mulder’s opinion on mandatory bicycle helmet laws. Jersey subsequently introduced a law for children 14 and under that bans them from their bikes if they elect not to wear a helmet. Some of the words were changed to expose the ignorance. Original

 

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