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Australia’s helmet law disaster

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Israel experimented with national legislation, but repealed the law in 2011 after a four year trial.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

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60 Responses to Australia’s helmet law disaster
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Erg0 9:41 am 09 May 13

Frankly, it seems contradictory to say that on one hand people aren’t riding because they’re worried about hat hair, and on the other that they’re capable of making sensible decisions about their own safety. If they’re more worried about their hair than their skull then they’re not doing it right.

howeph 9:39 am 09 May 13

neanderthalsis said :

Did mandatory seatbelt wearing laws stop people from driving?

Not riding simply because you have to wear a helmet and you might look a bit silly is the lamest of lame excuses. Helmet laws are hardly the reason we’re a corpulent nation. If wearing a helmet was an effective behaviour changer, we could legislate that helmets must be worn during the consumption of fast food. Obesity rates would halve overnight.

Seatbelts didn’t stop people driving because there is no convenient alternative.

Helmets DID* stop people riding because there is a convenient alternative… the car.

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

The main reason people don’t ride is because of the ongoing scare campaign required to sell and sustain mandatory helmet laws.

“Cycling Promotion Fund (CPF) and the National Heart Foundation of Australia has found more than 62% of Australians want to be able to ride a bike for transport, but road safety fears are keeping bikes in the shed and off the road.”
Source: http://www.cyclingpromotion.com.au/content/view/526/9/

More evidence of the ongoing scare campaig was the press release posted here yesterday:
http://the-riotact.com/police-and-michael-milton-want-you-to-share-the-road/103238

You wouldn’t know it from those scary statistics provided, but the average number of cyclist fatalities from road accidents in the ACT for the same period 2000 – 2012 is:

0.4

One death each in 2005, 2006 and 2012 and two in 2010.
source: http://www.bitre.gov.au/statistics/safety/fatal_road_crash_database.aspx

It’s apparently heretical to say “Cycling is SAFE”.

bundah 9:22 am 09 May 13

IrishPete said :

snoopydoc said :

There is good evidence that helmets reduce the incidence and severity of head injuries in cyclists who crash. There is no good evidence that compulsory helmet laws cause people to avoid cycling. There is no good evidence that reduced numbers of cyclists is linked to higher rates of obesity in the population, let alone higher rates of obesity-related morbidity or mortality.

“There is good evidence that helmets reduce the incidence and severity of head injuries in cyclists who crash.” – Yes, true.

“There is no good evidence that compulsory helmet laws cause people to avoid cycling.” – No, there is such evidence, and someone quoted it earlier. This isn’t doesn’t mean that large numbers of people wake up in the morning and say “Shall I ride to work today? No, dammit, I’d have to wear a helmet.” It’s been a cultural change, started with the 40% reduction in cycling that someone quoted when helmet laws came in, and maintained since then.

“There is no good evidence that reduced numbers of cyclists is linked to higher rates of obesity in the population, let alone higher rates of obesity-related morbidity or mortality.There is no good evidence that reduced numbers of cyclists is linked to higher rates of obesity in the population, let alone higher rates of obesity-related morbidity or mortality.” – Perhaps not, but it’s an obvious connection if you accept the previous statement, that cycling has reduced.

The question being asked isn’t actually about whether helmets reduce serious injury. It’s whether the effect of reduced exercise levels across lifetime and across huge numbers of people outweighs that. No-one on this forum knows the answer, so people can continue speculating as long as they want, but until some good public health researcher, or economist, actually does the research, we won’t know.

And if it helps, I know I use my bicycle less because I have to strap an ugly and uncomfortable piece of plastic onto my shaved head. As I feel too time poor to walk, I drive instead. I could ride the bike without a helmet but it would set a bad example to the local kids.

IP

I haven’t seen anyone in recent times riding a bike baring a shiny chrome dome but pls feel free coz i’d like to see it 🙂

Blen_Carmichael 9:17 am 09 May 13

“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).”

Wearing cycle helmets will prevent obesity related diseases?

Innovation 9:03 am 09 May 13

I’m surprised you would support this idea. I agree that helmet laws adversely affected cycling numbers but I wonder how much initial numbers were affected by those original ugly and heavy plastic helmets and, more recently, by Australia’s affluence which has resulted in the next generation of potential cyclists being driven everywhere by Mum or Dad? Would people stop driving or walking if they also had to wear helmets?

I feel that the big issue is getting people (back) onto bikes. Once on the bike, helmets become second nature for bike riding just like bike lights and bells. Modern helmets are ventilated and lighter and sun visors, more visible helmet mounted lights and rear vision mirrors are added incentives to use helmets.

I don’t agree especially with the comment that abolishing helmet laws “..poses no danger to any other person or property…”, unless as others here have pointed out, cyclists without helmets waived their right to third party claims as well as health care and other related welfare and insurance claims – none of which is realistic or sustainable. The claims that people might take more care around cyclists without helmets may well be true but could it be true also that in a crisis, over reactive evasive action to avoid a non helmeted cyclist might result in others being put unnecessarily at risk?

If anything, bikes are capable of being faster now than they ever were; especially with the probable future uptake of electric bikes. And where would you draw the line? Legal (and illegal) electric bikes are getting faster and there are small registerable motor cycles that are barely capable of the same speeds as bicycles. Should they be permitted to go without helmets?

A better option would be to make car travel more expensive, slow traffic down even further in suburban areas, make public transport more bicycle friendly and give cyclists more priority and legal rights on the road. Disincentives for car driving as well as the evolution in electric bikes would rapidly get people onto bicycles and tricycles. (Perhaps we should make car occupants wear helmets as an added disincentive to car travel…..).

neanderthalsis 8:55 am 09 May 13

Did mandatory seatbelt wearing laws stop people from driving?

Not riding simply because you have to wear a helmet and you might look a bit silly is the lamest of lame excuses. Helmet laws are hardly the reason we’re a corpulent nation. If wearing a helmet was an effective behaviour changer, we could legislate that helmets must be worn during the consumption of fast food. Obesity rates would halve overnight.

IrishPete 8:22 am 09 May 13

snoopydoc said :

There is good evidence that helmets reduce the incidence and severity of head injuries in cyclists who crash. There is no good evidence that compulsory helmet laws cause people to avoid cycling. There is no good evidence that reduced numbers of cyclists is linked to higher rates of obesity in the population, let alone higher rates of obesity-related morbidity or mortality.

“There is good evidence that helmets reduce the incidence and severity of head injuries in cyclists who crash.” – Yes, true.

“There is no good evidence that compulsory helmet laws cause people to avoid cycling.” – No, there is such evidence, and someone quoted it earlier. This isn’t doesn’t mean that large numbers of people wake up in the morning and say “Shall I ride to work today? No, dammit, I’d have to wear a helmet.” It’s been a cultural change, started with the 40% reduction in cycling that someone quoted when helmet laws came in, and maintained since then.

“There is no good evidence that reduced numbers of cyclists is linked to higher rates of obesity in the population, let alone higher rates of obesity-related morbidity or mortality.There is no good evidence that reduced numbers of cyclists is linked to higher rates of obesity in the population, let alone higher rates of obesity-related morbidity or mortality.” – Perhaps not, but it’s an obvious connection if you accept the previous statement, that cycling has reduced.

The question being asked isn’t actually about whether helmets reduce serious injury. It’s whether the effect of reduced exercise levels across lifetime and across huge numbers of people outweighs that. No-one on this forum knows the answer, so people can continue speculating as long as they want, but until some good public health researcher, or economist, actually does the research, we won’t know.

And if it helps, I know I use my bicycle less because I have to strap an ugly and uncomfortable piece of plastic onto my shaved head. As I feel too time poor to walk, I drive instead. I could ride the bike without a helmet but it would set a bad example to the local kids.

IP

chewy14 7:43 am 09 May 13

bd84 said :

Easy solution. It’s fine if you don’t wear a helmet when riding, however to forgo any insurance or compensation available above basic injuries. Contributory negligence.

So as mentioned in the article, car drivers/passengers and pedestrians are at greater risk of serious head injury than cyclists.

I’m assuming you wear a stackhat whenever you exit your house.

Ben_Dover 5:49 am 09 May 13

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).

No its not. Not in any way. At all.

T1G3R 3:23 am 09 May 13

T1G3R said :

This has to be one of the most moronic things I’ve read recently. I didn’t even read it all the way as it was completely and utter BS. Who gives a shit if people were riding less, it was bound to happen with our sedated lifestyle. Helmets of all kinds save lives. Go ride around town without one, then maybe one of our hopeless drivers might clip you and that’ll shut your idiotic dribbling.

P.S directed at original article writer

Canberroid 1:57 am 09 May 13

bd84 said :

Easy solution. It’s fine if you don’t wear a helmet when riding, however to forgo any insurance or compensation available above basic injuries. Contributory negligence.

Surely we can say the same for any medical costs caused by people choosing to smoke, drink or get fat. If you eat too many cheese burgers and get diabetes, no insurance coverage for you right? Need some physio after an injury at the gym? Too bad; it’s your fault for leaving the safety of the couch.

DrKoresh 12:51 am 09 May 13

T1G3R said :

This has to be one of the most moronic things I’ve read recently. I didn’t even read it all the way as it was completely and utter BS. Who gives a shit if people were riding less, it was bound to happen with our sedated lifestyle. Helmets of all kinds save lives. Go ride around town without one, then maybe one of our hopeless drivers might clip you and that’ll shut your idiotic dribbling.

U mad bro? 😮

T1G3R 11:03 pm 08 May 13

This has to be one of the most moronic things I’ve read recently. I didn’t even read it all the way as it was completely and utter BS. Who gives a shit if people were riding less, it was bound to happen with our sedated lifestyle. Helmets of all kinds save lives. Go ride around town without one, then maybe one of our hopeless drivers might clip you and that’ll shut your idiotic dribbling.

bd84 10:45 pm 08 May 13

Easy solution. It’s fine if you don’t wear a helmet when riding, however to forgo any insurance or compensation available above basic injuries. Contributory negligence.

DrKoresh 10:37 pm 08 May 13

Pork Hunt said :

I’ll bet my remaining sperm producing nut that no one ever died because they were wearing a helmet on a bicycle…

If I can find a case of someone getting run over on their way home from buying a helmet do I win?

Pork Hunt 9:38 pm 08 May 13

I’ll bet my remaining sperm producing nut that no one ever died because they were wearing a helmet on a bicycle…

chewy14 9:22 pm 08 May 13

Alderney said :

I got up to the part where you mention the IPA and then, for some inexplicable reason, started goose-stepping around the house shouting sieg heil with my arm outstretched.

So you’re a Nazi sympathiser, fine. But what was your take on the article?

Diggety 8:42 pm 08 May 13

Alderney said :

I got up to the part where you mention the IPA and then, for some inexplicable reason, started goose-stepping around the house shouting sieg heil with my arm outstretched.

Oh dear, I don’t have the patience to help young Alderny out on this one, might just leave it with Godwin.

snoopydoc 8:36 pm 08 May 13

There is good evidence that helmets reduce the incidence and severity of head injuries in cyclists who crash. There is no good evidence that compulsory helmet laws cause people to avoid cycling. There is no good evidence that reduced numbers of cyclists is linked to higher rates of obesity in the population, let alone higher rates of obesity-related morbidity or mortality.

“Summarized” isn’t spelled that way in Australia.

21 US states have compulsory helmet laws similar to ours. So do many other foreign jurisdictions, if not at a national level.

What is the evidence that any compulsory helmet law has proved “a disaster”?

Airing an opinion is fine, but don’t expect to be taken seriously if there’s no rational evidential basis for it.

bigcohuna1 8:33 pm 08 May 13

Hi,

As a paramedic I’ve had to deal with people injured in all types of different ways. With cyclists there is a huge difference in injuries for those wearing helmets and those who are not. This can be taken for those who are , as one post put it, “casually riding less than 15kph” etc, but even though there are so many variables…..helmets work.

Trust me on that one.

Whether the rider is on a footpath, roadway, velodrome, trail or going downhill, high or low speed, or even just starting off or halting, I’ve seen some interesting results.

Also, the general focus of what has been posted so far seems to flow as adult concepts of adults on bikes. Don’t forget children.

Simplest things happen with long and often painful results. Kids going over the handlebars on scooters, small bikes run over by large cars etc,

Naturally a helmet isn’t the be all and end all in safety but it does in most cases make a huge difference.

However if (and this is now my personal opinion) you wanna be a goose and insist on riding around thru traffic and intersections or ride out straight across a pedestrian crossing with no helmet just because you want to snob the ‘man’, well go right ahead. I care for injured people, even if they were doing something stupid. Ive undertaken an oath and follow a code of practice to help all in need. Plus I never knock back a opportunity to practice my skills. Just so long as you’re willing to accept the consequences of your actions and not blame anyone but yourself.

There.

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