Idea for debate session at the 2013 NZ Skeptics Conference

Following on from a meeting a couple of days ago to begin planning for the 2013 NZ Skeptics conference here in Wellington I have been thinking about a subject that could make for a good and worthwhile debate.

It is a matter of some dispute whether NZs helmet legislation is beneficial or harmful. It is an issue of great consequence as the answer to this question could have a large effect on the increased uptake and safety of cycling in NZ (or so some say).

It seems to me that this is a subject that runs the full span of what makes the skeptical position of great value and interest. It is of consequence, there can be an answer, it has passionate opponents and proponents and cycling is something that will inevitably become a greater share of transport.

Is helmet legislation preventing cycling becoming safer in NZ?

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Can you provide links to the legislation?

And summarise what about it is controversial?

This site has research and

This site (one of many) has research and studies (some dubious) in opposition to the legislation.

Here is a summary of the opposition:
-The law is poorly thought out.
The government introduced helmet laws without proof of helmet effectiveness; without community consultation; bypassing democratic principles and standards; and without considering other factors such as that there would be a decline in cycling.

-Cycling has declined, partly as a result of the law.
Numbers of cyclists have declined enormously since the law, and although cycling may have since increased, evidence indicates that the level is still below what would have been expected had there been no law.

-More people have given up cycling or continued to ride helmetless than have worn a helmet because of the law.

-The law has failed to reduce head injuries.
The estimated number of head injuries per cyclist has not decreased despite increased helmet wearing rates.

-No scientific support
The key scientific studies in support of the law have been proven flawed, usually due to limitations in their data or methodology.

-Anecdotes prove little.
"My helmet saved my life" anecdotes do not validate enforcing the use of helmets on an entire population, notwithstanding the tendency for people to exaggerate their claims. Anecdotes can be a compelling argument for individuals to choose to wear helmets, but do not constitute the scientific evidence which should be a pre-requisite to legislation.

-Helmet wearers may be more at risk of injury.
Some studies have suggested helmet wearers to be more likely to strike their heads and/or have an accident. There appears to be a rational explanation for this phenomena. Wearing a helmet increases the size and mass of the head. Helmet wearers, like all groups subject to safety interventionn, may also be subject to risk compensation - a well recognised problem, i.e. helmet wearers cycle more dangerously because they feel safer.

-Bicycle helmets may increase some kinds of brain injury.
Studies of the mechanics of head injury show that one serious cause of brain injury is rotational forces, which helmets can do little or nothing to prevent and may actually worsen.

-Helmets may reduce scrapes, but are not designed to protect against serious injury.
Helmets have little benefit in a severe collision with a motor vehicle. Bicycle helmets are certified only for simple falls up to about 20 km/h. Helmet promotion tends to exaggerate the effectiveness of helmets, and consequentially has probably reduced their effectiveness through the effects of increased risk compensation.

-Helmet laws erode civil liberties.
Don't even think about civil liberties, you don't have any. Wear a helmet or else! Just as compulsory motorbike helmets were used to justify compulsory seatbelts, and compulsory seatbelts in turn were used to justify compulsory bicycle helmets, there can be little doubt that at some point in the future the bicycle helmets law will be used to justify other breaches of civil liberties.

-The law needs reviewing.
The helmet law has fundamentally failed in its stated aim of reducing head injury, to say nothing of the adverse effects, but the Government has so far refused to review it.

-The helmet law has diverted attention from proven safety measures.
The government has concentrated on enforcing an ineffective law rather than proven safety measures such as traffic calming, road engineering, skills training and cycling facilities. Helmetless cyclists in the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark are much safer then helmetted cyclists in New Zealand. Countries considering introducing mandatory helmet laws look at New Zealand as evidence of why NOT to have a helmet law.

-The law blames the victim.
The helmet law attempts to mitigate the effects of a crash, but does nothing to reduce the likelihood of that crash.


The resulting debate regularly generates news items like this

The proponents say that that studies such as this



Clearly show that helmets have efficacy in reducing the incidence of brain injury.

It seems the anti legislation camp is getting a large following and it could be timely to give the debate a bit more attention.

I personally haven't come to an opinion myself as there seems to be good arguments on both sides and detangling the various claims and counter claims is going to take longer than I have spent on it so far.


Kylie Just pointed me at these;

Thanks to @tokenskeptic for the links.

SGU Forums:More counterintuitive arguments against bike helmets

Skeptic Blogs:Another Fatal Conceit

There are a couple of pro and

There are a couple of pro and anti cycle helmet advocates here in Wellington that are vociferous and passionate about the issue so I would be thinking of getting them and having someone from the Cycling Advocates Network (CAN) to moderate.

They probably haven't presented their arguments to a very skeptical audience before and this may be a good chance to sort the wheat from the chaff.