It’s 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 main obstacle, to significantly higher uptake of cycling in Australia. So I want to look at the main arguments for repealing the compulsory helmet law.

As I’ve said before, I accept that mandating helmets in the early 90s was arguable policy, at least in the case of adults. If it were proposed for the first time today, I doubt it would get up (except for children). So I don’t think those who advocate repeal are necessarily “wrong”.

But in my view the helmet law is not the main thing holding cycling back in this country – it doesn’t even come close. And since it’s got virtually no traction politically, it’s also a waste of energy. Ultimately it distracts from the key issue – the danger, whether perceived or real, of cycling in traffic.

A key argument made by many repeal advocates is that countries without mandatory helmet laws have high bicycle use. Australia, in contrast, has both low mode share and draconian helmet laws; ipso facto, they say, mandatory helmet laws are the key problem.

What I think is happening here is the familiar problem of confusing correlation with causation.

There’s no doubt bicycle use in Australia is indeed low compared to some other countries. For example, according to Pucher and Buehler in Making cycling irresistible: lessons from the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, bicycles capture 27% of all trips in the Netherlands and 18% in Denmark, but a mere 1% in Australia (see exhibit). And there’s no doubt helmets aren’t considered important in these countries – in the Netherlands, for example, less than 1% of adults and only 3-5% of children choose to wear a helmet when cycling.

But does the law on helmets explain why cycling is so much more popular in these countries than it is in Australia?

The first thing the repeal advocates should ask themselves is this: why are only 1% of trips in the UK taken by bicycle even though helmets aren’t mandatory in that country? That’s no better than here! Or why is cycling’s mode share only slightly better in Ireland and Canada than it is in Australia, even though these two countries don’t have mandatory helmet laws? Clearly, whatever the explanation is for the comparatively low rates of cycling in these countries, it has nothing to do with any compulsion to wear a helmet.

They should also ask themselves why there are such enormous differences between countries where helmets aren’t mandatory. The fact that bicycle use is more than twice as high in the Netherlands as it is in Germany – and nine times higher than it is in France and Italy – suggests pretty clearly that there are other highly influential factors affecting the propensity to cycle that have absolutely nothing to do with helmets.

Helmet policy doesn’t explain why bicycles capture 34% of trips in Munster, but 13% in Munich. Or why the corresponding figure for Groningen is 37% compared to 10% in Heerlen; or 20% in Bruges but 5% in Brussells; or 19% in Salzburg but 3% in Wien.

Rather than focussing so much on helmet laws, repeal advocates would do well to look at the differences in cycling infrastructure and regulation –  and hence in safety – between Australia and Europe’s top performing countries. They should note that Copenhagen, for example, has an impressive 400 km of completely segregated bike lane, even though it’s much smaller than Melbourne. And Berlin has 860 km of completely segregated bike lane. They should also look at factors like 30 km/hr speed limits in residential areas in some countries and the strong cultural and legal onus on drivers to respect cyclists.

Pucher and Buehler argue the key reason cycling is so successful in Dutch, Danish, and German cities relative to other places (not just Australia) is down to extensive systems of separate cycling facilities, intersection modifications & priority traffic signals, traffic calming, bike parking, coordination with public transport, traffic education & training, and sympathetic traffic laws. They also point to the positive way cycling is promoted in these countries.

It’s no wonder people cycle more in Copenhagen and Berlin than in Melbourne and Sydney. And it’s no wonder they don’t bother to wear helmets – it’s much less dangerous!  Yet even so, Danish and German authorities extensively promote wider helmet use, especially by children.

Put another way, the reason Dutch, Danish and German cities have high levels of cycling isn’t because riders aren’t compelled to wear helmets. Rather, riders don’t wear helmets because they’re not necessary. And they’re not necessary because cycling’s an order of magnitude safer than it is in Australia, thanks to the myriad infrastructure initiatives and supportive policies like those identified by Pucher and Buehler.

Repeal advocates invariably fall back on the argument that cycling use collapsed in Australia when mandatory helmet laws were introduced in the early 90s. There was indeed a collapse – bicycle use by 12-17 year olds fell 44%. However, cycling by 5-11 year olds fell by a more modest 10% and cycling by adults actually increased (doubling in metropolitan Melbourne)!

In any event, that was 20 years ago – that cohort of young teens moved on long ago, taking their ideas of what’s “cool” with them. Since then cycling for recreational purposes has gone gang busters. A million bicycles were sold each year between 2001 and 2009 in Australia. If mandatory helmets are such a deterrent, how come recreational cycling – which is very much a discretionary activity – has boomed since the 1990s?

I think helmets are more of an issue in relation to the failure of Melbourne Bike Share (although not the primary cause), but it’s important to understand that it’s getting access to a helmet that’s the problem with the Bixis, not the fact of having to wear one. Some perspective is needed here too – there are 600 Bixis in Melbourne, but millions of bicycles in residents’ homes. It’s the latter that matters most for Melbourne’s future.

There’s merit in the argument that mandating helmets was probably a mistake, but I very much doubt it’s a significant deterrent to cycling. It’s a second order issue. The big obstacle to more cycling in Australia is road safety, not mandatory helmets. Let’s get our priorities in order and focus on the main game.

 

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.

Many states have imposed mandatory bicycle helmet laws, either for children or all cyclists. Since bike helmets are 85 to 88 percent effective in preventing serious or fatal head injuries after a bicycle accident, these laws may help protect significant numbers of children and adults from critical injury or death.

Statistics

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 500,000 people end up in the emergency room each year due to bicycle accidents and about 700 die. While most deaths occur after the bicyclist collides with a motor vehicle, the majority of nonfatal head injuries are not related to motor vehicle collisions. Children are especially at risk, as nearly 60 percent of bicycle injuries occur in those under 15 years of age.

The CDC and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommend that all bicyclists wear a helmet every time they ride. The helmet should fit snugly and the chin strap should always be fastened. If you can lift the helmet off your head, the strap needs to be tighter or you need a smaller helmet. If you are in any type of collision or crash, you must replace the helmet. Begin using bike helmets for your children when they start learning to pedal a tricycle. This will help them adopt helmet usage as a habit later.

Laws

State laws vary when it comes to bicycle helmet use. Most states require all cyclists under age 16 to wear helmets; some have a minimum age of 17 or 18. Washington state requires people of all ages to wear bike helmets. Many states have a minimum law that applies to the entire state, but local jurisdictions, such as counties or some cities, have more stringent requirements. For example, in North Carolina, all cyclists under 16 must wear helmets, but in Black Mountain, North Carolina, helmets must be worn at every age.

Potential

Since only an estimated 20 to 25 percent of cyclists wear helmets every time they are on their bikes, the number of head injuries could be reduced if everyone wore a helmet 100 percent of the time. The NHTSA estimates that up to 45,000 head injuries and up to 55,000 scalp and face injuries could be prevented each year if every child under age 16 wore bicycle helmets consistently.