If fonts were dogs

I wouldn’t cycle in Melbourne without a helmet and I think anyone who chooses to cycle on the roads of our fair city without one is either an actuary or a statistics nerd. But as this raging debate shows, many people evidently would.

One reason I’m risk-averse about cycling is the experience of ‘dropping’ my bike with my son strapped in the child seat when he was two. While it was a low-speed accident, he banged his head on the road – fortunately it was encased in a helmet. Would he have been injured if he wasn’t wearing one? I don’t know for sure but I’m very glad I didn’t have to find out.

Another reason is I once worked with a woman whose teenage brother died many years before when he fell off his bike and hit his head on a gutter. This happened back in the days before anyone even thought to wear a helmet. Probably most importantly, I have a relative, a surgeon, who worked on a bicycle trauma study in Qld in the 80s and impressed on me the severity of head trauma suffered by cyclists, almost all of them children.

I wear a helmet because it’s a limited form of insurance against an unlikely but potentially catastrophic event. Like any insurance, the most likely outcome is I’ll pay more in ‘premiums’ than I’ll get back in ‘pay-outs’, but it’s protection against the remote possibility of absolute disaster. I know it won’t offer anything like the protection of a motor cycle helmet, but it will help in some sorts of low-impact events that might otherwise be deadly.

A helmet has no effect on my propensity to cycle. I’m a regular cyclist who commuted for many years, and I’ll always insist on wearing one. But making helmets mandatory for all cyclists is another matter altogether. While there’s still plenty of dispute, from the evidence I’ve seen, the social benefits of mandating helmets are probably out-weighed by the costs.

The key argument against compulsory helmets is they discourage people from enjoying the health benefits of cycling and from generating the associated environmental payoffs. It seems likely these foregone benefits exceed those from avoided head trauma. Also, discouraged riders diminish the number of cyclists on the road and thereby make cycling in traffic more dangerous for all riders.

The “discouraged cyclist” effect manifests in a number of ways. There’s unwanted ‘helmet hair’. Always having a helmet on hand can be inconvenient. Helmets are uncool in some demographics, particularly among children. In hot weather they can be very uncomfortable. Probably most importantly, making helmets compulsory helps create the idea that cycling is inherently more dangerous than it actually is.

The debate isn’t really about the value of choosing to wear a helmet, it’s about whether or not the net benefits at a social level warrant compelling everyone to wear one. I subscribe to the view that any restriction on personal behaviour needs to have pretty strong and unambiguous net benefits to be justified.

The circumstances at the time bicycle helmets were made mandatory (1991 in Victoria) were very different to today. The fatality rate from road accidents was far higher than it is now – there were 13.7 fatalities per 100,000 population in Australia in 1990, versus 6.8 in 2009. Probably most importantly, cycling was seen as something only children – vulnerable and immature – did on a serious scale. New research in the 80s on cycling-related head trauma, mostly among children, made compulsory helmets an easy and widely-applauded decision. At the time, the benefits doubtless seemed strong and unambiguous.

Circumstances are different today of course. Apart from the much lower road toll, fewer children cycle unaccompanied to school. Many more adults cycle, either for leisure or to get to work, than was the case in 1990. There is much greater consciousness of environmental issues and the contribution that cycling could make to mitigating them. However if the health benefits don’t exceed the costs then there’s not much of a warrant anymore for mandatory helmets. Probably the real test is to imagine that helmets were never made compulsory and then think about how it would go if a government proposed mandating them today – wouldn’t have a chance!

It’s ironic that the lamented Melbourne Bicycle Share is the catalyst for the current debate on compulsory helmets. I have my doubts as to whether helmets are the main explanation for the scheme’s lacklustre performance. While the helmet law doesn’t help, I doubt that repealing it would magically make the Bixis a success. My hunch is the scheme’s failure has more to do with misguided strategy – for example, aiming the scheme at locals rather than tourists – and legitimate concerns about the safety of riding on city centre roads. I suspect access to trams and the walkability of the centre are other relevant factors. The fate of Melbourne Bicycle Share should only be a small part of any case for changing the law on helmets. Invigorating the Bixis requires other strategies.

I also doubt that repealing the current law would provide the sort of boost to cycling that some advocates imagine (bicycles account for around 1-2% of all work journeys in Melbourne). Some have a romantic view of the inner city looking like central Paris. My feeling is there are more complex reasons for Melburnian’s reluctance to cycle and they should be the key focus – in particular, safety is a key issue.

The other thing about helmets is no government is likely to see any political value whatsoever in repealing the law. There are far too many risk-averse parents who want their children to wear a helmet and are happy to have their authority supported by the State. Far better then to focus our energies on cycling infrastructure and on taming cars and drivers. At the end of the day, compulsory helmets is a second order issue for the future of cycling in Melbourne.