Sunday, May 5, 2013


Dear World,

Beware of ever introducing bicycle helmet laws into your countries.

Here is a taste of some recent comments left on a Youtube film made nearly 4 years ago by the highly-acclaimed documentary maker, Mike Rubbo, detailing the lead-up to my first court case.

Nasty, gutless, ignorant...but sadly not unusual in Australia...

...and these same types of comment are made on the road too...this is Australia.

Only last week I had one prize charlie with hand on horn pass me at great speed with only millimetres to spare, gesticulating like there was no tomorrow all the way to...the red traffic lights just ahead!

Naturally when I joined him at the still red lights I tapped on his front passenger window and asked him "what is your problem?" The coward could not even look at me and was as quiet as a mouse. What a lily-livered wonder! He hadn't planned on being stuck with me - no, he was zooming past in his 4 wheel drive - he was a business man - he was going places fast...but he was in Newtown and inevitably at the mercy of Inner West congestion.

Anyway, I digress...the internet prize charlies often claim to ride bikes but when you read the content of their comments you often discover that they can't - they always seem to be falling off and yet these incompetent numpties have the cheek to lash out against others who do things differently to them.

This, dear World, is Australian cycling and this is why those of us here who want to bring riding bicycles back to the realm of normal know that we have a massive uphill battle.

And so, dear World, my message to you very very afraid...helmet laws kill cycling...period

Kind regards,
Sue Abbott


  1. What do the Charlies and numties have to do with helmet laws? Did the coward buzz you because you were riding bare-headed? Seems like other than his horn and close passing, there wasn't much in the way of communication. It is always fun to catch up with folks who just screwed with, though. They almost always try to slide under the steering wheel.

    1. Frank, I was using the car-driving guy as an analogy to the internet trawling guys in the screen-captured images.

      Their (the 4WD speedsters and internet trawlers) aggression is very similar, unpleasant, and yes, I believe, dictated to by the fact that here is this outrageous unsporty looking woman sharing the road with them in such a 'careless' manner by using a big lumbering dutch bicycle sans helmet.

      In fact by cycling the way I do, I think it sends out a message to other would-be cyclists in Sydney and Scone that cycling isn't extreme after all, and that middle-aged mums can do it because anyone can do it if they have a bike.

      These guys understand that message all too clearly and want the road to themselves and to continue big-noting their road skills whether they're in 4WDs or on 10oz carbon-fibre celery sticks!

  2. Frank,
    "Did the coward buzz you because you were riding bare-headed?"

    That could well be the case.
    I am old enough to have been a car driver before we had laws about keeping to the left lane unless overtaking on a multi-lane road.
    Sometimes (not often) you would have a slow moving "Sunday driver" holding up a long line of traffic behind them in the right hand lane. When they eventually moved over and everyone passed them you would look for the grey hair, bowling hats on the rear parcel shelf and volvo badge on the car. There would be a few ironic toots on the horn as cars went past. They were regarded with amusement, not hate.
    When a law came in about this things changed immediately. To this day you can see it. A car gets stuck in the right lane unable to overtake without exceeding the speed limit. A car far back in the left lane moves into the right lane and approaches at high speed to closely tailgate the "offender". There is horn blowing, aggressive and dangerous driving and sometimes physical road rage.
    A lot of people are insecure, lacking self confidence, and fearful despite their outward macho bravado. When they see a chance to be in a situation where the law is on their side against a law breaker they feel justified in releasing their rage.
    This applies with helmet law.
    Even where there is no helmet law the mere promotion of helmets leads to similar results.

    1. Steve, you so get what I'm trying to say!!

  3. The weird thing about this absolute deep-seated pro-helmet fury that these guys spew is that, while there is no doubt that it is sincerely felt, if we didn't have compulsory helmet laws, it wouldn't exist.

    If the sweary bloke quoted above lived in Holland or Denmark or virtually anywhere but Australia, it probably wouldn't even occur to him to wear a bike helmet, let alone to fly into an apopletic, bile-spewing rage at the very idea of it not being compulsory for everyone to wear one.

    I swear, if the government made it compulsory to wear yellow socks tomorrow, not only would Australians instantly comply, but in a month's time you'd have nuffies like this guy ranting and raving about how black socks give you cancer.

    1. I agree Scott.

      A few days ago BBC News had an article about Edinburgh Uni research that suggested exposure to the sun might have benefits that outweighed the risks, at a public health level.

      I haven't seen it reported anywhere since then.
      There are hundreds of comments on it. There are a few of the usual anecdotes (I knew someone with melanoma) and the ignorant (the sun is closer to the earth at midday - 1pm if daylight saving) but most comments are reasonably calm along the lines of 'get some sun, it's good for you, but not too much, it hurts.'

      The researchers are quoted as saying..
      "Researchers said more studies would be carried out to determine if it is time to reconsider advice on skin exposure."
      "We suspect that the benefits to heart health of sunlight will outweigh the risk of skin cancer."
      "If this confirms that sunlight reduces the death rate from all causes, we will need to reconsider our advice on sun exposure."

      Compare that to what happens in a country with helmet laws when a doctor writes a letter claiming that helmets for bicycle riders are even more effective than for motor cycle riders. It's reported across almost all media outlets and the comments are mostly foaming abuse of anyone suggesting otherwise.

      I am sure that if we had mandatory sunscreen instead of mandatory bicycle helmets we would see rabid, irrational defence of the sunscreen law and, never having had a helmet law, occasional, mostly ignored articles saying "Researchers said more studies would be carried out to determine if it is time to reconsider advice on bicycle helmets."

  4. I agree with both of you, Scott and Steve! - we seem to just love rules and regulations over here no matter the evidence or lack thereof!

  5. The interesting thing about the whole pro-helmet brigade is that, after it all shakes down, and all the arguments have been put pro and anti, they all end up shouting the same refrain:


    It is as if the law were actually the word of the Lord handed down from on high, rather than just a highly fallible, inconsistent set of rules and regulations cobbled together by imperfect human beings. Yes - it is the law that we have to wear a helmet, but if we choose to break the law, it is the job of the duly designated upholders of the law to detect and punish us. It is not the job of foaming-at-the-mouth self-appointed health and safety zealots.

    Ridiculous arguments about the cost to the public if I "spill my brains all over the road" aside, if I'm tooling along a quiet avenue on a bike without a helmet on, that is nobody's business but mine and the police's. It is certainly not the business of, nor does it in any way affect the life of, the rage-filled suburban in a family wagon, who rolls down his window and gives me an expletive-laden burst.

    Whatever happened to live and let live? It has turned into live and lecture, or live and interfere.

    1. ...once again, Scott, I 100% agree with you

  6. Interesting topic. I have written posts on theconversation regarding helmets. I do believe that on libertarian grounds helmets should not be mandatory for adults. My only gripe is that anti-MHL activists tend to distort and cherry pick evidence to suit their point of view (as do pro-helmet advocates{if there's such a beast} I presume).
    My point is that like or dislike of wearing helmets does not change the evidence that they mitigate the effects of head injury. So why 'fight' MHLs on this platform? The only platform that makes sense is the libertarian argument. I don't think that helmets are protective enough to warrant mandatory legislation... that's the platform to fight MHLs. Helmets don't result in greater incidence of DAI, they don't pappear to particularly hinder cycling participation (at least in comparison to infrastructural, cultural and attitudinal factors) so why do anti-MHL activists use these histrionic tactics? The problem is that the arguments are easily nullified by the published evidence and the libertarian argument gets thrown away...
    Anyway my 10 cents worth.


    1. Is your byline on The Conversation 'Anonymous'? - hi there, anyway!

      No I'm sticking to the science and the evidence arguments because this whole issue is a matter in scientific dispute and as such ought never to have been brought into law.

      Now everyone is pathologically brain-washed and astoudingly appear to believe that helmets provide some sort of 'Harry Potter' safety mantle - we have an uphill battle convincing the politicians otherwise.

      I'm usually quite averse to libertarian type arguments - I'm not keen on customary libertarian policies - way too right wing for me with all that emphasis on the individual! will do just fine

  7. Seamus,
    We need to separate two issues here which are almost always conflated.
    One is helmets, the other is helmet law - MHL.

    In discussing the advantage or disadvantage of a helmet in a particular situation, we would need to know everything about that situation. The issues are technical, statistical, psychological, mechanical - some scientific, some not so much. Having resolved that situation we would have to move on to the next, slightly different, situation. It's just a game of wack-a-mole and pointless.
    An adequately informed individual is probably in the best position to decide for or against helmet use for their own situation.
    Helmet use is an individual safety issue.

    On the other hand, MHL is a public health issue.
    It seems clear that MHL reduces cycling numbers, inhibits bike share schemes, increases car numbers and congestion, increases car drivers' aggression against cyclists and increases poor health due to lack of exercise. All of these at public health level, not individual cases.

    You say above "My point is that like or dislike of wearing helmets does not change the evidence that they mitigate the effects of head injury. So why 'fight' MHLs on this platform?"
    This is conflating the two issues.
    The same argument supports MHL for pedestrians and car occupants.
    This article.. a good discussion about this strange focus on helmets for cyclists.

    1. Aahhh, Anonymous! you're 'Seamus' from 'The Conversation' - I've read a lot of your comments but none of your posts - will have a look out for them

  8. Thank you for the reply,
    Firstly let me state that my position is that I am a cyclist that wears helmets for road and mountain bike cycling but, if given the choice, would not wear a helmet for riding on bike paths, to the shops etc.
    I don't believe that helmets should be mandatory for adults. I do believe that helmets should be mandatory for children on public roads.
    My position is that cyclist safety is a consequence of several factors: infrastructure, driver attitude (cultural factors), driver education/skill, legislation and finally cyclist education/skill.
    The greatest determinent of cycling injury and mortality is the behaviour of drivers.
    Any change to cycling safety should address the determinents of cycling safety. Most of which is physical separation of motor vehicles and cyclists, secondarily (and more cost effective) is education, cultural and legislative changes. Any discussion of helmets is a moot point in this debate because helmets are protective in a situation where the above has failed and a vehicle has already struck the cyclist. Wearing a helmet does not limit exposure to collision, but nor does it increase it.

    Promoting cyclist numbers is a different argument. The two intersect when one regards that overall cycling numbers also increases overall cycling safety. In doing so the absolute number of cycling injuries and deaths increases (as in the netherlands) but proportionally it decreases. It is postulated that increase in cycling numbers also increases population health ( a reasonable argument but one has to control for those who replace another exercise type with cycling).

    Increasing cycling safety is not the main argument for why we ought to increase cyclist numbers (in fact it is a specious argument). The main argument for increasing cyclist numbers is the argument from public health (better cardiovascular health of the population), environmental benefits (less noise/carbon/exhaust pollution, less infrastructure etc) and healthier cities. It doesn't take cycling to achieve this; walking would provide the same benefits- it's justthat cycling is a faster means of transport.
    so increasing cycling rates seem like a reasonable way to increase population health and reduce environmental issues related to car usage.
    So where do MHLs fit in? They don't.
    The biggest determinent preventing cycling as a form of transport in Australia is not helmet laws. The biggest determinents are perceived safety, distance and convenience. It has been argued that helmets contribute to the perception of cycling as dangerous, this might be the case but there is no evidence to sugest this is the case; however, there is evidence that it is the presence of motor vehicles on the road and the 'near miss' phenomenon that is the biggest factor in safety perception.
    By all means advocate to end MHLs, i don't hold them dearly to my heart. What I do hold dearly is using evidence based arguments to argue the case.


    Seamus Gardiner

  9. Seamus
    You make a couple of points on MHL.

    "The biggest determinent preventing cycling as a form of transport in Australia is not helmet laws."

    I agree that it is not the biggest issue working against utility cycling.
    You seem to dismiss it as a factor though with this...

    " It has been argued that helmets contribute to the perception of cycling as dangerous, this might be the case but there is no evidence to sugest this is the case"

    I can not agree with this.
    This search for 'helmet promotion' on ..

    ..produces plenty of articles about this.

    A quote from this one..

    .."The European Council of Ministers of Transport issued a statement in 2004 which is rather enlightened:
    "PROMISING [1], a research project commissioned by the European Union and coordinated by the SWOV Institute for Road Safety Research (2001), suggests that from the point of view of restrictiveness, even the official promotion of helmets may have negative consequences for bicycle use, and that to prevent helmets having a negative effect on the use of bicycles, the best approach is to leave the promotion of helmet wear to manufacturers and shopkeepers."

    Helmet promotion is detrimental well before it gets to the extreme of an actual MHL.

  10. Hi steve,
    So you can quantify the level to which helmets contribute to a fear of cycling? How do you think this level compares to the phenomenon of near misses, speed and mass differential as contributors to fear?
    The studies in Australia cite factors such as the above. If any fear is contributed to by helmets then it either is not articulated or is subliminal, in which case how do you account for it or quantify it?
    Furthermore, the reference you cite does not provide access to the primary source (the SWOV report). I have found last years SWOV factsheet on bicycle helmet, which states nothing about 'fear generated by helmets' so presumably as of 2012 in the netherlands this is no longer regarded as a factor. Unless there is a primary source that details research that the presence of helmets leads to a perception of fear or actual drop in cycling i'd have to conclude that this is conjecture, or at least a meme without foundation.
    See bbelow a link to the latest SWOV factsheet on cycling helmets.


    1. Seamus,
      I'm not sure if you're conflating the issues again or releasing red herrings or building a straw man now.
      (helmets contribute to a fear of cycling)
      (fear generated by helmets)
      (presence of helmets leads to a perception of fear)
      Whatever the case, I'll restrict myself to helmet promotion and MHL.

      The SWOV report was based on the workpackages contributed to it. The ones referring to helmet promotion and MHL are 2 and 5.

      and here..

      The statement from SWOV quoted in the copenhagenize article originates in wp2 6.2.

      If I can modify your first request a bit, can I quantify the level to which helmet promotion and MHL contribute to a reduction in cycling? No, I can't but others have tried.
      The SWOV wp5 9.13 has this...

      "According to a synthesis of evaluation studies available until mid 1997 (Elvik, Mysen and Vaa 1997), the net effect of laws requiring the use of bicycle helmets can be decomposed into the following partial contributions
      Net effect = Behavioural adaptation effect x Helmet effect x Exposure effect
      Net effect = 1.15 x (0.75) x 0.70 = 0.80
      A decline in the number of injured cyclists of about 20% has been found. This is the net result of an increase of about 15% in accident rate and a decline of about 30% in the amount of cycling. The helmet effect, put in parentheses above, does not enter this calculation directly, as it does not greatly affect the total number of injured cyclists, only the proportion of injuries that are head injuries."

      I would also note this bit...
      "It is concluded that the assumptions one would have to make to do a cost-benefit analysis of mandatory bicycle helmet wearing are still too uncertain for such an analysis to make sense."

  11. There was no strawman:
    1. I stated in an early post above that the biggest preventor of cycling uptake in Australia was fear - predominately of traffic. Helmets not being a contributor.
    2. You 'rejected' that and cited an old reference citing SWOV. The webpage you linked to mentions 'helmet fear'
    3. I replied with the 2012 SWOV report and a coment that there is no evidence of helmet fear, in response to your point 2 above. I took your earlier comment about helmet promotion to be in the light of my comment on 'helmet fear', especially as it was a main thrust of your link.
    4. You replied stating strawman - no mater, miscommunication I believe.

    Anyway, to answer your latest post:
    You conflate MHLs with helmet promotion. Thetwo are seperate, or rather helmet promotion can exist without MHLs.

    Where is the evidence that helmet promotion is 'detrimental' as you state?

    In fact SWOV is an advocate for the use of bicycle helmets:

    'Any cyclist involved in a cycling crash, or who has a fall whilst cycling, runs the risk of head or skull injury; 30% of serious injuries to cyclists are head or skull injuries. Wearing a bicycle helmet reduces the severity of the injury. As serious head or skull injuries are the most frequent injuries amongst young casualties, the use of bicycle helmets is promoted in particular for children in the Netherlands. For more information see SWOV Fact sheet Bicycle helmets).'


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