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.

Submission to senate inquiry on road safety in Australia

1 March 2015

In this inquiry, our concern is the safety of cyclists as road users, having regard to the costs of injury and death to them. We focus here on the design standard for bicycle helmets, made mandatory by federal trade practices legislation and administered by the ACCC, and its adequacy for supporting the nationwide regime of compulsion to wear a helmet. References to pages, tables and figures are to my chapter, “Bicycle helmets: a scientific evaluation”, which forms part of this submission.

Fear of fatal or chronically disabling head injury has led many cyclists in Australia to wear helmets, and to compulsion of it for the purpose of reducing hospital and other public costs of accidents. Such injury mainly occurs to the brain, especially diffuse axonal injury (DAI).

1. Adoption of compulsion to wear a helmet
Protection of one’s own person without harming others is by long tradition an individual choice. Law to compel it for the purpose of reducing fatal or disabling head injury therefore needs, first, evidence of increasing risk of serious casualty to cyclists, but from 1986 to 1989 it fell (see Figure 1). The second need is evidence that helmets protect the brain. Such evidence was not provided before adoption of compulsion, but was and is needed to underpin the mandatory standard that defines the helmets to be worn.

With emphasis on death and permanent intellectual incapacity from head injury, the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) urged compulsion to wear a bicycle helmet upon a federal parliamentary inquiry in 1977. The inquiry recommended that the possibility of compulsion should be kept under review, precedents being motorcycle helmets and seat belts.

By 1984 and resumption of the federal inquiry, belief in the efficacy of helmets against brain injury was widespread and other medical bodies and some cyclists’ groups had added their support for compulsion. The inquiry’s final report in 1985 recommended it, but recognised that, to support it, a mandatory standard was needed to assure the public of the efficacy of helmets. The report also recommended research on whether helmets could be better ventilated and lighter, such as by dispensing with their hard shells.

But the research, by Corner et al (1987) did not simply endorse such revisions. It drew upon research findings that the main cause of brain injury is not a direct hit to the head, such as by a bullet or a falling stone, but rotation from an oblique impact. Corner reported that the standard tests were deficient in not testing for reducing rotation; worse, it found in experiments that adding a helmet to a dummy head can increase it  –  a  finding corroborated  in the USA in 2003 and in the UK in 2007. Corner suggested that helmets should have very stiff shells with a low impact sliding reaction, yet the standard was amended to allow soft shells. These are more acceptable to the public, making it easier to compel their use, but they tend to disintegrate on impact. And in Australia, the risk of fatal head injury to cyclists increased after the helmet laws, compared to other road users. But successive mandatory standards since 1990 take no account of these facts.  

An influential factor in adoption of compulsion as federal policy in 1989 was a prominent surgeon’s advice direct to Prime Minister Hawke of savings in hospital and other costs if brain injury and permanent disability to young adults and children were prevented. The final factor was a national survey that found 84 per cent support for compulsion of all cyclists, rising to 93 per cent for children. By offering additional funds for roads tied to its  “black spots” program, the Federal Government secured the agreement of the states and territories to pass legislation for compulsion.

2. Reviews of the mandatory standard
Official reviews were made in 1999 and 2009. In submissions to them, we argued that “the standard neglects the major cause of brain injury, rotation of the head following indirect impact … driven more by helmet suppliers’ technology than scientific knowledge”.

Indeed, the Treasury’s Regulation Impact Statement upon the 1999 review says that “bicycle helmets are designed to protect against impact injuries to the head and brain, and would appear to provide little if any protection against certain other types of brain injury… issues relating to helmets in head protection range to exacerbating the extent of rotational brain injury.” Then that critical issue is left up in the air; yet the official media release claims that helmets provide the necessary head protection.

3. Efficacy of present helmets and the mandatory standard
For evidence of the efficacy of bicycle helmets to underpin the mandatory standard, Australian authorities rely upon a ‘meta-analysis’ of 16 studies to the head, face or neck which the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) published as Road Safety Report CR 195 in 2000, and in Accident Analysis and Prevention in 2001.. Of the four studies done in Australia, three were of data before compulsion and one after it. Eight of the studies were USA-based.

In articles published in AA&P in 2003 and 2005, I argued that the meta-analysis and a similar review by Thompson, Rivara and Thompson (TR&T) of the USA do not provide scientific evidence that bicycle helmets reduce brain injury and, indeed, have potential to aggravate it. In a response in 2006, Hagel and Pless from Canada criticised my 2005 article. I rebutted the criticism, and in a subsequent debate in AA&P, which  included TR&T, I had the last word – see references 57 and 78-86 in my book chapter “Bicycle helmets: a scientific evaluation” (submitted in hard copy and available online).

ATSB explicitly declined to take part in the debate. Its letter of 5 April 2007, scanned copy subjoined, stated that “most of our research projects are carried out by external research professionals. We consider that prime responsibility for each project rests with the authors of the work … and we do not, as a rule, enter into public debate about the merit of individual studies”. This, despite one of the three authors of CR 95 being an officer of ATSB and it being published under the banner of the transport portfolio.

The present state of evidence on the efficacy of helmets against brain injury is therefore marked by uncertainty. Laboratory experiments indicate little efficacy and so do national data for deaths by head injury before and after the helmet laws. But the important resources of diagnoses of DAI in state and territory coroners’ reports and of persons treated in hospitals have not been tapped for the statistical analysis that might well provide the robust evidence needed to support compulsion.

4. Conclusion
Fear of fatal or chronically disabling head injury has led to many cyclists in Australia wearing helmets, and to compulsion of it for the purpose of reducing hospital and other public costs of accidents. As such injury occurs to the brain, especially DAI, the helmet laws need the support of sound knowledge that helmets reduce it.

The cause of DAI is rapid rotation of the head from oblique impact, but the mandatory standard does not test for it. Worse, experiments with dummy heads indicate that a helmet is likely to aggravate it and statistics suggest an increase in the risk of death by head injury after the helmet laws. Therefore, the mandatory standard is inadequate to support the helmet laws.

It is suggested that the inquiry should recommend to the Federal Government that it initiate an independent and open review of the adequacy of the mandatory standard. Such a review should be undertaken promptly and carried out in an open way to ensure full public scrutiny.


Australian Transport Safety Bureau
Our Reference: B1999/0163 Contact: John Goldsworthy

Mr Bill Curnow
President Cyclists’ Rights Action Group 27 Araba Street

Subject: Bicycle helmet research

Dear Mr Curnow

Thank you for your letter of 14 February 2007, to the Executive Director of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), concerning research on the efficacy of bicycle helmets.

Before addressing the specific matters raised in your letter, I would like to make some general comments about the ATSB’s role in Australian road safety. The ATSB endeavours to support the development of road safety policy by: facilitating national agreement on strategic road safety priorities; collecting, analysing and disseminating national road crash data; and undertaking or funding road safety research projects.

While the ATSB places a high value on good road safety research, our capacity to contribute directly to the research pool is limited by a modest annual budget and a small staff base. There are many competing demands on our resources and we are necessarily very selective about the work we undertake. Most of our research projects are carried out by external research professionals. The ATSB provides oversight and direction, and exercises a degree of quality assurance over the conduct of the research. However, we consider that prime responsibility for each project rests with the author(s) of the work.

As a matter of standard practice, the ATSB publishes and disseminates all its commissioned research reports. In doing so, we recognise that these reports will be exposed to professional scrutiny and, potentially, to public criticism. However, we regard this is as a healthy process and we do not, as a rule, enter into public debate about the merit of individual studies or the conclusions drawn by their authors.

You have raised some questions about the ATSB report, Bicycle helmets and injury prevention: A formal review (CR 195), published in 2000, and the ATSB’s subsequent advice to the Australian Transport Council on the efficacy of bicycle helmets. My response is as follows:

  • The officers involved in the 2000 study no longer work for the ATSB, however I am advised that the review was undertaken by well-qualified analysts and that the report was widely received as a positive contribution to the research on bicycle helmet efficacy.
  • The ATSB has not undertaken a systematic review of the literature since the completion of CR 195. We may do so in the future if circumstances permit, and I thank you for drawing attention to your own articles on the subject.
  • The National Road Safety Action Plan 2007 and 2008 was developed jointly by federal, state and territory transport agencies, with input from the police and a number of international road safety experts. The ATSB coordinated this process, but the actual content of the Action Plan reflected the consensus views of all contributing parties. To my knowledge, the text highlighted in your letter was not based on any specific advice provided by the ATSB.

I trust this information is of assistance.

Yours sincerely

Joe Motha General Manager Road Safety

5 April 2007



  1. A nation wide regime of compulsion for cyclists to wear helmets in all public places has been in force since 1992, as a result of the Hawke government offering to the states and territories additional funds for roads: the so-called black spots program.
  2. Because the helmet laws take away the long standing civil liberty of cyclists or their parents to decide how to protect their own persons and place that responsibility upon governments, it is up to governments to have very strong evidence that wearing a helmet will be beneficial in terms of reducing the risk of fatal or disabling head injury. Such injury occurs to the brain.
  3. The stated purpose of the Federal policy of compulsion is to minimise deaths and costs of hospitalisation resulting from cycling accidents.
  4. Government’s often say that helmets protect and that they save lives and to support this they cite statistical evidence from case controlled studies and statistics before and after compulsion, but the statistics relate to head injuries in general most of which are of low severity and not intellectually disabling.
  5. Focus of attention on severe brain injury shows a different story. There is good reason to expect that wearing a helmet is likely to increase the risk of it.



Another attempt to introduce a helmet law defeated

A proposal to introduce a helmet law is California was withdrawn following opposition from cycling groups. A petition from the California Bicycle Coalition mentioned:

“there are proven ways to make our streets safer while encouraging bicycling — reducing speed limits on key streets, building protected bike lanes and bike paths, and educating motorists and bicyclists on how to drive or ride safely, to name a few. A mandatory helmet law is not one of them.”

This is not the first attempt to introduce a helmet law. They usually fizzle out once people mention the likely consequences:

“Countries that have penalised people for normal cycling (without helmets), have failed to reduce head injury rates despite increased helmet wearing rates. See an E​CF factsheet on the case of Australia​ and its helmet laws”

A politician in Northern Ireland attempted to introduce a helmet law. He had been lobbied by Headway. He claimed in parliament that helmet laws introduced in other countries have been a success. The debate was fierce. Helmet fanatics used emotive arguments. Rationalists focused on the consequences of imposing a helmet law:

“The one thing proponents of helmet legislation seem to ignore is that the fact that helmets do nothing to improve road safety, say the CTC.
What Helmets have done for cycling’s image, however, is to create the perception that cycling is inherently dangerous, which it was never considered to be before the arrival of the ubiquitous shiny hard hat.”

Helmet fanatics assume a helmet law can only improve safety. They ignore the likely consequences: a decrease in cycling and an increased risk of accident. They seem unaware that helmets are useless in major accidents.

The Cyclists Touring Club launched  a petition against the proposed law:

“This bill may be well-intentioned, but it will deter vast numbers of people from cycling, while increasing the risk for those who remain.”

The main political parties woke up to the negative consequences of the proposal. The law was not enacted:

“this would be legislation intruding into areas of life where it doesn’t need to go especially as they accepted that cycling is not a particularly dangerous activity.”

Never underestimate the tactics used by helmet fanatics. They appear sincere and well-meaning. Their emotive arguments appeal to the uninformed, particularly non-cyclists. Their smokescreen fizzle out once more informed opinions are brought to the limelight. People realise that the negative consequences outweigh the potential benefits.

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.


Why call for more of the same failed policy?

Mandatory helmets have become the standard solution for cycling safety in Australia. 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?


Why have cycling accidents increased since the helmet law?

The paradox of bicycle helmets

When wearing “protection” results in more injuries,
perhaps we need to look deeper about what is really going on.


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.


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 seems obvious.

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:


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.