Why I’m not riling against helmet laws—yet.

I see the debate over mandatory bike helmet laws (MHLs) is selling papers today. The occasion is a one-eyed, myopic article in an automotive accident journal, by some obscure academics who were a little too eager to speak off the cuff when approached by reporters. We should ignore it, but it’s human nature to want to respond to media outlets,  even if it’s just to leave a comment somewhere on a newspaper’s website.

To me the apparent “helmet debate”, that will go on until it no longer sells papers, sounds like atheists arguing with evangelicals, or Platonists arguing with Aristotelians, or empiricists arguing with rationalists. Someone (and i guess it has to be me), needs to highlight the epistemological gulf.


On the side of the MHLs are the pragmatists, who I envy for their ability to accept the world as presented unto them. They see dangerous conditions for cyclists in countries such as Australia, and see helmets as no-brainer mitigators of harm, like lifejackets on ferries.

The conscientious objectors are idealists, insisting Australia is like Plato’s cave and we are chained in a way that means we can only perceive a flickering shadow image of cycling.

Outside this cave there is a world (A.K.A. “Northern Europe”) too brilliant for these eyes that have only known shadows to even consider. Cyclists in Rational Europe ride on an allocated part of the footpath. In shadowy Australia we ride on an allocated part of the road. Putting helmets on cyclists in Rational Europe is like putting helmets on anyone else using footpaths: totally dumb. Putting helmets on riders in a nation of vehicular cycling is like putting seat belts in cars: a popular (and populist) law.

Like any Platonist, or Christian, or anti-empiricist logistician, those of us with an idealistic position with regards to MHLs present arguments prefaced by appeals to a realm we can’t presently see. Not Heaven. Holland!

But remember, most people judge the world as it appears to them here and now, in front of their eyes. Public opinion is swayed by empirical evidence (heat waves and bush fires for instance) not multi-part rational arguments (e.g., warnings based on climate change modelling). Public sentiment will side with MHLs while ever it is normal for cycling to occur on the road. Only after it has been accepted that bikes ride on footpaths and bike paths, will the majority of Australians be ready to consider that helmets could be an unnecessary hindrance.

visible evidence of global warming is more compelling than any argument

I’m lucky to live in an “Appalachian”…?  “hillbilly”…? — oh screw it, let’s just say “backward” state of Australia. The lighter laws that we do have in Tasmania, are worn lightly too. It is legal to cycle on the footpath, and customary to cycle on the footpath without a helmet. It is only the upper class folk on their SRAM equipped bikes who wear helmets and ride on the road. The lower classes ride bikes in the instinctive way they make babies or settle disputes, and no one blinks if they’re not wearing a helmet.

Pardon that tangent. What I am trying to say, is that public opinion does not rile against bare-noggin cycling, when cycling is done on the footpath. It is the sight of bikes among cars that is so confronting to feeling observers, and makes them want us to wear helmets.

Promoting cycling is like playing chess when you’re down to your pawns and your opponent has a board full of bishops and rooks. It’s hard to make any move that does not put your king into check. So long as the expectation remains that bikes and cars share the same space, your conscientious objection to bike helmet laws will only make people think you’re a loonie. The right move, right now, is to ride politely on footpaths, and encourage others to follow until it is normal, and legal. Don’t believe me? Try to think a few moves ahead.