An office worker dressed in a suit briskly pedals his bicycle in the morning. Nowadays, it is not difficult to see people cycling to commute. The increased interest in the daily use of bikes, however, arouses the need to look again at the issue of safety. Especially, the recent controversy regarding the Road Traffic Act Amendment that made wearing bicycle helmets mandatory makes people ponder what is most urgent to ensure safety.
Today, the worldwide environmental issues such as global warming or fine dust underline the necessity to promote eco-friendly means of transportation. Combined with the attention on health in an aging society, cycling is expected to be the prospective alternative to cars. Seoul is operating a public bicycle rental service named Ttarung-e to encourage cycling. However, not many citizens wear safety helmets, which are important to prevent serious injuries in case of an accident. According to the Korea ROAD Traffic Authority (KoROAD), from 2013 to 2017 the number of deaths was eight times greater for accident victims who did not wear helmets.
Thus, the Road Traffic Act Amendment is going to be implemented on September 28 making it mandatory for bicycle riders to wear helmets. Nevertheless, some point out that blindly requiring safety helmets is impractical and bureaucratic. Unlike bicycles used for leisure sports, those for daily purposes do not usually have much speed. For instance, Ttarung-e has an average speed of 15 kilometers per hour and most users ride for a short time. This is why not many people feel it is necessary to wear protective gear. Furthermore, not an article in the Act specifies any plans for the clampdown or punishment of the cyclists who are not wearing helmets, so the law is criticized for being ineffective.
The dilemma of public bicycle services is another problem. The Seoul government test-operated a free safety helmet rental service from July 20 to August 19, but recorded a miserable result: only three percent of the helmets were used and 24 percent of those helmets disappeared. Rather than encouraging cyclists to wear the helmets, the government had to face the criticism that it is a waste of tax money. On the other hand, there is a concern that if the public services enforce the helmet regulation, they might discourage citizens from cycling. Accepting such voices, Kim Bu-gyum, the Minister of the Interior and Safety (MOIS), asked the National Assembly to re-amend the Act.
Such controversy is not only occurring in Korea. Among the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 10 countries require everyone to wear a safety helmet while 12 countries including Japan have regulations for minors. The divided opinions indicate the validity of both sides about whether to make it mandatory. Then what is important for the safety of cyclists is to expand infrastructure and offer enough education while at the same time encouraging the use of safety helmets.
Various improvements in the traffic infrastructure made Denmark rank second in the share ratio for transportation of bicycles among OECD countries. It established bicycle parking lots near the major subway transfer stations and traffic bulletins for bicycles. In addition, traffic lights that once existed only for cars were modified to add another green light that turns on a little earlier in order to let the cyclists pass before the drivers. Other European countries are also trying to keep the pace. For example, France decided from 2019 to offer corporate tax breaks to the companies that purchase bicycles to help their employees commute.
Korea has also been trying to extend the bicycle lanes. On April 8, a bicycle lane of 2.6 kilometers was formed in Jongno. However, the increase of quantity does not seem to keep pace with the quality. Cutting back the main roads to set aside the bicycle lane, the city could not afford enough safety measures. The width is 1.5 meters on which only one cyclist can pass and light emitting diode (LED) lights separate the lane instead of a curb, which allows the intrusion of cars.
The bicycle lane in the intersection between Cheonggyecheonno and Yulgongno leads the riders straight, but the neighboring car lane has a left-turn signal, increasing the possibility of crashes. Therefore, a separate traffic light system is essential to prevent accidents and make the two vehicles compatible. Although continuously expanding bicycle lanes is important, repairing existing ones and developing new ways to introduce a more practical traffic system should progress together.
Besides the improvement of facilities, the perception of people about the safe coexistence of bicycles and automobiles needs to be cultivated through proper education. According to the notification of the Ministry of Education (MOE), 10 hours of traffic safety education should be conducted every year in the schools. Fulfilling this purpose, some classes are carried out with professional explanation and realistic black box videos of bicycle accidents. However, others turn into nominal hours with unmotivated teachers and students, and without a mention about the bicycles.
Unstandardized and low-quality study materials lower the credibility of school bicycle safety education. Furthermore, adults are not in the range of the subjects. In order to fill the deficiency of education to some extent, selective education is offered by local governments or civic organizations. Nevertheless, they can only be given to a limited number of people and insufficient legal notions add confusion. “There needs to be a unified legalization of hand signals for cyclists,” said Hwang Guy-il (Assistant Manager of Korea Cycling Federation1). Thus, more support for professional and standardized education in and out of school is required.
The bicycle can get society to a brighter future without further economic or environmental risks of vehicles that rely on oil. However, safe cycling environment cannot be formed alone. “Measures of the government should be focused on the infrastructure and the citizens need to monitor them,” said Kim Jin-tae, the representative of Bikecoop. Only with the comprehensive actions for the improvement of bicycle lanes and safety education, the discussion about making the safety helmets mandatory can be worthy.