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Australia’s helmet law disaster

By Sgt.Bungers - 8 May 2013 60

Helmets make sense in extreme cycling conditions… such as mountain biking or high speed road cycling. On paved paths away from motor traffic, it’s arguable that a casual cyclist pottering along at 15km/h is unlikely to receive much of a benefit from wearing a helmet should they come off. That’s certainly the way the rest of the world sees it.

In discussions regarding compulsory cycle helmets, it’s imperative that we consider the ~16,000 people who die of obesity related diseases in this country each year (well over 10 times the road toll). We are one of the fattest countries in the world; an epidemic that’s devastating families whilst costing our health system and economy a fortune.

With figures suggesting an 80% reduction in cycling within some demographics upon the introduction of compulsory helmets in Aus; would the repeal of the laws deliver an overall benefit to the health of the Australian population by increasing incidental exercise and decreasing obesity levels?

Luke Turner from the IPA has nicely summarized everything I dislike about compulsory cycle helmets in Australia:

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Israel experimented with national legislation, but repealed the law in 2011 after a four year trial.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.

Original Article

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60 Responses to
Australia’s helmet law disaster
gungsuperstar 6:15 pm 08 May 13

Binning helmets will cause fat people to ride more? Please… what a ridiculous notion.

People will always find an excuse to be fat. Making helmets optional isn’t going to make people suddenly start riding.

And lets be honest, anyone so stupid as to rule out cycling because of compulsory helmets is probably an idiot, and not someone you want riding a bike anyway.

On the suggestion that helmets increase risk-taking behaviour – I’m going to call “rubbish!” on this as well. Cycling in and of itself is a dangerous pursuit. One wrong move, you go down – one idiot driver, you go down.

On this idea that helmets offer only minimal assistance – well, we’re reading very different articles. Other research indicates that helmets reduce the risk of death or serious injury by up to 50%.

As a cyclist myself, I wouldn’t be without my helmet. I’ve only crashed once before, but I landed on my head, broke my helmet clean in half… and walked away without so much as a headache. If it didn’t save my life, it at least saved me a very serious injury.

As I said, cycling is a dangerous enough pursuit as it is. I don’t support any proposal that makes it more dangerous, nor do I support any proposal that will make other road users hate me more – which I suspect optional helmets would do.

Dilandach 6:06 pm 08 May 13

DrKoresh said :

Dilandach said :

On the other hand if people think their freedom is somehow stifled, then the choice should be there but with the proviso that if someone riding a bike that refuses to wear a helmet suffers any head injuries that would have been avoided from wearing a helmet then they should not be covered by the public or private system, full medical costs charged.

What a cruel and selfish notion.

People having to take responsibility for the risks that they personally take. What a novel notion.

Dilandach 6:05 pm 08 May 13

bundah said :

DrKoresh said :

Dilandach said :

On the other hand if people think their freedom is somehow stifled, then the choice should be there but with the proviso that if someone riding a bike that refuses to wear a helmet suffers any head injuries that would have been avoided from wearing a helmet then they should not be covered by the public or private system, full medical costs charged.

What a cruel and selfish notion.

Well in that case you would also support the notion that drink-drivers who are injured in an accident or anyone who does anything that is considered stupid and dangerous also be required to foot the bill? That is the sort of heartless society that i want no part of..

I absolutely would. You take a stupid risk then you should take the consequences. Why should anyone pay for Johnny Bogan getting tanked up and purposely drink driving?

Dilandach 6:03 pm 08 May 13

howeph said :

Dilandach said :

https://theconversation.com/bike-helmets-an-emergency-doctors-perspective-13935

No, sorry no MJA subscription to the report.

The article you referenced has been discussed on the RiotACT at http://the-riotact.com/you-really-should-wear-a-helmet-on-your-bicycle/103049

As I said then, the study has a problem called selection bias, and to quote myself “Public health policy should not be based on studies conducted on very select populations – in this case only seriously ill patients arriving at major trauma centres”.

So you’ve got a study and data backing up that? Or is that just your hunch?

Dilandach said :

Saying that people are not riding bikes because of helmets and is partially responsible for obesity levels in the country is just all kinds of levels of stupid.

Thanks for your opinion… care to back it up with some evidence?

The data shows that the introduction of mandatory helmet laws did reduce the number of cyclists.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1410838/?tool=pubmed#__sec3title

There are probably many reasons why this is the case:

* Fashion and hat hair for some
* Inconvenience for others, particularly when your looking for an excuse not to get some exercise
* A major reason I think is that to sell mandatory helmet laws a big fear campaign was launched telling everyone how dangerous riding your bike is, and therefore you need a helmet. Subconciously this turned into “well if it’s so dangerous that I need a helmet to protect my head maybe I just not ride altogether and protect the rest of me.

But in my case, the reason why I didn’t ride a bike for so long; it was as a misguided form of protest against people telling me what to do for no good reason!

Nothing but your own personal opinion. ‘Probably’ with a list of what you think isn’t ‘valid data’.

howeph said :

I thought “You can’t tell me what to do. If I don’t ride at all then they wont have made me wear a helmet”. Stupid I know but it’s not a rational thing (just like some people don’t like fishing).But with approaching middle age, a family and the beginning of a beer gut I realised that riding to work was the most sensible way of getting some exercise.

That doesn’t change the fact that every time I *have* to put on a helmet to ride my bike I hate it. I’m an adult, perfectly capable of assessing the risk and deciding to wear or not to wear a helmet.

Fine do that, just don’t expect other people to have to pay for you taking risks.

Dilandach said :

On the other hand if people think their freedom is somehow stifled, then the choice should be there but with the proviso that if someone riding a bike that refuses to wear a helmet suffers any head injuries that would have been avoided from wearing a helmet then they should not be covered by the public or private system, full medical costs charged.

howeph said :

Yes, our freedoms are being stifled by the wowsers who introduced the law and continue to support it.

The article you referenced indicated that the medical cost *might* have been reduced by $64 million if those riders had been wearing a helmet. However if you compare this to the NSW health budget of $18.3 billion that would represent a saving of just 0.003%.

But do you know what one of the biggest costs to the health budget is… heart disease. One of the primary causes of heart disease is obesity and lack of exercise. Studies have shown that even a small amount of regular exercise significantly reduces your chance of heart disease. So I would argue that getting more people to get on their bike saves health costs. Perhaps we should get a rebate?

You’ve offered nothing but your personal opinion on why fatty mc fat won’t ride his bike. Being fashion conscious is quite a ridiculous excuse considering the slim and sleak designs of helmets. If it was the 80s and there were nothing but stackhats, I’d tend to agree but I don’t see any valid arguments apart from a rebel with a terrible and selfish cause.

As I said, if people are perlexingly that lazy that they wouldn’t ride a bike because a helmet is somehow an inconvenience or they’re that fashion conscious about ‘bike hair’ then they should be free to do so but if they’re taking the risk they shouldn’t have medical costs reimbursed. You can’t argue that its a waste of tax payer money to enforce the rule together with the minimal cost of medical care, then you can hardly argue that people should be covered by the state for the people who have accidents related to head injuries from not wearing a helmet. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

bundah 5:45 pm 08 May 13

DrKoresh said :

Dilandach said :

On the other hand if people think their freedom is somehow stifled, then the choice should be there but with the proviso that if someone riding a bike that refuses to wear a helmet suffers any head injuries that would have been avoided from wearing a helmet then they should not be covered by the public or private system, full medical costs charged.

What a cruel and selfish notion.

Well in that case you would also support the notion that drink-drivers who are injured in an accident or anyone who does anything that is considered stupid and dangerous also be required to foot the bill? That is the sort of heartless society that i want no part of..

farnarkler 5:42 pm 08 May 13

The helmet law is a sham anyway. The Sikhs have proven that. Wear a turban and no fine for not wearing a helmet. Jeez and I thought there was meant to be separation between state and religion.

Diggety 5:30 pm 08 May 13

Thanks for bringing some reason to the debate Sgt.Bungers.

howeph 5:27 pm 08 May 13

justsomeaussie said :

Another counter perspective from doctors in ERs:

https://theconversation.com/bike-helmets-an-emergency-doctors-perspective-13935

No. That’s the same one… again.

justsomeaussie 5:18 pm 08 May 13
DrKoresh 5:10 pm 08 May 13

Dilandach said :

On the other hand if people think their freedom is somehow stifled, then the choice should be there but with the proviso that if someone riding a bike that refuses to wear a helmet suffers any head injuries that would have been avoided from wearing a helmet then they should not be covered by the public or private system, full medical costs charged.

What a cruel and selfish notion.

Sgt.Bungers 5:08 pm 08 May 13

Tooks said :

Helmets make sense in extreme cycling conditions… such as mountain biking or high speed road cycling. On paved paths away from motor traffic, it’s arguable that a casual cyclist pottering along at 15km/h is unlikely to receive much of a benefit from wearing a helmet should they come off. That’s certainly the way the rest of the world sees it.

I haven’t read your full post (I will later), but I take issue with your first paragraph. I’ve known two people who took a tumble on pathed paths and suffered serious injuries. The first guy, many many years ago not, suffered serious head and facial injuries. He would’ve died had it not been for his helmet.

Another one last year: woman (without a helmet) fell off her bike and landed on her head, again on a pathed path and not at high speed. Last time I heard she was in Canberra Hospital with a bandage on her head. Written on that bandage was ‘no bone’.

Cycling is safe, and we don’t want to scare people with horror stories about people dying and getting seriously injured, but those risks exist. Why not just wear a helmet.

If I’ve caused you offence, I apologise. There is absolutely no arguing that if a person falls of a bicycle and hits their head, a helmet could decrease the risk of injury.

However, if you read the entire article, it’s also arguable that forcing people to wear bicycle helmets has significantly decreased cycling rates in Australia. At a time when 2/3 of our population is at an unhealthy weight, when our biggest killer is obesity related diseases, why do we continue to enforce a law which has greatly decreased levels of incidental exercise, when so many are dying from lack of it?

22 years after helmets were made compulsary, only one country (NZ) has followed suit. Some states in the US and Canada have also done the same. Overwhelmingly however, the entire world disagrees that compulsary cycle helmets contribute to the greater good.

howeph 5:04 pm 08 May 13

Dilandach said :

https://theconversation.com/bike-helmets-an-emergency-doctors-perspective-13935

No, sorry no MJA subscription to the report.

The article you referenced has been discussed on the RiotACT at http://the-riotact.com/you-really-should-wear-a-helmet-on-your-bicycle/103049

As I said then, the study has a problem called selection bias, and to quote myself “Public health policy should not be based on studies conducted on very select populations – in this case only seriously ill patients arriving at major trauma centres”.

Dilandach said :

Saying that people are not riding bikes because of helmets and is partially responsible for obesity levels in the country is just all kinds of levels of stupid.

Thanks for your opinion… care to back it up with some evidence?

The data shows that the introduction of mandatory helmet laws did reduce the number of cyclists.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1410838/?tool=pubmed#__sec3title

There are probably many reasons why this is the case:

* Fashion and hat hair for some
* Inconvenience for others, particularly when your looking for an excuse not to get some exercise
* A major reason I think is that to sell mandatory helmet laws a big fear campaign was launched telling everyone how dangerous riding your bike is, and therefore you need a helmet. Subconciously this turned into “well if it’s so dangerous that I need a helmet to protect my head maybe I just not ride altogether and protect the rest of me.

But in my case, the reason why I didn’t ride a bike for so long; it was as a misguided form of protest against people telling me what to do for no good reason!

I thought “You can’t tell me what to do. If I don’t ride at all then they wont have made me wear a helmet”. Stupid I know but it’s not a rational thing (just like some people don’t like fishing).But with approaching middle age, a family and the beginning of a beer gut I realised that riding to work was the most sensible way of getting some exercise.

That doesn’t change the fact that every time I *have* to put on a helmet to ride my bike I hate it. I’m an adult, perfectly capable of assessing the risk and deciding to wear or not to wear a helmet.

Dilandach said :

On the other hand if people think their freedom is somehow stifled, then the choice should be there but with the proviso that if someone riding a bike that refuses to wear a helmet suffers any head injuries that would have been avoided from wearing a helmet then they should not be covered by the public or private system, full medical costs charged.

Yes, our freedoms are being stifled by the wowsers who introduced the law and continue to support it.

The article you referenced indicated that the medical cost *might* have been reduced by $64 million if those riders had been wearing a helmet. However if you compare this to the NSW health budget of $18.3 billion that would represent a saving of just 0.003%.

But do you know what one of the biggest costs to the health budget is… heart disease. One of the primary causes of heart disease is obesity and lack of exercise. Studies have shown that even a small amount of regular exercise significantly reduces your chance of heart disease. So I would argue that getting more people to get on their bike saves health costs. Perhaps we should get a rebate?

Sgt.Bungers 4:54 pm 08 May 13

Dilandach said :

https://theconversation.com/bike-helmets-an-emergency-doctors-perspective-13935

No, sorry no MJA subscription to the report.

“Any meausres that discourage cycling by 30-40% (such as helmet laws in Australia) are likely to produce real and significant increases in the risk of injury per cyclist.”

Robinson, DL. Safety in numbers in Australia: more walkers and bicyclists, safer walking and bicycling. Health Promotion Journal of Australia: Official Journal of Australian Association of Health Promotion Professionals, Vol. 16, No. 1, 2005 Apr: 47-51

Dilandach said :

Saying that people are not riding bikes because of helmets and is partially responsible for obesity levels in the country is just all kinds of levels of stupid.

The year that helmets became compulsary in Australia, cycling rates fell by 30-40%. How can you immediately dismiss the suggestion that less people partaking in incidental exercise increased the level of sedentary lifestyles in Australia?

Dilandach said :

On the other hand if people think their freedom is somehow stifled, then the choice should be there but with the proviso that if someone riding a bike that refuses to wear a helmet suffers any head injuries that would have been avoided from wearing a helmet then they should not be covered by the public or private system, full medical costs charged.

The same could be said for any person who chooses to smoke, drive dangerously, partake in extreme sport, or to eat an unhealthy diet all their life.

Tooks 4:26 pm 08 May 13

Helmets make sense in extreme cycling conditions… such as mountain biking or high speed road cycling. On paved paths away from motor traffic, it’s arguable that a casual cyclist pottering along at 15km/h is unlikely to receive much of a benefit from wearing a helmet should they come off. That’s certainly the way the rest of the world sees it.

I haven’t read your full post (I will later), but I take issue with your first paragraph. I’ve known two people who took a tumble on pathed paths and suffered serious injuries. The first guy, many many years ago not, suffered serious head and facial injuries. He would’ve died had it not been for his helmet.

Another one last year: woman (without a helmet) fell off her bike and landed on her head, again on a pathed path and not at high speed. Last time I heard she was in Canberra Hospital with a bandage on her head. Written on that bandage was ‘no bone’.

Cycling is safe, and we don’t want to scare people with horror stories about people dying and getting seriously injured, but those risks exist. Why not just wear a helmet.

Dilandach 4:06 pm 08 May 13

https://theconversation.com/bike-helmets-an-emergency-doctors-perspective-13935

No, sorry no MJA subscription to the report.

Saying that people are not riding bikes because of helmets and is partially responsible for obesity levels in the country is just all kinds of levels of stupid.

On the other hand if people think their freedom is somehow stifled, then the choice should be there but with the proviso that if someone riding a bike that refuses to wear a helmet suffers any head injuries that would have been avoided from wearing a helmet then they should not be covered by the public or private system, full medical costs charged.

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