Cycling in Melbourne Australia
Australia's helmet law disaster
IPA REVIEW ARTICLE
Australia is one of only two countries in the world with national all-age mandatory bicycle helmet laws (MHLs).
Introduced by state and territory governments under threat of cuts to federal road funding in the early 1990s, the idea that it should be a criminal offense for an adult to ride a bicycle without a helmet has since then only been copied in New Zealand (1994) and a handful of regional or local jurisdictions (mainly in North America).
Israel experimented with national legislation, but repealed the law in 2011 after a four year trial. It's no mystery why the rest of the world has shunned making bike helmets compulsory. From almost every perspective, helmet laws have been a disaster.
There are many objections to MHLs: they don't improve injury rates, discourage regular recreational exercise in an era of high obesity, and are an unnecessary and unjust intrusion into individual freedom.
The first criticism of bike helmet laws is simple-they don't do what they're intended to do.
The most extensive study of the real-world effects of MHLs on injury rates was by Australian researcher, Dr Dorothy Robinson from the University of New England, who found ‘enforced helmet laws discourage cycling but produce no obvious response in percentage of head injuries'.
Even after 20 years and plenty of research, there is still no compelling evidence that Australia's compulsory helmet laws have reduced injury rates on a population-wide basis.
While there is evidence that wearing a helmet will provide some protection from a knock to the head, the benefit is small. Severe head injuries amongst cyclists are not particularly common, and helmets do not prevent all or even a high proportion of those that might occur, but rather provide some marginal decrease in the likelihood of injury.
The reasons that the protective benefits of helmet-wearing are not evident across the whole population are not completely known, but almost certainly have something to do with the significant unwanted side-effects of helmet laws.
MHLs change people's behaviour and perception of risk. Some cyclists take more risks while riding with a helmet than they would without, while studies have shown that some motorists drive closer to helmeted cyclists, than unhelmeted ones. This tendency for individuals to react to a perceived increase in safety by taking more risk is known as risk compensation.
Importantly, helmet laws severely reduce the number of cyclists on the road, leading to increased risk among those who remain through reduced safety in numbers, a researched and acknowledged influence on cyclist accident and injury rates.
Unsurprisingly, compulsory helmets have also discouraged cycling.
When the laws were introduced in the early 1990s, cycling trips declined by 30-40 per cent overall, and up to 80 per cent in some demographic groups, such as secondary school-aged females.
Today mandatory helmets are still a major factor deterring people from riding. A recent survey from University of Sydney Professor Chris Rissel found 23 per cent of Sydney adults would ride more if helmets were optional-a significant proportion given that only about 15-20 per cent of people ride regularly at present-and that amending helmet laws to allow adult cyclists free choice would lead to an approximate doubling of cycling numbers in Sydney.
MHLs are the main reason for the failure of Australia's two public bike hire schemes. Brisbane and Melbourne are the only two cities in the world with helmet laws to have attempted public bike hire. While schemes in places like Paris, London, Montreal, Dublin and Washington DC have flourished, Brisbane and Melbourne have amongst the lowest usage rates in the world.
To facilitate increased cycling participation, the City of Sydney has recommended that current bike helmet legislation should be reviewed.
Cycling is generally a safe activity, the health benefits outweighing the risks from traffic accidents by a large margin. British research suggests life years gained through cycling outweigh years lost in cycling fatalities by a factor of 20:1. A recent study of users of Barcelona's public bike hire scheme puts this ratio at 77:1.
Given that MHLs reduce cycling numbers so dramatically and produce such a small (or probably non-existent) safety dividend, it's probable that the laws create a net health and financial burden on the community and health system.
By any measure, health problems associated with a lack of exercise are a far greater problem than cycling head injuries in Australia. According to the Heart Foundation, lack of physical activity causes 16,000 premature deaths each year, swamping the 40 or so cycling fatalities.
It makes little sense for Australian governments to be conjuring questionable attempts to ‘encourage' exercise while at the same time maintaining legislation which actively discourages and prevents people from partaking in a simple form of exercise like cycling.
Each year police issue tens of thousands of fines to Australians for engaging in a peaceful activity which poses no danger to any other person or property. Some have even been imprisoned for refusing or being unable to pay bike helmet fines.
Australian cyclists who want to ride sans-helmet are being prevented from doing so, not because it's reckless or dangerous, but simply because this already safe and healthy activity might be made marginally safer with the addition of a helmet. This is surely a flimsy basis for incarceration.
The best judge of when a helmet is necessary is the individual, who can take into account the particular circumstances of his or her ride. Downhill mountain bikers and high-speed road warriors would probably overwhelmingly still don lids if given the choice. Those out for a sedate ride on bike paths or on short local trips might be more inclined to want to feel the wind in their hair.
MHLs are not only unnecessary and unjust, they are inconsistent. Pedestrians and car occupants are each responsible for more hospital patient days for head injuries than cyclists. Despite this, few argue that compulsory walking and driving helmets are essential for safety.
After 20 years, the results are clear: the compulsory bike helmet experiment has failed. We need to amend the law to allow adults the freedom to choose if a helmet is necessary when they cycle.
Some will still choose to wear helmets at all times, and this is a totally reasonable decision. However in many situations it is perfectly safe to go without and Australia should join the rest of the world in allowing this simple freedom.
I can see now that you are serious and not being obtuse for the sake of it.
A sample of eight riders is NOT stastistically significant, so don't claim that any conclusions can be drawn.
"the same old tired arguments" are eloquently simple - they say "Show us the evidence that helmets work".
All you have to do is look at the way helmets are DESIGNED to work. They are designed for low-impact, slow falling off type accidents - the equivalent of falling off the second step of a stairway.
Secondly, they are designed to absorb impact with the polystyrene lining - if the lining of the helmet is not compressed by the impact then it did very little to reduce the impact. Anecdotes of helmets saving lives never seem to report on the condition of the lining which would prove (or disprove) the helmet's influence.
It would only require one example of a brain injury caused by the brain crashing around inside the skull to show that the helmet didn't do what it's not designed to do, which is save someone in high impact with a large moving vehicle, probably the case in most of the eight fatalities.
I have been in Aus 8 years now and when I first arrived, after 40 years without a bike accident, I thought the whole country was mad. Compulsory helmet law? Only when I was stopped by the police and cautioned did I actually believe it. The rest of the world really does think this is a sick joke - it is neither praised nor copied overseas. Cyclists in other countries just laugh when thinking of somebody cycling down a track in the Outback, or alongside a river on a bike path, in 40 degrees and having to wear a lid when there is no traffic, and nothing to hit them. Ridiculous. Nobody in their right mind would do such a thing in other countries, and especially not in the cradle of cycling civilization in northern Europe and France. Nobody has followed this ridiculous law except NZ and a few cities, nobody enforces it as heavily in Aus as in Victoria, and government departments do not even interpret the law with grace and flexibility, knowing it is stupid - it is just enforced. This is partly because of enormous inertia in the legal system, but also the unclear evidence of the health effects of lifting the law - they seeem to be fairly clear to me (less obesity and heart attacks from the population taking more exercise). And helmet fines bring in a few thousand a week in fines. Mind you in this country who knows if evidence is really used in policymaking, or if it ever will be.
PS virtually all the fatalities in Denmark in 2010, when I last looked, were cyclists without a helmet. But millions more did not have fatal accidents and their cities move much more freely than ours, with our lazy drivers.
Hey dudes, here is my spin on things: Just use the Helmet situation to enhance your own riding and go with the flow. I've mounted a bright LED spotlight on my helmet. I'll probably be worse off in an accident if the light pierce into my head, so bottom line is my riding is more dangerous with than without a helmet.
I personally feel my helmet is only helpful for the following 2 reasons:
Regardless of the law, why would you wear a helmet ? My wife's recent experience is relevant. Out of the saddle, pedalling hard, leaning forward, 60 kmh, chain comes off, over the handlebars, head first into the bitumen. The result ? Bumps and bruises, cuts, gravel rash. Oh,also a smashed Bell Volt helmet and a bit of a sore head. Not a smashed head.Within an hour I had ordered her a replacement helmet. Of course, online from overseas. But that is another issue.
DJ, first mistake: Why on earth would your wife go 60 km/h ??? I believe helmet laws should be abolished but cycles should be restricted to 30 km/h. Let the police issue infringement notices. Anything above 30km/h on a bicycle is unsafe.
Nick, the only mistake is taking the time to read your irrational posts.
Then why do you read it?