Is the mandatory bicycle helmet debate a distraction?Posted: October 19, 2011
There is an interesting new article on The Conversation by Deakin University’s Dr Jan Garrard, which asks the important question: Why aren’t more kids cycling to school?
Dr Garrard analyses the key warrants for increasing the proportion of children who cycle (and walk) to school; identifies the main obstacles; and sets out some actions that might help to reduce car use for school drop-off and pick-up. I generally agree with her conclusions but disagree with the emphasis she gives to childhood health and obesity as a warrant for encouraging more cycling to school.
I was going to write about that until I was distracted by various comments on her article relating to the desirability or otherwise of mandatory bicycle helmets. This topic is becoming an increasingly familiar pattern in cycling debates – it seems there are people who think abolishing the compulsion to wear a helmet when cycling is the silver bullet that will turn Australian cities into “new Amsterdams”.
I accept the mandatory helmet issue is one factor that bears on the level of cycling, but quite frankly I think it’s a sideshow. As I’ve argued before, my feeling is that even in the unlikely event helmets were made discretionary, the great bulk of existing and prospective cyclists would make the rational decision and elect to wear a helmet. There is good evidence to support the intuition that cycling with a helmet is safer than cycling without one.
To date I’ve accepted the proposition that at a social level the exercise disincentive effect of mandatory helmets probably outweighs their protective benefits. The undeniable drop in cycling that immediately followed the introduction of mandatory helmets seems to support that view. However a new study by the Centre for Accident Research and Safety – Queensland (CARRS-Q), Bicycle Helmet Research, suggests that might not be the case. The authors say:
It is reasonably clear (the mandatory helmet law) discouraged people from cycling twenty years ago when it was first introduced. Having been in place for that length of time in Queensland and throughout most of Australia, there is little evidence that it continues to discourage cycling. There is little evidence that there is a large body of people who would take up cycling if the legislation was changed.
The CARRS-Q study also concludes that “current bicycle helmet wearing rates are halving the number of head injuries experienced by Queensland cyclists”. It says this finding is consistent with published evidence that mandatory bicycle helmet wearing legislation has prevented injuries and deaths from head injuries.
In my view the number one deterrent to higher levels of cycling isn’t compulsory helmets, it’s concerns about safety, whether real or perceived. Addressing safety concerns will require more infrastructure like segregated bike lanes. However that’s expensive – realistically, any significant increase in cycling means bicycles will have to share road space with other vehicles for many years yet, so the priority should be to get more respect and consideration from drivers.
Drivers don’t see cyclists as valid and legitimate road users. That’s not because cyclists dress in lycra, flout the road rules, wear helmets or don’t pay rego – it’s because drivers think roads are for motorised vehicles only. Drivers think they “own” the roads. This perception is the key issue that needs to be addressed to make cycling safer and hence more appealing. I’ve outlined before how I think this challenge might be addressed through driver education and licensing; through schools; through media campaigns; and through changes to the law.
The latter strategy is especially important. We need a clear and unambiguous message from governments that the roads don’t belong just to motorists, but equally to cyclists. The extreme vulnerability of cyclists means drivers owe them special care and responsibility. Dr Garrard points out in her article that in high-cycling countries:
The operator of the vehicle that has the potential to cause the most harm has the responsibility for avoiding harm. The onus is on drivers to prove no-fault when in collisions with pedestrians and cyclists.
I get the arguments that mandatory helmets send a signal that cycling on the roads is unsafe; reinforce the idea that cyclists don’t legitimately belong on the roads; and retard the sort of critical mass that would make cycling “legitimate”. I think they’re intellectually cute but largely irrelevant, primarily because I think most existing and prospective riders on Australian roads would choose to wear a helmet anyway.
P.S. I had intended to discuss Dr Garrard’s view of the link between cycling and childhood health/obesity, but I’ll have to leave that to another time.