21 June 2009

Danish Bike Helmet Law Defeated in Parliament

My son is no longer at risk of being labelled a criminal!

This slipped under my radar while I was out travelling - ironically out promoting cycling positively. A Danish political party - The Socialist People's Party proposed a bike helmet law for children under 12. And right here in the world's safest cycling nation where it has never been so safe to cycle.

I posted about this party's position previously here on Copenhagenize.com and their four Safety Fetishists; Pia Olsen Dyhr, Anne Baastrup, Karina Lorentzen Dehnhardt and Ole Sohn [with Morten Østergaard from Radikale Venstre providing extra Orwellian Newspeak]- put the law proposal through the political machinery, ending with a vote on May 28th, 2009.

The Socialist People's Party, together with a small party called Radikale Venstre [they're probably just happy someone asked them out to play] voted For and the rest of the Folketing [Danish Parliament] voted soundly Against.

For: 21
Against: 90
Abstained: 0
Absent/Playing golf, etc: 68

A victory for common sense and rationality.

It still boggles the mind how The Socialist People's Party didn't bother to do their research. It's rare to see laws proposed on such a fantastically thin background. The backbone of their proposal was rhetoric and fearmongering. And this from a party that claims to work for increased cycling in Denmark.

I really hope there aren't many law proposals in the Parliament like this that are such an amazing waste of time and taxpayer's money. Here's an interesting analysis of why a law like this just doesn't fly.
Long John
Non-criminals enjoying the joy of the bicycle in the world's safest bicycle nation.

The primus motor behind the proposal, Pia Olsen Dyhr, wasn't any more well-prepared for her moment in the democratic spotlight as when I exchanged emails with her previously. She actually said, recorded for all eternity:

"The Danish Cyclists Federation [DCF] and The Danish Road Safety Council have made splendid campaigns over the past couple of years. Nevertheless, the number of children cycling hasn't risen."

No shit, Sherlock. There's a reason they call them scare tactics and fearmongering. They... uh... scare people. Parents become fearful and don't let their children cycle. We've seen it before in Denmark and we're seeing it again.

Promotion and legislation go hand in hand and have the same negative effects on cycling. People stop doing it, with all the negative health aspects involved.

Pia Olsen Dyhr doesn't realise this though:
"...Look, for example, at New Zealand where there is an all-ages helmet law. The year after the law was passed, the number of cyclists fell a little. The year after it rose again and was higher than before the law. [...] This is at least one scientific study that shows that there is absolutely no truth to the claim that people will stop cycling."
- Cycling in New Zealand decreased by 22% after the helmet laws according to the New Zealand Household Travel Survey.
- Here is Dr Dorothy Robinson's Cost-Benefit analysis of New Zealand's helmet laws [PDF].
- Here is another cost-benefit analysis - Taylor M, Scuffham P - 2002 - in Injury Prevention [PDF].

And once again, let's mention Professor Piet de Jong's mathematical template for determining the negative costs of helmet laws.

The Danish Minister of Transport, together with the Ministers of Transport for all the EU countries [The European Council of Ministers of Transport], published a report in 2004 [National Policies to Encourage Cycling] wherein it says, among other things, that:

"...from the point of view of restrictiveness, even the official promotion of helmets may have negative consequences for bicycle use, and that to prevent helmets having a negative effect on the use of bicycles, the best approach is to leave the promotion of helmet wear to manufacturers and shopkeepers.

The report entitled 'Head Injuries and Helmet Law for Cyclists' by Dorothy L. Robinson, Bicycle Research report No. 81 (March 1997) shows that the main effect of the introduction of the general helmet law for cyclists in Australia was a drop in bicycle use."

I'm pleased that the law was voted down. As Karsten Nonbo, MP for the Venstre party said in Parliament:

"We can try and imagine that if we pass this law making it illegal not to wear a bike helmet, what would that mean? Well, it would mean that children would always have to wear a bike helmet in places where the traffic laws apply. In other words, children would have to wear a bike helmet in camping grounds, they'll have to wear bike helmets on the sidewalk, they'll have to wear bike helmets on city squares, they'll have to wear them everywhere because it became law. I am quite sure, as the Minister of Justice also said, that many people will stop cycling."

He added later something that is seen all over the world:
"It's amusing that often it is people who don't cycle very often who bring these things to the table"

Well said. Although this debate in Parliament revealed one important thing. That many politicians in this country are shockingly lacking in information about bike helmets. Not only the Safety Fetishists from The Socialist People's Party who took it one step further and manipulated their 'research' but many of the others. It was as though the Danish Parliament was put to the task of discussing something just as odd as revising the Laws of Cricket.

This whole bike helmet issue is so new to this country and the only place they can get they information are from the car-centric Danish Road Safety Council and the vague, almost uninterested, Danish Cyclists Federation.

Let's look abroad shall we. The UK's National Cyclists Organisation, CTC, previously succeeded in lobbying against a similar law and published a brochure that they sent to politicians in which they wrote 7 reasons to oppose a child helmet law:

1. The principal threats to children's lives are obesity, heart disease and other illnesses resulting in large part from inactivity. Cycling has a key role to play in preventing these illnesses. Less cycling through a helmet law would aggravate the situation.
2. Cycling is a healthy activity, and the likelihood of serious head injury is widely exaggerated.
3. Cycling becomes safer the more people do it. Encouraging cycling is by far the most effective way of reducing risk of injury.
4. Helmet promotion deters cycling and leads to poorer health.
5. The benefits of helmets are greatly over-stated.
6. Many other everyday activities could benefit more from helmet-wearing than cycling.
7. A helmet law would make it a crime for children to take part in a health giving activity.

You can read the brochure here - it opens as a PDF document.

As I wrote in the post about Copenhagenize at the Velocity Conference, the European Cyclists Federation printed buttons and brochures about their stand on helmets.

You can now read the brochure here. It opens as a PDF document.

At the end of the day a law criminalising children and their parents for choosing a healthy, life-extending transport option is perverse.

The Culture of Fear's encroachment on our culture - ESPECIALLY relating to Danish cycling - is not welcome and we'd be best served to repel it.

The vote in Parliament was a small stop in that direction. We're at a crossroads in Denmark. The bicycle is booming all over the world, but not here.We can either promote cycling or we can promote helmets. We cannot do both and we must decide quicksmart which direction we want to take.

For the sake of public health and The Greater Good.

Spotted recently. A "Tryg uden hjelm i verdens sikreste cykelland" sticker on a Copenhagen bicycle. Translated it means "Feeling secure without a bike helmet in the world's safest cycle nation". Rationality and common sense is returning.

- Stickers available here.
- Facebook group here, in Danish.


anna said...

Although people also discuss helmet laws (especially for kids), it was never really picked up by political parties. Hope it stays like that. Everywhere.

Hans said...

Previously I tended towards supporting legislation on bike helmets. But the various evidence on the negative effects of such law + the stats on the real risk of not wearing helmets have convinced me to oppose.

Until recently I leaved in Melbourne, where helmets where the law. People didn't cycle there (unless me of course), and those who did where driving like madmen.

Erik Sandblom said...

I heard on the radio that danes are getting fatter, and so the government wants to raise taxes on unhealthy foods. They didn't mention that cycling is declining in Denmark.

Isn't there a connection here? Less cycling = fatter citizens.

Brent said...

@Erik S.

In the States we're seeing more and more links between less exercise and obesity. Many students of urban design note that we have effectively engineered physical activity out of our daily lives. We no longer need to exercise to do anything of note. In fact, exercise has largely become recreational. Health advocates are starting to become instrumental in encouraging exercise, including cycling, among children.

When I was child in the 1970s, I walked to school and spent much of my time outdoors on my bicycle riding to the library and the like. Today, parents mostly drive their children to school, and playtime is often centered around video games.

On Friday, I had dinner with a couple whose children are about ten years younger than I. Somehow the conversation came around to transportation issues, and I asked them whether they had allowed their children (when aged 10 in the 1980s) to ride in the neighborhood. They said they had greatly limited their cycling in large part because of concerns over "kidnapping" and "perverts." As it happens, I believe the risk of either of these occurrences is quite low, lower than being killed in an auto accident, for instance.

Based on this tiny bit of evidence, I might offer the timid proposal that somewhere between my childhood in the 1970s and the childhoods of the 1980s, American parents suddenly freaked out about their children playing outside without supervision. The obesity epidemic we have now follows nearly the same time frame.

digitalmouse said...

Woohoo! This is great news! I would have been severely annoyed if I were forced to wear helmets in the future. I ride a recumbent trike, and there is not a single helmet that I can wear *and* still use the trike seat's headrest.

Hopefully this nonsense is stopped cold with the failure of the children's helmet bill, and we can move on to more productive and positive ways of promoting cycling!

Peter said...

Congratulations on not giving in to fear mongering. Contrast this approach in the UK by British Waterways who run the canal system and as such are one of the biggest organizations that look after cycle paths.
I think I will emigrate.

Rob said...

Thanks again, Mikael, for a defence of common sense. Helmets for cyclists make as much sense as bullet-proof jackets for pedestrians: they may offer some protection in certain very rare circumstances... but only deranged survivalists would make them compulsory.

Rob said...

This result is certainly a good one for Denmark.

Growing up in New Zealand, I was one of many who heard the story of helmet advocate Rebecca Oaten (the "helmet lady"), whose son suffered sustained head injuries in a bicycle accident.

While certainly a tragic event, this emotive campaign must have coloured discussions back home and prevented informed and rational debate about implementing helmet laws.

Hopefully New Zealand's failed experiment with cycle helmet legislation will serve to inform debate in other countries and dissuade them from making the same mistake.

Just a cyclist said...

Coming up with a helmet-law proposal must be a delicious little tidbit for any politician. At least that is what they think: a nice and easy way to raise their egoes and show some power to act, while feeling the warmth in their hearts like someone who does good deeds for mankind. Quite cheap, really.

Filigree said...

What bothers me, is that this idea even surfaced in Denmark in the first place. Given the history and popularity of casual cycling culture, where is this coming from?

From casual conversations with acquaintances across several countries (Austria, France, Belgium, Germany, UK), I get the impression that Europeans are beginning to perceive riding with a helmet as the "enlightened/advanced" approach, and riding without a helmet as the "old-fashioned/uninformed" approach. I am genuinely curious now what the public opinion polls on this issue would look like.

It reminds me of the smoking bans: At first everyone complained, but a year later many began to say that the bans were a wonderful thing.

Once the seed of a notion is planted in popular culture, it can grow and take root even if for now it is in the minority. That is why the Danish stint alarms me, even though the law was rejected.

lagatta à montréal said...

I'm thrilled that stupid law was defeated, but as filigree and Brent said, there are worrying trends, towards the "enclosure" of childhood, in countries where the abduction or murder of children is extremely rare, and unfortunately deaths and serious injuries due to car accidents not rare at all. And the commodification and "rebranding" of everything, making it seem "modern" and "branché" to be cycling to work encased in lycra with an uncomfortable, cumbersome helmet.

lagatta à montréal said...

I'm also looking at the cursory information available about the party in English (unfortunately I don't read Danish; hopefully one day that will change - I can certainly understand simple sentences but not political manifestos). And I find it utterly bizarre that a party that positions itself not only as social-democratic but as "green politics" and "ecosocialist" could possibly take such a stance.

There are forms of top-down socialism that can be "nanny-statish" and meddling, much as I hate that shibboleth from the right that wants to eliminate social programmes - and environmental progress, and others that are very old-time productivist - but helmet fetishism is also a form of petroleum fetishism - a pro-plastics, pro-pollution and in the final analysis pro-car solution to the problem of traffic hazards. Very bizarre for those who claim to be green and ecosocialist.

Has this contradiction been raised?

Morten Lange (Reykjavik, Iceland) said...

I second the thank-yous and congratulations, Mikeal :-)

Also I agree with "lagatta à montréal" that there is a clear contradiction between being "green" and pro-helmet compulsion.

It could be that some of them see fear of traffic and news of injuries to cyclist as obstructions to an increase in this green and healthy form of transport. And they might genuinely believe that helmets would go a long way to improve the picture. They might even have talked to misguided cyclist organisations ( like DCF or their Swedish counterpart) that seem to believe that bicycle helmets can play an important role in traffic saety.

But it is hard to see that they have fulfilled their duty (in my mind) of really checking out the arguments against thir own proposal, to have somebody within their ranks play the devils advocate.

Perhaps they have even received or heard some arguments against helmet compulsion in the media. Did they ignore them ? Did they write them off as not serious, perhaps on the grounds that they were really based on vain-ness and helmet-hair related ? Are they programatically, as it were, convinced that they can never be wrong themselves ? Us and them ?

Of course proposals about helmet compulsion have in recent years been rejected in the parliments or ministries of the UK, Norway, France. And for the extension from compulsion for children to adults in Iceland and Sweden.

Even in the Netherlands, influnetial people who should know better, speak very warmly of bicycle helmets, especially for children, thus readying the ground for increasing wearing rates, and pushes for compulsion, and in the process diverting attention from the real issues.

Kelvin said...

I understand a biological rationale for helmets for very young children, but it's at the age where you'd expect them to fall if they run too fast because they have trouble balancing their big heads. You know, the age where they probably would benefit from wearing a helmet at all times. 12 years old is not that age.

And am I the only person that remembers being a kid means that wearing any type of safety equipment tends to make one see oneself as an indestructible superhero? It's like learning about moral hazard before we even heard of the word "economics".

Anonymous said...

Over the past 20 years I have followed the issue of cycle helmets and some interesting information has emerged. The topic is not as simple as it may appear, in fact it turns out to be very complicated in total effects. The main problems are that helmet requirements discourage cycling, increase the accident rate and cannot provide protection from head rotational accelerations.

Erke and Elvik 2007 (ref 1) (Norway road safety researchers) state "There is evidence of increased accident risk per cycling-km for cyclists wearing a helmet. In Australia and New Zealand the increase is estimated to be around 14%."

Clarke 2007 (ref 2) lists 2 possible advantages of helmets compared to 13 possible disadvantages of helmets or legislation. Of the 13 disadvantages, 11 could tend to increase the accident rate compared to 1 advantage tending to reduce the accident rate. On the balance of probabilities, it is therefore not surprising that the accident rate increases with helmet use.

Civil Liberties Australia recently published a 7 part assessment of Australia's helmet laws (ref 3). It was based on the level of cycling activity, fatalities, injuries, health, environmental, accident compensation and law enforcement. The outcome was negative on 6 counts, therefore helmet laws are not justified. It estimated about 600,000 Australians have been fined for not wearing a helmet.

The BMA concluded in 2008 (ref 4) that for fatal accidents, the force of impact in such instances is considered so significant that most protection would fail. There are several incidents of deaths to children due to strangulation by helmet straps. It is unsafe to assume helmets prevent fatalities as there is no real world strong evidence to support this.

The UK's National Children's Bureau (NCB) provided a detailed review in 2005 (ref 5) stating "the case for helmets is far from sound", "the benefits of helmets need further investigation before even a policy supporting promotion can be unequivocally supported" and "the case has not yet been convincingly made for compulsory use or promotion of cycle helmets."

The safest option for general cycling is not to promote helmets at all but to address safety issues in other ways, partially as per the Netherlands. A complete alternative approach to helmets can improve the health and safety of cyclists without the many disadvantages associated with helmet promotion and helmet legislation, both having substantial negative factors.

Erke A, Elvik R, Making Vision Zero real: Preventing pedestrian accidents and making them less severe, Olso June 2007.

Clarke CF, The Case against bicycle helmets and legislation, VeloCity Munich, 2007. http://www.ctcyorkshirehumber.org.uk/campaigns/velo.htm

Clarke CF, 'Mandatory can have unexpected consequences, Civil Liberties Australia, 25 Nov. 2008 http://www.cla.asn.au/Article/081125BikesHelmetPolicy.pdf

British Medical Association, Promoting safe cycling, A briefing from the Board of Science, March 2008.

Gill T, Cycling and Children and Young People – A review, National Children's Bureau, 2005.

amigosito said...

I appreciate all the thoughtful research that has been done regarding bicycle helmet laws, but in my opinion the matter differs from city to city. I felt comfortable riding my bike without a helmet in Copenhagen and Berlin, but I would be insane not to wear a helmet in Manhattan or San Francisco where motorists are not accustomed to sharing the road with cyclists. If you were to conduct research in those cities I think you would find there is a real benefit to wearing a helmet. More power to the cyclists of Copenhagen, but if you see a dorky American riding with a helmet on Amagerbrogade, it's probably me. To each their own.

Mikael said...

ami: the research has been done. look at the comment just above yours, for example.

there is nowhere in the world where use of bike helmets has been proven to result in reduced head injuries.

nowhere. why? because helmets are even designed to save lives.

so, again, your "belief" is getting in the way of your "knowledge". which is why I've compared cycle helmets with religion.

Marek said...

Similar story:
Jakarta – June 28, 2009, The Straits Times
NEW laws requiring disabled pedestrians to wear traffic signs have met with frustration and derision in Indonesia, where in the eyes of the law cars have taken priority over people.

The laws will do nothing to improve road safety or ease the traffic that is choking the life out of the capital city of some 12 million people, and serve only to highlight official incompetence, analysts said.

amigosito said...

Mikael: I dare you to ride your bike through the streets of San Francisco for one month without a helmet. My guess is that you'd come back fear-stricken and white-knuckled. We have car traffic that makes KBH look like a one-horse village, and many frustrated, over-caffeinated motorists have no qualms about running down cyclists. Having commuted in SF for years, I am not afraid, but I do take precautions for the sake of my family.

As I said, to each their own, but my "research" is certainly more empirical than yours. I have personally witnessed, and been involved in, accidents in which bicycle helmets have prevented head trauma, and accidents in which head trauma occurred and no helmet was used--both in San Francisco and in Copenhagen.

Let's separate these issues, because they are indeed separate issues: the first issue deals with the wisdom of wearing safety equipment. This is a personal choice and one that is not always based on fear but often on long-term thinking. The second, which I think this blog has rightfully addressed, is the culture of fear and the stupidity of organizations that think they can scare people into obedience.

In the U.S., many student motorists are forced to watch a grotesque video called "Red Asphalt" which is intended to scare young adults out of driving dangerously. And, as you can probably guess, it doesn't work. But guess what does work? Seatbelts. We also had a debate in California over a helmet law for motorcyclists. They argued exactly the points that this blog has put forth. And they lost their legal battle, not because of a culture of fear but because of a very simple, financial reason: insurance.

So again, should there be a law requiring helmets? No. Is it smart to wear a helmet? Yes. Duh!

Mikael said...

i've cycled all over the world. recently in moscow and london and tokyo, but i used to live in los angeles and vancouver.

i'm not 'afraid', i just use my brain.

you have a lot of reading up to do on helmets and i'd suggest you spent your time doing that before writing about it.

amigosito said...

Mikael, I respect your opinion and reiterate my agreement with you that fear tactics have a negative effect on society, but I think you're making erroneous and frankly arrogant assumptions about my level of knowledge when it comes to bicycle helmets. Don't you think it's a bit dogmatic to blithely dismiss differing opinions as theocratic or as based solely on blind belief?

Mikael said...

thanks, marek, for the link!
shocking stuff.

Just a cyclist said...

@ amigosito: Certainly, the wisest thing would be to never leave oneself unprotected and unhelmeted. Ever. All day long, and certainly not when sitting in a car.
Everyday we subject ourselves to many dangers of potentially far bigger magnitude than straddling a bicycle ever will be. Dangers that actually could be prevented and avoided such as alcohol consumption, car trips or swiming/bathing, to name a few. What keeps most of us alive while doing all this is not luck neither helmets, its rudimentary levels of sound judgement.

While I don't agree with your view that cyclist safety where "motorists have no qualms about running down cyclists" may be relied on bicycle helmets I am sad to say that authorities around the world does.

Melbourne Cyclist said...

Re amigosito's comment about young drivers driving dangerously, and saying that seatbelts stop them driving dangerously - nope, seatbelts just cut the number and severity of injuries to people within the car when they drive dangerously and crash, just like all other car safety devices.

My personal opinion is the number one thing that would encourage drivers to drive more safely (in terms of safety of those around them) would be a foot long metal spike firmly fixed to the middle of the steering wheel.

(caveat: I'm feeling grumpy today due to an idiot deliberately creeping along as close to the left as he could, in stationary traffic, so that I had no room to get by, despite there being plenty of room on the road for both of us, then having a go at me and jolting his car forwards, threatening to hit me, when I ducked around to the right and across in front of him [still stationary] rather than sitting in a queue of frustrated traffic stuck at lights that let about three cars through each time, for half an hour, with low visibility of myself and high risk of someone hitting me when the lights changed)

Authorities push bicycle helmets because it's easier and cheaper than actually doing something to improve our safety, like ensuring all learner drivers know more about how to drive around bikes (a bike based compulsory component for driving licences would be great!), ensuring all other drivers are frequently reminded of their responsibilities around bikes, that the police are onside and fining anyone being dangerous, providing us with decent infrastructure and etc and etc. It also puts all the responsibility for cyclist safety onto the cyclist, meaning that if a cyclist is hit and injured/killed, the immediate question is what they were doing wrong, as opposed to an investigation of what else was happening around them. That's how you get views such as 'cycling is dangerous', as opposed to 'cars are dangerous'. :-(

Outlander said...

Mandatory helmet law is designed purely to discourage cycling. It's an anti-people law of the worst kind, one feigning care for people's wellbeing but achieving the opposite as illuminated but much of the available research.

Lauren Bolinger said...

Is this really that big of a deal? If I had a kid that was around 12 or so, I'd probably want them to wear a helmet, law or no law. Maybe I don't understand the mindset against because I'm not Danish and I come from a place where everyone has to wear helmets (and consequently few people bike, I won't deny that fact). But it seems like most of the people posting here are taking this to mean the government wanted to force everyone to wear them. And I think that's missing the point in a big way.

Anonymous said...

I believe in helmets -- for kids, especially. If you fall at any sort of speed your head bounces off the pavement, and the consequences can be dire.

Bottom line: This blog is about looking cool while riding your bike (Bike "Culture") and helmets aren't cool (in this culture).

Go ahead and look cool with the breeze in your hair (if you are an adult fool), kids should have helmets.

Mikael said...

what exactly IS the point that is being missed in a big way?

and is 'believing' in helmets better than 'knowing' about helmets? I think not. This 'belief' is covered in the Cycle Helmets and other Religious Symbols article.

Surely children should be made to wear helmets in cars since car occupants also have just as high risks as cyclists? And what about in the home? They could bump their head. That's why this real product is so scary. Is this the culimination of 250,000 years of the evolution of homo sapiens?

Anonymous said...

helmets really only work in certain situations. If a child is riding around in front of his house and falls off his bike, the helmet will probably help, but in the city people travle on there bikes almost as fast as cars, and if someone falls off there bike going 35-45 miles per hour, a helmets not going to do much good. If you smash your head going 45 miles per hour, even if your wareing your helmet, your still gonna have some sort of seriouse injury.

Tallycyclist said...

Anon: Yes, because getting the breeze in your hair while cycling really is so cool and part of the liberating experience. I doubt you're really a cyclist.

The hair is an interesting point I hear about in blogs particularly where pro-helmet people think it's idiotic to worry about messy hair. Probably not a concern most of the time for most people, but for those who dress for the occasion (which is common in this culture) and bike to a party, prom, ball, for instance, it might matter that their hair is not messed up. What, are they suppose to wish that a hair salon is set up beside the event to touch-up the messy helmet hair? A hilarious experiment would be to mandate that limousines require passengers to wear a helmet. I can see protest almost instantaneously, especially from all the guys and gals on their way to a formal party.