May 12, 2009

      Dear Mark

      Through the mailing list cyclehelmets@yahoogroups.com I became aware of your recent column in "The Province", May 10, 2009. I would like to add my thoughts, from New Zealand, which has been afflicted with an all-ages fiercely-enforced Mandatory Bicycle Helmet law since 1994.

      I am a 66-year old doctor and anaesthetist who has used a bicycle for basic transport in towns almost all my life, most of this time, of course, without wearing a helmet. (yes, also in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1972-1973 when I had a chance to work in your beautiful country). I was always impressed with how safe and convenient bicycling was, provided one was visible and audible, obeyed road rules and was predictable, treated all road users with respect and consideration, and had a bike in good mechanical condition.

      Then in the 1980's the propaganda started about how dangerous bicycling was, and that the panacea for all evil effects of bicycling was to wear a helmet. At first I was confused and sceptical, but being a doctor I fell in with the official propaganda, much to my shame. So I wore a helmet everywhere, at great personal discomfort, as did 95% of NZ bicyclists (the law was ferociously enforced, and $55 fines soon got very expensive). Police actions during this period led about 5 years ago to the police being held in unprecedented low regard; they were not "dealing with real crime" and many people openly said that they would not help police who got into difficulties in the cause of duty! I am happy to say things have improved since.

      Then about 7 years ago I read an article about the joys of tootling along the wine trails of Hawke's Bay by bicycle, accompanied by a photo of people on bicycles riding along these gentle flat trails, far away from motorised traffic, and wearing helmets! I thought "now what is so extremely dangerous about that?" What message does this send to would-be tourers?

      So I finally decided to read up and research on how good helmets were in preventing head injuries, and why it was absolutely necessary for bicyclists to wear them at all times.

      This was a mistake. I discovered that the wool had been pulled over our eyes big time -- ( what are politicians for?) and that, when the reduction in bicycling following implementation of the law was factored in, that the chances of an individual bicyclist getting severely injured or dying had actually increased! Sure, annual bicyclist deaths reduced by 30% on average since the law was passed (as the proponents tell us), but that the numbers of bicycle trips undertaken reduced by 40% (That bit the proponents conveniently leave out).

      When I was at school almost all of us rode bicycles to and from school, getting good practical experience of the road and road rules etc. Now only 20% of children ride bicycles to and from school. All the politically correct people bleat it is "too dangerous". Is it a coincidence that now 40% of children here are fat? When I was at school (380 pupils) there were 2 fat kids only! And they were teased for it.

      Anyway, now I travel a fair bit and see how in other countries people ride everywhere with low helmet wearing rates, and usually much lower accident and death rates than us (eg Germany, no helmet laws at all, has 1/3 the bicyclist accident and death rate that we have)

      I know I am out of line with most of my medical colleagues, but I firmly believe that our Mandatory Helmet Law has done us far more harm than good.

      Now our Government is trying to increase bicycle use (for green, global warming etc reasons) but for some reason it is not working! Bicycling has been dangerised too much and anyway a lot of the fun has been taken out of it.

      In New Zealand now there are very few old-fashioned commuter bicyclists, wearing ordinary clothes riding ordinary bicycles, left. Ask a New Zealander about his/her impression of bicycling, and you will get an answer like "Oh it is a highly dangerous activity practised by disgusting arrogant road warrior young men in lycra, helmets and goggle with heads down and bums up, and have a totally confrontational attitude to other road users and totally disdainful view of red lights!" And unfortunately these people dominate our bicycling clubs and groups, and they cannot see the problem with the law!

      I think the law MUST be repealed.

      Of course I am not against people wearing helmets if they want to or think they should. Just that they should ensure that they are fitted and worn properly, and that in anyway their protective effect is limited. They are certainly NOT a panacea for all ills which might befall bicyclists, and in any case they do NOT reduce the likelihood of having an accident!

      I realise that you are a policeman and that therefore one of your duties is to enforce laws. As one policeman explained to me after I had just struggled up a long steep hill, (we don't make the laws, we only enforce them!" but I do hope that sanity prevails somewhere and that lawmakers realise that people would like a comfortable fun life also!

      Very sorry for this long reply

      Peter Keller

      May 2009
      Return to: Home