Mandatory Helmet law (MHL) alone does not prevent accidents on the road, yet it comes with side-effects that can have a negative impact on cycling promotion and is likely to hamper the government’s Car-lite initiative.
How to reduce the negative side effects of the Mandatory Helmet Law while saving the high-risk cyclists during accidents?
Ideas that help to refine the Mandatory Helmet Law:
- Mandate helmet wearing for those riding fast on roads (40 km/h).
- Exempt the cyclists going below 40 km/h from the MHL. Slow cyclists may choose to wear or not to wear helmet depends on their trips.
- In addition, enhance education targeted at young cyclists.
On August 2018, the Active Mobility Advisory Panel (AMAP) recommended the “Mandatory Helmet Law” for cycling on road. On September 3rd, the recommendation was subsequently accepted by the Minister of Transport.
Helmet wearing and Helmet laws are hot topics in any cycling forum. There is a heated debate with strong opinions on both sides. There is no dispute that a helmet may save a life in an accident. However, a helmet is only a personal protective device, it is not an accident prevention device. The best helmet cannot prevent accidents from happening.
In any case, introducing the MHL (Mandatory helmet law) is not as simple as “Helmet saves lives”. There are implications and “side effects” which can have a negative effect on cycling promotion and is likely to hamper the government’s Car-lite initiative.
For helmet wearing, there is a significant difference between “Advice”, and “Mandating by law”.
The former, “Advisory”, allows a person to exercise his or her own freedom to decide when and where it is necessary to wear or not to wear a helmet. Since the cyclist is the best person to determine if his/her proficiency, route character, timing etc require him to wear a helmet or not.
The latter, “Mandatory”, limits the freedom when the individual feels it is really unnecessary to do so.
Up to 2018, cyclists are advised to wear a helmet when cycling on roads but it is not mandatory. As a result, both types of cyclists exist on the roads.
Every weekend, it is easy to spot groups of sports cyclists wearing helmets on their long-distance training rides along Mandai Road, Upper Thomson Road, or Tanah Merah Coast road.
On the other hand, less obvious, yet there are numerous bicycle users in all parts of Singapore riding a bicycle or share bikes without a helmet every day. These include all walks of lives from young to old. They are usually slow riders and mostly ride on the sidewalks. However, from time to time, they also need to ride on the roads when it is safe, more convenient or the pavement is not available.
From Traffic Police statistics, the yearly fatal road accidents involving bicycles and eBikes were below 20. It is a concern yet this figure is not particularly worse than in any other city. Cyclists not wearing a helmet and received fatal head injuries are not reported, it is estimated that the number is well below 10.
In line with the government’s Car-lite initiative, I wonder if there are ways to optimise the upcoming MHL in order to address the key safety issues of on-road cycling and to reduce the negative impact on the majority of the “Slow cyclists” in Singapore.
“On roads, cyclists travel alongside larger and faster vehicles and are the most vulnerable users.” – 2018-8-24, AMAP
In the event of an accident, wearing a protective helmet would reduce the impact and injuries suffered by the rider. -2018-08-24, AMAP
The key limitations of MHL:
- The helmet issue is a Red-Herring: The cyclist’s vulnerability on road is NOT due to lack of helmet wearing only. Instead, it is more due to some dangerous behaviour of both drivers and cyclists (e.g. Using handphone while driving or cycling, driver overtaking within the same lane as the cyclist, cyclists riding too fast and too near the curb with an uneven surface) as well as bicycle-unfriendly road design. The helmet issue distracts the public and policy maker from the real solutions we need to implement to prevent accidents from happening.
- Lack of data support: Cycling on road is not new. We should have local accident data to support mandatory helmet wearing. So far, there is no strong evidence showing “on-road, non-helmeted cyclists receiving head injuries is a big issue.” Excluding the helmeted eBikes and Sports cyclists, the total number of cyclists involved in road accidents is fairly low.
- International benchmark: out of 195 countries, Australia and NewZealand are the only two countries to have countrywide Mandatory Helmet Law. Research supporting MHL, published in 2016, which reviewed 40 studies worldwide covering 64,000 injured cyclists, found that helmets can reduce the chances of serious head injury by almost 70 per cent and fatal head injury by 65 per cent. However, while helmet is useful for personal protection, it cannot prevent accidents, both Australia and NewZealand are suffering from high cyclist fatality rate on roads as well as low bicycle usage. On the other hand, countries with highest bicycle usage and good safety records all don’t have MHL. These countries are famous for their bicycle friendly infrastructure, such as The Netherlands and Denmark, or good driving and cycling etiquette such as Japan and Taiwan.
- Share bike: Share bike has quickly become an important mode of transport which enhance the Car-lite initiative. In many areas, such as Joo Chiat and Sembawang, the cycling/walkway network is limited. In such area, most share bike users need to ride on the road. Imposing the MHL means that share bikers will have to carry a helmet all the time just in case they may need to use the Share bike at some point of their journey. MHL may also increase the cost and complexity for the bike share operators if they are forced to provide fitting helmets for their riders. Sizes, hygiene and availability of helmets at the points of needs is a huge logistic challenge and may cause the share bike operation not viable.
- Slow cyclist: The vast majority of local bicycle users are slow cyclists, such as the “uncles” riding to a nearby market for a “kopi” or a mother bringing her kids to school. For safety reasons, they usually cycle on walkways, which may appear that the MHL won’t affect them. However, in practice, most of them need to ride on the road partially along their usual trips. This is due to disconnections between walkways, PCN and shared paths. The MHL would force them to carry a helmet for their daily trip, which will add a burden to their choice of a bicycle as a mode of transport.
- Reckless youngsters: There are a number of young riders who cycle on the roads quite recklessly. Given the way they are riding on or off roads, in an accident, the injury would bound to be serious or fatal. The MHL may reduce their risk of suffering from head injuries, but it will not shield them from other serious and fatal injuries. Education target at this group to increase their awareness will be more effective to improve their safety.
- Sport cyclist: This is another high-risk group due to their speed and proximity to fast traffics. Every weekend, it is easy to spot groups of sports cyclists racing along Mandai Road, Upper Thomson Road, or Tanah Merah Coast road. MHL is very suitable for this group of fast, on-road cyclists. They are fast, as fast as a motorcyclist or cars and likely to suffer similar injury impact as motorcyclist going at a similar speed.
Suggest to refine the Mandatory Helmet Law:
Going through the list above, the upcoming MHL is likely to have a negative impact for Share bike (4) and Slow cyclist (5), but it will enhance the safety of Sports cyclists (7). Perhaps it would make sense to target the MHL at the Sports cyclist but not the Share bike users and slow cyclists?
A couple of ideas that helps to refine the MHL:
- MHL for certain popular roads for road cyclists. (e.g. Mandai road)
- MHL for the cyclists riding fast on roads (e.g. 40 km/h).
- Exempt those cyclists going below 30 km/h. Slow cyclists may choose to wear or not to wear helmet depends on their trips.
- In addition, enhance education targeted at young cyclists.
In terms of enforcement resources, it is easy to spot a cyclist going very fast on road verse a slow cyclist, therefore enforcement of the MHL would not be overly complicated.
Besides MHL, to promote a Car-lite Singapore, there is a lot that can be done to improve the safety of road cycling effectively, such as:
- 40km/h CBD and residential area (e.g. Silver zone)
- “Slow lane” road system (as in Taiwan)
- 1.5 meters passing rule
- Mandatory stop before STOP LINE for drivers
Educate the lorry drivers
Refreshment courses for driving instructors
Fundamentally, I believe in the Car-lite vision. Road safety and cyclist’s safety can be improved by coherent policies, which support health, the environment, and personal choice.