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.

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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. 

Skateboarder

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.

Insult:

  • “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.

Child hit by motorist…

When a kid gets knocked down by a motorist while on foot, you normally hear calls for safer infrastructure (eg. crosswalks, traffic lights) as well as slower speeds.

When a kid gets knocked down by a motorist while on a bicycle, you normally hear calls for better cycle training, high-visibility clothing and helmets. (From people like this.)

Why?

Rule 64

The UK’s original 1931 Highway Code stated, “You must not ride a cycle on the pavement” (Americans: read ‘sidewalk’). It was Rule 64.

Luv 2 Cycle deftly points out what has changed since 1931:

In 1931 everyone walked.  Our pavements were crowded…

Back in 1931 rule 64 was protecting the majority of vulnerable people.

In 1931 very few cars were sharing the roads with cyclists.  Cars did not travel at the speeds that they do now…

No one wanted or needed to cycle on a pavement.  Why would they?  The roads in 1931 weren’t killing and injuring hundreds of cyclists a year.

I’ve ridden in Japan. On the pavement. Like everyone does. Giving priority to pedestrians, of course. Like everyone does.

Slow, safe, sidewalk cycling – Japan style

Proper, safe, Dutch-style cycle paths would be more ideal, but until they’re the norm, is rule 64 out of date?

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.

The number one reason NZ is so shit for bicycles

(and the helmet law isn’t it!*)

Mikael over at Copenhagenize.com is fond of the ‘bull in a china shop‘ analogy for motor vehicles in urban areas. Rightly so. But isn’t it easy to forget those china plates are people?

Study the following picture. Actually feel yourself in there. Your heart racing. Fear high in your throat. One eye on the danger, the other casting about for an escape route. …

Running of the Bulls, San Fermin

What would you want to change in order to feel safe there? A kevlar vest? New Nikes?

Personally I’d be happiest with an effective barrier between me and them. With separation between the bulls and humans, anyone can take part – your girlfriend, your kids, your grandma – without risk.

Indeed, most people (not unwisely) do exactly that at a Running of the Bulls: there are safety barricades to keep people safe. (And anyone who wants to run with the bulls – athletic and risk-seeking young men, basically – can do as they please.)

Safely separated from the bulls @ San Fermin

Consider the bulls as cars, as per Copenhagenize. Consider the people as… people. In particular as people on bicycles (the pit canaries of the street, another great bicycle blogger once said).

Ever wondered why almost everyone on a bike in NZ (and Australia, and America, etc) is youngish, male and sporty, while in the Netherlands every man, woman, child and their dog cycles? Think of bulls. It’s separation.

A visual explanation from (as far as I can tell) NZ’s official traffic engineering manual. (Can you spot the danger points?)

NZ cycle lane standards

Here you get motor vehicles hurtling by on your right, others pulling across your path to get into and out of the parking spaces (or bus stop, which is a similar layout), and frequent pinch points along the way, thanks to built-out curbs and masses of parking. With nothing to prevent any of them hitting you. (Note that the photo depicts a large gap between parked cars and bike lane – this is rarely the case.)

End result, riding a bike simply doesn’t feel at all safe.

Isn’t it easy to see why you get people on bikes saying motorists drive too close and too fast, and people in cars bemoaning getting stuck behind cyclists? The two simply shouldn’t be forced into the same space. They need separating. Separated lanes are a proven way to increase the numbers of people using a bike to get round town (to the shops, to work, to see friends) by making riding a bicycle safe (and even easier).

So why do we get the infrastructure we get – world class or otherwise?

National traffic engineering standards.

New Zealand’s (and Australia and the US, etc’s) basic standards for street design need updating to protect (rather than endanger) vulnerable road users. The old standards are a relic of old assumptions and old paradigms. The world has changed – did you miss the memo?

To finish with a dab of photoshopping (cycle lane now follows pedestrian pavement/sidewalk):

NZ->NL

Takes up the same space. Has same or very similar construction costs – or rebuild costs after roading work.

Moreover, it suddenly doesn’t matter how discourteous or impatient the motorists are here (and they are), or how ‘silly‘ the cyclists are (that was the clueless PM talking – see Auckland Cycle Chic for more on him), the two don’t have to deal with each other any more.

The traffic engineers need their textbooks updating. (David Hembrow, if/when the Netherlands Cycling Embassy gets up and rolling, can I volunteer NZ as a high priority for a kick in the safety engineering?)

Edit: It is traditional in NZ to begin with a Maori greeting. I will end with a Maori proverb: Ka pu te ruha ka hao te rangatahi. (As an old net withers another is remade.)


*The helmet law is a giant shamble in the wrong direction. If you disagree, be kind enough to read and digest this and this before you argue back.

Something has GOT to be done about New Zealand

This caught my eye this morning:

Fifth Cyclist Dies in Five Days (need I mention all were hit by motor vehicle drivers?)

Confusingly, among the comments below the article, most criticise cyclists – for not paying higher insurance premiums, for riding poorly, for causing traffic, for not looking for inside cars they’re passing to see if someone inside might open a door into their path…

Edit: a few seconds after I posted that: Girl Cyclist Run Over by Truck

Girl hit on way to school

Which all clearly ties with this from last month:

NZ One of the Worst in the Westernized World for Road Fatalities

And this speaks volumes about why:

SUV Driver Pushes Cyclist off Road – Lectures Him (which is a little similar to what has happened to me a couple of times, once by a police officer trying to nudge me off the road, though thankfully I didn’t suffer this chap’s broken collarbone)

Something has GOT to be done about New Zealand drivers, and the bicycle infrastructure here!

Build good quality, safe and segregated bicycle roads that keep people on bicycles well away from these irresponsible morons.