The most divisive topic in Australian cycling circles is no longer ‘Did Lance dope?’ Now that one’s been so sadly settled we can get back to our favourite controversy – ‘Should helmets be compulsory?
Here I go, head first over the handlebars into the hornets’ nest…
If you wear a helmet in Holland you’re a show-off. If you don’t wear one in Australia you’re a bloody idiot – possibly literally.
I feel very safe cycling in Holland. I hop on the bike several times a day with nothing but a baseball cap between my brain and the bitumen. It’s only a few hundred metres to the Klopper en Stolk bakery.
The first section is down a narrow street beside a canal. Cars and bikes in roughly equal numbers crawl along between the parked vehicles. It’s a bit of a squeeze, but we look out for each other.Then I cross the Schinkel Canal on a bridge built exclusively for bikes. I sometimes get caught in a bike jam there.
We’re all a bit wobbly as we step on the pedals to get up momentum, and there’s the odd stumble at low speed. Heads are seldom threatened.
The bakery is on one of Amsterdam’s busiest roads, the Amstelveenseweg. Cars, trucks and trams whip by in both directions, paying no regard to cyclists. They don’t need to – there are separated cycle paths on each side of the road.
But I give a tolerantly wide berth to tourists on their rented bikes and nobody gets hurt.
Helmets are not compulsory in Holland, though periodically a trauma surgeon calls for them to be made so, particularly for children and teenagers. When such a recommendation gets aired, it is usually accompanied by a pronouncement from the Fietsersbond (Cycling Association) that although in individual cases a helmet may save a life, anything which discourages cycling has negative public health effects.
I do have a helmet in Amsterdam. They’re compulsory for organised cycling events and if I decide to go out for a bit of serious exercise in the countryside I strap on the lid before bending over the drop bars. But 90% of my trips are made to visit friends or do the shopping, and a helmet would be an inconvenient encumbrance.
As regular visitors to this blog know, Mevrouw T and I ride a lot in Nederland. We always lose a few kilograms during the months we spend there and emerge looking and feeling healthier. If we had to wear a helmet for every trip, we’d certainly use the bikes less often. Shock, horror, we’d even consider getting a car!Cycling in Sydney is a different matter. I’m delighted that progress is being made in designating cycle routes and installing safely separated bike paths. It’s good to see cycle use increasing dramatically, not just as a sport but as commuter transport.
Helmet wearing is currently compulsory on all public roads.
We happen to live in a street designated as a cycle route and a steady trickle of two-wheelers passes each morning. Unfortunately our street leads at both ends to a designated heavy vehicle route. There’s no escape on Livingstone or Wardell Rds. It’s a choice between riding with the trucks or riding (illegally) with the pedestrians on the footpath.
But just because I feel naked without my helmet in Australia doesn’t mean I think everybody should be compelled to wear one. If it would get more people cycling more often, I’d rather see the rules relaxed. Ideally of course I’d like to see the infrastructure on cycle routes become so safe that we could all confidently pedal bareheaded.
Abandoning mandatory lid laws in Australia would be what Yes, Minister’s Sir Humphrey would call a ‘courageous’ decision. One serious injury to an unprotected noggin would be a front page news story, inevitably linked to the politician or party that went soft on helmets. A thousand more carefree cyclists boosting their personal well-being while reducing traffic congestion and air pollution would be no news story at all.
So the laws are here to stay. A pity, methinks.