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Let’s see what happens if we repeal the laws on bicycle helmets

Update, 17 January:
This Croakey post from December 8 details errors in the study described below, while this subsequent post contains the authors’ response.

***

Earlier this year, Croakey hosted a lively discussion about the merits (or otherwise) of laws that mandate the wearing of bicycle helmets. One post argued that helmet legislation was “flawed public policy”.

Now, new evidence has been published by the author of that particular post, a leading public health and cycling advocate, Clinical Associate Professor Chris Rissel from the University of Sydney.

Chris Rissel writes:

A new research article documents the rate of head injuries among cyclists from 1988 to 2008. It concludes that: “It is likely that factors other than the mandatory helmet legislation reduced head injuries among cyclists.”

The article by Voukelatos and myself is to be published this week in the Journal of the Australasian College of Road Safety, (the article is available now on the Cycling Connecting Communities site) and is covered in today’s Sydney Morning Herald.)

The main reasons that mandatory helmet legislation is a problem are:

  • There is minimal evidence of helmet legislation actually reducing cyclist head injuries
  • It reduces the number of people cycling, making it less safe for the remaining cyclists (the well known safety in numbers phenomena)
  • It inhibits spontaneous riding (eg just hopping on a bike for a short ride), and is a massive problem for public bike hire schemes
  • It adds to the image of cycling as a “dangerous” activity
  • It is a victim-blaming approach (the vulnerable road user has to wear protection…) if it does not also address the road environment and behaviours and attitudes of drivers
  • Other factors are very much more important for cycling safety (eg cycling infrastructure, vehicle speed and driver behaviours)

As Michael Colville-Anderson of Copenhagan Chic said in Melbourne recently: “Good ideas tend to travel. Australia and New Zealand are still the only two countries in the world with mandatory helmet legislation for adults. If it was such a good idea why hasn’t everyone else done it?”

Mexico and Israel have recently repealed their bicycle helmet laws, largely because of the difficulties mandatory helmets create for public bicycle rent schemes.

If people want to wear a helmet, they should. If someone wants to go down the street to get some milk, or go on a social ride with friends, they should have the choice about wearing a helmet. Anti-helmet legislation advocacy is about choice.

The complaints and debate about helmet legislation have not gone away because there is no clear evidence that helmet legislation achieved the desired reduction in head injuries that it should have. Helmets may offer some minor protection in some circumstances, but the negatives far outweigh any positives.

I think there needs to be a research study where the legislation is repealed in one jurisdiction (say Newcastle, or Wollongong) and the effects carefully studied over a couple of years.

This would add some valuable evidence to this whole issue.”

Update 17 Aug. A recent article from the Canadian Medical Association journal arguing for helmet laws.

Comments 7

  1. Jahm Mitt says:

    Actually this is ignorance bordering on stupidity – sort of.

    OK. When we roamed the plains with the wilder beast, we had generally soft dirt underfoot and our speeds were low. Our brain cases are quite robust enough to withstand head to soft dirt collisions.

    But ramp it up to a decent cruisy cycling speed of 20 – 30Kmh for the average person, toss in the possible impacts with objects like other vehicles, poles, concrete gutters and the ever non compliant sealed road – and you can have really bad head injuries, really quickly.

    We are designed to survive assorted degress of impact with progressively worsening outcomes – being a simple ratio of the harder the object and the higher the speed equates with the worsening of the outcome.

    So I am absolutely and totally all for wearing bicycle helmets.

    But where I now live – in the middle of no where, the sealed roads are flat and straight and carry about 10 cars a day.

    The dirt roads carry about 1 car a week.

    In the hot weather I am far more likely to die of skin cancer than anything, and I’d much rather toodle along with a broad brimmed straw hat.

    So on one hand I absolutely insist on wearing a helmet – because head meets concrete kerb = dead; but I have the occasional times where it’s stinking hot with no traffic in the blazing sun on a dead flat road – and I think “Well you know”.

    But saying that helmets should not be required is just plain stupid. Our heads are not designed to hit HARD objects at 20 – 40 kmh..

    This is a fundamental fact of bio-engineering.

  2. Jahm Mitt says:

    Our heads crack open like nuts.

  3. Dan says:

    This kind of discussion seems to attract a lot of comments along the lines “Well, I once had an accident, and I’d be dead if I wasn’t wearing a helmet, so it’s crazy to suggest that we should repeal helmet laws.”

    That makes sense on the face of it. I’m a cyclist who will never ride without a helmet, and who thinks that it’s stupid to be more worried about helmet hair than brain damage. But the research that I’ve seen seems to point to a conclusion which is believable, even though it’s counterintuitive: even though I as a cyclist am certainly safer in a helmet, it doesn’t follow to suggest that helmet laws make cyclists, taken as an aggregate, safer.

    I know of one UK study concluding that motorists give unhelmeted cyclists more room when they pass. Perhaps the combination of helmet and riding glasses does invite the impatient motorist to see the cyclist as some sort of android who doesn’t warrant normal consideration as a human being? Given that motorists typically don’t maintain massive reserves of empathy for cyclists at the best of times, even that slight subconscious erosion might be enough to make a dangerous difference. And given that the overwhelming majority of cycling injuries are caused by motorists doing the wrong thing, a small difference in driver behaviour could translate into a big difference in injuries.

    More convincing, though, is the safety-in-numbers effect. As a cyclist riding around Melbourne, it’s clear to me that drivers tend to behave better towards cyclists in those areas where cycling is more common. (Beach Road may be an exception here, but that’s a special case). Not only that, but each person who climbs on a bike increases the political pressure for better, safer cycling infrastructure. If we could get more considerate (or at least less murderous) drivers, together with a road and trail network that took cycling seriously as a transport alternative, then perhaps the risks of going helmet-free would become acceptable.

    But even before that happens, if letting people ride without a helmet is going to get more people on bikes (and there’s pretty clear evidence that it will), then all of those helmetless, risk-taking riders could actually end up making the roads safer for all of us, particularly those of us who will continue to enjoy the safety benefits of a helmet. Yes, some of those helmetless people will end up with head injuries or worse, which could have been prevented if they were wearing a helmet. But the evidence seems to suggest that they would be offset by fewer accidents overall, so if someone is vain or lazy enough to take that risk, then who am I to stop them?

  4. Cajela says:

    As a regular wearer of a Real Helmet – one that is designed to keep my head from cracking if I have a motorcycle accident – I’ve never felt psychologically convinced that my flimsy bicycle helmet is going to be of much help. That said, if you want to wear a helmet, by all means wear one. There’s not going to be any law forbidding them!

    But the epidemiology does not support mandatory helmet laws. The rates of head injury among cyclists across different countries are completely and utterly uncorrelated with the rates of helmet use. Are Dutch and Danish heads somehow harder to crack than American and Australian ones?

  5. Lapchick says:

    At least let us get rid of the requirement for a helmet on the rental bikes in Melbourne, then people would use them, including myself. I live next to the Vic Market, there are at least two depots within three minutes walk of my house. It seems that the bikes are rarely used now.

  6. M A says:

    Hey guys, we’ve started a petition on Change.org to repeal the Mandatory Helmet Regulations.
    Would be awesome if you guys could please join/share our petition!

    http://www.change.org/petitions/repeal-mandatory-bicycle-helmet-legislation

    Cheers 🙂

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Pregnancy and childbirth
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#CTG10
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Acknowledgement
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Uluru Statement
WA community closures
News about Croakey
PIJ Commissions 2021
Public health and population health
#PreventiveHealthStrategy
#UnmetNeedsinPublicHealth
air pollution
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COVIDwrap
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Health in All Policies
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Media Doctor Australia
media-related issues
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Summer reading 2020-2021
Tasmanian election 2021
Testing Croakey News category 1
The Croakey Archives
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#LoveRural 2014
Croakey Conference News Service 2013 – 2019
2013 conferences
Australian Centre for Health Services Innovation Forum 2013
Australian Health Promotion Association Conference 2013
Closing the Credibility Gap 2013
CRANAplus Conference 2013
FASD Conference 2013
Health Workforce Australia 2013
International Health Literacy Network Conference 2013
NACCHO Summit 2013
National Rural Health Conference 2013
Oceania EcoHealth Symposium 2013
PHAA conference 2013
2014 conferences
#IPCHIV14
AIDA Conference 2014
Congress Lowitja 2014
CRANAplus conference 2014
Cultural Solutions - Healing Foundation forum 2014
Lowitja Institute Continuous Quality Improvement conference 2014
National Suicide Prevention Conference 2014
Racism and children/youth health symposium 2014
Rural & Remote Health Scientific Symposium 2014
2015 conferences
#CPHCEforum
#CRANAplus15
#HSR15
#NRHC15
#OTCC15
Population Health Congress 2015
2016 conferences
#AHHAsim16
#AHMRC16
#ANROWS2016
#ATSISPEP
#AusCanIndigenousWellness
#cphce2016
#CPHCEforum16
#CRANAplus2016
#IAMRA2016
#LowitjaConf2016
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