Bicycle Helmet discussions warm up in Sustainable Penang WhatsApp forum

4 Feb. 2016. Penang

11:31. Lim Thean-heng (LTH, Site initiator). Shares a picture of Mayor Enrique Peñalosa of Bogotá on a bike.

enrique penalosa on bike - 211:59. Britton (EB):

To draw your attention to one small detail in the photo of Mayor Enrique Peñalosa of Bogotá on a bike. He is an everyday city cyclist, and like the vast majority of such cyclists in cities with good bike policies, he is not wearing a helmet. That means he perceives cycling in his city as  safe enough not to have to wear a helmet.

12:02 LTH

Yes indeed helmet issue and debates has been raging among the different interest groups for many years…….here Eric we are just starting to warm up…

12:09 EB

Dear LTH, that’s just the point. THERE IS NO HELMET ISSUE. It’s all over. The evident is in and been carefully weighed. No mandatory helmets for adults, for all the reasons you will see if you weigh the evidence.  However MANDATORY helmets for children of less than 14 (some say 1, I prefer 14). Again, that’s

12:11  Yap Soo Huey.

Eric, I’m not convinced the jury is out. Nonetheless, I’m an advocate of riding without helmet. I ride without helmet in Penang to make a point that it is not necessary.

12:27  Loh Lim Lin Lee.

We are parents of a son we came close to losing many years ago when he 13. Fell off his bike, no helmet, had a massive extradural haematoma and now sports a 40-inch scar on his head. Guess which side of the debate we are on..

14:30  EB

Dear Loh Lim Lin Lee. This is very important because you get us right in the heart of the debate. Your point about your son is well taken. As a loving parent I can completely understand your position. 100%.  But the helmet debate actually starts by looking terrible instances like this right in the eye and from the beginning. I promise you this is not the sort of thing that gets skipped over.

If you are interested to have a balanced position on this from the point of view of the community, as well as for individual cyclists, I strongly suggest that you consult the copious evidence on this with an open mind. It can get quite complicated, and I recall that when I first started to really dig in on the issues I had a lot of doubts myself until I got deep enough to get comfortable with the evidence (and the contradictions)

But bear in mind the statistical evidence shows that most helmets worn by city cyclists do not, in fact, offer anything close to adequate protection from the realities of heavy speeding vehicles in traffic. In the vast majority of cases the helmets being purchased are not of sufficient quality to offer the needed level of protection, in a phrase they are too cheap. And dangerous because they are not in most cases not properly fitted. An ill-fitted helmet = no helmet at all. Again the statistical evidence is very clear on this.

And children who bike in traffic should be required — if only by their families — to attend special cycling classes either in school, by cycling groups, or the police or local government agency.  Cycling in cities requires careful preparation. And of course, and once again, mandatory helmets for children of 14 or under.

Here are two brief summaries that you may wish to have a look at: (1) “Bike helmets are less effective than we think” –  (2) And for the state of the helmet issues just Down Under, check out this good short article: In both cases they site and can lead you to many other references from the full range of perspectives. (For more on the helmet issue, have a look at and the many references  cited there.)

Systemic complexity, contradictions

To conclude (and thanks for your patience):

Understanding the helmet issues provides an excellent example of the higher kind of thinking that is required when it comes to sustainable development policy in all areas of our daily lives. There is often in this ever more crowded 21st century a conflict between what any given individual may want to do or enjoy (say getting around by car whenever and wherever they want), and what happens when we examine and try to tackle the issues from the overall position of the community as a whole.

That requires a big mental leap on the part of each of us as individual citizens and (I very much hope) voters.  One might think of it as two very different worlds: macro versus micro thinking. But it is not really “versus”.  In a fair and democratic society we have to learn to do both.

# # #

A  few excerpts from The Guardian Australia article to level the playing field

The only proven thing helmets protect us from are fines. 

A Senate inquiry into “nanny state” laws, chaired by libertarian senator David Leyonhjelm, has heard that the requirement to wear a helmet is “bordering on ridiculousness”.

Australia became the first country to make all cyclists wear a helmet, with the laws phased in across states and territories between 1990 and 1992. Among wealthy nations, only New Zealand has similar helmet laws. The laws mean that, in stark contrast to countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands where huge numbers of people cycle bareheaded, cyclists in Australia face a fine if they refuse to wear one.

Lisa Parker, a Sydney doctor, told the inquiry that there is “evidence of wider harm to population health resulting from the reduction in cycling”. “It does seem odd that we, as a community, should have a law about something that reduces population health,” she said.

John Trueman, an Australian National University academic, said: “Helmets are utterly useless in collisions with motor vehicles. Worse, they give both the cyclist and the motorist a false sense of security. It is well established, for example, that motorists give a helmeted cyclist less passing room.”

But let’s not forget this:

But some cycling advocates believe improved infrastructure should be a priority over any changes to helmet laws. “Bicycle Network’s community and member surveys consistently show the biggest barrier to riding a bike is the lack of bike infrastructure, not helmets,” said Chris Carpenter, spokesman for Bicycle Network.

“This is why Bicycle Network has spent years lobbying the Australian parliament for bike infrastructure funding. “We are determined to see bike rider trauma reduced and recommend all bike riders in Australia wear a helmet and comply with helmet rules.”

Nobody ever said this was going to be simple.

# # #

And what does all that mean for Penang? (From the editor)

  1. You need to create a world level cycling strategy for Penang.
  2. You must build on the experience of the best. (You will shortly find a comprehensive short list of key sources and cities  on the Public Library.)
  3. Your target will be day-to-day or transport cycling (as opposed to leisure cycling, touring or racing).
  4. I would say you need to create a Joint Working Group, bringing in a range of key organizations and expertise, public, private and Third Sector, with a wide range of competences.
  5. I would propose that you target a 5% modal share for cycling, by 2020.
  6. Put someone in charge, and make sure that they are publicly accountable for success (or otherwise)
  7. It will not cost you RM27 billion, and will not require ceding  great gobs of valuable public land to finance.
  8. The best time to start will be next Monday.

# # #

About the Editor:

Eric Britton
9, rue Gabillot, 69003 Lyon France

Bio: Educated as an international development economist, Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher and sustainability activist who has worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. Professor of Sustainable Development, Economy and Democracy at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion (Paris), he is also MD of EcoPlan Association, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change, civil society and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets: The Politics of Transport in Cities | See Britton online at and @ericbritton

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