Opinion: Hard facts over hard hats

Opinion: Hard facts over hard hats

Is this the dumbest, most backwards, most counter-productive law we have? Or is it a law that has saved countless lives, and prevented uncountable numbers of children from suffering terrible brain injuries?

For the last 22 years New Zealand has had a compulsory helmet law. And for the past 22 years, it's had people arguing against it.

This is a contentious issue. There are mountains of evidence on both sides. And each side is well-intentioned – it's all about the safety of individuals, and of the wider public.

The arguments for keeping the law:

1. They protect your head. It's a no-brainer of an argument, this one. If you have a crash, it's better to be wearing one than not. They're backed by Australia's Bicycle Network, the UK's National Health Service, the World Health Organisation and the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, among others. Those are some fairly high-powered endorsements.

2. Our roads aren't well-designed for people to ride bikes. Until better infrastructure is built, attitudes are changed and road rules are adapted, removing compulsory helmet laws are way down the list of things that can be done to make cycling safer. While our injury rates compare unfavourably with many 'cycling' countries, they have much better environments to cycle in.

3. Wearing a helmet just isn't that big of a deal. It's like putting on a seatbelt, or clipping your kid into a car seat. Isn't saving one life worth the extra bother? It's easy to find someone to say how a helmet saved them from serious injury in a crash. Why take the risk of not wearing one?

Opponents say those arguments miss the point. The argument is not whether HELMETS work -- but whether the LAW works. So, the arguments against:

1. Freedom. Our compulsory helmet laws are the Government telling adults what they have to wear in their own private lives.

2. Our cycling participation rates have plummeted since the helmet law was introduced. Research by the NZ Medical Journal found the average hours cycled per person dropped 51 percent within 20 years, resulting in up to 53 premature deaths per year. One recently published study found it costs Australia more than half-a-billion dollars every year in health and productivity.

3. Despite that drop, there's been no marked change in injury rates. In fact, throughout 2003-07 cyclists had a 20 percent higher accident rate than before the law's introduction. It also makes cycling seem much more dangerous than it is -- statistically, it's roughly as dangerous as walking.

4. Safety in numbers effect. Research has found the more people cycling, the safer roads become for all users. The harder you make it for someone to jump on a bike, the fewer people are going to do it. Cycling rates are finally on their way back up, but compulsory helmet laws are a further barrier to encouraging people to cycle.

So, what do you think? Is it no big deal to clip on a helmet? Or is doing so sending the message that cycling is more dangerous than it is? Should we be aiming to get more people onto bicycles by making it more accessible? Or should we be addressing other issues first?