Thu, Aug 16, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Letters: Helmets are just a placebo

As an avid cyclist who prefers not to wear a helmet, your article about the Ministry of Transportation's plan to make riders wear one -- or face a fine -- made depressing reading ("Ministry plans to make cyclists put on helmets," Aug. 11, page 2).

The reason for this misguided plan was the number of fatalities involving bicycles in traffic accidents. Officials said that most deaths (483 out of 664) between 2003 and last year were the result of head injuries sustained in a collision with a moving vehicle. Or as your article put it, 72 percent died after being hit by a vehicle and falling.

I can't imagine a cyclist not falling off a bike after being hit by a moving vehicle. It's pretty obvious to me that it wasn't the fall that killed any of these riders; it was the impact of the collision.

Practically all serious research has concluded that wearing a helmet makes little difference to the number of cycling fatalities. For example, when the New Zealand government made helmets compulsory, their usage jumped from 43 percent to more than 95 percent, but there was no measurable change in the number of head injuries.

Basically, bicycle helmets are just designed to withstand falls at low speed without a vehicle being involved. Most are made to cope with a fall at a speed of around 20kph. In other words, even a bicycle rider wearing a helmet would most likely suffer fatal injuries if he or she was hit by a speeding vehicle.

To make a slightly more effective cycle helmet, the foam it's made of would have to be much thicker. But this would make it heavier and more uncomfortable. The current trend is to make cycle helmets lighter, with larger gaps that aid ventilation, which effectively means less protection in a crash.

I have a nice helmet, but Taiwan's weather is so hot and humid that I find it very hard to keep it on for more than 10 minutes. So if the government gets this stupid law passed, I can see myself becoming something of a renegade. And I don't think I'll be alone -- or maybe I will.

Whenever mandatory helmet laws have been introduced, they have invariably led to a reduction in the number of cyclists. Take Australia; when helmets there became compulsory, more than 30 percent of non-wearers curtailed their bike riding.

Perhaps the ministry's Road Safety Supervisory Committee members should take a trip to Holland. I was in Amsterdam a couple of weeks ago -- a city with one of the highest rates of cycle usage in the world. I don't think it's a sheer fluke that casualties from bicycle accidents there are very low. And I can't recall seeing any cyclist there wearing a helmet.

It's absolutely tragic that 183 cyclists died in Taiwan last year. But the ministry's researchers should realize that 118 of them were killed by a vehicle. Sadly, even if all of them had been wearing helmets, that figure wouldn't have been much different.

Graham Finch

Chungli

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