Is the mandatory bicycle helmet debate a distraction?

Who says cyclists don't appreciate a little infrastructure?

There is an interesting new article on The Conversation by Deakin University’s Dr Jan Garrard, which asks the important question: Why aren’t more kids cycling to school?

Dr Garrard analyses the key warrants for increasing the proportion of children who cycle (and walk) to school; identifies the main obstacles; and sets out some actions that might help to reduce car use for school drop-off and pick-up. I generally agree with her conclusions but disagree with the emphasis she gives to childhood health and obesity as a warrant for encouraging more cycling to school.

I was going to write about that until I was distracted by various comments on her article relating to the desirability or otherwise of mandatory bicycle helmets. This topic is becoming an increasingly familiar pattern in cycling debates – it seems there are people who think abolishing the compulsion to wear a helmet when cycling is the silver bullet that will turn Australian cities into “new Amsterdams”.

I accept the mandatory helmet issue is one factor that bears on the level of cycling, but quite frankly I think it’s a sideshow.  As I’ve argued before, my feeling is that even in the unlikely event helmets were made discretionary, the great bulk of existing and prospective cyclists would make the rational decision and elect to wear a helmet. There is good evidence to support the intuition that cycling with a helmet is safer than cycling without one.

To date I’ve accepted the proposition that at a social level the exercise disincentive effect of mandatory helmets probably outweighs their protective benefits. The undeniable drop in cycling that immediately followed the introduction of mandatory helmets seems to support that view. However a new study by the Centre for Accident Research and Safety – Queensland (CARRS-Q), Bicycle Helmet Research, suggests that might not be the case. The authors say:

It is reasonably clear (the mandatory helmet law) discouraged people from cycling twenty years ago when it was first introduced. Having been in place for that length of time in Queensland and throughout most of Australia, there is little evidence that it continues to discourage cycling. There is little evidence that there is a large body of people who would take up cycling if the legislation was changed.

The CARRS-Q study also concludes that “current bicycle helmet wearing rates are halving the number of head injuries experienced by Queensland cyclists”. It says this finding is consistent with published evidence that mandatory bicycle helmet wearing legislation has prevented injuries and deaths from head injuries.

In my view the number one deterrent to higher levels of cycling isn’t compulsory helmets, it’s concerns about safety, whether real or perceived. Addressing safety concerns will require more infrastructure like segregated bike lanes. However that’s expensive – realistically, any significant increase in cycling means bicycles will have to share road space with other vehicles for many years yet, so the priority should be to get more respect and consideration from drivers.

Drivers don’t see cyclists as valid and legitimate road users. That’s not because cyclists dress in lycra, flout the road rules, wear helmets or don’t pay rego – it’s because drivers think roads are for motorised vehicles only. Drivers think they “own” the roads. This perception is the key issue that needs to be addressed to make cycling safer and hence more appealing. I’ve outlined before how I think this challenge might be addressed through driver education and licensing; through schools; through media campaigns; and through changes to the law.

The latter strategy is especially important. We need a clear and unambiguous message from governments that the roads don’t belong just to motorists, but equally to cyclists. The extreme vulnerability of cyclists means drivers owe them special care and responsibility. Dr Garrard points out in her article that in high-cycling countries:

The operator of the vehicle that has the potential to cause the most harm has the responsibility for avoiding harm. The onus is on drivers to prove no-fault when in collisions with pedestrians and cyclists.

I get the arguments that mandatory helmets send a signal that cycling on the roads is unsafe; reinforce the idea that cyclists don’t legitimately belong on the roads; and retard the sort of critical mass that would make cycling “legitimate”. I think they’re intellectually cute but largely irrelevant, primarily because I think most existing and prospective riders on Australian roads would choose to wear a helmet anyway.

P.S. I had intended to discuss Dr Garrard’s view of the link between cycling and childhood health/obesity, but I’ll have to leave that to another time.

36 Comments on “Is the mandatory bicycle helmet debate a distraction?”

  1. Alan Parker • Dutch transport planning is perhaps the most bicycle friendly in the EU
    In the Netherlands cyclists’ deaths have reduced from 185 in 2009 to 162 in 2010. Since 1970 the reduction in road fatalities has benefited all age groups but the most impressive reduction has concerned young bicyclists (the age group 0 to 14) for which fatalities decreased by 95%, from 459 in 1970 to 23 in 2008 (IRTAD 2011). 70% of Dutch urban roads have a 30 Km/hr speed limit and the police take a tougher approach to unsafe drivers.
    The fastest growing market for pedelecs( A state of the art E-bicycle is in the Netherlands, with 700,0000 fleet now mostly being used by the elderly.(Parker A 2011)

    Life expectancy is high, at 80 years, as in other EU bicycle friendly countries. Dutch road deaths increased from 1950 (1,020), peaked in 1972 (3440) and then declined to 691 in 2010.

    The population grew from 10 million to 16.5 million in 2010. In 2010 the traffic death rate was 3.7, deaths/100,000 population. Since 1970, the reduction in child deaths (0 to 14) from 459 to 23 in 2008 was impressive, decreasing by 95%. For the elderly of 65+ years deaths reduced from 648 in 1970 to 187 in 2009 (IRTAD 2011).

    The Dutch own 18 million bikes and about half of them ride bikes once a day. The average distance travelled by bike per person per day is 2.5km. The bicycle is used for almost a quarter of all journeys and 35% of journeys below 7.5km. Roads are safer because 70% of urban roads had speed limits of 30 km/h or less in 2008. A similar development took place on rural roads (excluding state roads); in 1998, 3% of the road length had a limit of 60 km/h. By 2008 the percentage had risen to 60% and driving speeds on these roads reduced substantially. According to Wellemen, the former Manager of the Dutch Bicycle Masterplan, (NEPP 3 1998) the most important measure in increasing bicycle use in Dutch cities is reducing car parking on a systematic basis in inner urban areas (Wellemen 1995 &1999).

    Using a pedelec in the Netherlands instead of a car uses some 5 to 6 kWh per 100
    kilometres, compared with 80 to 100 kWh for a ‘medium size’ car. As a result, each pedelec on the road allows avoiding on average 900 car kilometres per year and with that 80 litres of petrol. The average medium size Australian car would use 150 to 200 kWh.
    The “green tax laws” in the Netherlands have also resulted in far fewer old cars, fewer four wheel drives and hardly any pedestrian crippling bullbars (Parker 1995 A). The Dutch car fleet has many more newer and smaller cars with a rounder, softer ‘crumpable’ front end (Parker 2008.) These pedestrian friendly features are particularly beneficial when cars are driven at much lower speeds in built up areas in which there is good traffic law enforcement.
    The population in Dutch and Australian urban areas is similar but the urban car fleet in the Netherlands emits one third of the Australian CO2 emissions.
    The Netherlands has been moving slowly towards a sustainable transport system. The
    objective was to slowly decouple the growth of GDP from the growth in fuel consumption The growth in greenhouse gas emissions from passenger cars has been constrained, the proportion of walking trips has not declined, rail patronage has increased and the proportion of “everyday cycling” trips has increased (Parker 1998) (Parker 2004

  2. mdonnellan63 says:

    the helmet debate is a side-show. it’s wonderful to ride without a helmet, but i wouldn’t do it on a road with so many drivers showing callous indifference or bloody-mindedness to bike riders. a change to the law regarding duty of care would make an enormous difference to pedestrian and cyclist safety. the only downsides i see to a law change would be an increase in hit-run incidents and a clogging of the courts. at present, police (at least in Victoria) do not take too much interest in bike riders getting cleaned up by cars unless there is a real chance of conviction. i know of a number of instances where police have effectively blamed the bike rider for getting in the way; concussed accident victims don’t make good witnesses apparently.

    improvements to infrastructure aren’t really expensive when compared to all the costs of car travel; private cars privatise the gains and socialise the costs.

  3. Dave says:

    On the sharing roads issue, having just completed ‘Around the Bay’ in a day, I was surprised to find that even with 16,000 participants riding on a defined course, there were only a few roads in which any more than the shoulder was closed off to motorists. Given the light traffic on Sunday, I found it a little disheartening that even though there must have been at least as many cyclists using these roads as cars, most two or three lane roads couldn’t have even a single lane allocated to cyclists for 12 hours.

    Pretty much seemed to sum up the general state of things in my mind – can’t disadvantage a person in a car in any way, but a person on a bike, that’s ok…

    • Michael says:

      For a bike to inconvenience a car is a crime against nature!! I find it interesting that the capital cities trail which (although badly designed) is used by a lot of cyclists has the cyclists give way to cars even on minor roads.

      The first step in getting more people to cycle would be to fix up and connect the major existing bike paths. It’s pathetic that cycle paths end in stair, places you aren’t supposed to ride and include dangerous blind corners.

  4. Peter says:

    I agree that the helmet discussion is somewhat a distraction. This sort of information as supplied by Alan Parker should put doubt into the minds of helmet believers.

    “Since 1970, the reduction in child deaths (0 to 14) from 459 to 23 in 2008 was impressive, decreasing by 95%. For the elderly of 65+ years deaths reduced from 648 in 1970 to 187 in 2009”

    Whats important is that they did this without helmets. I was there recently and there were none except on a handfull of sportsmen training.

    A similar figure comes from Denmark which in 1970 had 300 cyclist deaths but had reduced that to 19 by last year. Again with no helmets.

  5. Mark B says:

    This sums it up perfectly, Alan:

    “The extreme vulnerability of cyclists means drivers owe them special care and responsibility.”

    Enforcement of road rules is an important start.

    A few years ago, I was knocked off my bike on Canning Street by a car that failed to give way. There were plenty of witnesses, the driver stopped, appologised, admitted liability and even took me to hospital for a fractured elbow. When I reported the accident to the police, they didn’t want to know!

    I’d suggest the mandatory helmet debate only has an impact on casual riding, and in particular the CBD bikeshare scheme.

  6. chris gordon says:

    Check out this post as well:

  7. Good write up Alan. A couple of points, a topic I’ve done a lot of reading on, but no original research.

    “In my view the number one deterrent to higher levels of cycling isn’t compulsory helmets, it’s concerns about safety”

    Whole heartedly agree, especially the perceived safety part. Unfortunately I do think the mandatory helmet law has contributed to this perceived safety issue. I can’t find the study at the moment, but a while ago I read a study that showed not only drop offs in ridership after the introduction of helmet laws, but also drops in ridership after campaigns recommending helmets in cities that did not have helmet laws. Which brings me to my next point.

    “There is little evidence that there is a large body of people who would take up cycling if the legislation was changed.”

    This is precisely because Australia has had mandatory helmet laws for so long. Even if the laws were dropped tomorrow, it would take a while for people to start reassessing how dangerous riding actually is. I doubt there would be a sudden influx of people riding that didn’t ride already, although I do imagine over the course of a few years ridership would increase faster without helmet laws than with.

    “Addressing safety concerns will require more infrastructure like segregated bike lanes. However that’s expensive”

    Not very expensive in the scheme of things. In fact pitifully cheap. The entire Principal Bike Network listed in Melbourne 2030 was estimated to cost the equivalent of 1km of Freeway. Of course, this was still only promised if resources permit!

    Finally, more research has shown that driver education programs to change behavior towards cyclists isn’t very effective. In most cases there is little behavior change and what change is noticed seems to disappear shortly after the campaigns stop.

    Your point about the need to introduce better laws to protect cyclists is spot on, Dr Garrad’s point seems pretty damn obvious to me. There is a lot of talk of vulnerable road user laws in North American cities and its something we need to start evaluating here too. I would even go further and state that the laws should be changed to allow cyclists to cycle on footpaths, with a similar onus they are responsible if they hit pedestrians.

    This youtube video which I found posted on your blog sometime ago shows how Darwin made it legal to cycle without a helmet, provided riders are on bike paths or the footpaths. The video is hardly academic, nor has any references, but his argument it pretty convincing. Cycling seems to have boomed, the number of bike paths has expanded greatly, riders ride on footpaths and most pedestrians don’t seem to mind.

  8. jarks says:

    Firstly. Cycle lanes should be within pedestrian footpaths wherever possible, or at least “on the road” between the footpath and car parks. This will eliminate some (not much, but some) danger for cyclists.

    Secondly, I was recently in Toronto and thought that hiring a Bixi Bike (same company as Melbourne Bike Share) to get home from where I was for dinner would be fun. It was fun, and there is no way that my spontaneous decision to do this could happen in a place where helmets are mandatory. However, if I were at home and planned to ride my bike from A to B, I would still use a helmet. I think most humans will make the right decision when it comes to helmets, but I do think that making helmet usage more discretionary will increase the number of cyclists.

  9. Urt says:

    I wear a helmet. And my gut feel is the debate should be about infrastructure not headwear.
    But I can’t get over the ridership difference between Melbourne and londons bike share programs. It really does suggest latent cycling demand is out there, and perhaps cycling needn’t be the domain of bike owners with helmets.
    Makes me wonder if perhaps my gut view is shaped by an old fashioned “private ownership” paradigm and maybe allowing public transport style system – bikeshare (which evidently needs to be helmet free) is the future of cycling.

    • bikeshare (which evidently needs to be helmet free) is the future of cycling.

      I believe it contributes considerably to promoting cycling, but it needn’t replace it. According to a documentary e2 bike sales increased dramatically in Paris after their introduction of Velib.

  10. […] I think this article underlines again the importance of focussing attention on the key issues that affect cycling and of not getting distracted by side issues. […]

  11. mike rubbo says:

    I believe moving to helmet choice is absolutely crucial. But to be persuaded, you’d need to take a trip and use lots of imagination. You’d have to go to cities where public bike schemes, to the surprise of many, are changing the way bikes are viewed and used.

    I’d recommend Montreal for starters. I lived there 25 years till 1996, and never thought of it as a bike town. Yet, the coming of the Bixis, 5000 of them on city streets, has transformed my former home in an almost miraculous way. The story is the same in Barcelona with its 5000 Bicings, in London with 6000 Boris bikes, and indeed in 140 cities around the world, where such transformations are happening. As as they movment grwowes, so too will the pressure build on us to make bike share work

    What do these schemes achieve?. Firstly, they tempt people who can’t or won’t see bikes as transport, to finally discover their usefulness. Because they are there for the taking, because, they are free for the first half hour, because they do’t tie you into either storage or ownership problems, because in London at least royalty is riding them, they are well nigh irresitable.

    Secondly, these bikes change the way that drivers see cyclists. Because they are everywhere, because they are transporters and never speeding exercise machines, they are given more leeway and respect than cyclists presently get here. It perhaps shouldn’t be that way, but it is.

    So, when you ask people here what’s keeping them off a bike and they say, “the danger,” they aren’t speaking from an real understanding because they cant imagine what I’ve just described, that they could actually feel safe on a Boris bike or a Bixi, for example. .

    Hence, when thinking about helmets, the need for imagination, namely to believe that if our public bike schemes had the helmet impediment removed, they would not only flourish, but that they would have this key impact on perceived and actual safety, and that they’d make things dramactically better.

    Indeed, the third thing public bikes bring is a demonstatably better safety record. So, if you are genuinely worried about people being injured on bikes, you have some obligation to make bike share work and to address the paradox that, even without much helmet usage, (all the public bike schemes leave it to individual choice) they still deliver much better safety results than we get here fully protected.

    As I see it, there is just no excuse for not facing reality, that we are out of step, that our beloved safety imitative , the lid, even if accepted, even loved by existing riders, is actually a serious barrier to safety and progress..

    Now, if our bike culture was growing at a commensurate rate with other serious bike using sociétés, we could perhaps be complacent. But actually nation -wide, our bike usage growth against population growth, is around -35% We are lagging further and further behind. That’s why getting bike share right is urgent.

    Moreover, the look and feel of our bike culture is not good. How can we ignore that when visiting bike gurus dub the situation between bikes and cars, (in Sydney) the most toxic in the world?

    The helmet colors evertthing. The garish lid with it’s sprt slashes, somehow leaches down over the whole rider so that large numbers feel the need to stuff themselves into Lycra and iridescent clothing, something you just dont see where bikes are truly strong as transport. Helmets are emblematic of weak utility bike cutures.

    The penny dropped for me in making the film, The Waltz of the Bikes in Amsterdam and realizing, not only did the bike culture there look relaxed, even beautiful, there was not one rider either in Lycra or with a helmet in any of my scenes..

    As I’ve turned more and more to bike art this last year, all my inspiration has thus had to come from Europe and Asia. Admittedly I’m not interested in sports cycling, of that there is no lack, feeling that that already gets enough image exposure.

    So there’s my secret reason for wanting a helmet exemption for public bikes. When they thrive, the visual balance will shift from the now dominant sports cyclist, to the utility rider on the sit-up bike.

    All public bikes, are sit ups, and so fast tracking them by helping to win for them helmet choice, is my own selfish path to more colourful images of riders in their own clothes on stately bikes with unusual loads, instead of the regimented and fear cloaked parade now rolling before me and my pencil.

  12. Oz says:

    My hunch is that at several schools arrival by walking or bike is not seen as “sexy” or “cool”. Either by fellow parents or kids. Many available paths to schools are 100% safe. Admittedly, some routes are not.
    Helmets are not the determinant.

    • mike rubbo says:

      Not the only detiminant of kids not riding to school, OZ, but an instigator of the cultural warping we now endure.

      When the Comp. law was brought in in 1991, it acted like a selective hebicide, wiping out kids who rode to school, little old ladies doing their shopping, all those more casual riders who’d felt safe and did not want to put on lids or risk fines.

      This was revealed to me by a Woy Woy high school teacher who saw bike usage drop almost overnight in that flat, bike ideal, suburb in which he taught.. Soon, the bike shed at his high school had been pulled down.

      Conversely, the law favored those who already thought helmets a good idea, the fast riders, the sports cyclists, the mountain bikers. Hence we have today the most distorted bike culture,away from simple utility cycling and towards the sports mode, of any in the world.
      I have to believe that, via bike share, helmet choice can al least help reverse this tragic trend. What do we have to fear.from a test? Overseas stats virtually guarantee a better safety outcome.

      • Oz says:

        A great phrase from Mike Rubbo…”the cultural warping we now endure”…The phrase satisfies my criteria for a replacement phrase for “phsycho-metric trends” when writing about the determinants in our community influencing fads and fashion in people’s socially non-sustainable behaviour patterns.

        • mike rubbo says:

          Glad you like the phrase, OZ. What do you think of my contention that comp. helmets are embelmatic of a weak bike utility culture? Not rthe racing/sport side, but the utility bike culture.

          I justify that statement by noting that the stronger the utility bike culture is in some city, the less helmets one will see on riders. Is there a causal relationship? . I say, yes.

          Esther Anyaya, my informant in Barcelona and expert on the Bicing sustem, claims that she’s only seen two helmets on Bicing riders since the scheme began several years ago. That’s hard tp believe, given that Bicings clock up 35,000 trips a day. But it’ss evidence that helmets are simply not seen as important in cities which are thriving, utility bikewise.

          it’s also singinfigant that the company behind Boris bikes in London has recently released a TV commercial which completley ignores the helmet issue. All the numerous riders seen on the screen, are without lids, except one.

          When you know that the London system has been under intense pressure from lobby groups to recommend helmets to its customers, the omission becomes very significant. It means they are prepared to defend the helmet free ride in London’s busy streets and confident enough of the safety situation, that this wont come back to bite them in the bum.

          That surerly has to be pondered by our complacent supporters of the helmet status quo. Remember, the relationship between bike use and pop. growth Aust. wide is minus 35%.

      • There is only one real reason no one will test the theory. Any politician that dares, will have the full force of the media and voter backlash toppling down on them if someone ends up with brain injury or death.

        That overall safety improves, or that the number of people riding might rise dramatically would be unimportant in the media s@#% storm that followed any such incidence. It is a pity.

  13. Simon says:

    Whate does the argument that something is a “distraction” mean? I can only surmise that it supposedly takes away attention and energy from something more deserving.

    Whose attention and energy? I can see two groups here: advocates, and those who listen to them.

    For advocates, there is no set amount of energy to apply to the sum of issues, and applying energy to one issue does not take it away from another. Some people are motivated by repealing helmet laws and not by other issues, and so for them there is nothign to be distracted from. And for others it is precisely the helmet law issue that kicks off wider advocacy efforts, so rather than it being a distraction you might better call it an advocacy enabler. Or even a gateway drug.

    For those who listen to advocates (politicians, the general public, policy makers etc.), it is true that they have limited attention, but anti-MHL advocacy is more likely to distract attention from those lobbying for the motoring industry as it is to distract from those lobbying for better cycling infrastructure (to give an obvious example). It’s the sum total of pro-cycling advocay that is important, not the division within that pro-cyclign advocacy.

    So why is the “distraction” argument wheeled out so often? The pattern seems to be that it used against measures which the person agrees with, but that are politically unpopular. In order to get the best bang for your political capital buck it’s necessary to limit your focus, and everything else becomes a “distraction”.

    And that’s fair enough for politicians, but for advocates who are as interested in the Overton Window as they are in short-term results, it’s totally besides the point.

  14. Peter says:

    This recent ad places the helmet problem as very central to our developing bike culture. Its worth a look.

    • Alan Davies says:

      C’mon Peter, that video is nothing more than slickly produced propoganda. The claim that mandatory helmet laws are the sole cause of Australia’s high obesity rate is outrageous.

      • Dave says:

        @Alan – Im not sure if you just didn’t listen properly or you are only hearing what you want to?

        The specific wording is “…in the years since helmet laws were introduced, Australia’s obesity rate has more than doubled…”

        As an educated professional, I’m sure you know the difference between causal & correlative claims.

        • Alan Davies says:

          What I’m choosing not to hear is the dog whistle! So in a one minute video prepared expressly for the purpose of advocating repeal of the mandatory helmet laws, you’re seriously arguing that the film maker wasn’t implying that the doubling of the obesity rate was a direct consequence of the introduction of the helmet laws?! Pull the other one!

          • Dave says:

            @Alan – I’m surprised that you can’t see issues beyond one dimension. Its pretty clear from a even a cursory viewing that the claim is not that helmet laws are the sole cause of obesity – that’s a straw man of your making.

            The claim they are making is that obesity has doubled since the introduction of helmet laws. That is a fact:

            The implication is that helmet laws are in some way contributory to this (and this seems to be what you are objecting to but why?). You really need to have your head in the sand to dispute the claim that helmet laws don’t discourage cycling – just look at the 30%+ drop in cycling in the year after the laws were introduced, the correlations between helmet compulsion and cycling participation around the world and most visibly, the poor usage of Australian bike share vs the rest of the world.

            You’d also have to be equally blind to dispute the claim that decreases in active transport & lifestyle are associated with increases in obesity levels. There is plenty of research showing that sedentary lifestyle = fatter bums EG showed an r2 of -0.84 between active transport levels & BMI + plenty more on google scholar.

            So no, the government mandating head wear for cyclists does not instantly make people fatter. But you are the one trying to pull our legs if you think it has had no impact.

        • Alan Davies says:

          Dave, I’ve written today a response to these sorts of arguments that I’ll put up as a new post later this week (too long to put here). Incidentally, I’m not debating the link between obesity and active transport (now there’s a straw man!), just the video’s slimy implication that it’s all down to mandatory helmets. It’s the dishonesty and spin I find repellent.

          P.S. I’m not the only one who doesn’t attribute the weight and force to the helmet argument that you do.

  15. mike rubbo says:

    Alan your bias is showing. Firslt, y to say that this film is slickly produced is quite wrong and suggests your unfriendly approach. Tehre are no spcial effects, not rapid fire editing, no manipulative use of images or music. What we see are sedate shots, l like the bikes and their riders, which well support the message. The fact that the images are Black and white, giving them an old fashioned look, could even be said to show restraint.

    As for your objection to the film’s saying that our helmet laws are the sole cause of our obesity epidemic. I don’t hear the word, “sole.” To put it down this way, is to visit the message in the most hostile way possible.

    Of course it’s not the sole cause, but could it not be an important cause? Is that not worth further study? Anedotal visual evidence, having travelled in heavy bike use countries, suggests that it is true. Maybe there are relevant studies already done. If you did not have a closed mind on the topic, you surely would be interested to know if there’s any truth in what the film claims.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Not biased Mike, I just disagree on the available evidence that mandatory helmet laws are likely to be the villain. I think this video not only has all the slickness of a TV ad (here’s a less glossy alternative) but much worse, it’s just plain spin. There’s no other interpretation in the context of the video than that it’s claiming the rise in obesity is a consequence of mandatory helmet laws.

      I get that advocacy involves persuasion but it doesn’t justify Abbott-style spin IMHO. It seems spin is inevitable when people have such supreme confidence in the rightness of their own POV that they see anyone who disagrees as “biased” or as having a “closed mind”. I agree the mandatory helmet laws warrant further study, but that’s a much more modest claim than the video makes.

      • mike rubbo says:

        Mark, I dont as yet know who made the film which of course does not stop me defending it. I will be sernding it to bike advocates overseas. I suspect their response will will be along the lines of; “:of course, and perfectly reasonable.”

        I dont know if you saw my film with Andrew Montague, a prime mover behind Dublic Bikes and now mayor of Dublin. His candid asessment, as he reviews the usage of his scheme, ten times ours, and its great safety record, is that we are mad.

        Same reaction from people assciated with Barcelona’s Bicings as seen in The Bicing Story The world gets it. We are used as the example of what not to do. Anyway, we’ll see what response the video gets.

  16. Luke says:

    “There is little evidence that there is a large body of people who would take up cycling if the legislation was changed.”

    This quote (from the CARRS-Q) report is well off the mark. Helmet laws are still are signfiicant deterrent to cycling.

    CARRS-Q were not interested in looking for the evidence because the report they produced (which was commissioned and paid for by the Qld government) was not an unbiased investigation into helmet laws – it was an attempt to justify and defend the current laws.

    Here is the evidence that many people are put off riding by helmet laws:

    • Alan Davies says:

      That site you linked to belongs to an anonymous activist advocating repeal of helmet laws – it’s called Helmet Freedom! It’s hardly a disinterested party on the subject of mandatory helmet laws. It could be a run by a school kid for all any of us know.

      The Centre for Accident Research & Road Safey is located within the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and the authors of the report are clearly identified – Professor Narelle Haworth, Amy Schramm, Dr Mark King and Dale Steinhardt.

      What evidence are you relying on for the contention that the Qld Government directed apriori that the report come out in favour of mandatory helmets?

      • Luke says:

        Alan, Helmet Freedom is obviously not a disinterested party and I didn’t suggest otherwise. I am involved in the site and wrote the piece referred to above. There are a number of other people involved as well, all educated and intelligent, but sorry to disappoint – no school kids.

        But why not play the ball rather than the man? If you think that the evidence I offered you is flawed or incorrect, feel free to post a comment on our site, you are most welcome to do so. I would be interested to read and respond to your analysis and arguments.

        I believe my criticism of the CARRS-Q report is valid. It claimed that there is “little evidence” helmet laws discourage cycling which is wrong – the evidence is there but for whatever reason they chose to ignore it. Some of the evidence is:

        – Cycling numbers declined by 30-40% when MHLs were introduced in Australia.
        – Surveys today confirm that a significant number of people cite compulsory helmets as a reason for not riding (as per previous link). The numbers show that MHLs are still reducing cycling by 30-40% today.
        – Of all the public bike hire schemes in operation worldwide there are only 2 that have been failures – Brisbane and Melbourne. These are the only 2 schemes which have attempted bike hire in cities with helmet laws.
        – Those places without helmet laws (ie most of the rest of the world) tend to have a fairly low voluntary helmet wearing rates indicating that most people if given the choice would prefer not to wear a helmet all the time. It’s naive to think that forcing people to wear a piece of safety equipment that they would prefer not wear would not result in some of those people giving up that activity when alternatives exist.

        In every part of the CARRS-Q report, helmet use and mandatory helmet laws are presented in a favourable light while the arguments and evidence against helmet laws are dismissed or not considered at all.

        For example: section 3.6 of the report which considers the “The effects of bicycle helmet legislation on head injuries in Australia” omits one of the most thorough examinations of this exact topic.

        Australian researcher Dr Dorothy Robinson in her paper “No clear evidence from countries that have enforced the wearing of helmets” (published in the British Medical Journal found that “Before and after data show enforced helmet laws discourage cycling but produce no obvious response in percentage of head injuries”.

        If the CARRS-Q report was an unbiased investigation into the effectiveness of helmet laws, why was this piece of research not considered? Deliberate omission? Were the authors not aware of it? Either option reflects poorly on the quality of their report.

        I do not know whether the “Qld Government directed apriori that the report come out in favour of mandatory helmets”. However we do know that the Qld govt (Dept of Transport Main Roads) was in contact with the studies’ authors and were able to comment on and suggest changes to the document prior to publication. This correspondence was obtained under a freedom of information request by Brisbane CBD BUG, which you can access at (

        There is an analysis of some of this correspondence at There you can see an example of TMR clearly suggesting changes to the CARRS-Q report which portray compulsory helmet use in a more favourable light.

        Luke Turner

      • Paul Martin says:


        I won’t repeat the points that Luke has made below regarding the CARRS-Q report as he has summarised it well. The link he supplied gives a good background as to why the report was commissioned and how it cannot be taken as credible evidence. It’s a Government ‘brochure’…

        The site has information on who is behind it. You can find this information here ( The group has grown considerably from the two founding members, of which I am one, and we have a lot of peripheral unpaid support in Australia and overseas, an example of which is the short film produced by Sputnik Films. The bicycle world is watching with interest I can assure you.

        More everyday cycling is something that every single writer for wants to see in this country and we all have strong connections to other aspects of cycling advocacy. For example, here is a recent presentation I gave to Queensland’s largest bicycle advocacy organisations ( No, I don’t count Bicycle Queensland as a serious advocacy organisation.

        I am a 37 year old Medical Specialist (an Anaesthetist). I have seen my fare share of trauma in the Emergency Department and the operating theatre but I, like many of my colleagues, do not let this cloud my judgement. I have read widely on this subject (bicycle helmet laws, bicycle helmets & their testing documents) and have come to the following conclusions (as have a number of my colleagues after in-depth discussions):

        1) Bicycle helmets are good, but could (and SHOULD) be much, much better. They don’t afford the level of protection that many of us have been led to ‘believe’ and while some motorcycle helmet manufacturers are minimising rotational forces (causing diffuse axonal injury – what *actually* damages your brain), bicycle helmet standards, testing procedures and manufacturers are denying it is even an issue. That is concerning in my opinion.

        2) More importantly, all-age mandatory bicycle helmet laws are not good for cycling no matter how you look at it. They resulted in a drop in cycling around the time of the law’s introduction & enforcement. On the back of a rising population, cycling still has not recovered (absolute numbers are not relevant as you would be aware) and is actually stagnating, despite the shiny new bikes being wheeled out on Saturday mornings.

        For the record, when riding my road bike, while training and when competing I wear a bicycle helmet – always will. When riding my dutch bike to the shops to do the groceries, go to restaurants with my wife or visiting friends I do not wear a bicycle helmet. It is completely unnecessary for such trips on that bicycle for me. I would like to be able to exercise this choice without breaking the law – which attracts a fine as serious as a speeding motorist in a tonne of metal.

        The law is also doing great damage to the bicycle hire schemes in Brisbane & Melbourne. One very simple way to see if the helmet law is a contributing factor to their poor usage would be to trial a helmet law exemption for these bikes for a given period and collect the data. It would be a simple process.

        Helmet law supporters are probably concerned that an exemption will indeed show that the helmet law is a major impediment, thus clipping their wings. The examples being set around the world show that there is no safety penalty (London, Dublin, Barcelona, Montreal…)

        It is interesting to note many of the recent Australian authors that either claim that helmet laws are working or that they are a ‘distraction’ do in fact, based on my personal knowledge of them, wear a bicycle helmet at all times when riding their bicycles. They also think everyone else should to. It’s a pity that this is not acknowledged in their ‘declaration of interests’. Do you always wear a bicycle helmet, Alan, and would you continue to do so at all times if the law were repealed?

        I take a more measured approach. There are times when it makes sense to wear one, and there are plenty of times where it makes no sense to wear one. It should be a matter for choice for Australian adults and it seems that the Council for Civil Liberties agrees based on our meetings with them.

        Nobody is suggesting that bicycle helmets be ‘banned’ – although some people tarnish this as an ‘anti-helmet’ fight. It is nothing of the sort. In fact, if a law were passed which banned bicycle helmets, I would be fighting for your right to wear one… if you so choose.


        Dr Paul Martin
        MBBS, FANZCA
        Specialist Anaesthetist

        & Ker, I (2011) “Empty Cells, Damned Half-Truths and Pseudo-Statistics: The Lot(tery) of the Bicycle Planner”

  17. […] evident from the response to my article two weeks ago (Is the mandatory helmet debate a distraction?), that some people still see compulsory helmets as one of the major obstacles, perhaps even the […]

  18. Jeffery Jonesft says:

    As a motorist I am at all times very observant and careful to avoid cyclists. I also observe that cyclists without helmets and usually without bells to warn others and most likely without rear red lights are far less caring of their own saftey let alone others. I note that this less caring of ones own saftey is telegraphed to me and I find as time goes by that I also am starting to care less about their saftey and that they really just don’t care.
    But really whos kidding who that people only ride bikes because its convienient.
    In Australia we have always provided a framework of community care that imposes community regulation to help the feeble and the less articulated safe. How are the studies evaluating this perspective?

  19. […] are a key obstacle to wider cycling in this country. They’re not helpful, but they’re not the main problem either. There are some other interesting aspects reported by the study which I hope to come back […]

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