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Politics trumps hard-headed reason on bicycle helmets

By johnboy - 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
Aeek 11:48 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.

Postalgeek 9:46 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.

CraigT 8:30 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.

CraigT 8:29 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.

Thumper 8:21 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….

IrishPete 7:51 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

LSWCHP 7:37 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.

damien haas 6:40 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.

MERC600 6:24 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.

pink little birdie 6:22 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.

Watson 3:59 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.

dtc 3:15 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’)

Watson 2:39 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.

Diggety 2:22 pm 04 Dec 13

+1 to howeph

howeph 1:48 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!

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