C . A . G . E .
Citizens Against Government Encroachment -- Citoyens Anti Gouvernement Envahissant






In Canada , a number of provinces have made the use of bicycle helmets mandatory for everyone.  Motorcycle helmets are also mandatory in all of Canada (compared to, for instance, a minority of states in the U.S. ).   There has also been talk in Quebec and British Columbia of making ski helmets obligatory.  Our discussion of this issue focuses on bicycle helmets, but most of the arguments are equally applicable to any activity that government might coercively require (e.g. by law) people to don protective gear for.

There are 2 ways to address the helmet question. The first is simple ethics and values, and not so complicated in our opinion.  If one believes in the core principle of liberal civilization -- that the  individual is sovereign over him or herself and entitled to determine what "the pursuit of happiness" means for him or herself, then the answer is clear – government must not pass helmet laws or other laws supposedly designed to protect people from themselves.   It is a slippery slope indeed once you start on this path (just take a look at the CAGE Blog or our other issue areas).  If we want our happiness to come from risk without a helmet and the wind blowing through our hair, that’s no less legitimate than the person who gets their happiness from lying on a couch all day eating chips and watching  TV, or the hang glider or free climber, for that matter.   It’s a very bad idea to have government bureaucrats and politicians deciding which choices are more legitimate, or costly to society, and hence forbidden or allowed (“what shall we mandate next?  Must ice-skaters wear helmets?  How shall we harass people who don’t eat right?  Should sunbathing without sunscreen be banned, or tanning salons?”).  Letting governments intrude into our personal lifestyles also requires an unjustifiably optimistic belief in benign government.  We see no reason to give governments the benefit of the doubt and assume they are always well intentioned or even competent.  There have just been too many cases of  bureaucratic mission creep, corruption, incompetent and rigid formulation of public policies and corporate-influenced politics (did you know that helmet manufacturers fund a number of groups calling for mandatory helmet laws?). 

Some people may still respond "Let’s be realistic here, rather than ideologues! Government must be careful with public finances, so the cost to society is an important consideration for the passing of certain laws, even those which curtail individuals’ sovereignty over their own bodies, and hence their liberty."  CAGE must grudgingly address this “utilitarian” argument – grudgingly, because frankly, we simply cannot see how it is ever acceptable, no matter how much money is saved, to tell people who are not harming anyone else how to live their lives.[1]   So, seeing as we’re doing a dispassionate utilitarian cost analysis, let’s do as objective a tally as we can:


Societal Costs of Not Mandating use of Helmets

 1 – Increased number of head injuries for those who decide not to wear a helmet and are unlucky enough to have an accident.  Many of these accidents will lead to death or long-term disability and very expensive long-term care.  We’ll accept this as a societal cost even in a for-profit medical system like the one  in the U.S. .  One must keep in mind, however, that people making these arguments often exaggerate the costs involved, and fail to consider other utilitarian aspects of the issue (more on this shortly).

Societal Costs of Mandatory Helmet Laws

 1 – Increased number of neck injuries. This is backed up by a number of studies [http://www.springerlink.com/content/l733821550722664/ and http://www.bikersrights.com/statistics/goldstein/goldstein.html, to cite just two].  One only has to think of the physics and mechanics of an accident and the position a helmet throws your neck into even at low-speed impacts to figure this one out.[2]   Result: Death in some cases,  permanent paralysis in others.  Expensive long-term care for many of these injuries.  So we need to subtract this cost from the estimated cost of increased head injuries, assuming that helmets prevent more head injuries than the number of neck injuries they cause (this shouldn’t be assumed, however, but for the sake of argument and lack of any objective studies we know of on the issue, let’s do so for now).

 2 – Unintended consequence issues:   Some people may be out for adrenaline and risk. That is their way of pursuing happiness.  If they are prevented from getting it by cycling or riding a motorcycle without a helmet, they may get it in other ways, which may or may not be more risky than riding without a helmet (drugs? Base jumping?  Who knows?).  This is difficult to quantify, but needs to be considered.

3 – Moral hazard issues:  There are many studies that show people have a marked tendency to ride/cycle/ski faster when they are wearing a helmet, due to the added feeling of safety the helmet provides.  Going faster is generally more dangerous than not wearing a helmet. There is even good evidence that shows that automobile drivers have a marked tendency to leave less distance between their car and a cyclist wearing a helmet than one who is not wearing a helmet (this is
a moral hazard issue we hadn’t expected until we saw the study
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6V5S-4M645C2-2&_user=10&_handle=C-WA-A-WY-WY-MsSWYWW-UUW-U-U-WY-U-U-AAZYVUCBZU-AAZCEYZAZU-AVUCYWUEC-WY-U&_fmt=summary&_coverDate=03%2F31%2F2007&_rdoc=28&_orig=browse&_srch=%23toc%235794%232007%23999609997%23638991!&_cdi=5794&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=79dc9c995a001cbfa76022eeb7acfb00 ).

 4 – More unintended consequences:  Fewer people cycle when helmets are mandatory (mandatory means no choice, whereas leaving people with the choice does not bother anyone’s preferences to wear or not wear a helmet).  If they drive a car instead, they pollute more and may cause a more serious accident involving someone else (try getting hit by a car or an SUV vs. a bicycle or motorcycle).  Studies in Australia and New Zealand , where bicycle helmet use is mandatory for everyone, have demonstrated a marked decline in cycling after the laws were imposed.  If people who would have otherwise cycled turn to public transit instead, then more resources are needed to deal with increasingly crowded buses and trains.  Finally, all those who stop cycling can be assumed to get less exercise, which in turn decreases their health and cost to society.

 5 – Even more unintended consequence issues: The strong implication of a mandatory "protect yourself from yourself" law is that legal, non-mandatory behavior is safe (the flip side of the coin of reasoning that the government outlaws unsafe practices, even when they put no unwilling people in danger).   Even a cursory look around at what is not forbidden by governments should show this assumption to be patently false. If instead of looking to government to make these inconsistent "protect yourself" legislative forays, however, we said "individuals are responsible for themselves", we might well encourage safer, more prudent aggregate behavior in the long term.  Just a crazy idea from CAGE:  let people think and take responsibility for themselves – including what risks they will revel in and which ones they will avoid.

6 – Still more unintended consequences (and this list is by no means exhaustive – just what we can think of):  When we mandate safety gear for something like riding a bicycle, we imply that the activity is dangerous.  Many people subconsciously, or consciously, avoid danger.  The Dutch use bicycles for 25% of all trips they make and see bicycles as a very normal, safe activity that does not require a helmet (or laws against doubling your friend, for that matter).   North America , Australia and New Zealand , on the other hand, seem intent on further reducing their pathetic 1% ratio of bicycle to car use.  Some journalists and politicians in Toronto even want to make “bicycle licenses” and registration mandatory, in addition to helmets! [http://network.nationalpost.com/np/blogs/toronto/archive/2009/09/29/time-to-stop-giving-bicylists-a-free-ride.aspx].  So at a time when government and society should send cyclists a “thank you” letter for not polluting or putting others at risk as they go to work or have fun, these people would punish and discourage them instead…

And finally,

 7 – Morbid Mathematics Issues and Accuracy in Statistics: Basic logic dictates that you can’t take the cost of treating a helmetless bicycle accident victim, add lost productivity hours, and present this as the "societal cost of no helmet legislation."  That’s a false comparison to a fictional base of zero, which gives you grossly inflated numbers.  Rather, you must also calculate what someone who doesn’t get injured cycling costs society on average (they get into other kinds of accidents or get old and sick one day, right?).  Also deduct the social security and pension benefits they won’t collect if they die early (morbid, yes, but we didn’t start the morbid mathematics issue – we would prefer that governments and people stop pointing accusatory fingers around at everyone they think is costing anyone money…).


Most people don’t think about how a helmet worn in an automobile also reduces the chance of head injuries as a result of road accidents (by 17%, according to the last study we looked at).  A helmet worn in a car wouldn’t even increase the chance of neck injuries either, since people secured in cars don’t tend to get projected into the kind of fall a cyclist faces.  Race car drivers wear helmets.  No one seriously advocates the mandatory use of helmets in cars, however, because of the inconvenience and because the added safety isn’t worth it to most people.  These are two of the exact same reasons many of us do not want to wear a helmet while cycling.  That, and the fact that using government coercion to protect people from themselves is unethical in principle and inconsistent in practice.


If you agree with CAGE’s position on this issue, make yourself heard!  Call or write to your political representatives, write letters to the media, and talk with others about it.  If you want to organize others on this issue, consider joining CAGE and doing so with us.  At the same time, if you think that a helmet provides enough cranial protection to be worth wearing, go ahead and wear one.  We only ask that you give others respect and dignity at the same time – by not supporting the use of government coercion to force them to do the same.  


[1] Especially when it comes to the helmet issue, people often like to point out that seat belt use in cars is mandated by law in most places, which saves a lot of lives and money.  The seat belt laws (and drug laws) are probably what started Western societies down the slippery slope of protecting people from themselves.  In this case, we think the issue could be approached more ethically:  Public awareness campaigns, rather than police-enforced laws, may well be able to achieve the same level of seat belt use as we have today.  Alternately, people could be asked to state whether or not they wear a seat belt all the time when they apply for their driver’s license.  Insurance companies would no doubt charge more to those who answer ‘no,’ and if someone who claimed to always wear a seat belt was stopped for some other traffic violation and found not to be wearing a seat belt, they would pay a fine. 

[2] Two of CAGE’s founders have 20 years of Judo and Aikido training between them, and one of them worked as a bicycle messenger in Montreal, getting hit by a car once a week on average (usually when the car turned right without looking for cyclists).  Both prefer to roll out of a bicycle crash or fall without having a helmet prevent them from doing so, or catching on something, hyper-extending their neck and damaging their spinal nerve. 


HELMET LAW  -- Suggested Web Sites

 A collection of resources, facts, figures and studies for the bicycle helmet issue:  http://www.cycle-helmets.com/links.html


For motorcyclists, try the following: http://www.bikersrights.com/



And if you have managed to read this far, here is a little treat....


For no other reason than the fun and the challenge, these two bicycle adventurers rode their bicycles across the Israeli – Jordanian border (prior to the two countries becoming officially at peace), and then crossed the hottest portion of the summer desert to get to Petra, then back to the Saudi Arabian border, and on …

They carried with them all of the essentials: bike tools, spare parts, tent, sleeping bag, change of clothes, toothbrush, soap, bandanas, saddle bags, sunscreen, first aid kits, food,camping utensils, food and lots and lots of water.

They forewent all of the unnecessary extra weight, such as cell phones, helmets and government nannies looking over their shoulders.

The dog in the front basket is a small puppy that they found in the middle of nowhere, 30 km east of Wadi Rum. The dog, "Sandy", had an injured leg, was very thirsty and was only too happy to catch a lift and get some help finding a new home with some friendly Jordanians.





Wearing helmets ‘more dangerous’

This interesting article addresses one of the possible reasons why jurisdictions where helmet laws were imposed upon cyclists saw an increase in severe bike accidents. Naturally, we find the conclusions of the "Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents" to be rather perverse. The facts, as indicated from the following study and the data collected in mandatory helmet law jurisdictions, are that helmets increase the rate and risk of accidents.

2,500 overtaking motorists in Salisbury and Bristol were recorded: Cyclists who wear protective helmets are more likely to be knocked down by passing vehicles, new research from Bath University suggests.

The study found drivers tend to pass closer when overtaking cyclists wearing helmets than those who are bare-headed. Dr Ian Walker was struck by a bus and a lorry during the experiment. He was wearing a helmet both times. But the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents said tests have shown helmets protect against injuries.

To carry out the research, Dr Walker used a bike fitted with a computer and an ultrasonic distance sensor to find drivers were twice as likely to get close to the bicycle, at an average of 8.5cm, when he wore a helmet.

The experiment, which recorded 2,500 overtaking motorists in Salisbury and Bristol, was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Dr Walker, a traffic psychologist from the University’s Department of Psychology, said: "This study shows that when drivers overtake a cyclist, the margin for error they leave is affected by the cyclist’s appearance.

This study suggests wearing a helmet might make a collision more likely.

Dr Ian Walker: "By leaving the cyclist less room, drivers reduce the safety margin that cyclists need to deal with obstacles in the road, such as drain covers and potholes, as well as the margin for error in their own judgements.

"We know helmets are useful in low-speed falls, and so definitely good for children, but whether they offer any real protection to somebody struck by a car is very controversial. "Either way, this study suggests wearing a helmet might make a collision more likely in the first place," he added.

Dr Walker thinks the reason drivers give less room to cyclists wearing helmets is because they see them as "Lycra-clad street warriors" and believe they are more predictable than those without. He suggests different types of road users need to understand each other.

"Most adult cyclists know what it is like to drive a car, but relatively few motorists ride bicycles in traffic, and so don’t know the issues cyclists face.

"There should definitely be more information on the needs of other road users when people learn to drive and practical experience would be even better."

Wig wearing:

To test another theory, Dr Walker donned a long wig to see whether there was any difference in passing distance when drivers thought they were overtaking what appeared to be a female cyclist.

While wearing the wig, drivers gave him an average of 14cm more space when passing.

In future research, Dr Walker hopes to discover whether this was because female riders are seen as less predictable than male riders or because women are not seen riding bicycles as often as men on the UK’s roads.

However, a spokesman for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents insisted: "We wouldn’t recommend that people stop wearing helmets because of this research. Helmets have been shown to reduce the likelihood of head and brain injuries in a crash.

"[The research] highlights a gain in vulnerability of cyclists on our roads

and drivers of all types need to take more care when around them."




Published in the Montreal Gazete (long before we thought of starting C.A.G.E.):

In his letter of September 13 ("Cyclists at fault"), Donald Haslam bemoans the fact that on streets such as Milton, cyclists ride against the one-way flow of traffic. Perhaps Mr. Haslam should visit the Netherlands one day, a society that truly encourages the use of bicycles.

In the Netherlands, cyclists are generally exempt from the one-way street rules. Additionally, urban bike paths there incorporate bicycles into traffic, so that cars learn to expect and look for cyclists on their right-hand side. Montreal, in contrast, segregates two-way bicycle traffic into 1 lane subject to more stop signs and rules than cars must abide by, such as the Rachel street bike path.

Finally, Dutch law automatically blames automobiles in any bicycle-car collision, with strict penalties for the car driver. Given that cars pollute, make noise, take up space, promote a sedentary lifestyle, and kill people, the Dutch approach of favouring bicycles seems reasonable. It also seems to be working – virtually everyone in the Netherlands uses a bicycle daily, and there are no helmet laws there either...

David Romano