In August 1998, Austroads Inc., a body comprising Australian transport authorities, invited comments on a consultation paper for a national cycling strategy. On behalf of CRAG, Bill Curnow submitted the following comments.


The paper does not give any attention to the effects that compulsory helmet wearing laws have had on cycling.

The existing and proposed national strategy purport to be directed to public action to encourage safe cycling, but the initiative of all Australian governments in introducing helmet laws has had the effect of substantially discouraging it. By contrast, in the three calendar years before helmet laws, 1986 to 1989, total bicycle travel in Australia rose between 10 and 12 per cent each year[1], but without a commensurate increase in deaths and serious injuries to cyclists.[2]

Further, there are good grounds for concluding that the helmet laws have resulted in an increase in the rate of injury to the remaining cyclists, including head injury and brain injury in particular.

Discouragement of cycling

In Victoria, before the helmets law, some students at schools which compelled them to wear helmets chose to give up cycling instead.[3] It would therefore have been sensible for governments to ensure that the effect of compulsory wearing on numbers of cyclists was monitored accurately. This was not done, but some measurements of numbers were made, most being incidental to surveys of helmet wearing.

Official surveys, carried out shortly before and after the helmet laws, consistently showed substantial declines in numbers of cyclists in the following jurisdictions.

  • New South Wales: Matched surveys counted 6072 child cyclists (under 16) passing survey sites in April 1991, before the helmets law commenced to apply to them on 1 July, and 3887 and 3478 passing the same sites in April 1992 and 1993, declines of 36 and 43 per cent respectively.[4] Though the survey sites were not chosen as a representative sample, consistent across-the-board reductions in numbers counted were found at road intersections, at school gates and in recreational areas, as well as in Sydney, inner rural and outer rural areas. This implies that an almost identical result would have been obtained whatever the choice of sample sites and the declines stated here are realistic estimates of the reduction in cycling.
  • Victoria: Total bicycle use by children aged 5-18 decreased by 36 per cent from May/June 1990 to May/June 1991.[5] There were further decreases to May/June 1992, with teenage cycling in Melbourne showing by then a 46 per cent decrease from pre-law levels.[6]
  • South Australia: The Office of Road Safety, in reporting its evaluation of helmet legislation, said “Due to the disparate nature of the results from different sources, it is not possible to be conclusive about the effect of the requirement to wear bicycle helmets on the number of cyclists.”[7] The report noted that Harrison’s (1994) study of school children showed a 38 per cent decline in cycling from September 1988 to March 1994. This is likely to under- estimate the decline due to the helmets law because cycling is more popular in March than September in southern Australia. A review of this report may be found here
  • Western Australia: A 1992 survey commented that the numbers of children cycling to primary schools and numbers of recreational cyclists declined from 1991 to February 1992.[8] A 1993 survey presents limited data which show some decline in numbers of WA children cycling to school.[9] Its limited observations of “commuter” cyclists indicate an increase in numbers after the helmet law, but a decline of over 50 per cent for cyclists classed as recreational. Data from automatic counter surveys conducted by Main Roads showed a decline of 38 per cent from October-December 1991 to October-December 1992 in cyclists crossing the Narrows and Causeway bridges on Sundays. I obtained from Main Roads similar data for weekdays. These also showed sharp declines.
  • ACT: Automatic counters on bicycle paths registered declines from 1991 to a similar period in 1992 of about one third on weekdays and about half at weekends.[10]In Queensland and the Northern Territory, surveys were done by other organisations.
  • The Royal Automobile Club of Queensland conducted surveys, mainly of cycling to schools, which showed a decline of 22 per cent from 1990 to 1991. Owing to changes in the survey conditions, however, the real decline probably exceeded 30 per cent – and it occurred before the law was enforced.[11]
  • The Road Safety Council of the Northern Territory did surveys which showed there was little change just after the law in the numbers of children cycling to primary schools, but a decline of 17 per cent by the following year. Numbers cycling to secondary schools declined by 36 per cent soon after the law and were down 39 per cent within a year.[12] These figures would under-estimate the effect of the law because two of the schools surveyed had themselves introduced compulsory wearing before the surveys. One report on the surveys noted that secondary students had earlier advised that “if it was made compulsory to wear helmets they would decide whether to comply or not to ride. Information which the Council provided per letter to me on 15 October 1993 shows that the number of “commuter” cyclists declined by about half. The numbers are as follows:Surveys pre-law, Aug. 1990, Apr. 1991, Aug. 1991: 252, 222 and 350 respectivelySurveys post-law, Apr. 1992, Aug. 1992, May 1993: 142, 122 and 131 respectively.

Bicycle casualties, pre- and post-law

Contrary to popular belief, there is no good evidence that compulsory helmet laws have improved the safety of cycling, indeed the contrary is indicated.

In New South Wales, numbers of head injuries and other injuries to child cyclists before and after the helmets law are shown in Table 1, with, in brackets, my calculation of the numbers if they had declined in proportion to the number of cyclists counted in the above-mentioned surveys.

                                TABLE 1 

                   (source NSW Department of Health)

    Year ended    Head        Incr.   Other       Incr.
    30 June       Inj.        risk    inj.        risk

    1991/91       384                 926
    --------------------------------------------------law for <16 y.o
    1991/92       272 (246)           815 (593)
    1992/93       273 (219)   +24%    893 (528)   +68%

Contrary to a general trend to improved road safety for other road users, these data suggest that for those still cycling after the law the risk of serious injury, both to the head and otherwise, increased substantially. Robinson’s analysis put it that “if similar numbers of child cyclists had been on the roads in 1993 as before the law, deaths and serious injuries to child cyclists would have increased by 21 per cent, compared with a decrease of 21 per cent for child pedestrians and 20 per cent for child road users in general.”[13] But the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority, conveniently disregarding the decline in the number of cyclists, interpreted the data as “a substantially larger decrease in bicycle head injuries than other types of injuries, and increased helmet wearing has had a positive effect on the head injury rate.”[14]

For Victoria, Robinson’s analysis of statistics suggested that for the same cycle use as before the law there would now be no fewer head injuries and more total injuries to children. In the ACT, admissions of cyclists to public hospitals hardly changed. The numbers advised by the Department of Health per letter of 26 March 1996 were 89 for fiscal 1991/2, immediately before the law, and 87 and 88 in the following two fiscal years. This suggests the risk of serious injury to the remaining cyclists increased by more than half.

Available evidence for other jurisdictions is less detailed, but that which I have seen also suggests that the helmet laws have been counterproductive.

Explanation of a counterproductive measure

Though helmets protect soldiers and workers from small, fast-moving objects, their testing and design are unsuitable for when the person is moving. No allowance is made for heads being connected to bodies and only the cushioning effect of a direct impact to the top of the head is measured.

Most impacts to the head in accidents are to its front and sides. Like a knockout blow to the jaw in boxing, they impart a rotational force, which theory and experiments with animals have shown is the main cause of brain injury, not direct impact.

Australian research in 1987 showed that the added mass of a helmet may actually increase rotational force, and to minimise it helmet shells should be very stiff.[15] Instead, to make wearing more acceptable the Australian standard for helmets was degraded on political advice to allow cheaper soft shells. These grab the surface upon impact, rotating the head.

In its 1994 inquiry on head and neck injuries to footballers, the National Health and Medical Research Council examined evidence for the efficacy of bicycle helmets. It concluded that helmets may possibly reduce soft tissue injury, but “the use of helmets increases the size and mass of the head. This may result in an increase in brain injury.” As no similar inquiry has ever been made on head injury to cyclists, legislators got no proper advice before passing helmet laws, thereby risking increased danger to cyclists.

More detailed explanation and references are contained in an article of mine which was published in Current Affairs Bulletin, April/May 1998, pp. 18-25 and here

Unhappily, some government authorities, seemingly unwilling to accept responsibility for introducing a counterproductive measure and to take action to remedy its detrimental effects, namely discouragement of cycling and reduction in safety to the remaining cyclists, have misrepresented data so as to under-estimate or discount such effects. One example is given above and others are mentioned in my CAB article.


As the compulsory helmet wearing laws have done more to discourage cycling and increase its hazards than any other measure, any realistic national strategy for encouraging safe cycling and reducing the severity of injury to cyclists must consider recommending their repeal. The first requirement, we suggest, is an open inquiry conducted by independent persons of suitable competence, with provision for the public to make input, so ensuring that all available knowledge is brought to bear.

I commend these comments for your earnest consideration, look forward to your response and stand ready to provide, as far as I am able, such further information as you may require.

Yours sincerely, Bill Curnow President


[1] Department of Transport and Communications, SPOKES, Information for cycle-conscious communities, Canberra,1993, p.1.

[2] Federal Office of Road Safety, Road Injury Australia, quarterly bulletin, June quarter 1997

[3] Evidence given to House of Representatives Standing Committee on Transport Safety, 1985, p.1078

[4] Smith, N.C. and Milthorpe, F.W., An observational survey of law compliance and helmet wearing by bicyclists in New South Wales – 1993, for the New South Wales Roads and Traffic Authority, Sydney, 1993.

[5] Cameron, M., Heiman, L. and Neiger, D., Evaluation of the bicycle helmet wearing law in Victoria during its first 12 months, Report No. 32, Monash University Accident Research Centre, Melbourne, July 1992, p.6.

[6] Finch, C.F., Heiman, L. and Neiger, D., Bicycle use and helmet wearing rates in Melbourne, 1987 to 1992: the influence of the helmet wearing law, Monash University Accident Research Centre report no. 45, February 1993, pp. 35, 36.

[7] Marshall, J. and White, M., Office of Road Safety Report Series 8/94, South Australian Department of Transport, Walkerville, South Australia, 1994, pp.i,11.

[8] Healy, M. and Maisey, G., The impact of helmet wearing legislation and promotion on bicyclists in Western Australia, Traffic Board of Western Australia, Perth, 1992.

[9] Heathcote, B., Bicyclist helmet wearing in Western Australia: a 1993 review, Traffic Board of Western Australia, Perth, 1993.

[10] Ratcliffe, P., Bicycling in the ACT – a survey of bicycle riding and helmet wearing in 1992, ACT Department of Urban Services, Canberra, 1993, p.5.

[11] Wikman, J. and Sims, C., Bicycle helmet wearing surveys 1990 and 1991, Royal Automobile Club of Queensland, Brisbane.

[12] Van Zyl, R. Bicycle helmet wearing in the Northern Territory, May 1993, and 1993 bicycle helmet survey report, Road Safety Council of the Northern Territory, GPO Box 1176, Darwin.

[13] Robinson, D.L., Head injuries and bicycle helmet laws, Accident Analysis and Prevention, Vol.28, No. 4, pp463-475, 1996

[14] Roads and Traffic Authority, New South Wales, The current state of bicycle riding, June 1994.

[15] Corner, J.P., Whitney, C.W., O’Rourke, N. and Morgan, D.E., Motorcycle and bicycle protective helmets: requirements resulting from a post crash study and experimental research, Federal Office of Road Safety report no.CR 55, Canberra 1987.

The Australian Minister for Transport and Minister for Health jointly launched Australia cycling, the national strategy on 19 February 1999 and Austroads Inc. has since published the strategy document, see the material CRAG submitted was supported by 15 references to published sources, the strategy document neither reflects nor refutes any of it. On behalf of CRAG, Bill Curnow therefore wrote to Austroads to convey comments on it, as follows.


I write to convey this group’s comments on Australia cycling – the national strategy.

The strategy rightly recognises that people’s health and the environment would gain if they cycled more, but does not examine deterrents to that and action needed to deal with them. We suggest that the two main deterrents are the negative attitude towards cycling in this country, as mentioned in the consultation paper for developing the strategy, and, flowing from that, the laws for compulsory wearing of helmets.

In Australia now, cycling is not accepted as a form of local transport deserving serious consideration. Bikes are seen as children’s toys and respectable for adults to use only for competitive sport or recreation; but for transport the common assumption of other road- users is that cyclists lack road sense and can barely be tolerated, and then only if they wear helmets to minimise the cost of their accidents to the public health system.

A realistic strategy must deal with the fact that governments’ own actions have strengthened this attitude and discouraged cycling. Official promotion of helmets did it by exaggerating the dangers of cycling, and helmet laws have had the opposite effect of the strategy’s Objective 4, “to increase bicycle use while simultaneously reducing the casualty rate.” A legitimate deduction from the evidence we submitted is that repeal of the laws would soon provide most of the increase needed to achieve the strategy’s goal of doubling bicycle use, and reduce the rate of serious casualty per cyclist. By contrast, the effects of the measures proposed in the strategy are conjectural.

The public inquiry we suggested is now needed to bring reality to the strategy, in place of irresponsibly concealing the effects of the helmet laws. We request your comments.

Yours sincerely, W.J. Curnow, President

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