Tallinn Bicycle Week runs from June 5-8. In this piece, Juho Kalberg takes a look at a recent controversy, arguing that compulsory bike helmets for cyclists is a superficial measure and an half-hearted attempt to deal with the consequences, not the causes. He says the focus should be on promoting the health benefits of cycling and creating a decent infrastructure for a more humane urban environment.
The issue of cyclists and compulsory helmets has resurfaced in the media. The arguments are serious - statistics for recent years in Estonia show the number of bike accidents is on the rise. This is a serious concern, and things have gotten out of control, government officials feel: the state must do something; it cannot stand idly by and watch people get killed.
What is it that we want to achieve; what is the goal here?
Is our goal to stop people from getting hurt in bike accidents specifically? Because at the same time, the number of accidents involving cars and pedestrians is also on the rise. Maybe the goal is to reduce the number of cyclists, which would guarantee that the number of bike accidents will decrease? This is exactly what happened in Australia, where the number of cyclists fell sharply after the helmet was made compulsory, because if cycling is something that requires additional equipment because it apparently is one of the most dangerous activities in the world, you really don't jump at the chance of doing it.
Watching the evening news and listening to an eminent surgeon speaking about how the helmet will save the skull of a falling cyclist makes you think about how many patients go under his knife in a year due to various obesity-related cardiovascular diseases, because people are not exercising.
The leading cycling countries in the world avoid making helmets compulsory because they want people to use bikes to go shopping, to work and school; it is good for health, good for the environment, to the air we breathe and even the economy.
Instead of helmet laws, shouldn't the focus be on how many kilometers of decent bike lanes are there in Tallinn’s city center - lanes that are safe enough for children to use? Are the lack of helmets the cause of accidents or is it the lack of a safe urban environment to move around in?
Politicians and bureaucrats only see the increase in bike accidents and think it must be controlled. Never mind the fact that the use of bikes in general has increased sharply. By that logic we could fix the bike accident statistic in a flash if we just banned cycling - allow only professional cyclists to ride bikes and that’s that. Or by following the logic of accident statistics, since accidents involving cars and pedestrians are still the predominant form of traffic accident, should we not impose a general obligation to wear helmets, because those numbers are serious?
We’ll never fix our traffic accident statistics because we apparently do not care about the causes, only toning down the consequences. We make absolutely no effort to shape our environment, calm down the traffic, and use lighter vehicles in a natural way, instead ordering people to equip themselves with safety vests, protective helmets and all kinds of features. We suggest to people at every step that they are dead once they go beyond one meter from their front door, and we'll eventually get a situation where people will be dead once they go beyond one meter from their front door.
A bike is a vehicle that allows you to move quickly from A to B. If you calculate the pollution involved in producing it, using a bike does not significantly take up natural resources, a bike does not pollute - there is more air to breathe. A bike is not noisy. If you hit someone with a bike, it could be fatal but rarely is, while with a car, the chances greatly multiply.
A bike takes up a minimum amount of space, and space is extremely valuable in every city. A bike does not produce road rage in drivers - you almost never get traffic jams of bicycles. All right, in Copenhagen, you sometimes do, but not to any significant extent. A bike does not require metal fences and streetlights on roads. You can take the direct route with a bike. You can park your bike for free next to a random fence, you don’t have to build a multi-story building for that purpose. In other words - a bike is a nice, simple gadget that makes our lives better.
What is a helmet?
A helmet is one of many gadgets that increase discomfort, that eventually prompt people to choose between taking a car or a bike to work. In other words, whether they will hit someone with a car or not, create a traffic jam, send out exhaust fumes under someone’s window, get irritated, look for a place to park and take up space.
No more, no less.
Juho Kalberg is a community activist and member of the board of Tallinn's Telliskivi Society, which aims to improve the living environment of the Kalamaja and Pelgulinna areas and protect the interests of the residents.