Bike helmets

Transport safety Minister Harry Duynhoven’s comment about bike helmets,

“I wonder if we never had helmets what our cycle population might be … I’m not advocating getting rid of helmets, I’m just saying I wonder what the social effect of helmets has been,”

is interesting but basically irrelevant to the important debate about promoting cycling in New Zealand.  I’ve biked in Europe without a cycle helmet and in New Zealand with one.  But that is not the noticeable safety difference between the two places. The difference is the way some parts of Europe see cycling as an integral part of their transport system rather than something to be squeezed in between footpaths and cars.  Helmets undoubtedly save people’s lives when they are involved in a crash with a car.

But our energy should actually be focused on changing our roads and pathways so that there are far less opportunities for cars to crash into cyclists. That means investing in modern bike lanes (rather than just painting a white line on an already crowded road), as well as public transport and urban design that integrates with cycling.  Those are the sort of changes that are going to get more people on the road, and more importantly more people on the road safely, than changing cycle helmet laws.

20 Comments Posted

  1. Use the helmet to protect yourself during a spill. It will also keep the wind, rocks, bugs and sun from your head.

  2. As a pillion rider, I guess I wouldn’t give up my helmet for anything in the world. Life’s too precious to give it away for a moment’s vanity…

  3. Stuey, You may be right but the similar reduction in PT trips and fuel prices between 1989/90 and 1997/8 does suggest an alternative explanation. The situation since 1998 does allow a simple test of the two hypothesis. Has cycle usage increased along with increasing fuel prices and PT use since 1998? The dramatic increase in investment in on-road cycle infrastructure may invalidate this simple test.

    This is the most curious aspect of cycle safety revealed in Motor Accidents in NZ 2006. On urban roads there were 744 reported injury crashes and 3 fatal crashes but on the open road there were only 74 reported injury crashes and 6 fatal crashes. That suggests to me that the argument that a cycle helmet won’t provide any protection in a collision with a car is actually far from true in urban areas. Exclude low speed intersection crashes from these stats and the difference between urban and open road cycle risk also disappears.

  4. Of course the helmet law (1994) has reduced the numbers of cyclists – LTSA data shows there was a 26% reduction in cycling trips between 1989/90 and 1997/9.
    In Australia cycle commuting dropped between 20 and 40% (depending on state) after the introduction of helmet laws.

    The main reasons for people giving up cycling are:
    * vanity – people want to avoid helmet hair
    * perception of danger – cycling seems a more dangerous activity if you need protective equipment

  5. There is a really nice study done by a guy in the uk – I don’t have a reference for you right now but I will try to find it. The basic idea was to measure the distance at which cars pass you (on average). I forget what the base number was – maybe around 1 metre? Then if you put a helmet on, that distance decreases by around half a metre. If you take the helmet off and put on a long blonde wig, cars will leave you an extra half metre over the default.
    Ok, my numbers are approximate, going from memory, but that is the basic idea. I am not about to give up my helmet while cycling in this country just yet – but it might be worth investing in a wig to go over top … 😉

  6. George,

    Can you please provide references for your claim that helmets make cycling more dangerous? I would happily get rid of my helmet, but I am suspicious of your claim and would like more convincing evidence.

  7. so many other ways to protect cylists than no helmets.

    Cycling may be safer than driving but that’s because of attentive, defensive cyclists – not anyone else on the road.

    I’m going to keep wearing my helmet, but thanks for the offer george.

  8. That sure must have been fun biking without a cycle, slow though I imagine 🙂

    It’s certainly an interesting debate, and having just copped a fine here in Melbourne for riding without a helmet for an incident where there was no way any danger to myself above that of a pedestrian, i’m a little more towards the freedom to cycle with the wind flowing through one’s hair.

    My new theory about helmets is they should be compulsory for any cyclist traveling faster than 15kmph. Yes it would be hard to police, but I think it would nicely separate out cyclists into the two groups – the commuter cyclist who does it for fun and as a mode of transport instead of a car, and those that see cycling as just something slightly quicker than walking.

    The failure of the policies in this part of the world is they try to cater to both types at the same time (albeit in a fairly limited way) and fail to provide for either. This failure has lead to less uptake of cycling.

    Bringing this back to the point Harry was trying to make, compulsory helmets decreases cycling uptake – be it from the vain amongst us who see them as a fashion crime to others that see the use of safety equipment and believe it to be too dangerous. The argument proceeds that this lack of uptake increases the danger to cyclists more than helmets save people as then other road users are less used to dealing with them.

    There is no way i would jump on the road here without a helmet, but in Germany after a few moments of unfamiliar disease, riding without a helmet became relaxed and enjoyable. No longer was I hunched over the handle bars, clenching the brakes ready for the slightest indication of a car door opening or a vehicle pulling over.

  9. Thanks to the Minister for talking sense.

    Dangermoose: I’ve said this before, but I’ll repeat myself.

    Compulsory helmet laws have been shown across the world to actually make things more dangerous for cyclists. The numbers are clear – injury rates went up (!) in NZ after the helmet law, the number of cyclists decreased substantially, and the total number of head injuries stayed about the same. This experience was also replicated across the Australian states, and in Canada. By contrast, countries with the lowest helmet wearing rates in the world, such as Denmark and Sweden have very low head injury rates.

    The number of cyclists decreases, in part because it is made to seem a ‘dangerous’ activity, and there are less cyclists sharing the road, and drivers aren’t aware of cyclists and do not give them the space they need for safety. By far the biggest risk to cyclists is cars, and a helmet cannot protect properly against even a moderate speed collision with a car.

  10. Maybe car occupants should give up wearing sealtbelts as well.

    Maybe everyone should make sure they’re good and drunk before travelling anywhere.

    what an idiot. Who ARE these people? What are they doing running my country?

  11. oh come on. The guy has no idea. This isn’t interesting, it’s completely gormless.
    Harry Dunhoven thinks Cyclists need EVEN LESS protection from enraged car drivers? And THEN we’ll have more bikes on the road?!
    It is clear that what he actually wants is to flush them out and then kill them off. Sort out those cyclists once and for all.

    What an idiot. I challenge Mr Gorm-hoven to ride just once through the CBD with no helmet.

  12. The cost of bike lanes? If you do them at the same time as roads (as an integral part of them) rather than afterwards the cost is negligible.

    I am very sympathetic to the Minister’s comment – but I think that the introduction of bike helmets was a symptom of the real problem (attitudes to cyclists) rather than a cause…

    An example of the attitude I am referring to: a cyclist being hit at a roundabout and then being blamed for causing the accident for “not indicating that he was going STRAIGHT AHEAD”.

    Or the comments of an Auckland City Councillor a few weeks ago, calling cyclists “arrogant” – hey, maybe some are, but really?!? How is that helpful?

    I do think things have gotten worse – partly because in some places the only people who dare to cycle are rather gung ho about it (again, a symptom of the lack of cycling infrastructure)

  13. ANy idea of the order of magnitude of the cost of this?

    Are we talking millions, tens of millions, hundrends of millions or billions?

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