Politics trumps hard-headed reason on bicycle helmets

By 4 December, 2013 103

bicycle helmet

By Chris Rissel, University of Sydney

For a few hours, late last week, it looked like Queensland could become the first Australian state to start relaxing its strict bicycle helmet laws.

After months of careful review of the evidence, a state parliamentary committee backed the need for A new direction for cycling in Queensland, releasing a 200-page report that recommended, among other things, letting cyclists over 16 ride helmet-free in certain conditions.

Yet within hours of that report being released, the state Transport Minister Scott Emerson called a press conference to reject relaxed bicycle helmet laws, in what I would argue was a clear example of personal views and politics trumping science and evidence.

While the minister will support many of the report’s 68 other recommendations, such as safe passing distance rules for motorists and increased penalties for breaking road rules, he declared that:

Personally I’m a big believer in the benefits of helmets and I believe the evidence shows helmets reduce the risk of serious injury.

That statement sums up well the confusion around this issue.

While on the one hand helmets can protect against some head injuries, particularly minor scrapes and contusions, making them compulsory at all times does not automatically reduce rates of serious injury at a population level.

Clashing heads over helmets

The evidence on the effectiveness of mandatory helmet legislation is highly contested, with many analyses reporting negative effects on cycling participation.

There is compelling evidence that cycling head injury rates were consistently declining before the introduction of helmet legislation (see figure 1, p4 of this report), with any reductions in head injuries attributed to the legislation actually due to a marked reduction in the number of people cycling.

After examining the evidence, the Queensland parliamentary committee summed this up well:

The report notes Australia is one of the few countries in the world that has compulsory helmet laws and the committee was not convinced there was sufficient worldwide evidence of the safety outcomes of compulsory helmet wearing to justify the mandating of helmet wearing for all cyclists.

In other words, the committee was not against encouraging helmet use; instead it was a recognition that, in some circumstances, a helmet may not always be required when cycling.

Making adult decisions

The committee’s recommendation (number 15) was to have a two-year trial, exempting cyclists aged 16 years and over from the mandatory helmet road rule when riding in parks, on footpaths and shared/cycle paths and on roads with a speed limit of 60 km/hr or less.

Those people who want to wear a helmet can certainly continue to do so. The focus on adults is important, as 50% of cycling injuries are among children.

Further, the conditions of the trial are those scenarios where the risk of a cycling crash, or the even less likely event of a head injury, is very, very low. In the conditions where the risk of cycling is high, such as road racing or mountain biking, helmets are still required.

An important aspect of this recommended trial was to evaluate it carefully, with baseline measurements and data collection on injury and cycling participation. This trial could have established the evidence, either for or against this helmet law reform, and finally lay to rest the debate over the value of helmet legislation.

What a sensible idea! We could have had real world evidence to inform policy, but instead we have seen one politician and his advisers who know better.

Is this another example of politicians being out of touch with the majority views of the public? Consider the views on increasing spending of taxpayers’ money on public transport in Sydney (supported by the public) versus investment in motorways (supported by the government).

On this issue, many local councils around the country, including Brisbane, Fremantle, and the lord mayors of Adelaide and Sydney have publicly expressed their support of reviews of helmet laws, seeing them as one barrier to increasing cycling participation.

The negative effect of helmet legislation on the bicycle share schemes in Brisbane and Melbourne has also been well-documented.

Queensland has missed a good opportunity to start bringing Australia back to parity with the rest of the world.

It is worth remembering that the Northern Territory already has legislation, which allows helmet-free cycling on footpaths and cyclepaths. They have one of the highest rates of cycling participation by women, and cycling mode share for journey to work in the country. Their cycling injury rates are no different to the rest of the country.

Despite this lack of political leadership on bicycle helmet law reform, if the other recommendations of the Queensland parliamentary committee are implemented, there should be significant improvements in cycling. These are to be applauded.

If the Queensland transport minister can’t be persuaded to change his mind, then perhaps it will be up to another state now to do what needs to be done to trial and evaluate what happens when you relax bicycle helmet laws.

Chris Rissel receives funding from the Australian Research Council for the a project to evaluate cycling infrastructure in Sydney. He is a member of the Australian Cyclists Party and Bicycle NSW.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

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103 Responses to Politics trumps hard-headed reason on bicycle helmets
#1
howeph1:48 pm, 04 Dec 13

Let’s try this in Canberra!

Let’s have a trial and collect the data and set the trend for the rest of the nation.

Canberra would be a great testcase for this and we should have triparty support:

* For the Liberals it means smaller government interference and greater personal choice.
* For Labor more riders would justify all the expense made on all the cycling infrastructure.
* For Greens – less people driving cars!

Go for it Canberra!

#2
Diggety2:22 pm, 04 Dec 13

+1 to howeph

#3
Watson2:39 pm, 04 Dec 13

That just makes you want to bang your head against a wall. Without a helmet.

Trying to look more safety conscious even when there’s no substance to your claims is quite popular though. And how easy is it to gain the right to label others as idiots just by donning a helmet? We wouldn’t want to take that away from them, would we…

It’s not as if I’ll ever get booked for riding without a helmet in Canberra though.

#4
dtc3:15 pm, 04 Dec 13

How solid is the evidence that helmet wear reduces cycling participation?

I just dont understand why it does – the odd person may have a political objection but its such a minor cost and inconvenience to wear a helmet.

Are people truthfully saying ‘oh, I would ride down to the shops except I have to put a helmet on. Its too hard. I will get in my car and try and find some parking instead’? Or ‘I would ride to work but because of the helmet I will pay $12 in parking or wait 30minutes for a bus’? I just dont believe this is really the reason they arent riding.

Yes you can get ‘helmet hair’ but cycling without a helmet hardly qualifies as hairstyle friendly anyway.

And if you think you look ‘dorky’ or something wearing a cycle helmet, I’ll tell you this: no one is looking at you. Sad, but true, we dont care what you look like. We arent paying attention to your helmet. Also, grow up and get out of the 1980s

What are the other arguments? That there is no evidence helmets prevent injuries – on a population wide basis (not an individual basis) – so you are not going to ride at all? How is that logical?

I reckon people blame helmets for their own lack of activity.

There are sensible reasons not to ride at times – traffic, kids, cold, injuries. But helmets is surely not one of them.

So if the only real argument against compulsory helmet use is (as the post suggests) reduced participation in cycling, I want to see some real analysis, not survey answers.

And, which state/territory has the highest participation rate for cycling….the ACT. Compulsory helmets and all.

The NT is next, but perhaps the fact that it (like Canberra) is flat and has relatively traffic low roads may contribute. Rather than, you know, helmets use requirements. Regional WA is next highest which…flat and low traffic roads.

Finally, this may be a chicken and egg situation but the state with the highest percentage of households owning a bicycle is… the NT. Its probably hard to participate in cycling if you dont own a bike.

(all stats from AustRoad ‘Cycling Participation Survey 2013′)

#5
Watson3:59 pm, 04 Dec 13

dtc said :

How solid is the evidence that helmet wear reduces cycling participation?

I just dont understand why it does – the odd person may have a political objection but its such a minor cost and inconvenience to wear a helmet.

Are people truthfully saying ‘oh, I would ride down to the shops except I have to put a helmet on. Its too hard. I will get in my car and try and find some parking instead’? Or ‘I would ride to work but because of the helmet I will pay $12 in parking or wait 30minutes for a bus’? I just dont believe this is really the reason they arent riding.

Yes you can get ‘helmet hair’ but cycling without a helmet hardly qualifies as hairstyle friendly anyway.

And if you think you look ‘dorky’ or something wearing a cycle helmet, I’ll tell you this: no one is looking at you. Sad, but true, we dont care what you look like. We arent paying attention to your helmet. Also, grow up and get out of the 1980s

What are the other arguments? That there is no evidence helmets prevent injuries – on a population wide basis (not an individual basis) – so you are not going to ride at all? How is that logical?

I reckon people blame helmets for their own lack of activity.

There are sensible reasons not to ride at times – traffic, kids, cold, injuries. But helmets is surely not one of them.

So if the only real argument against compulsory helmet use is (as the post suggests) reduced participation in cycling, I want to see some real analysis, not survey answers.

And, which state/territory has the highest participation rate for cycling….the ACT. Compulsory helmets and all.

The NT is next, but perhaps the fact that it (like Canberra) is flat and has relatively traffic low roads may contribute. Rather than, you know, helmets use requirements. Regional WA is next highest which…flat and low traffic roads.

Finally, this may be a chicken and egg situation but the state with the highest percentage of households owning a bicycle is… the NT. Its probably hard to participate in cycling if you dont own a bike.

(all stats from AustRoad ‘Cycling Participation Survey 2013′)

There is the argument that the helmet makes people perceive riding as more dangerous than it actually is. Which would largely explain women’s increased participation without those laws.

It also makes it seem more like a sport – which requires specialised equipment (other than the bike) – which may put more people off.

#6
pink little birdie6:22 pm, 04 Dec 13

I match my cycling outfit to my helmet which incidentally matches to my bike. A whole outfit to coordinate and shop for. (If I’m lazy though I don’t care and wear suitable cycling clothes that don’t match)

I need to go shopping for a matchy matchy summer cycling outfit.

#7
MERC6006:24 pm, 04 Dec 13

I know its compulsory , but you wouldn’t think so out in the burbs.
Most, damm near all, cycle kids bolting at 3 don’t have a helmet on.

#8
damien haas6:40 pm, 04 Dec 13

I was passing the belconnen skate park and observed that only one child there had a helmet on, out of about 20 that were using it. parents need to ensure their kids are safe, adults can make their own decisions good or bad. Yes, i realise skateboarding and cycling are different, but a head colliding with the earth/cement doesn’t know what the rider was riding.

If you ride regularly then i cant see a logical argument against helmet use. i can see an argument for non-helmet use for hire-a-bike schemes such as the Melbourne scheme where the bike racks are unmanned. Where hire-a-bike outlets, such as the one at LBG are manned, it makes sense to provide a helmet.

I’d like to see stats on enforcement of this law. Based on my observations, many people – especially children – do not wear helmets while cycling.

#9
LSWCHP7:37 pm, 04 Dec 13

damien haas said :

I was passing the belconnen skate park and observed that only one child there had a helmet on, out of about 20 that were using it. parents need to ensure their kids are safe, adults can make their own decisions good or bad. Yes, i realise skateboarding and cycling are different, but a head colliding with the earth/cement doesn’t know what the rider was riding.

The only time I’ve ever been to a skate park, we showed up just in time to see a helmetless young bloke, with ambition greater than skill, do a massive face plant. It was a long time ago, but IIRC He was knocked out, and one of his front teeth ended up on the deck, with much blood. We looked after him until the ambos arrived.

I’m pretty sure he would’ve been better off with a helmet on his melon.

As for bikes…I’m an ex-motorcyclist, and I wouldn’t dream of getting on a bike without a bash-hat.

#10
IrishPete7:51 pm, 04 Dec 13

Watson said :

There is the argument that the helmet makes people perceive riding as more dangerous than it actually is. Which would largely explain women’s increased participation without those laws.

It also makes it seem more like a sport – which requires specialised equipment (other than the bike) – which may put more people off.

People who pay hundreds of dollars for a hairstyle are probably put off by helmet hair. And helmets are actually quite uncomfortable on a bald head (like mine).

IP

#11
Thumper8:21 pm, 04 Dec 13

LSWCHP said :

damien haas said :

I was passing the belconnen skate park and observed that only one child there had a helmet on, out of about 20 that were using it. parents need to ensure their kids are safe, adults can make their own decisions good or bad. Yes, i realise skateboarding and cycling are different, but a head colliding with the earth/cement doesn’t know what the rider was riding.

The only time I’ve ever been to a skate park, we showed up just in time to see a helmetless young bloke, with ambition greater than skill, do a massive face plant. It was a long time ago, but IIRC He was knocked out, and one of his front teeth ended up on the deck, with much blood. We looked after him until the ambos arrived.

I’m pretty sure he would’ve been better off with a helmet on his melon.

As for bikes…I’m an ex-motorcyclist, and I wouldn’t dream of getting on a bike without a bash-hat.

Ex motorcyclist as well. Totally agree….

#12
CraigT8:29 pm, 04 Dec 13

Watson said :

That just makes you want to bang your head against a wall. Without a helmet.

Trying to look more safety conscious even when there’s no substance to your claims is quite popular though. And how easy is it to gain the right to label others as idiots just by donning a helmet? We wouldn’t want to take that away from them, would we…

It’s not as if I’ll ever get booked for riding without a helmet in Canberra though.

When they first compulsorised helmet-wearing, I was at that time a daily user of my bicycle, but the police did indeed on several occasions stop me and threaten me with fines until I eventually decided to drive everywhere instead.

It’s pretty clear that participation fell dramatically as a result of helmet laws.

#13
CraigT8:30 pm, 04 Dec 13

IrishPete said :

Watson said :

There is the argument that the helmet makes people perceive riding as more dangerous than it actually is. Which would largely explain women’s increased participation without those laws.

It also makes it seem more like a sport – which requires specialised equipment (other than the bike) – which may put more people off.

People who pay hundreds of dollars for a hairstyle are probably put off by helmet hair. And helmets are actually quite uncomfortable on a bald head (like mine).

And they’re a pain in the arse to drag around. I don’t want clutter in my life, and helmets are just clutter. Nor are they free.

#14
Postalgeek9:46 pm, 04 Dec 13

I and my attending doctor have had a first-hand demonstration of the benefit of a helmet, after I regained my memory. In fact, I’ve been thankful for a helmet on a number of different occasions involving bikes, skiing, and bicycles.

Maybe I’m just a spaz, but it means I wear a helmet whenever speed and no seat belts are involved. And my kids will meet the iron fist of remorseless grounding and confiscation if they don’t wear helmets.

But if grown adults don’t want to wear a helmet, it’s their scone, though I think it’s a shame kids may not be presented with ubiquitous examples.

I just hope helmets do not distract from the more important issue of constructing safe, practical, direct trunk cycleways physically separated from motor vehicles, as I have little faith in education solutions. I was up in Brisbane, and saw all the CityCycle bikes in their racks, and didn’t see much in the way of dedicated cycle lanes, and it seemed to me that helmets weren’t the only things deterring people.

A helmet will only do so much. A helmet doesn’t offer much protection against a collision with a motor vehicle. Most of them aren’t even full-face. I’m guessing that most cyclist deaths haven’t been for the want of a helmet. That’s not to say I wouldn’t want a helmet between me and a car bonnet, but I would prefer a concrete divider. Only yesterday I observed a car stray half way into the on-road cycle lane on the Monaro Highway. It happens too frequently, and only luck stands between a cyclist and a distracted/incompetent driver.

#15
Aeek11:48 pm, 04 Dec 13

LSWCHP said :

As for bikes…I’m an ex-motorcyclist, and I wouldn’t dream of getting on a bike without a bash-hat.

I grew up riding without a helmet, and occasionally something breaks my routine and I don’t notice I’m not wearing it. Feel embarrassed when I go to take it off. Downside of modern lightweight helmets?

As to when to wear a helmet, 80 kmh roads is easy to say but makes no sense to me. A helmet will help how if I get hit by a faster car? More need for a helmet if I’m riding the racer on the paths, the fixie anywhere, or the MTB on dirt.

Also, helmets mean having to go MUCH FASTER to get my childhood wind-in-the-hair thrill.

#16
bryansworld5:30 am, 05 Dec 13

Iquote comment=”510879″]Let’s try this in Canberra!

Let’s have a trial and collect the data and set the trend for the rest of the nation.

Canberra would be a great testcase for this and we should have triparty support:

* For the Liberals it means smaller government interference and greater personal choice.
* For Labor more riders would justify all the expense made on all the cycling infrastructure.
* For Greens – less people driving cars!

Go for it Canberra!

O

Or even fewer people driving cars. I am daily commuter cyclist and will always wear my helmet. I value my skull and brain too much. Seems to me people are always going to have some excuse to avoid getting on their bikes, and this is one of them.

#17
rhino9:06 am, 05 Dec 13

Watson said :

That just makes you want to bang your head against a wall. Without a helmet.

Trying to look more safety conscious even when there’s no substance to your claims is quite popular though. And how easy is it to gain the right to label others as idiots just by donning a helmet? We wouldn’t want to take that away from them, would we…

It’s not as if I’ll ever get booked for riding without a helmet in Canberra though.

Agreed on all counts. Although people definitely do get booked for not wearing a helmet here. Even kids get on the spot fines that their parents have to pay.

#18
rhino9:12 am, 05 Dec 13

It is pretty face-palm inspiring for him to say that the “evidence supports helmets” when the evidence of the study conducted there says the exact opposite lol. I would certainly agree with Watson that “Trying to look more safety conscious even when there’s no substance to your claims is quite popular” and that relates to roads, cars, bikes, speed limits etc. That whole area of issues is fraught with people claiming something is necessary for safety without any evidence to back it up. This is probably one of the best supported out of those, but still, this study clearly indicates that overall it’d be better without helmets in those certain conditions.

#19
Robertson9:24 am, 05 Dec 13

bryansworld said :

Seems to me people are always going to have some excuse to avoid getting on their bikes, and this is one of them.

Oh yes, the moral superiority of today’s cyclist.

We don’t need “an excuse” to not ride a bike. We either want to or we don’t want to.

#20
maxblues9:44 am, 05 Dec 13

You don’t need to wear a helmet if you don’t ride fast is like saying you don’t need to wear a condom if you don’t thrust quickly. Did I just compare cyclists to dicks?…sorry

#21
dtc9:48 am, 05 Dec 13

Robertson said :

bryansworld said :

Seems to me people are always going to have some excuse to avoid getting on their bikes, and this is one of them.

Oh yes, the moral superiority of today’s cyclist.

We don’t need “an excuse” to not ride a bike. We either want to or we don’t want to.

But do you blame your helmet for not wanting to?

#22
pink little birdie11:56 am, 05 Dec 13

damien haas said :

I was passing the belconnen skate park and observed that only one child there had a helmet on, out of about 20 that were using it. parents need to ensure their kids are safe, adults can make their own decisions good or bad. Yes, i realise skateboarding and cycling are different, but a head colliding with the earth/cement doesn’t know what the rider was riding.

If you ride regularly then i cant see a logical argument against helmet use. i can see an argument for non-helmet use for hire-a-bike schemes such as the Melbourne scheme where the bike racks are unmanned. Where hire-a-bike outlets, such as the one at LBG are manned, it makes sense to provide a helmet.

I’d like to see stats on enforcement of this law. Based on my observations, many people – especially children – do not wear helmets while cycling.

when I ride past it’s usually the majority of people wearing helmets.
Were you wearing a helmet is usually the first question ambos and drs ask when you fall off and need medical attention.
I will always wear my helmet when riding my bicycle.

#23
snoopydoc12:32 pm, 05 Dec 13

While people are fairly keen to jump on the “See, there’s no evidence that helmets do any good!” bandwagon, it’s worth keeping in mind the specific population we’re talking about:

- At a whole population level, there is evidence that the introduction of mandatory helmet laws reduces cycling participation.

- For the segment of the population who do actually ride a bike, there is very good quality evidence that helmets significantly reduce both morbidity and mortality from head injury.

The harm done by fewer people cycling (obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, more cars on the road, more people having to book two airline seats) is difficult to objectively compare with the harm of death and disability caused by preventable head injuries in cyclists.

One can get very excited and try to calculate quality-adjusted life years (QALYs), or raw financial costs to the community, etc., but such endeavours are fraught with huge uncertainties and variability depending on what one chooses to include (direct costs and harms, and a wide range of externalities).

I’m all for encouraging more people to jump on a bike, but the more tangible and relevant consideration here is the impact of helmet vs no helmet in those who do actually ride a bike already, and the evidence for benefit in that population is pretty clear cut.

#24
DrKoresh12:44 pm, 05 Dec 13

maxblues said :

You don’t need to wear a helmet if you don’t ride fast is like saying you don’t need to wear a condom if you don’t thrust quickly. Did I just compare cyclists to dicks?…sorry

How often have you face-planted off a pushie at low speed? And I mean actually face-plant, head hit the concrete type biz. Is it never?

#25
poetix1:15 pm, 05 Dec 13

By the way, that little leather hanging-man-bag-on-a-bike is very nice, and expertly matched with the fancy handgrips.

Now back to the brainier discussion…

#26
maxblues1:32 pm, 05 Dec 13

DrKoresh said :

maxblues said :

You don’t need to wear a helmet if you don’t ride fast is like saying you don’t need to wear a condom if you don’t thrust quickly. Did I just compare cyclists to dicks?…sorry

How often have you face-planted off a pushie at low speed? And I mean actually face-plant, head hit the concrete type biz. Is it never?

On a bicycle once (and managed to buckle a wheel beyond economical repair). On motorcycles, twice with the assistance of an old lady driver and a chunk of rubber left on Punt Road, Melbourne.

#27
DrKoresh1:58 pm, 05 Dec 13

Nobody has been suggesting that motorcyclists should stop wearing their helmets so I don’t know why so many commenters are bringing them up. The article is specifically talking about low-speed, low-risk, recreational cycling (on bicycles), like down to the shops and such, not motorcycling or (as also mentioned) skiing or skating. Everyone here on RA is always creaming their pants over the Swedish approach to cycling so let me just check Wikipedia… Oh, what does it say? Bicycle helmet laws in Sweden are: “Only applicable to children under 15 years old. No penalty for children cycling alone who do not obey the law. Also applies to Segway use.” Maybe we should be taking the Swedish approach on the helmet issue like so many of you propose for literally everything else cycling related.

It’s not as if it’s being suggested that helmets be banned, just that wearing one should be at the adult’s discretion; If you feel as though you need a helmet, then just wear a bloody helmet. There’s no need to stand around moralising and trying to lay shame on people who don’t want to wear a helmet when they go for a leisurely ride.

#28
Watson2:28 pm, 05 Dec 13

” there is very good quality evidence that helmets significantly reduce both morbidity and mortality from head injury.”

There are credible counter studies that show that the impact of wearing helmets is exaggerated. This is not an exact science because of the many variables involved.

#29
maxblues2:39 pm, 05 Dec 13

DrKoresh said :

Nobody has been suggesting that motorcyclists should stop wearing their helmets so I don’t know why so many commenters are bringing them up. The article is specifically talking about low-speed, low-risk, recreational cycling (on bicycles), like down to the shops and such, not motorcycling or (as also mentioned) skiing or skating. Everyone here on RA is always creaming their pants over the Swedish approach to cycling so let me just check Wikipedia… Oh, what does it say? Bicycle helmet laws in Sweden are: “Only applicable to children under 15 years old. No penalty for children cycling alone who do not obey the law. Also applies to Segway use.” Maybe we should be taking the Swedish approach on the helmet issue like so many of you propose for literally everything else cycling related.

It’s not as if it’s being suggested that helmets be banned, just that wearing one should be at the adult’s discretion; If you feel as though you need a helmet, then just wear a bloody helmet. There’s no need to stand around moralising and trying to lay shame on people who don’t want to wear a helmet when they go for a leisurely ride.

A current trend in Canberra is bicycles with motors that don’t require a license by the rider (they are even being marketed to people who have lost their vehicle licence). Only a few months ago, the partner of one of our staff purchased one of these machines that was delivered supposedly ready to go. On her first ever ride on the new ‘bicycle’ she had the great delight of discovering that the handlebars hadnt been properly secured which resulted in a nasty bingle. Luckily she was wearing a helmet.

#30
DrKoresh2:40 pm, 05 Dec 13

Watson said :

” there is very good quality evidence that helmets significantly reduce both morbidity and mortality from head injury.”

There are credible counter studies that show that the impact of wearing helmets is exaggerated. This is not an exact science because of the many variables involved.

The two points about helmets I find most interesting are:
1) By wearing a helmet, a rider is more inclined to take risks (known as the Peltzman effect) and
B) Drivers sharing the road with an unhelmeted cyclist take more care (around the cyclist) than those sharing the road with a helmeted one.

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