Another attempt to introduce a helmet law defeated

A proposal to introduce a helmet law is California was withdrawn following opposition from cycling groups. A petition from the California Bicycle Coalition mentioned:

“there are proven ways to make our streets safer while encouraging bicycling — reducing speed limits on key streets, building protected bike lanes and bike paths, and educating motorists and bicyclists on how to drive or ride safely, to name a few. A mandatory helmet law is not one of them.”

This is not the first attempt to introduce a helmet law. They usually fizzle out once people mention the likely consequences:

“Countries that have penalised people for normal cycling (without helmets), have failed to reduce head injury rates despite increased helmet wearing rates. See an E​CF factsheet on the case of Australia​ and its helmet laws”

A politician in Northern Ireland attempted to introduce a helmet law. He had been lobbied by Headway. He claimed in parliament that helmet laws introduced in other countries have been a success. The debate was fierce. Helmet fanatics used emotive arguments. Rationalists focused on the consequences of imposing a helmet law:

“The one thing proponents of helmet legislation seem to ignore is that the fact that helmets do nothing to improve road safety, say the CTC.
What Helmets have done for cycling’s image, however, is to create the perception that cycling is inherently dangerous, which it was never considered to be before the arrival of the ubiquitous shiny hard hat.”

Helmet fanatics assume a helmet law can only improve safety. They ignore the likely consequences: a decrease in cycling and an increased risk of accident. They seem unaware that helmets are useless in major accidents.

The Cyclists Touring Club launched  a petition against the proposed law:

“This bill may be well-intentioned, but it will deter vast numbers of people from cycling, while increasing the risk for those who remain.”

The main political parties woke up to the negative consequences of the proposal. The law was not enacted:

“this would be legislation intruding into areas of life where it doesn’t need to go especially as they accepted that cycling is not a particularly dangerous activity.”

Never underestimate the tactics used by helmet fanatics. They appear sincere and well-meaning. Their emotive arguments appeal to the uninformed, particularly non-cyclists. Their smokescreen fizzle out once more informed opinions are brought to the limelight. People realise that the negative consequences outweigh the potential benefits.

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German study concludes that a bicycle helmet law is a waste of resource

Bicycle helmet laws are motivated by a desire to improve safety. Yet when they have been implemented, the main result has been to reduce cycling. This imposes healths costs by reducing the health benefits of cycling. Are the benefits worth the costs? An Australian study concluded a helmet law may provide a small benefit under extreme assumptions.

A new study attempts to answer this question for Germany. It concludes that a bicycle helmet law is a waste of resource. This is despite optimistic assumptions favoring helmets, notably:

  1. It ignores the increased risk of accidents from risk compensation, a well-known safety factor.
  2. It assumes a helmet law only reduces cycling by 4%. This is inconsistent with evidence from countries with a helmet law, where cycling dropped by half.
  3. It assumes polystyrene helmets prevents fatalities. This is despite acknowledging in the discussion section that this is not true.
  4. It assumes a 100% compliance rate.
  5. It ignores enforcement costs.
  6. It assumes helmets reduce 50% of head injuries. The most recent research summary concludes helmets reduce 15% of head injuries, while increasing neck injuries.
  7. It ignores that helmets increase neck injuries.

Many of these assumptions are at odds with the available evidence.
The results from countries that have experimented with a bicycle helmet law are consistent:

  • Cycling reduced by half
  • The injury rate increased significantly

With such a track record, a bicycle helmet law has little to offer.
Even optimistic assumptions cannot make it viable.

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Can helmets cause permanent disability?

In 1993, a team of researchers conducted lab experiments on bicycle helmets. The purpose was to measure the chin strap forces in accidents. The researchers were shocked by what they found. They found that helmets can seriously damage cyclists neck:

“The non-shell helmet did in all trials grab the asphalt surface, which rotated the head together with the helmet. The consequences were in addition to the rotating of the head, a heavily bent and compressed neck, transmitted on through the whole test dummy body after the impact.”

A related incident was reported in the New York Times:

“In August 1999, Philip Dunham, then 15, was riding his mountain bike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and went over a jump on a trail. As he did, his back tire kicked up, the bike flipped over and he landed on his head. The helmet he was wearing did not protect his neck; he was paralyzed from the neck down.

Two years later, Philip has regained enough movement and strength in his arms to use a manual wheelchair. He has also gained some perspective. With the helmet he felt protected enough to ride off-road on a challenging trail, in hindsight perhaps too safe.

”It didn’t cross my mind that this could happen,” said Philip, now 17. ”I definitely felt safe. I wouldn’t do something like that without a helmet.

helmet-head-size-2

Look at a bicycle helmet. It has been designed with comfort in mind. It is made of light weight material that grip the road on impact rather than glance off it (as is the case with motorcycle helmets).

The increase in the volume of the head, coupled with the gripping of the road surface, means that when a head comes into contact with the ground at speed, the head or body is rotated, sometimes snapping the spinal cord.

This is a dangerous aspect of cycling with a helmet. You run the risk of paraplegia or quadriplegia.

Bicycle helmets can get caught in accidents, damaging the neck, as reported in the Canberra Times:

“Lud Kerec was training for one of the toughest triathlon events in the world when he smashed head-on into another cyclist in the ACT’s north. …

”It is unlikely I’ll walk one day,” said the 65-year-old Mr Kerec, who takes half a cup of drugs a day. He was nearly garrotted by the strap from his own helmet after he believes it became tangled in the other bike and yanked his head back.”

In 2010, a helmeted cyclist died in Wanniassa (Australian Capital Territory). The pathologist’s report to the coroner shows that that he suffered diffuse axonal injury. Diffuse axonal injury is a severe type of brain injury aggravated by bicycle helmets.

These are not unique incidents. Many studies have reported increased neck injuries from bicycle helmets. For example, research by McDermott et al. (Trauma, 1993, p834-841) found 75% more neck injuries among helmet wearers.

Why don’t bicycle helmets have warnings about the risk of permanent disability while wearing them?
This is a serious risk that people should be aware of.

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Calls for more of the same failed policy after increase in cycling injuries

A recent increase in cycling injuries in Western Australia has resulted in the typical calls for “more helmets” as if it was the solution to cycling safety:

One-fifth of cyclists who have been treated over the past four years were not wearing a helmet. 

In Western Australia, more than 30% of cyclists are not wearing helmets. If only 20% of injured cyclists are not wearing helmets, then cyclists without helmets are less at risk of injury that cyclists with helmets.

How are more helmets going to make cycling safer?

Many Australians have been led to believe that mandatory helmets makes cycling safer.

Does it?

In Western Australia, There were 1,244 cyclists hospital admissions in 2011/2012 compared to 640 in 1985/1986, before the helmet law. This is despite 30% fewer cyclists who cycled daily.
The helmet law has:

  1. Reduced cycling
  2. Increased injuries

Since the helmet law, the rate of cycling hospitalisation has tripled. wa_cycling_hospitalisations_2

A similar outcome was found in New South Wales, Australia.

cycling_injury_rate

Why call for more of the same failed policy?

Mandatory helmets have become the standard solution for cycling safety in Australia. Even though the policy hasn’t worked, many people can think of little else. Decades of helmet propaganda have made people switch to automatic responses.

This can be seen in this road safety strategy. Unimaginative bureaucrats can think of nothing better than this to improve cycling safety:

“Develop educational communications to target bicycle riders to increase the use of helmets”

When will we start asking better questions?

Why has the injury rate tripled since the helmet law?

Why are cycling serious injuries in Australia 22 TIMES higher than in the the Netherlands?

serious_injury_per_100m_km_cycled

Why have cycling accidents increased since the helmet law?

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The paradox of bicycle helmets

When wearing “protection” results in more injuries,
perhaps we need to look deeper about what is really going on.

Wearing a helmet can make us feel safer.
However feeling safe is different than being safe.

After a helmet law was introduced in Australia, many cyclists insisted their helmets had saved them.

Yet cycling injuries increased.

How can both be true at the same time?

They can be true at the same time if there is a large increase in accidents.

From the injury data, this is what happened.

This is the paradox of bicycle helmets. People believe their helmets saved them, despite suffering more injuries. The irony is that the helmet saved them from accidents that may not have happened without the helmet.

It seems “obvious” & “intuitive” that wearing a helmet should reduce injuries.
Yet sometimes our intuition can be wrong.
Sometimes there are consequences we cannot see that are more harmful than what seems obvious.

More helmets –> more accidents –> more injuries

This surprising result not unique to Australia. Other countries have experienced increased injuries following an increase in helmet wearing.

In the US, a rise in helmet wearing led to more head injuries, according to the New York Times

the rate of head injuries per active cyclist has increased 51 percent just as bicycle helmets have become widespread…

the increased use of bike helmets may have had an unintended consequence: riders may feel an inflated sense of security and take more risks…

”People tend to engage in risky behavior when they are protected,” he said. ”It’s a ubiquitous human trait.”

Even cyclists who discount the daredevil effect admit that they may ride faster on more dangerous streets when they are wearing their helmets.

In New Zealand, a study found that injuries more than doubled following a bicycle helmet law.

1989 US study found that helmet wearers were 7 times more likely to have accidents.
How can a flimsy piece of polystyrene compensate for 7 times more accidents?

A strange helmet culture

Riding in Australia is a unique experience. Cycling accidents are considered normal. There is a special word for a bicycle accident, called a “stack”. Many cyclists have tales of their frequent “stacks”, and how each stack reinforce their belief in helmets. They would never ride without a helmet. Cycling is far too dangerous, even suicidal, according to a doctor from Melbourne:

riding a bicycle on Melbourne’s roads … is “verging on suicide”

It is a strange ideology, where helmets and accidents justify each other.
Cyclists wear helmets because they have frequent accidents.
Wearing a helmet increases the risk of accidents.

 

Contrast this with countries that do not mandate helmets, like the Netherlands.
Accidents are rare.
Cyclists have little fear of accidents.
Cycling is safe.

Which philosophy is safer?

  1. Accident avoidance: no helmets, few accidents. The Netherlands
  2. Accident protection: many accidents protected by helmets. Australia.

Australia cycling serious injury rate is 22 times greater than in the Netherlands:

 

Can bicycle helmets compensate for more accidents?

Choosing to wear a helmet seems a like “No brainer“. Such an obvious “precaution”.

Choosing not to wear a helmet is a more subtle decision.
It requires paying attention to what cannot easily been seen, rather than what seems “obvious”.
It requires an understanding of how helmets affect the risk of accidents.
It requires comparing a higher risk of accident with protection from polystyrene. 

It feels safer to wear a helmet. Yet the evidence indicates it may not be safer.

The paradox is: feeling safe is not the same as being safe.

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Parliamentary inquiry calls for helmet law reform

A parliamentary inquiry into cycling issues in Queensland, Australia, recommends reforms to wind back the controversial helmet law that has harmed cycling for 20 years.

The report makes two key recommendations in regards to the helmet law:

Recommendation 15
The Committee recommends that the Minister for Transport and Main Roads:

  • introduce a 24 month trial which exempts cyclists aged 16 years and over from the mandatory helmet road rule when riding in parks, on footpaths and shared/cycle paths and on roads with a speed limit of 60 km/hr or less and
  • develop an evaluation strategy for the trial which includes baseline measurements and data collection (for example through the CityCycle Scheme) so that an assessment can be made which measures the effect and proves any benefits.

Recommendation 16
The Committee recommends that the Minister for Transport and Main Roads introduce an
exemption from Queensland road rule 256 for all cyclists age 16 years and over using a bicycle from a public or commercial bicycle hire scheme.

Recommendation 16 might save Brisbane’s  bike share scheme from being an embarrassing failure. Few people are using it, leading to calls for it to be wound back to stop the financial drain.

The recommendations have been well received in the media, with The Courier editorial writing:

The proposed changes should be cautiously welcomed

The report is entitled “A new direction for cycling in Queensland “. It is a new direction, new thinking to make cycling viable. It includes a wide range of measures that would help restore cycling as a mode of transport, including:

  • develop a “vulnerable road user strategy” policy to protect cyclists
  • road rules to treat cyclists as first class citizens on the roads
  • set a minimum passing distance of 1 meter to provide a safety buffer for cyclists
  • Allow cyclists to treat red lights as stop signs.

These are small and cautious steps towards winding back the disastrous experiment of the helmet law. It is a sign that legislators are finally willing to admit that it is time to reverse a policy that has reduced cycling while making it more dangerous.

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