US cycle safety expert's blunt words on NZ's helmet debate

  • 14/03/2018

An American cycle safety advocate has weighed in on the bike helmet debate raging in New Zealand, saying protective head gear is a no-brainer.

A group of cyclists will hold a protest ride against helmet rules this weekend in Wellington.

Choice Biking claims that mandatory helmet laws only exist here, in Australia and in the United Arab Emirates.

But US Bicycle Safety Helmet Institute director Randy Swart is blunt about those who don't want to wear one.

"Maybe you don't have much to protect."

He told RadioLIVE that a fall can be deadly without a helmet on.

"If you're riding in town, and you're wearing a helmet, you're not likely to die in any of the usual crashes that bicycles experience in town," Mr Swart said.

"Even if you're hit by a car. If you're hit by a car that's going [under the speed limit], you're not likely to die in a helmet. But without a helmet, your head hits the pavement, all it takes is a simple fall to kill you."

He cites research from New York City which found that 97 percent of the people who died on bicycles were not wearing helmets.

"A very high percentage of the brain injuries and the really debilitating effects of a bike crash can be prevented just by wearing a bike helmet."

"If your whole body's broken up and your head is not, you can recover... but if your brain is messed up, it's just tragic. It can be the rest of your life."

Protest organiser Jeremy Teague agrees helmets are a good idea, for the obvious reason that they protect the brain from injury. 

But Mr Teague says those are two separate arguments. "What we are promoting is helmet-wearing choice."

"It's just coming back to what this issue is about, is the actual law that says you have to."

He says wearing a helmet puts many people off cycling, and so actually makes cycling less safe: it's safety in numbers.

"If there were more cyclists on the road it'd be safer for everybody. And not just cyclists - pedestrians, all road users, motorists included. And that's got to be good for everyone, right?"

Both men agree that cycling infrastructure - separated bike paths and dedicated lanes - is an important piece of the safety puzzle.

But it's one that's largely missing in this country.

Mr Swart cites the popular example of Amsterdam and other Dutch cities, which have well regulated traffic systems for all vehicles.

"They're huge cycle cities. If you ride in The Netherlands for example - which I've done - they have a place for everybody on the road. They have a place for the cars, a place for the bicycles, a place for the pedestrians."

Mr Teague says New Zealand is about 25 years behind The Netherlands, who rejected helmet laws for improving cycling infrastructure instead.

"We're a bit stuck, we're a bit behind that... what if - instead of, in 1994 when bicycle helmet legislation was introduced, what if we'd done what The Netherlands did instead? We'd be in a better position than what we are at the moment."

He concedes that allowing adults to have the option whether to wear a helmet or not, while keeping helmets compulsory for children up to perhaps age 16, would be a good compromise for now.

The Choice Biking protest ride gathers in Wellington's Civic Square on Saturday at 2pm. Helmets are optional.