Thursday, April 14, 2011


Though I tend to be a big proponent of stupidity as a selection pressure on the human race, there are areas where I really think that preventing such stupidity resulting in death and dismemberment is A Good Thing.

For instance, I'm getting the impression that I'm unusual when it comes to cyclists and helmet laws. I'm all for them, and I think that making it compulsory for people of all ages to wear helmets is a damned good thing.

I think that a lot of people who oppose helmet laws are the kind of adults who are intelligent enough to think for themselves and capable of making their own decisions in life, but they are forgetting one crucial fact:

Most people are really not that smart.

Seriously, work at Kmart for a month and you'll realise just how stupid and unobservant most of the world's population is, and this includes both cyclists and drivers.

As most people realise, helmets are not there to prevent accidents. Helmets, like seatbelts, are there to keep you from dying if you are in an accident. Unfortunately, no matter how intelligent and observant and conscientious a cyclist you are, you're no match for the idiot driver who was texting his work colleague, or doing her make-up, or just plain distracted by the fluffy puppy on the other side of the road. Or who doesn't think you count as a vehicle in a roundabout and so didn't give way to you.

The helmet is there to protect the cyclist from hazards that they can't control, even more so than to protect them from themselves! A lot of the people protesting against mandatory helmet laws forget this, and take helmet laws as a personal insult to their intelligence/abilities, when that's not entirely what it's about.

I have a friend who cycles constantly and is very good on the roads, but the car driver wasn't. He was stationary when she bumped him from behind and he flew off the bike. His helmet save his life when, according to him, it cracked from the absorbed impact and a chunk of it fell off.

Helmets save lives. Most adults are not smart enough to be able to accurately choose when it is safe to wear a helmet and when it isn't, and I'll be damned if anyone out there is good at predicting whether the idiot driver will be on the road that day. Helmets aren't all THAT great a burden when compared to the burden of being hit by a car. And I'm not just thinking of "saving lives" in the sense of people dying in bike accident; I'm thinking of it in terms of lives being permanently altered due to severe brain injury that the cyclist survives. The cost to the cyclist's family and the extra burden that this places on the health care system is huge and best prevented if at all possible.

A government making adults do something that might save their lives and their cognitive abilities isn't an evil thing to do and does not make it a "nanny state", whatever that is.


  1. I am very very much against helmet laws.

    Because they actually make it more dangerous to ride a bike.

    The fact is, nothing makes biking safer than more bikes on the road (see: Copenhagen and Amsterdam, where over a third of the populations rides bikes every day, nobody wears a helmet, and the accident rates are extremely low).

    And the fastest way to reduce the number of cyclists on the road? Mandatory helmet laws.

    Matter of fact, many people use Australia as a case study on why mandatory helmet laws are a terrible idea!

    Studies: Specifically about Australia and NZ.
    Includes this bit: "In Australia, helmet laws caused head injuries to fall by 11% to 21%. But cycle use fell by 30% to 60%, suggesting that those who continued to cycle were more at risk [10]. In New Zealand, large increases in helmet use have not brought any reduction in the proportion of serious head injuries. Some reduction in mild concussions and lacerations has been balanced by an increase in neck injuries [10]. An analysis of enforced helmet laws in Australia, New Zealand and Canada has found no clear evidence of benefit and increased risks for cyclists post-legislation[8]."
    A loooong list of studies.

    If you hit your head, yes, wearing a helmet can prevent head trauma. But some studies say it increases your chances of damaging your neck. And I've seen studies that say that it's better for you to bike without a helmet than not to bike at all, since riding a bicycle improves your health so significantly that, statistically speaking, you'll have a life expectancy from riding, even taking the chance of injury into account.

    Do I wear mine? Most of the time. Not always. If I'm riding on mostly bike paths/residential bike routes in broad daylight, pfft, I leave the helmet at home. If it's going to be dark, or I know I'll be having a beer (or three), or my route includes a lot of major streets, then yes, I wear it.

    If people want to make the streets safer for cyclists via making laws, they should enforce the laws against talking on cell phones/mobiles while driving, and enforce laws requiring cyclists to have bright headlights and taillights at night.

    BTW, this is April, blogger still hates me. I really should clear my cache and cookies...

  2. I'll try to remember to reply properly once I've read all those sources, but one bit which makes no sense:

    In Australia, helmet laws caused head injuries to fall by 11% to 21%. But cycle use fell by 30% to 60%, suggesting that those who continued to cycle were more at risk [10].

    This makes no mathematical sense. The reduction in injury would still have been a percentage of the remaining cycling population, so it is still an overall reduction in risk for those who continue to cycle.

    I look at the neck injury vs head injury from a bit of a first-aiding perspective, in that the neck injury is preferable to permanent brain damage. They're not so likely to cause quadroplegia that I consider it a valid comparison as far as quality of life goes after an accident.

    See, I would wear mine on a trail no matter what because people tend to walk their dogs on trails. While most of the dogs I've encountered were on leads and well-trained, I don't trust animals enough to be sure none of them will run at me and cause me to swerve and crash.

    I'll also need to look at the studies to see what other factors they considered regarding whether helmet laws reduce cyclists on the road, because I have an allergy to stupidity and I cannot fathom people actually deciding not to ride their bike because they're forced to spend 2sec putting a helmet on before they head out. It just baffles me that this, on its own, would be enough to make people choose not to ride. It only makes sense when thinking about things like the Melbourne Bike Share, where you would pick up a bike once already in the city centre to drive it around the city centre. Initially, helmets weren't provided for use and this was definitely discouraging (though helmets are provided now).

  3. The percentage of head injuries in that study is based on the straight-up numbers of cyclists in head injuries, not as a *percentage* of cyclists.

    As in: if there are 20 cyclists last year who bang their head and 10 this year, head injuries of cyclists have gone down by half. It's unrelated to how many cyclists there are total. If there were 80 total cyclists last year and only ten this year, then the risk of head injury went from 25% to 100%, even though the actual number of cyclists getting injured went down.
    Really does sum it all up.

    BTW, if the helmet broke, it likely didn't save his life at all. They're not supposed to shatter, they're supposed to compress.


  4. Gotta disagree with you there.

    I'm in favour of helmets being widely available, and compulsory for children, but not compulsory for adults.

    Really, the best ways to lower bike injuries would be lots and lots of cyclists on the street, and dedicated bike lanes. And as April points out, with compulsory helmet laws, that's just not going to happen.

  5. It just baffles me that this, on its own, would be enough to make people choose not to ride.

    You'd be surprised how many people, including adults, think helmets are dorky, or that they wreck hair, etc. Plus, sometimes there is no way to safely store a helmet when you're going to the store or to work; you don't always want to bring it in with you, but not all helmets can be U-locked to a bike. And it is true that helmets can muss your hair, which might be important for women in some corporate jobs.

    I personally wear a helmet 100% of the time, but I think it's a judgment call best left to the individual, and that there is too much importance placed on helmets in general. Helmets are touted as the be-all end-all of bike safety, but where are the campaigns for proper hand signaling, or riding position, or bicycle maintenance, etc? So many people think that if you just wear a helmet you'll be safe, but instead we should be trying to make the streets safer (and more populated with cyclists!) so that you don't HAVE to worry about wearing a helmet because an accident would never get to that point. If I lived in the Netherlands, I would not wear a helmet, because there just wouldn't be a need for it.

    There's also this British study showing that drivers leave 3.3 inches more of passing distance to cyclists not wearing helmets than those wearing them. But then, according to that link 97% of NYC cyclists killed in accidents were not wearing helmets, so it might be just a UK phenomenon. But still, something to consider.

  6. To those above who disagree with compulsory helmet-wearing, do you also think seatbelts should be optional? Or hardhats on construction sites?

    It doesn't seem particularly complicated to me. I admit, I rarely ride my bike, but honestly, if you're putting yourself in a position of risk, you take precautions. If people think they're special and won't be affected by the laws of physics, then you either make precautions compulsory, or you let the special people weed themselves out of the gene pool.

    Think about it. It's like driving without a licence. You might not get caught. But if you do, you're proper fucked.

  7. I do think seat belts should be optional, for adults anyway. Do I think it's dumb as hell not to wear one (way worse than not wearing a helmet)? Of course... but people do a lot of dumb things, and I'd rather live in a world with too few rules than too many. Hardhats are a different matter due to OSHA (USer here, Australia has a similar law I'm sure) but if someone is working on their own property, I don't think they should HAVE to wear one either. Regulating common sense is a waste of time, energy, and money.

    Maybe my motivation for being anti-mandatory helmet laws is selfish. A non-helmeted rider is a benefit to me (a helmeted one) by simply being out there on the road, making cycling a regular part of the suburban landscape. So if wearing a helmet would keep him off the road, I'm selfishly inclined to say he should still stay on it, for the benefit of other cyclists. I would in fact say that a non-helmeted rider is more of a benefit to me than my helmet!

  8. Miriam: Seat belts have been proven, over and over, without a doubt, that they lower the risk of death in an accident. The same cannot be said about bicycle helmets. Whether or not a bicycle helmet prevents brain trauma and death is controversial at best. I'm starting to think, with some of the studies I've read, that I'm better off without one! has tons and tons of info.


  9. Seatbelts: not wearing one could injure another person in the car.

    Hardhats: not making them compulsory will mean lots of worksites shrug and decide not to make them available.

    Helmets: having to wear them makes people less inclined to ride, and makes cars more likely to get close enough to cause accidents.

    They're not precisely the same thing.

  10. Hey Quince, I'm a bit late with this and I respect your views and I have to disagree and all that blah blah blah....

    Anyway, I just want to pick you up on this comment:

    "Most adults are not smart enough to be able to accurately choose when it is safe to wear a helmet and when it isn't."

    Really, this is a huge call and one that truly baffles me. Are you saying that individuals are somehow worse at managing and mitigating their own risk than some legislator or bureaucrat in an office a million miles away? This is a very big transference of your own personal reponsibility over to people who do not know you, which is why so many people, including myself, passionately reject nanny state legislation. Risk mitigation involves a first-person view of one's own environment and circumstances; a one-size-fits-all strategy assumes that a cyclist is a cyclist is a cyclist, and that we are all somehow riding and behaving in the same manner. This mistaken policy has resulted in us spending so much time and effort focusing on helmets as the magic tool that will save us all, as opposed to focusing on the real issues that cause so many accidents in Australia. And this takes me to the crux of the issue: helmet laws have not only done nothing to reduce accidents, but they have also had a disastrous effect on cycling numbers in this country. In fact this country is fast becoming an international example of how not to do cycling policy, something of which I am utterly ashamed of.

    So Quincy, peace my friend. We disagree passionately, but I just ask all helmet law promoters to have a longer think on this issue.