Why David Leyonhjelm’s Nanny State Inquiry will fail on MHL

OK, so maybe I’m a bit late on this one, and maybe the world doesn’t need yet another article on this topic. But I’ve been doing a lot of thinking around this subject of late.

Senator David Leyonhjelm, ostensibly a Liberal Party member but politically located somewhere on the Libertarian side of Ayn Rand, is pushing for a Parliamentary inquiry into what he – along with many others – calls “The Nanny State” currently holding sway in Australia.

One of Leyonhjelm’s targets is Mandatory Helmet Laws (MHL), something everyone seems to have an incorrect opinion on. Yes, I’m going to talk about those. If you find your anger reflex being triggered right now, you might want to go elsewhere and look at pictures of kittens for a while. Go on.

Anyway, this inquiry has been welcomed by some segments of the anti-MHL cycling community, and I personally think this is a bad thing. Why? Because Leyonhjelm is going to fail on MHL, badly.

The reason he’s going to fail? Because he’s running with the “because freedom” and “crashing doesn’t hurt anyone” platforms. Both these planks are easily defeated.

So, anti-MHL chums, you’re hitching your cart to the wrong horse.

Why?

First, “because freedom” is a noble but extraordinary weak proposition.

“All men should be free” says Plato. “Free to starve. To die of cold in the street. Free to be robbed or beaten by their fellow man. What freedom is there in that?” replies Socrates*.

Yes, freedom to do dumb things is a freedom society can do without, and while in the case of Bicycle helmets there’s a far more nuanced view that actually quantifies harm, it’s much too easy a position to defeat. And on top of that, here’s Leyonhjelm claiming nobody gets hurt of you fall off

The issue here is, to what extent is the Government entitled to legislate – and we’re not talking about just giving advice – but to legislate, to protect you from your own bad choices. Bicycle helmets are a very good example of that: nobody is hurt if you fall off. If you don’t wear a bicycle helmet, you’re head’s not going to crack into somebody else and damage them.

Look, as someone who has crashed and come into contact with the ground at speed, and who has crashed both solo and in conjunction with other people, I can attest first hand that this statement is just flat-out untrue.

And even if it’s only damage to someone else you’re worrying about, Leyonhjhelm has still failed to take into account the third scenario, where YOU are knocked to the ground by a third party, such as a driver, or a careless pedestrian, or another rider. I have, for instance, had a bushwalker leap in front of me, precipitating both me and the bushwalker into a ditch, and occasioning minor injuries to both parties which could have been a lot worse. I was actually glad of my helmet on that day.

The question of who bears responsibility in such a case is somewhat different, and it’s a scenario that’s entirely out of the rider’s own control. Falling off on your own is not the only incident profile you’re exposed to.

Arguing a position which is demonstrably untrue is, to say the least, pissweak.

So Leyonhjelm, so far, is yet to get any runs on the board with me.

That said, I’m personally against MHL. I’m just not against it because of Leyonhjelm’s on-record positions. So the Senator, in this case, is the stopped clock that happens to be right twice a day.

My objections to MHL are numerous, just three of which are

1. Impact on participation

Statistics suggest that when MHL is brought in, participation plummets. Helmets are often uncomfortable and bulky, helmets are hot in the summer, helmets are an extra thing to carry around or lose, helmets are an extra cost (small, sure, but potentially problematic for low income earners) and helmets create a perception that cycling is dangerous – which is not in fact always the case.

As small as these individual objections may be, they each slightly raise the barrier to entry. Raise the barrier enough times by tiny amounts and soon people will just stop riding. Even the most dedicated riders know that the difference of one degree on the thermometer can be enough to make you roll over and go back to sleep instead of heading out on that club ride you were so keen on last night. What do you think a series of small inconveniences do to someone not so dedicated, who could just jump in the car and drive to work instead?

2. Helmets are damage mitigation, not accident prevention

Helmets do not prevent accidents. It seems a simple point but it bears mentioning. Having a helmet on will not stop you being clipped by a car, or putting a front wheel in a pothole and losing balance, or having a pedestrian engrossed in their smartphone step into the cycle lane in front of you. And it certainly won’t stop you from taking unwarranted risks. If anything, risk compensation suggests it’ll make you more likely to ride carelessly. And too often, it seems that MHL is cited as an accident prevention measure when it is nothing of the sort. It is an injury prevention measure that doesn’t stop one single accident. If you want to prevent accidents, you need well-maintained, well demarcated, protected infrastructure for cyclists. And that’s about all, but local authorities seem to view MHL as a surrogate for more meaningful accident prevention measures. It’s like refusing to put in a fence around your backyard pool and instead making your kids wear waterwings every time they step out of the door.

Protect riders from danger, don’t expose them to risk and then give them a plastic hat that might save them from a head injury – but not a broken collarbone or a crushed ribcage, or a broken limb – when the car hits them.

There is even evidence to suggest that helmet use has a correlation with drivers passing closer to cyclists – which if true means they add risk. Which is troubling to say the least.

Yes, if you fall off or get hit, a helmet will lessen the severity of any head injuries you may sustain. Wouldn’t it be better not to fall off or be hit in the first place, though?

3. Cycling is not a homogeneous activity

There are lots of different varieties of cycling. There are racers, and there are potterers and there’s a range of cycling scenarios in between, each of which has its own risk profile

  • Racers should definitely be wearing helmets, and in fact all UCI-organised racing events since 2003 stipulate that you must wear a helmet (with one notable exception)
  • Organised training and recreational rides through clubs and associations do so to. Turn up at a 6am training ride with your local club sans-lid and you’ll be sent on your way with a flea in your ear.
  • If you’re training on your own, you probably ought to wear a helmet too. Training implies “pushing yourself”
  • If you’re commuting, you might be going fast in rush hour, and if so it might be a good idea – depending on your chosen route.
  • …but there are many other types of cycling.

But do you need to dig out the plastic hat just to pootle down some back streets to the corner shop for a carton of milk?

I would say “Don’t be bloody stupid”, but today if I do that and happen upon a police officer, I risk a $200+ fine.

I would use my bike to do every weekly shop if I didn’t have to fuss around with helmet, lights, lock and all the other ephemera of utility cycling, but I don’t. Because, mainly, the fuss and secondly because of point 1, low participation means facilities are woeful here in Australia. I do use my bike on a semi-regular basis to pop to the local bottle shop for a sixpack of cider, and I don’t wear my helmet, and I don’t take a lock**. Am I taking undue risks? Not really. As I said, I’m rolling calmly along side streets in casual clothes, and half the journey is spent with six fragile bottles of cider in my backpack. Damned if I’m crashing.

What about a family rolling slowly around a public park on a Sunday afternoon? Should they have to fuss around with crash hats for a 20-minute trundle around a lake? 

I’d also say “don’t be bloody stupid”, with the caveat that maybe your smallest kids might benefit from one while they’re first learning to ride (I would also say “if they’re going through a risk-taking phase”, but chances are you won’t be able to keep the stackhat on them at that point).

Ask yourself if you’d make your kids wear a helmet on, say, a backyard trampoline. You wouldn’t, right? But 179 children are injured annually in Victoria alone by trampolines. Maybe if you’re going to support MHL as it stands, you really ought to consider helmets on bouncy castles and safety goggles for games of catch.

What about on a cargo bike, a relatively slow-moving, stable, and often self-balancing form of transport?

Have a guess. Go on. No, you shouldn’t need a helmet in that case any more than a driver of an open-topped car needs one.

What about a short commute along shared infrastructure? 

That’s a trickier one. On the one hand, commuters are goal-oriented and ride fast to get where they’re going, which may expose both the riders and pedestrians to risk. On the other, shared infrastructure. You’re away from vehicles and not exposed to undue risk. I’d say take off the helmet and slow down, in order to protect other path users. I may also say “avoid shared infrastructure altogether because it’s a really stupid idea” but that’s another rant entirely.

 

There are numerous other objections I could list, not the least of which is “no other sane country on earth – other than NZ – mandates helmets for every rider”, but I think these three are fairly strong in themselves.

And none of this equates – as some twitter idiots occasionally suggest – that I want to ban helmets. Quite the opposite. I race. I train. I take risks. I’ve crashed hard enough in recent years to have totally destroyed two helmets. I need to wear a helmet for most of the rides I do. A lot of other people do too. But I would like to be able to choose to take the helmet off once in a while and just cruise the damn bike around. In fact, I’d probably ride a lot more, in a much more relaxed manner.

Yet the best argument Leyonhjelm has is “because freedom” and “nobody [else] gets injured”, both pathetically weak arguments that could be knocked over by a novice high school debater.

And that’s why he will fail. Unless, of course, he gets some smarter people onboard.

 

 

* no, they probably didn’t actually say this. It’s a simple Socratic Dialogue. Shut up.
** the bike goes into the shop with me. See here for why.

One Thought on “Why David Leyonhjelm’s Nanny State Inquiry will fail on MHL

  1. Good stuff here.

    As for helmets and trampolines, we have a rule in our house (two small children): any climbing or bouncing means no hats with chin straps, scarves, or helmets.

    http://www.smh.com.au/national/boy-6-strangled-in-freak-trampoline-accident-20090704-d8il.html

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-09-01/wa-boy-almost-hangs-himself-on-school-hat/7806718

    From the second link:

    “Kidsafe’s playground advisory services manager Tracy Blaszkow said she had heard of similar incidents occurring in schoolyards across the country.

    She said these accidents were more common than most parents realised.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Post Navigation