Cyclists Say Australia Should Rethink Strict Helmet Law

Photo: People for Bikes
Photo: People for Bikes

The world’s toughest helmet law isn’t working, says Australia’s largest bike advocacy organization.

Bicycle Network, a group representing 50,000 cyclists Down Under, is calling for the government to relax its strict helmet law for a five-year trial period. The group had been an early and enthusiastic supporter of the laws since they were introduced in every state in the early 1990s.

The announcement comes after the group did an academic review [PDF] that included a survey of thousands of Aussie cyclists and interviews with medical experts. A majority, just under 60 percent, of those surveyed believe Australia’s helmet laws — requiring a helmet for all adult riders in all situations — should be changed.

Medical experts, meanwhile, were split. Most agreed that helmets do prevent injuries if there is a crash, but added that the mandatory helmet law may be reducing the rates of cycling, which is itself a negative ramification of the law.

“There has been no meaningful reduction in fatalities over the last 20 years,” the organization wrote in its study.

The organization, however, stopped short of saying the law should be eliminated altogether. Because Australia hasn’t enough progress in improving safety for cyclists on its streets, the group is recommending making helmets optional only for adults riding on trails or in bike lanes.

Meanwhile, Bicycle Network says Australia should apply the best practices from the field of risk management to help reduce cycling injuries and deaths. In that field, the first priority in a hazardous situation should be to eliminate the hazard (in this case that would be cars and trucks). Short of that, the wisdom from the field recommends, separating people from the hazard. Protective equipment for people — like helmets — should be the last line of defense, not the first.  `

In the field of risk management, personal protective equipment, like bike helmets, are the last line of defense. Image via Bicycle Network
In the field of risk management, personal protective equipment, like bike helmets, are the last line of defense. Image via Bicycle Network

Bicycle Network notes that Australia’s laws are “out of step” with the rest of the world. New Zealand is the only other country that imposes a total ban on bike riding without a helmet in all situations for adults and enforces it strictly.

  • Joe R.

    Regarding the hierarchy of controls, not only is personal protection equipment dead last, but you only use equipment capable of protecting against the hazard in question. You also only protect the parts of the body most likely to be injured. I’ve studied bicycle helmets for years. Besides being ineffective in the types of crashes which seriously kill or injure cyclists, the head is not the part most likely to be injured in a bicycle crash. Elbows, knees, and hands are.

    I’ve also come to the conclusion that there is really no effective way to protect cyclists from either common or uncommon injuries. Either the equipment to do so is too cumbersome to use regularly (i.e. knee and elbow pads), or it’s just plain ineffective (i.e. bicycle helmets), or it’s uncomfortable (pretty much all protective equipment). That means avoidance is the only real strategy. Separating cyclists from motor vehicles completely would reduce fatalities by upwards of 90%, based on the fact >90% of fatal bike incidents involve a motor vehicle. Improving pavement condition would eliminate most of the rest of the fatalities, along with many serious injuries. Bicycle training in grade school would help prevent injuries due to rider inexperience.

  • Brant Miller

    As Jeff Speck points out in ‘Walkable City Rules,’ “when New Zealand began enforcing helmut laws, cycling dropped by 51% and injury risk nearly doubled.”

  • St Etienne

    As a long-time local rider it’s hard to convey just how extraordinary this policy shift is for Bicycle Network. In recent years this organisation was fundamentally in favour in helmet laws and even supported more enforcement and heavier penalties. I’m absolutely delighted that the failures of this contentious law are being shifted to mainstream discussion.

  • Colin Clarke

    My report ‘Evaluation of Australia’s bicycle helmet laws’ provides a fuller picture. It included more data.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

More Evidence That Helmet Laws Don’t Work

|
If you want to increase cycling safety in your city, drop the helmet law and focus on getting more people– particularly women — on bikes, with street designs that offer separation from vehicle traffic. That’s the finding of a new study by researchers at the University of British Columbia [PDF] evaluating safety outcomes for cyclists across Canadian […]