A hard case: should helmets be law?

The simple laws of probability suggest the more time we spend riding bikes, the more likely it is we’re going to fall off. Rumour has it this even happens…wait for it….in the Netherlands (insert disbelieving gasp here). Perhaps it will be our own fault. Perhaps not. Either way hopefully it will be largely innocuous, denting little more than our pride. But what if you’re unfortunate enough to land flush on your noggin, as I did twice in less than a month late last year, once whilst commuting at a roundabout, the other whilst racing on a closed criterium circuit?

Silly picture. Serious subject.

Some people are about as happy as this cat when it comes to wearing a helmet.

Like most children of the 1970s I never wore a helmet as a kid. There were no laws to suggest I should, so I didn’t. I had plenty of spectacular stacks, mind you. But aside from a few egg-shaped bumps and scratches my head survived those formative years largely unscathed. Conversely, I’ve always worn a helmet as an adult. Since 1989 there were laws that suggested I should, so I did; firstly as a plodding recreational rider, then as a keen-to-get-to-work-quickly-without-getting-hit-by-a-car commuter, and more recently at considerably greater speeds as a Cycling Australia-registered club rider/racer on both open roads and closed ones.

Now to the best of my knowledge there’s no-one out there suggesting cyclists shouldn’t wear a helmet when racing. The ongoing aggravation is almost exclusively confined to the context of recreational riding and commuting. As becomes abundantly clear whenever an article appears on the subject, or any incident occurs, the only thing nastier than a head trauma itself appears to be the arguments for and against enforcing the use of bicycle helmets. Reminiscent of mangled grey matter oozing across a pavement, it’s a real can of worms.

NSW Ambulance logo

Late last year I had an enlightening conversation with 45-year old NSW Ambulance Paramedic, Cheri Lutz. As both a paramedic and cyclist she has firm and perhaps unsurprising views on the issue of helmet use.

“I believe people should always wear a helmet when they do any form of riding. People often say ‘I’m just riding around the block, or to the shops, I’ll be sweet.’ Really, is your head extra special when you ride?” wonders Lutz. “Do these people not wear seat belts either?”

I asked Lutz what kind of cycling accidents paramedics are typically called to? Her answer surprised me as it seems to contradict one of the main arguments used by many of those who choose not to wear a helmet.

“Curiously the vast majority of cycling accidents I’ve attended over the years aren’t racing related at all. They’re commuters, just people riding to work or the local shops,” she says. “You might be going slow, but you can still have an accident. I attended a scene once where a guy was trying to wave off a magpie and he crashed, broke his collarbone and was pretty shaken up. Luckily he was wearing a helmet or it might have been even worse.”

“It’s like car crashes in many ways. The majority aren’t too bad, little more than superficial flesh wounds. But I’ve seen enough head impacts too, particularly base of skull fractures,” says Lutz before adding, “Getting hit by a car, thrown on to the windscreen, your head hits the windscreen – it’s not pleasant. Solid impacts to the front of the head can tear blood vessels, often on the other side of your head.”

Of course, it’s well documented that even the finest of current helmet designs won’t protect you from all types of potential head injuries, particularly those involving something called rotational acceleration. Nor is a helmet likely to save you from significant harm should you ever get hit by a truck or speeding SUV. Whilst not doubting this for a moment, Lutz offers a response that resonates when I ask if she believes helmet use should be legally enforced.

“Look, I’ve seen the result of what a heads looks like when it hits something. Once you’ve seen that, I believe the question becomes obsolete. It’s not always going to save you, or be needed, but I’d much rather take the chance that it will. Why roll the dice? Surely it’s better than nothing?”

For mine she has a rather compelling point. That said, whilst I always choose to wear a helmet regardless of the circumstances, I don’t believe the law should be able to force a grown adult wear one if they don’t want to. (Kids, however, are a completely different story.) I’m no fervent civil libertarian. But the way I see it the world has over seven billion people, more than enough already. So if you’re prepared to gamble with your cranium, well, good luck to you sir or madam.

QLD helmet and passing distance trial

In my eyes, however, the relaxing of helmet laws – as was proposed as part of a 2-year test in Queensland along with other cycling safety measures starting on 7 April – should perhaps come with a caveat; and a potentially controversial one at that. If you consciously choose not to wear a helmet when going for a ride and do happen to suffer a serious head injury as the result of a crash, then maybe it should be incumbent upon you to pay for at least a some of the resulting medical care and rehabilitation out of your own pocket or health fund?

Some may feel this is unfair. But surely for all but the most naïve of individuals amongst us, the potential risks of crashing your bike without a helmet are clear enough. You decided you were prepared to accept those risks and fair play to you for that. But given this fact why should taxpayers be expected to subsidise your personal choice if things go tits-up due to your own error or someone else’s?

You can’t have it both ways. Increased freedom comes with an equal increase in personal responsibility. So by all means don’t wear a helmet. Just don’t come crying if you crash.

Curious about the new Queensland cycling safety laws? Here’s a link to the Government’s official fact sheet on the changes. Interesting to note cars will be able to cross double centre lines to provide the required passing distance (when safe for them to do so).

QLD Road Rules Changes_Cycling

 

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8 responses to “A hard case: should helmets be law?”

  1. Stu says :

    Helmet laws always bring some polarising views.

    Personally, I wear a helmet, and make my kids wear one. But I don’t think you can make a person pay medical costs if they are injured and don’t wear one.
    If a person isn’t wearing a seatbelt….we don’t enforce them to pay costs in an accident. If a person smokes we don’t make them pay for cancer treatment.
    If you take the argument to it’s logical conclusion……if you want to take a risk by cycling with cars….you are responsible for any injuries (helmet or not).

    I also see a number of people whose helmets are so badly fitted that they will cause more harm than good.

    btw – don’t see any mention of helmets in your link. But hopefully the new 1m laws in QLD are advertised so that motorists are aware of the changes.

  2. Nic says :

    Pete,
    You might not know but you actually do have to wear a helmet when participating in crit races, sportiefs etc in the Netherlands. Gasp, yes I am living here but not due to one of your previous go live in the Netherlands if you don’t like it comments.
    Along with other expats we have started a cycling club here and as a house rule you can’t ride at all with us without a lid. While you are right it’s not the law, outside racing you will only see a handful (mostly old school) roadbike riders not wearing a helmet. So id say common sense does prevail here without laws. As with commuting, well that’s another story, I’m not going to start on the whole fietsenpads vs what we call bike lanes in Australia argument. If we relax the laws I doubt it would change our common sense.

    • PeteM says :

      That’s very interesting to know, Nic. And encouraging. Commonsense prevails. ps. Spent a bit of time in the Nederlands myself many moons ago.

  3. Joshua says :

    This discussion seems older than the hills. Are helmets good yes, do they save lives yes. Have they saved me. Yes. Are helmets bad, well yeah there seems to be evidence that the extra weight and bulk can cause or make injuries worse. It would seem the benefits outweigh the risks. Sometimes I think people just don’t want to be told to do things even when it’s for their benefit. There are plenty of sports that do not legally require the wearing of helmets and yet people wear them. From sports like surfing where it’s rare except in big wave surfing compared to BASE jumping where wearing helmets is high.

    I’d agree with you perphas the reason we should be tailing about compulsory helmet use is that as you say accidents will happen and if helmets reduce injury then this reduces health costs and reduction of ‘economic productivity’ when people can’t work.

  4. secondratecyclist says :

    I don’t know why, but I’ve seen more and more riders without helmets, lately. I think it’s absolutely ridiculous to not wear a helmet. Better to wear and not need than . . . well you know.

  5. James Mahon (@jamesmahon79) says :

    WA started policing MHL (Mandatory Helmet Laws) in around 1991, dramatic fall in numbers cycling but an increase in cyclists admitted to hospital. Same can be said for NZ, it is a shame there was not more research done on cycling pre MHL elsewhere – but then cycling was a normal healthy pursuit that did not need studies. Quick Google search pulls up the PDF’s on the studies.

    Cyclists advocating for MHL are advocating against their own safety.If you want an issue to take on board look into domestic violence, binge drinking or something that has a net (or completely) negative impact on society.

    Like so many others I’ll continue to wear my helmet for 95% of my cycling but with ‘inactivity’ now the biggest concern to world health (WHO) I would suggest any barrier to active transport be lifted the net benefit to society will outweigh any head injuries that may occur. Look at Citi Bikes in New York, no helmets, lots of inexperienced riders, tourists and no head injuries – the conservatives there howled against bike share but it has had so many positive impacts on NYC. Sydney could replicate these benefits but not with MHL!

    • PeteM says :

      Not sure if you’re agreeing or disagreeing James?! On a side note, did you see this week the Citibike program in NYC appears to be going broke (nothing to do with helmets, mind you). The CEO Justin Ginsburgh just ‘moved jobs’.

  6. James Mahon (@jamesmahon79) says :

    Used to be pro MHL now anti MHL – Australia not ready to change. Debate should centre around changing road culture for now.
    My 4 y.o. pretty much given up cycling because of helmet, heavy/poor airflow he just gets hot and bothered in it. His one stack was a face plant he almost stopped his face meeting the shared path but I suspect the weight of the helmet scored him a nose to path experience. I’ll wait until a small kask fits him then try again.
    Have not seen the Citibike news, from what I understand they were never going to profit. Citibank kicked in the funds and it is a bit like public transport – rarely makes a return. However it is hard to put a $ value on the positive externalities from bike share schemes. Sydney really needs one – but it would only be considered if MHL abolished. We should just tell Tony it is redtape!

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