Saturday, 14 February 2015

So are helmet laws sexist or what?

Back in May 2014 when our friends from overseas were visiting for the Velo-City conference, there were a few times when it made the news. One time was when a couple of streets were blocked for the breakfast ride. Another was when Mikael Colville-Andersen said 'suck it up buttercup' :-) And then there was the time when the always awesome Sue Abbott made it to the front page of the Advertiser for ... gasp ... riding a bike. It just so happened that she also committed the cardinal sin of not wearing a helmet.

It is not hard to understand the point Sue was making. There is no doubt that the introduction of helment laws in Australia and New Zealand coincided with a fairly sizeable drop in the number of people using bikes. It is also fairly clear that the drop in numbers was disproportionate among women. We know and see every day that men on bikes easily outnumber women five to one. On top of that, other demographics have never recovered from that initial drop. How often do you see teenage girls getting themselves to school on a bike? Compare that to their Dutch sisters:

This is borrowed from this post by aseasyasridingabike. Hope that's ok.

A completely different picture altogether. Now admittedly there are other reasons for this sorry state of affairs but I don't think what Sue Abbott says can be ignored.

I came across a short video the other day called 'Der Fahrrad-Doktor' (the Bicycle Doctor) on NDR television. It's about a business owner who runs a mobile bike workshop in Garbsen, which is a little way north east of Hannover. The full length film (30 mins) can be seen here. It's actually worth a look. If nothing else, it shows a pretty good business idea for anyone looking to capitalise on an increase in bicycle use in the near future.

At one point in the film, the owner, Herr Schwetje, is seen selling an e-bike to a woman who is described later as a pensioner - the sort of woman you would rarely if ever see riding a bike in Australia. I have edited out the two scenes involving her:

At the beginning, Herr Schwetje introduces her to the white e-bike. With introductions out of the way, the conversation about helmets begins (at 0:55):

Do you have a helmet?
So you generally ride without a helmet?
I ride without.
Ok, you want to continue to doing that?
I'll continue doing that.
Ok, I can't change that but would you like to be convinced otherwise because it would be much safer? These bikes have a tendency to go much faster than the others.
I don't want to ride so quickly. I don't want help. And I want to ride far. I am really not in a hurry any more.

The good lady goes for a ride - beyond the horizon.

When she returns (2:28), she's impressed. It's windy and she's not puffed out. Being the consumate salesman, Herr Schwetje offers to leave the bike with her for the weekend so she can properly try it out. Sounds like a plan she says. But at 3:14 he has one more try. A condition is that she takes the helmet. Then he can say he has at least given her one even if she doesn't wear it.

Off she goes.

He's back the following Wednesday and is pleased to make the sale.

He begins again (4:25):

You know what I've got for you? A helmet that matches your glasses - black.
Whatever. I'm *sooo* pleased.
Promise me that when you're out in the dark alone you'll wear it.
I don't drive in the dark - not in the car, not on the bike.
But please try it out. It's for your safety and my conscious.

Seconds later, she's off again - but helmet on the wrist :-)

Now here's the thing. If the State Government of Lower Saxony were to introduce a helmet law, what might that good lady do? Maybe she'd wear one. But maybe not. Would she still be riding at her age if Lower Saxony had had helmet laws for the past 23 years? I don't know for sure but I reckon the answer is probably no. She'd either be riding the bus everywhere or driving her Volkswagen Polo.

Herr Schwetje likes to encourage people to don their helmets. There's a scene in the full length version of the video where he tells his mountain bike team off because only 5 out of 12 of them had one on. And that's fine. By all means "encourage" but it's when you mandate that the problems begin.

In Australia, we like to encourage people to share the road and to be nice to each other. But actually taking steps to protect people through engineering or safe systems? Much slower on the uptake. At the same time, we don't encourage helmet use but instead like to use the blunt instrument of the law to force it on anyone and everyone. We might have our priorities a little mixed up there.

We've seen it in Australia and New Zealand. Numbers drop. If they recover, the demographic is different. Women? A few. Women above 50? You'll be lucky. Children? Maybe but only with parents walking close by. Teenagers? Even fewer. Teenage girls? Zero. Sporty men on mountain bikes and racing bikes? Tons.

And that is what is meant when Sue Abbott says helmet laws are sexist.

1 comment:

  1. Edward, great post ... it's exactly what I was trying to say!!!!