Friday, June 21, 2013

Velo City 2013: Dave Horton & the helmet question

Definitely a highlight of Velo City 2013 was Dave Horton in one of the plenary sessions. Here at last was a clinical, expert look at the broad cycling picture without resiling from the fact that helmet promotion is a significant barrier to cycling.

The lack of helmet debate in the main arena of last year's Velo-City (Vancouver) had been one of my criticisms. It had been disappointing to see it sidelined to a niche workshop rather than addressed as the elephant in the room that it was, is and always will be.

So back to Velo-City 2013...rhetorically asking why most people don't cycle, Dave listed the following points as potential barriers that those of us who cycle tend to take for granted and don't notice:

- fear of looking silly
- worry about falling off
- fear of becoming a cyclist and being different
- motorised traffic

He acknowledged that cycling on roads has become more dangerous in most places of the world and that there are many more cars which in turn has led to a sense of automobile road entitlement, and that increased traffic has meant fewer cyclists resulting in less money for cycling, making it a lot harder to develop a political voice for cycling

Interestingly he pointed out to the 1,300 of us Velo-City participants that the fear of cycling is not wrong, and needs to be "understood" in order to realistically encourage as many people as possible to cycle. So what we need to do is to change people's perceptions, change people's realities without dismissing them, and change the current processes. It is essential to examine how the fear of cycling is produced.

He pointed out to us that despite the fact that we have never been so safe, we have never been so fearful. The broader culture of fear has been culturally constructed to a level that to the general public, cyclists appear to ignore common sense leading in turn to cyclists being perceived as deviant and irresponsible. The fear of Cycling is inevitable and produced by this constant construction of the notion that cycling is dangerous (check out Dave's excellent blog for further info).

Yet according to Dave, cycling has got more dangerous by various attempts to make it safe:

1. Road safety education largely responsible for sense of entitlement cars (parked or otherwise) have about the streets belonging to them.
- resulting in onus put on cyclists to provide their own safety
- in addition to general feeling that cyclists ought to keep out of way which in turn has ended up making cycling 2nd rate

2. Helmets as part of established road safety programme
- issues of equity; why cycling? why not other modes of road transport?
- helmets play on and magnify fear of cycling
- helmets put obligation onto the innocent

And furthermore, Dave was quite adamant that helmet promotion is not about the promotion of cycling at all but about the repression of cycling via a process working insidiously in completely the other direction of safety

So what can we do?

Dave urged us to...

1. Resist temptation to do counter-productive things such as helmet promotion
2. Stop teaching cyclists to be frightned; rather teach motorists to be civil
3. Install considerate and reflective separate cycling infrastructure

Easy...if you're not an Australian politician (sigh)

Anyhoo, at the end of the plenary, we were invited to ask questions from the floor so I thought why not! I introduced myself and where I was from and then mentioned that as a result of eschewing helmet law promotion, I'd received a criminal conviction, had lost my driver's licence and had 2 bicycles impounded and was wondering whether Dave had any tips to help with my mission to repeal mandatory helmet laws in Australia.

From the stage he mentioned that he had heard of my plight and basically advised me to carry on with my 'civil disobedience' - done!!!!

Following that and in my Velo-City media capacity, I was lucky enough to score an interview with Dave the following day. opportunity to ask my 'helmet question,' and once again I listened in awe to good sense from someone passionate about cycling, the planet, our children and their future, and once again I groaned to myself that we have no-one in Australia prepared to stop listening to the safety nannies in order to listen to someone like Dave Horton:

After chatting about the Australian government's own goal with regards to helmet legislation, Dave mused upon the embarrassment looming for the government at next year's Velo-City 2014 conference in Adelaide.

Dave Horton (DH): the Australian government got it wrong, and velo city next year in Adelaide is going to be interesting and provide an opportunity to increase the discomfort the South Australian government feels, and build from there. How can you have the foremost global conference around cycling coming to your city with helmet legislation?

The conference will be full of Dutch and Danes and people who wouldn't think about putting a helmet on their heads to go for an ordinary bike ride to the shops or to work or to school and then they're going to come and they're going to be encouraged to get on a bike like we always are at these Velo City conferences..."get on a bike and go and explore the town!" and then people are going to go out and you (he means us Australians) are going to shout "hey come back you haven't got you helmet on" (hilarious laughter from Dave)

Sue Abbott (SA): a few of us are planning to come and make a statement in some way or another

DH: great...why don't you have a 'helmet-free' critical mass bike ride in Adelaide!...and raise the issue, important issues which are fundamental to the future of cycling! For me cycling is the future of the planet and if you're going to start with the broad picture we need to get people moving by bike instead of by car.

And getting people to Velo City and getting the debates aired at places like Velo City is part of that and 'helmets' is a big debate and a big terror to cycling. Anyone who has thought about it, knows that, and the problem is, or partly so I think, is it has kind of got monopolised by the medical profession and the trauma specialists and the A&E specialists and they've got a very specific and particular viewpoint, and one which personally I think is based on prejudiced a lot of the time and there are broader issues around sustainability, planetary health, community health, cities, what cities are for, what we want our kids to be like in the future, how they're going to move around, what kind of citizens they're going to become.

And helmets don't fit into that picture in any way at all.

SA: helmet promotion is scary as you were saying - in the helmet debate workshop, I was handed a pad of post it note tags with a picture on front showing a water melon smashed to smitherins which apparently is supposed to represent our heads but it's nothing like a head and this was from a trauma specialist...a trauma specialist gave it to me!

DH: it's outrageous but it's inevitable because how can you promote helmets without drawing upon a danger of cycling and you have to construct that danger because it's not apparent and we don't do this for car drivers and we don't continuously remind car drivers how dangerous it is to drive a vehicle yet we do this we cyclists and we do it mostly with kids who are most susceptible and who are the future, the mobile citizens of the future and we're putting them off cycling before they've even got a chance to cycle independently for the first time.

What kind of injustise is that? What kind of society sends the completely opposite messages to the ones we should be sending?

SA: a powerful industry backed one - certainly in Australia, cyclists are seen as weird - we're seen as wacky, and I've had so many people tell me that there should be a law allowing motorists to run cyclists over

DH: it's like prejudice against cycling, and the prejudice against cyclists has become culturally embedded, supporting an ideology that reinforces automobility, the car, as ordinary, as everyday and as normal and that requires the simultaneous reproduction of cycling and the cyclist as abnormal, as out of place as irritating as weird and it's something we don't touch on in debate at Velo City very much and to me it's always a slight shame really because there are ideologies at work

So back to your question for campaigning tips, grassroots disobedience - that’s certainly a strategy and non-compliance has worked in other political movements...mass civil disobedience - sod your law, we don’t believe in it - we believe it’s antithetical to cycling

Maybe velo-city next year is the opportunity to broaden the debate out - something like..."Velo City - time to ride without your helmet, show the world what an Australian city could be like!"

SA: sounds good to me!


So that's Velo City 2013 done and dusted for another year; it's been utterly illuminating and depressing all mixed in together - yes the speakers were wonderful and clearly experts in their own right but it is all so far removed from our Australian reality where sane rational expression on cycling is never given a guernsey. Hysteria and OH&S rule here and woe betide any academic or medical practitioner who tries to rock the helmet boat - god only knows some of them have tried, but our 'Crucible' tendencies kick in and we beat these sages back under their rocks.

Notwithstanding this stifling mix, I have to admit it's all tinged with excitement too, because maybe Velo City 2014 will turn out to be the nemesis for mandatory helmet laws - it certainly offers us a platform or a canvas or whatever you will and we certainly have every intention to be standing on it or painting it or whatever we come up with... long, Vienna, now I'm off to climb every mountain and find some living hills...Salzburg are you ready for Family Von Abbott???


  1. Exciting suggestions from DH. We have been debating what to do about VC14 in Adelaide. Would the mass of delegates come on a helmet free ride, or would they feel it "impolite" to their hosts? What would be the best way to engage them?

  2. Craniums are like watermelon skins?!!! What a lie that is. It would be good to have a postcard ready to give back to filth such as that trauma specialist, showing photographs of a healthy heart ("a heart on a bike") next to a diseased heart from a victim of obesity and inactivity ("a heart caused by helmet promotion").

  3. Here's hoping that there is support for helmet free riding at VeloCity 2014 and it is a catalyst for change. But I fear the reality will be that extra police are in attendance with the order coming from on high to rigorously enforce the law, I'm sure with the blessing of the majority of "right thinking" Australian cyclists. Having heard it all before, I can just imagine a sanctimonious SA copper lecturing a delegate on how foolish they are to ride a bike without a helmet and then give them a fine - or even more if they dare to talk back. The Adelaide police are very officious when it comes to enforcing the helmet law and don't really need any prompting.

  4. Thanks Sue and Dave for a great post. You have both given me hope.

  5. I think it's going to be great fun - can't wait!!!!!!!!!!!!!!