Should wearing bicycle helmets be voluntary?

If fonts were dogs

I wouldn’t cycle in Melbourne without a helmet and I think anyone who chooses to cycle on the roads of our fair city without one is either an actuary or a statistics nerd. But as this raging debate shows, many people evidently would.

One reason I’m risk-averse about cycling is the experience of ‘dropping’ my bike with my son strapped in the child seat when he was two. While it was a low-speed accident, he banged his head on the road – fortunately it was encased in a helmet. Would he have been injured if he wasn’t wearing one? I don’t know for sure but I’m very glad I didn’t have to find out.

Another reason is I once worked with a woman whose teenage brother died many years before when he fell off his bike and hit his head on a gutter. This happened back in the days before anyone even thought to wear a helmet. Probably most importantly, I have a relative, a surgeon, who worked on a bicycle trauma study in Qld in the 80s and impressed on me the severity of head trauma suffered by cyclists, almost all of them children.

I wear a helmet because it’s a limited form of insurance against an unlikely but potentially catastrophic event. Like any insurance, the most likely outcome is I’ll pay more in ‘premiums’ than I’ll get back in ‘pay-outs’, but it’s protection against the remote possibility of absolute disaster. I know it won’t offer anything like the protection of a motor cycle helmet, but it will help in some sorts of low-impact events that might otherwise be deadly.

A helmet has no effect on my propensity to cycle. I’m a regular cyclist who commuted for many years, and I’ll always insist on wearing one. But making helmets mandatory for all cyclists is another matter altogether. While there’s still plenty of dispute, from the evidence I’ve seen, the social benefits of mandating helmets are probably out-weighed by the costs.

The key argument against compulsory helmets is they discourage people from enjoying the health benefits of cycling and from generating the associated environmental payoffs. It seems likely these foregone benefits exceed those from avoided head trauma. Also, discouraged riders diminish the number of cyclists on the road and thereby make cycling in traffic more dangerous for all riders.

The “discouraged cyclist” effect manifests in a number of ways. There’s unwanted ‘helmet hair’. Always having a helmet on hand can be inconvenient. Helmets are uncool in some demographics, particularly among children. In hot weather they can be very uncomfortable. Probably most importantly, making helmets compulsory helps create the idea that cycling is inherently more dangerous than it actually is.

The debate isn’t really about the value of choosing to wear a helmet, it’s about whether or not the net benefits at a social level warrant compelling everyone to wear one. I subscribe to the view that any restriction on personal behaviour needs to have pretty strong and unambiguous net benefits to be justified.

The circumstances at the time bicycle helmets were made mandatory (1991 in Victoria) were very different to today. The fatality rate from road accidents was far higher than it is now – there were 13.7 fatalities per 100,000 population in Australia in 1990, versus 6.8 in 2009. Probably most importantly, cycling was seen as something only children – vulnerable and immature – did on a serious scale. New research in the 80s on cycling-related head trauma, mostly among children, made compulsory helmets an easy and widely-applauded decision. At the time, the benefits doubtless seemed strong and unambiguous.

Circumstances are different today of course. Apart from the much lower road toll, fewer children cycle unaccompanied to school. Many more adults cycle, either for leisure or to get to work, than was the case in 1990. There is much greater consciousness of environmental issues and the contribution that cycling could make to mitigating them. However if the health benefits don’t exceed the costs then there’s not much of a warrant anymore for mandatory helmets. Probably the real test is to imagine that helmets were never made compulsory and then think about how it would go if a government proposed mandating them today – wouldn’t have a chance!

It’s ironic that the lamented Melbourne Bicycle Share is the catalyst for the current debate on compulsory helmets. I have my doubts as to whether helmets are the main explanation for the scheme’s lacklustre performance. While the helmet law doesn’t help, I doubt that repealing it would magically make the Bixis a success. My hunch is the scheme’s failure has more to do with misguided strategy – for example, aiming the scheme at locals rather than tourists – and legitimate concerns about the safety of riding on city centre roads. I suspect access to trams and the walkability of the centre are other relevant factors. The fate of Melbourne Bicycle Share should only be a small part of any case for changing the law on helmets. Invigorating the Bixis requires other strategies.

I also doubt that repealing the current law would provide the sort of boost to cycling that some advocates imagine (bicycles account for around 1-2% of all work journeys in Melbourne). Some have a romantic view of the inner city looking like central Paris. My feeling is there are more complex reasons for Melburnian’s reluctance to cycle and they should be the key focus – in particular, safety is a key issue.

The other thing about helmets is no government is likely to see any political value whatsoever in repealing the law. There are far too many risk-averse parents who want their children to wear a helmet and are happy to have their authority supported by the State. Far better then to focus our energies on cycling infrastructure and on taming cars and drivers. At the end of the day, compulsory helmets is a second order issue for the future of cycling in Melbourne.

25 Comments on “Should wearing bicycle helmets be voluntary?”

  1. Chris says:

    How about repealing the law but only for adults on the blue bikes in the CBD, coupled with a safety upgrade for Collins street which is a bike route in name only. Then run a study to see how the bikes go and whether there is any change in trauma rates.

  2. Matthew says:

    The statistics would say that mandatory helmets have been a very big disincentive to cycling wherever they have been brought in. I think you underestimate the effect.

    It’s true safety is a major part of getting more people on their bikes, but everything that encourages cycling should be tried, even ones you personally think are second order issues.

    So tame the cars, drop the speed limits, build safe off-road infrastructure AND give back adults who ride bikes the right to make up their own mind about wearing helmets.

    I wear helmets because it is mandatory not because I want to wear a helmet. On main roads I’d generally wear one (even though they are actually next to useless in protecting my head). On back roads and off-road paths I would like to not have to.

  3. Michael says:

    I was a teenager when helmets were made compulsory and I definitely wouldn’t have worn one by choice. Secretly I was glad they did mandate it since my parents had insisted I wore one before it was made compulsory.

    I think the Bixis are being held back by the helmet law. Initially I thought the scheme was a complete dud but since it’s been brought in there have been occasions when it would have been a convenient option, except that if I have a helmet with me I have my bike and vice versa, so I am yet to use one. I’d be in favour of repealing the law for them only initially.

    In the two years I have seriously taken up commuter cycling I can definitely say cycling conditions have deteriorated with Yarra council having decided to take two steps backwards whilst taking one step forward. They have hobbled two popular routes and built a stupid bridge no one asked for and hardly anyone uses.

  4. Brodie Blades says:

    I agree with Matthew – improving cycling infrastructure across our great city would provide a far greater increase in cycling patronage than abolishing compulsory helmets. I would personally suspect that the increased popularity of cycling and subsequent perceived increase in cycling safety would only eventually necessitate a serious rethink of current helmet laws.

    As a side note, I think the Swanston St redevelopment represents a great stride towards achieving this – and full credit to City of Melbourne for leading the way in making our city visibly more cycle-friendly. I find it hard not to get excited about the possibilities of truly ‘cyclable’ cities, especially when one hears the likes of renowned urbanist Jan Gehl talk about main street transformations in places like Copenhagen.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Re Swanston Street, do you think the potential for cyclist-pedestrian conflict has been adequately resolved? The renders I’ve seen suggest there’s not a lot of differentiation.

  5. Paul Grgurich says:

    Wearing a helmet should be mandatory – its just as important as seatbelts for cars – and its the same logic as the motorcycle helmet. The statistics are there to proove it. “Helmet Hair”, what a joke – what about “wind hair”!

    Wrt the failing bike hire scheme, my own experience with the similar scheme in Brisbane leads me to believe that there is another contributing factor to its failure – and that is style (for want of a better word). The bikes just are not sexy enough to compete with the alternative choices. I can hire a 14spd, Giant mountain bike for $60 per day from a local bike shop with a helmet and thats for 24hrs. Locals already know where to find these bikes because they walk past the shops every day and the type of tourist that is likely to hire a bike will also be used to sniffing them out – and thats exactly what i did in Brisbane!


  6. Oz says:

    As trial the wearing of helmets could be made non mandatory in mixed walking/cycling environments where speed limits are set to say 10 km/hr or less: for example on university campuses or in precincts such as Southbank.

  7. Sam says:

    I am agnostic about whether we should have the law, but I very much doubt the claims that there will be a bump up in the number of riders if it is removed. Looking at the decline in the 1990s when the law was introduced is not instructive – the helmets were different, bulky and expensive and much of that decline has likely eroded. There just aren’t large numbers of people out there waiting for the law to be repealed before going out and buying a bike.
    I also question the potential health benefits, we are meant to believe people who are so vain that they won’t mess up there hair are also sufficiently overweight that a bit of cycling will cause them to shed kilograms. Surely if you are worried about your appearance that much, you stay fit.

  8. Simon says:

    Repeal of the helmet law is necessary, but not sufficient, for the bike share scheme to be successful, and for cycling to have mass appeal. It’s obvious – can you imagine the masses doing something that is regarded as so dangerous that helmets are mandated?

  9. RED says:

    I loathe bike helmets – nasty, bulky, stupid looking things. I’d rather walk everywhere than ride a bike wearing one. Having said that, there is a good network of off-road bike paths around my area. I could quite safely ride for miles without ever getting within cooee of a car. I don’t see why I couldn’t ride a bike without a helmet on one of those paths. Draconian nanny state regulation that doesn’t allow variation for individual circumstances is always unwise.

  10. mike rubbo says:

    It’s accepted around the world, everywhere except Australia that Bike share can’t work with comp helmets.(see YT film Dublin’s message to Melbourne)

    So, if you think that bike share is very important, as I do,if you believe that it brings many new riders to utility cycling, then really one should push for an exemption for these bikes.

    Such an exemption could be done on a trial basis for a year to see, A. the impact safety-wise and B. whether it does make a real difference to MBS use levels, i.e saves the scheme.

    The sky is not going to fall in. The NT brought in a limited exemption 15 years ago, and the head injury rate has not gone up.

    We are continuously being intimidated in this debate by the; “My helmet saved my life” argument. If this were true in significant numbers, then those countries which are really serious about bikes as transport, would have followed our lead years ago.

    Comp. helmets not only discourage cycling, they have warped our bike culture towards the sport leisure aspect, which is far more serious. When they came in, they knocked out those who used bikes as casual transport, esp. high school kids, and favored sports and leisure rider who already thought them a good idea and part of their image. When Europeans are asked why they ride, they say because it’s practical. Only 5% say it’s for sport and fitness. Here, 80% say it’s for those reasons. So there’s the cultural diff we are stuck with in a nutshell.

    School bike shelters, which had held 500 bikes, were soon pulled down and the bussing regime began. We as a nation began to grow fat

    The way to grow the new culture we need, is to have helmet choice. The risk is very small. All those countries with choice, the majority of the biking world, have way better bike safety records than we do (see the Bicing story on YT)

    What has happened in Europe and will happen here with repeal, is that our Govts. will then begin to spend money on what makes for real safety, infrastructure. Stripped of the safety fig leaf, the helmet, and facing bigger rider numbers,this in inevitable

  11. Nicholas Dow says:

    I do come across people who don’t ride, or who ride less than they would if there were no helmet laws. This is as anecdotal as the stories about “a helmet saved my life”, so we can’t quantify the depression in cycling trips caused by helmet laws, but it is real.

    The latest meta-analysis of numerous studies (the Elvik paper, not online but I can email you a copy) shows no measurable safety increase from wearing a modern soft-shell helmet. Head injuries are reduced but neck injuries are increased. This helps to explain why hospital admission data shows no decrease in head injuries after the law was introduced. This is in contrast to car seat belts and motorcycle helmets, where the evidence is strong and clear.

    As we climb our way out of decades of decline and neglect of bicycle transport there are many changes that will occur, helmet laws are one such change along with changes in community attitudes to cycling, infrastructure, better laws to protect cyclists (and pedestrians for that matter) and the attitudes of many cyclists as well. Repealing helmet laws would be a good start.

  12. Michael says:

    The fact is a large section of society if not the majority do not regard cyclists as legitimate road users. They are tolerated at best. This is definitely related to the low number of cyclists – and although compulsory helmets might not be the total cause they definitely reduce casual cycling.
    The real delegitimisation has something to do with a shift in planning when everything was planned at the scale of the car. If you start at the centre of the city and work your way out to the suburbs built in the seventies and eighties roads become progressively more difficult to ride along if not out-right impossible. Cyclists will never be welcome in these places wearing helmets or no helmets.

  13. Julian Wearne says:

    Anecdotal evidence I know, but here’s another situation where MHL could knock out a lot of riders, using a spare bike.

    Virtually every house I visit in my social life has at least one spare bike lying around their house. Virtually none of them have a spare helmet that happens to fit me.

    If I’ve arrived at their house sans bike (and therefore sans helmet) I will happily break the MHL to get where we’re going. Other more law abiding citizens might not.

    If I don’t have a helmet, I’ll break another law to make myself safer, i.e. riding on footpaths where the roads are dangerous.

    Where better bike infrastructure can’t be provided allowing cyclists to ride on footpaths makes perfect sense and would make a lot of riding a lot safer. A bike to a pedestrian is far less dangerous than a car to a bike.

    • Dr P Martin says:


      There doesn’t appear to be anything new in this report at all and I wouldn’t really class it as ‘research’ either. Add to the fact that it is not peer-reviewed! It’s a whitewash (?greenwash).

      CARRS-Q (a cute acronym BTW) is a joint body founded by QUT and the Queensland Motor Accident Insurance Commission (MAIC), a Queensland GOVERNMENT body. This makes this ‘research’ far from independent. CARRS-Q also is no authority on anything related to bicycles and the MAIC certainly isn’t either.

      There sure is a lot of OPINION in that document and a complete disregard for the fact that pedicab passengers are ALREADY exempt from wearing helmets (only if they pay of course…) when they claim that ‘no group should have an exemption’. There is also no mention that in the Northern Territory the laws have been relaxed (footpaths/cyclepaths) with NO SAFETY PENALTY. It has been completely ignored.

      I don’t understand why a helmet exemption TRIAL couldn’t be instituted for bikeshare bikes and then we could actually collect some proper data… currently, the lack of data is being used as an excuse to maintain the Status Quo. How very patronising and we’re all happy to go along with this position, and you do know why? Because only a minority of the population rides bikes regularly (1.2% of trips – more for ‘commuters’) and unless big changes are made (infrastructure, liability laws and yes, helmet legislation changes) it is NOT going to change…

      • Dr P Martin says:

        I should also point out that this report was finalised in September 2010 and has since been finalised a further two times prior to this official release. Why is that?

  14. Alan Davies says:

    Mike Rubbo looks at cycling in Darwin, where there’s a partial exemption on mandatory helmets

  15. Mr. Martin says:

    Helmets protect people for minor falls…. being hit by a car at 60 will still damage your head. I always wear a helmet as I ride BMX and do stuff that i need the “bump” protection for – so I dont end up getting stitches. If I was to be hit by a car, there would be more adverse injuries, even though I am wearing a helmet. Unless full body armour is worn, the chances of ending up in a wheelchair is not really reduced at all. One of my parents friends was hit by a car as a cyclist. This person is now in hospital with brain damage … this person was wearing a $200 helmet at the time…… The car was travelling at 30kph. The spine was broken and the impact caused brain damage, as helmets for bicycles (unless they are full faced or motorcycle helmets) wont protect much from larger impacts…….
    I dont mind wearing a helmet, however I would prefer if there was no laws about stage 2 padding, which is softer/more comfortable.. or laws that didnt require people to wear helmets.
    I understand the importance of safety gear on bikes, however the current laws almost seem like a cop out for the government to show they are trying to improve cyclist safety. Either the government makes people wear high impact protection armour and head gear, or creates more bike paths so cyclists dont need to be on the road. South Korea recently installed 14000 km of new bike paths.
    A law for only wearing a helmet wont save people if they are involve with anything more than a fall of their bike

  16. Noah says:

    The helmet law should only apply to children under the age of 16. After that it should be the cyclists decision. I would still wear a helmut when I commute along busy roads but for short/safer trips I would not bother. The benefits of more people on bikes far out ways the risks in my opinion, especially when you consider the burden that obesity and its related ills place on our health system.

  17. TK says:

    Having just walked away from a cycling accident while riding home from work, I can only endorse moves to encourage the wearing of a cycle helmet. A child on a scooter suddenly crossed the road. I immediately applied the brakes. ( probably to intensely) I flew over the handlebars landing square on my head which was protected by the helmet. I was able to walk away, but the cracks on the internal parts of the helmet tell the story.
    PS. I am a dad with a loving wife and two gorgeous children. I was glad to arrive home safely after the incident.

    TK Essendon

    • Primal Tuna says:

      Perhaps you need to learn how to ride properly…? Helmet choice would mean you CAN STILL WEAR ONE (you clearly need it) but for goodness sake, spare us the proselytising.

      In all my years of riding a bicycle (ie. every day of my life, including many emergency – front brake only – stops) I have never, ever ‘gone over the handlebars’…

      You should read this:

      Prevention is better than cure. I’d recommend all of Sheldon’s articles.

      …and WTF has your family got to do with anything? *Everybody* is important to someone… don’t use this as a reason why *I* need to wear a helmet all the time… *rolls eyes* My wife & kids are quite capable of riding without helmets… they’ve learned how not to fall off in the first place.

  18. […] I’ve said before, I accept that mandating helmets in the early 90s was arguable policy, at least in the case of […]

  19. […] the school of thought that says mandatory helmets probably do more harm socially than good, but as I’ve said before, it’s not the sort of issue that I would want to die in a ditch over. However if there were […]

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