Information Sheet: Bicycle Helmets and Bicycle Helmet Legislation

Cyclists Rights Action Group

The low-down on bicycle helmet laws, 2nd Edition, 30 August, 1996

Where did the Bicycle Helmets Law come from?

For many people the Mandatory Helmet Laws for Bicyclists (MHLB) simply turned up out of the blue. How did this happen?

As far back as 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”. Government and other interested parties have been pushing for bicyclists to wear helmets ever since.

Numerous statistical studies began to appear in world literature which claimed great gains in wearing helmets. Most if not all of these studies had methological deficiencies, or relied on previous papers which were flawed.

One of the most widely quoted papers was Dorsch (1984, 1987). This was a self reporting survey, where cyclists were asked about their most recent crash. The sample was biased, as the respondents were predominantly adult members of cycle clubs. Dorsch concluded that hypothetically, people wearing helmets had 19 times less risk of suffering a fatal head injury. Interested parties took this as gospel. Post law statistics have shown just how false these conclusions have been.

From 1992-94, 80% of cyclists in NSW were wearing helmets when killed on the roads, which is similar to the proportion of cyclists observed wearing helmets (76% for children and 85% for adults). This is clearly not a factor of 19. It is more like a factor of one.

MHLB is Born

In 1989 Prime Minister Hawke made the introduction of MHLB a condition of an offer to the various State Governments of additional funds for roads, for the purpose of eliminating so-called black spots. This was done after consultation with interested parties in the medical community, in particular the Royal Australian College of Surgeons.

A compulsory helmets policy was decided upon, although evidence on the efficacy of bicycle helmets was flimsy. Starting with Victoria in 1990, all Australian jurisdictions introduced MHLB. Canberra introduced MHLB in July 1992.

MHLB Debate in the ACT Legislative Assembly

The introduction of the MHLB bill by then Minister for Urban Services Mr. Terry Connolly can be found in Hansard, 9 April 1992, pp144-145.

The subsequent debate on the MHLB is in Hansard, 19 May 1992, pages 568-591. Mr. Michael Moore questioned Mr. Connolly on aspects of the MHLB, Hansard, Question No. 81, pages 762-763.

Tony DeDomenico (now the Minister for Urban Services) openly admitted he “doesn’t give a hang” about the views of civil libertarians. Other politicians expressed doubts but succumbed to the apparent benefits of helmets and supported the MHLB.

Of the current Legislative Assembly, only Michael Moore argued strongly against the MHLB. It should be noted that Mr. Moore rides a bicycle – and wears a helmet of his own choice. He argued that MHLB would cause a reduction in cycling.

Reduction in Cyclists

Since the MHLB, huge declines have occurred in the numbers of cyclists. The government has neglected to consider that many people would give up cycling rather than wear a helmet, and it is only in rare cases that these declines have been accurately recorded. In the ACT the decline was measured at 33% on weekdays and 50% on weekends. The overall decline Australia-wide is estimated at 30% to 50%. Some people just don’t want to wear a helmet.

Efficacy of Helmets

Many scientific studies have “proven” the positive benefits of helmets. One of these studies for example (Thompson et al, 1989) predicted that helmets reduce the chance of head injury by 85%. They reached the conclusion that almost all deaths and most head injuries would have been prevented by helmet use. Post law data in Australia has failed to produce the predicted results. After allowing for reduced numbers of cyclists and improved road conditions, the risk of head injuries has, if anything, actually increased.

NSW provides the most reliable data for a post-law examination of MHLB, though only for children under 16 as there are no reliable data on the decline in numbers of adult cyclists. Child cyclists killed and seriously injured declined from the two years pre-law of 327 to post- law of 200, a reduction of 39%. The Government was quick to attribute this to the benefits of helmets, but further scrutiny reveals that this is not so.

A reliable survey by the NSW RTA revealed a 40% decline in child cyclists for this same period. After allowing for this reduction in cyclists, there has been no reduction in injuries after the MHLB. During this same period pedestrians killed and seriously injured also declined by 19%. This is evidence of the safer road conditions thanks to RBT and anti-speeding campaigns. Cyclists and pedestrians are in similar danger from motor vehicles, so after allowing for this it can be seen that the relative danger to child cyclists has actually increased, despite the helmet wearing rate increasing from 31% to 76%.

Helmets Offer Limited Protection

The Australian testing standard for helmets (AS2063.2) is to be dropped from a height of 1.5 metres, to simulate a fall. Impact speed from this height is less than 20 kph. A direct impact from a car travelling at a mere 30 kph is likely to result in brain injury or death and a helmet will make little difference to the outcome. Helmets can offer protection against skull fracture, but studies have shown the most serious brain injuries are not a result of linear forces but of shearing forces from rotational deceleration – helmets do nothing to reduce these forces and may in fact increase them by virtue of increasing the size and mass of the head.

Elliott and Shanahan Research, in a 1986 study of young people’s attitudes to helmet wearing, found that they “believe that approved helmets would save their heads and lives in the event of a serious accident (with a bus or truck)”.

Are helmeted riders at greater risk?

Rodgers (1988) found an increased death rate was associated with increased helmet use. Other studies have indicated that helmeted riders are far more likely to have struck their heads in an accident. Post MHLB data from Australia has, if anything, revealed the injury rate to have increased in spite of increased helmet use and generally safer road conditions. To say that helmeted riders are at greater risk of injury seems illogical, but it makes sense if a behavioural change has caused them to take more risks or less precautions, the net effect of which outweighs the limited protective benefit of their helmets.

Cycling is Inherently Safe

MHLB has been fueled by propaganda that cycling is unsafe unless you are wearing a helmet. Cycling is as safe or unsafe as you want to make it. MHLB removes the choice for people to decide if their own particular cycling behaviour warrants the use of a helmet. Perhaps many people have suffered injury as a result of MHLB because their helmet does not protect them as much as they have been led to believe. Although some 80% of bicycle accidents do not involve a motor vehicle, these accidents are rarely serious. More than 90% of the serious head injuries and deaths to cyclists are caused by motor vehicles, and in most of these cases a few centimetres of polystyrene makes little difference to the outcome.

Unfair Discrimination

The stated purpose of MHLB is to save on public costs of health care. MHLB discriminates unfairly against cyclists compared with other road users, particularly motor vehicle occupants (MVO) and pedestrians. MVO’s suffer 17 times as many and pedestrians 6 times as many deaths by head injury as cyclists. Studies of available data (pre-MHLB when bicycle helmet usage was low) have been used to estimate the number of hospital admissions for head injury and number of deaths by head injury per million hours activity. These are: cyclists (2.39) pedestrians (2.34) MVO (1.77) motor cyclists (20.9). As can be seen by this, pedestrians and MVO’s are in similar danger compared with cyclists. You could reasonably expect those who actively promote MHLB to practise what they preach and wear a helmet at all times.

MHLB is bad for ALL cyclists

Regardless of whether or not you wear a helmet, MHLB is bad for all cyclists. MHLB distracts from other more effective policies for making cycling safer. The enormous decline in number of cyclists can only mean less bicycle awareness by motorists, which means more danger for the remaining cyclists. MHLB and the associated propaganda has caused cycling to be associated with danger and alienated many people from cycling.

MHLB is bad for the community

Cycling is important because it is a cheap, reliable, safe and environmentally friendly means of transport. Cycling is also a fantastic way to keep fit. MHLB has discouraged many people from cycling. This means a direct loss of fitness to the community. Loss of fitness means a loss of health, and an associated cost to the medicare system, sickness benefits, lost time from work, etc. The British Medical Association has estimated the healthy benefits gained from cycling to far exceed any losses from head or other injury. Statistics show that for every person in the ACT who wore a helmet because of MHLB, five or more gave up cycling.

“But it (MHLB) is just the same as the seatbelt law”

The only thing the two laws really have in common is that they are both an infringement of civil liberties. However it has proven possible to defend the seatbelt laws because of the lives they save. With the MHLB, no such claims stand up under the scrutiny of post-law data. There are several other considerations as well, some petty, some not, but the main one is that MHLB has discouraged many people from cycling, seatbelts laws have not been known to discourage anyone from motoring.

“I have been riding for X years and my helmet has saved my life Y times”

Estimates of bicycling deaths by head injury are about one per five million hours of activity. Based on this, if you cycle 100 hours per year you can expect one fatal accident every 50,000 years (and even then a helmet probably won’t help). As an example, one local police helmet zealot claimed to have had his life saved twice by a helmet in 30 years of cycling. Assuming 100% efficacy of helmets and 1000 hours per year of riding, the mathematical odds of two such life-saving experiences in 30 years are about one in 166^2 (or one in 27,777). It follows that the person was either extremely lucky, accident prone, or incompetent, but most likely he simply overstated the effect of his helmet.

“Where’s your helmet?”; “Why don’t you wear a helmet?”; “Do you think you won’t get hit in the head?”

Anyone who ever rides without a helmet has probably at some stage encountered the helmet zealot who screams out “Where’s your helmet?” These people are small-minded fools who should be ignored. They could be asked why they do not wear a helmet whilst a pedestrian or in a motor car, as statistically they are in as much or even more danger of head injury than as a cyclist.

MHLB is all about perception and fear. These people perceive that it is not possible to ride a bicycle without sooner or later hurting your head, and the only way to counter this risk is to wear a helmet. It would seem to escape them that in over one hundred years since bicycles first became popular, billions of people have taken to a bicycle, and all but a small proportion have made it through their lives without a major cycling mishap. Why is it then that every other helmet zealot you talk to has at some time landed on their head and “their helmet saved their life”? If they wish to wear a helmet themselves that is fine, but their insistence on others wearing them is most insidious.

Government Unwilling to Act

When the MHLB was introduced, the only arguments against it were loss of civil liberties and unfair discrimination compared with other road users. These arguments were swept aside – the Government had little regard for individual freedom of choice.

Now that the MHLB is some four years old there is still no real evidence that it has been effective, and evidence has emerged to the contrary. The only effect of the law has been to decrease the number of cyclists, with those remaining cyclists at greater risk than before. The Government continually ignores this evidence.

There were three main thrusts behind MHLB. One was to save money to the community. MHLB is costing money to the community. Two was the right-to-life attitude of “even if we save one life, it was well worth it”. MHLB has not saved any lives, helmeted riders may even be dying at a greater rate. Three was to protect the children. Children are suffering injuries at the same or greater rate than before.

What can you do about MHLB

Write to the Government about it. The appropriate person in the ACT is the Hon. Tony DeDomenico MLA, Minister for Urban Services, GPO Box 1020, Canberra, ACT, 2601, Australia.

This document has been produced by Peter van Schaik on behalf of the Cyclists Rights Action Group (CRAG).


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