Forget helmets, focus on the real causes of traffic deaths


People should look further than making helmets compulsory for cyclists when examining the causes of traffic deaths, says Marijke Brouwer-Poelgeest, from victim support charity Fonds Slachtofferhulp.

Cycling is still gaining in popularity, not in the least because of a steep rise in the purchase and use of electric bikes. It’s a positive development – bikes are sustainable, affordable and environmentally friendly – but unfortunately there is a downside. Although electric bikes encourage people to leave the car at home more often, and enable older people to continue cycling, they have also spawned a plethora of e-bike variants, the fatbike among them.

These bikes, which are often unsafe because they are easily doctored to achieve higher speeds, are primarily used by young people who are now featuring in the traffic casualty statistics with depressing regularity.

The number of cyclists involved in a serious traffic accident has risen considerably in the last few years. In 2023, a total of  684 people died as a result of an accident.

And yet these figures fail to make a lasting impression. There’s the initial shock and then it’s business as usual. We don’t change our behaviour in traffic nor do we evaluate the way we look at the figures. Do we regard theses deaths as structural traffic violence instead of accidents, as cycling professor Marco te Brömmelstroet has it? The answer is no.

It’s an interesting phenomenon. Why do we as a society accept that so many people die on our roads? Two people lose their lives in traffic every single day. It is almost as if it’s a given, something we can’t do anything about. To be sure, we all want dangerous drivers to be caught, the ones who drink and drive and put all other road users in fear of their lives. But there has never been a proper conversation about how to stop traffic violence, including our own part in it.

Instead, tunnel vision prevails. Should helmet-wearing become compulsory, we ask, while the media report on the rise of the number dead cyclists and cyclists who have been injured. Don’t get me wrong, doctored fatbikes are a menace that must be dealt with. Doctors are reporting more fatbike accidents and a helmet would definitely help prevent serious injuries.

But is compulsory helmet-wearing the only thing we can come up with in the face of the high number of traffic fatalities?  It’s as if we are going back in time, when victims of sexual violence were told they “shouldn’t have worn a short skirt” or “shouldn’t have walked the streets by themselves”. A dead cyclist because a van driver failed to spot him? Should have worn a helmet, shouldn’t he.

It’s victim blaming at its worst. What is more, it is turning the world on its head. We must look at what is causing the high number of traffic deaths instead of tinkering with the symptoms. And let’s not blame the victims. Some 19 people die every day as a result of a fall. Should we force people to wear a helmet every time they walk down the stairs?

Our infrastructure is not suited to all the fast bikes flying along the cycle paths. People are in a hurry and easily distracted. Perhaps cars should be banned altogether in some some places. Or should we drastically limit speeds? And how can it be that people without a valid licence still carry on driving? People whose licence was taken away from them because they don’t keep to the rules?

This is what causes the number of traffic deaths to rise. So let’s talk about that instead of discussing compulsory helmet-wearing for cyclists, yes or no.

This column appeared earlier in the NRC

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