After a tragic death at the Olympics, I argued that calls for mandatory helmet laws were a distraction. I wasn't necessarily saying that helmet laws were a bad idea—just that they were an inappropriate response to the death of a cyclist at a dangerous intersection who was hit by a bus.
Lloyd, however, has argued forcibly that helmet laws do save lives, and cited evidence that they don't discourage cycling either. (He also presented some evidence to the contrary in his post on whether helmet laws do more harm than good.)
Are Helmets and Helmet Laws Useless?
Either way, it's clear that some people hate helmet laws with a passion. None more so than cyclist and mother Sue Abbott whose refusal to pay a fine for helmet-less cycling lead to a court case, the loss of her drivers license and the confiscation of her bikes by the state. Over at The Guardian, she writes that the only thing helmets protect us from are fines. Her missive, however, commits Lloyd's cardinal sin of apparently confusing, or at least conflating, helmets and helmet laws when it comes to their effectiveness:
For the past 20 years, academics across the globe have not been able to agree upon the merits of either helmets or helmet laws, and as a result this academic ping-pong funded by our taxes has left many questions unanswered. Unfortunately the lack of conclusive evidence for bicycle helmet laws has allowed anecdotal evidence to dictate our current cycling reality. Thus the notion that bicycle helmet laws have made cycling safer is not only superficially plausible, but deeply misleading.
It's hard to assess Abbott's argument that both helmets and helmet laws have not been proven effective, as the article is short on citations regarding the tax funded "academic ping-pong" Abbott not so subtly derides. (I would have thought more research into the topic was a good thing.) I can buy, or at least respect, some of the arguments against mandatory helmets, but I've personally not seen much credible research suggesting that helmets themselves don't work.
A Distraction, Not a Priority
As is often the case with research, it's possible for all "sides" to cherry pick a study here or a piece of research there. Without citations, it's hard to assess their arguments. Even with citations, what we really need is some academic review of the literature. (I am by no means an expert.) But either way, there's a bigger lesson here: bike helmet laws piss some people off, and fixating on bike helmet laws as a path to cyclist safety is a little like environmentalists obsessing over plastic bag bans, when there really are bigger fish to fry.
From better bike infrastructure through encouraging more cyclists (there is safety in numbers) to educating motorists (cyclists cause less than 10% of bike/car accidents), I'd say these are the things we should all be worrying about.
Do I think Susan Abbott would be better off wearing a helmet? Yes.
Do I think the state has a right to mandate she does so? Sure.
Are the state's resources well spent in enacting these laws and making an example of those who break them? Absolutely not. I'd much rather see more bike lanes, more bikes, and fewer cars.
Maybe that's something we can all agree on. I also liked Lloyd's suggestion of a compromise—mandate that kids wear helmets, but leave the adults alone. Sooner or later you'll find a cultural shift where bike helmets become the norm, not the exception, as kids grow up.