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.


  1. Luke says:

    Oh FFS, how difficult is it to grasp that most people do not want to partake in an activity so dangerous that you need to wear a helmet?
    Not sure how this fits with Steven’s manifesto, but try this as a thought – if you need to wear a helmet, make it safer. Leave dangerous cycling to racing nuts like Steven, and let the rest of us potter along in our normal outfits on safe paths.

    • Steven says:

      I’m trying to undo decades of wrong headed riding. For years, I would hold my lane in preference to slowing down and taking the footpath.
      But recently I have found a way to ride to work that is safe enough that I could let the quiff free for two thirds of the trip, but that mean stopping and taking it off, and slinging it over the handlebars, so I just leave it on. The hills are the dangerous parts, because the road engineers have taken 8 meters of the available road space for cars and given about 2 feet to a footpath on one side of the road only. So I ride up on the footpath, and down on the road, at about a million miles per hour, the helmet tightly secured and adrenaline pumping—kid’s, don’t try this at home.

  2. Luke says:

    Ah well. Maybe I should count my blessings rather than rant. No mandatory helmet laws here, and no quiff to worry about.
    Google ” crap cycle lanes” if you ever want to know just how idiotic transport “engineers” can be.

  3. quirkey says:

    I totally agree with you about fighting fights in the right order.
    So long as the greater populous sees cycling an activity restricted to those with a streak of kamikaze in their genes; finding support for the anti-helmet law thing is going to be a veritable uphill ride of Col du Tourmalet proportions.
    I believe cycle advocates should be working on doing the things will encourage more people to be pro-cycling. For this reason, the anti-helmet thing, right now at least, is probably counterproductive. Wouldn’t it be naive to expect support from the un-enlightened by calling them fools?
    As for your reasons of why cycling is safer in northern Europe; The cycling infrastructure you talk of isnt as wide spread as might seem. I spent 20 years cycling in Ireland. There was barely a cycle path, cycle lane, helmet or reflective jacket to be been; Yet ‘accidents’ (read ‘crashes’) seemed rare.
    There are only subtle differences between the physical infrastructure (roads) in Ireland and Australia: Narrower Streets, Lower Speed Limits, Wider Footpaths. Ireland has less so-called cycling infrastructure than Australia, yet cycling in Ireland is still feels safer.
    The problem, I believe, is Australia’s lack of awareness of and appreciation of cycling the public psyche.
    Putting in place a decent network of (non-road) cycleways so that “eight year olds and the eighty year olds” feel safe on their bikes would go a long way to facilitating the change of attitudes we need. Once enough regular people realise that cycling can be (is!) safe, then, and only then we might have enough support to tackle the helmet law lark.
    Whereas the Netherlands needed cyclists first in order to make bike infrastructure; Perhaps Australia needs bike infrastructure in order to make cyclists.

    • Steven says:

      I do so enjoy a neat concluding sentence like that one!
      In my first draft I had written “the Netherlands”, not “Northern Europe”, but then noticed the cute picture I had found of a protected cycle track was a danish (I think) example. I should really say “The deeply protestant flatlands incorporating the Netherlands, Denmark, parts of Germany and Sweden, and perhaps even Finland if you go looking”. But then the Northern Italians would be feeling left out, as would the japanese and the chinese, and anyone in the rest of the world who happens to be lucky enough to have a good bike path near where they live. I leave deliberate gaps for people to take pot shots at (not referring to you) and that way feel better that their own special interest has not been effected by anything I may have written. Nice to hear from you Martin!

  4. Edward says:

    “decades of wrong headed riding” Boom-tish! Great pun.
    I think you’re right. MHLs or no MHLs, we have reached the point where it will not make much difference to cycling numbers either way. People generally do not ride bikes on the road because it is dangerous and everything is made so much easier for people in cars. Change the environment and rate of bicycle use will also change.
    I have all but given up on MHL arguments. You are generally dealing with other cyclists whose opinion is so strongly held that nothing, but nothing, will change their mind. They also invariably fail to see the subtle difference between freedom of choice and being against anyone wearing a helmet at all. For most other people, it is just not on their radar.
    I think we’re halfway there anyway. Have you been to Byron Bay lately? It’s the helmet freedom capital of Australia.

    • Steven says:

      No I haven’t been to Byron of late, but someone did send me some photos. Good for them, and for Sydney. Bloody Melbourne and their ridiculously high fines and over zealous policing! There are some benefits to Tasmania’s apathy.

  5. Unfortunately I can’t follow Steven’s advice, because I am forced to stop cycling by the heavy fines, and I dislike wearing a helmet more than I like riding a bike. Currently I am resplendent in a medical exemption but they wear off after 3 years.
    In fear of being grounded in 2.5 years time, I am campaigning on helmet laws, as well as supporting my local BUG to get better conditions. You can actually do both, it’s not an either-or argument.
    In relation to the contention that other cyclists are pro-law, the survey done by Prof Rissell et al showed that the less a person cycled, the more they supported MHL. Non-cyclists telling cyclists what to do.
    And why build a whole lot of infrastructure while discouraging people from using it? If building infrastructure alone will get us to mass cycling, then it must be that most people will take it up, MHL notwithstanding, if the roads become safe enough. In which case why bother fighting the laws even then? It’s more likely that the take up of better conditions will be impeded by the laws, making it harder and harder to get better bike lanes as the numbers using them plateau.

    • Steven says:

      How do we ALL get ourselves those exemptions? I get headaches. The helmet doesn’t shade my neck, putting me at risk of skin cancer. I had some ear infections as a child as a result of a instrument-assisted birth damaging bones that a helmet might press on. If a decent percentage of us had those exemptions I’m sure the police would give up.

  6. Jimm says:

    I’m laughing at the “visible evidence of global warming” caption/graphic…which isn’t. It’s a computer generated before and after shot (taken from an animation) of what Greenland *might* look like if all it’s ice melted. 😛
    Aside from that, I cycle in Copenhagen without a helmet primarily because I ride a recumbent trike with a glass fiber shell – the helmet would not fit inside. 🙂
    Even without the shell, the infrastructure is at a level where you can ride safely through a majority of the city – helmet or no helmet. In the end it is *your* choice and *your* responsibility – not the government’s – whether you feel safe wearing a helmet or not.

    • Steven says:

      You know far more about image than I do. If I were a climate change blogger, not a bike blogger, my gaff would be even funnier. Still, it’s funny enough though. Any insights to share on that photo of a polar bear perched on what looks like the slim remains of the worlds last remaining ice berg.
      I think anyone reading this blog would share our pro-choice position on helmet use.
      skål 🙂

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