10 March 2009

Political Helmet Mishaps [and Irish Hope]

It is a constant and eternal hope for citizens of any nation that their politicians are fair, well-researched, thorough and rational. By and large, Danish democracy is refreshingly transparent. You can always come in direct contact with most MPs and corruption is non-existent. Politicians are accessible and with most of them you get the sense that they could be your neighbour.

I've always felt that the down-to-earth feeling is a main reason that Danes take democracy so seriously. In national elections, over 80% vote and you can strike up engaging discussions with most people about politics.

On occasion, mistakes are made. We're all homo sapiens after all. I was quite suprised to read that a member of parliament for one of the larger parties, Socialistisk Folkeparti [Socialist People's Party] actually proposed a helmet law for under 15's at a recent town hall traffic meeting.

The member of parliament for the Socialist People's Party in question was one Anne Baastrup. I was struck by not only her proposal here in the world's safest cycling nation but by her lack of research. I promply emailed her and suggested that she and her party be more thorough in their research before proposing laws that will discourage cycling and negatively affect public health.

I referred her to the official policy in the European Cyclists' Federation and the cyclists' union in a long line of European countries. I sent her a pile of links to websites that paint quite a different picture about helmets.

I was pleased to get a quick reply from her fellow MP, Pia Olsen Dyhr, who is their party's traffic spokesperson, but I was quite astounded to read her reply.

She wrote:
"I think you have some interesting points but you should know that we have researched this issue very thoroughly..."

"Firstly, there is no international research that shows that fewer people cycle when you pass helmet laws. It wasn't the case in Norway or Sweden when they introduced helmet laws."

The irony of reading that is quite amazing. In every single region in the world where helmet laws have been introduced, not to mention the mere promotion of helmets, the levels of cycling have dropped. Even the most hardcore helmet fantatics spend half their time trying to battle/debunk/ignore these facts.

Then when she writes that it was the case in Norway when they passed their helmet law, I realised that these people have done nothing to research the case.

Norway doesn't have a helmet law.

In fact, The Norwegian Public Roads Administration turned down a wish in Norway for a helmet law because it would reduce cycling. And the Institute of Transport Economics - TØI - is increasingly helmet sceptical.

At this point in her email I'm already shaking my head sadly, wondering how politicians from an otherwise fine party could be so frightfully unprepared and so far from the scientific verdict in other European countries.

She went on to mention a report from the Accident Safety Board that analysed 6 cyclist deaths in 2007 and that concluded that two of them could have been prevented with helmets. It's a report that has been criticised in professional circles for it's gross overestimation of the protective qualities of helmets.

The irony - if this can get anymore ironic - is that the Socialist People's Party were heavily involved in securing funding for cycling in the recent traffic budget negotiations. They have previously proposed paying people to ride bicycles. How can they be visionary and horribly out of touch at the same time?

They are playing lottery with the public health and risking putting yet another generation of Danes off cycling. Not based on science. Only belief and lack of research. Imagine what good they could do on this issue if they chose to employ rational thought, listen to the general consensus in Europe and if they started to promote cycling for what it is: a safe, healthy, life-extending transport option.

The party's slogan is "Det ku' være så godt" - or "It could be so good". Indeed it could. But they're off base on the helmet issue.

Meanwhile, on the Emerald Isle:

Ireland's National Cycle Lobby Group - Cyclist.ie - published an article in Irish Health today about helmets. They are yet another cyclist organisation in a long line of European cyclist groups to sound the alarm about bike helmets.

“The drop in the number of cyclists following vigorous helmet promotion in other jurisdictions draws a stark picture: you can promote cycling or you can promote helmets; you cannot do both."

Copenhagenize.com loves being quoted... however indirectly.

I've also learned that a motion was brought before Dublin City Council last week to introduce the compulsory wearing of helmets. It was defeated with 20 against and 10 for. Even cycling advocates with their finger on the pulse were suprised by the vote. The city council kept it very hush hush that they were going to vote on it.