Time to make wearing cycle helmets optional?

John Hargreaves 19 April 2016 26

bike-helmets

I was reading that excellent and representational journal, The Canberra Times last Monday (2 June) and saw the implosion of the Young Liberals in the items for discussion at their conference. The article showed some insights into the minds of the next generation of Liberals. Mind you, Gary Humphries was a significant leader in the Young Liberals and he’s not right winger enough for some (although my spies tell me that the Young Liberals are split in their support for Gazza or Zedley).

The article (and the stuff must be true cos it’s in The Crimes) showed how dangerously far right some of these folks are and just where did they get this stuff from anyway?

There was some really loony stuff in this article and I recommend it reading to people who want to be outraged or need a good laugh. Like the re-introduction of caning in schools (by people who have never had six of the best), CTP and licences for bicycles, privatising public housing and public access to a national sex offenders register.

But credit where it is due… as a wise American once said “even a blind warthog finds an acorn every now and then”. In this bucket of garden nutrient is something worthwhile.

They are recommending the abolition of compulsory wearing of bicycle helmets. This is a sensible position to take. Bicycle helmets can be dangerous and can because of the increase in head mass, cause diffuse axonal injury (DAI) which is the increased acceleration of the rotation of the spine causing the spine to snap and cause quadriplegia or death. Bet you didn’t know that!

The introduction of this compulsion in Australia was done with insufficient scientific investigation and all attempts to get the federal Department of Transport in the last thirty years to provide scientific justification for its position (lamely followed by the states under fear of reduced road funding) has proved futile. That’s because it doesn’t exist.

But scientific investigation into the possibility of DAI through helmet use has been conducted and is critical of the compulsion to wear bicycle helmets. The Cyclists Rights Action Group (CRAG) in Canberra has bookcases of scientific papers on the subject.

There is a mood across Australia to reverse this compulsion. In Queensland a parliamentary committee has recommended the compulsion be removed as has the Brisbane City Council. And indeed in Adelaide only recently, a protest ride occurred calling for the abolition of that compulsion. This was reported on Radio National (an actually reliable news source).

In the ACT CRAG appeared before an Assembly Inquiry into Vulnerable Road Users in December last year. It put the case to that committee that the justification for compulsion was not there and that the public should be warned of the dangers of wearing bike helmets. If that committee had any courage it would recommend to the Assembly that the law be changed to make it optional with appropriate warnings.

But before you get off your high horse and say that helmets save lives, let me agree that they help prevent soft tissue injuries, cranial hairline cracks but don’t stop DAI and in fact, increase the likelihood of DAI. A man died in Wanniassa after a collision with a car and died of the effects of DAI, as reported by the Coroner.

So let’s forget about the emotive but scientifically unjustified bunkum and have safe laws around cycling which encourage cycling and reverse the downturn in cycling in our most cycle friendly city.


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26 Responses to Time to make wearing cycle helmets optional?
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John Hargreaves Ex MLA John Hargreaves Ex MLA 8:00 pm 29 Jun 14

Grail said :

The main issue for me is not whether helmets save lives (they do, in certain accidents, they enhance injury in most others), but whether mandatory helmet laws reduce public health by discouraging people from riding.

We have had public health campaigns since the 1970s (with Norm and “Life. Be In It”) trying to encourage people to stop being couch potatoes and actually get outside to have some exercise. “Thirty minutes a day,” extolled the ads during my childhood.

If helmet laws are revoked, will people who wear helmets by choice stop wearing them? No. This is not a campaign to stop people wearing helmets: nobody is disputing that helmets save lives in a small number of scenarios (mostly involving a collision with a motor vehicle: we wear helmets because cars are dangerous, not because bikes are dangerous). The campaign is to get more people to be healthier, and thus less of a drain on the public purse due to requiring treatment for preventable chronic illnesses like Type 2 Diabetes.

There’s also the issue of idle couch potatoes being more likely to die from side effects of their sedentary lifestyle than from an injury received while cycling: heart attack, renal failure, blindness leading to an avoidable accident, etc.

I’d be in support of situational laws like “no helmet required when cycling on paths and segregated facilities at under 30km/h” for example. There are a few paths around Canberra where we’d have to adjust the grade to prevent people inadvertently breaking such rules.

Encouraging more people to get on their bike and exercise rather than sit on the couch watching TV is the aim of the game.

All good comments and thanks. I mentioned that CRAG, Cyclists Rights Action Group, made a submission to the Legislative Assembly Committee. Apparently, theybalsondid an op eds piece for the Canberra Times seeking to put their side of the argument. Tough luck. Not newsworthy enough maybe. Obviously they are toeing the Govie line. So much for unbiased press and “Independent Always”.. Yeah right… What happened to the public right to know?

Grail Grail 11:22 am 08 Jun 14

The main issue for me is not whether helmets save lives (they do, in certain accidents, they enhance injury in most others), but whether mandatory helmet laws reduce public health by discouraging people from riding.

We have had public health campaigns since the 1970s (with Norm and “Life. Be In It”) trying to encourage people to stop being couch potatoes and actually get outside to have some exercise. “Thirty minutes a day,” extolled the ads during my childhood.

If helmet laws are revoked, will people who wear helmets by choice stop wearing them? No. This is not a campaign to stop people wearing helmets: nobody is disputing that helmets save lives in a small number of scenarios (mostly involving a collision with a motor vehicle: we wear helmets because cars are dangerous, not because bikes are dangerous). The campaign is to get more people to be healthier, and thus less of a drain on the public purse due to requiring treatment for preventable chronic illnesses like Type 2 Diabetes.

There’s also the issue of idle couch potatoes being more likely to die from side effects of their sedentary lifestyle than from an injury received while cycling: heart attack, renal failure, blindness leading to an avoidable accident, etc.

I’d be in support of situational laws like “no helmet required when cycling on paths and segregated facilities at under 30km/h” for example. There are a few paths around Canberra where we’d have to adjust the grade to prevent people inadvertently breaking such rules.

Encouraging more people to get on their bike and exercise rather than sit on the couch watching TV is the aim of the game.

Grail Grail 10:28 am 08 Jun 14

gooterz said :

The first few car airbags cost lives but now they save lives. The problem is not that wearing a helmet is worse than no helmet, its that the helmet design hasn’t changed enough to prevent all injuries. The only way to get a better helmet is to mandate them everywhere, making them optional makes them far less likely to be updated.

The only way to get better helmets is to have testing and standards which mandate better helmets. Simply mandating the wearing of helmets is only going to reduce the quality of helmets. If you don’t understand why, consider the economic effects: people must buy a helmet, so they’ll buy the cheapest one, so manufacturers will build the cheapest helmet that can satisfy any extant standards.

eh_steve eh_steve 7:35 am 08 Jun 14

cea075 said :

Back in 1989, whilst cycling home from school I was hit by a car and went flying through the windscreen. This was before it was mandatory to wear helmets, but my school had a policy that if you rode, you had to have a helmet. I wore it quite loosly, but it was on. Thankfully.
The doctors at the hospital told me and my family that without a doubt, the helmet saved my life.
Three weeks later and with over 200 stitches in my head and a mass of metal holding my leg together I finally got out of the old Royal Canberra. Even if I was up to riding on roads again, there’s not a chance in hell I’d do it without a helmet. And now that I’ve got kids, same rules apply.
In my opinion, helmets save lives.

So your helmet saved your life at a time when it wasn’t compulsory, meaning helmet laws have had no impact on your life. So what you’re saying is that you are smart enough that you didn’t need laws telling you what do then, and you don’t need them now. I agree.

I am Australian who has lived in a lot of countries, currently living in Germany, and I have to say that being compelled to wear a helmet is ridiculous. Particularly when a person wants to go for a leisurely summer ride, or simply ride down to the shops to get a few items, a person should not have to wear a helmet.

We are smart enough to ride within our limits. There is no way that I would do 60km/h plus on my bike without my helmet, as I do on certain downhill stretches when I am wearing a helmet.

Regarding things such as being struck by a vehicle, while I don’t have the figures I imagine pedestrians are more likely to be hit by a car than cyclists. Are we going to make all pedestrians wear helmets? Hopefully not in the foreseeable future.

Nobody forces faster cyclists to wear lycra, but (unfortunately) they do. Nobody forces them to wear gloves in winter, but they do. Nobody forces cyclists to do a lot of things to protect themselves, but they do them anyway. Just let us decided when it is appropriate and when we can do without! If you want to swap a nanny-state law in, make it illegal to ride a motorcycle without wearing protective leathers, that will save some bucks in the health budget!!!

Although I have to say, Mr Hargreaves, I would caution you against using the argument of “getting with the program” when you were so happy to legislate against fireworks, when most of the countries I have lived in are able to enjoy them on special occasions. If we were to get with one program to reduce the reach of the nanny-state, we should get with them all.

MERC600 MERC600 2:02 pm 07 Jun 14

Benaresq said :

basketcase said :

No helmet, no treatment at public expense. You decide.

I assume you always wear your helmet when you are driving?

http://www.copenhagenize.com/2009/05/motoring-helmets-for-real-high-risk.html

Or does the government have to mandate something before you consider it a good idea?

Am all for no helmets. Make it Moter Bikes as well. As long as your an organ doner, there’s no trouble with me.
All those (usually) youngish organs would be greatly welcomed. This idea is not new of course.
Mr Montgomery C Burns mentioned no helmets were a great source of organs for him from no helmet US bike riders.

gooterz gooterz 1:50 pm 07 Jun 14

The first few car airbags cost lives but now they save lives. The problem is not that wearing a helmet is worse than no helmet, its that the helmet design hasn’t changed enough to prevent all injuries. The only way to get a better helmet is to mandate them everywhere, making them optional makes them far less likely to be updated.

At least there could be a speed limit for without a helmet. Helmets are compulsorily for schools and yet the bike racks are always full.

Benaresq Benaresq 1:43 pm 07 Jun 14

basketcase said :

No helmet, no treatment at public expense. You decide.

I assume you always wear your helmet when you are driving?

http://www.copenhagenize.com/2009/05/motoring-helmets-for-real-high-risk.html

Or does the government have to mandate something before you consider it a good idea?

John Hargreaves Ex MLA John Hargreaves Ex MLA 12:55 pm 07 Jun 14

Thanks to all for their varying views and the politeness with which they have been put. Most refreshing.

I undertook to deliver references to support the view that helmets may be dangerous. One could Google “Bicycle Helmets: a Scientific Evaluation – 2008 by WJ Curnow”. at the end of this well researched article is another 13 references for those who care to explore. I’ll get some more for the next instalment.

the salient point is that the wearing of any type of protective equipment ought to be voluntary. There are undisputed health benefits from cycling not to mention environmental benefits, so what amazes me is that this compulsion seems counter intuitive.

For some amusement, I mentioned a guy in the 80s who advocated the wearing of bike helmets in cars. I now find that the Commonwealth Department of Transport and Regional Development in 1998 also proposed such a course. Check out “Commonwealth Department of Transport and Regional Development Media Release – Protective Headware for Car Occupants”.

You can just see it eh? Saying to the little guys in the back of the 4 wheel drive “all belted up? helmets on?” (incidentally I have a Subaru wagon for my music gear and not a gas guzzling massive tank like object).

Mr Gillespie Mr Gillespie 10:49 am 07 Jun 14

Well said John Hargreaves. This is about CHOICE. It is up to me whether I want to risk not wearing a helmet.

magiccar9 magiccar9 10:14 am 07 Jun 14

I didn’t initially look at the name of the user who posted this article, I just thought it would be an interesting debate. Having read only the first 4 lines of paragraph one, I knew instantly who this was written by. Scroll up, and yep none other than Hargreaves himself.

It’s seriously disappointing when he uses every one of his posts on this site to slander the Liberals for no related reason.

John, if you want to come across to readers as an educated adult, perhaps not carrying on like an immature child would help. Grow up and realise that people are going to support the opposite party to yourself, or any party in-between. Since the recent federal election you’ve been quite vocal on this site, and for myself (who has no interest in local or federal politics), you’ve done nothing but show me how immature and sour the Labor party can be.

dungfungus dungfungus 9:22 am 07 Jun 14

patrick_keogh said :

screaming banshee said :

I’m with basketcase, if you choose not to wear a helmet while riding you shouldn’t be entitled to free healthcare if you receive a head injury.

I’m sorry, but I find this particular line untenable, because I would immediately have to add to this list of those who have directly contributed to their own accident or illness:
– smokers who are suffering from a smoking-related illness
– the obese
– drivers who were not obeying the law (speed, alcohol, seatbelts, bald tyres etc.)
– etc. etc. etc.

In summary the health system is not and should not be an extension of the judicial system, we should not use the health system to punish the very citizens who pay for it.

Fair comment about the health system being for one and all but people who deliberately expose themselves to injury risk by not wearing a helmet may end up getting priority in the health treatment system while others who don’t engage in risky behaviour have to wait.
Where’s the justice in that?

patrick_keogh patrick_keogh 9:04 am 07 Jun 14

screaming banshee said :

I’m with basketcase, if you choose not to wear a helmet while riding you shouldn’t be entitled to free healthcare if you receive a head injury.

I’m sorry, but I find this particular line untenable, because I would immediately have to add to this list of those who have directly contributed to their own accident or illness:
– smokers who are suffering from a smoking-related illness
– the obese
– drivers who were not obeying the law (speed, alcohol, seatbelts, bald tyres etc.)
– etc. etc. etc.

In summary the health system is not and should not be an extension of the judicial system, we should not use the health system to punish the very citizens who pay for it.

dungfungus dungfungus 9:03 am 07 Jun 14

basketcase said :

No helmet, no treatment at public expense. You decide.

Another great and sensible idea but like that other great idea recently on a different thread (abolish Sunday penanlty rates in the ACT) it won’t go anywhere as there are already too many stupid ideas that the masses would prefer.

Pity Pity 7:43 am 07 Jun 14

Riding on roads, bike helmet should be compulsory.
Anywhere else, rider’s choice.

Martyn94 Martyn94 4:25 am 07 Jun 14

screaming banshee said :

I have no doubt that I have sufficient mental capacity to type this post because I was wearing my helmet when I came off my bike. To this day some 10 years on I don’t remember what happened but I was a bloodied mess afterwards and my helmet was caved in at the back.

Would I have been wearing a helmet without campaigns such as ‘heroes wear helmets’, who knows, but seeing how my aunt has lived after falling off a 5ft high slide at age 5 I think anything we can do to reduce the risk of head injury is a good thing.

Anyone that says having to wear a helmet is the reason they don’t ride bikes is an idiot.

I’m with basketcase, if you choose not to wear a helmet while riding you shouldn’t be entitled to free healthcare if you receive a head injury.

Two answers to this. First, the plural of anecdote is not evidence, still less policy. The fact that you sincerely believe to have been saved by a helmet on a particular occasion (and truly for all I know) does not mean that it’s right to make them compulsory all the time for everybody,

Second, even if people are fools to be put off biking by helmet laws, the fact is that they are put off. And you have to cop your share of the bill for their diabetes, gastric bands etc etc. It might be cheaper for you, and a lot more fun for them, if they rode a bike and a few of them hit their heads.

Martyn94 Martyn94 4:09 am 07 Jun 14

Like all helmet debates, this misses the point. Helmet laws are not (if they are rational) designed to limit head injuries for people who hit their heads. They are designed to improve public health outcomes for the whole population to an extent which outweighs the costs: you don’t have to be a libertarian to known that wearing them costs money, inconvenience and a certain loss of pleasure. And more important, having to do so provokes significant behavioural effects on people’s propensity to ride bikes, and on other road users’ propensity to behave safely around them.

Even if there were undisputed benefits from wearing a helmet once you come off your bike, it beggars belief that this outweighs the other effects – on your chances of coming off in the first place, but much more on your likelihood of being on a bike in the first place. If helmet laws reduce bike injuries, it is mostly (and perhaps more than mostly) because no-one is riding them. Given the public-health catastrophe (actual and looming) from Australia’s (and Canberra’s) staggering obesity issues, anything else seems like very small potatoes.

I have an unusual perspective as someone who visits Canberra, and rides there, for a few months a year, but got my biking habits, and do most of my riding, in non-helmet-law countries. As a committed bike rider, I just suck it up and wear a helmet when in Canberra: but I cannot believe that I would ever have started (as a fat 55-year-old geezer) if Canberra was all I knew.

I also know that Canberra is a pretty-hellish place to ride a bike compared to anywhere else I go. Not primarily because the provision for bikes is useless (though extensive), but mostly because everywhere is just too far from everywhere else. And always will be, so biking needs absolutely all the encouragement it can get.

screaming banshee screaming banshee 8:02 pm 06 Jun 14

I have no doubt that I have sufficient mental capacity to type this post because I was wearing my helmet when I came off my bike. To this day some 10 years on I don’t remember what happened but I was a bloodied mess afterwards and my helmet was caved in at the back.

Would I have been wearing a helmet without campaigns such as ‘heroes wear helmets’, who knows, but seeing how my aunt has lived after falling off a 5ft high slide at age 5 I think anything we can do to reduce the risk of head injury is a good thing.

Anyone that says having to wear a helmet is the reason they don’t ride bikes is an idiot.

I’m with basketcase, if you choose not to wear a helmet while riding you shouldn’t be entitled to free healthcare if you receive a head injury.

dungfungus dungfungus 6:32 pm 06 Jun 14

aussieboy said :

But if we ban helmets, the AFP will have to find something else to do instead of spending their afternoons camped out behind bushes at ANU nabbing students on their way to class!

Helmets are a massive infringement on our personal liberty. Yes, for a given accident, the cyclist will come off better with a helmet than not. But that’s not how it works – when you ride without a helmet you pick different routes, avoid roads and ride slower; with a helmet you just go the fastest way possible because of the sense of security involved. So actually, there’s a way higher chance of accidents with a helmet.

The idle AFP officers can help the sudden need for Fire & Rescue to hose the gore of the roads while the ambos take the extra victims to the morgue.
When you drive a car do you leave your seatbelt off and sneak around the back streets at a snail’s pace and avoid other motorists?

aussieboy aussieboy 3:08 pm 06 Jun 14

But if we ban helmets, the AFP will have to find something else to do instead of spending their afternoons camped out behind bushes at ANU nabbing students on their way to class!

Helmets are a massive infringement on our personal liberty. Yes, for a given accident, the cyclist will come off better with a helmet than not. But that’s not how it works – when you ride without a helmet you pick different routes, avoid roads and ride slower; with a helmet you just go the fastest way possible because of the sense of security involved. So actually, there’s a way higher chance of accidents with a helmet.

cea075 cea075 1:24 pm 06 Jun 14

Back in 1989, whilst cycling home from school I was hit by a car and went flying through the windscreen. This was before it was mandatory to wear helmets, but my school had a policy that if you rode, you had to have a helmet. I wore it quite loosly, but it was on. Thankfully.
The doctors at the hospital told me and my family that without a doubt, the helmet saved my life.
Three weeks later and with over 200 stitches in my head and a mass of metal holding my leg together I finally got out of the old Royal Canberra. Even if I was up to riding on roads again, there’s not a chance in hell I’d do it without a helmet. And now that I’ve got kids, same rules apply.
In my opinion, helmets save lives.

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