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.

Confessions of a footpath rider

I admit I sometimes ride on the footpath. Never at more than a slow jogging pace. Never ever when I’m in a hurry. Never without the utmost attention and priority to people on foot and shop doorways. Never without a genuine smile and a thank you if people choose to step aside to let me pass. Sometimes with a polite tinkle of my little bell to let people know there’s a bike behind them. Usually at walking speed – pushing the bike takes up more space. Always striving to make a good impression. Never an issue.

Until today.

With half an hour to kill, all my errands run and no destination in mind, I decided to enjoy the sunshine and simply meander round town. I was moving at a time-wasting pace, peeping into the odd shop window and people watching from my saddle. Not wanting to get hit by a car or bus while doing this, I rode on the footpath. It was wide and only one other person was on it the whole length of the block.

Oh, wait! A middle-aged gent steps onto the footpath. He glances daggers at me and strides determinedly toward my tiny (Brompton) front wheel with eyes that say ‘I’ll run you off the road’. “It’s a footpath, you know,” he seethes, just loud enough to hear.

Technically what I’m doing is still illegal (in some countries, including here). In Japan, everyone rides on the footpath at some point. The footpath Japanese ridewith utmost attention and priority to people on foot and shop doorways – but if you want to go fast, you get on the road. Same in most countries: it’s illegal but tolerated, as long as you’re causing no danger. This is my principle.

I meander easily out of his path and ignore him. He changes direction sharply so he doesn’t continue headlong into a brick wall. 


This is where I made a decision. From now on, my efforts to make a good impression of bicycle users will be a full-on charm offensive.

There are so many ways I could have dealt with him. Here are some, from least effective to (perhaps) most.


  • “Grow up.”

Argue / Play with his words:

  • “What’s making me move – my hands?”
  • “Are wheelchairs not allowed here? Mobility scooters?”
  • “It’s a sidewalk: are jogging and skateboarding not allowed?”

Try to understand his attitude:

  • “Why do you hate bicycles?”

Help him see the bigger issue of infrastructure:

  • “Ever tried walking along the road here? There’s a good reason people choose not to mix with cars.”
  • “How safe do you consider the bicycle paths that New Zealand provides?”
  • “Consider why bicycles mix better with people than with cars.”

Build a relationship in which I listen to and try to understand him in order to build enough trust that he might listen to and try to understand me:

  • “Excuse me, hi, I’m Adam. What’s you name, sorry? Do you ever ride? …” And a productive and understanding relationship (hopefully) starts.

I might also have been able (largely in jest) to point out that he had just ‘jay’ walked across the street, which is technically still illegal (in some countries, including here), and is just as daft a law as flat-out banning all bicycle use on the footpath.

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. 🙂

Safe up. Slow down.

Slow, upright, heavy… and far safer than a lycra missile.

In Australia, “57% of riders were travelling at 20 kilometres per hour or greater at the time of the crash. … MACCS has demonstrated a relationship between increased bicycle speed and the risk of head injury.” [Monash University]

Even in the safest bicycle country on earth, ‘sports cyclists’ (on mountain bikes or racing bikes) are at significantly higher risk of injury than ‘utility cyclists’ (on normal sit-up bikes). [Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation]

In London’s bike share, in the first 4.5 million trips no-one has been seriously hurt or injured, compared with about 12 people seriously injured for every 4.5 million trips on personal bikes. Comparing non-serious injuries on bike share bikes and personal bikes shows a 1 to 3.5 ratio. [Transport for London]

Same story on Washington D.C.’s bike share. [Boston Globe]


Takeaway for current bike riders: Sit up, slow down, safe up?

Takeaway for policy-makers: Ditch the helmet law for non-sports cyclists?



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.

Shelving ‘Share the Road’?

‘Share the road’ is a magnificently unhelpful command.

HOW exactly do you ‘share the road’? (And why is it always the most cycle-unfriendly governments that issue this command? – Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA.)

Is it ordering motorists to allow room for bicycles? If so, by slowing down around bicycle users, or simply by leaving them a bit more room when passing at speed?

Is it ordering cyclists to get out of the way of motor vehicles? If so, by pulling over into the ‘car door zone’, or by riding faster?

The England and Wales Canal and River Trust have a helpful new slogan (image below). Sure, it’s aimed at cyclists on canal towpaths, but isn’t the perfect message for places where people on bikes still have to share space with motor vehicles?

Share the space. Drop your pace.
(LoopZilla @ Flickr)