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.

no caption

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.


New Zealand – first impressions

For a supposedly quiet and civilised and clean country, a large number of people here drive their cars astonishingly dangerously and this appears to be tolerated. I was shocked witless a few days ago when a speeding black car almost knocked me and my girlfriend down (we were crossing the street on foot) at well over double the safe speed for a town centre. Something similar happens about every three days – this was just the scariest.

This town, Palmerston North, has swathes of car parking everywhere. Around half of all urban space appears to have been given to parking spaces. Car dealerships, petrol [gas] stations and motor lodges outnumber make up a large proportion of local businesses.

On the positive side, there are also a surprising number of bicyclists! Sadly, almost 100% of them speed around on style-free mountain bikes, slouched over the handlebars as if positioning their flimsy polystyrene helmets for a direct hit. Sad. Sports shorts and “Look at me, I’m weird” hi-viz jackets are pretty much ubiquitous. I’ve seen very few non-sports bike users at all. (With the fabulous exception of one beautifully stylish lady in Wellington who definitely got the whole looking good on two wheels thing.)


There are quite a few teenagers without helmets, often safely on the pavements [sidewalks] away from the crazy high number of aggressive drivers who rev loudly along the streets. Drivers have clearly been dangerously oversold on how protective helmets are, and who largely don’t slow down around people on bicycles, nor give them a safe amount of room when overtaking.

(Much slower speed limits are needed in town please.)

As for the people wearing helmets, I’d hazard that 50% or more are being worn incorrectly: loose chin straps, lopsided, too far back, or (sensibly, as it’s winter now) with warm hats underneath. I would dare conjecture this is due not to a lack of care for their safety, more to realising helmets are pretty ineffective in all but the most minor falls – but they have to be seen to be complying with that absurd and patronising law.

Also to avoid the hassle of that law, which for some reason only applies to (2-wheeled) bicycles (clearly discriminatory, sorry), a significant minority of people have turned to skateboards, flimsy 2-wheeled kick-scooters and, delightfully, unicycles.

image from

Final weekend in Seoul [fully updated]

I’m happy to report that in Seoul the number of people getting around on bicycles is edging up.

This is disappointingly despite the city government rather than because of it. A year ago, the papers were awash with the mayor’s promises to improve bicycle routes and build more bike lanes. This doesn’t appear to have come to much. A small number of heavily-bicycled areas have been repaved and are more comfortable to ride, but there is a palpable sense of a missed opportunity.

There are however definitely more bicycles about. And a good few stylistas on them too.

Most investment seems to have gone into the lengthy leisure trails along the river to appease the activism of sports cycling groups. The parks are popular places to ride a bike at the weekend too, with easy bike rental. Oddly, the surfaces are already worryingly cracked and bumpy in many places (though the wickedly cold winter can’t have helped).

Built to last?

Not built to last is my impression. And they don’t go anywhere!

On the other hand, those people – young and old, male and female – who are actually going somewhere by bike benefit only from the city-wide normalcy of riding on the pavements [sidewalks]. This can be frustratingly slow (due to the overwhelming number of pedestrians at all hours who, unlike the ordered keep-left-ism of Japan, seem to walk mainly in zigzags) and the pavements are often remarkably uneven and umcomfortable to ride on (due largely to the masses of motor vehicles which destroy the pavements by routinely use them for parking).

The very few bike lanes on the roads are best avoided. They offer no protection from traffic (many cars, vans and taxis park in the lanes or use them to overtake slow traffic).

Indeed the only thing that makes riding on the road bearable is the incredibly heavy traffic, which generally keeps average (and often top) vehicle speeds low. And the high number of people walking, cycling, and generally moving about at the roadside keeps drivers alert for bicycles.

On a positive note, there is one major positive development and that’s the road eating happening downtown. Not done for bicycles per se, but it does dissuade a lot of drivers from using that street and slows those that do. That’s road diets.


1) The easiest thing the city government here could do to make life better for pedestrians and bicyclists and public transport user alike is to crack down heavily on illegal and antisocial parking. Cars do it, as do taxis and vans. Pavement parking, for example.


all parked

And parking in cycle lanes.




And parking in bus lanes. And parking on pedestrian crossings.


And parking obstructing lowered bicycle/wheelchair kerbs. (The police are as guilty of illegal and unecessarily antisocial parking as anyone.)


Crack down hard on it and send a message to drivers that they can’t just leave their heavy property damaging and obstructing public space. Stop turning a blind eye.

parked - vehicle clearly obstructing whole pavement; police ignored it

2) Another no-brainer policy is to stop allowing the police to recalibrate the traffic lights at peak traffic times – as a pedestrian, I’ve waited a full 7 minutes at times to cross a single road. It does next to nothing for the traffic – indeed, probably encourages more – and inconveniences pedestrians to the extent many get visibly irate.)

3) Yet another obvious and cost-effective action would be to put in some real, quality, segregated cycle lanes on main roads (separated by a line of bushes or trees or the like). Most main roads in Seoul are obscenely bloated – between 4 and 10 lanes wide.

central Seoul - why so many cars?

wide roads encourage private car use - central Seoul

Giving a lane each way to a bike lane and row of shrubs isn’t going to inconvenience anyone and will make the city much more cycle friendly.

protect bicycle lanes from motor vehicles, something like this

(This will probably also require a bikes-go-first traffic light policy to make junctions safer.) And when you mix bus stops with cycle lanes, this is incredibly dangerous

bus suddenly pulls into cycle lane

whereas this is safe.

cycle lane round a bus stop in the Netherlands

4) Raise the standards of finish on pavements and the joins between pavement and road. Even most brand new edges have a bump of between 1cm and 3cm, which can make for an uncomfortable ride. And in the worst cases this can be 5 or 6cm. A ‘no bumps’ policy would be welcome. From this

painfully uneven surfaces

and this

lip too high from road to pavement for bicycles and wheelchairs - here 5cm

to this.

no bumps! - NL, Japan... Korea soon?

5) And enforce (even extend) the car-free areas. These are increasingly being ignored.

Sometimes an image sells itself

It is becoming increasinly obvious that the best way to promote cycling is through the spread of positive images of stylish, relaxed, happy, normal people on bikes. This is already common in some of the most advanced and rational countries, the Netherlands, Denmark and Japan. There are plenty of places still lagging behind though. Here’s some inspiration.

I can’t remember where I came across this video, but who wouldn’t want their child’s schoolgrounds to be like this?

Clearly there are steps that local councils and national governments, even individual parent-teacher committees can take towards this vision. The most fundamental aspect is safety.

The cheapest and easiest actions are probably to lower the speed limits around the school, reduce or remove parking spaces from the school grounds, provide safe and plentiful bicycle parking, and bring in a car-free day once a week to wean parents off the habit slowly.

Better long-term planning (also relatively inexpensive) would see streets around the school become ‘complete streets‘ and safe and direct bicycle and pedestrian routes connecting the school to local neighbourhoods, and free and available bicycle training for children (and adults).

Cycling by train in the UK

In the UK, the number of people combining bike and train journeys grew explosively from 19.5 million in 2007 to 28 million in 2009. An explosive increase.

Why? Any orthodox economist will tell you that people make decisions based on incentives. Read the above article and you see two positive incentives at work:

1) Train companies have fixed a policy of carrying folding bikes to be carried for free. Hence the rapid rise in the number of folding bikes being used by commuters. And

Cycling by train in the British Midlands

2) Stations are increasing their bicycle parking spaces. “There are now around 25,000 cycle spaces in the UK, with thousands more planned.” Hence the number of people parking at stations is also increasing.

(Of course, rising petrol prices are another incentive to bike.)

Both of these actions send out signals that bicycles are welcome at train stations (although in part restricted to folding bikes on the trains themselves). Although this isn’t going to cause a mad rush of people biking to the station, it will cause some to think. And some to bike. And as more people bike, it becomes more acceptable. And, like a slow-rolling snowball, grows.

People first (not cars)


Happy faces.

No faces.

A good chance to bring up best practice ideas, such as:
1. Pedestrians
2. People with mobility problems
3. Bicyclists
4. Public transport users (including rail, bus, coach, water, taxi)
5. Powered two-wheelers
6. Commercial or business users (including deliveries)
7. Car-borne shoppers and visitors
8. Car-borne commuters

Relaxed European-style riding needed in Sydney

A largely intelligent article from the Sydney Morning Herald the other day on the positive effects of European-style sit-up-and-beg bikes and slower riding.


Starts well…

Scrapping (Australia and NZ’s) two decade-old laws requiring all cyclists to wear helmets would encourage a lot more people on to bikes and provide an overall improvement in community health levels. “I would be in favour of doing away with the helmet use law for adults.”‘ – John Pucher (Rutgers University, New Jersey)

Compulsory wearing of helmets was ”a Band-Aid strategy” adopted by governments shying away from more difficult initiatives of building separated cycle ways, calming neighbourhoods and educating drivers and riders.

Introducing the upright bikes used in Europe is the best way of creating a new cycling culture that would encourage slow cycling and a friendly ”come ride with me” attitude. “If we can get more people on this type of bike we will get rid of the monoculture of those people, bent down over the bars with sunglasses … who are happy on roads and don’t want to share bikeways with slower riders.” – Mike Rubbo (cycling blogger)

And descends into…

an exaggerated faith in helmets (“an incredibly cheap approach to improving safety”),

a lack of understanding of gears (“Sydney: hills everywhere”), 

and a beknighted ‘not invented here’ attitude to those safe old Dutch bikes (“They are designed, without sounding sexist, for women”).