Federal government abandons compulsory helmets policy

The Federal Government instigated in 1989 the nationwide policy of compulsion to wear a helmet, by offering ‘black spot’ funding for roads to the states and territories. All complied by 1992.

In 2009, CRAG made a comprehensive submission to the Prime Minister calling for the Government’s policy on helmets to be based on sound evidence of their efficacy. We (CRAG) said that the prime need was to protect the brain, the main site of fatal and disabling head injury, but that research had shown a potential for helmets to aggravate it.

We also pointed out that cycling declined sharply after helmets became compulsory. Benefits of the exercise for health were lost, but the risk of serious casualty, including fatal head injury, increased compared to other road users. As the policy had failed to serve its purpose, we called for corrective action.

The PM did not directly reply to our submission. Instead, the Federal Government quietly abandoned the policy later in 2009, stating in a letter to CRAG:

“Please note that helmet wearing policies are entirely determined at a state and territory government level and not linked to federally administered black spot funding”.

Despite being the instigator of this policy, the federal government has now disowned it, and refuses to take responsibility to fix it.

The federal government remains responsible for the mandatory standard for helmets. It is supposed to guarantee the efficacy and safety of helmets, but it does not. The standard does not contain a test for rotational acceleration, that would assess whether helmets can aggravate brain injury.

We in CRAG are working to press the Federal Government on the mandatory standard.

Political parties supporting the decriminilisation of cycling

In Australia, the Liberal Democratic Party supports the decriminilisation of cycling through its policy opposing victimless “crimes”. It states about the bicycle helmet law:

Mandatory bicycle helmets – not only are such laws offensive to liberty, but they do not achieve their aim.

You may not be able to vote for the Liberal Democratic Party for the parliament (local Member of Parliament), but you can vote for the Liberal Democratic Party in most states for the senate.

In Western Australia, the Democrats support the decrimilisation of cycling without a polystyrene hat. You can vote for the WA democrats in the senate.

US government drops claim that helmets reduce 85% of head injuries

The US government has dropped its claim that bicycle helmets reduce 85% of head injuries. The claim came from “research” conducted by avid helmet advocates in 1989. Many researchers have tried to replicate its results, but have been unable to do so. Amid severe criticism over the implausible claim, the authors had to re-work their data, and arrived at a lower effectiveness rate.

Despite the claim being disowned by its authors, it has been eagerly quoted by helmet advocates, keen to push helmets. The US government has kept quoting the claim on its web site.

In 2013,  the US Department of Transportation agreed to delete the claim following a petition lodged by the Washington Area Bicyclists Association under the Federal Data Quality Act. The Data Quality Act requires information on federal web sites to be accurate and supported by appropriate research.

This was first reported by the Washington Area Bicyclsists Association. This followed its successful campaign against a bicycle helmet law in Maryland in early 2013, including this testimony.

Canada: helmet laws have made little difference to head injuries

A recent Canadian study found that bicycle helmet laws had little effect on head injuries. The study analysed 14 years of data, comparing provinces with and without helmet laws. Unlike other studies in this field, it attempts to remove the effect of confounding factors by controlling for background trends and modelling head injuries as a proportion of all cycling injuries. It concludes:

the incremental contribution of provincial helmet legislation to reduce the number of hospital admissions for head injuries is uncertain to some extent, but seems to have been minimal.

This study has been reported here:

“(the study) analyzed the rate of cycling-related hospital admissions for head injuries across the country between 1994 and 2008 — an enormous research sample of more than 66,000 people…

What they found initially seemed to suggest that this legislation improved public safety…

But upon closer inspection, according to Dennis and company, this positive effect failed to stand. On the contrary, the researchers concluded that head injuries were decreasing across the country at a rate that wasn’t “appreciably altered” by the new helmet laws. Other rider health initiatives — namely, public safety campaigns and the introduction of better bike infrastructure — rendered the contribution of helmet laws “minimal” …

Mandatory helmet laws, meanwhile, may discourage riding to the point where public safety as a whole suffers from the relative decrease in physical exercise.”

The effect is consistent with an analysis of cycling fatalities in Canada, that concludes:

It is apparent that mass helmet use is not contributing to the reduction in cyclist fatalities, at least not in any measurable way. The results suggest that traffic authorities should refocus to put their efforts into other proven measures.

The study contradicts other studies that had claimed a benefit from helmet legislation in Canada. However, many of these studies have serious methodological flaws rendering their claims invalid. Often, such studies are done by helmet advocates keen to “prove” their beliefs, with a disturbing lack of scientific discipline.

This has led Ben Goldacre, an epidemiologist, to provide an insightful overview of the challenges of evaluating the effectiveness of helmet legislation:

Standing over all this methodological complexity is a layer of politics, culture, and psychology. Supporters of helmets often tell vivid stories about someone they knew, or heard of, who was apparently saved from severe head injury by a helmet. Risks and benefits may be exaggerated or discounted depending on the emotional response to the idea of a helmet. For others, this is an explicitly political matter, where an emphasis on helmets reflects a seductively individualistic approach to risk management (or even “victim blaming”) while the real gains lie elsewhere. It is certainly true that in many countries, such as Denmark and the Netherlands, cyclists have low injury rates, even though rates of cycling are high and almost no cyclists wear helmets. This seems to be achieved through interventions such as good infrastructure; stronger legislation to protect cyclists; and a culture of cycling as a popular, routine, non-sporty, non-risky behaviour.

Helmet laws are ineffective compared to other safety measures. As the safest cycling countries demonstrate, other measures are far more effective to reduce injuries. Helmet laws seem to contribute little to safety, while reducing cycling and taking the focus away from more effective measures.

History of helmet law in the US

Opinion

Here are the reflections and impressions of a US resident who has observed the emergence of bicycle helmets in the United States over the last 40 years. While many of these observations cannot be confirmed without dedicated investigative journalism, they are informed by decades of attention to news articles, bicycling publications, bike organization policies, plus conversations and other interaction with helmet lobbyists.

Frank Krygowski is a retired professor of Engineering Technology, and a lifetime commuting, utility, recreational and touring cyclist.  He is active in cycling advocacy on the local, state and national levels.

 

Personally, I think U.S. helmet laws arise from a combination of factors. Here’s my completely undocumented impression of the history of bike helmets in the U.S.:

  1. First, we had a culture in which there is no history or tradition of bicycling. Until the 1970s people thought bikes were only for kids. Very few adults rode at all, and only an infinitesmal number rode for utility or for sport.
  2. Second, we had a big bike boom in the 1970s. Suddenly there was a huge upsurge in novice riders, most of whom knew very little about cycling, and (worse) did not realize there was anything to learn.
  3. Third, some very opportunistic companies – primarily Bell Sports – realized that there was a market among all these new, easily-misled bike riders for a high-profit special hat. (And seriously, people do have an immense psychological urge to wear special hats! Gardeners, sailors, cowboys, baseball fans, military personnel, fishermen and countless others revel in their own stylish and “useful” headgear.)

Bell began a campaign of misinformation, claiming that any bike rider could easily fall at any time, then suffer a truly debilitating brain injury; and that therefore, smart cyclists always wore helmets. There was never any consideration of whether this possibility was at all common, or worse than for other common activities. Bell backed this effort up with very slick and generous ads in low-profit-margin bike magazines, plus (I’m guessing) some back room politicking.

Soon bike magazines showed fewer and fewer photos of bareheaded riders, giving the impression that any “serious” (e.g. club or racing) cyclist always wore a helmet. About this time, “Always wear a helmet” became the first rule of bicycle safety.

This gave Bell some decent profits. But eventually (due to a change in management, I believe) things suddenly pushed further. Bell produced a helmet not for enthusiasts, but for kids, and increased the “danger! danger!” hype. And critically, Bell began donating heavily to Safe Kids Inc., with (doubtlessly) more back room politicking. This was the real genesis of mandatory helmet laws for kids. The national Safe Kids organization began working to convince local chapters, parents and lawmakers that riding bikes (and any other wheeled toy) was as dangerous as juggling chainsaws. “If only one child can be saved…” became a battle cry.

I think this is what caused the surge in statewide MHLs through the 1990s. Since then, things have cooled off quite a bit in the U.S. Most helmet laws are not really enforced, from what I observe. Safe Kids has – for whatever reason – made car seats their prime issue instead of bike helmets (although of course, they still call for bike helmet use). Now we seem to deal with only two factors:

  1. One factor is a cadre of do-gooders left over from the 1990s who have made helmet promotion one of their life’s guiding principles. Randy Swart is probably the prime example, but I suspect most American bike clubs have one or more local examples. These people will probably never admit that they wasted their time on a counterproductive effort. Data will mean nothing to them.
  2. Another factor is that the efforts of Bell, Safe Kids and the do-gooders have worked, in that a very large number of Americans really do believe that a simple bike ride imposes a huge risk of serious brain injury. Oddly, this impression seems greater in higher-income areas, where the little suburban princes and princesses must be guaranteed to rise to their highest creative and earning potential. I suspect, though, that this population can be swayed by data, logic and fashion. This is a group that might eventually be convinced that ordinary bicycling is not dangerous, and has benefits that greatly outweigh it’s tiny risks. Even without a special hat.

Fighting a helmet fine in the Victorian courts

Abstract

On the 8th of March 2013, Alan Todd, from Freestyle Cyclists, successfully challenged a bicycle helmet fine in the court of Kyneton, Victoria, Australia. He was let of on a good behavior bond.
Here is his description of the events.

 

On the 7th of June last year I was stopped by the police in my home town of Kyneton (population 5000), and asked why I wasn’t wearing a bicycle helmet. I had been expecting this for some time, as I never wear a helmet while cycling, so I was quite well prepared. We had a polite conversation, lasting twenty minutes. I explained why I believed wearing a helmet put me at more risk of accident, injury or even death, than not wearing a helmet, and pointed out that only two other countries in the world would consider it wrong of me to make this choice. I think the sergeant had some understanding of where I was coming from, but, like most Australians, is emotionally attached to the paradigm of cycling as a dangerous activity, with helmets offering an effective protection from a clear and present danger. He indicated that if I had a medical condition, or a letter from my doctor, that would be ok, but felt unable to issue me with a warning, as I clearly had intended to break the law.

About six weeks later I got an infringement notice in the post. My choices with this were to ignore it (unwise), to pay the fine of $176, or to ask to have the matter heard at the Magistrate’s Court. I chose the last option, and on the form indicated that I intended to plead not guilty. In due course I received a summons in the mail, to appear at the Kyneton Magistrate’s Court for a mention on the 3rd of December.

Court was due to start at 9.30, so I began at 9.00 by reporting to the registrar, and indicating a plea of not guilty. I was instructed to enter the court and talk to the police prosecutor. He was somewhat surprised that I intended to plead not guilty, as I agreed that I had not been wearing a helmet. I think he would have liked to talk me into changing my plea, but I was firm in saying no. Once I explained how I intended the defence to go, he said that there didn’t seem any point of likely agreement with the prosecution, so we would proceed to a contested hearing without a conference.

I was then sent back to the registrar to arrange a date, which involved an hour’s wait including some interesting free advice from a lawyer who was around for other business, but seemed to spot me as an “interesting case”. After reading through my notes on the Victorian Charter of Rights and Responsibilities he said “just give it a go. You won’t win, but why not have a crack”.

Once the date was made, I was instructed to go back to the court, and wait to be called up by the magistrate. I spent the rest of the morning witnessing the sorry procession before the magistrate of excessive speeding, breached intervention orders and use and supply of cannabis and ice. Called up just before lunch, the magistrate stated the charge, and indicated that we had agreed to a contested hearing. The police prosecutor said that I didn’t dispute the facts, but was to depend on a legal argument involving what he called the Human Rights Charter. I think the magistrate was a bit put out by this (perhaps expecting the sort of vague “its against my human rights” claim), so she asked how I intended to do this. I clarified that it was the Victorian Charter I intended to use, and quoted the specific sections and subsections of the Charter I intended to rely on. This seemed to go down well.

There were two police witnesses to the original infringement, and I was asked if I would require both to attend. I said no, that one would be fine, but requested that I be given a copy of their witness statement, which was agreed. A date was set – 8/3/2013 – with a contested hearing set down for two hours.

Before I left, the prosecutor gave me a card with email for the Central Victoria Prosecutions Case Conference Manager, requesting that I contact them and ask to have the charge withdrawn, having regard to my defence. I asked if it was likely to be dropped, and he said no, but that it couldn’t be dropped if I didn’t make a formal request. (I did subsequently contact them with the request as instructed. The reply came back that they would not be dropping the charge, but would proceed to prosecution on the 8th of March)

I had plenty of time to prepare my case. I had always meant to try and base a defence on the Victorian Charter of Rights and Responsibilities, with a view to securing a finding of not guilty. This seemed to me more worthwhile than pleading guilty, and then entering a plea in mitigation, with a request that no conviction be recorded or penalty imposed. As I did my homework however it became increasingly clear to me that my legal argument most likely couldn’t carry the day. However, in the spirit of “nothing ventured, nothing gained”, I prepared a fairly detailed written submission, with accompanying published evidence on the (lack of) efficacy of helmets. The court was never going to enter into discussion of whether I was right in my beliefs or not (that is not their role), however it seemed important to my case to present evidence to demonstrate that my beliefs were based on sound research, and not just “made up after the event” to avoid paying a fine.

On the morning of my hearing, I presented myself to the clerk of courts as required. He indicated that I would probably be heard in about fifteen minutes, as there was only one procedural matter to be heard before my case. I had informal conversation with both the police prosecutor and the police informant (the sergeant who issued the original penalty notice) as to how the case would be run. There was no sense of hostility from any of us,which was good.

Once we were called to the front to conduct the hearing, the magistrate started by seeking a bit of an outline from both parties on what the matters for contention might be. This was relatively informal, though still quite serious.

I explained my case, which was basically that I held a reasonable belief that riding with a helmet on put me at greater risk of injury and death than riding without a helmet (published material supporting this was documented and made available), that I held this belief at the time of the offence, and that I would be derelict in my duty of care to myself if, armed with this knowledge, I had ridden a bicycle while wearing a helmet.

I explained to the magistrate that, even though I acknowledged that the offence was a strict liability offence and there was no onus of proof on the prosecution to demonstrate “a guilty mind”, I still found myself unable to plead guilty as I could not honestly feel that I had done wrong. I also reaffirmed my intention (previously made clear to the prosecution before the hearing) to rely on the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities. The argument was that it was open to the court to interpret or “read up” road rule rule 256 which allowed it to be read in a way consistent with my right to hold and demonstrate in public practice a belief (that wearing a helmet puts me at greater risk of accident, injury and death than not wearing a helmet.). I presented the magistrate and the prosecution with my written submission.

Even before getting to court, I was pretty well aware that this was a very thin argument, and likely couldn’t be upheld by a court. Despite its grand title, the Charter doesn’t offer much in the way of protections that don’t exist through other legal avenues, and it certainly was not designed to in any way invalidate existing legislation. Basically, if the State wanted to enact legislation requiring anyone pushing a pram in a public place to wear a pink tee shirt, they could, and the Charter would offer no protection to someone hauled before the courts charged with pushing a pram in a public place while not wearing a pink tee shirt. Both the police prosecutor (privately after the hearing) and a barrister I spoke with informally before the hearing said much the same thing, that the Charter was little more than a political stunt.

The prosecution had done their homework, and were onto this from the start. The magistrate asked me how I proposed to deal with this obstacle, (his words to me were “you’ve got a bit of an uphill push with your barrow”). I drew his attention to my written submission, where I had acknowledge potential problems with section 32 of the Charter, and had attempted to fudge my way around this. He did take the time to read my submission – throughout he was courteous and considerate. He then told me that there was no prospect of his being able to return a verdict of “not guilty” based on my legal argument. He suggested that I could proceed with my case and plea, and if unhappy with the inevitable outcome, I would have the option of appealing the legal matters to the Supreme Court.

At this stage we more or less had a conversation (not too much “your honour” and standing up and sitting down). I knew that even if I did successfully appeal a guilty verdict to the Supreme Court, the best that I could get there would be to obtain a judgement that regulation 256 was incompatible with specific human rights. This finding would then have to be presented to the Victorian parliament, with a requirement that the appropriate minister respond within a given time. There would be no requirement that the minister review the regulation, only that they respond. Knowing their form on this issue, I would guarantee that the response would be “justifiable limit to human rights given the evidence of safety benefits etc. etc. etc.”

Consequently, I suggested changing my plea to “guilty”, to which the magistrate said he could offer me a good behaviour bond. And that is how it was settled. I have signed an undertaking to be “of good behaviour” for three months. After that time, assuming I honour the undertaking, the proceeding will be closed, with no conviction recorded and no penalty imposed. The only better result, with a plea or finding of guilty, would have been an unconditional discharge.

I have to acknowledge that the police prosecutor behaved in a constructive manner – he volunteered the information that I had, at the time of the offence, presented the police informant with documentation and arguments in support of my beliefs about helmets. This meant that there was no doubt in the magistrate’s mind that I had acted in good faith.

The magistrate himself turned out to be a bit of a weekend road warrior, and told me (why does this always come up with Australian recreational cyclists?) that he had broken or damaged at least three helmets in spills on his bike. I replied that that was interesting, as I had, myself, never come off my bike as an adult, which I think surprised him. No formal discussion of helmets or their effectiveness was entered into throughout the brief hearing.

I’m not quite sure what constitutes a breach of good behaviour, but to be on the safe side I’d better not speed, slip through stop signs, drink and drive or ride my bike without a helmet at least until the 10th of June. After that, the next time I am in court for failing to wear a helmet, there will be no consideration of “prior” offences, as there will be no record of conviction.

And that is how I deal with the overwhelming stupidity of being told what I can and cannot wear whilst going to the shops on my bicycle.

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