Category Archives: Helmet Law

Fighting a helmet fine in the Victorian courts

Abstract

In March 2013, Alan Todd, from Freestyle Cyclists, challenged a helmet fine in Victoria, Australia.
He was let of on a good behavior bond.
Here is his description of the events.

 

On the 7th of June last year I was stopped by the police in my home town of Kyneton (population 5000), and asked why I wasn’t wearing a bicycle helmet. I had been expecting this for some time, as I never wear a helmet while cycling, so I was quite well prepared. We had a polite conversation, lasting twenty minutes. I explained why I believed wearing a helmet put me at more risk of accident, injury or even death, than not wearing a helmet, and pointed out that only two other countries in the world would consider it wrong of me to make this choice. I think the sergeant had some understanding of where I was coming from, but, like most Australians, is emotionally attached to the paradigm of cycling as a dangerous activity, with helmets offering an effective protection from a clear and present danger. He indicated that if I had a medical condition, or a letter from my doctor, that would be ok, but felt unable to issue me with a warning, as I clearly had intended to break the law.

About six weeks later I got an infringement notice in the post. My choices with this were to ignore it (unwise), to pay the fine of $176, or to ask to have the matter heard at the Magistrate’s Court. I chose the last option, and on the form indicated that I intended to plead not guilty. In due course I received a summons in the mail, to appear at the Kyneton Magistrate’s Court for a mention on the 3rd of December.

Court was due to start at 9.30, so I began at 9.00 by reporting to the registrar, and indicating a plea of not guilty. I was instructed to enter the court and talk to the police prosecutor. He was somewhat surprised that I intended to plead not guilty, as I agreed that I had not been wearing a helmet. I think he would have liked to talk me into changing my plea, but I was firm in saying no. Once I explained how I intended the defence to go, he said that there didn’t seem any point of likely agreement with the prosecution, so we would proceed to a contested hearing without a conference.

I was then sent back to the registrar to arrange a date, which involved an hour’s wait including some interesting free advice from a lawyer who was around for other business, but seemed to spot me as an “interesting case”. After reading through my notes on the Victorian Charter of Rights and Responsibilities he said “just give it a go. You won’t win, but why not have a crack”.

Once the date was made, I was instructed to go back to the court, and wait to be called up by the magistrate. I spent the rest of the morning witnessing the sorry procession before the magistrate of excessive speeding, breached intervention orders and use and supply of cannabis and ice. Called up just before lunch, the magistrate stated the charge, and indicated that we had agreed to a contested hearing. The police prosecutor said that I didn’t dispute the facts, but was to depend on a legal argument involving what he called the Human Rights Charter. I think the magistrate was a bit put out by this (perhaps expecting the sort of vague “its against my human rights” claim), so she asked how I intended to do this. I clarified that it was the Victorian Charter I intended to use, and quoted the specific sections and subsections of the Charter I intended to rely on. This seemed to go down well.

There were two police witnesses to the original infringement, and I was asked if I would require both to attend. I said no, that one would be fine, but requested that I be given a copy of their witness statement, which was agreed. A date was set – 8/3/2013 – with a contested hearing set down for two hours.

Before I left, the prosecutor gave me a card with email for the Central Victoria Prosecutions Case Conference Manager, requesting that I contact them and ask to have the charge withdrawn, having regard to my defence. I asked if it was likely to be dropped, and he said no, but that it couldn’t be dropped if I didn’t make a formal request. (I did subsequently contact them with the request as instructed. The reply came back that they would not be dropping the charge, but would proceed to prosecution on the 8th of March)

I had plenty of time to prepare my case. I had always meant to try and base a defence on the Victorian Charter of Rights and Responsibilities, with a view to securing a finding of not guilty. This seemed to me more worthwhile than pleading guilty, and then entering a plea in mitigation, with a request that no conviction be recorded or penalty imposed. As I did my homework however it became increasingly clear to me that my legal argument most likely couldn’t carry the day. However, in the spirit of “nothing ventured, nothing gained”, I prepared a fairly detailed written submission, with accompanying published evidence on the (lack of) efficacy of helmets. The court was never going to enter into discussion of whether I was right in my beliefs or not (that is not their role), however it seemed important to my case to present evidence to demonstrate that my beliefs were based on sound research, and not just “made up after the event” to avoid paying a fine.

On the morning of my hearing, I presented myself to the clerk of courts as required. He indicated that I would probably be heard in about fifteen minutes, as there was only one procedural matter to be heard before my case. I had informal conversation with both the police prosecutor and the police informant (the sergeant who issued the original penalty notice) as to how the case would be run. There was no sense of hostility from any of us,which was good.

Once we were called to the front to conduct the hearing, the magistrate started by seeking a bit of an outline from both parties on what the matters for contention might be. This was relatively informal, though still quite serious.

I explained my case, which was basically that I held a reasonable belief that riding with a helmet on put me at greater risk of injury and death than riding without a helmet (published material supporting this was documented and made available), that I held this belief at the time of the offence, and that I would be derelict in my duty of care to myself if, armed with this knowledge, I had ridden a bicycle while wearing a helmet.

I explained to the magistrate that, even though I acknowledged that the offence was a strict liability offence and there was no onus of proof on the prosecution to demonstrate “a guilty mind”, I still found myself unable to plead guilty as I could not honestly feel that I had done wrong. I also reaffirmed my intention (previously made clear to the prosecution before the hearing) to rely on the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities. The argument was that it was open to the court to interpret or “read up” road rule rule 256 which allowed it to be read in a way consistent with my right to hold and demonstrate in public practice a belief (that wearing a helmet puts me at greater risk of accident, injury and death than not wearing a helmet.). I presented the magistrate and the prosecution with my written submission.

Even before getting to court, I was pretty well aware that this was a very thin argument, and likely couldn’t be upheld by a court. Despite its grand title, the Charter doesn’t offer much in the way of protections that don’t exist through other legal avenues, and it certainly was not designed to in any way invalidate existing legislation. Basically, if the State wanted to enact legislation requiring anyone pushing a pram in a public place to wear a pink tee shirt, they could, and the Charter would offer no protection to someone hauled before the courts charged with pushing a pram in a public place while not wearing a pink tee shirt. Both the police prosecutor (privately after the hearing) and a barrister I spoke with informally before the hearing said much the same thing, that the Charter was little more than a political stunt.

The prosecution had done their homework, and were onto this from the start. The magistrate asked me how I proposed to deal with this obstacle, (his words to me were “you’ve got a bit of an uphill push with your barrow”). I drew his attention to my written submission, where I had acknowledge potential problems with section 32 of the Charter, and had attempted to fudge my way around this. He did take the time to read my submission – throughout he was courteous and considerate. He then told me that there was no prospect of his being able to return a verdict of “not guilty” based on my legal argument. He suggested that I could proceed with my case and plea, and if unhappy with the inevitable outcome, I would have the option of appealing the legal matters to the Supreme Court.

At this stage we more or less had a conversation (not too much “your honour” and standing up and sitting down). I knew that even if I did successfully appeal a guilty verdict to the Supreme Court, the best that I could get there would be to obtain a judgement that regulation 256 was incompatible with specific human rights. This finding would then have to be presented to the Victorian parliament, with a requirement that the appropriate minister respond within a given time. There would be no requirement that the minister review the regulation, only that they respond. Knowing their form on this issue, I would guarantee that the response would be “justifiable limit to human rights given the evidence of safety benefits etc. etc. etc.”

Consequently, I suggested changing my plea to “guilty”, to which the magistrate said he could offer me a good behaviour bond. And that is how it was settled. I have signed an undertaking to be “of good behaviour” for three months. After that time, assuming I honour the undertaking, the proceeding will be closed, with no conviction recorded and no penalty imposed. The only better result, with a plea or finding of guilty, would have been an unconditional discharge.

I have to acknowledge that the police prosecutor behaved in a constructive manner – he volunteered the information that I had, at the time of the offence, presented the police informant with documentation and arguments in support of my beliefs about helmets. This meant that there was no doubt in the magistrate’s mind that I had acted in good faith.

The magistrate himself turned out to be a bit of a weekend road warrior, and told me (why does this always come up with Australian recreational cyclists?) that he had broken or damaged at least three helmets in spills on his bike. I replied that that was interesting, as I had, myself, never come off my bike as an adult, which I think surprised him. No formal discussion of helmets or their effectiveness was entered into throughout the brief hearing.

I’m not quite sure what constitutes a breach of good behaviour, but to be on the safe side I’d better not speed, slip through stop signs, drink and drive or ride my bike without a helmet at least until the 10th of June. After that, the next time I am in court for failing to wear a helmet, there will be no consideration of “prior” offences, as there will be no record of conviction.

And that is how I deal with the overwhelming stupidity of being told what I can and cannot wear whilst going to the shops on my bicycle.

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Study reveals increased accidents and injuries after helmet law

Abstract

The injury rate has tripled since the helmet law.
By increasing the risk of accidents, helmets have made cycling more dangerous. 

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A recent study reveals a steady increase in cycling injuries after the helmet law. Between 1991 and 2000, arm injuries doubled (indicating a doubling in accidents), while head injuries increased by 40%.

cycling_injuries

A 1996 cycling survey in Sydney revealed that cycling counts were 48% below 1991. According to the census, cycling in Sydney slightly decreased between 1996 and 2001.

sydney_cycling_counts

This indicates that the risk of accidents more than tripled, consistent with other studies.

The study reports a reduction in head injuries since 2006. This coincides to a resurgence in cycling, with many of the new cyclists not wearing helmets. Head injury rates decreased while fewer cyclists wore helmets. Oblivious to this, the study attributes the reduction in injuries to spending on cycling infrastructure that occurred mostly in Sydney after 2009.

Oddly, this study was used as the basis of a newspaper article defending the helmet law. The usual scaremongering tactics are there, suggesting that helmets protect against serious brain injuries, even though they are not designed to do so. The propaganda did not fool many people though, as the comments below the article highlight.

Despite the large increase in head injuries while cycling almost halved, the study claims:

the benefit of MHL to lowering head injuries

Oddly, the study fails to mention the reduction in cycling.

What’s going on?

It is odd for a study to ignore the increase in accidents and injuries, and the decrease in cycling after the helmet law. The rise in injuries is obvious from the main graph in the study. This blindness to negative side-effects of the helmet law is similar to another study affected by confirmation bias.

This study was funded by a government who, struggling to justify its counterproductive policy, is funding more “studies” to defend it. This trend was reported here.

This did not fool a UK reporter:

As the fallout from Australia’s failed bike sharing schemes continues, it seems we haven’t seen the last of government-funded research showing that helmet laws are great actually, thanks very much.

The authors, Olivier, Walter and Grzebieta, previously published a paper in 2011 claiming to “end the debate about the effectiveness of cycle helmet legislation”, but which was severely criticised by fellow boffins

the government of NSW has commissioned research which (surprise!) finds the effect of their helmet law is massive and sustained, ignoring the uncomfortable fact that helmet wearing rates have actually fallen back significantly without any accompanying jump in head injuries.
The authors fail to consider long-term trends in admission protocol when comparing arm:head injury admissions over two decades. They also include all types of minor flesh wounds, bruising etc. which you would certainly hope would be prevented by helmet use, rather than looking at a reduction of critical injury / death which is what public health policy should be worrying about, when the alternative is serious sedentary disease.
It’s generated some nice headlines and superficial reinforcement for the helmet law (which is probably what the government were really trying to commission), but this is far from the conclusive study that is being spun in the media.
Opposition to helmet legislation in Australia continues to grow and academics on the other side of the fence are unlikely to struggle to dismiss the conclusions of this paper.

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Calls to repeal the helmet law in New Zealand

Cycling Health New Zealand

This site is interesting as it presents a broad range of common-sense arguments, taking the perspective of public health. This is broader than the narrow perspective that helmet zealots insists on, claiming that their exaggerated estimates of helmets effectiveness is all that matters, while ignoring the increase in accidents and injuries, and the decrease in public health from discouraging cycling.

Some New Zealand politicians have privately admitted that the helmet law is a failure, and that they wouldn’t mind if it fell quietly into oblivion.

This article highlights how the debate has reached the mainstream media in New Zealand, following research  published by Colin Clarke in the New Zealand Medical Journal in 2012.

It is an interesting approach to increase awareness of the harm done by the helmet law. The loss of health benefits from the reduction in cycling contributed to 53 premature deaths per year. This undermines the helmet believers classical emotional argument: “if it only saves one life”. Despite being unproven, it still fools people.

One cyclist association, the Cycling Advocates’ Network has denounced the helmet law as a failed experiment doing more harm than good, calling for an independent review.

The New Zealand government seems a little bit open minded. They are honest about the limited capabilities of “helmets”, but still don’t acknowledge the harm that the helmet law has done to cycling levels and cycling injuries.

Many comments below the article highlights that many people are aware of that the law has been counterproductive. Some comments suggest that the helmet law is not strictly enforced.

This research is also reported in this article, that mentions an earlier research done last year by the Transport and Health Study group, an independent British society of public health and transport practitioners and researchers.  It is called Health on the Move 2, a book aimed to be “a clear and comprehensive account of what would constitute a healthy transport system.

This is not primarily about cycling. This group of researchers cannot be labeled “anti-helmet”, as some people like to denigrate those who dare to question their beliefs.

The section on cycling can be found here. It is a summary of the recent research on helmets and the helmet law. The report is written in a neutral tone, yet you can sense the frustration of the researchers here:

The failure of mass helmet use to affect serious head injuries, be it in falls or collisions, has been ignored by the medical world, by civil servants, by the media, and by cyclists themselves. A collective willingness to believe appears to explain why the population-level studies are so little appreciated. …. 

The disconnect between received wisdom and the facts is stark.

These are strong words for a group of researchers for whom cycling is not the core focus. It is no surprise to those who have been trying to get helmet zealots to pull their heads out of the sand. It can be frustrating to get people to admit that their cherished beliefs could be wrong, and that they made a mistake, especially when they have no incentive to do so.

It is positive to see such articles in the mainstream media. It shows that the media is starting to pay attention to what is really going on, rather than to pander to common prejudices. New Zealand may not be far from repealing this counterproductive law.

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The cobra effect

The cobra effect is where an attempted solution to a problem actually makes it worse.

Its origins are briefly described here.  In India, the government was concerned about the large number of venomous cobra snakes in the city.  It set a bounty for dead cobra snakes.  Some people responded by breeding cobra snakes as a way to earn income.  Once the government realised that, it cancelled the program.  Cobra breeders then set the worthless cobra free.  The wild cobras multiplied, making the problem worse than before.  The apparent “solution” had made the problem worse.

This effect has also been labelled the law of unintended consequences, described here.  One of its most common causes is the failure to take into account people’s reactions.  Some bureaucrats assume that people are like passive pieces on a chess board, that they can manipulate through legislation.  This ignores that people react to policies.  Many government policies are well meaning, but the way they are implemented lacks imagination and foresight.  People react in unanticipated ways that can make the policy perverse.

History is full of perverse government intervention.  The alcohol prohibition in the 1920’s in the US is one.  In the US, the “war on drugs” has the perverse result of having a record number of people in jail, yet drug use increased.  Perverse policies can go on for years before they are reversed.

In the case of the bicycle helmet law, the main reaction to the legislation has been to give up cycling.  An independent assessment estimates that cycling levels were 50% below previous trend by 1996.  This has the unintended consequence of loss of health benefits from regular exercise.  It also has another unintended consequences: according to the well understood “safety in numbers” phenomenon, a 50% decrease in cycling results in a 51% increase in the risk of accidents.  This corresponds to the 50% increase in the risk of death & serious injury observed after the helmet law.

This reaction seems to have taken the bureaucrats by surprise.  That is odd, as there were warnings this would be the case.  In 1985, cycling declined sharply in schools that mandated bicycle helmets.  It seems that the core issue is not an inability to foresee the negative side-effects of a legislation.  It is more likely a dogmatic approach.  This is confirmed by the attitude of many bureaucrats who exaggerate the benefits of polystyrene-based helmets, while ignoring the decline in cycling and the increase in the risk of accidents.

Why the emergence of such a dogmatic approach?  It was the result of the way the law was introduced.  The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons lobbied for more than 10 years for a helmet law.  By then, they and the bureaucrats & academics they had influenced had built up a huge emotional stake in this policy.  Part of the lobbying involved sponsoring “studies” exaggerating the effectiveness of helmets while ignoring the increase in accidents.  This reinforced the belief that helmets can only improve safety, and were seen as the magic solution to cycling safety. The resulting group-think meant that the belief in helmets remained unchallenged, despite being groundless.  This obviously seemed a “good” policy, that did not require much due diligence.

By the time and evidence emerged that the helmet law had failed to reduce injuries, this emotionally committed group did what most people would have done in such circumstances: try to justify themselves.  If it meant commissioning “research” obfuscating the failure of the helmet law, so be it.

The damaging unintended consequences should have been enough to end this disastrous experiment.  However, bureaucrats and politicians who have managed to convinced most people that “helmet save lives” through misleading advertising have no incentive to admit they made a mistake.

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Trying to deny that the helmet law reduces cycling

Abstract

Cycling was rising in Australia by 10% per year until the helmet law. Afterwards, it dropped by 30%.
A government commissioned “study” has misrepresented a bicycle rally as a revival in cycling.

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Bicycle travel in Australia was increasing by 10% a year from 1986 to 1989, before the helmet law. After the helmet law, surveys showed cycling declined by 30 to 40%. An independent assessment estimates that cycling was 50% below previous trend by 1996.

The Victorian government commissions studies defending its policies through organisations like the Monash University Accident Research Centre (MUARC). MUARC has published studies claiming the helmet law had reduced head injuries. Such “studies” use biased statistics, resulting in misleading claims defending the legislation.

MUARC conducted this study, claiming that adult cycling recovered two years after the helmet law.

According to the study, child cycling dropped 30% but did not recover.

MUARC_count_child_cyclists

Yet adult cycling appeared to recover.

MUARC_count_adult_cyclists

Why would adult cycling recover but not child cycling?

A bicycle rally passed through one of the counting site in 1992. At that site, there were 451 cyclists in 1992, versus 72 in 1991.

The study authors knew about the bicycle rally. Yet they included it in the study, claiming:

“Another explanation for some of the increase in bicyclist numbers in 1992 is related to the fact that there appears to have been a bicycle rally passing through one of the sites …

From a statistical point of view, however, an occurrence such as this is a true observation, well within the bounds of “normal” behaviour for that time period, and cannot be excluded from the analysis”

The whole point about those comparisons is to keep everything else the same. Same sites, same observation periods, same time of year, so that noise does not distort observations.

The site with the bicycle rally showed a 6 TIMES increase. This is not “normal behavior”. It distorts the results. Yet the study authors chose to include it. This misrepresents a bicycle rally as a revival in cycling.

 

A recent “study” commissioned by the Queensland government claims:

 “In Melbourne adult cyclist numbers doubled after the helmet legislation”.

, quoting the study mentioned above. How they arrived at this conclusion is a mystery. This “study” was edited several times by the Queensland department of transport.

The fundamental role of science is to serve the truth.
It is NOT to serve the interests of the state.

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History of helmet law in Australia

Abstract

Doctors developed a belief that helmets would be essential to reduce cycling injuries. They lobbied for compulsory helmets, without plans to assess their effectiveness.

Pressured by doctors, politicians set up a committee to introduce compulsory helmets. The committee prepared for compulsory legislation without assessing side-effects.

Government research warned that soft-shell helmets can cause brain injury. It recommended strengthening the helmet standard. Instead, the standard was weakened to accommodate soft-shell helmets. Soft-shell helmets facilitate compulsory legislation.

In 1988, the largest ever cycling casualty study concluded:

“the bicycle-related fatality rate is positively and significantly correlated with increased helmet use.”

In 1989, Australia was the first country to introduce compulsory helmets. There were no plans to assess its effectiveness. 

Australians suffer the consequences of this negligence. The risk of accident and injury has increased. Australia’s cycling serious injury rate is now 22 times higher than in the Netherlands. Many Australians have become scared of cycling. 

Cycling has declined, resulting in a loss of health benefits and public health costs. The hidden costs of this policy are significant.

The introduction of the helmet law was emotionally compelling but highly misleading given the rarity of severe head injuries. It ended up inflating a tiny risk in a way that fostered unjustified anxiety. This resulted in misguided policies and wasted resources.

Following CRAG’s submission in 2009, Australia’s federal government has abandoned its compulsory helmets policy.

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Table of contents

Forming the belief

Promoting the belief

Preparing for legislation

Setting the law

The illusion of safety

The consequences of negligence

Denying the failure

Making it worse

A surprising increase in accidents and injuries

The neglected human factor

Start of renewal

Summary

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Forming the belief

Following the precedent of helmets for motorcyclists, a belief developed that cyclists needed helmets. The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) had lobbied for compulsory seat belts and motorcycle helmets. It was urging for a bicycle helmet law as the “third major step“.


A leap of faith arose that a bicycle helmet law would be like the motorcycle helmet law

A leap of faith arose that this would be the solution to cycling safety. Without scientific evidence, doctors lobbied for a helmet law. The RACS claimed in 1978 that cyclists should wear helmets, but provided no evidence of efficacy. Dr Trinca said:

“We could perhaps worry a little less about and take a little less time in proving what is precisely right according to all standards … As doctors we are impatient. We cannot wait for 2 or 3 years evaluation.”

“Remedies” can sometimes be do more harm than good. The medical discipline requires careful trials of new drugs to check for negative side-effects. Yet the RACS felt urged to “do something” based on a belief, without checking for side-effects.

Countries with the lowest rate of cycling injuries have focused on reducing the risk of accidents. Doctors pushed for compulsory helmets with the best of intentions. But they had jumped at conclusions. The RACS had pushed for an unproven theory.

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Promoting the belief

Pushed by the RACS, politicians were under pressure to “do something”. In 1978, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Road Safety recommended that:

“cyclists be advised of the safety benefits of protective helmets and the possibility of requiring cyclists to wear helmets be kept under review”.

But the evidence submitted to the committee as published in Hansard includes nothing on the efficacy of helmets as protection. Indeed, in the reports of later parliamentary committees that led to the present policy, the earliest study cited (by McDermott and Klug) is dated 1982.

They took efficacy for granted. They assumed helmets “protected”, without a proper evaluation of their effectiveness and disadvantages.

Helmets were promoted by people with good intentions,
but limited understanding of cycling safety.

The government responded with a campaign to promote helmet wearing. In Victoria, the RACS did likewise, even putting a case for compulsory wearing to the Premier in 1982. Helmet manufacturers started advertising bicycle helmets that became their most profitable product. By the end of the 1980s about 30% of cyclists wore helmets.

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Preparing for legislation

The 1978 inquiry issued a final report in 1985. It recommended that cooperation of states and territories should be sought to

“review the benefits of bicycle helmet wearing … and unless there are persuasive arguments to the contrary introduce compulsory wearing of helmets by cyclists on roads and other public places”.

A federal parliament committee was set up in 1985. Early in the course of its inquiry (before it had reviewed all the evidence), it said:

“It is, of course, this Committee’s belief that all cyclists should wear a helmet to increase cycling safety.”

The committee had made its decision prematurely. Like the 1978 committee, it took efficacy for granted. Its biased mandate included a pre-determined objective to introduce a helmet law. The committee did not conduct a cost/benefit analysis. It also failed to consider potential side-effects of a helmet law.

Legislation is sometimes pushed through, not because it provides compelling benefits,
but because those pushing for it cannot see compelling evidence NOT not to introduce it.

Legislation was pushed through as a biased committee could not see compelling evidence NOT to introduce it. This reverses the onus of proof. Proponents of a law are not required to demonstrate it provides a net benefit. They simply assert that they cannot see compelling evidence against it. This lacks important sanity checks.

In 1987, the Federal Office of Road Safety (FORS), a government agency, published research on helmets. This research highlighted serious deficiencies with bicycle helmets:

“The substantial elastic deformation of the child head that can occur during impact can result in quite extensive diffuse brain damage. It is quite apparent that the liner material in children’s bicycle helmets is far too stiff …

rotational accelerations were found to be 30% higher than those found in similar tests using a full face polymer motorcycle helmet. More work needs to be done in this area as there would seem to be a deficiency in rotational acceleration attenuation that may be the result of insufficient shell stiffness ….

a high proportion of impacts were to the lover facial and side of face areas and it is imperative that the temporal area be more fully protected than it is by current bicycle helmet designs. “

Bicycle helmets are designed for adult heads.  They are too stiff for children deformable heads.
Despite warnings they can cause brain damage, helmets are promoted as “protecting” children.

The research recommended changes in the Australian helmet standard to rectify these deficiencies. 25 years later, none of these deficiencies have been rectified. Australia still does not have a separate standard for child helmets. Helmets are still not tested for rotational acceleration, the main cause of brain injury.

There are two types of brain injury: focal and diffuse. Focal injury occur when the skull hits a surface. Diffuse injury occurs when the head rotates quickly. Although the skull is intact, there can severe internal brain injury. This article reports from a surgeon who operates on cyclists:

” “The ones with brain swelling, that’s diffuse axonal injury, and that’s bad news” …
the whole brain is shaken up, creating many little tears in its inner structure …
Such patients undergo personality change, can contract epilepsy and have difficulty controlling their anger. They might become unemployable. Depression is a common accompaniment to brain injury. Rosenfeld sees patients’ families shattered, too. “They’re never the same. It often leads to marriage disharmony and family breakdown.” …

Rosenfeld’s opinion is candid. “I don’t know if [helmets] do much to protect the inner part of the brain,” “

New Zealand doctor reports:

“cycle helmets were turning what would have been focal head injuries, perhaps with an associated skull fracture, into much more debilitating global head injuries”

A soft-shell helmet is a piece of polystyrene covered by a layer of plastic less than 1mm thick.
It can protect in a minor accident.  However, it is not designed to protect in a serious accident.
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A soft-shell helmet tends to disintegrate on impact, absorbing little energy. This crumbling is what many people mistake the helmet for as having saved their life:

“The next time you see a broken helmet, suspend belief and do the most basic check – disregard the breakages and look to see if what’s left of the styrofoam has compressed. If it hasn’t, you can be reasonably sure that it hasn’t saved anyone’s life.“

It is doubtful whether soft-shell helmets provide a net safety benefit. From evidence provided in court:

“So in at least one case now, a High Court has decided that the balance of probability was, in the matter before the Court, that a cycle helmet would not have prevented the injuries sustained when the accident involved simply falling from a cycle onto a flat surface, with barely any forward momentum. …

the QC … repeatedly tried to persuade the neurosurgeons … to state that one must be more safe wearing a helmet than would be the case if one were not. All three refused to do so, claiming that they had seen severe brain damage and fatal injury both with and without cycle helmets”

Replacing safety for some with the illusion of safety for all

Before the helmet law, Australia’s bicycle helmet standard required hard shells. Government research warned of deficiencies in the standard, as helmets can increase brain injury.

The research recommended improvement to the standard. Instead, the government degraded Australia’s helmet standard to accommodate ”soft-shell helmets”. Soft-shell helmets are more comfortable and facilitate compulsory helmet wearing. However they provide little protection and can cause brain injury.

Although the standard was degraded, the Department of Transport misled its minister that it was being upgraded and would result in improved helmets.

Before the helmet law, about 30% of cyclists wore helmets like the one on the left. By degrading the helmet standard, the government legitimized a weaker helmet. Calling a polystyrene hat a “helmet” doesn’t give it protective abilities. Still, it can fool people into believing that it provides more protection than it does.

After the helmet law, some claimed “success”, as the “helmet wearing rate” had increased. Yet useful helmets had been replaced with weaker ones providing minimal protection. The legislation had provided little more than the illusion of safety.

Wearing a helmet can make us feel safer. However feeling safe is different than being safe. The committee seemed unable to distinguish feeling safe from being safe. It lost focus on the initial goal to improve safety.

Victorian Government’s submission to the committee said:

“The incidence of bicycle helmet use has not yet reached a sufficiently high level anywhere in the world for a scientific examination of helmet effectiveness in injury reduction to be undertaken.”

Despite flimsy evidence of efficacy, the committee recommended compulsory helmet wearing.

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Setting the law

The RACS pressed the Victorian Government to make helmet wearing compulsory. The Victorian Parliament adopted a RACS recommendation for compulsory wearing, and legislation was announced. This increased pressure on the Federal Government to “do something”. The RACS was active in pressing the government. A former minister in the Hawke Government observed that after 1987:

“increasingly, the Government, and most importantly (Prime Minister) Hawke, became hostage to narrow and unrepresentative pressure groups.”

He also said the black spots program was not evaluated properly and was driven by opinion polls, a view supported by official documents. In 1988, the largest ever cycling casualty study was published. It involved more than eight million cases of injury and death to cyclists over 15 years. It concluded

There is no evidence that hard shell helmets have reduced the head injury and fatality rates. The most surprising finding is that the bicycle-related fatality rate is positively and significantly correlated with increased helmet use.

Rodgers, G.B., Reducing bicycle accidents: a reevaluation of the impacts of the CPSC bicycle standard and helmet use, Journal of Products Liability, 11, pp. 307-317, 1988.

This study focused on hard-shell helmets, that provide better protection than soft-shell helmets. The Federal Office of Road Safety (FORS) gave no warning about it to the ministers who decided on the compulsory helmet policy. The FORS did not act upon the 1985 committee’s recommendation that it should establish the costs and benefits of universal bicycle helmet usage. The FORS, the proper authority to advise government on the efficacy of helmet wearing, did no evaluation of it. The stated purpose of the compulsory helmet wearing was to reduce the cost of bicycling injuries. Yet the FORS did not seek advice from the National Health and Medical Research Council or other health authority. This was negligence.

The government ignored evidence showing that helmeted cyclists had a higher fatality rate

Just before the government decided to introduce compulsory bicycle helmets, an officially commissioned survey showed that public support for it was 92% for children and 83% for all riders. Politicians sometimes follow popular beliefs, regardless of their effectiveness:

“Modern politicians have become so adept at monitoring public opinion that they’ve developed a preference for wanting to be seen fixing problems rather than to actually fix them.”

In 1989, Prime Minister Hawke announced compulsory helmet wearing as Federal policy. This was a condition of providing funds to the states and territories for eliminating so-called “black spots” in roads.

Responses to enquiries in 1997 showed that no government in Australia, federal or state, made the necessary verification of the efficacy of helmets before imposing legislation. A study from Western Australia indicating that helmet wearers had more severe injuries appears to have been ignored.

The Prime Minister categorised compulsory wearing of bicycle helmets as a known and effective measure. This cannot be true as it had never been tried before. Government’s own research warned against increased brain injury from bicycle helmets. A trial for such experimental measure would have been appropriate. Instead, the government imposed across the nation an unproven policy without plans to assess its effectiveness.

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The consequences of negligence

The timing of the helmet law was odd as cycling safety was improving. Deaths of cyclists had been in long-term decline. Bicycle travel in Australia increasing  by 10% a year from 1986 to 1989. Cycling is as safe as being a pedestrian. Why impose helmets only on cyclists? Why discriminate against a healthy and environmentally friendly mode of transport?

A side-effect of this policy has been to reduce cycling. This was predictable. In 1985, cycling had declined after some schools mandated helmets for students. It could have been measured consistently. Instead, cycling counts were mainly incidental to surveys of helmet wearing. These surveys revealed an immediate decline in cycling of about 30% for adults and 40% for children.

This reversed an uptrend growing at 10% a year. An independent assessment estimates that cycling was 50% below previous trend by 1996. Cycling as a transport declined the most, changing the image of cycling. Sport cycling rose in prominence, giving cycling an image as a dangerous sport. Australia now has the lowest female cycling participation in the world. Julian Ferguson, from the European Cyclists Federation, observed:

“Riding in New York or Australia is like running with the bulls — it’s all young males”

The main result of the helmet law has been to reduce cycling

The helmet law persuaded 569 child cyclists to wear a helmet, while 2,658 gave up cycling.

Surprisingly, the risk of death and serious injury increased by 50% for child cyclists after the law.

Dr Carwyn Hooper from St George’s University in London reports:

“Looking at evidence, it does not matter if people are wearing a helmet or not, any serious accident on a bike is likely to kill them,”

Before the law, cycling was increasing in popularity and becoming safer. After the law, cycling was falling and becoming more dangerous.

There is a well-known phenomenon called safety in numbers. Research published in the Injury Prevention journal concluded:

“the behavior of motorists controls the likelihood of collisions with people walking and bicycling. It appears that motorists adjust their behavior in the presence of people walking and bicycling … A motorist is less likely to collide with a person walking and bicycling if more people walk or bicycle. Policies that increase the numbers of people walking and bicycling appear to be an effective route to improving the safety of people walking and bicycling.”

A key factor for cycling safety is the number of cyclists.  This is called “safety in numbers”.
The fewer cyclists, the more dangerous cycling becomes.
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According to “safety in numbers”, a 44% decline in cycling increases the risk of accidents by 41%. A 9% increase in helmet wearing cannot compensate for a 41% increase in accidents. The helmet law has increased the risk of injury by increasing the risk of accident.

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Denying the failure

In the mid 1990s, evidence emerged that the helmet law had failed to improve safety. A bicycle activist who supported compulsory helmet wearing  looked at the data and concluded:

“It is fair to say that, so far, there is no convincing evidence that Australian helmet legislation has reduced the risk of head injury in bicycle crashes.”

Several researchers reported this, but state governments ignored the warnings. Once people have invested time and effort in something, they are reluctant to admit they have made a mistake. Bureaucrats became entrenched in their position. As noted by University of Armidale researcher Dr Dorothy Robinson:

mandatory bicycle helmet laws increase rather than decrease the likelihood of injuries to cyclists …
Having more cyclists on the road is far more important than having a helmet law, for many reasons …
[the] governments [which introduced the helmet laws] do not like to admit they’ve made mistakes“.

The Australian government attitude towards its bicycle helmet law matches its national emblem

Bureaucrats started funding policy-driven studies defending its helmet law. Such “studies” use biased statistics, resulting in misleading claims.

The helmet law was introduced as a part of a package of road safety measures including a crackdown on speeding and drink driving. The number of cyclists dropped significantly. Any assessment of the helmet law must take into account these confounding factors. Yet many government-funded “studies” like this one did NOT adjust for this. Such negligence is difficult to comprehend. It is odd that these mistakes favor the legislation while the government funds the “research”.

Bill Curnow, a scientist from the CSIRO, wrote as a conclusion in a scientific article:

“Compulsion to wear a bicycle helmet is detrimental to public health in Australia but, to maintain the status quo, authorities have obfuscated evidence that shows this.”

One of the “studies” done by an Australian federal government agency in 2000 claimed to provide

“overwhelming evidence in support of helmets for preventing head injury and fatal injury”.

This claim was rebutted in 2003:

“the meta-analysis … takes no account of scientific knowledge of [brain injury] mechanisms”

The government agency did not reply to the rebuttal, giving up on its claim. Despite being discredited, this analysis is still used by bureaucrats to defend the official policy.

This study was re-assessed in 2011 by an independent researcher who concluded:

“This paper … was influenced by publication bias and time-trend bias that was not controlled for. As a result, the analysis reported inflated estimates of the effects of bicycle helmets

According to the new studies, no overall effect of bicycle helmets could be found when injuries to head, face or neck are considered as a whole”

Following CRAG submission to the Prime Minister in 2009, the federal government has abandoned its compulsory helmets policy.

Despite the repeated empty claims from politicians that

“helmets save lives and lower the severity of injuries”,

independent researchers are not fooled:

“If helmet laws were effective, we should have seen a reduction in head injuries,” she said. But instead, we saw a reduction in cycling, which leads to increased sedentary lifestyle diseases – obesity, strokes, heart disease. By discouraging cycling, helmet laws actually increase health costs.”

Even helmet salespeople do make such claims. After being asked

“Can your helmet save your life?”,

a helmet salesperson shrugged and laughed uncomfortably, before responding

“Can it?” “Well, not save your life, no.”

What is it that politicians know that helmet salespeople don’t?

In 2011, the Queensland Government commissioned a “study” to defend its policy. Only 13 days were given to produced this study. The study was then significantly edited several times (to favor the legislation) by the Department of Transport and Main Roads. The government then used this fake “study” to dismiss calls to review the helmet law.

In 2011, the New South Wales government funded a study trying to deny that helmets can aggravate brain injury. This risk has been reported at high speeds. The “study” set up unrealistic conditions at low speed, then magically generalized the results. This is deceitful as these unrealistic conditions are not representative of real life accidents.

There is a stark contrast between the claims from policy-driven “studies” and independent researchers. In the view of independent researchers from Norway:

“no studies have found good evidence of an injury reducing effect”.

While British doctors say:

“[A helmet law] gives out the message that cycling is dangerous, which it is not. The evidence that cycling helmets work to reduce injury is not conclusive. What has, however, been shown is that laws that make wearing helmets compulsory decrease cycling activity. Cycling is a healthy activity and cyclists live longer on average than non-cyclists. …

Since nowhere with a helmet law can show any reduction in risk to cyclists, only a reduction in cyclists, why would any country want to bring in a law for something which is clearly not effective at reducing the risk to cyclists?”

In the view of an Australian surgeon who operates on cyclists:

“The best evidence is that [a helmet] doesn’t make any difference to serious head injury when riding a bicycle …

initial research used to back the mandatory laws was “deeply flawed and criticised”. Some newer findings, he said, showed that these laws could increase the chance of serious injury. “On a society-wide basis, it seems as though the compulsory wearing of helmets is diminishing the number of people riding bicycles” he said. “The number one health concern is heart attacks and obesity. “Anything that can be done to decrease that would be a good thing.” “

The policy-driven studies have not fooled the rest of the world, who chose to shun this policy.

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Making it worse

In the 1990s, compliance surveys revealed that about 30% of cyclists still ignored the law. In response, transport authorities staged an extensive media campaign. Authority figures appeared on television asserting that people NEED to wear a helmet because cycling is dangerous. Loaded slogans like “Where’s your helmet?” were used relentlessly.

In advertising, you don’t need proof. Advertising associates a strong positive emotion with a message. For example associating a feeling of safety with a helmet. It doesn’t have to be true.

Transport authorities still fund misleading campaigns like this 2011 radio ad that claims:

“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 can have a big fall and you can suffer a MAJOR brain injury”

A bicycle activist created an amusing parody of this deceptive message.

This scaremongering is not true. Cycling is not particularly dangerous, no more than being a pedestrian:

“risk assessment reveals that cycling is not a more risky activity than the other modes of transport. …On the other hand, risk assessment does provide evidence of the much greater vulnerability of pedestrians.”


Helmet ads often use scaremongering tactics. As a result, many people become scared of cycling.

Powerful emotional testimonies claiming “my helmet saved my life” were prominently broadcast. Deceitful techniques suggested that cyclists would suffer brain injury unless they wore a helmet.

This is deceitful as soft-shell helmets are known to increase the risk of brain injuryScientific research reveals:

“Protecting the brain from injury that results in death or chronic disablement provides the main motivation for wearing helmets. Their design has been driven by the development of synthetic polystyrene foams which can reduce the linear acceleration resulting from direct impact to the head, but scientific research shows that angular acceleration from oblique impulse is a more important cause of brain injury. Helmets are not tested for capacity to reduce it and, as Australian research first showed, they may increase it.”

Helmets do not provide a solution to severe brain injury. Yet scare tactics exploiting fear of chronic disability have been used to promote them. This leads to an exaggerated opinion of the protection provided by helmets.

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.”

The deceitful advertising campaign was effective. Most Australians now believe that cycling is dangerous. Such propaganda has created a culture of fear. Cycling kept declining further. By 1996, cycling in Sydney had declined by 48%. People overestimate the protection provided by a polystyrene “helmet”. A UK cyclist  survey following helmet promotion campaigns reports:

“the majority of the people surveyed do have an exaggerated opinion of the effectiveness of cycle helmets, and an exaggerated opinion of the risks of cycling, and that the two are associated …

the exaggerations in the promotional material are likely to both prevent some people from cycling because of the fear of the risk, and to induce risk compensatory behaviour in those who chose to cycle and wear a helmet”

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A surprising increase in accidents and injuries

Cycling injuries increased following the helmet law:

Hospital admission data: Number and percentage of cyclists admitted, Western Australia.
Despite 37% fewer cyclists, cycling injuries kept rising after the helmet law.

After the helmet law was enforced in July 1992, the number of cyclists dropped by 37%. In 1993, cycling hospitalisations were slightly below 1991, despite 37% fewer cyclists. The risk of injury per cyclist increased. Cycling injuries kept rising. In 2000, the risk of injury was twice what it was before the helmet law.

This is similar to what was observed in New South Wales (NSW), where the risk of injury more than tripled.

For child cyclists in NSW, the risk of death and serious injury increased by more than 50%.

What’s going on?
How can accidents and injuries keep rising after an increase in helmet wearing?

Perhaps it has something to do with the false sense of safety fostered by deceitful helmet promotion campaigns. A false sense of safety can induce people to take more risks, leading to more accidents and more injuries. This is risk compensation, a well-known safety factor:

“the law of unintended consequences is extraordinarily applicable when talking about safety innovations. Sometimes things intended to make us safer may not make any improvement at all to our overall safety”

Risk compensation is the tendency to take more risks when wearing safety equipment.
Lured by a false sense of safety, helmeted cyclists have more accidents.
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Wearing a helmet can induce cyclists to take more risks, as reported in 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. …

The helmet he was wearing did not protect his neck; he was paralyzed from the neck down. …

”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.” ”

Safety experts recognise the role of risk compensation. From the New York Times article:

”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.

Risk compensation also affect motorists who tend to be less careful around helmeted cyclists. As reported in a study published by the University of Bath in the UK:

“Bicyclists who wear protective helmets are more likely to be struck by passing vehicles”

Both the behaviour of helmeted cyclists and surrounding motorists increases the risk of accidents.

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The neglected human factor

Why these surprising results? A key neglected factor is the impact that wearing a helmet has on cyclists behaviour. For some people, it means no more cycling. For others it means taking more risks. Neither reaction improves cycling safety or public health. Helmets affect risk taking, as reported by the Institute of Transport Economics in Norway:

“There is evidence of increased accident risk per cycling kilometre for cyclists wearing a helmet”

Helmets encourage people to ride faster, as reported by the Risk Analysis international journal:

“those who use helmets routinely perceive reduced risk when wearing a helmet, and compensate by cycling faster”

Increased speed significantly the severity of injuries in case of an accident, as reported in 2012 by the Monash University Accident Research Centre:

“Chances of a head injury increased threefold at speeds above 20km/h and fivefold at speeds above 30km/h”

What is the point wearing a helmet if it induces people to ride faster? At best, a helmet can only reduce a 50 km/h impact to the equivalent of a 45 km/h impact.

A slow and cautious rider without a helmet is less at risk than an overconfident helmeted rider taking risks at higher speeds. With a helmet law, the safer type of cycling is illegal while the more dangerous behavior is vindicated. This is the irony of a counterproductive policy. A 2012 study published by the Institute of Transport Economics in Norway concludes:

“at least part of the reason why helmet laws do not appear to be beneficial is that they disproportionately discourage the safest cyclists.”

In Australia, the cyclist fatality rate is five times greater than in the Netherlands. The serious injury rate is 22 TIMES greater. The fatality rate per commuter cyclist is 27 times higher in Sydney, Australia than in Copenhagen, Denmark.

John Pucher, a US professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, has researched how several countries have made cycling safe. Infrastructure, legislation to protect cyclists, training and measures to discourage car use are key. Helmets played no part in making cycling safer. John Pucher said:

“Compulsory wearing of helmets was “a Band-Aid strategy” adopted by governments shying away from more difficult initiatives of building separated cycle ways, calming neighbourhoods and educating drivers and riders.”

An obsession with helmets can result in neglecting more effective safety measures. This might explain why Australia’s serious injury rate is 22 TIMES greater than in the Netherlands

Australian road safety “experts” have ignored the link between helmets and risk-taking. They have difficulty admitting the helmet law has failed. They seem unable to distinguish between the intention to improve safety and the naive way it is attempted. They have ignored the increase in injuries following the helmet law. This is irrational and harmful.

“One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.”
Milton Friedman, Nobel price economist

Health on the Move 2, a report from an independent British society of public health and transport practitioners and researchers, reports:

“The failure of mass helmet use to affect serious head injuries, be it in falls or collisions, has been ignored by the medical world, by civil servants, by the media, and by cyclists themselves. A collective willingness to believe appears to explain why the population-level studies are so little appreciated. ….

The disconnect between received wisdom and the facts is stark.”

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Start of renewal

The four rooms of change.
Before renewal, people usually go through denial, then confusion.
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In 1994, the Northern Territory of Australia relaxed its helmet law and reduced its enforcement. The helmet wearing rate is the lowest in Australia. Cyclist hospitalisations per capita are the lowest and cycling to work is three times the national average.

Bike share schemes have been successful all over the world. Even in cities without a history of cycling, the benefits can be significant. For example, in Seville, Spain:

“Traffic congestion and pollution are declining for the first time in 30 years. Businesses are thriving along bike routes and around the newly improved public spaces that are breathing fresh life into the central city. The number of car trips into the historic city center has plummeted from 25,000 a day to 10,000”

Bike share schemes have been successful all over the world, except in Melbourne and Brisbane.

In 2010, Melbourne introduced a bike share scheme. Usage is 20 TIMES lower than in Dublin, a city of comparable size. Danish urban planner Mikael Colville-Andersen, who specialises in cycling, noted:

“Good ideas tend to travel and this idea, that you simply must wear a helmet when you cycle, has not. What does that tell you? You are the fattest country in the world, you should be encouraging cycling, not convincing people it’s dangerous.”

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.

Bike share schemes in Mexico City and Tel Aviv have boomed since the Mexican and Israeli Government repealed their mandatory helmet laws. The Australian cities of Sydney, Perth, Fremantle and Adelaide have declared their support for helmet law reform.

Even in the US, where the belief in helmets is strong, people are questioning the suitablility of helmets for bike share:

“Pushing helmets really kills cycling and bike-sharing in particular because it promotes a sense of danger that just isn’t justified — in fact, cycling has many health benefits …

Statistically, if we wear helmets for cycling, maybe we should wear helmets when we climb ladders or get into a bath, because there are lots more injuries during those activities.”

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Summary

Bicycle helmets tend to
  1. induce a false sense of safety that increases the risk of accidents
  2. encourage cyclists to go faster, increasing the severity of injuries
  3. increase the risk of neck injury and brain injury

It is easy to take for granted the protection provided by helmets. Evidence indicates that the protection is minor, while helmets increase the risk of accidents.

Are extra accidents worth the “protection”?

After reviewing evidence in a court of law, NSW District Court Judge Roy Ellis concluded:

“Having read all the material, … I frankly don’t think there is anything advantageous and there may well be a disadvantage in situations to have a helmet and it seems to me that it’s one of those areas where it ought to be a matter of choice.”

The process to introduce the helmet law was complacent:

  1. The government did not verify the efficacy of helmets.
  2. The government failed to warn the public that helmets can increase brain injury.
  3. Government research recommended to strengthen Australia’s helmet standard. Instead, it was degraded to accommodate soft-shell helmets.
  4. The legislation discriminates against cycling, a safe, healthy, and environmentally friendly mode of transport. The consequences on cycling participation were given little consideration.
  5. The government imposed an experimental helmet law nationwide, with neither a trial period nor plans to assess its effectiveness.

Such negligence has contributed to the increase in cycling injuries following the helmet law.

The government has attempted to obfuscate its policy failure by commissioning misleading “studies”.

An obsession with helmets can result in neglecting more effective safety measures. This might explain why Australia’s serious injury rate is now 22 TIMES greater than in the Netherlands

This policy has failed to achieve its stated goal of reducing the cost of cycling injuries. It has reduced cycling. This results in a loss of health benefits, incurring public health costs.

Good intentions.
Bad results.

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Acknowledgement: Most historical information comes from this article, and from CRAG submission to the Prime Minister in 2009.

Following CRAG’s submission, the federal has government abandoned its compulsory helmets policy.

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