Obligatory cycling helmet use is a red herring to bicycle safety

©Barry Sandland/TIMB - Bike riding police are helmeted in Brussels

©Barry Sandland/TIMB – Helmets seem an easy fix, but obligatory use will reduce the numbers of cyclists on the road, and make the roads increasingly unsafe for the city’s cyclists.

So, once again some Belgium politicians are considering the value of obligatory helmet laws for cyclists. I, of course, have my opinion about this. After all, I have been menaced by motorised transport on four continents and dozens of cities. Mandatory helmet use is a North American ideal. Instead, Belgium should be looking to Holland and Denmark for direction. Helmets are just a red herring in bicycle safety.

©Barry Sandland/TIMB - A simple Do Not Door Me for drivers

©Barry Sandland/TIMB – I ride on the far left of bike lanes, closest to moving cars, when drivers think we should be closer rot the parked cars, to haves a chance against drivers who open their doors without thinking about approaching cyclists.

My home province in Canada, Newfoundland, has recently implemented a law obliging all cyclists to wear a helmet. The province has the highest rate of severe head injuries in the country and helmet wear was, is, considered a way to ebb the catastrophe. Meanwhile, it has done nothing concrete, save leave drivers with a greater sense that they have done nothing wrong, need do nothing to improve their behaviour – and has placed responsibility solely at the feet of cyclists.

The bike pathways in the capital city, St. John’s, are few, poorly marked, lesser maintained, and often dimly end, mid-route, insisting cyclists either walk, or join the motorised traffic often in a by far unsafe area.

There most likely will be reductions in head injuries, versus old levels. Afterall, cyclists are now wearing a helmet and left to fend themselves against the same driving mentality. If nothing else is done, then the helmet achieves the minimum. The bare minimum.

What I cannot find out is how many of these head injuries were results of car/bike collisions. That is important. And I suspect the figure is high.

©Barry Sandland/TIMB - Bike lanes are used for double parking or simply a car lane

©Barry Sandland/TIMB – Bike lanes are used for double parking or simply a car lane

Meanwhile, while I have four decades cycling experience and have ridden in four continents and many, many cities, In my latest excursions there, I found St.John’s to be hell for cyclists. And I rode my bike there for almost 15 years before leaving. St. John’s is actually one place where I can honestly sy conditions have gotten worse for cyclists.

St. John’s has a limited bicycle pathway infrastructure; cars drive closer to the sidewalk than the centre of the road; extremely large North American trucks pass cyclists without any decent sense of space. Once outside the capital, the provincial highways offer almost no protection, not even a perfunctory white band with a safety zone for cyclists.

But now cyclists, on the most vulnerable vehicle on the road, are obliged to wear helmets. And the provincial government can claim a success in the policy when they show a decrease in head injury incidents in the following years.

I do not expect the Newfoundland provincial government to have information about the presence of cyclists on the road. What is the number of cyclists on the road, for what distance, what time of day… But the decline will be heralded, even if that also brings a severe decline in cyclists on the road.

©Barry Sandland/TIMB - Bus and car stopped in a bike safety zone at a red light

©Barry Sandland/TIMB – Bus and car in the safety zone that is supposed to be for bikes. It is not hard to see this every day in Brussels, as cars encroach on what should be a safe space for cyclists.

What Newfoundland did not do was address cyclists rights and advocate for them with the motorised population. There is no campaign asking for a one metre space when overtaking cyclists. I have a vivid recollection of a monster truck coming past me at speed on a highway (I was helmeted), so close I could feel the side mirrors brush past my shoulder. Now that is far too close.

Car drivers in the city, where there is a wide road with plenty of space for both modes of transport, stay close to the curb, making a safe space for cyclists impossible. There are no marked lanes, not even the perfunctory white bike icon painted on the road. Cycling, cyclists, are almost declared to be second -class participants on the road.

Cycling safety remains an issue for cyclists where they are forced to helmet themselves so, when cars hit them, they

, but bikes are faster then they are. Fact is, a 30kmph limit would radically increase safety. It might also make car trips faster.

©Barry Sandland/TIMB – Driers protest a 30kmph limit

Now, about Belgium … Belgium is a far, far better place to ride a bike. People who think it is bad here really need to travel abroad and see what happens to cyclists elsewhere.

That said, Belgium has massive issues in cycling that need to be addressed. And most of these needs are issues about the conduct of the motorists, not the cyclists.

In a recent study in Australia, they placed cameras on bicycles and then documented the car/bike dangerous situations. Over 85% of the incidents found the car drivers to be at fault.

Slow moving traffic, and I consider that to be most of the city cycling traffic, is mostly threatened by motorised vehicles. If drivers; showed more respect to cyclists; ceded right of way where the law demands it; allowed cycling paths to be used without cars infringing on the space for their bullying right of way stopped double parking or using of the cycling lanes whenever they feel they need it over a cyclist, then safety in cycling in Brussels, in Belgium, will improve immensely.

Frankly, on the highways, with the racing groups and cycling clubs, just about every cyclist is helmeted. This is as much about safety within the peloton as cyclists are quite likely to be clipped off their bids by their best friends. This stuff happens when riding at close quarters, handlebar to handlebar.

But cyclists are not supposed to be at close quarters, handlebar to fender, with cars, trucks, buses.

@Barry Sandland/TIMB - Bicycle against a pickup truck in Newfoundland

GBarry Sandland/TIMB – A bicycle dwarfed by one of the everyday trucks on the Newfoudland roads. These can be extremely intimidating – and you certainly feel unprotected. But the issue is not about a helmet. North America is still protecting cars over cyclists and obligatory helmet use follows that path.

If Belgium wants safety for cyclists, then they have to stop with band-aid solutions. The same allies to St. John’s, Newfoundland. Safety comes in numbers. The more cyclists on the road, the better. The safer.

Obligatory helmet use will definitely decrease the number of cyclists on the road – immediately making the conditions worse, not better. Any obligatory helmet use is detrimental to cycling. Period.

If you want more cyclists, then create cycling lanes, protected, where possible, or simple identified lanes as a quick-impact presence.

ENFORCE THE SAFETY ZONES. For Pete’s sake, enforce the law. I am not advocating an immediate ticket rush as a revenue source. I would be happy to see a three-month period where police actively stop cars who infringe on cycling spaces. Warn them, tell them to respect cyclists and their space. Protect the bike lanes from use by cars whenever there is no bike immediately there to use it. Stop double-parking on bike lanes. Get cars, taxis, buses, trucks out of the bike safety zone at red lights.

Make Brussels a city where cyclists are considered equal to cars and not some leftover transport.

And create more parking spaces for bikes. Instead of trying to create an underground parking space at Place Jeu de Balles to increase car flow to an already saturated area, put in stands for 100 bikes and see more bikes, fewer cars.

If any city is serious about the safety of cyclist, then the red herring of helmets has to come off the table. We need bike lanes, we need parking spaces, we need lane and safety zone enforcement and we need a pro-active police force.

I need to feel safe from the threat of cars who drive aggressively alongside me, speed up to pass only to brake immediately for fear of hitting the car in front, who cut me off on the roadway when I have right of way.

But please, keep thinking helmets are the issue.

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