New Zealand’s ‘helmet lady’ cult

Not time to repeal NZ's bicycle helmet law yet?

Not time to repeal NZ’s bicycle helmet law yet?

What with Schumacher’s helmeted skiing fall in the news and this new graph (above) from Chris Gilham doing the rounds, I thought it high time to post the following.

For lots of reasons I won’t go into here, a little over three years ago I moved to New Zealand.

Along with Australia, NZ’s one of those places that all non-sporty cyclists avoid like the plague. Back home in Europe, people who ride bikes tend to be aware of these two countries’ bizarre, victim-blaming bicycle helmet laws. They tend to know that these laws haven’t worked and have allowed politicians, motorists and traffic engineers to ignore effective bicycle safety measures in favour of helmet crackdowns.

Happy New Year to all of you! To see in 2014, my wife and I went camping. The large campsite an hour from the capital, Wellington, was packed full of families with kids. With bicycles! People rarely drive much in a campsite and then at under 10 kph, so this was a very safe place to ride a bike. And almost all the kids (and some adults) were riding round on bikes. On the grass, on the tarmac road, on the gravel walkways (not easy!). Not a single helmet anywhere. (In truth, I saw one, dangling from a kid’s handlebars as her dad walked alongside the bike.) Looking around, it seemed shockingly evident that mainstream New Zealand has little firm belief in helmets.

In my three-plus years in NZ, I’ve noticed New Zealand is being increasingly exposed to images of helmet-free people on bikes through advertising too. Moreover, around Wellington this summer, the number of helmet-free riders I’m seeing is, on many days, more than the number of helmeted ones.

Are these not signs of a tide turning?

In 1994, the NZ government brought in the bicycle helmet law. The main impetus for it was one woman whose son was knocked off his bike by someone driving a car. The woman was Rebecca Oaten (aka. ‘the helmet lady’) from the university town of Palmerston North. And her son Aaron. Aaron was riding his mountain bike to school at the moment he was hit by a motorist and lived the rest of his life (until his sad passing in 2010) as a tetraplegic.

Absurdly, Oaten then toured the country for six years, driving to four schools a day (therefore probably endangering schoolchildren all over the country) to ‘furiously‘ promote bicycle helmets which are not and have never been designed for collisions with motor vehicles. Her emotive (largely science-free) crusade around New Zealand schools is responsible for frightening kids into deep fear of helmet-free cycling (and cycling itself) and ensuring parents all over the country drive their kids to school – contributing hugely to road danger during school commutes.

Oaten formed a lobby group to pressure the government to implement a helmet law. The rest is history.

Palmerston North is almost completely flat. It’s less than 10km from side to side. It is also home to a major university and a large polytechnic college. It therefore has everything to be an obvious cycling town. But it also has awful cycle lanes for the hometown of NZ’s staunchest bicycle safety campaigner. The cycle lanes are not protected from motor vehicles, are invariably on the wrong side of parked cars, and are more often than not filled with (legally!) parked cars. Percentage of people who get around by bike? 5%.

Pedestrian build-outs and car parking spaces render many of Palmy's bicycle lanes 'pointless'

Palmerston North: pedestrian build-outs and car parking spaces render most of the city’s bicycle lanes unusable.

The helmet law had the effects observed in Gilham’s graph above. No-one seems sure how much of this is due to helmets being uncomfortable, the inconvenience of having to buy/wear/carry/store one, the dangerising of helmet-free cycling, the dork factor, or simply not enjoying being hassled and fined by the police for not wearing one. All of the above?

Moreover, the demographic group hardest hit by the law was the safest bicycle riders. The remaining riders – sporty and risk-taking – now get into more crashes because they ride too fast to avoid problems (from Australia: Monash Cyclist Crash Study Report 311, 2012: 44% of cyclists who crashed were riding drop-bar racing bikes, 47% were wearing cleated cycling shoes). The effect on the ‘average’ safety of cyclists is clear from Gilham’s graph above. The safer cyclists may well still be as ‘safe’ as they were previously – despite lowered safety in numbers – but they are few compared to the racers.

Here’s what should have happened, had Ms. Oaten channelled her energies in a less victim-blaming, more danger-preventing direction. The Netherlands had a similarly emotional and hard-hitting public campaign against the main cause of road danger: cars. Stop the Child Murder.

It’s easy to imagine what the wide streets of New Zealand towns could look like with safe, Dutch infrastructure.

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Wellington, New Zealand vs. Wellington, Nieuw-Zeeland

Ms Oaten has acknowledged that more people would ride bikes if they did not have to wear a helmet, “but how many of those would end up brain-damaged or dead?” For the record, my partner works in neurosurgery – that’s medical jargon for dealing with head injuries. The number of bicyclists she has seen in 4 years? Zero. Number of seriously head-injured motorists? Many. Ms Oaten says “if it prevents one injury [the helmet law] is worth it” but fails to see that making it compulsory for car occupants to wear crash helmets would definitely save far more brain injuries in absolute numbers per year. For some reason she hasn’t made that suggestion yet.

The most common cause of devastating, life-changing brain damage that my partner sees? Strokes, due in large part to inactive lifestyles.

Well done, Ms Oaten, well done.


How share the road works

Share the Road

Picture yourself driving your car along the motorway. Suddenly a massive plane, vastly larger and faster than you, WWWWHOOSHes past you. It misses by a terrifiyingly narrow breadth.

The experience leaves you shaken. You question whether driving is the best way to get around when pilots can get away with driving like that. You tell a friend later and she says, “Driving’s so dangerous. Why don’t you just take the plane like everyone else?”

There’s a good reason that car traffic is safely separated and protected from jet aircraft. Stop turning a blind conscience to this danger: write to your local representative right now and demand protected cycle lanes.

ROAD emphatically OPEN

Tory Street’s a fine street. On one hand, it reminds me of home: I hail from the same town as Sir Robert Peel, whose Tamworth Manifesto rebranded the Tory Party into the Conservative Party. It’s also a fine street because Tory’s narrowness and teaming streetlife forces drivers to slow down and pay attention.

And right now it’s even more fine. Because it’s ‘closed’.

Did they not notice the sign?

Didn’t they notice the sign??

Wellington City Council should be congratulated heartily on this prototype example of using mode-segregated infrastructure to make life safer for people on bikes and boots. Tory Street has never felt so… attractive!

Roadworks will be continuing until ‘late January’. Make the most of it. 🙂


I’ve been playing with this idea for a while now: photoshopping a street I ride a lot to show what it could easily be like if street design in this country were brought up to date with international best practices in safety and livability for vulnerable road users. Wellington goes Dutch – putting the Zeeland back into New Zealand.

I admit it’s not perfect, but it’s a first try. (And finding time for this on top of an 80-hour workweek is not unchallenging!)

Why? Because pictures speak louder than words – pictures help people see for themselves how things could be.

I would adore forever anyone who could create a drag-and-drop street redesign app for communities to express their desires and suggestions in images to their elected representatives.

Vehicular Cyclists out of the planning department

I’ve just re-read the Copenhagenize post on so-called ‘vehicular cyclists‘, the American cycling sect that fights any bicycle infrastructure that could make bicycles a normal and safe way of getting around town, based on a groundless belief that such infrastructure is dangerous (almost certainly a selfish cover story for not wanting granny and the kids to obstruct their ‘right to ride’ bloody fast).

Then it dawned on me that, in the English-speaking world most transport planners are also vehicular cyclists. The mindset is there, even if the 10-gram-90-speed bicycle and the lycra permaskin aren’t. The New Zealand Road Code and UK Highway Code both treat bicycles as ‘vehicles’ which as vehicles must therefore share the road, where all ‘vehicles’ belong.

Try this at home: Find pictures of a car, a truck, a bus and a bicycle. Show them to a 5-year-old and ask them which is the odd one out.

vehicle (n.): a machine usually with wheels and an engine, which is used for transporting people or goods on land, especially on roads

-Cambridge English Dictionary

Spot the odd one out.

Spot the odd one out. Can you?

Am I the only one who finds bizarre the whole idea of lumping bicycles with cars, trucks and buses? If bicycles are vehicles (and therefore must share the road), in what way are unicycles, wheelchairs, kick-scooters and skateboards not ‘vehicles’? And running shoes?

A bicycle has this in common with all of these: none should be forced to travel among motor vehicles.

Share the Road? Based on what logic?

All places where bicycles are treated (not as vehicles but) as slightly faster pedestrians, riding a bicycle is a safe and normal thing to do.

In the Netherlands, many parts of Germany, and (still) many parts of China, you have:

bicycle paths that follow pedestrian paths, safely separated so bicycles don’t have to share the road with dangerous motor vehicles. (And pedestrianised city centres where people on foot and on bikes mix carefully and respectfully.) Streets in living areas are dead-end and narrow, discouraging motor vehicles and making it safe for people on foot or bicycle.

In Japan, you have:

bicyclists who largely ride on pedestrian paths and side streets, safely away from motor vehicles. Streets in living areas are very narrow, so motor vehicles are not able to move quickly, making it safe for people on foot or bicycle.


Quit it with the ‘vehicle’ lumping and give people safe infrastructure.

NZ doesn’t feel safe

Just had an interesting conversation with friends here about riding a bike in NZ.

One German girl commented that she has ridden a bicycle back home for decades, since she was 7, only taking the car on extremely rainy days and twice in her life walking when it was too icy to ride. Then she came to NZ, where she hasn’t been on a bike at all because it’s “far too dangerous.”

More effort into safer streets please New Zealand. Thank you.

Do bicyclists need condoms?

Because, to riff on Team America, some people turn into dicks behind the wheel.

And here’s a safety metaphor for you: bike lanes (the protected, barriered sort) are the condoms of the streets.

Yes, many bicycle riders are pussies who don’t like those dicks being so close without a protective barrier. Most would-be riders are pussies too.

Admittedly, some bike riders are arseholes. They get very close to the pussies. They feel that pussies are encroaching on their territory. But even the arseholes need protection from the dicks.

Now, if there’s some kind of physical barrier protecting everyone from the dicks, it’s safe for everyone to go on being dicks or arseholes or pussies as they please.

Most pussies have been abstinent too long. Vive the pussies.

(All credit to Trey Parker and Matt Stone.)


A contraceptive helmet-pill? Your choice. But it won’t protect you from syphilis or AIDS.

The condoms of the streets – now available textured.