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Terrible Arguments for and Against Mandatory Helmet Laws

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Modified on 2012/10/03 03:10 by Administrator Categorized as Cycling
Mandatory Cycle Helmet requirements weirded me out when I arrived in Australia in the early 00's. Coming from the UK, where bike helmets are optional, I found it a bit Nanny State, and to be honest I still do. Cards on the table, I think MHL should be repealed, primarily because the data show that cycling uptake plummeted in the wake of their introduction, and while it's recovering, it's not recovering quickly enough.

There's great debate at the moment over these laws, since they're blamed for low cycling uptake and the calamitous near-failure of inner-city Bike Share schemes in Melbourne and Brisbane, and are a significant factor in delaying Sydney's bike share scheme.

However, proponenets and opponents alike make some bloody awful arguments when debating the topic. This page will disassemble both sides. I'll try to group them by topic, and this page is a work in progress. If I've missed your pet argument (or your pet-hate argument), feel free to let me know

WORK IN PROGRESS

Tactic: Accident rates per hour went up after MHL came in in NZ

This is true. Accidents per kilometre went up markedly, however this could (maybe, partly, a bit) be explained by the fact that more dedicated cyclists kept riding, while the risk averse stopped. The risk averse tend not to ride hard enough to have an accident, and therefore the rate would be expected to go up.

Probably not enough to explain the entire statistical change, but when you're arguing about this, it's almost impossible to get the nuance across. It's also more complicated than most people express. Therefore this isn't a great argument, especially when used as a primary reason. It's too easy for a pro-MHL arguer to rationalise away

Strategy: It's about the Helmet

It's not about the helmet. It's about the laws. On an individual basis, helmets are a great safety device. Not perfect, but nothing is. But this is not about individual cases - it's a population level argument

Strategy: Argument from personal experience

"I once crashed my bike and a lesser man would surely have perished" is a terrible pro-MHL argument. So what? Maybe if the law wasn't in place, you'd still have been wearing your helmet. After all, a study in New Zealand found that about 50% of riders before MHL wore helmets.

Besides, if you're going to show your broken and mangled helmet and try to say that that is what would have happened to your skull, you'll get laughed at. Bike helmets are designed to absorb impacts by deforming and breaking. The two are not equivalent. And it's still argument from personal experience, which does NOT scale to population level.

Tactic: Wearing a helmet can cause more serious injuries

Opponents of MHL sometimes cite studies on torsional brainstem injury, and note that this severe injury is more likely if you have a helmet on. What they don't like to be told is that yes, this is true. Sometimes seatbelts tear people's arms off, too. And sometimes airbags cause worse injuries than they prevent. However this does not mean, by necessity, that overall helmets don't operate as a good safety device. If they prevent ten serious skull fractures from low-to-medium impacts, but 'cause' one torsional brain stem injury at high speed (an accident which may well have caused serious or fatal injuries anyway), is that an acceptable trade-off?

This is a hypothetical question - I've seen no well-written studies to settle this question either way, but would appreciate being sent anything relevant.

Tactic: it's uncomfortable and restricts my vision

Get a better helmet. Again, an argument from personal experience which does not scale. My helmet drops sweat in my eyes when I'm riding hard. While it'd probably be less uncomfortable to take it off, the important point is I'm riding hard and that's the time I'll probably need it. Terrible argument. A reason for you to personally dislike helmets, perhaps, but not a reason to repeal MHL.

Tactic: I wear a helmet, therefore everyone should

Very bad. I have no idea what kind of rider you are. Cycling encompasses a broad swathe of society, from risk-averse grandparents who never go above 10km/h to confident lunatics like me who think little of chasing cars down Spit Hill at 70km/h+. There are confident riders that go slowly, and nervous riders that still outpace their abilities and vice versa.

For me, a helmet is probably a good idea for anything other than toddling off to the shops. For Grandma, who only rides from her quiet bungalow down a local cyclepath a couple of kms for a picnic, it's probably less important. No two riders are the same, and no two rides are the same.

Strategy: Won't somebody think of the children

This debate is not about children and never was. Kids probably should be compelled to wear a helmet, especially while they're learning to ride, or in the inevitable daredevil phase that a lot of kids go through. That doesn't mean a competent adult should likewise be compelled to wear a helmet - unless the public health benefit is significant.

Tactic: Conflating "repeal of MHL" with "Ban all helmets"

If MHL were repealed, it doesn't mean no-one is allowed to wear a helmet any more. This kind of fallacious thinking is common, and while it's not explicitly expressed in this debate often, it DOES crop up implicitly, notably in expressions that Anti-MHL people are anti-helmet. I certainly wear a helmet and would continue to wear one for most of my kilometres after withdrawal of the law. I'd probably only leave it off for very low-speed, very short rides.

I am not anti-helmet. I am pro-helmet but anti-MHL, and you can take that to the bank.

Strategy: Anything but MHL

Some proponents of the law will cite other possible factors as the cause of the precipitous dip in cycling numbers around the introduction of MHL in Australia, notably the rise in car ownership and the increase in urban sprawl.

Leaving aside the fact that the two quoted rises are continuous and gentle, whereas the drop in cycling rates around MHL's inctroduction was sudden and precipitous, this is terribly black-and-white thinking. No-one (well, no-one sensible) is saying the plummeting participation rate can solely be blamed on MHL. As with most things in life, the issue is multi-factorial, and to paint the opposition position as being "MHL is the only cause" is an egregious strawman argument. Avoid.

Tactic: The roads are too dangerous anyway

A bad one. What if the roads are so dangerous because MHL has discouraged participation in cycling? As with most things, the issue is more complex than many internet gasbags realise. Higher participation numbers would mean cyclists were a more common sight on the roads, and therefore drivers would be more used to sharing the road appropriately. Or at least, you'd hope so.

Tactic: A helmet won't save you if you tangle with a truck

Well duh. Seatbelts won't save you if your car explodes either, but you should probably still buckle the fuck up. Ignores that fact that the majority of cycling accidents don't take place between bikes and vehicles. There are plenty of scenarioes in which a helmet is of high value, and this is most true of low-speed crashes.

Strategy: What's good for the goose is good for the gander

Not necessarily. As mentioned above, there are a lot of different types of rider on a lot of different types of terrain in a lot of different styles. Some gain high benefits from helmets, some gain little to nothing.

Strategy: If you don't wear a helmet you're an idiot / Pro helmet sheeple just go with the herd

Oh yeah, well done there lad. First argument out of the gate and you're insulting the people you're going up against. What are you trying to achieve exactly?

Tactic: What about lights, bells etc? Surely if a bike helmet deters usage, they do too?

A colossally obvious red herring. So many things wrong with this. First up, they're safety devices that help protect other people too - a helmet protects only the rider, and if risk compensation is true, may actually make things marginally more dangerous for pedestrians on shared paths

And one extra point: A bell is a very imperfect "safety" device, given that it generally spooks pedestrians out of "predictable straight line movement" into "random brownian motion to escape scary bike". Dangerous. Better, perhaps, to shout "keep left please" or just avoid shared zones.

Better Arguments

  • NZMA's paper on public health impacts after MHL

Links

 

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