High Heads and Helmets

The other night I watched That Sugar Film, which I give four sticky thumbs up, and was reminded of my worst sugar high/crash. It was from a ridiculous chocolate croissant with more chocolate than pastry. Given the location of said not-so-savoury consumption was Amsterdam, I did briefly ponder the possibility another ingredient had found its way into my foolish snack. With dizzy head, I didn’t feel safe traversing the traffic of treadlies and trams, so my friend Jason and I retreated into a shipping container which happened to be screening short docos as part of the city’s annual International Documentary Film Festival.

There were films about solar roadwayspumpless hearts and an inflatable helmet invented by two Swedish students. The Hovding bicycle helmet is worn like a scarf and inflates like an airbag in crash situations to cushion your noggin. This nifty invention is not approved for use in Australia, but I wonder if it might help improve our woefully low cycling rates. Australia is one of the few places in the world with mandatory bicycle helmet laws.

These laws unfortunately reduce cycling rates. There are various reasons for this including perceived inconvenience, discomfort, rebellion and vanity, but one often-overlooked factor is the laws contribute to a perception that cycling is an abnormally dangerous activity. Whatever the reasons, the decrease in cycling has implications for the wellbeing of us all, as people ditch one of the most efficient inventions in history and rely more on cars. Higher car use contributes to the health consequences of sedate lifestyles, road trauma, traffic congestion, pollution, stress and catastrophic climate change.

Helmets do help protect against head injuries and their associated costs to society, but I fear our law makers have not attempted a proper cost/benefit analysis of making them compulsory. Macquarie University researcher Piet De Jong has had a partial crack at it, and modelled the positive benefits of fewer head injuries against the negative effects of less exercise. He concluded that “in jurisdictions where cycling is safe, a helmet law is likely to have a large unintended negative health impact. In jurisdiction where cycling is relatively unsafe, helmets will do little to make it safer and a helmet law, under relatively extreme assumptions may make a small positive contribution to net societal health” (Risk Analysis, 2012).

De Jong’s analysis is far from inclusive of all costs and benefits, but it may help law makers look at the bigger picture. Unnecessary laws divert resources from other areas, complicate our society and distract us from the most significant threats (dare I mention climate change again). One of the biggest benefits, not yet mentioned, of higher cycling rates is they make cycling safer. If cycling doubles, the risk per kilometre falls by about 34%. In other words, there is safety in numbers as cycling becomes a more normal activity on our roads.

We should focus more on the actual primary source of danger on our roads – people choosing to speed around in two-tonne metal cages (i.e. cars). Which brings me back to the Netherlands. It would be easy to think it has always been a bike utopia, but in the 1950s and 60s the car, like in so many western cities, was starting to take over. By 1971, annual traffic deaths reached 3,300 and more than 400 of these were children. A group called Stop de Kindermoord (“stop the child murder”) was formed and mounted a successful direct-action campaign, along with other groups, to shift infrastructure and other policy making back in favour of the bicycle. Road deaths have steadily declined in the Netherlands ever since.

Having said all that, in the absence of a helmet law I would still choose to wear a helmet on many routes and for sun protection of my bald dome. On other occasions, I would enjoy rolling along a bike path with the full wind across my bare scalp. In either case I will go easy on the sugar.

4 thoughts on “High Heads and Helmets”

  1. dave hi,

    coupla things.

    I thought cycling rate was increasing? I will acknowledge that there are likely to be more people cycling if not for the helmet laws, but I’ve been believing that cycling rates were going up, especially in Perth, please tell don’t tell me I was deluded all this time!

    When I first started riding in Perth when the helmet laws came in, this was around ’91 or thereabouts, I was dead against helmets and being forced to get one. Until I put one on that is. Loved it. Warm, shady all that and I had hair then. And yes I felt better protected, yep, loved it straight away.

    I’ve commuted to work mostly every day since may 2000, totalling 128,000 km since then. So how do I feel about helmets now? No different. I really truly cannot fathom why someone would ride without a helmet on hard pavement even at slow speeds. On the beach, grass, sandy track no problems, but I’d have the helmet then too probably because i’m just so used to it now. None of the arguments I’ve ever heard come within a bull’s roar of changing my clear view that is just wear the bloody thing. Not it makes cycling look dangerous, not it makes people feel safe so the ride with less sense and take more risks, not reduced cycling rates V healthy population, none of it rings any bells with me, just put it on and protect your damn scone for god’s sake.

    I think the biggest deterrent for wearing a helmet is helmet hair. which I don’t have to worry about, sure.

    Focusing on the primary danger of motorists is futile in the short term but of course absolutely essential to get onto right now. I do consider myself an experienced commuter / club cyclist and, well Dave, I’m guessing you want some response, so here I go – I offer the following observations if anyone is interested in my point of view:

    1) Aggression motorists is getting worse, recently a lot worse. I blame a lot of this on the crap in the media, but more so I blame Colin Barnett’s comment when asked about the 1m rule saying ‘you can’t expect drivers to wait behind a cyclist, they’ll go over the other lane and that’s not safe’. This incredibly ignorant and biased statement has validated every driver’s existent attitude of ‘riders shouldn’t be on my road, they don’t pay taxes’ and they are now acting accordingly with the premier’s backing. THEY CAN WAIT, they have to wait for slow cars, trucks, people towing caravans, Learner drivers, no different. This statement by CB really angers me that the leader of our community can get away with his personal bias that is so incorrect.

    2) Most drivers, say 90% are wonderfully courteous and do car for your welfare – fantastic! but a large proportion of these don’t believe you have a right to use the road, they’re just nice people and respect you as a person so are careful and considerate

    3) I’d say 8-9 % of drivers take this ‘you don’t belong on the road’ attitude to the next level which is shouting/throwing objects/profanity. Getting very tiresome and increasing in frequency and severity in the last year

    4) remaining 1-2% take that attitude to the next level and use their vehicle to intimidate you, ie. try to pretend to run you off the road, deliberately come too close to you to scare you, actually run you off the road pretending to not see you, force you off a roundabout etc. etc. These people are not to be reasoned with, just get out of their way, they are fine with injuring or killing you, after all, they are drivers, and as such are heavily protected in our world today. Some of these will physically assault you, this has happened to me, a driver forced me to the kerb, I made the mistake of responding by slapping his “pride and joy”, this was opposite Fremantle hospital, he chased me all through Fremantle, blocked the road with his vehicle so both lanes were blocked, chased me on foot and assaulted me screaming in a rage ‘don’t touch my car EVER AGAIN’, to which I replied ‘your car? what about MY LIFE?’ He then let me go, dropped his head, got into his car and drove off. The witnesses I spoke to said ‘gosh, what did you do to him to cause that?’

    Worst type of drivers by classification:

    1) Ute drivers with personalised number plates or tradie looking or hotted up feel to the car. This group get great pleasure in any discomfort they may cause you. This group leads the pack by a long way, see them on the road – just pull over and let ’em go.

    2) Mums dropping off their kids at school. some of this group will protect their offspring to such high extents that they will happily risk anyone else. even other kids going to the same school, and especially anyone riding past. Advice – don’t ride past schools.

    3) Elderly ladies driving expensive cars in expensive suburbs. ‘Get out of my way’ and drive straight through your space without so much as a second thought. Be wary of this group, they look caring but a small number of them will happily run you down and pretend you weren’t there.

    4) Bus drivers are a tad bolshy, make sure you give them the right of way they legally have, they’ll take it even if you’re not aware

    5) Young female drivers in their 20’s driving a small car that’s a bit ratty can be extremely alpha and the abuse you cop from some of these little charmers would make a shearer blush. Not uncommon for them to hurl their wit at you for long periods in case you didn’t get the message. Sometimes known to have those musical horns.

    OK, now for the best drivers:

    1) Truck drivers are usually very considerate, but when they’re not that’s a bit scary.

    2) Everyone else – most of the drivers out there!

    Worse areas to ride:

    1) Fremantle seems to attract a lot of riders (good) but also a lot of drivers that love abusing riders

    2) Midland and surrounds has a large proportion of drivers that get a great comical lift out of swearing at you or buzzing you. Can be quite aggressive, completely sure of their rights as masters of the road

    But I’ve strayed off the subject – helmet laws – and rambled on a bit too long. Liked your article Dave, just couldn’t help having a bit of a rant.

    shane.

  2. Hi Shane.

    Thanks for your thoughts.The % of journeys to work in Perth made by bicycle dropped from 1.57% in the 1991 census to 1.03% in the next census in 1996 (the helmet law started to be enforced in 1992). This was a fall of 34% representing a loss of 1,426 cyclists. Since 1996, cycling’s share of journeys to work has crept back up to 1.27% in 2011. So cycling rates have still not recovered to pre-helmet-law levels.

    I agree helmets are a simple and sensible thing to wear most of the time, but I fear having them compulsory is having a net negative effect on our society.

    Aggressive drivers are indeed a problem. My theory is that we have suppressed our recognition of how dangerous driving really is, but then it pops to the surface every now and then in explosive ways.

    Dave

  3. I suspect journeys to work is too narrow a stat, a look at all riders would reveal an explosion I believe. Anyway, agree to disagree on the compulsion I reckon it’s a no brainer. Enjoyed the banter dave stay safe out there mate

    Shane

  4. You may be right about recreational cycling, but the daily commute is the most important thing to look at in terms of sustainable transport. Yep, I’ll ride safe and you too 🙂

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