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ACT promises to abolish helmet laws

Cycling seems to be the issue of the week so far. We’ve had Skypath and the Northcote cycle routes followed by National then announced an urban cycling policy which finally seems them agree that urban cycling improvements are needed. Now ACT have joined in on the debate by promising to abolish compulsory helmet laws.

ACT’s plan to double cycle use without spending taxpayers’ money

“The National party yesterday announced a $100 million cycle-way that just happens to go through the marginal seat of Hutt South” said ACT Leader Dr Jamie Whyte.

“The Greens want to spend many hundreds of millions on cycle-ways. ACT’s contribution to this bidding war for the cyclist vote would double cycle use and cost nothing” said Dr Whyte.

“We need only abolish the law that makes wearing a cycle helmet compulsory. Since 1994, when Parliament established an instant fine of $150 for failing to wear a helmet, cycling has declined by over 50%. Overseas experience also indicates that laws making it compulsory to wear a helmet dramatically reduce cycling. This nanny state law does not even save lives” said Dr Whyte. “On the contrary, it costs lives. Before the legislation, few people died from cycling accidents and, of those who did, only 20% died from head injuries alone.”

” Research reported in the New Zealand Medical Journal (see http://journal.nzma.org.nz/journal/125-1349/5046/) shows that, over a 10 year period, only 20 Aucklanders were killed in cycle accidents and only 4 might have been saved by wearing cycle helmets. This same New Zealand Medical Journal article concluded that life years gained from the health benefits of cycling outweighed life years lost in accidents by 20 times” said Dr Whyte.

“The diminished health resulting from the reduced cycling caused by compulsory helmet-wearing costs 53 premature deaths a year. ACT would simply abolish the $150 fines for not wearing a helmet. That would save $100 million on cycle-ways in marginal seats, double cycle use and save 53 lives a year” said Dr Whyte

I don’t think that removing the helmet laws would see a doubling of cycle use primarily because it won’t do anything to address the reality that our roads aren’t safe to use. The perception of roads being unsafe is often cited as the biggest reason why people don’t cycling despite many people having bikes in their garages. That doesn’t mean I don’t think removing the helmet law shouldn’t happen, in fact quite the opposite. This post a few months ago looks at some of evidence mounting against requiring mandatory helmets.

Now if only we could pick and choose individual policies. A big step up in cycle infrastructure funding along with removing the helmet requirements would be a great combination.

38 comments to ACT promises to abolish helmet laws

  • George D

    Agreed. Helmet laws have had a serious impact in making cycling seem unsafe and a risk to health, which reduced cycling and thus increased the risks to individual cyclists. However, repealing the law will not increase perceptions of safety in the short term. We’re far better to provide actual infrastructure as is being proposed by the Greens (large investment) or by Labour and National (moderate level of investment) and actually make things safer and more comfortable in the short term.

    I would be keen to see a proper and comprehensive look at all the things affecting cyclist safety and a look at how regulation and government action could improve this. I haven’t heard anything about the consultative group recently… have they been active?

    • BBC

      We don’t need another committee to look at how to improve safety! It’s perfectly clear how to do it, and that’s to actually build proper cycling infrastructure just as every other city has done that’s serious about cycling. Farting about and blaming people on a bike for not being visible enough is a complete waste of time and is just a way to avoid doing anything for another year whilst ‘awaiting the results for the committee’.

    • The Cycle Safety Panel has been meeting approximately monthly to slowly wade through the evidence (I think I counted over 100 background documents in my Safety Panel folder; God knows how many pages…). Draft recommendations have been prepared and were presented to some cycling stakeholders yesterday. Final recommendations should be out ~early November.

      A general theme probably mirrors BBC’s thoughts: we know what many of the physical solutions are; the question is more about why they’re not happening here. Some of that is to do with funding (or lack of) but some of it is more to do with existing policies and processes that don’t make it easy to get cycling provision done (and done well). Also some changes to existing road rules (e.g. passing) would be helpful too – watch this space…

      • George D

        Thanks Glen. Infrastructure is incredibly important, but there are other things like attitudinal change, changes to bicycles (ie, lighting for NZ’s often wet and dark daytime weather), and legislative change that can have serious impacts. One shouldn’t discount the other.

  • I just wanted to say that “The perception of roads being unsafe” is much closer to the truth than “our roads aren’t safe to use”. In actual fact, you are no more likely to be killed or badly injured riding a bike than driving a car in NZ.

    I certainly think that in order to have a successful bike share scheme in NZ (and Chch in particular will be a prime candidate), I really think the helmet law needs to at least be scaled back.

    Israel, Spain and Dallas, Texas have all recently done just that in anticipation of bike share schemes being launched (including ebike rental in Madrid):
    http://caa.org.nz/general-news/madrids-new-electric-bike-scheme/

    • Please read my comment at the end of the CAA post to understand why helmet law is NOT the thing that holds cycle share back in NZ

      • Dan

        Julian, just because you clean your helmets on your Nextbike program, it doesn’t stop people not wanting to wear them. Bike share bikes are ill-fitting and uncomfortable enough without adding an ill-fitting and uncomfortable helmet into the mix.

      • Julian, I still can’t understand why, of all people, you still deny the massive negative impact that cycle helmet legislation has on cycle share schemes. You stand to profit the most if the government repeals the law!

        It is well understood that mandatory helmet laws and cycle share schemes do not work. The cycle share schemes in Brisbane and Melbourne have been catastrophic failures. Sydney wants a cycle share scheme, but won’t start one because they know it would be destined to fail (largely due to the helmet requirement).

        From memory NextBike opened in Auckland in 2010 and went bust within 12 months. You blame the council from restricting your ability to advertise as the reason for failing… not that you had low ridership levels. I really think you are missing the point. If you are in the bike share scheme business, and you aren’t actually worried about your bikes being rented, so long as you can generate sufficient advertising revenue to prop the business up… something is seriously wrong!
        It would be like me owning an ice cream shop but not giving a damn if I actually sold many ice creams… so long as I got enough money to tick along by advertising Coca Cola…

        Auckland has a population of about 1.5 million people now, and you are only able to justify having about 15 bicycles available to rent around the city (when I last looked). And most of the time when I walk past your bike stands the bikes are just sitting there unused. This is a problem!

        You could be a valuable advocate for positive change, but you have to be able to see that there is a problem first.

    • john.keenan

      +1

      I think there is potential to explore a “speed / gear” limit perhaps?
      I’m no expert but for example the bike share I use has 3-speed Giants.
      Not breaking any land speed records on those sturdy frames.

      Surely say a 7-speed or less no helmet rule could cover things?
      Or I guess just no helmets / optional use.

      • How is a cop going to tell how many gears your bike has without stopping you? If you have a complex rule with exceptions (like an age limit, or a gear limit, or a speed limit, or a bike-share exception, or if it only applies in particular places), it becomes harder to enforce and harder for people to remember the details of if they aren’t regular cyclists.

        Just get rid of the law and make helmets optional for all. People who do things that are genuinely dangerous or extreme are still overwhelmingly going to choose to wear appropriate safety equipment. Because they are the ones who suffer if things go badly.

        (Disclaimer: my bike is an 8-speed).

        • john.keenan

          I agree, I think an optional helmet law is best.

          But I also think police should never be pulling over cyclists for anything other than dangerous / reckless driving, if there was a speed / gear law they should be briefed to only check it after pulling over a cyclist for another offence.

          I also think a bike share exemption is pretty straight forward, I guess I’m thinking of systems that are integrated into the PT network and in Akl’s case would be provided by AT. Basically pretty uniform 3 gear “choppers” with AT branding, easy I’d say for a police officer to notice / understand them as an exemption.

  • Necessary but insufficient.

    And tough to accept that it is a “contribution to this bidding war for the cyclist vote”.

    A new bid must exceed previous bids, and this doesn’t in two ways. First, it shortchanges strategic and infrastructure improvements, so the net worth isn’t greater than other parties’ policies. Second, at least the Greens already have a policy to review and address the factors that discourage cycling; if the evidence against mandatory helmet laws is so clear — which I wholly agree is the case — the outcome is predictable.

    Also, baiting “the cyclist vote” is tragic; the popular use of bicycles must include non-cyclists, i.e. the broad range of the general population who would be wheeled pedestrians. The proposed helmet law repeal would coincidentally support that, but it seems Act is oblivious as to how, why, and what for.

  • SteveS

    It’s not often that I agree with ACT’s policies, but this one deserves wider discussion because they are certainly making a valid point. The problem is that the issue is so polarising it generates heated debate on both sides of the fence, both within and outside the cycling community.

    From a public health perspective, ACT is right. Putting on a helmet is a huge disincentive to getting on a bike at all, whether your own or a rental bike. The community is more likely to suffer diseases related to inactivity and obesity as a result. The net public health result of making helmet use compulsory is negative.

    But we also need to acknowledge that in general our urban cycling environment is unfriendly and potentially hazardous. There are precious few protected cycle paths, and taking to the streets at the moment clearly carries a degree of risk. Helmet wearing marginally reduces the risk of head injury in the event of some crashes, so does play a role in improving outcomes for those already choosing to cycle.

    Making cycling more attractive to those who are not yet cycling requires a number of approaches, of which relaxing helmet laws is one. But the biggest focus has to go on removing both the perceived and real dangers that exist in our urban environments. So protected cycle lanes (requiring investment and compromise on road corridor allocation) need to lead the charge, associated with generally lower urban traffic speeds achieved through traffic calming. Relaxing helmet laws (at least for adults who have better-developed risk management and technical skills) should naturally follow.

    I’m sure we all look enviously at cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen where people in ordinary street clothes hop on a bike without a helmet and pedal to where they need to go on well-designed and safe infrastructure. No helmet- and lycra-clad road warriors to be seen. The Dutch saw the light in the 70s. It’s taken 40 years, but slowly we’re starting to see the light too. But without substantial funding increases as well, our transition to match these utopian European cities is going to take far too long.

    • TheBigWheel

      “No helmet- and lycra-clad road warriors to be seen” is not true.. there are lycra-clad “sports cyclists” in Holland and they wear helmets.

      The fact is that there are so many non-lycra-clad non-helmet-wearing “ordinary cyclists”.. i.e. people cycling as they go about their everyday business that they are by far and away the majority of cyclists.

  • Barney

    In a country that has problems with using car seat belts, texting while driving, refusal to address 3rd party insurance requirements and drivers driving while off their faces with drugs I don’t think that wearing bike helmets is an issue.

    • Kevin Welsh

      I agree Barney. I ride for recreation and competitively. If helmets were not compulsory I would still wear one. I have had two accidents this year. The first where a stationary car at a give-way on a roundabout failed to give-way and knocked me off. I was doing around 15-20km/h and apart from a pretty good lump on my leg, my bike took most of the damage. The helmet had a pretty good scrape along one side and did it’s job. The second was during a race and I crashed at 50km/h Not fun. A lot of road rash and my helmet was munted. A large dent that would have ended up in my head had I not been wearing a helmet. I do not buy the helmets are uncomfortable line, as a properly fitted helmet from a recognised bike shop should not be uncomfortable.

      I personally believe the reasons for less cycling is as much down to socio-economic reasons as anything else. Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, having a bike was freedom. It expanded your territory and meant you could go places without the help of mum or dad. A my local high school almost everyone either walked or biked to school. I could count on one hand the number of kids who had permission to take a car or motorbike to school. They were usually kids who lived on farms.

      A more affluent middle class now sees a large proportion of children taken to school by car (estimated to be in the region of approximtely 33% of traffic in Auckland in the morning/afternoon) and not biking or walking. You also see this in smaller towns like where I live now, it is not just a big city phenomenon. More kids also have access to motor vehicles and schools appear to be far more generous in allowing them to bring vehicles to school.

      I have never come across anyone who says they do not bike because they have to wear a helmet.

      Here in Hawke’s Bay, a huge effort has been underway for a number of years now to get more people cycling and walking. Over 200 kilometres of cycle/walkway have been built and the public transport buses now have bike racks on the front. I work in Napier and during the winter I commute by cycle to Hasings, then bus to Taradale and finally bike to where I work in Napier. In summer I bike both ways. It is a great way to start the day and I can do a large percentage of that commute by cycleway if I choose.

      The number of individuals as well as families you see out cycling on the weekends here has grown massively, and it proves the point that “if you build it, they will come”.

      Long may it continue.

  • Dan

    ACT policies are completely irrelevant unless they are something National actually want to do. And I don’t think National have any interest in getting rid of the helmet law.

    Also, last time I looked, the fine for not wearing a helmet was $55. Has it gone up or have ACT got it wrong?

  • Simon

    I’m prepared to look at the evidence the compulsary helmet laws are a disincentive to cycling, but comments like Janie Whyte’s (paraphrasing) – the helmet law came in in 1994, cycling has declined 50% since then, therefore I can double cycling tomorrow by repealing it – are complete rubbish. Evidence of causation please.

    There is some chance that the requirement to wear a helmet is discouraging people from getting on bikes, but the idea that this is the major problem seems ridiculous. There are also situations (including non-traffic accidents) where having the helmet on provides valuable protection to the rider.

    We need the infrastructure to make cycling safe and enjoyable away from traffic, then we can see what the public health effect is of people taking to their bikes. Then we’re in a good position to say we’ve removed some risk so maybe we don’t need a helmet law.

    • Tom

      If wearing a helmet is such a trivial thing why don’t we aply the same logic to car drivers? I’m certain that many more lives would be saved if all car passengers wore helmets.

      Will abolishing the law bring back ridership? Probably not. Will ridership increase significantly if this law stays in place? In my opinion, not likely. People, for some silly reason, have an aversion to wearing ill-fitting pieces of hard plastic on their heads.

      • And yet you need special permission to drive a car with a proper roll cage in it on the roads. irony, no?

        • Tom

          I’m struggling to see the irony; rollcages aren’t mandatory and licensing is there so that people are reasonably sure you won’t kill someone else on the road. Except for the seatbelt I fail to recall any features of the exams that were focused on personal safety. Just the opposite really, the only warning I got on my full exam was to drive faster (first time on a windy, hilly, wet road in an unfamiliar car).

          Drivers often die of head trauma and suffer neck damage.

          The only reason why there is a helmet law for cyclists is that emotions won over reason in a particular point in time and people overreacted.

  • Simon

    Having read Clarke’s NZMJ paper referred to by JW, I have to question his methods, the data he uses, the inferences he makes and the conclusions he draws based on those data. There seems to be no controlling for confounders in the paper meaning the results observed could have been caused by any number of factors. Better evidence than this is needed to properly evaluate the effects on cycling numbers of the helmet law and it’s overall value.

    However, independent of the validity of the helmet law, I’m much in favour of cycling infrastructure improvements and the public health and place making value these will deliver. Bring them on.

  • Fred

    Put together both the National and Act cycling announcements of the last few days and you could achieve a big jump in cycling. Either on its own, not so much.

    • A small jump is inevitable, but I wouldn’t have any confidence in a “big” jump. For perspective, consider together the Greens and Labour packages on transport, housing and related revenue. They address several root causes that are holding back the popular use of bicycles in cities, including urban form, building design, transit-oriented development, transit service growth, network integration, safe streets, school access, local decision-making, financing, the GPS, reprioritising excessive motorways, and more. Even then, I’d only expect a mediocre jump in cycling, given the obstinate technocratic culture within transport authorities and the industry.

  • Brent C

    Looks like Act are not alone on this matter. The United Future party want to review the helmet law too. http://www.unitedfuture.org.nz/policy/transport. It would be interesting to find out what other political parties believe on this matter.

  • Ari

    Good idea. Doesnt cost me or any other taxpayer a cent. Hard to say what the outcome would be though. Increased health from increased cycling so less healthcare costs in the long run. But maybe also increased health care costs from more cycling accidents.

  • nick1234

    I believe wearing a helmet should be a personal choice. Helmets are extremely effective at preventing head injuries. The problem is, people don’t wear helmets to protect themselves from head injuries, and the helmet law isn’t in place to protect people from head injuries. None of the pressure to introduce a helmet law, focusing on tragic cases of kids who had accidents, was about reducing head injuries. Instead, all those are about brain injuries, and there is scant evidence that helmets play any role in preventing these.

    Yes, they work well in preventing scrapes, cuts and bruises, but you don’t see many emotional stories about children left with cuts and bruises after accidents, because these things heal. It’s brain damage people (rightly) care about, and helmets are pretty useless in that regard.

    Just because people break their helmets in falls doesn’t indicate they would have had serious injury had they not been wearing one. Your head is far stronger than a polystyrene based lightweight cycle helmet. It’s always seems a strange logic to me – something breaks so it must have saved me. Why in that case do we not all ride with eggs strapped to our heads – they would be lighter and break even more easily.

    • Kevin Welsh

      Cycle helmets are designed, well, to fail. They work by dissapating the impact over a wider area and the polystyrene liner is designed to crush. Just like crumple zones in motor vehicles. Helmets are also built to rigorous international standards and a huge amount of R&D goes into the design. No helmet is going to give 100% protection in any type of accident and the higher the speeds involved, the less protection you will have.

  • john smith

    Repeal helmet law > more general purpose (non-lycra) cycling > ++ marginal increase in population cardiovascular health, – – a few more catastrophic brain injuries each year.

    This debate is bedevilled the fact that the ++ and – – are entirely different types of things which are incommensurable and call into play all sorts of irrational [1] feelings about risk.

    To say that ‘the net benefits are positive’ is neither true nor untrue – it’s unprovable, because to prove it would require calibrating all those irrational feelings about different types of risk.

    Note that I’m not trying to put numbers on ‘marginal’ increase and ‘a few’ more injuries. The point of the comment is that that is not to the point.

    [note 1] I don’t mean ‘irrational’ to sound pejorative. It just means ‘normal human behaviour and emotions that cannot be well reflected in economists’ models’.

  • Luxated

    Lets be clear here:

    – Mandatory helmet laws lead to a significant increase in the proportion of cyclists wearing helmets, so if helmets are effective then mandatory helmet laws can also be said to be effective.
    – There is no evidence that helmet laws have caused a reduction in the number of people cycling (although the data is poor at best, what data there is doesn’t support that conclusion).
    – Mandatory helmet laws have dramatically reduced the number of head (and brain) injuries. There has also been a substantial reduction in the ratio of head injuries to arm injuries i.e. this reduction hasn’t been caused by fewer people cycling.
    – Indications are that helmeted cyclists are at least a third less likely to be killed (conclusions here are confounded by the thankfully low number of fatalities over all).

    Data and analysis that supports these conclusions can be found in the following article: http://www.tars.unsw.edu.au/news/2013/Various_files/26_Olivier_PR.pdf (which was posted by a commenter here by the name of James on a previous post) and in the blog of the lead author of that article (Jake Olivier, UNSW) at: http://injurystats.wordpress.com/

  • I read on an Australian cycling blog a few years back that helmets can increase spine trauma in cycling accidents because of the lack of friction when they hit the ground. This apparently causes more twisting motions to the neck and spine as the helmet skitters away, making the body follow.
    Sounds plausible (or it did when I read it).
    Anyone have thoughts about that?

  • jacques

    i totally agree with this policy. I’d also very much like CAA to advocate for the repeal of the helmets law. the Greens should also take this onboard.

  • Chris Glover Kapiti coast

    I voted ACT this time. I have never voted ACT before. Getting rid of the compulsory / mandatory bicycle / pushbike helmet law is top priority. All other issues can wait.
    I have no desire to continue living in a country or state with an adult bicycle helmet law. I would prefer no helmet law for children and motorcycles.
    Pushbike helmets can not protect you from serious injury or death.

  • Chris Glover Kapiti Coast NZ

    Bicycle helmet laws have put most people off utility cycling in Australia and New Zealand without improving safety. It’s made safety worse. To understand why you have to look at the bigger picture, something that THE HELMET LADY didn’t do. There are other factors to consider such as risk compensation, safety in numbers + others. It’s not as simple as: Put a helmet on and you are safe.
    Bike share schemes can not operate successfully with ADULT bicycle helmet laws.

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