Bicycle helmet debate reignited

FREEDOM CAMPAIGNER: Clinton Trass says more people would ride bikes if the bicycle helmet laws were relaxed.
FREEDOM CAMPAIGNER: Clinton Trass says more people would ride bikes if the bicycle helmet laws were relaxed.

An Auckland neurosurgeon says bicycle helmets are too flimsy to prevent serious brain injuries and that cyclists should be wary of depending on them for protection.

Concussion specialist Rosamund Hill says there is merit to the argument that helmets effectively make no difference to someone involved in a major cycling accident.

But she says helmets are "better than nothing" and effective in low-speed crashes.

"They're certainly not going to prevent a brain injury or concussion, I don't think there's any doubt about that.

"You may reduce the chance of a serious head injury depending on how you land or where you're hit. The argument really should be whether the flimsy helmets people wear are good enough.

"Could we have better helmets? I think so."

London-based brain surgeon Henry Marsh created international controversy recently when he suggested wearing helmets put cyclists at even greater risk on the roads due to cars giving them less space, and said countries where bike helmets were compulsory had no reduction in injuries.

But New Zealand cycling advocates largely agree with Marsh, claiming the mandatory helmet law should be viewed as a failed experiment. New Zealand and Australia are the only countries where cyclists face fines for not wearing a helmet, which makes us "the laughing stock of the rest of the world", Cycling Advocates Network manager Patrick Morgan says.

Morgan said one of the main arguments raised at last week's Velo City cycling conference in Adelaide, Australia, was that making helmets compulsory deterred people from riding bikes.

That in turn created a more dangerous environment for cyclists because there was less "safety in numbers" on the roads.

"There's mounting evidence to show that it's not working as well as it was intended," he said. "After 20 years it is time to review the law to see whether it's achieved its desired outcomes. Let's look at the evidence and evaluate."

But among the broad research into helmets, different studies have come to varied conclusions. Ministry of Transport land transport safety manager Leo Mortimer said the benefit of the law change was illustrated by a 2000 Otago University study that showed a 19 per cent drop in head injuries in the first three years it was introduced.

Mortimer said helmets were particularly useful in crashes that occur at low speed and for protecting children who did not have the same skill levels as adults.

Another often-cited study was the New Zealand Medical Journal's research in 2012 that showed a 51 per cent drop in the average hours cycled per person between the period of 1989-90 compared to 2006-09. Morgan said that showed the helmet law was a "big factor" turning people off cycling, and argued that the fewer recorded injuries was a result of fewer people riding bikes.

Associate transport minister Michael Woodhouse said the government had "no current plans" to review the compulsory helmet law. Labour also had no intention of changing the law, transport safety spokeswoman Darien Fenton said. She added it would only be feasible to reverse the law if safer cycling lanes were in place, "but we're a long way from getting to that point".

Clinton Trass, of New Zealand cycling enthusiast group Cycling Health, said it was an ongoing battle to persuade politicians to review the legislation. The group was formed in the late 1990s with the sole purpose of lobbying against mandatory helmet use.

"It's been quite hard to get traction on the issue in New Zealand," Trass said. "We've tried to work with the government to put a range of documents together. The feeling is that you can show as much evidence as you like to show there's a problem here - that cyclists don't have safety in numbers - but they [government ministers] don't really want a bar of it.

"Even if repealing the mandatory law was the right thing to do, they're so terrified that if they were the minister responsible for changing the law, and then the next day someone was skittled by a bus, it would be a bad look."

Ministry of Transport figures show an average of nine cyclists have died each year since 2008 - about 3 per cent of all road fatalities - the same percentage recorded between 1990 and 1994 when the law was first introduced.

Police repeated their calls for helmet safety last week after a 14-year-old Hastings boy, who was not wearing a helmet, was knocked off his bike by a car and left in a critical condition.

Road policing supervisor sergeant Kevin Stewart said: "it is imperative that cycle helmets are worn properly and cyclists obey the road rules, just the same as drivers of vehicles."

Road safety charity Brake New Zealand director Caroline Perry said the use of helmets was a "crucial" message that needed to be drilled into children and adults alike. "If you're not wearing a helmet you're seriously risking your life if you're involved in a crash," Perry said.

Morgan said he agreed helmets were important but said the effects of the helmet law needed review, and greater focus was required on alternative safety solutions such as protected cycle lanes and better training for drivers and cyclists. He said an analogywas that most people agreed they should wear a hat outside to reduce the chance of melanomas, but might not agree with the government making it compulsory.

Trass said he rode to work in Auckland each day without a helmet, due to a medical exemption, but had never felt unsafe, despite public perceptions that it was dangerous.

"That fear campaign has been too successful. If you're talking to the average New Zealander about riding in the city, you can get some pretty incredulous looks. They would think it's almost certain death."

He believes helmets have added to that view. "It just portrays cycling as something that's reckless or risky behaviour. That puts people off, when actually it's relatively safe, if you compare it to the number of pedestrian injuries, or sports like rugby."

Hill said medical research showed that wearing a helmet "certainly didn't present any harm" and was advisable, but she said other measures would be more effective in preventing head injuries.

"Ideally, we would have dedicated bicycle lanes. That would make a greater difference."

Sunday Star Times