It’s been, what, maybe two or three months now? So, like clockwork, it’s obviously time to shove everyone’s favourite topic back into the headlines: helmets.
More specifically, MHL (Mandatory Helmet Legislation), or, Australia basically saying, “screw it, you guys are on your own”. This was rocketed back into the media by a paper out of NSW whose authors concluded (after analysing about 40 other studies from around the world) that wearing helmets did, in fact, reduce head injury.
First: that’s great. And, second: we all know that already.
The problem is, that’s not the real issue, and I’m sick and tired of hearing the argument that goes, “helmets save lives, so cyclists should wear them”. It’s for your own “safety”.
Sounds reasonable, right? Sure, it sounds reasonable until you apply even the tiniest shred of critical thought to it. You consider a few facts. A few statistics. Then you start to wonder, what’s up with all the helmets? And, off the top of my head, I wonder:
- Safety? REALLY?!? What would be more safe: having a helmet on while getting run over by a car, or not getting run over by a car? You see, it is a choice. I don’t mean that it’s a choice in so far as we can simply decide that people won’t run over other people, but it is a choice whether to address the real problem or just #putahelmetonit.
- Why cycling? Of all the things that we do that are far more dangerous and cause so many more head injuries, why is it only cyclists that everyone believes should be forced to wear helmets? Isn’t anyone aware that pedestrians are killed in Australia at well over 5 times the number as cyclists? Why isn’t anyone clamoring for all pedestrians to be wearing helmets? Or drivers and all passengers? Or anyone using stairs? Because that would be you, wouldn’t it. That would mean that you have to wear a helmet, and you wouldn’t like that.
- “Everyone” above means everyone who doesn’t want to be guilty of killing a cyclist. If cyclists are concerned about it, they’ll wear one, end of story. With a few exceptions, everyone else who feels strongly about mandatory helmet legislation is only thinking about themselves, placing the burden of responsibility on the victim and refusing to address the cause.
- Over the past 10 years, the fatalities for every road user group in Australia (drivers, passengers, pedestrian, motorcyclists, cyclists) have decreased, except for cyclists. How’s that helmet law working? “Oh, but there’s more cyclists now than 10 years ago (in some places) and that’s why there are more deaths”, which might also be true, but how about the 25.4% increase in vehicle registrations? Now, I know that the apparently increasing danger on our roads for cyclists could be an argument for MHL, but it’s really an argument showing its relative failure in achieving its goal of protecting cyclists, which of course, is ridiculous. Making bicycle helmets mandatory has nothing to do with increasing safety, it just means that a small percentage of cyclists who get hit will have less severe head injuries. Same number of cyclists hit. Same number injured. A few slightly less so.
- Why are so many other countries better than us at keeping cyclists alive without forcing them to wear helmets? How isn’t that an argument against MHL being the magic bullet? If it was a valid solution, wouldn’t we have a lower rate of cycling injuries and deaths? If people really believed you, wouldn’t we have a successful bike-share scheme? Wouldn’t we have a higher mode share of cycling?
- And, obviously, what is it about those other countries that achieve a safer environment for cyclists without needing to resort to MHL, while also making cycling insanely attractive to everyone from 8-80? Shouldn’t everyone be dying?
I might suggest that forcing people to wear helmets is basically saying, “there’s nothing we can do (read: prepared to do) to make cycling more safe, so let’s just make safety the cyclists problem”.
I might suggest that there is no real interest in making cycling more safe or more attractive on an effective scale as a matter of State or National policy. We want safer cycling conditions, as long as nobody has to do anything about it. Shoddy, token, narrow, painted bike lanes that are usually not even technically active and disappear at the most dangerous locations, restrictive policy towards cycling (massively in the case of NSW), the smattering of actual (expensive) infrastructure that does get built just gets ripped out again (Frome Rd and College St, for example), and State sponsored safety campaigns that focus on the cyclists rather than those hitting them, to name a few, don’t give the impression that anyone actually intends on encouraging more people onto bikes.
(Yes, I know that among these there are some people who really do have an interest in cycling’s place in modern society, and that there are actually small victories occurring often enough, but it’s just really, really hard to see against the national backdrop that shows that cycling rates are stagnant, and cycling safety could actually be getting worse.)
I might suggest that if you want to increase safety on our roads – for everyone, mind you – then maybe people should stop running into and over other people, especially those who aren’t protected by two tons of collapsible metal and a dozen airbags.
There are really, really, really easy ways to achieve that too, but hey, let’s just leave everything the way it is and insist that those at risk simply put on a plastic hat.
Is it really about safety?
When you think about workplace safety, what comes to mind first? What do you think the aim is? Preventing accidents or deaths?
Obviously, everyone would tell you that increasing workplace safety means decreasing accidents, because that’s how you decrease injury and deaths. Anytime someone mentions Occ Health and Safety, there is a collective groan, a tremendous eye-roll, and many snide remarks, because we often go to the most ridiculous measures to prevent anyone from doing anything that might result in an injury. Why then, are we so absolutely comfortable with accidents, and even deaths, when they are on the road? Why are we, and those who are in charge of governing us, so afraid to take measures to prevent them?
Well, when it comes to cyclists, at least, it’s simply because we can. We’re only a small percentage of the population, and apparently we’d like to keep it that way.
Death and injury isn’t an inevitable by-product of transportation, but it is when you prioritize convenience and superficial self-interest over public health and safety. Because that’s our right, apparently.
MHL has nothing to do with “accidents will happen”. If that was the case, then everyone would be wearing a helmet. MHL has everything to do with having zero interest in changing the culture in this country that protects the rights of those least at risk but rather, those most likely to kill and injure, and takes punitive action against those most at risk.
Helmets have nothing to do with cycling safety in this country. MHL should be a last resort, not the first solution.
The internal logic of MHL makes total sense when based on the assumption that for cyclists, Australian roads are dangerous beyond hope. There is nothing we can do about it, so we might as well make the best of a doomed situation and just put a helmet on it.
The argument over whether or not helmets decrease the risk of head injury or death is a red herring. It’s not the discussion we need to be having, but it’s the one we keep having over, and over, and over, and over, and over again because nobody wants to entertain the notion that the problem lies elsewhere.
Any time anyone brings up the effectiveness of helmets, the correct response is, “obviously”. Any time anyone brings up MHL, the correct response should be, “so how does that actually increase or encourage safety?”.
Header image: source