Saturday, January 16, 2010

Big Helma Thinking - it's essential to be superficially plausible & quickly adopted

The notion that mandatory helmet laws (MHLs) have made cycling safer is not only superficially plausible, but deeply misleading, and begs the question "why were MHLs so quickly adopted?"

Recent research suggests that Australia's long term use of MHLs contributed to the development of our seriously crippled bicycle culture. The climate of disinformation that surrounded their implementation allowed the commercial reality of helmets and attendant 'PR puff' to hi-jack credible findings to the contrary.

We should be concerned that our MHLs were enacted without any conclusive evidence on the efficacy of bicyle helmets, and that our governments still will not countenance international consensus that MHLs have left us bereft in terms of health, transport, congestion and the environment. In fact the bias exhibited in 'government willingness' to assume that helmets are useful even when the data is not there, is typical of our committment to helmets and MHLs. Arguably "Big Helma thinking" has brainwashed our governments and society into believing that bicycle helmets are the first and last words on bicycle safety.

Why do our governments refuse to acknowledge the obvious success of the cycling cultures in the Netherlands and Denmark?

Why do our governments stubbornly refuse to consider any of the 'tried & true' cycling strategies successfully employed in Europe?

Why do our governments always go to great lengths to remind us that Australia is not Denmark or the Netherlands?

...and last but not least...

If we must have cycling laws, why can't we have the Danish one, enacted in the late 1940s, that requires children to pass a 'cyclist exam' in 9th year, as well as undertaking a 'cyclist course' in 3rd year?


  1. My answer to the general question, "Why don't governments encourage cycling more?" is to flip the question on its head and ask: "Why don't governments encourage automobile use less?" The latter question is more interesting, because most governments in Australia would claim to be eager to encourage cycling, yet progress in doing so is painfully slow. My feeling is that any approach that would genuinely cause a cycling revolution would require reallocating space on main roads for cycling, reducing speed limits and placing a higher duty of care on motorists towards cyclists and pedestrians. This isn't too controversial a set of prescriptions among anyone who takes an interest in cycling promotion.

    However, taking the example of reallocation of carriageway space for cycle infrastructure, it becomes pretty apparent that doing so requires reducing the space available for motor vehicles, either for parking or moving traffic. I am not aware of any examples of cycle lanes constructed by removing a lane for motor vehicles in Australia. This is what happens when a proposal is put up that would require real sacrifice by motorists.. The cycle lanes we get now are only possible if they don't get in the way of the cars too much.

    When you consider the huge financial investment governments and households have made in the private automobile, it isn't surprising they're reluctant to admit that they've poured, and are still pouring, money down the toilet. I do find it difficult to understand why some of the European nations have taken a different approach. My guess is that a greater residual bicycle culture, different geography and a different social structure combined to produce a different reaction to the 1970s oil shock, but I'm only guessing.

    So in my opinion, the underlying problem isn't how to get more cyclists onto the roads, but how to reduce the number of motorists on the roads. Given the deeply engraned car culture, I think we're waiting for the big oil shock to bring that question to the front of people's minds. When petrol climbs above $5/L, the MHL will probably implode. Until then, most people won't look further than the "common sense" attitude to cycle helmets.

  2. talliesin! i completely agree with you!

  3. (apologies, i can't spell though, taliesin!)

  4. As a Dane I have to correct your last lines about the bike exam in Denmark.

    There is no requirement to pass the "exam" and nothing happens if you fail, and if it is what I think it is then it seems to merely be a competition to find the best cyclist in the council area.

    I might be wrong but the above is my impression from the test/exam I participated in myself when I went to 7th/8th grade (and not 9th as you said). There could also be a difference between the different councils in Denmark

    And please keep up your campaigning work :)

    Rasmus Jensen