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 roadways, pumpless 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.