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.

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 bicycle helmet law was imposed in Australia, many cyclists insisted that their helmets saved them from injuries.

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.

1989 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?

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:

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 7 times 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 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 data 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.

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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?

Official misrepresentation of Australia’s bicycle helmet law

Abstract

The helmet law has failed to achieve its stated goal of reducing the cost of cycling injuries.
Several government agencies have 
obfuscated this disappointing result through misrepresentation.

The information below is an extract from CRAG submission to the Prime Minister in 2009.
Following this submission, the federal government abandoned its policy of supporting compulsory bicycle helmets.

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Federal authorities’ commitment to compulsory wearing of bicycle helmets has never wavered since 1984 and excessive assurances of its value have continued. Although federal authorities knew of the deficiencies of helmets that Corner et al. had found, they pressed the states and territories to pass laws for compulsory wearing. The federal minister threatened to seek reimbursement of funds in the event of non-compliance and he dismissed his South Australian counterpart’s reservations, arguing that permanent brain injury would be prevented.[17],[18]Federal authorities also criticised an exemption which the Northern Territory granted for adults on cycle paths[19],[20], but their main effort to uphold compulsory wearing was directed to Western Australia.

Western Australia [162-63]

Opposition to compulsory wearing of helmets was strongest far from Canberra, Western Australia being the last state to legislate, in 1992. Its Parliament’s Select Committee on Road Safety reviewed the application of the helmets law to adults in 1994. As this threatened the integrity of the national policy, the Federal Office of Road Safety made a submission which argued for upholding the law  FORS’s argument on the effects of compulsory wearing on fatalities and injuries, and the fall in rates of usage of bicycles is examined here.

Fatalities

FORS presented two graphs which purport to show the effect of compulsory wearing on bicycle fatalities. The first, Figure 1 (with data for 1994 and pedestrians added here), is misleading in not taking any account of the effect of the fall in usage.

Figure 1.  Road user fatalities, Australia (indexed to 1986)

Separate listing of fatalities to children and adults, as in Table 1, together with data from surveys showing declines in cycling post-law [162], makes it possible to correct for both the effects of reduced usage and the general improvement in road safety.

Table 1. Fatalities to road users, Australia 1989 – 1993

YearTotal road usersAdult          ChildPedestriansAdult         ChildBicyclistsAdult          Child
19892505           296428             7354               44
19902093           238344             7647               33
19911915           198292             5135               23
19921783           191297             5324               17
19931775           178284             4730               15
Change, 1989-93-29%         -40%-34%         -36%-44%          -66%

Source of data: FORS, 1997. Road Fatalities Australia: 1996 statistical summary.

The fall in fatalities to all cyclists from 1989 to 1993 can be explained as being the product of improved road safety and declines in cycling of 40 per cent by children and perhaps 20 per cent by adults; it is not evidence that the helmet laws reduced the risk of death. FORS also claimed that the reductions in head injuries and fatalities are far greater than the decline in cycling, but this made no allowance for the general improvement in road safety; the claim is irrelevant.

Injuries

FORS stated that helmets have little or no effect on injuries other than to the head, but this discounted the possibility, well known at the time, that wearing one could change behaviour and the risk of accident. Decreases in head injury in some states were cited, but with no allowance for improved road safety or the declines in cycling. According to FORS, reduction in head injury is the best measure of compulsory wearing, but this highlighted its failure to understand the real problem, namely, how to protect from brain damage and consequent death or chronic disability, not from minor trauma.

For Victoria, FORS noted that in the first year after helmets became compulsory, cyclists’ claims on the Transport Accident Commission (TAC) for head injuries decreased by 51 per cent compared to a fall of 24 per cent in non-head injuries. In the second year, the respective decreases were 70 per cent and 28 per cent. FORS said that Lane and McDermott (1993) ascribed the difference to increased helmet wearing. As the difference would seem to be unaffected by the general improvement in road safety or declines in cycling, it might appear to be persuasive evidence of the efficacy of helmets – until inquiries to the TAC revealed a similar trend for pedestrians. This is shown in Figure 2, the vertical line showing the start of the helmets law. Again, it would appear that the cause of the decline in the risk of head injury was changes in other conditions, not helmets.

Figure 2.  Per cent head injury, of accepted TAC no-fault claims, Victoria

Source of data: Transport Accident Commission, pers. comm. 1.12.95.

 

Usage

FORS discussed the fall in bicycle usage as shown by survey data from Victoria, NSW and Western Australia. For all three states, the declines in cycling that followed the helmet laws were underestimated and similar declines pre-law to post-law which had been measured in Queensland, the ACT and the Northern Territory were disregarded. FORS argued that reductions shown in surveys are not a proven result of helmet laws, which could only be found from much bigger surveys or over a longer time. “Unfortunately, long term data is not available”, it said, but it is government, not fortune, that was to blame for that. It was known in 1985 that cycling had declined when private schools compelled students to wear helmets[21], but FORS’s advice to its Minister on the compulsory helmets proposal did not mention this or the need for monitoring.[22]

Monograph 19

FORS’s Monograph 19 (1997) makes three arguments. The first is that compulsory helmets resulted in serious casualties to cyclists declining by more (33 cent) than all road users (23 per cent), from the 4 years “prior to compulsory wearing” (1987-1990) to the 4 years after (1993-1996), but if 1989, the last year before any helmet laws, is compared with 1993, the first year when all were in force, the respective declines are 31 per cent and 25 per cent, much less different. FORS says use of a 4 year period allows evening out of random variations from year to year, but the argument is specious because the numbers in each year exceed 1000. (By contrast, FORS’s submission to the review of the law in Western Australia, discussed above, claimed a reduction in fatalities by using numbers of less than 200.) Also, it is wrong to include 1990 in the base period because the helmets law came into effect in Victoria mid-year. As casualties to all road users in 1990 were 13 per cent below 1989, those to cyclists being unchanged, this results in further over-statement of the difference in the declines in the two groups from pre- to post-law. Also, FORS disregards the decline in numbers of cyclists. Taking this into account, it is clear that cyclists became worse off compared to other road users [164].

Second, FORS states that helmet wearing rates, as measured from casualty crashes, are negatively correlated with deaths and casualties to cyclists, but it provides no details of statistics or sources. The meaning of the claim is not clear and it is at odds with data on wearing rates of casualties [166].

Third, FORS finds from pooled data for 1988, 1990, 1992 and 1994 from its Fatality File that known wearers of helmets suffered fewer severe head injuries on average than non-wearers. It concludes that the absence of a helmet significantly increased the number of severe injuries by up to 21 cent. It is not clear that the finding has any clinical importance, it not being shown that the number of head injuries was related to fatality, nor even stated that head injury was the cause of death, and the data are confused by a change in coding practice by which multiple injury to a single region of the body was coded as multiple in 1990 but under that region in 1992.[23]Also, the data span a great increase in the wearing of helmets after compulsion, and a change in the standard. In 1988, hard shells were required, but from 1990 cyclists were able to wear soft helmets. A more apt description of FORS’s pooling of data is jumbling together and obscuring the important trends that are shown in Table 3 [165].

The myth that cycling is dangerous

You’ve heard it again and again:

“Cycling is dangerous”

When we keep hearing the same statement again and again, we end up believing it. This is a well-known manipulation technique, mentioned by Daniel Kanheman in his acclaimed book “Thinking fast and slow“:

“A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact.”

How dangerous is cycling?

Not as dangerous as it has been portrayed. According to this assessment and this summary, cycling is less dangerous that walking for the same distance traveled.

In other words, cycling to the shops is less dangerous than walking to the shops.

Statistically, one can expect a severe head injury from cycling once every 8,000 years of average cycling.
Wardlaw M. British Medical Journal 2000;321(7276):1582 (23 December), doi:10.1136/bmj.321.7276.1582

What type of cycling might be dangerous?

Sweeping statements such as “cycling is dangerous fail to distinguish between very different types of cycling.

downhill-mountain-bike-small-3cycling downhilll

Sports cycling can be dangerous

Yet cycling as a mode of transport is safe.

lady cyclingThis is less dangerous than walking

bike_share_London This is even safer

With its low speed and upright position, bike share is safe. 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.

But they keep telling me that all cycling is dangerous!

The myth that all cycling is dangerous comes from years of helmet promotion campaigns. Scaremongering tactics manipulate our fears to push helmets.

How do you promote helmets for a safe activity? Make it look more dangerous than it really is.

This is eloquently illustrated in this report:

“our politicians and transport bureaucrats feel compelled to constantly remind us of how dangerous cycling is …

“Don’t think that little ride to the shops warrants wearing [a helmet]? Well I’ve got news for you. Even on a short ride you could have a big fall and you could suffer a major brain injury.”

Misconception 1: Cycling is dangerous. … Melbourne newspaper The Age quoted an emergency physician who opined that riding a bicycle on Melbourne’s roads was “verging on suicide” – an almost hysterical assessment of the risk. ….

The reality is that riding a bicycle is a safe activity. The following table shows Australian government data on the relative injury risk of a number of sporting and recreational activities.  …

Unfortunately, despite the evidence, governments continue to portray cycling as unusually dangerous”

The claim made in the fear mongering propaganda quoted above is particularly misleading, considering that cycling to the shops is safer than walking to the shops. Even though cycling is less dangerous than many comparable activities, it is portrayed as being particularly dangerous.

A funny parody of this ad highlights how cycling is misrepresented as being far more dangerous than it really is.

Not every country suffers from fear mongering tactics from their government. In the UK, the transport minister admits that:

(cycling is) a “safe activity” … safer than walking

In Canada, the hysteria about cycling being “dangerous” is being challenged in the media:

“bicycling had the lowest “burden” of deaths and head injuries of the three transportation modes …

There were 14 deaths per 100 million trips for bicycling, 15 for walking and 10 for driving – remarkably similar. …

Are these risks high? One way to think about this is the number of trips for one death to happen: one car occupant dies every 10 million trips and one pedestrian or cyclist dies every seven million trips. ….

Both walking and bicycling are active modes of travel. The physical activity they entail reduces the risk of developing many chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, and dementia. Many studies have compared these benefits to the injury risks. All have found that the benefits greatly outweigh the risks. The benefits of walking and cycling (lower risk of death from chronic diseases) are 10 to 100 times higher than the risk of death from injuries

US data reports:

“Research studies and data clearly show that, in the current environment, cycling benefits greatly outweigh its tiny risks. We know of no study that contradict this fact.

Contrary to common belief, cycling is safer than many other activities.

Cycling is over three times safer, per mile, than walking.

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