Unintended consequences

Shabham Dastgheib at Stuff reports:

The mandatory bicycle helmet law has cut the number of cyclists in half and contributed to 53 premature deaths per year, new research says.

The research, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal today, found a 51 per cent drop in the average hours cycled per person from the 1989-90 period when compared to 2006-09.

Colin Clarke, the honorary secretary of the Yorkshire Region’s Cyclists Touring Club in England who produced the research, has worked as a safety instructor and cycled in more than 20 countries including about 8000 kms in New Zealand.

Clarke estimates the 1994 law has translated to about 53 premature deaths per year (through adverse health effects from not cycling) and promotes discrimination in accident compensation.

He said safety should be improved through policies supporting health, the environment, and without the legal requirement to wear a helmet.

I actually think people have the right to risk themselves. Hence they can bungy jump, climb mountains, swim, work as salvors etc. That right should extend to wearing no helmet while cycling, and no seatbelt while driving.

With cycling, people should be able to judge for themselves whether the extra enjoyment they get from cycling without a helmet outweighs the probability of more severe damage if they crash. If you cycle 10 hours a week, and you have say only a 5% chance of a serious crash over your cycling life, then it is may be a reasonable decision to not wear a helmet.

Now some may argue that the decision is not one of people’s rights to take risks, but an economic one. That as we have a socialised health system, we should force people to minimise their chances of disease and injury, as otherwise we end up having to pay for their bad choices.

I have some sympathy for that argument, but it can be slippery end of the slope. You could use economics to justify making condoms compulsory for sex to reduce the prevalence of STDs.

But this story above, is a nice reminder that even if you do accept the economic argument to reduce risk by say banning cycling without a helmet, you run the risk of . In this case, the unintended consequence is alleged to be fewer people are cycling, and hence unhealthier, which has actually led to more premature deaths and a greater cost to the economy.

This is another reason why we should be extremely reluctant to interfere with people’s personal choices. You may have the best of motivations, but you don’t know what the impact will be.

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