The case for wearing bicycle helmets seems obvious to most people… it seems common sense to wear what appears to be safety protection when cycling, but the argument is not as straightforward as it looks, as we will demonstrate later. Firstly, we need to differentiate between two very similar but different arguments, as to whether cyclists should wear helmets, and whether wearing cycle helmets should be mandatory. It is only the latter argument that we are concerned with, as we believe that whatever the pros and cons, the choice should be made by the individual and their own circumstances.
Transport Department does not collect data on the number of cyclists using the roads in any of their surveys, and the Hospital Authority does not collect data on cyclist injuries, so it is difficult to be exact on the true impact of implementing a mandatory cycle helmet law here in Hong Kong.
Experience from other locations
Australia’s mandatory cycle helmet laws, in place since 1991, are probably the most staunchly defended, and most well researched of all the laws around the world, and yet the reasoning behind the laws of trying to improve public health and safety have been found to be lacking in several aspects, including :
- Damaged public health
- Increased overall road casualties
Damaged public health
Whilst most cyclists do wear cycle helmets, mandating that people wear helmets has an impact on the greater public at large in making it more troublesome for people to use bicycles, and therefore removing the public health benefits of those who might not cycle if mandatory helmet laws were introduced. Some of those who might be affected are the local cyclist who is only going a short distance, and who therefore finds it inconvenient to carry a helmet for the entire trip, and also the infrequent cyclist, who might hire a bike a few times a year with friends, but would not buy a cycle helmet for such irregular use. Inconveniencing some people with mandatory helmet laws, and therefore reducing the number of cyclists also has the effect of reducing overall public health levels, leading to more and longer hospital admissions for non-cycling related reasons, and in Australia this has been estimated to cost millions of Australian dollars every year.
Increased overall road casualties
It has been shown in studies that with fewer cyclists on the road, vehicle awareness of cyclists in general decreases, leading to more incidents and therefore hospital admissions.
Of the 11 cyclists killed so far in 2011, 7 were hit by other vehicles where a helmet is very unlikely to have helped, in 2 cases the circumstances of the death are unclear, and the last 2 cases were someone falling off their bike and another hitting a railing, for which helmets may or may not have affected the outcome, but where the cyclists made a conscious decision to wear or not wear a helmet.
The way forward
Cycling helmets are not designed or tested to protect you if you are in an incident with another vehicle, so we believe that efforts would be much more effective if aimed at educating drivers about cyclists. Time, money and effort implementing mandatory helmet laws would be much better spent enforcing laws regarding motor vehicles, light and brake requirements for bicycles and increasing driver awareness, likely showing more significant increases in safety than compulsory helmet laws.
From a practical and policy perspective, the introduction of mandatory helmet legislation is not just associated with a substantial drop in head injuries among cyclists. The problem with a focus on helmets is that it attributes injury responsibility with the cyclist rather than the cause of the injury, which is essentially road and traffic conditions such as, for example, poor road surface, allocation of road space for cyclists, speed of vehicles, and in particular the attitudes and behaviour of drivers.
The issue is not about whether helmets protect the head or not, but whether the helmet legislation improved public health overall. There is little evidence that it does, and lots of argument that helmets are a barrier to cycling and the tremendous health benefits that come from cycling.
HKCAll recommends always wearing a cycle helmet but is against compulsion, preferring to leave such decision to the discretion of the cyclist.