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.


melancholic optimist said...

I'm still amazed at politicians' ability to completely ignore facts when it suits them for some reason. For instance, the argument still comes up regularly that people who ride bicycles in Portland don't pay for our roads, even though the truth is that we pay all the same taxes as everyone else who uses the roads, except in the case of a person who doesn't own a car at all (which is very rare here), and doesn't ever use public transit (therefore never using any petrol). Even then, that person is still paying 90% of the same taxes that are used to build and maintain roads. Even though this is completely common sense, and provable looking at how our taxes are divided up, it's like a mantra that certain politicians use to rile up their followers to kick bicycles off the roads.

melancholic optimist said...

Thankfully I haven't heard anything about making helmets mandatory for adults in Oregon though (but they are for anyone under 16 yrs). I would say about 90% of men and 70% of women wear them in Portland anyway though, but at least it's their choice.

Velorution said...

I fail to understand the political motive of sponsoring a pro-helmet legislation in Denmark. I would have thought that the Socialist People Party is alienating a good section of its supporters or potential supporters, by pushing this policy.
Or are they been paid by the helmet manufacturers? (Sorry I forgot that corruption does not exist in Denmark).

le homme au la velo said...

Very interesting News that the Dublin City Council took a Secret Vote on a Helmet Proposal without Consulting the Cyclists Organisations. It is what they have always done when they want to make a bit of Money on the Sly. They have been involved for Years in Dodgy Developments with Councillors being Paid off in Order to get Planning Approvals for Shopping and Housing Developments.That is why there is Tribunals Happening in Dublin Castle with Developers and Certain Government Officials involved.
This was all supposed to be agreed that no Pressure would be forced on People to Wear these Helmets,it would be left up to the Individual.

It is a Cheap way to avoid their Responsibilities in providing us with Safe Cycling Infrastructure.like Segregated Cycle Lanes and giving Parity to Cyclists and Pedestrians and not pandering to the Motoring Lobby.
I am glad their Motion was Defeated,The Cycling Organisations will have to keep a close watch on these Slimy Councillors in the Future.

Robert said...

If it could be proven beyond any doubt that bicycle helmets could prevent every accidental death related to biking I'd still oppose laws mandating their use. It's none of governments affair if I wear a helmet or not. I always wear a helmet when riding my bike.

Adrienne Johnson said...

The longer I am on this earth, the more strong I become in this conviction- When individuals want to legislate safety it is really a public expression of a need to control. They feel a need to control and inconvenience others to justify their own discomfort in their own skin. If they can convince themselves that they are 'saving' others they do not have to consider how much they need to save themselves.

ls said...

Not Ireland but Wales (thought you might be interested!) -

Cardiff has been selected to become Wales' first "sustainable travel town" by the assembly government.


Director Lee Waters said: "Thirty years ago Copenhagen had the same levels of cycling that Cardiff has today.

"Now, over a third of all commuting journeys in the Danish capital are by bike. Cardiff has the potential to achieve the same.


Anonymous said...

…Accident Safety Board that analyzed 6 cyclist deaths in 2007 and that concluded that two of them could have been prevented with helmets.

Did they analyze any other road deaths? How many deaths could have been prevented if car drivers were required to wear helmets?

As a thought experiment, perhaps your legislator should imagine if she had to where a Styrofoam hat while in a car or on a bus. Would she travel by motor vehicle more or less?


Just a cyclist said...

Actually Mikael, that email was wrong also about sweden. There is a helmet law, for minors, under 15. No reduced cycling? Well, read some stats about two years ago that actually showed reduced helmet use, down to 20% for minors, post law.
Pressure for an extension of this law to adults is constant from the public roads administration and an "independent" road safety organisation that is publicly funded (shame on you for thinking anything else...).
One recurring statement on any possible opposition against an extension of the law is: "Yes, there are still people who oppose this kind of law on the grounds of having their hairstyles ruined"

didrik said...

I'm saddened to hear this stupidity is infecting Denmark.

Why would the government party even be considering this? Is there some vocal minority that thinks buying and wearing their own helmet isn't good enough? Do parents want their kids to wear helmets but can't get them to do it so they wan the government to force them to?

If safety of children is their goal, perhaps a law banning motor vehicles from carrying or being within 50 meters of a child should be enacted. If there is a child present, motor vehicles must stop and wait for children to clear before resuming movement. Seems reasonable to me since here in the US, the CDC claims that motor vehicles are the number one killer of children.

lagatta à montréal said...

We had the same problem some years ago with an otherwise progressive Montréal city councillor, a strong social democrat and environmentalist, but who had disregarded the years of briefs from cyclists' associations, to our dismay. Fortunately the damned thing didn't get anywhere.

It may not be corruption per se, but lobbyists can have undue influence even in the least corrupt of countries, with their scare stories and faulty statistics. There is a particular blog (no I won't link to it) that is practically nothing but such scare stories. And plastic peddlers make millions from selling foam hats - since they must be replaced upon the slightest impact or drop on ground.

So sick of the "hairstyle" thing, as if opposition to having to wear something cumbersome and uncomfortable were only a matter of vanity. Not that vanity is a bad thing, that is - it is really important to show, as your other blog does, that cycling and chic are compatible! Or cycling and urbanity...

Ron said...

Hey Copenhagen.

Seems like a way for government to make money. If someone doesn't follow the law, fine him! Right? While I have something against the government putting their nose into cycling affairs, you do mention in an absolutely convinced fashion that helmets reduce cycling. Where in the world are you pulling this information from. I'll be interested in seeing it, and dissecting it apart. Throw me some recognized, cited and peer approved material and literature to read if you don't mind.

Cozy Beehive

Just a cyclist said...

Wow... cozy beehive! How cool it is to see you here. I love your blog even if it's definitely the opposite of this one =) Anyways. If you wan't a page where helmet stats have been dissected already: www.cyclehelmets.org
And also, here is an article of the kind that you wan'ted, from 2006, by now a classic I'd say...
Note though how this subject is normally treated: A helmet sceptic article were submitted to a scientific journal, BMJ, which in turn invited a bunch of known zealots to write a counterarticle - to be published in the same issue. Who said science was to be unbiased...

Mikael said...

hello ron.
there isn't one place in the world where helmet usage has reduced head injuries.

in every region where helmet laws have been in place cycling has been reduced.

how about this... you send us some exceptions to the above. it would be quicker.

and yes, as just a cyclist mentioned, www.cyclehelmets.org.

katrygg said...

Wesson DE, Stephens D, Lam K, Parsons D, Spence L, Parkin PC. Trends in pediatric and adult bicycling deaths before and after passage of a bicycle helmet law. Pediatrics. 2008;122:605-610.

Bicycle-related mortality rates for children 1 to 15 years of age decreased significantly during the 12-year period from 1991 to 2002. It is most likely that multiple factors, including education, promotion, and secular trends, contributed to this decrease. The analysis suggests that the introduction of legislation mandating helmet use for bicyclists <18 years of age made a significant contribution; legislation was found to be temporally associated with the reduction in fatalities among child bicyclists (1–15 years of age), whereas a similar reduction in fatalities among adult bicyclists (≥16 years of age) was not identified.

Note: "We examined data from our longitudinal observation survey in one urban community in Ontario (in 1993–1997, 1999, and 2001) and did not identify a systematic reduction in children's rates of bicycling (cyclists per hour)."

Mikael said...

The helmet laws in Ontario caused a redution in cycling of 18-27%, including the little neighbourhood mentioned above.

You have to look at the BIG picture.

Mikael said...

Ontario Helmet Laws

ls said...

Maybe we should campaign for compulsory helmets in cars to reduce car use?

katrygg said...

"Ontario caused a redution in cycling of 18-27%"

Anonymous said...

'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.'

One wonders, should the motion have been passed, how the Councillors had planned to enforce the law. All road legislation is the preserve of the national government, not of local councils. Was it for the 'optics' of being seen to do something for cyclist safety (possible due to a recent high profile fatality)? Why then do it (effectively) in secret? The whole thing stinks (much like Dublin City Council's contract with JCDecaux).

But 'very hush hush' indeed- very few working in the area of cycle planning and promotion were even aware of this. I had to discover it from Copenhagenize! (Thanks.) How's *that* for 'finger on the pulse'? ;)