Mandatory bicycle helmet laws, like that being proposed by the Ontario coroner in his Cycling Death Review released last week, is just a waste of effort and funds that could be used to make cycling really safer.
That's the majority opinion of some panellist members of the final event of the day today, The Helmet Dialogue, at Velo-city Global 2012.
With more than two dozen events a day, it is unfair to generalize about the popularity of any issue, but I believe that the matter of mandatory helmet laws came up at every plenary and symposium I attended.
When one considers that "safety" and "children" are the over-arching themes of this conference in Vancouver, it might appear contradictory that there seems to be a strong voice here for helmet pro-choice. Aren't helmets all about safety?
Invariably, the cyclists here who speak passionately about the subject, begin with, "I have nothing against people who wear helmets," or "I wear a helmet myself," followed immediately by, "but I don't think helmet use should be legislated." The personal freedom of choice about "to wear or not to wear" seemed to be a major factor.
That was certainly part of the message from Sue Knaup, executive director of the Arizona-based One Street; Dr. Kathi Diethelm, of Pro Velo Switzerland; and Ceri Woolsgrove, policy officer with the European Cyclists' Federation, who were speaking later today on helmets. All agreed that helmet use is a personal choice. Other issues concerned them more, including the amount of time taken talking about helmets.
"The discussions about helmet laws are taking the place of discussions about safer streets," said Knaup, in an open discussion with Take the Lane. "Helmets never prevented a crash. Let's talk about what we can do to prevent crashes."
Knaup and Woolsgrove said that many officials seem to think that helmets are a substitute for good quality safety and training programs. Diethelm added that drivers "like a helmet law because they don't to care about or think as much about the safety of others. The others can take care of themselves."
And if there is an accident, it's a case of "blame the victim," said Diethelm.
All three were concerned that many helmet law discussions were taking place without sufficient objective study. "The data is flawed," said Knaup. "In some cases, tooth injuries are marked (by emergency room staff) as head injuries," said Woolsgrove. "As a mathematician, I get crazy," said Diethelm, who noted that in some instances, data from accidents involving motorcycle riders wearing motorcycle helmets are used to make the case for bicycle helmets.
Even insurance companies, who one might think would do risk-benefit analysis of bicycle injuries, haven't stepped up to the plate, preferring to argue simply for helmet use. If the rider (on a pubic bike share or a charity ride) signs a waiver agreeing to wear a helmet and then is injured while not wearing a helmet, regardless of the nature of the injury, the insurance company can walk away. "It's just laziness," said Diethelm.
What three things would they say to anyone (such as Ontario) considering mandatory helmet laws?
1. Cycing is not a risky activity, and is certainly comparable to being a pedestrian.
2. Helmet laws are making cycling appear to be dangerous, and thus creating impediments to those who might consider cycling. Part two of this is: Mandatory helmet laws are simply the ultimate product promotion, benefiting manufacturers and insurance companies, without making the roads safer.
3. Helmets are not as effective as they are made out to be (usually rated to crash speeds of 20 km/h).
Although helmet discussions can suck the oxygen out of the room, Knaup said that some conversation is necessary because "if we aren't talking about it, the helmet hysteria could wipe out the (cycling) movement. It's worth putting the energy into it."