The helmet debate has recently been stirred up again, with cycling advocates giving quite contrasting opinions to our two major news outlets. Patrick Morgan, spokesperson for CAN (and CiW writer) agrees with the report and supports a government review. Barbara Cuthbert, spokeswoman from Cycling Action Auckland disagrees. Whatever your views on Colin Clarkes report, you have to admit it is not the first such report, and certainly won’t be the last.
Helmets were brought into law in New Zealand in the late 80’s thanks, chiefly, to the campaigning done by ‘helmet lady’ Rebecca Oaten. I vaguely remember her – or someone representing her – visiting my school, with stories of children being killed or seriously brain damaged because they weren’t wearing a helmet. What happened to her son is undoubtably very sad.
Half the kids at my school biked back then. There was as much space for bikes as there was for teachers cars. These days, I very rarely see kids on bikes anymore. If I do, they’re off-road. And, what’s worse, is that when I do see kids riding on the road, it scares me a little. That is truly sad. Kids deserve to feel the freedom of riding a bike, no matter what generation they are born into.
(Just to clarify, while I support a review of the helmet law, and I personally am anti-compulsion for adults*, I do support helmets for kids. But when adults don’t ride bikes, it seems their kids don’t either. So let’s try get those adults back on their bikes first.)
My issue with the helmet law is that it was brought in because of the campaigning from one lady and one case. To this day she still says that if people don’t want to wear helmets that it’s “too bad”. We’ve all heard stories about people who have broken helmets which saved their lives. We talk less about our family and friends who have had heart surgery, suffer from obesity or related diseases because they stopped biking when helmets were introduced (and I agree that helmets are not solely to blame for this – other causes include more cars on the road and campaigning for helmets which made cycling seem less safe). But, let me raise a question: what if it is actually safer to ride a bike without a helmet?
Most kiwis (and our neighbours across the ditch) assume, rather logically that bike helmets are obviously safer. And I agree, that if you weigh 5kg and fall from a height of about 1m to the ground (which is what helmets are tested for) then, of course, you would be better off wearing a helmet. Many kiwis wrongly assume that they are better off overall wearing a helmet, or that a helmet offers significant protection from a collision with a vehicle. It does not, nor is it designed to.
So if helmets aren’t designed to offer you any significant protection in a collision, what would help? Well, the best scenario would be not to be in a collision in the first place. Evidence shows that you are less likely to get hit if you are not wearing a helmet. Surely, not being hit, is better than being hit and hoping to fall from 1m onto a solid non-moving object?
Studies show that drivers will pass a cyclist wearing a helmet 30cm closer than a cyclist not wearing a helmet. There are several ideas behind this. One is that the cyclist wearing a helmet appears ‘protected’ or less vulnerable. Another is that a cyclist without a helmet appears more ‘human’. It would be interesting to find out in how many cases that 30cm was critical? The NZ Road Code recommends passing cyclists with a 1.5m berth. In reality most cyclists would not often experience that. Our roads don’t allow for it, especially in Wellington. But an extra 30cm would be most welcome!
If you take this a step further, you get something called the “Mary Poppins Effect”. This suggests that a woman riding an upright style bike, wearing a skirt gets more respect and is more visible to other road users than other cyclists. Anecdotal evidence supports this.
Again, there are a few different theories behind this. One is that a person on a bike wearing ‘normal’ clothes is easier to identify with – the driver can see themselves – so they appreciate that the cyclist also has ‘somewhere important to be’. A lycra-clad roadie on the other hand is out for ‘recreation’ and therefore just getting in the way of the ‘important place’ the driver needs to be. So in a sense, by wearing similar clothing to what drivers do, you become part of their ‘us’ as opposed to the lycra-clad ‘them’. (No offence to lycra-clad cyclists – I know it’s practical – it’s just there aren’t very many lycra-clad drivers/pedestrians around to identify with.) You are no longer an annoyance, but a fellow commuter.
Another theory relates to the bike itself – an upright bike makes you taller and therefore more visible. You are also less likely to be travelling very fast on an upright bike. They are designed for comfort, not speed. If you are travelling slower, it gives other road-users time to see you; you become more predictable. In my own experience, I can say that wearing the same outfit on an upright ‘Omafiets’ and on my commuter/mountain bike, I feel safer on the Omafiets.
Having said that, the difference is still noticeable when the only change is to your outfit. I like to tell people that the most effective ‘hi-vis’ I’ve found is wearing a short skirt on my bike. I make more eye contact with drivers when wearing a short skirt than any other item of clothing or piece of equipment. It causes them to pause, and that pause can be the difference between them pulling out in front of me, or not.
This from Lovely Bike:
The way people process each other visually and emotionally is governed by a complicated system of simulation and self-recognition… And from that point of view, it makes sense to speculate that the more “I am human! I am you!” signals we give off when cycling, the more empathy a driver will feel towards us.
Empathy is an important factor when it comes to making gains for cycling.
The amazing cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands came about after protests in the 70s. The main gist of these was to ‘Stop the child murder‘. Any parent would be up in arms when the safety of their child is threatened. And rightly so. The Times in the UK is campaigning for ‘Cities Fit for Cycling’. This issue hit home to them when one of their own was seriously injured while cycling. In Wellington the Council’s budget for cycling has recently doubled and I think it is no coincidence that we now have a cycling Mayor.
To make cycling safer in New Zealand we need better infrastructure. No doubt about it. But to get this, we need numbers supporting it. More cyclists on the roads already improves safety. More ‘human’ or everyday cyclists will help raise awareness by normalising riding a bike. Groups like Frocks on Bikes do amazing things in an effort to get everyday people wearing everyday clothes on their bikes. It’s the reason I joined them. If we strive to have an environment like Amsterdam or Copenhagen, we need to encourage such an environment. Forcing people to wear hi-vis and helmets, in addition to investing in their bike, will put some off. As Simon Kennett pointed out (halfway down the comments), they already have enough excuses, so why add to them?
What do you think? Have you come across any evidence that shows an overall positive effect from the introduction of helmet laws? Have you experienced different behaviour in response to what you’re wearing? Do you feel safer wearing a helmet despite suggestions that this might not actually be the case?
Would you support an independent, evidence-based review of whether the helmet regulation has worked?
* Please note, I am anti-compulsion, not completely anti-helmets. When I am able to jump on my road bike and I swish down hills at 70km/h I wouldn’t be caught dead(?) without my helmet. But just as a racing driver doesn’t wear his helmet when driving to the shops, neither do I think cyclists should have to. Same goes for mountain biking.
In over two years of cycling in London, two years in the Netherlands and over 20 years in NZ, I’ve had two incidents that could have resulted in serious head injuries – one was snowboarding and the other surfing – neither of those, or the many other ‘dangerous’ activities we partake in everyday, have helmet laws. I do now choose to wear a helmet while snowboarding, despite head injuries not even being in the top five documented injuries; I recognise that I take more risks while partaking in ‘sport’ activities and do so even more while wearing a helmet. It also helps that the type of incidents that could occur are the ones which the helmet is designed for, i.e. falling from a height of about 1.5m onto a hard surface (it’s amazing how many rocks there are under snow!).