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A few months ago I wrote my views on helmet use after a friend of mine spent thirteen days in intensive care with a head injury after a bike accident. At that time I was slightly sensitive to the topic, but since then I’ve changed my sweeping opinion on helmet regulations.
At the tail end of my Tour de France journey I spent some time in Paris and London and explored the cities using the public hire bikes. No planning, no lycra, no clip in shoes, and no helmet. It was liberating. I put my credit card in and 30 seconds later I was riding.
As a tourist this was an incredible way to get around and see the sights. It was spontaneous, convenient and inexpensive. After experiencing the system for myself (as more than a novelty in my hometown), I would love to see the bike hire schemes flourish in Australia. Unfortunately I can’t see it happening.
I’m sure I’ll cop it, but I renege on some of my words back from my Fairfax post. No, I didn’t wear a helmet while riding these bikes in Europe, but I didn’t feel unsafe doing so. (Why do I feel so guilty for saying that?) These bikes are obviously not immune from accident, but the geometry is much less aggressive than a mountain or road bike, and the absence of a top tube means that you are very maneuverable if you need to get off in a hurry. They are no less safe than walking across the street. Besides, riding safely has much more to do with paying attention to what is happening on the road rather than wearing a helmet.
In my view, the biggest possible threat is traffic. To be honest, I can’t say for sure if there was any difference in the space that drivers gave me in Paris and London while riding helmetless on a hire bike. I don’t have much of a problem in Melbourne with motorists, but more than anything I think that motorists treat varying genres of cyclists differently. A helmet-less rider on a utility bike is much more “human” to drivers than a bunch of us lycra clad warriors racing at 45km/hr. It’s sometimes called the Mary Poppins effect.
I have no doubt that the bike hire schemes will fail without relaxing our helmet restrictions on these particular bikes. These hire bikes are an excellent idea which are attempting to alleviate transport problems, make our cities more enjoyable to live in, and a making positive social change. We only have one chance at making this work.
I’m not the first person to say this, but a solution to this problem is simple. This class of “utility” or “upright” bike should be exempt from our current helmet laws. I still believe that helmets are beneficial to the type of riding I do 90% of the time, but the use of these hire bikes are at the absolute bottom end of the risk spectrum.
I still feel the same about wearing a helmet for road or mountain biking, but after experiencing the benefits of the scheme for myself I think it’s ridiculous that the bike hire schemes are subject to these regulations. It’s the only roadblock to the program’s success and there is far more good to come out of it than bad. Some common sense and self regulation needs to be considered.