HELMETS OFF AND LET’S RIDE!
Well the nannies of Australia certainly have us well-trained.
On holiday to the UK a few weeks ago, my family (husband, the 12 and 14 year-old and I) hired bikes to take off for a spin to enjoy the glorious sights of autumn in Hyde Park. (The scene was idyllic. Complete with cheeky grey squirrels fossicking for acorns. I thought my daughter would expire from Extreme Cuteness Exposure.)
Despite the cavalcade of cyclists whizzing by without helmets, I wasn’t going to risk a fine. I had to ask the three English Bobbies strolling by: “Excuse me, do we have to wear a helmet here?”
“No. You’re good to go,” they smiled and waved us on with a grin.
I wondered why they were sharing a chuckle? Is it because they’re always asked that question by Nervous Nellie Aussie tourists?
We happily tore off and before too long were confident enough to join others on the shared road for short trips to the museum or the art gallery and back. All without helmets… just like the Prime Minister, David Cameron (left).
Australia was the first nation to introduce compulsory bike helmets in the early 90s. It’s an article of faith here that helmets must be worn at all times. No exceptions.
However, while no-one would question the sanity of wearing helmets along any high-speed motorway, making helmets mandatory on dedicated bike paths or for short inner-city trips is just plain nutty.
Consider this remarkable statistic from the UK Barclays Bike hire scheme – in operation for two years and boasting 14 million journeys.
In August this year before the Olympics, the popular “Boris Bikes” as they’re known, with depots all over inner-city London, were officially audited.
The result? There was just one serious injury for every million journeys.
Yep, you read that right.
You have a one-in-a-million chance of being knocked over riding one of Boris’ grey clunkers. (And notoriously heavy they are to manoeuvre, which partly explains the lack of injury. You’d be flat out beating a squirrel from a standing start.)
London Mayor Boris Johnson off for a helmet-free spin. Image via AP.
Here in Australia we are flat-earthers when it comes to urban cycling. Ironic since most of our capital cities are ironing-board flat and superbly suited to cycling.
We’re failing miserably at getting riders to use bike share options. One of the main reasons? Compulsory helmets.
We have bike hire schemes in Melbourne and Brisbane. Both of them are under-utilised. They’ve tried leaving free helmets on bikes or selling them cheap, but most are pilfered for private use. Others don’t want to share sweaty headgear for sanitary reasons. Of course non-English speaking tourists aren’t going to bother.
“Excuse me, where can I hire a bike helmet please?” is not in any phrase book I’ve ever used.
Sydney (where cyclists are widely regarded as vermin on wheels) is considering a bike-sharing scheme on its network of bike paths, but only if it wins an exemption from compulsory helmet laws. Law makers are adopting a ‘wait and see’ attitude. But exactly what they are waiting for remains a mystery when the data from overseas seems conclusive: Compulsory helmets mean fewer cyclists. Fewer cyclists means fewer bike paths. Fewer bikes means more traffic.
Of course the idea of making helmets optional on inner-city roads is enough to make most Aussie safety experts have a coronary.
But the free-wheeling peletons in Paris, Barcelona, China, Ireland, Denmark, Montreal and the Netherlands – where cycling is so popular that locals complain they’re running out of places to park at train stations – can’t be wrong. All of them are able to ride without helmets. Some on paths. Some on the shared road.
Mexico City just repealed its compulsory helmet laws to get its bike-sharing scheme going.
In fact, even in New York City, where sharing the roads is hairy – and there were 21 cyclist fatalities in 2011 – they’re rolling out a 10,000 bicycle share scheme next year. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has rejected calls for mandatory helmets.
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