Compulsory Bicycle Helmets: Unfair Discrimination

Wearing of helmets has been compulsory for cyclists in Australia for years, but how many people know that reports of the Federal Office of Road Safety, in 1987 and 1998, recommend them for occupants of motor vehicles too?

Hoping that helmet wearing would reduce serious head injury and satisfied that the costs and inconvenience to bicycle riders were “more than balanced by the savings to the community”, Australian governments made it compulsory for cyclists. They have not applied this reasoning to vehicle occupants, whose head injuries cost $1.5 billion a year! Instead, FORS published the 1998 report “so that the community can make informed choices” and emphasised helmet wearing as a voluntary measure only – in contrast to giving cyclists no choice.

As costs of helmets to motorists and cyclists would be the same, governments must be assumimg that helmet wearing would cause greater inconvenience to motorists. As shown below, the reverse is true.

Important inconveniences of wearing a helmet are difficulty of secure storage, less protection from the sun than is provided by a normal hat and a restricted flow of air to keep the head cool.

For cyclists, secure storage of helmets can be difficult. At places of work, storage may be easy, but at schools is likely to be difficult. In retail premises and public buildings it is usually not possible. For occupants of motor vehicles, secure storage would be easy.

Medical research has found “for people outdoors in Australia, a hat with at least a 7.5 cm brim is necessary to provide reasonable protection around the nose and cheeks, those sites on which non- melanoma skin cancers commonly occur.” As helmets have narrower brims, a cyclist wearing one is not adequately protected, whereas the roofs of motor vehicles shade their occupants.

Helmets restrict the flow of air needed to dissipate heat generated through the exertion of cycling, causing discomfort in hot weather. Occupants of motor vehicles do not exert themselves and would suffer less discomfort.

It has been argued that some vehicles provide insufficient headroom to allow occupants to wear a helmet. The argument is spurious. Such vehicles would be rare, only tall people would be affected and could use a headband as an alternative – see media release below.

Clearly, helmets cause much more inconvenience to cyclists than they would to occupants of motor vehicles, and bicycle helmet laws discriminate unfairly.

The inconvenience of helmets to cyclists is of course borne out by the decline in cycling, by about a third, after the introduction of compulsory wearing. As rates of casualty to the remaining cyclists increased, this inconvenience was not balanced by savings to the community.

Media Release


18 September 1998


Head injuries to car drivers and passengers could be reduced by as much as 25% if they wore light protective helmets or even padded headbands, according to a research report released today by the Federal Office of Road Safety (FORS).

The report presents findings from a two-year study on head and brain injuries among car occupants. It was jointly conducted by the NHMRC Road Accident Research Unit (University of Adelaide) and the Monash University Accident Research Centre.

The study found that bicycle-style helmets would be as effective as driver airbags in preventing head injuries, and would provide considerably greater head protection than many other in-vehicle options, such as improved interior padding, side-impact airbags or advanced seat-belt designs.

Professor Jack McLean, head of the Road Accident Research Unit, said that use of protective headwear could be a particularly valuable safety option for people with older cars, but even drivers with airbags would benefit significantly from the added protection.

While full helmets would provide the greatest safety benefits, Dr McLean’s detailed study of head injuries found that specially designed headbands could offer an innovative and practical alternative.

The proposed headbands would apply padding to the front and sides of the head. where most impacts occur. They would be lighter, cooler and less bulky than a conventional helmet.

A FORS spokesperson emphasised that protective headwear was being put forward as a voluntary measure only. “Car occupants are already better protected than cyclists or motorcyclists. But this research shows that safety could be improved quite a lot by using simple, low cost head protection. We are publishing these results so that the community can make informed choices.”

Head injuries to vehicle occupants account for almost half of all injury costs from passenger car crashes. Beside the costs in human suffering, this represents a monetary cost to the community of about $1.5 billion per year.

The research report will be given to Australian helmet designers and manufacturers.

Copies of the report, Prevention of Head Injuries to Car Occupants: An Investigation of Interior Padding Options (CR 160), are available from the Federal Office of Road Safety by phoning (02) 6274 7185.

Ms Pam Leicester, a behavioural scientist from the NRMA’s Road Safety Department, said the idea had merit, but it would not be easy to persuade motorists to wear helmets. – Sydney Morning Herald, 22 September 1998

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