Calls for Australia to Drop Compulsory Bicycle Helmets Laws


Photo: Warren McLaren / inov8

Not that this is a fire that needs any stoking but Australia is yet again debating the relative merits of helmets for cycling.

And remember this is the country that back in 1991, became the first to make riding a bike without a helmet illegal.

Associate Professor Chris Rissel believes that ""What it does is it puts people off cycling and makes people think that cycling's a dangerous activity, even though it's a really healthy thing to do and it increases people's physical activity." Then there's Professor Frank McDermott saying there is no question that if the current laws were overturned, head injuries would rise.Chris Rissel was one of the authors of the 2008 national report Cycling- Getting Australia Movingr, which had the sub title of: Barriers, facilitators and interventions to get more Australians physically active through cycling. Frank McDermott is the former chair of the Victorian Road Trauma Committee, and, as the ABC observe "the man who spearheaded the original campaign to make bike helmets compulsory."

Both experts in their respective fields and both no doubt correct in their observations. Rissel says, "You've got helmets creating a barrier to cycling, particularly spontaneous, short-trip cycling. And McDermott cites studies showing "... head injury frequency was reduced about 50 per cent in those wearing bicycle helmets."

As a cyclist I see both points of view. A helmet can be a hassle, but when you do end up base-over-apex, (which is inevitable), then helmets can save lives.

Though it is law in Australia to wear a helmet whilst cycling, I don't recall ever hearing of anyone being fined for not doing so. A police warning is the more likely occurrence. I think the legislation acts more as a health warning than legal deterrent.

Road Safety or Helmets? It Needn't be Either/Or.
One bike rider interviewed made the comment, "But the more cyclists on the road the safer it is for each cyclist as an individual, and helmets are a barrier to getting more people cycling. More cyclists also means less cars and higher demand for safe cycling infrastructure."

Yet as Richard Birdsey vice-president of the bike advocacy group, Bicycle New South Wales see it, road safety, not helmet laws, is the biggest turn-off for potential cyclists.

Here again we see that often issues are neither black nor white, but rather grey. One side of the argument being right doesn't make the other wrong. Both can be right.

Maybe if we focused on improving cycling infrastructure that made riding bikes safer, and a more acceptable form of short distance transport, then the helmet conundrum would simply cease to be an issue.

Associate Professor Chris Rissel wants to see a trial for two years in one city to see if repealing the bicycle helmet legislation increases cycling participation, and/or any change in the volume of head trauma case.

The Sydney Morning Herald does note that he still supports helmets for children and those riding longer distances.

The report The effects of bicycle helmet legislation on cycling-related injury'' is available as PDF.

More Bicycle Helmet Debates
Helmets - for whom? Cyclists or Motorists?

Dutch Cycling: Take the Phone, but Leave the Helmet
To Helmet or Not To Helmet; This is the Question
• And if you need more there's plenty more grist for mill archived here

Tags: Australia | Biking