Friday 11 July 2014
Lifting the Lid - How to repeal a helmet law
Eran Shchori of Israel’s peak cycling body is an advocate of helmets, yet he is opposed to helmet laws. The Advertiser spoke to him about his successful campaign to overturn the helmet law in Israel.
Words by Gordon Kanki-Knight
A keen mountain biker and commuter, Eran Shchori usually wears a helmet when he rides a bike, despite heading a successful campaign to repeal Israel’s mandatory helmet law, which was introduced in 2007.
“I bike to work three or four times a week, it’s about 11km each way,” says Eran. “I’m also a cross-country bicyclist. There’s no question that a helmet protects your head. For me,
it’s natural to put a helmet on – I don’t see any problem with it. But I fully understand people who don’t think like me me, and find this is an obstacle.
As a key representative of Yisrael Bishvil Ofanayim (Israel Bicycle Association), Eran is tasked with getting more people to ride.
“Our business is lowering the obstacles to people who use a bicycle as a means of transportation – and the mandatory helmet law is an obstacle.
Sometimes a huge obstacle.
“Anything that is an obstacle to people getting on their bike to go commuting isn’t a good idea.”
That obstacle really raised its ugly head when the mayor of Tel Avi, Ron Huldai, pictured, acted to implement a bike-share scheme, named Tel-O-Fun. Huldai understands the importance of cycling, says Eran, but the mayor’s proposed bike-share scheme quickly became entangled in red tape because of Israel’s mandatory helmet law.
“Huldai knew that there would be a problem, a legal problem, because if he didn’t enforce on his customers wearing a helmet, or at least provide them with the possibility of wearing a helmet, he’d be liable if someone were injured.”
Companies who had initially jumped at the chance to supply hire bikes and run the program were spooked by the legal ramifications of running a bike-hire scheme that had to ensure that its riders put on a helmet. Three companies initially tendered to be a part of the project “but in the end, because of the mandatory helmet law, two of the companies didn’t want to carry on. They were afraid that they would lose money,” says Eran, 54.
“Only one firm stayed in the tender.”
The bike-share scheme hadn’t even started, but already the helmet law had put it at risk – and had cost the local government money in lost tender bids.
“There is a relationship between the mandatory helmet law and the success of bike-share programs,” says Eran.
Cities with no helmet law, such as London, New York and Paris have seen their bike-share programs go from strength to strength. Australia’s cities – Brisbane and Melbourne in particular – have seen schemes thwarted by helmet laws, while other Australian cities have not even gone ahead with a scheme. Sydney Mayor Clover Moore, Fremantle Mayor Dr Brad Pettitt and our own mayor, Stephen Yarwood, have all expressed a desire to make cycling safe enough to undertake without head protection – through the provision of better street design, bikeways and traffic-calming measures. And Eran says it is elected officials such as town mayors who can help overturn the law.
“We had the best strategic partner in Mr Huldai. Tel Aviv’s bike-share program was on its way to becoming a reality, but the helmet law was jeopardizing it, so he acted to amend it.”
Eran accepts that most politicians want to “play safe” on the issue.
“Being a pro mandatory helmet law politician makes sense,” he says.
“That’s why it’s a difficult task to change their mindsets.
“To make politicians change their minds, you should first find a strategic partner with a political power or with an economic incentive to promote cycling by making helmets non-mandatory for adults when cycling in urban areas.”
“Such partners could be, like in our case, a mayor who wants a bike-share program to succeed. Other partners could be bike-share program operators and large importers of city bikes.”
I took Australia and New Zealand as examples of what could happen in Israel if a helmet law was enforced. The arguments emphasized the negative impacts of the mandatory helmet law, which is enforced in these countries, and relied on research done in Australia and New Zealand.
“Because most people are promandatory helmet law in Australia you have to convince them to change their minds. So the other thing I did was make a good argument that amending the law is not making cycling more risky, but the other way around – it makes cycling safer.”
To help put the dangers of cycling into perspective, the Israel Bicycle Association organised a soccer game, which was played with helmets on.
Heading a soccer ball has been linked to brain trauma – making soccer arguably a better candidate for helmet wearing than cycling. The press loved the images of soccer players looking silly in helmets – and it made people look again at cyclists.
The efforts of Mayor Huldai, lobbyists, a handful of Knesset members and the Israel Bicycle Association brought about a modification of Israel’s helmet law in 2011, which allowed adults to cycle without a helmet in urban areas.
“The number of cyclists in Israel has increased dramatically, especially in Tel Aviv,” says Eran. “The Tel-Aviv Municipality says that from 2010 to 2012 there was an increase of 54 per cent in the number of people who use their bicycles regularly.”
Helmet law issues out of the way, Tel-Aviv’s bike share program has also taken off, growing from an initial 250 bikes and 35 docking stations to 1500 bicycles today at more than 150
stations. And yes, if you want to wear a helmet the Tel-O-Fun bike hire scheme can supply you with one.
(Note that Bike SA does not necessarily share the same views on helmets as those discussed in the article, but does encourage Adelaide's cycling community to engage in careful, considerated and respectful debate on the issue.)
This article originally appeared in Bike SA's Love Your Ride 6 magazine.