Wellington coroner Ian Smith is calling for high-visibility clothing to follow helmets and become mandatory for cyclists. Reckons it's a no-brainer if we're serious about reducing cycling accidents. Unfortunate choice of words, really, given most credible studies utterly contradict his mantra. In fact, according to the New Zealand Medical Journal, compulsory helmet wearing has reduced, not improved cycling safety since its introduction in 1994.
And yes, you read that correctly. Far from making cycling less dangerous, the NZMJ last year published results from studies showing our smugness about the effectiveness of the helmet law is wildly misplaced. Average cycling hours have plummeted (halved) yet risk of injury remains the same. Overall, the law making helmets compulsory has resulted in 53 more premature deaths per year. Helmet wearing legislation has reduced public health.
No brainer? The only no-brainer is that, based on some of the most rigorous scientific studies, forcing cyclists to wear special clothes and funny helmets doesn't work. As pointed out in the NZMJ, making cycling less convenient, less accessible, and increasing the potential for parents to have to pay fines for non-compliant dependents, is actually counter-productive. The fewer cyclists on the road, the greater the danger for them.
Put it this way. According to the survey data, there were better outcomes when we had more cyclists and less protection. Scoff if you like but the numbers are fairly unambiguous. More cyclists meant safety in numbers; that is, road users were more used to sharing with bikes when it was the norm. Fewer cyclists, however, meant motorists were less familiar with their presence and behaviour. And with that unfamiliarity comes increased dangers and risks.
What might seem to be a healthier, safer landscape is more like a fool's paradise. At a time when so many of us are wringing our hands over the country's obesity problem and all its associated conditions and costs, we're also actively discouraging people from enjoying one of life's great therapies. And all for a flawed concept. Researchers estimated the life years gained by cycling outweigh the life years lost in accidents by a factor of twenty to one.
Instructionally too, most western nations, including the UK, have resisted the "no-brainer" Mr Smith speaks of. In fact, one of the chief objections to introducing helmet-wearing legislation in the UK is the way such laws have negatively affected cycling in countries such as New Zealand. British evidence is consistent with that published in the NZMJ - mandatory helmets are likely to both reduce cycling levels, and lead to more premature deaths than they save.
Yes, some of us will have experiences of a helmet saving their life, or the life of someone dear to them. Fair enough. No-one's suggesting helmets should be made illegal. Just discretionary. Let people choose for themselves. Numerous population-based studies agree that making helmets compulsory has proved a failed experiment. No wonder "helmet lady" Rebecca Oaten has rushed to dismiss them. Her law's costing more lives than it's saving.
Coroner Ian Smith would have cyclists not only made to wear high-vis vests, he'd also have them restricted to certain lanes and parts of the road for their own safety. He misses the point by some distance. As noted in the UK study, "if transport professionals wish to save the lives of cyclists, our focus should be on other measures that will encourage more people to cycle by making the bike a safer and more attractive transport option."
That's the only no-brainer when it comes to this issue. What's needed is more initiatives that encourage Kiwis to return to cycling. Not ones that drive them away.
» Read more of Richard Boock in the Sunday Star Times.
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