What the 'smart hat' tells us about attitudes towards cycling

It has to be one of the more curious cycling concepts in recent times.

The so-called "smart hat" made a bit of a splash in Australian news a few weeks ago - and cycling media internationally.

The prototype design would replace a regular cycling helmet with a hi-tech creation that could include such functions as a stop light, indicators, a rear-facing registration plate, heads-up speed and map displays, a visor with wipers, proximity sensors, an e-tag ... you name it.

For those who missed it, here's a quick update. Designer Toby King's idea was presented to Sydney's Mosman Council, in the hope that the council would recommend it to the NSW State Government.

King told the council that the invention was intended to improve cyclist safety, while councillor Simon Menzies was reported as saying that relationships between road users would improve if drivers thought cyclists would be held accountable for their actions. Mosman Council encouraged King to present his ideas to the NSW Staysafe committee. 

A flurry of news stories followed, with many focusing on it being an "answer to cycling registration". Cycling media largely dismissed the concept as unnecessary and unworkable, while questions were raised about the weight, comfort and safety aspects of the helmet. 

It's interesting to note that the Daily Mail ran two reports. The one written in Australia was headlined, in part, "futuristic smart hat displays registration plate", while their UK science report asked: "Is this the silliest cycling helmet ever made?"

Of course, it's not yet made, and King has said prototypes may well result in simpler, smaller, lighter units. But the fact that some untested drawings presented to a council could generate such interest and controversy might tell us some things about attitudes to cycling, especially in Australia. Here are a few observations:

Safety isn't just the responsibility of cyclists

I'm a cautious bike rider, and work hard at keeping myself out of harm's way. But there's a societal perception that safety is largely the responsibility of vulnerable road users. Hence the focus on helmets, high-viz clothing, lights day and night, etc, even though the safety benefits aren't always clear. The best ways to achieve cycling safety are proven - more separated cycleways, reduced speed limits in urban areas, traffic calming, awareness campaigns, and laws to protect the vulnerable road user. But these measures cost money and are often controversial. Focusing on cyclist responsibility can create the impression that it's their fault if they get hit. Even though one study suggests that four out of five times, it's not.

Helmet religion

Why do we need a smart hat when we already have the standard "magic hat"? The belief that a lump of moulded foam on a cyclist's head will somehow ward off all danger and injury is almost a religion in Australia. Despite our helmet enforcement, Australia is not a haven of cycling safety - some reports suggest it's quite the contrary. So it's hard to see how a helmet that would likely be bigger, heavier and more complex is going to make things any better, or how such an item would pass the standards regime that's already in place.

Registration obsession

The "smart hat" was always going to be on a winner with sections of our society when some designs depicted a registration plate on the back. This feeds into an enduring fantasy - "if I see a cyclist breaking the law, I can report them and they'll be fined". Curiously, I've seldom heard of similar citizen enforcement used against motorists who text while driving or run red lights. Besides, regular police blitzes show that cyclists are easily held accountable. Bicycle registration is another curiously Australian obsession even though no credible agency supports the idea (and while NSW Roads Minister Duncan Gay said something about licensing cyclists in May, this goes against his own previous advice). Cyclists should never pay rego - for innumerable reasons it's an ill-founded and pointless idea, it doesn't exist anywhere in the world and people need to let it go, because it's only causing animosity and over-entitled aggression on our roads.

Individual safety vs safety in numbers

If a new design were made compulsory, as has been suggested, it boggles the mind how expensive, complex, wasteful and time-consuming a task it would be if every person who wanted to ride a bike had to buy a new, special, possibly more costly type of helmet. The dedicated riders may well adapt, but such a significant new barrier would likely see participation plummet - especially for the casual commuting and utility riders. Imagine renting a holiday house, then not being able to ride the bike in the shed to the beach because you don't have the new helmet. It's long been a theory, backed up by recent studies, that the more bike riders you have, the safer everyone becomes. Any barrier to participation means that everyone's safety is likely decreased. 

Our need to overcomplicate

The "smart hat" is in basic design stage and it's possible some aspects of it might prove workable or even desirable. Then again, I already have some of its basic functions at my disposal. For indicating, I have two long, articulated devices hanging from my shoulders. They're called arms and hands. I have hi-tech eyelids to clear rain from my vision. Like many cyclists, I'm vulnerable to gadget lust, but I don't see a pressing need to turn bicycles into two-wheeled motorless versions of cars. The basic bicycle has endured for more than a century because it's a work of genius. It's the most efficient mode of transport there is, and the most fun, even in its primal shape. Two wheels, a basic frame, some forks, a drive train, handlebars, brakes and something to sit on, and you're on your way. All else is an optional extra - and should remain such for the centuries to come. 

What are your thoughts on the "smart hat" concept?

To encourage constructive debate, this blog will be carefully moderated; please stay on topic.

Follow Michael O'Reilly on Twitter or email him.