Episode 12 - Incendiary helmets: the avoidable subject

Roger Boulter’s recent book draft (on www.boulter.co.nz) won a 2020 WSP Golden Foot Award. This post outlines some issues covered in the second of two appendices.

Incendiary helmets: the avoidable subject

No issue in planning for cycling has been accompanied by such angry emotion as that of cycle helmets.

More interesting than the actual debate is why this single issue should elicit such emotion.

Focusing on helmets may distract from more important but more complex and less easy-to-solve issues. It may also carry an implication of marginalising or blaming cyclists.

Sometimes reporting on any research work will only focus on the stance taken on helmet wearing or helmet wearing laws. This has led many (including this book) to avoid taking any explicit stance.

Some may not credit there could possibly be counter-arguments to helmet wearing or helmet-wearing compulsion, on the basis that a cyclist is ‘obviously’ less likely to suffer serious injury or death if wearing a helmet. Yet no less a luminary than public health expert Mayer Hillman, author of the ground-breaking 1992 study Cycling Towards Health and Safety, opposes helmet wearing (as well as of course helmet wearing compulsion) on road safety grounds in his 1993 study Cycle Helmets: The Case For And Against.

‘Risk compensation’ may also mean that motorists and helmet-wearing cyclists may (perhaps unconsciously) take more risks from a false impression that the cyclist is more protected than they are. Helmets are designed to protect from falls, not from crashes involving motor vehicles, yet rhetoric (even some official rhetoric) has sometimes implied they will protect from the latter. To say this may increase danger through increased risk-taking. Counter-arguments also include distraction from the arguably more important issue of making roads safe for cycling. The helmet also needs to fit snugly with a tight strap, or strangulation, whiplash or other injuries might result in a crash.

New Zealand adopted compulsory helmet wearing from 1994, copying Australian laws, after a vigorous campaign in favour by Palmerston North’s Rebecca Oaten (nicknamed “the helmets lady”, whose non-helmet-wearing cyclist son had been brain-damaged after a crash) and equally vigorously opposed by local Massey University scientist Nigel Perry on logical grounds.

There are striking similarities between Rebecca Oaten’s early 1990s helmets law campaign and Jo Clendon’s late 2010s campaign to extend legalisation of footpath cycling. Both reacted to a specific crash incident by pointing to a seemingly ‘obvious’ law change. Both cited their own children’s safety centrally in their campaigns. Opponents in both cases pointed to wider issues, either suggested to be downplayed or ignored altogether by campaign supporters, and which arguably were more important with outweighing adverse consequences. Both campaigns followed on from similar law changes in Australian states. Both attracted a lot of emotion both for and against. Was Jo Clendon, who styled herself “the cycling Mum”, the recent-years equivalent of the early 1990s “helmets lady”?