05 December 2011

Repeal Helmet Laws to Boost Cycling

Melbourne Helmet Demonstration 24
A new paper is out from Prof. Chris Rissell at the Sydney School of Public Health at the U of Sydney. Repealing Australia's archaeic helmet laws, and following the example of Israel and Mexico City - would cause a massive boom in cycling levels.

Here's the summary of the paper:

Helmets OFF to legislation
Cycling levels in Sydney could more than double if laws forcing cyclists to wear helmets were repealed, according to a new research published today in the Health Promotion Journal of Australia.

One in five adults surveyed in Sydney said they would ride a bicycle more if they did not have to wear a helmet, according co-author Professor Chris Rissel from the School of Public Health, at the University of Sydney.

Researchers involved in ‘The possible effect on frequency of cycling if mandatory bicycle helmet legislation was repealed in Sydney, Australia: a cross sectional survey’ interviewed 600 hundred Sydney adults to identify preferences for wearing bicycle helmets.

People who ride occasionally and younger people were most likely to say they would ride more if they didn’t have to wear a helmet, but significantly, one in five people who hadn’t ridden a bicycle in the last year also said they would ride more,” says Professor Rissel.

Professor Rissel says that the NSW state government’s targets to increase cycling could be easily achieved by repealing bicycle helmet legislation without spending millions of dollars on new bicycle paths.

Occasional riders and those people who don’t see themselves as a ‘cyclist’ represents a large number of people. Even if only half or a quarter of these people did actually start riding, it would more than double the number of people cycling now,” Professor Rissel says.

The research also found that almost half of the respondents said they would never ride without a helmet. While more than 14 percent said “all the time”, and over 30 percent said “some of the time”, the rest were unsure.

Support for mandatory helmet wearing was low among people already cycling according to Professor Rissel.

Overall, one third of respondents did not support mandatory helmet legislation. There was an inverse association between riding frequency and support of the helmet legislation, with those not riding in the past year most likely to support helmet legislation, and more frequent riders less likely to support it,” he says.

Professor Rissel said that lots of people would still wear a helmet, but removing the legal requirement to wear a helmet would encourage more people to just hop on a bike.

“Public bicycle share schemes around the world where helmets are not required to been worn have shown how safe cycling really is,” says Professor Rissel.

There have now been over six million users of the ‘Boris bikes’ in London and distances cycled total over 10 million kilometres with few serious injuries. In the first three months the accident rate was estimated to be 0.002 percent.

There are similar observations from other schemes. The bike share schemes in Brisbane and Melbourne are operating at 10 percent of comparable international schemes because of helmet legislation.

One in five (22.6%, 95% CI 18.8-26.4%) respondents said they would cycle more if they did not have to wear a helmet, particularly occasional cyclists (40.4% of those who had cycled in the past week and 33.1% of those who had cycled in the past month).
Almost half  (47.6%) of respondents said they would never ride without a helmet, 14.4% said ‘all the time’, 30.4% said ‘some of the time’ and the rest were not sure.
One third (32.7%, 95% CI 28.5-37.0%) of respondents did not support mandatory helmet legislation.

Here's the link to the paper:
The possible effect on frequency of cycling if mandatory bicycle helmet legislation was repealed in Sydney, Australia: a cross sectional survey - Chris Rissel and Li Ming Wen.


Richard Larouche said...

What's even more ironic is that, if the mode share of cycling were to double, there would be a marked decline of the relative risk of injury for each cyclist through the "safety in number" phenomenom.

In contrast, in some parts of Australia and New Zealand, the mode share of cycling has decreased with the helmet regulation and this as lead to a "risk in scarcity" effect, such that the few remaining cyclists are more likely to be involved in road crashes.

amoeba said...

Clearly, the more people cycle, the fewer cars there are, plus more drivers would also be cyclists, or personally know cyclists.

Cycling becomes normal, rather than a fringe activity.

Ultimately, in the minds of motorists in a population where everyone, or nearly everyone cycles, cyclists become people riding bicycles, rather than a species of sub-humans.

At this stage it's going to be as safe as it's ever likely to be, unless segregated infrastructure to separate bikes from motor-vehicles is introduced.

purpletrumpet said...

No no no no no!!!!
We were saying at work the other day that we should have compulsory laws to wear helmets! The cost if not wearing one is far greater if in an accident!!
Spend a day with a head injured patient to understand this.
A guy I looked after, late 20's, wife, 3 small children, brain damaged for life after being hit by a lorry.
Car numbers will not decrease that much if more of us take up cycling. For every one cyclist there will be 15 cars added to the number.
Wear a skid lid! It could save your life, a lot of heart and the tax payer a lot of money in caring for you for the rest of your life!!!

amoeba said...

cunwapurpletrumpet said...

'We were saying at work the other day that we should have compulsory laws to wear helmets! The cost if not wearing one is far greater if in an accident!!'

It's a shame that people like you don't investigate the subject before expressing an ill-thought out opinion. While it's true that head injuries are bad when they happen, this is far from the whole picture.

What you have to understand is that anecdotal evidence isn't proof that helmets save people's lives. In'fact there are numerous cyclists who have died wearing helmets.

Helmets aren't designed for protecting against vehicle impacts, IIRC, they are designed to protect someone who falls off their bicycle at 12 mph or less.
The evidence that they help is far from being conclusive.

What is evident is that helmets deter people from cycling. Helmets also can increase the likelihood of neck injuries, rotational brain injury and there is evidence that drivers drive closer to people wearing helmets than those not wearing a helmet.

People in many industrialised countries do not receive sufficient exercise and by deterring people from cycling, these people will probably drive and in consequence suffer the diseases of inactivity, which can and do kill as easily as being run-over by a truck.

The dangers of cycling are smaller than the dangers of not cycling.

Cycling isn't dangerous, it's motor-vehicles that are dangerous when driven badly in proximity to vulnerable road users and this endangers cyclists. So you are suggesting that cyclists should be penalised by wearing an ineffectual piece of plastic, when the source of the danger - motorists are allowed to continue endangering the Public.

"Wear a skid lid! It could save your life, a lot of heart and the tax payer a lot of money in caring for you for the rest of your life!!!"

Motorists in the EU do not pay the external costs of motoring. Cyclists benefit the economy, while motorists receive subsidies.

'Handbook on estimation of external costs in the transport sector'

Edward said...


Read the article again. It is about helmet laws and the (perhaps unpredicted) negative effect they have had.

The guy who was brain damaged after being hit by a lorry - how would a polystyrene hat have helped him? Do you not think it would have been better to have removed him from that source of danger in the first place?

You say that wearing a helmet will save the tax payer a lot of money in caring for you. How do you know? What is the cost of people not cycling?

Last point. Have a look at this picture:


After that picture was taken, he got up and went on his way - perhaps a little bruised. If you told him, he should be forced to wear a helmet, he would probably wonder why. In Australia, if he had been wearing a helmet, he would swear to you that it saved his life. Nothing you say could make him change his mind. That would not make it true.

Australia and New Zealand are the only two countries on the planet with national helmet laws. They have failed. We should get rid of them.

Vocus Dwabe said...

Purpletrumpet, if you found yourself facing a knife-wielding maniac then I dare say an anti-stab vest would be a great comfort to you. But firstly, is the likelihood of finding yourself in such a situation sufficiently great to justify the bother of wearing an anti-stab vest the whole time? And secondly, are anti-stab vests 100% effective anyway?

It's much the same with cycle helmets. For some sorts of cycling (fast head-down road biking; MTBing) they probably are worth the trouble on balance. But for everyday low-speed utility cycling they definitely aren't, and forcing people to wear the bloody silly things will just deter them from cycling in exactly that sector which, outside continental Europe, could most usefully be expanded.

The proof? The London bike-hire scheme has clocked up over six million journeys since its inception. Hardly anyone using it wears a helmet; but during that time there have been less than a hundred injuries severe enough to require hospitalisation, and none of those was a head injury. The reason the hire bikes are safe is that they're too slow and stable to damage yourself much if you come off, and also that other roads users now expect to see them.

Who are these people you work with? Is it the AA, the "Daily Mail" or Halfords head office? Or are you just one of those cyclists who thinks everyone should follow your own dress code?

Vocus Dwabe said...

"Australia and New Zealand are the only two countries on the planet with national helmet laws."

Not quite. Spain has had an all-ages compulsory helmet law since 2004; but by all accounts everyone ignores it, while the Civil Guard only bother enforcing it if they're nicking you for something else. Oh, and Finland has one as well: but it's a complete dead letter since there aren't any penalties for contravening it.

Beware, though: back in October the German Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer threatened a compulsory-helmet law if the incidence of helmet-wearing in the Federal Republic doesn't soon reach 50% from its present level of 10%. In another interview I read he also hinted at tabling an EU directive: in which case I'd love to see how that would go down in the Netherlands.

In the UK last month a parliamentary bill making cycle helmets compulsory for under-14s failed at second-reading stage from lack of MPs willing to support it. Likewise a nationwide e-petition for compulsory cycle helmets which attracted 22 signatures, also attracted a counter-petition with 136!

Cool Bike Helmets said...

The irony is that whilst cycle helmets can give protection for the rider in some cicumstances, they are not 100% full proof. Having to wear a cycle helmet by law often sends the wrong signals to the masses in that cyling is more dangerous than it actually is! The benefits of cycling (of which there are many) simply outweigh the negatives.
This law is doing more harm than good!

Corey said...

Professor Rissel says that the NSW state government’s targets to increase cycling could be easily achieved by repealing bicycle helmet legislation without spending millions of dollars on new bicycle paths.

Not too keen on this sort of sacrificial "promotion." These surveys indicate that an alarmingly high number of people have become indoctrinated to the pro-helmet mantra. Even if there is evidence that a repeal would facilitate such cycling increases, it's a great disservice to compromise on infrastructure. We know that the Dutch aren't cycling so much simply because they don't have to wear helmets.

Chris Bruntlett said...

Just got a $29 ticket from the Vancouver Police Department for cycling along the Off-Broadway Bikeway without a helmet. When I explained to the officer that my helmet was stolen, along with my trailer, from inside my parking garage the other day, he didn't seem to care one bit. If this is the way the "World's Greenest City" treats its cyclists, I'll ride my car or the bus to work next time!

Van Strapp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Van Strapp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Van Strapp said...

An oft-overlooked factor is there's generations of motorists in Europe that accept cyclists as part of the driving environment, and have no gripes with the fact. They're aware of the cycling presence, always on the look out for cyclists, and that's that.

Here in Australia, it's a constant bone of contention that cyclists should even be allowed on the road, and too many motorists fail to keep an eye out for cyclists, and many seem to go out of their way to intimidate cyclists into never returning to the road.

Jimm said...

purpletrumpet is doing little more than trolling, using emotional response over actual fact to try and goad people into angry retort. it is not worth getting sucked into.

Vocus Dwabe said...

"purpletrumpet is doing little more than trolling"

Yes, I'm perfectly well aware of that. But it still behoves us to return fire. Here in the UK the compulsory-helmets lobby now seems to have realised that a law to that effect is not feasible: there's simply no political will for it, and no government would be prepared to face the mass disobedience that would follow. So what the Health & Safety lobby (a.k.a "The Fun Police")is trying to do instead is to use social pressure to achieve the same end: getting it established that helmets are the norm, that anyone who doesn't wear one is a fool, and that anyone who questions the need for them is a criminal. Letting blog comments like that go unanswered is simply giving them what they want.

amoeba said...

I'm ambivalent about purpletrumpet, she appears to be a cyclist. But after a very brief look around, it seems that she believes in astrology and isn't particularly well informed.

She appears to be a Dunning-Kruger effect afflictee.

Peter said...

So many people believe in these misguided solutions to safety. Many of the readers here will already be aware of the cycle statistics from the countries of Northern Europe. Denmark reducing 300 deaths in 1970 to 19 by about 2009. The Netherlands reducing under 14 year old deaths from 457 in 1970 to 23 by 2008. A 95% drop. Niether country using helmets.
By contrast we in Australia reduced 90 deaths in 1970 to 37 last year. The year before helmet law began 1990 we had about 60 die. 1996 we had 57 die. In 2001 we had 46. 2004 43.
So can we really claim that helmets were good public policy? That they really did save lives? You only have to look at the Dutch and Danish figures to see we have fooled ourselves. It is clear that most of the reductions in all countries are due to other factors how can anyone say that helmets are such a big deal.

Peter said...

To add, the helmet law halted developement of the the other strategies, such as separated infrastructure and better laws such as strict liability, which were the cause of the better statistics if NL and Denmark.

Anonymous said...

.................... nice ^_^v ................

Tim Churches said...

Chris Rissel has incorrectly calculated the potential effect of removing the mandatory helmet requirement in Australia, based on his own research results - for details please see http://blogs.crikey.com.au/croakey/2011/12/19/the-cycle-helmet-debate-continues/ - at best, the effect on cycling participation would be marginal, and nowhere near the doubling which he claims.

amoeba said...

While I'm not sure what proportion of people who aren't currently cycling would take up cycling when a cycle-helmet ban is removed, it is possible to get an idea of how many people are deterred from cycling by the imposition of compulsory helmet laws.
This source suggests a ~40% reduction in cyclists.

For more details and the caveats see:

What is clear is that compulsory helmet-laws are far more appropriate for pedestrians than cyclists. The benefits of helmets to cyclists are negligible, when the entirety of mortality and morbidity aspects from transport, inactivity etc. are considered. There is so much evidence that supports the point-of-view that cycling promotion should be central to a nation's transport and its Public Health Policy.