Blog post on helments from a Melbourne economist/libertarian perspective

I know AC has had no shortage of robust debates on the issue of compulsory helment-wearing on Bikes ;)


But I can't resist adding another element ... a recent post by Alan Davies on his "The Melbourne Urbanist" blog lays out the issues quite well in a balanced way I think:


It really is a complex enough issue that it's amenable to applying political ideas like classic views on liberty vs the state, i.e. what constraints on our behaviour the state is justified in imposing, even if in the name of the common good.


As Alan points out, opponents of the law will always bring out the examples of themselves or someone near & dear to them either being saved in their opinion from serious injury through wearing a helmet, or receiving a head injury when they weren't wearing one.


The aspect of compulsory helmets as a symbolic behaviour is a good one though - if adults didn't wear helmets, would it encourage a generally more conservative approach to riding in general - i.e. wear helmets if you see cycling as a sport, but if just riding to the corner shops do it safely and within your skills as a rider?


Personally an element of the debate that I believe is always overlooked is that in the European countries with much higher cycling rates and where helmets aren't compulsory (Netherlands, Denmark, Germany), there is a much higher level of training of kids on bike safety, how to ride on the roads etc, as an organised community & state activity.


Maybe such a foundation of training for kids, as well as much better cycling infrastructure, are the two things we should be trying to bring about as foundations for removing the compulsory bike helmet law?


Views: 86

Comment by heather on May 21, 2011 at 15:22
The Netherlands has much better and safer cycling infrastructure than Australia. With so many cycling in The Netherlands, the drivers would look for cyclists, unlike in Adelaide. The Netherlands also has a much lower rate of car-car collisions. The stats suggest that on average Australians are worse drivers: impatient? inconsiderate? don't share the road? When Australia has comparable cycling infrastructure plus driver training and education, then I will consider cycling without a helmet in Adelaide.
Comment by Clive Palfrey on May 22, 2011 at 9:57
Nice response Heather
Comment by Patrick Sunter on May 22, 2011 at 13:02

Sure Heather, and I think the writer of the blog (Alan) comes to a similar conclusion as to his own choice of wearing a helmet and getting his kids to. And as I rode from from the library with my helmet on, I was weighing the pros and cons of whether I'd not wear the helmet if it was optional: I quite likely would in Aussie conditions too.


I guess he's raising 2 qtns though:

1) The point raised by quite a few others, that there's an argument that making helmets compulsory lowers the number of people cycling - and that if helmets were optional, more people would ride, meaning more presence on the roads, car drivers being forced to pay more attention and be careful, and greater pressure for cycling infrastructure - and thus by this argument making it overall safer to cycle. But _if_ you accept the theory/evidence that cycling without a helmet is more dangerous, then following this argument it would mean a few people not being prevented from head injuries, for the 'greater good' of all cyclists. (This sort of reasoning seems to come up particularly with Melbourne's Bixie scheme, with the idea of Bixie-riding tourists being a 'trial' of not having to wear helmets - sounds good in some ways, but then we'd all feel pretty terrible if one of them gets hurt). It's a complex moral argument I think - and that's why I raised in my post that maybe one way forward is improving safety training and infrastructure first.

2) Alan also is arguing from the sake of political liberty - just because you, or I, choose to wear helmets to prevent injury, does the state have the right to enforce this on all others? Even if it's seen to be 'for their own good', maybe they have the right to decide this? We've had this argument as a society with smoking for example, and drink-driving - where in those cases, the activity is not only harmful to yourself but (very likely) to others, and therefore there's a stronger case to restrict them. A better comparison perhaps (which Alan uses) is the example of compulsory seatbelt wearing in cars - where a fairly minor inconvenience can prevent serious activity on a common basis.


(Actually, an interesting example I reckon is that helmet-wearing while Snowboarding isn't compulsory - which to me is a much more dangerous activity than cycling - especially as most people will only do it 1-2 times a year! As a novice snowboarder I've had quite a nasty concussion on Mt Buller, and would voluntarily hire a helmet next time. Perhaps though the ski-tourism activity has prevented us having a serious debate about that though to avoid putting off punters & cutting into their bottom line! ;) ).


The only other thing I should add as well is - again in the Netherlands etc, a key plank of their policy is that car drivers are by default always to blame in accidents involving cyclists, unless the cyclist is doing something really stupid. In fact in the case of kids, the onus is almost _always_ put on the car driver! See (Pucher & Buehler, 2008, p520):

"As suggested by the previous section, traffic laws in the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany give special consideration to the especially vulnerable situation of cyclists vis-à-vis motor vehicles (German Federal Ministry of Transport, 2006). Thus, they generally require the motorist to make special efforts to anticipate potentially dangerous situations and pro-actively avoid hitting cyclists. More- over, motorists are generally assumed to be legally responsible for most collisions with cyclists unless it can be proven that the cyclist deliberately caused the crash. Having the right of way by law does not excuse motorists from hitting cyclists, especially children and elderly cyclists."


Cheers for the responses though, and I think you've inspired me to try and get to grips with the overall (complex) picture of cycling safety again. It's a bit like my post about cycling and buses last year - seems to me if you only look at one issue without the overall system, it's hard to improve things.

Comment by MARK FERGUSON (SPARTACUS) on May 22, 2011 at 14:08
Being 51 years old I remember when helmets were not compulsory and there were very few adult cyclists. These days there are many adult cyclists and bicycles outsell cars so the the arguement that compulsory helmets discourage people from cycling is not supported by the facts. It is quite the opposite!
Comment by heather on May 22, 2011 at 21:41

I did not realise how awful Australian drivers were until I took up cycling in the metropolitan area. Encouraged me to buy a helmet before they were mandatory. Drivers here do not appear to see cyclists. Seat belts are mandatory for car occupants, so I do not consider bike helmet laws to be an infringement of my civil liberties.

What I object to is that the authorities do not do enough to protect vulnerable road users: better cycling facilities; better driver training and education; tough on negligent drivers who hit cyclists. (Some AC members report that they have been unable to get police to take reports, and the drivers who injured me were not fined).

I also want more stringent Australian Vehicle Design Rules. In 2002 a MUARC study for VicRoads recommended shock-absorbing underrun panels on most trucks to prevent cyclists going under the wheels. This would surely have prevented a cyclist dying at Cavan this month. I understand that the truck lobby group did not want underrun panels, although it may reduce fuel consumption. Recently the Federal Government rejected tighter controls on bull-bars so cyclists lost again. Last year I attended a seminar during Brain Injury Awareness Week. A professor pointed out that new Australian cars have around 5 stars for car occupant safety, but only 1.5 stars for pedestrians and cyclists. She wants the design rules improved for vulnerable road users.

I also want the introduction of Strict Liability legislation to remind Australian drivers to look for cyclists.

Patrick, I invite you to join the AC group of Look For Cyclists (that I coordinate) and post there. You have much knowledge to provide to AC.

P.S. Patrick, did you realise what you were doing when you offered to set up for me a Prospect BUG website on AC? I now coordinate four groups on AC. A great place to impart and discuss cycling knowledge.

Comment by Patrick Sunter on May 23, 2011 at 20:05

@Mark - while it's great lots of people are buying bikes, a lot of these are for primarily for recreational/offroad cycling (eg MTBs), and/or just on weekends. Nothing at all wrong with Recreational cycling - but some of us want to see cycling as a realistic and popular option for practical transport & commuting too. E.g. the mode-share of cycling for Journeys to Work in Adelaide is around 1%, and is less than 3% in all Australian capital cities - not exactly suggesting a cycling Mecca! Contrast that to 20%, 30% or more in some European cities as recorded in the Pucher article I linked to above.


@Heather: that's very interesting about those design rules, I had no idea, thanks for raising this. It really shows up how much could be improved here if the govt was prepared to stand up on that sort of legislation - and a good candidate for community groups like BISA to pressure them on. And yes, even enforcement of existing rules is crucial - the articles I looked at identified this as a US problem too. And glad the groups are working out :)

Comment by rossmg on May 24, 2011 at 12:51

Friend of mine (very keen cyclist) has been looking at helmet use and actual benefit and has come to the conclusion that helmets are rather ineffective at saving lives. Helmets are good at absorbing low speed shock and the blog you pointed out has the anecdote of the 2 year old child clunking their head - good helmet!

Crash you bike at speed or meet a tonne or so of metal car and your helmet probably won't make much of a difference. There is a line of argument that helmets can cause rotational stress and injury.

Is it a case of damned if you do and damned if you don't?

A snippet of information:

"The manufacturers only claim that they may help to prevent injury in slow speed single bicycle crashes - they are rated for protection from the speed attained by a fall from 6 feet!!" (cite required)

I remember reading somewhere sometime that human height is limited by the fact that we need to be able to survive a fall in which we bang our head on a rock and not fracture the skull.

There was also an interesting study in which helmeted vrs non-helmeted cyclists were put into traffic. The cars giving those without greater berth when passing.

Anyway, you sure are correct in that helmets raise much contentious debate.


Oh, BTW - friend of mine crashed his MtBike the other day - head first into the gravel, over the handle bars - ouch! Helmet sure saved him some gravel rash and very fortunately he didn't break his neck (I was worried). I don't think the helmet though would have saved his neck if it had come down to it though.

Comment by Clive Palfrey on May 24, 2011 at 22:27
I know of two members of AC and each of them has crashed twice in the past year. Each member had one slow and one fast crash. No other vehicles involved. One of the fast crashes involved multiple broken bones and lacerations, the other mild concussion. One of the slow crashes involved a broken collar bone, the other cuts and lacerations. In all four accidents the helmets were write offs. Both members are very glad that they were wearing helmets and are convinced that they would have suffered potentialy serious injuries had they not been and gladly bought new helmets.

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