Friday, 19 November 2010

Against Compulsion For Bicycle Helmets

There is a growing movement in Australia against the laws here compelling cyclists to wear helmets. The movement is coming from various subcultures, too, cyclestylists and fashionistas lead the charge, but fixies, transport cyclists and curmudgeons are also starting to demand the right to choose when "the lid" is right.

There is the argument that, like the seatbelt, the bicycle helmet is for the protection of cyclists - protection from the unexpected. This seems like a reasonable argument, and there are many tales of mountain bikers and BMXers "having their lives saved" by their helmets. Lets also say here that wearing a helmet in heavy traffic is a pretty smart choice to make in Australia, because Australian drivers have an almost sociopathic attitude to non-motorised road users.

The question of helmet compulsion isn't a safety issue, though. Not one study has been done to control out demographic groups who are more likely to ride in a risky manner. Not one study has conclusively determined how many cycle journeys take place in Australia, nor how many actually result in crashes. The case for helmet compulsion is based solely on Police and emergency ward surgeons' experiences of cycling.

In the UK it has been found that most cycling crashes, even when the cyclist was taking risks, were legally the motorists' fault. In the Netherlands they have way higher cycling rates than Australia and lower crash rates and no compulsory helmet laws. Even in car-mad USA they only have helmet compulsion in some isolated localities and it's done little to increase cyclist safety.

Australia made bicycle helmets compulsory purely because motorcycle helmets were compulsory and we had a helmet manufacturing industry exporting to the world. It seemed like a good idea to the non-cyclists in Canberra, and certainly seems logically sound, but it's not socially just, it erodes everybody's rights, even those of non-cyclists.

Obesity is one of the most serious health issues facing the community. Fast food franchises are one of the biggest contributors to it, or rather, the choice of the obese to eat it to excess is the biggest contributor to obesity. More people die from diseases of obesity each year than are killed by head injury in any sort of road accident. Diabetic complications, heart disease and stroke all cause death at alarming rates in Australia.

Smoking is a legal drug which causes lung disease, heart disease, kidney disease and stroke. Alcohol is legal and it causes death all the usual ways. Yet alcohol, tobacco and junk food are not banned, we allow people to choose whether they endanger themselves with these things or not. We recognise that there is responsible use of alcohol or junk food and that exceeding those bounds is a personal choice only a minority choose.

There are very good studies from all over the world, including Australia, that time and time again prove the benefits of cycling vastly increase life expectency compared to any reduction caused by the dangers. The most recent, from Holland, says for every year of life expectancy lost due to crashes, 14 years are gained from the health benefits of exercise. Cycling is a responsible lifestyle choice with some minor risk. What we eat or drink is a lifestyle choice, no government bans us from eating bad food or drinking too much alcohol. It's left to us, informed adults to choose when a beer and a burger is good for us and when we've had too many.

So, there you have it, we can eat all the Maccas we like and not have a word said against us, but if we choose to go without a helmet on a quiet, Sunday morning country lane bike ride. Compulsory helmet laws are social engineering. It is a law designed to discourage cycling and appease the motoring lobby and nothing more. If it were a public safety policy, then smoking, drinking and eating bad food would be illegal, too. Cyclists are a soft target for cynical governments more interested in selling Holdens than making our cities livable. More interested in selling Maccas, VB and smokes than encouraging people to live simply and healthily.

A helmet is not like a seatbelt or an air bag. Helmets don't prevent crashes. Helmets are compulsory in very few countries and Australia's head injury rate for cyclists is higher than most of the countries without compulsory helmets. It's time to stop the social engineering.