The new mandatory helmet law planned for 2023 will not impact cycling uptake as it has in some other countries, says the chairman of Hong Kong’s top transport advisory body, citing cheap helmets as the main reason for his confidence.
“When you look at the prices of helmets, first of all, it’s not very expensive. […] even with international standard, talking about the adult helmet, a little bit more than HK$100, a children’s helmet, a little bit more than HK$50, Hong Kong dollars,” said Stephen Cheung Yan-leung, chairman of the Transport Advisory Committee (TAC) at a press conference to announce support of a raft of new government road safety measures, including mandatory bicycle helmets, on Wednesday.
When challenged that helmets were unlikely to be found so cheaply, Cheung said this was “information from the government” and that it was up to the consumer to decide which to buy.
“And if you don’t want to buy one, you can rent one at the bike stall,” he said.
Transit Jam scoured the city to find such a bargain helmet as Cheung’s HK$100 suggestion but bike shop staff scoffed at the idea a helmet could be bought so cheaply.
“Sure you can find a helmet for HK$100 online, or like Taobao, but it won’t be very good,” said the proprietor of a bike rental chain at his Tai Wai shop. The cheapest adult helmet in his store was HK$280, while the shop would charge a HK$20 additional fee to bike renters to throw in a helmet for the day.
A neighbouring Tai Wai store had children’s helmets as low as HK$250 and adult helmets at HK$350. But staff recommended a boxed model for HK$498.
“The box protects it from damage,” said a sales assistant. That store rented helmets for HK$70 per day.
Fake Abus bicycle helmets could be found on mainland shopping platform Taobao for around HK$270, around a fifth of the price of a genuine Abus cycle helmet, while many other unmarked and untested helmets were on offer online around HK$40.
In Sham Shui Po, most shops or market stalls selling bike equipment or toys did not carry bicycle helmets or know where to find them: the cheapest found in that district was on a market stall on Fuk Wing Street which carried child helmets for HK$40 and a similar adult variety for HK$90.
Both were unconvincing as protective headgear.
The adult helmet had no packaging or CE mark while the child helmet packaging, marked Youyi brand, had a CE mark. The helmet itself had no branding or CE mark and weighed just 89 grammes, against 432 grammes for a $510 Nutcase child’s helmet and 204 grammes for a HK$350 Giro child’s helmet.
In a simple experiment, the $40 helmet crumpled like a takeaway box on a simple fist strike.
A survey of Hong Kong’s largest cycling advocacy group Hong Kong Cycling Alliance found 90% of members had spent more than HK$200 on their helmets, with 50% spending over HK$600.
And in the latest US bicycle helmet safety rankings from Virginia Tech, only one of the 161 helmets tested was available for under HK$100 (converted to HK$). That helmet ranked 143rd out of 161. Interestingly, price was not a clear determinant of safety ranking, with a wide price differential across all safety levels. For example, while the cheapest helmet (HK$78) ranked 143rd, the helmet ranked 141st cost HK$1,443 while the 142nd cost HK$780.
The cheapest helmet in the top 10 Virginia Tech ranking for 2022 was HK$390.
During Wednesday’s press conference, TAC’s Professor Cheung, who is also president of Education University in Tai Po and a member of the government’s Steering Committee on Review of Urban Renewal Strategy, struggled with the English for “cycle track” and did not answer questions on how dockless bike rental businesses might offer helmets to users, claiming only that bicycle users had a duty to protect themselves.
According to Cheung, the genesis for the mandatory helmet legislation was a police report from 2020 which found a number of cycle injuries on the roads and cycle tracks that year.
But Cheung admitted police did not provide any context or “seasonal” data to show trends.
“Is there any seasonal reason that we have more people doing bikes? [Well] the police only provide us the information for 2020. [But] with a lot of road accidents, [I don’t] have the statistics with me, but if you don’t wear a seatbelt then you’re going to be in very very big trouble if during the cars accident, that apply to cycling itself without a helmet,” he said.
The mandatory helmet law has progressed quickly from a Transport Department consultation earlier this year, to a Transport Panel debate with full support from lawmakers, to TAC approval this week.
The government will now draft the legislation for introduction to LegCo later this year or early 2023.