Bicycle helmet laws: for our protection?

I have a personal view that it’s best to wear a helmet, and would encourage any cyclist I know to do so. I have had enough “near misses,” small tumbles that would have been a LOT worse if I wasn’t wearing one, and friends who have (literally) been saved by them to not do so. But I hold a paradoxical view: I don’t believe they should be mandatory.

Research (such as this study) indicates that mandatory helmet laws reduce cycling uptake dramatically. Other studies show that an increase in physical activity will contribute to reducing the incidence of a number of killers in society—things linked to obesity and poor fitness like heart disease.

And cycling could play a key part in addressing that. To the point where the aggregate societal benefit outweighs the attendant risks—i.e more lives would be saved against those other causes of death than would be lost by an increase in head injury related fatalities. (That’s a paradox all its own.)

That is not to dismiss or belittle the immense personal cost of head injury, but from what I’ve read there is seems little doubt there is a net benefit when looked at from an “evidence based policy” perspective. Here’s another blog post by someone quite sceptical of the whole argument, who came to a similar conclusion.

The above was prompted by this article coming across my Facebook feed the other day—The case for motorist helmets.

It takes, shall we say, a different tact to making the case… 😉 While the article takes a somewhat humorous angle, it does point to the “double-standard” at play in calls for cycling helmets being mandatory. It highlights how policy is so often not made on the basis of evidence, but on “perceptions”. As humans, we are very bad at assessing risk. Behavioural economics demonstrates this is so over and over again (and also provides part of the solution, but that’s another point).

We see the same dynamics at play in our response to drug use, the recent Coroner’s report into how to best respond to drug use at music festivals is a salient case in point. But, as is so often the case, emotions and perceptions (and the attendant chasing of the “vote winner” argument by our politicians) get in the way of good policy.

Thankfully, there are some moves towards better policy for cyclists: as highlighted at the end of this article on the prevalence of cycling injuries, separate infrastructure, and recently introduced passing distance laws (which I think are in effect in QLD and NSW, not sure about other states) are part of the solution.

Of course, how we stop the dehumanisation of cyclists, to the point where they deliberately run them down, or where joking about running over the Lycra-clad warriors (as famous comedians are known to have done) is a whole other story…