Cyclists escape helmet fines

Nerendra Jeet Singh, a Sikh, went to court in New South Wales (NSW), Australia over a bicycle helmet fine. He escaped the fine, arguing that his identity and religion are of prime importance.

In Queensland, Jasdeep Atwal challenged a helmet fine in court. The Sikh community has led Queensland to reform the helmet law to add a religious exemption.

Sikhs have helmet exemptions in South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland and Victoria.

In Victoria, Alan Todd challenged a helmet fine in court, avoiding the fine.

People who challenge a helmet fine in court often escape it. In NSW, the defence of necessity allows people to break a law to avoid more dire consequences. Bicycle helmets increase the risk of accident and injury. To avoid these dire consequences, cyclists can ignore the helmet law.

This might explain why the police rarely book cyclists for helmets in NSW. It is pointless harassment: most people give up cycling, those who prefer to keep riding can challenge the fine in court.

German study concludes that a bicycle helmet law is a waste of resource

Bicycle helmet laws are motivated by a desire to improve safety. Yet when they have been implemented, the main result has been to reduce cycling. This imposes healths costs by reducing the health benefits of cycling. Are the benefits worth the costs? An Australian study concluded a helmet law may provide a small benefit under extreme assumptions.

A new study attempts to answer this question for Germany. It concludes that a bicycle helmet law is a waste of resource. This is despite optimistic assumptions favoring helmets, notably:

  1. It ignores the increased risk of accidents from risk compensation, a well-known safety factor.
  2. It assumes a helmet law only reduces cycling by 4%. This is inconsistent with evidence from countries with a helmet law, where cycling dropped by half.
  3. It assumes polystyrene helmets prevents fatalities. This is despite acknowledging in the discussion section that this is not true.
  4. It assumes a 100% compliance rate.
  5. It ignores enforcement costs.
  6. It assumes helmets reduce 50% of head injuries. The most recent research summary concludes helmets reduce 15% of head injuries, while increasing neck injuries.
  7. It ignores that helmets increase neck injuries.

Many of these assumptions are at odds with the available evidence.
The results from countries that have experimented with a bicycle helmet law are consistent:

  • Cycling reduced by half
  • The injury rate increased significantly

With such a track record, a bicycle helmet law has little to offer.
Even optimistic assumptions cannot make it viable.

Can helmets cause permanent disability?

In 1993, a team of researchers conducted lab experiments on bicycle helmets. The purpose was to measure the chin strap forces in accidents. The researchers were shocked by what they found. They had discovered that helmets can seriously damage cyclists neck:

“The non-shell helmet did in all trials grab the asphalt surface, which rotated the head together with the helmet. The consequences were in addition to the rotating of the head, a heavily bent and compressed neck, transmitted on through the whole test dummy body after the impact.”

A related incident was reported in the New York Times:

“In August 1999, Philip Dunham, then 15, was riding his mountain bike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and went over a jump on a trail. As he did, his back tire kicked up, the bike flipped over and he landed on his head. The helmet he was wearing did not protect his neck; he was paralyzed from the neck down.

Two years later, Philip has regained enough movement and strength in his arms to use a manual wheelchair. He has also gained some perspective. With the helmet he felt protected enough to ride off-road on a challenging trail, in hindsight perhaps too safe.

”It didn’t cross my mind that this could happen,” said Philip, now 17. ”I definitely felt safe. I wouldn’t do something like that without a helmet.

Bicycle helmets can get caught in accidents, damaging the neck, as reported in the Canberra Times:

“Lud Kerec was training for one of the toughest triathlon events in the world when he smashed head-on into another cyclist in the ACT’s north. …

”It is unlikely I’ll walk one day,” said the 65-year-old Mr Kerec, who takes half a cup of drugs a day. He was nearly garrotted by the strap from his own helmet after he believes it became tangled in the other bike and yanked his head back.”

These are not unique incidents. Many studies have evaluated injuries since bicycle helmets emerged. They all report increased neck injuries. For example, research by McDermott et al. (Trauma, 1993, p834-841) found 75% more neck injuries among helmet wearers.

Why don’t bicycle helmets have warnings about the risk permanent disability while using them?
This is a serious risk that people should be aware of.

Calls for more of the same failed policy after increase in cycling injuries

A recent increase in cycling injuries in Western Australia has resulted in the typical calls for “more helmets” as if it was the solution to cycling safety:

One-fifth of cyclists who have been treated over the past four years were not wearing a helmet. 

In Western Australia, more than 30% of cyclists are not wearing helmets. If only 20% of injured cyclists are not wearing helmets, then cyclists without helmets are less at risk of injury that cyclists with helmets.

How are more helmets going to make cycling safer?

Many Australians have been led to believe that mandatory helmets makes cycling safer.

Does it?

In Western Australia, There were 1,244 cyclists hospital admissions in 2011/2012 compared to 640 in 1985/1986, before the helmet law. This is despite 30% fewer cyclists who cycled daily.
The helmet law has:

  1. Reduced cycling
  2. Increased injuries

Since the helmet law, the rate of cycling hospitalisation has tripled. wa_cycling_hospitalisations_2

A similar outcome was found in New South Wales, Australia. cycling_inury_rate_following_helmet_law_2

Why call for more of the same failed policy?

Mandatory helmets have become the standard solution for cycling safety in Australia, regardless of its ineffectiveness. Even though the policy hasn’t worked, many people can think of little else. Decades of helmet propaganda have made people switch to automatic responses.

This can be seen in this road safety strategy. Unimaginative bureaucrats can think of nothing better than this to improve cycling safety:

“Develop educational communications to target bicycle riders to increase the use of helmets”

When will we start asking better questions?

Why has the injury rate tripled since the helmet law?

Why are cycling serious injuries in Australia 22 TIMES higher than in the the Netherlands?

serious_injury_per_100m_km_cycled

Why have cycling accidents increased since the helmet law?

The paradox of bicycle helmets

After a helmet law was introduced in Australia, many cyclists insisted their helmets had saved them.

Yet cycling injuries increased.

How can both be true at the same time?

They can be true at the same time if there is a large increase in accidents.

From the injury data, this is what seems to have happened.

cycling_inury_rate_following_helmet_law_2
This is the paradox of bicycle helmets. People believe their helmets saved them, despite suffering more injuries. The catch is that the helmet saved them from accidents that may not have happened without the helmet.

It seems “obvious” & “intuitive” that wearing a helmet should reduce injuries.
Yet sometimes our intuition can be wrong. Sometimes there are consequences we cannot see that are more harmful than what can easily be seen.

More helmets –> more accidents –> more injuries

This surprising result not unique to Australia. Other countries have experienced increased injuries following an increase in helmet wearing.

In the US, a rise in helmet wearing led to more head injuries, according to the New York Times

the rate of head injuries per active cyclist has increased 51 percent just as bicycle helmets have become widespread…

the increased use of bike helmets may have had an unintended consequence: riders may feel an inflated sense of security and take more risks…

”People tend to engage in risky behavior when they are protected,” he said. ”It’s a ubiquitous human trait.”

Even cyclists who discount the daredevil effect admit that they may ride faster on more dangerous streets when they are wearing their helmets.

In New Zealand, a study found that injuries more than doubled following a bicycle helmet law.

1989 US study found that helmet wearers were 7 times more likely to have accidents.
How can a flimsy piece of polystyrene compensate for 7 times more accidents?

A strange helmet culture

Riding in Australia is a unique experience. Cycling accidents are considered normal. There is a special word for a bicycle accident, called a “stack”. Many cyclists have tales of their frequent “stacks”, and how each stack reinforce their belief in helmets. They would never ride without a helmet. Cycling is far too dangerous, even suicidal, according to a doctor from Melbourne:

riding a bicycle on Melbourne’s roads … is “verging on suicide”

It is a strange ideology, where helmets and accidents justify each other.

Helmets accidents cycle

 

Contrast this with countries that do not mandate helmets, like the Netherlands.
Accidents are rare.
Cyclists have little fear of accidents.
Cycling is safe.

Which philosophy is safer?

  1. Accident avoidance: no helmets, few accidents. The Netherlands
  2. Accident protection: many accidents protected by helmets. Australia.

Australia cycling serious injury rate is 22 times greater than in the Netherlands:

serious_injury_per_100m_km_cycled

Can bicycle helmets compensate for more accidents?

Choosing to wear a helmet seems a like “No brainer“. Such an obvious “precaution”.

Choosing not to wear a helmet is a more subtle decision.
It requires paying attention to what cannot easily been seen, rather than what seems “obvious”.
It requires an understanding of how helmets affect the risk of accidents.
It requires comparing a higher risk of accident with protection from polystyrene. 

It feels safer to wear a helmet. Yet the evidence indicates it may not be safer.

The paradox is: feeling safer may not be the same as being safer.

Parliamentary inquiry calls for helmet law reform

A parliamentary inquiry into cycling issues in Queensland, Australia, recommends reforms to wind back the controversial helmet law that has harmed cycling for 20 years.

The report makes two key recommendations in regards to the helmet law:

Recommendation 15
The Committee recommends that the Minister for Transport and Main Roads:

  • introduce a 24 month trial which exempts cyclists aged 16 years and over from the mandatory helmet road rule when riding in parks, on footpaths and shared/cycle paths and on roads with a speed limit of 60 km/hr or less and
  • develop an evaluation strategy for the trial which includes baseline measurements and data collection (for example through the CityCycle Scheme) so that an assessment can be made which measures the effect and proves any benefits.

Recommendation 16
The Committee recommends that the Minister for Transport and Main Roads introduce an
exemption from Queensland road rule 256 for all cyclists age 16 years and over using a bicycle from a public or commercial bicycle hire scheme.

Recommendation 16 might save Brisbane’s  bike share scheme from being an embarrassing failure. Few people are using it, leading to calls for it to be wound back to stop the financial drain.

The recommendations have been well received in the media, with The Courier editorial writing:

The proposed changes should be cautiously welcomed

The report is entitled “A new direction for cycling in Queensland “. It is a new direction, new thinking to make cycling viable. It includes a wide range of measures that would help restore cycling as a mode of transport, including:

  • develop a “vulnerable road user strategy” policy to protect cyclists
  • road rules to treat cyclists as first class citizens on the roads
  • set a minimum passing distance of 1 meter to provide a safety buffer for cyclists
  • Allow cyclists to treat red lights as stop signs.

These are small and cautious steps towards winding back the disastrous experiment of the helmet law. It is a sign that legislators are finally willing to admit that it is time to reverse a policy that has reduced cycling while making it more dangerous.

Meanwhile, the bureaucrats commission another “study”

Abstract

The failure of the bike share scheme in Brisbane led to calls to exempt it from the helmet law.
The government response was to commission a study to defend its controversial  legislation.
Bureaucrats even edited the “study” in favor of the legislation.
Such “research” should not be misrepresented as science.

blank

A strange “study”

The failure of the bike share scheme in Brisbane led to calls to to exempt bike share from the helmet law.

A document obtained under the Right to Information legislation (RTI) revealed that the government response was to commission as “study” to defend its controversial helmet law. CARRS-Q was only given 13 days, and paid $35,000 to produce a “study”.

13 days is too short to conduct high-quality research. Thus the “study” is mostly a re-hash of previous studies supporting helmets.

Email correspondance obtained under RTI revealed more shocking findings:

the report was reviewed no fewer than three times by the State Government’s Transport and Main Roads Department before its public release, with some significant changes made to ‘strengthen’ the supposedly academic findings.

Since when does academic research gets edited by the party commissioning it, in favor of its own agenda?

The study press release is full of bold claims, lacking supporting evidence. It dismissed calls to exempt bike share from the helmet law, backing the government agenda.

The government (surprise!) quoted this commissioned “study” to dismiss calls to review the helmet law.

Such use of dubious studies is not new. Governments have commissioned many policy-driven studies since the failure of the helmet law became apparent. Using junk science is not new either among helmet fanatics, as shown in Canada, where various tricks and optimistic assumptions are used to push for a helmet law. 

In another strange example, a helmet fanatic claimed that bike share increased brain injuries when the data in the study showed a significant decrease in head injuries despite an increased number of cyclists. It is quite common for helmet “studies” conducted by helmet fanatics to make claims that are contradicted by their own data from the study.

Where is the evidence?

A close look at the study reveals wide discrepancies between its bold claims and the evidence.  As would be expected from a report produced in a short time, and edited by the bureaucrats commissioning it, it is full of errors, invalid claims and unexplained discrepancies.

The study makes some strange assertions, for example:

the reason they don’t cycle is because it doesn’t fit in with their lifestyle

There is no evidence backing up this statement. This indicates the amount of “research” conducted. Somehow the study ignores that cycling numbers could conservatively double if the helmet law was repealed.

The study attempts to deny that cycling declined after the helmet law. It makes this strange claim:

”In Melbourne adult cyclist numbers doubled after the helmet legislation was introduced”

How this conclusion was reached is a mystery. The quoted source is another policy-driven study. It is difficult to see how such conclusion can be reached, even from the dubious data quoted. Perhaps it is one of the edits from the bureaucrats.

Figure 2 on page 26 of the study reveals that cycling injuries increased after the helmet law, despite a lower number of cyclists. This is consistent with what has been observed in other states. In NSW, the injury rate tripled after the helmet law, due to a strong increase in accidents. 

cycling_inury_rate_following_helmet_law_2

The injury rate tripled after the helmet law

This is hardly an indication of the success of the legislation. Yet that didn’t stop the study authors from claiming that the helmet law had been a success.

A key claim from the study is that exempting bike share from the helmet law would result in increased head injuries. This is based on an old discredited “study” conducted by helmet lobbyists, that claimed that bicycle helmets protect against 85% of head injuries. Since, the researchers have disowned their claim. Why is it used as the foundation for this study then?

The study ignores that helmets tend to increase the risk of accidents, DESPITE the fact that its own data indicates an increase in injuries after the helmet law.

There are so many errors in this study, that would be too long to list. Some of them are described herehere, here, and here for example.

Prophetic statements contradicting the evidence

The study makes strange  prophetic statements, contradicting real-world evidence. For example, this claim:

“Only requiring bicycle helmets to be worn by children or when riding on the road would result in substantial increases in the percentage of riders in crashes who sustain head injuries”

Such claim contradicts the most relevant evidence available. The best evidence we have of what might happen if the helmet law was relaxed is the experience in the Northern Territory.  NT relaxed its helmet law in 1994 and reduced its enforcement.  Since then, the helmet wearing rate is the lowest in Australia, cyclist hospitalisations per capita are the lowest, and cycling to work is 3 times higher than the national average.

The study makes prophetic claims about bike share, also contradicting the available evidence. In London, after 7 million trips, there were no fatalities and only 9 injuries requiring hospitalisation. The serious injury rate is 3 times lower than for all cyclists.

bike_share_LondonBike share is safer than walking. The helmet requirement is irrational.

With its low speed and upright position, bike share is safer that walking.
Why require a helmet?
How can such a counterproductive policy have greater benefits than negative side-effects?

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