A Lesson in unintended consequences.

Despite teething problems, London’s “Boris Bikes” have been a roaring success, with demand outstripping supply, even as the scheme expands. Inevitably some people have been hurt, and the usual nanny-staters have called for helmets to be compulsory. Indeed, whenever a cyclist is killed, whether or not they were wearing a helmet is always given prominence far beyond their effect. There is so much wrong with this, I don’t know where to begin, but the whole issue of cycling helmets is one where the unintended consequences of legislation are bigger than the intended effect. There are no plans, yet, to make cycle helmet use compulsory but as cycling remains the last bastion of unregulated travel, it’s in the post. Imagine – the police not being able to stop someone at will – It can’t continue like this….

1) The EU standard for bicycle helmets is ludicrously lax, and helmets are made to comply with it. More expensive helmets are typically better vented, not safer. It should protect against a low speed fall onto a flat surface, the sort of fall that adults on bicycles on the road almost NEVER have. (Children ARE protected by a helmet as they are likely to have these falls, but I have NEVER seen a child with a correctly fitted helmet). There are just 5 helmets on sale in the UK which meet the older and more stringent B90/5 standard, but even this is not sufficient to survive a typical vehicle collision. According to one study, just 16% of cyclist’s head injuries would have been mitigated by helmet use, mainly amongst children, in another helmets appear to have NO impact on injury rates at all for cyclists over 15 on roads. Off-road mountain biking is the one place helmets appear to have a significant positive effect on head injury.

2) In a collision with a motor vehicle, the forces involved often exceed the testing standards for motorcycle or GP helmets. You often might as well not be wearing one.

3) Wearing a helmet causes drivers to drive closer and faster to the cyclist, because the cyclist appears protected. A cyclist wearing a helmet is therefore more likely to be hit, and more likely to die. Cyclists wearing helmets are also more likely to take risks and ride faster because they feel safer even though helmet wearers are more safety conscious to begin with.

4) In Australia & New Zealand, when cycle helmets were made compulsory, the incidence of head injuries fell, but this was proportional to a fall in the number of cyclists, not the severity of injuries or the rate of injury.

5) The most important thing to make cyclists safer is critical mass. Cyclists are so common in Amsterdam or Portland for example that motorists get used to working with them, and makes accidents less likely. Reducing the number of cyclists is likely to make cycling relatively more dangerous.

So. It transpires that the main effect of making cycle helmets compulsory is to reduce the number of cyclists and, make those cyclists more likely to be killed on any given journey, which is not, I suspect what the framers of the law had in mind. Just because it appears axiomatic that helmets make a cyclist safer, the evidence suggests this is not the case. This is a simple example, where the evidence teased out argues strongly against a law.

The effect of raising marginal tax rates is often to reduce the tax collected, especially in the longer term, yet lefties ALWAYS want higher marginal tax rates. The effect of increasing job protection is to increase unemployment, yet lefties still want ever more job protection. The effect of generous benefits is to entrench poverty, yet the lefties are out on the street whining about cuts. In almost every sphere where the government gets involved, the unintended and usually unwanted effects of atate action are larger than the desired effect. The message to Government is simple. STEP AWAY FROM THE LEGISLATION. WE WILL SOLVE PROBLEMS, NOT THE STATE, IF YOU LEAVE US ALONE.

7 replies
  1. Simon
    Simon says:

    "Cyclists are so common in Amsterdam or Portland for example that motorists get used to working with them" … there's a little more to it than that. Under Dutch traffic law, if there is an accident involving a cyclist and a car driver, the car driver is by definition guilty (at the very least of driving without paying proper attention) and must prove their innocence.

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Despite teething problems, London's "Boris Bikes" have been a roaring success, with supply outstripping demand, even as the scheme expands.

    poke poke

  3. t
    t says:

    Any evidence for point 3? I'm sure you're right but would still like to see the backup.

    Saw a cyclist hit by a lorry this morning – totally the cyclists fault and lucky not to die.


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