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Medical Doctor To Defend Bicycle Helmet Charge

Cycling Health
Press Release, Monday 8th December 2003. For immediate release.

Medical doctor to defend bicycle helmet charge.

Anaesthetist Dr. Peter Keller will defend a charge of bicycling without a helmet in the Wellington District Court on Friday the 12th of December. He is over 60 years old and has bicycled in over 50 countries.

Dr. Keller applied for an exemption from the bicycle helmet exemption in April 2003 but has so far received no response. Expecting him to give up cycling, or forcing him to wear a helmet, while waiting eight months for a decision from the Land Transport Safety Authority (LTSA) is clearly unreasonable.

Dr. Keller has written the following letter to the Minister of Transport and transport spokespeople for opposition parties:

Ngaio, Wellington.

The Hon Paul Swain,
Minister of Transport,
Parliament Buildings,

Copy to: The Research Department, Land Transport Safety Authority, PO Box 2840, WELLINGTON

Re: Compulsory bicycle helmets.

Dear sir(s)/madam(mesdames)

I would like to -- please -- plead for the repeal of the Compulsory Bicycle Helmet Wearing Law, or at least to make an application for exemption from it on "reasonable grounds" have a non-zero chance of success.

I know that there is a mechanism available for applying for an exemption on religious, medical, or other reasonable grounds, but to my knowledge the only person who has recently received an exemption is Nandor Tanzcos. Visitors from more enlightened countries say, that it is wrong that it is so difficult to gain an exemption!

After 8 years of the Compulsory Helmet Law it is becoming increasingly apparent that the only effect of this law combined with ferocious police enforcement of it is a reduction in the numbers of bicyclists with NO reduction in the rate of head injuries and deaths. I can therefore only conclude that your steadfast refusal to consider refusal of this law can only mean that you wish to reduce the numbers of bicyclists by making bicycling very uncomfortable, and by fostering the false notion that it is very dangerous. This has grave implications for the nation's health (bicycling is a great way of getting regular exercise) and for transport planning (a bicycle needs only 1/6 the amount of road that a car needs).

Specifically: Bicycle helmets must satisfy a standard equivalent to withstanding a direct impact with a hard object at 20kph (bicycle health safety institute 20kph is not very fast, about medium- running pace, so such an impact is very unlikely to lead to death or serious injury, and such impacts are easy to avoid. Bicycle helmet standards say NOTHING about resisting shearing or rotational forces, and helmets may INCREASE the danger from these forces by making the head bigger and more likely to strike something.

The hard foam material of the helmets fails catastrophically and completely when it does fail, with no energy absorption through plastic deformation. This explains why bicycle helmets offer NO protection at impact speeds of over 23kph. Also, many modern helmets have so many air vents that the amount of foam is reduced by more than 50%, further reducing what little protection is available; to say nothing about the chance of penetrating injury --

Bicyclist fatalities are overwhelmingly caused by head injuries occasioned through collisions with fast motor traffic. As can be seen from the previous paragraph, helmets have NO beneficial effect on the results of such events. Bicycle helmets simply cannot be designed to protect against such events. There is in fact some evidence ("A Bicycling Mystery: Head Injuries Piling Up," by Julian Barnes, The New York Times, July 29, 2001.) that the rate of head injuries INCREASES with increased helmet wearing. The reasons for this are a bit of a mystery, but could have something to do with "risk compensation"; a person who thinks he is protected is more likely to do risky things, also by discouraging the use of bicycles by commuters and other low-risk groups, leaving the field open to the head-down bum-up lycra-clad injury-prone daredevils. Bicycling is actually reasonably safe. The likelihood of accidental injury is about the same (on a time basis) as travelling in a car, and is far safer than many other sporting activities, and even safer than being a pedestrian ( It is therefore totally unreasonable to"dangerify" bicycling by making helmet wearing mandatory.

Such dangerification along with the total discomfort of helmets and ferocious police enforcement of this unreasonable law all serve to make bicycling less popular and reduce the numbers of bicyclists on the roads. Helmets are very hot, sticky and sweaty, and the chin-strap is VERY uncomfortable. Between 1992 and 2002 the numbers of bicyclists on NZ roads have decreased by about 34% (LTSA household surveys); and the number of bicycling fatalities by about 21% (LTSA stats). Australian experience shows that after the introduction of the compulsory helmet law there that bicyclist numbers fell by up to 40% (D.Robinson). By comparison, in Great Britain, where bicycle-helmet wearing is voluntary, the number of bicyclists has INCREASED by about 10% over this period (National statistics Traffic in Great Britain q1 2003 produced for British Department of Transport).

I agree that bicycle helmets can reduce greatly the incidence of bumps and scrapes to the head caused by low-speed impacts. However, as I said before, such bumps and scrapes are easily treated,easy to avoid, and rarely serious. Compulsory protection against minor bumps, scratches etc should NOT be a function of the law. Studies have shown that the cost of buying helmets far outweighs the costs of treating injuries caused by not wearing them (Taylor and Scuffham, Inj Prev 2002;8:317-320 and Also, British medical authorities have shown that a mandatory helmet law would cause 20 times the number of deaths (through discouragement of bicycling and inactivity) than would be saved through the "protection" of helmets.

I am particularly incensed by the statement that "It was easy to bring in the bicycle-helmet law as a majority of bicyclists were already wearing helmets; even though we acknowledge that forcing motorists to wear helmets would save 17 times as many lives. (AJ McLean et al, CR160, Aug 1997, Australian Safety Transport Bureau)". In other words, bicyclists are a weak minority, so let's discriminate against them. Isn't this illegal?

In conclusion, please repeal this law before a whole generation of young people are lost to the safe joys of regular exercise through bicycling.

Yours very sincerely,

Peter Keller MB ChB FANZCA

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