MIND THE GAP (and watch your head)

Anecdotal evidence: If I hadn’t been wearing my helmet, my hair may have been messed up too.

The most divisive topic in Australian cycling circles is no longer ‘Did Lance dope?’ Now that one’s been so sadly settled we can get back to our favourite controversy – ‘Should helmets be compulsory?

Here I go, head first over the handlebars into the hornets’ nest…

If you wear a helmet in Holland you’re a show-off. If you don’t wear one in Australia you’re a bloody idiot – possibly literally.

I feel very safe cycling in Holland. I hop on the bike several times a day with nothing but a baseball cap between my brain and the bitumen. It’s only a few hundred metres to the Klopper en Stolk bakery.

The first section is down a narrow street beside a canal. Cars and bikes in roughly equal numbers crawl along between the parked vehicles. It’s a bit of a squeeze, but we look out for each other.

The bike bridge – not a helmet in sight.

Then I cross the Schinkel Canal on a bridge built exclusively for bikes. I sometimes get caught in a bike jam there.

We’re all a bit wobbly as we step on the pedals to get up momentum, and there’s the odd stumble at low speed. Heads are seldom threatened.

The bakery is on one of Amsterdam’s busiest roads, the Amstelveenseweg. Cars, trucks and trams whip by in both directions, paying no regard to cyclists. They don’t need to – there are separated cycle paths on each side of the road.

Vondelpark, Amsterdam

If I want to go into the centre of town, I usually ride there through the Vondelpark – a two-kilometre car-free stretch. The park is nearly always busy. The trip involves weaving between the joggers and some negotiation with faster or slower riders.

But I give a tolerantly wide berth to tourists on their rented bikes and nobody gets hurt.

Helmets are not compulsory in Holland, though periodically a trauma surgeon calls for them to be made so, particularly for children and teenagers. When such a recommendation gets aired, it is usually accompanied by a pronouncement from the Fietsersbond (Cycling Association) that although in individual cases a helmet may save a life, anything which discourages cycling has negative public health effects.

I do have a helmet in Amsterdam. They’re compulsory for organised cycling events and if I decide to go out for a bit of serious exercise in the countryside I strap on the lid before bending over the drop bars. But 90% of my trips are made to visit friends or do the shopping, and a helmet would be an inconvenient encumbrance.

As regular visitors to this blog know, Mevrouw T and I ride a lot in Nederland. We always lose a few kilograms during the months we spend there and emerge looking and feeling healthier. If we had to wear a helmet for every trip, we’d certainly use the bikes less often. Shock, horror, we’d even consider getting a car!

If all of Sydney were as safe for cycling as our street, I’d probably ditch the lid…

Cycling in Sydney is a different matter. I’m delighted that progress is being made in designating cycle routes and installing safely separated bike paths. It’s good to see cycle use increasing dramatically, not just as a sport but as commuter transport.

Helmet wearing is currently compulsory on all public roads.

We happen to live in a street designated as a cycle route and a steady trickle of two-wheelers passes each morning. Unfortunately our street leads at both ends to a designated heavy vehicle route. There’s no escape on Livingstone or Wardell Rds. It’s a choice between riding with the trucks or riding (illegally) with the pedestrians on the footpath.

…but our street emerges on this one, and there’s nowhere to hide.

Probably my helmet wouldn’t be much use in an argument with a 10-tonne cement mixer, but it may save me in a minor scrape like the one pictured at the top of this post. I value my brain for incisive blogging and every little helps.

But just because I feel naked without my helmet in Australia doesn’t mean I think everybody should be compelled to wear one. If it would get more people cycling more often, I’d rather see the rules relaxed. Ideally of course I’d like to see the infrastructure on cycle routes become so safe that we could all confidently pedal bareheaded.

Abandoning mandatory lid laws in Australia would be what Yes, Minister’s Sir Humphrey would call a ‘courageous’ decision. One serious injury to an unprotected noggin would be a front page news story, inevitably linked to the politician or party that went soft on helmets. A thousand more carefree cyclists boosting their personal well-being while reducing traffic congestion and air pollution would be no news story at all.

So the laws are here to stay. A pity, methinks.

Anecdotal evidence: Dutch kids riding home from school, helmetless, with minimal health risks and maximum health benefits.


Filed under Cycling

19 responses to “MIND THE GAP (and watch your head)

  1. I totally agree with all your comments, I also wonder if it is a revenue raiser, we are easier to catch on a bike….
    We take our bikes on the back of the van when travelling and 2 helmets take up a lot of storage space. We travel in a very small van….

    • i’m not sure that a lot of revenue is raised from fining cyclists, pp. There are occasional calls from motorists for more police action on law-breaking pedallers.

      I’m a regular lawbreaker myself when it comes to pavement riding next to dangerous roads, but I like to think I’m always considerate of pedestrians when sharing their space.

      • We can legally ride on the pavements in Queensland, thank goodness, except in some CBD and shopping areas where they have the no bikes sign displayed. Here on the Goldcoast it is quite bike friendly and the local council do budget each year to extend the bike ways and every new subdivision has to have bike paths incooperated

  2. That sounds very enlightened. The intentions here in Sydney are good, but the gaps in the network mean there are lots of awkward sections to be negotiated.

  3. I don’t know where to place myself with that. Never really thought much about this issue. Thanks for the good read, btw. I guess, a limitation perhaps? I mean, recreational vs. commuting, city vs. less crowded area, things like that. To be completely honest, let people be. It’s their decision be free and to take risk. Should we wear bullet proof vests whenever we enter a backstreet, dark alleyway?

    • I believe it’s only in Australia, New Zealand and Sweden that bike helmets are mandatory. Many other countries have grumbled about, but eventually accepted, compulsory seatbelts in cars. Is the issue the same?

  4. I never had a cycle helmet when I was a kid, nobody did! They seem to be a good thing but what I’d like to know is why do they seem to be designed to make you look stupid? Surely someone can come up with something that doesn’t look like an alien’s skull stuck on the top of your bonce!

    • Andrew, we never had helmets as kids…or bikes either, for that matter. That may explain why I’m technically very wobbly on two wheels. Keep me out of the peloton when they’re in a tight bunch sprint – I’m likely to bring everybody down.

      And yes indeed, I’ve yet to find a helmet that didn’t make me look like a complete dork. The same could be said about all cycling clothing, from shoes to padded bum shorts to gaudy jerseys bulging in the wrong spots.

  5. I would love to see the reaction if Italy tried to make helmets compulsory. I suppose people would just ignore it as they ignore the seatbelt law. Even If drivers wear belts themselves, I rarely see children strapped in. Often the kids are standing up between the front seats having a chat to their patents.
    I hope you weren’t too badly hurt.

    • I don’t think even the compliant, law-abiding Dutch would stand for compulsory bike helmets. There’s no doubt the seatbelt laws have saved lots of lives, but then riding in a car is not particularly enhancing for anyone’s health at any time.

      And thanks for your concern – I’m scarred for life, but otherwise notice no ill effects.

  6. Knuckles

    Richard,do you actually know someone who really wants to ride regularly in Australia but doesn’t because of the helmet law? .As for what would happen in Italy with such a law,I was convinced that Italians would ignore the smoking bans on trains when they were introduced but was proven wrong.After all, even most Americans now wear seat-belts despite it being such an seroius attack on their personal rights..

    • Richard Tulloch

      Well, as a matter of fact, Knuckles, my nearest and dearest rides daily in Holland and seldom in Australia. Something about the helmet messing up her coiffure, I understand, though the traffic is also a disincentive.

      Having travelled from Amsterdam to Rome on an overnight train in a smoking compartment (no other option available) I’m delighted to hear the Italians are now doing the right thing.

  7. rebeccafalbrecht

    I find it interesting that wearing helmets is equated with wearing seatbelts. Shouldn’t cyclists wearing helmets be equated with auto drivers wearing helmets. After all race car drivers wear helmets. And there are lots of head injuries in auto accidents.

    • The comparison arises because mandatory seatbelt laws are widely agreed to have been effective in reducing road deaths and injuries and are generally obeyed.

      Compulsory helmets for auto drivers and passengers would save more lives and perhaps even discourage some from travelling by car – not a bad idea, come to think of it!

      You make a good point. Thanks.

  8. I can sympathise with your take on helmets, Richard, and a lot of people seem to be making the argument these days that helmets discourage great numbers of people from taking up cycling, but I’m not convinced. I think it is FEAR that discourages people from cycling, and they have good reason to be fearful of arrogant, aggressive drivers who have a couple of tons as armour. When the only thing that can save your brain from being turned into mush is a piece of plastic, why on earth would you not wear a helmet?

    By-the-way, that picture must have been taken immediately before or right after we met on the Great Victoria bike ride. I just thought you always looked like that.

  9. trishworth

    I was just sitting here reading this post of yours when I saw you ‘like’ something of mine! Thanks! But I intended to write a response to this helmet piece anyway: I HATE my helmet. I can’t wear it when my hair’s in a bun and even with my hair down I look like a dork with the helmet on. Here in Canberra we have plenty of bike paths but you still have to ride on some roads to get to them in the first place. The helmet laws have a point, but not for bike path users. I’d be pretty angry if I were stopped on a bike path for not wearing a helmet. I probably don’t ride fast enough to go over the handlebars, which you seem to have done. Your poor head!

    • Thanks Trish. The head has recovered, though the face still bears the scars. Canberra seemed to me to be doing relatively well with bike paths last time I was there. There’s talk in Melbourne about the need to encourage use of their share bikes by letting people ride on cycle paths with the wind in their hair. But as you say, there are always points where cyclists have to share roads. When and if that ever gets fixed, they may look at relaxing the lid laws.

      Thanks again for the visit and the comment – you know how we bloggers love encouragement!

  10. On my travels I have noticed that we in Australia are VERY safety conscious. In the UK I was constantly visiting spots – lookout type areas – with no safety fence. Back home it’d be a case of ‘Someone might fall if they go too near the edge…better put up a big, sturdy fence’ and ruin the whole feel of the place.
    In New Zealand maybe they’re a bit casual in the park in Rotorua where you come across holes in the ground full of hot, bubbling water with nary a warning sign or protective barrier in sight. But I prefer it to the molly-coddling rife in Australia. Is it because we’ve become so litigious?
    I feel a right idiot wearing my bike helmet but was glad I had it on when I fell off a few weeks ago. Hope you’ve mended fully, Richard…..and thanks for the entertaining story.
    Oops! Another paragraph!

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