Friday, 11 November 2011

Subversive thoughts

Geoff McLeod had the unmitigated temerity to make a film that asks one simple question:

If tens of thousands of people in other countries can use their bike every day, including children as young as 8, without wearing a helmet and other safety gear, why can't we?

We are told it has "incensed" the authorities responsible for road safety.

Here's the offending film:

One thing that should be noted is that the images in the first half of the film are not staged. They are real people going about Paris on their bicycles. Another thing to note is that Paris (while it has improved a lot) is not up their with the Dutch and Danes for bicycle safety. And yet the people seem fine. It's not just in Paris either. There are pictures of people doing this all over the place. Outrageous.

That is what I wonder with our helmet laws. We and New Zealand are the only two countries in the world with them. Why is that? What makes us so different from everywhere else? I do not see any signs of other countries following our lead yet. Indeed, the Dutch Cycling Union's position is firmly against helmet laws.

The release of the film reignited the 20 year old debate about the effectiveness of the laws. On one of my favourite forums, Adelaide Cyclists, the debate raged for some time and at the last count had 135 replies. That then led to spin off posts including one asking whether helmets should be compulsory. Of the self-selected sample of keen cyclists, the majority said yes. Take from that what you will.

My own personal view is that whatever you might think of polystyrene helmets (and the newly developed airbag for cyclists), I cannot see that forcing people to wear them has worked. To me they are a distraction and a cop out. Making people share the road with fast-moving cars and trucks and then pretending that you are keeping them safe by forcing them to wear a plastic helmet that is tested only at very low speeds is not fooling anyone.

All of us have by now heard of the man of the people and architect to rock stars, Jan Gehl. He was in Melbourne not long ago as part of the Melbourne Conversations series. He gave a lecture which you can view on the ABC website. He discusses a number of things about cities, including bicycles, and also covers helmets. This is what he says (it sounds best if you read it aloud with a Danish accent) beginning at about 40:30 mins:

We don't have compulsory bike helmets. They found that if they introduce compulsory bike helmets, you can reduce bicycling by 50% overnight. And they say it's much better for health economy that we have many people bicycling ... much. And then we will take the risk of some of them getting injuries while they are young but it's much better that they continue and they're old whatever. And they have campaigns and now a third have bicycle helmets and I think it's very wise not to make it compulsory so we can choose. At certain stretches I always take my bike helmet but going down to the tennis club I don't or going to the corner store, whatever.

Is that really so unreasonable?

No comments:

Post a Comment