News National Bicycle helmets: Are they helping or hurting cyclists?

Bicycle helmets: Are they helping or hurting cyclists?

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Bike helmets are bad for public health and cyclists should not be fined if they choose not to wear them, say researchers.

A Queensland report into cycling has renewed calls to make helmets optional to improve public health by increasing the number of people riding. But the report has outraged pro-helmet advocates for its recommendation to partly repeal mandatory helmet laws, which they argue would increase serious injuries to riders.

The Inquiry into Cycling Issues recommended a two-year trial to exempt Queensland cyclists aged 16 years or older from the mandatory helmet law when riding in parks, footpaths, on shared cycle paths and on roads with speed limits of 50 kmh or less.

The national view

Debate surrounding helmets in Australia is often divisive and controversial. Every state except NT has mandatory helmet laws for all ages. 

Macquarie University Actuarial Studies professor Piet de Jong last year published a report which showed that helmet laws were bad for public health.

“I was weighing up whether the loss of health benefits from reduced cycling more than offset the benefits from having people wear helmets,” Professor de Jong said.

His formulas found that, despite helmets preventing serious head trauma, overall there was a net loss to public health by making people wear helmets. While he believes there is a benefit to wearing helmets, society would be better off without legally enforcing them.

“Some people argue helmets are dangerous, I just think there is a compelling reason and the health of the community is worse off because of helmet laws and that’s sufficient reason to repeal it.”

No helmet, no worries? Photo: Getty

Fewer helmets, more cyclists

The argument relies on studies which show more people would ride if helmets were not mandatory.

“Requiring people to wear helmets makes the activity look very dangerous and that’s what turns people off cycling. They say, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve got to wear a helmet, this must be dangerous, therefore I better not do it’,” Prof de Jong said.

Public health expert Chris Rissel agrees. A vocal advocate against mandatory helmet laws, Professor Rissel, based at the University of Sydney, found that in Sydney 23 per cent of adults surveyed would ride more if helmets were optional.

He was “particularly pleased to see the measured approach” taken by the recommendations to Queensland parliament and would like to see them rolled out nationally.

“The big thing for the legislation is that when it was introduced it put a lot of people off cycling with numbers reducing by about 30-40 per cent particularly around adolescents so what you’ve got is a massive deterrent effect which still exists today,” he said. “People still report they’d ride more and helmets are a barrier for everyday cycling.”

Helmets equal safety

But Queensland University of Technology centre for accident research and road safety Professor Narelle Haworth has a different view. She said if the laws were repealed there could be an increase of about 60 per cent in serious head injuries.

“I make a living out of my brain and I want to keep it intact and I think it is worth more than $20 which is what a helmet costs.

When the initial legislation was introduced in the 1990s there was an immediate downturn in cycling rates of at least 30 per cent. But Professor Haworth’s research found that helmets were not the main deterrent for people to ride. Instead they cited feeling unsafe or not fitting their lifestyle as major reasons.

“Bicycle helmets may be a disincentive for some people for some trips, but certainly it’s not reducing the total amount of cycling in Australia now by a significant amount,” Professor Haworth said.

“I make a living out of my brain and I want to keep it intact and I think it is worth more than $20 which is what a helmet costs.

“Helmets are the best thing we’ve got to protect the head, so to go back on that would mean we would have so many more people who have got, not only physical injuries, but have long term psychological damage and inability to function intellectually which will not make us a clever country.”

Road safety

Cycling safety lobby group Amy Gillett Foundation (AGF) CEO Tracey Gaudry looks at the road system as a whole when considering safety for cyclists.

The AGF welcomed some of the suggestions for improving cyclist safety in Queensland, including a mandatory one-metre gap for cars passing bikes to be enforced in January.

Ms Gaudry said the system failed to adequately protect cyclists and that the reforms recommended by the Inquiry Committee would, if implemented, enhance safety.

“We recommend the Queensland government uphold current helmet laws, to avoid taking one step backwards for safety at the same time we are taking a step forward.”

Repealing the helmet laws

Professor Rissel also believes there is a groundswell of support to repeal the Queensland helmet legislation, though it is unsupported by major local cycling groups.

Adelaide Lord Mayor Stephen Yarwood had spoken in support of eventually repealing mandatory helmet laws in Adelaide, and was also lobbying for slower city speed limits and better cycling infrastructure.

In the federal election the Australian Cyclists Party ran on a ticket to make Australia safer for cycling, and notably decided not to create a policy direction on helmet laws.

Melbourne’s bike share scheme is often cited in cases to make helmets optional.

International bike share schemes have been vastly more successful, with Professor de Jong blaming the helmet laws.

“The bicycle scheme in Melbourne is a complete failure when you compare it to every other scheme around the world and the only reason for it is because of helmet legislation,” he said.

This was despite Melbourne’s climate and topology, which made it one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world, according to the Dutch born Professor.

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