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More people would cycle if helmets were not compulsory: new study

Professor Chris Rissel writes:

The ongoing bicycle helmet legislation debate usually focuses on how effective helmets are, and whether rates of head injury among cyclists have changed due to helmet legislation.

However, while injury prevention concerns are important, the other side of the issue is whether helmet legislation deters people from cycling, and then missing out on the health benefits of being more physically active.

A new research study by myself and Dr Li Ming Wen at the University of Sydney, published in the Health Promotion Journal of Australia, found that one in five adults say they would cycle more if they didn’t have to wear a bicycle helmet.

When mandatory helmet legislation was introduced in Australia in 1991, observational studies of the number of people cycling found that there was about a 30-40% drop in the number of people cycling. There were even larger drops in some groups, such as adolescents. When similar legislation was introduced in New Zealand in 1994, the same marked drop in cycling participation was observed.

Having seen what happened, most of the rest of the world did not follow suit. Mexico City and Israel recently repealed bicycle helmet legislation that they had introduced but not enforced, primarily to make their bicycle share schemes viable.

Twenty years on, is mandatory bicycle helmet legislation still holding back cycling in Australia? 

The Census data for how we travel to work gives one stable measure of cycling since 1976 (even if it dramatically under-reports cycling). It tells us that the proportion of workers using a bicycle to get to work has been at about 1% for the past 25 years. There was even a slight decline in 1991 (down from 1.1% to 0.9%) where it stayed until 2006, before going back to 1.1%.

Would people ride more if they didn’t have to wear a helmet?

The answer is yes. One in five (22.6%) say they would ride a bicycle more if they didn’t have to wear a helmet, particularly occasional cyclists (40.4% of those who had cycled in the past week and 33.1% of those who had cycled in the past month). Of those who hadn’t ridden bike in the past year 19% said they ride more.

While a hypothetical situation, if only half or a quarter of the one in five respondents who said they would cycle more if they did not have to wear a helmet did ride more, Sydney targets for increasing cycling would be achieved by repealing mandatory bicycle helmet legislation. This increase in cycling would result without having to spend millions of dollars on new cycling infrastructure.

Here is some basic maths to help justify this claim.

There are about 3.5 million people in Sydney aged 16 years and older. Conservatively 60% haven’t ridden a bike in the past year – leaving 2,100,000. With 19% of people not having ridden the past year saying they would ride more, this represents 399,000  potential riders.  In Sydney, the Census tells us that about 10,000 people rode to work on Census day.  We know that this is an under-estimate of cycling levels, but even if we multiply this by a factor of 10 this 100,000 Sydney cyclists are still a quarter of the potential new cyclists.

A significant proportion of the population would continue to wear helmets even if they were not required to do so. Almost half (47.6%) of respondents said they would never ride without a helmet, 14.4% said “all the time”, 30.4% said “some of the time” and the rest were not sure. Infrequent riders were most likely to say they would wear a helmet.

Overall, one third of respondents did not support mandatory helmet legislation. There was an inverse association between riding frequency and support of the helmet legislation, with those not riding in the past year most likely to support helmet legislation, and more frequent riders less likely to support it.

So the non-riders (inexperienced majority) are happy to impose the mandatory helmet legislation on ‘other people’ – it doesn’t affect them.

Chris Rissel is from the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney

Previous Croakey posts on the bicycle helmet debate.

 

 

 

 

Comments 23

  1. Davies Ben says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nYfDTsjwE58
    2 prime ministers same speech check it out

    http://blog.buzzflash.com/node/13187 what harper is now doing in canada

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0nCFmMWs1bY libertarians in the 1930’s

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nt5RZ6ukbNc
    colin powell’s weapons of mass destruction speech the biggest lie thus far this century

    Let’s talk economic policy instead… Something the Australian Public would like to see Tony Abbott’s economic policy how he is different from Libertarians and is a REAL CONSERVATIVE and is not going to sell out to the Banking industry..

    Or are those commercials a more competitive banking Tony Abbott’s only policy?

    http://www.fdic.gov/bank/individual/failed/banklist.html

    Worked well in America and Europe!!!!!

    We must have more banks!!!!!!

    Have a great weekend,

    Ben

  2. calyptorhynchus says:

    Yes, but if more people cycle without helmets more people will be injured or die in accidents.

    The health benefits of cycling are not so dramatic that relaxing the cycle-helmet laws is justified.

  3. dsf says:

    I have two problems with this study

    1) I have no faith in people ACTUALLY riding more if the helmet laws were relaxed rather than them merely responding to a survey saying they would. The fact that cycling to work rates have been fairly constant since 1976 (15 years before mandatory helmet laws would indicate to me that even the half or quarter who may actually be telling the truth is way off the mark)

    2) Even if the 22% who said they would ride more if helmets were not madatory actually did so, we would need to know how much more they rode (to calculate health benefits) and how many existing helmet riders would ditch their helmets, and how many km’s they rode, (to calculate negative health benefits of more injuries and deaths).

    For example even if 10000 people rode an average of 5 km’s per week, this would do little or nothing to increase health benefits, but if there were 1000 extra serious head injuries per year, this would be a net negative health benefit. On the other hand if 100000 people rode an extra 50 km per week, and there were only an extra 10 serious head injuries, this would seem to be a net positove health benefit (not to the 10 people suffering serious head injuries of course)

    These matters may have been addressed in the full study, which I have not read it as yet.

    P.S. I ride an average of 120 km per week, and have worn a helmet even prior to them being mandatory. A workmate has just bought a new helmet after smashing his in a recent (slow speed) bike accident. Looking at the damage to the helmet, I doubt he would still be a workmate if he wasnt wearing it

  4. Sapere Aude says:

    Since cycle helmets are designed to minimise brain injuries, those who refuse to wear a helmet clearly demonstrate that – they really don’t need one!

  5. greenfiend says:

    RE: Calyptorhynchus

    “Yes, but if more people cycle without helmets more people will be injured or die in accidents.”

    Evidence?

    I mean real scientifically tested evidence, or statistics that will withstand proper scrutiny, none of this anecdotal evidence that is usually put forward. Head injuries in WA dropped by 30% after compulsory helmet legislation was introduced, often quoted as proof. But cycling numbers also dropped by 30%, so no change in per capita terms.

    I am yet to see any evidence that will convince me that I should wear one, or that I should be forced to put one on my child.

    Car drivers, on the other hand, would be much safer if they were forced to wear helmets.

  6. Firstname Lastname says:

    I think you would find that if the helmet laws were repealed there would would still be accidents but if the government showed some nouce and ran an education program on safe riding and road use for all vehicles the numbers of accidents would drop in relation to the total number or riders.

  7. Casablanca says:

    I was glad that I was wearing a helmet recently when a boom-gate came down on my head. The helmet and the boom-gate were written-off and apart from a bruised nose and chin and slight concussion I was unharmed. I was not doing anything illegal or risky and did not even see the boom-gate as it dropped because it did this so suddenly and rapidly.

    I agree wholeheartedly with calyptorhynchus. Also, the cost of medical care for cyclists who sustain serious head injuries and lifelong disabilities are seldom taken into account by anti-helmet proponents. The sensation of the wind going through one’s hair is delightful but it can come at a very high cost. Helmets are like any other form of insurance – you pays yer money because of a percentage possibility of injury or mishap.

  8. 2dogs says:

    I am sorry but saying that more people would ride if they did not have to wear helmets is like saying more people would drive if they did not have to have a license.

    Of course the answer is going to be yes but it misses the point entirely of why people are do not actually want to wear helmets in the first place. I suspect that it would come down to 1. cost and 2. image.
    I do not believe that any would actually think “I do not ride because, in principle, I do not believe that a helmet would actually prevent or lessen the chance of brain injury in an accident. To ride a bike wearing a helmet would therefore be hypercritical of me and as a result I refuse to ride”

  9. Vox rationis says:

    Calyptorhynchus, you don’t know that. that’s why studies are done. Everyone used to think that hormone replacement therapy for post menopausal women was great , until they actually did a study and found the death rate was increased. I used to cycle everywhere until aged 28 – didn’t bother getting a licence, until I got a $40 fine & a criminal record for not wearing a helmet. Now I weigh 200kg. Good lawmaking?

  10. Michael Fanning says:

    Thanks, Chris, for another well reasoned and researched article on the realities of helmet compulsion. Sadly I predict the majority of the comments to come here will be faith-based rather than rational. Just like the one above from calyptorhyncus.

  11. Archer says:

    I drive in many areas where cyclists have delusions of the Tour de France. Port Melbourne, Studley Park, Fitzroy and Eltham. Many take their lives into their own hands. Showing little regard for the cars around them and the danger they are putting themselves in.

    A $40 helmet could prevent you from living the life of a vegetable. Take reasonable precautions, cough up the money, ride with a helmet or insure yourself against major injury and trauma. I’m not contributing to your life support costs.

    Have a nice day.

  12. calyptorhynchus says:

    Anybody who cycles eventually either falls off or has an accident.

    Now I would like to challenge Michael Fanning, Vox rationis (sic), greenfiend and any else who thinks that a $50 helmet is a challenge to their civil liberties to state categorically:

    “When I fall off a bike, I [insert name], would rather not be wearing a helmet.”

  13. Archer says:

    Can we please get rid of Davies Ben or have him taken to the nearest psychiatric facility. His paranoia is get out of hand.

  14. green-orange says:

    “When mandatory helmet legislation was introduced in Australia in 1991, observational studies of the number of people cycling found that there was about a 30-40% drop in the number of people cycling”

    The only “study” was an observation done by a few anti-helmet people in a single park in Perth over a couple of weekends.

    “I mean real scientifically tested evidence, or statistics that will withstand proper scrutiny, none of this anecdotal evidence that is usually put forward. Head injuries in WA dropped by 30% after compulsory helmet legislation was introduced”

    Hospitalisations in SA dropped by half in SA after helmets, and have remained at that level despite an _increase_ in bicycle use over the last 15 years. Head injuries dropped even further.
    This study was made by the transport department, not a few amateurs with an axe to grind.

  15. Edward James says:

    @ Archer. I agree Davies Ben is spamming strings on a subscription site. I ride a big bike and also have a treadley. I cant be bothered with the treadley now its years since I pulled a peddle power wheelie. I am much older and part of the reason I dont choose peddle power I must wear a helmet so might as well ride the fourteen hundred! It is interesting to note countries where they want cyclist to use community rides they had worked around complusory helmets. I have had a race driver mate who hit my helmet with a ball pien hammer then dared me to take it off and let him hit me again. So I understand helmets work. But we are not always scensible! Edward James

  16. greenfiend says:

    When I fall off a bike, I, Greenfiend, would rather not be wearing a helmet. The increased chances of a serious neck or head injury are the reason.

    And still no scientific studies cited to prove helmets work.

    “A workmate has just bought a new helmet after smashing his in a recent (slow speed) bike accident. Looking at the damage to the helmet, I doubt he would still be a workmate if he wasnt wearing it” – Not science.

    “I was glad that I was wearing a helmet recently when a boom-gate came down on my head. The helmet and the boom-gate were written-off and apart from a bruised nose and chin and slight concussion I was unharmed.” – Not science.

    “Also, the cost of medical care for cyclists who sustain serious head injuries and lifelong disabilities are seldom taken into account by anti-helmet proponents.” – Not taken into account because there is no proof they work. Helmets for car drivers on the other hand…

  17. Rooks Paul says:

    Really, what on Earth is the problem with a helmet requirement? There were similar concerns around introducing compulsory car-seat belt usage, but you don’t see articles against that policy now. (And air-bags, indoor smoking, unleaded petrol, etc. etc.) We should be looking to the future of cycling rather than harking back to the past.

    “When mandatory helmet legislation was introduced in Australia in 1991, observational studies of the number of people cycling found that there was about a 30-40% drop in the number of people cycling.” Yet later on the article states an actual drop from 1.1% to 0.9% in that year, which has since recovered to 1.1% cycling today. So actually nowhere near 30-40% then.

    Speaking to colleagues about the reason that they don’t cycle to work, the most common reasons other than laziness are either the distance from work or safety concerns, in that there are insufficient cycle ways and being forced to share a road with heavy traffic. I’m lucky in that recently I moved to be nearer to work and am now able to complete 75% of my journey on cycleways and so…now I cycle, whereas before, I actually felt safer to jog for a longer distance and avoid being on the roads.

  18. dsf says:

    @Greenfield – “A workmate has just bought a new helmet after smashing his in a recent (slow speed) bike accident. Looking at the damage to the helmet, I doubt he would still be a workmate if he wasnt wearing it” – Not science.

    No, you are correct its not strictly science, it is however observation of facts (one of the basis for science).

    The facts:
    Helmet – smashing of right hand side outershell , crushing of right hand side polystyrene inner, fracturing of the right hand side polystyrene inner (I believe that is the foam lining material).
    Rider – Injuries to Head – Nil, Injuries to neck – Nil, other injuries – severe bruising to shoulder, grazing to shoulder and thigh.

    Yes – This is a case study of one, so not science (unfortunately I have neither the talent nor time to do a scientific study).

    I have no problem with anyone not wearing a helmet, provided they do not ask the taxpayer to fund any medical (or funeral) expenses as a result.

    Oh, one final thing Greenfield, I offer a challenge. We both start smashing our heads into the pavement, first very gently and then with increasing force (I will of course be wearing my helmet, you of course won’t), whoever gives up first owes the other $50.

  19. HB says:

    I find this whole debate wearying as it only serves to get cycists arguing amongst themselves.
    As usual, here we are supplied by reader’s anecdotes (“If you had seen what I had seen” “I nearly had a crash” and “I used to cycle but…”) but it doesn’t advance the safety of cyclists on iota.
    I suggest a moratorium on anecdotes and a focus on evidence – and don’t waste my time arguing over whose evidence is better. Studies like the one quoted here serve to indicate what part of the problem is – and only by working out the component parts of the problem can we start to work out the solutions – and they will be multiple.
    And finally – let’s keep ourselves nice.

  20. Edward James says:

    I would ride a bicycle more often if I did not have to carry a helmet around with me. uckf safety! If I am run over by a big truck or bus the condiction of my head is not going to matter one bit! I know this because a push bike helmet is nothing like a motor bike helmet. And if we are serous about the safety a helmet gives us and it dose then why are helmets not mandatory in cars??? Yeah I though so very unpopular politically. Edward James

  21. Cajela says:

    I’m with Edward. My nice hefty motorcycle helmet is genuine protection; the flimsy bit of plastic that I’m legally required to wear on the pushy is security theatre.

    The main reason we’re talking about this, and not about seatbelts is that we have absolutely sound statistical evidence that seatbelts work to save lives. We don’t have any such evidence for bicycle helmets.

    We do have studies showing that car drivers drive closer to helmeted cyclists then the unhelmeted. And that cyclist injury rates are much lower and bicycle usage rates are much higher in countries with no helmet laws. Culture matters much more than helmets, it seems.

  22. Edward James says:

    On the subject of no helmets this Link http://www.smh.com.au/travel/cycling-revolution-where-the-bike-hire-scheme-really-works-20111207-1oinm.html Tells readers about Boris bikes in London City. Odd heavy and unattractive three speeds One pound to sign up for insurance and up to fifty pound for 24 hours, which drops to nothing if you only use them for less than 30 minutes at a time. Clover Moore would love this story ! Edward James

  23. eldon2 says:

    maybe the problem is not with the individual riders anyway?

    i am one of the 20% who would ride more if i did not have to wear a helmet..although my point actually relates to sydney DRIVERS, not cyclists.

    i rode a bicycle everywhere for the 11 years i lived in japan. no helmet, no accidents.. except the one morning when i rode to work in the snow, and came a cropper when turning into the bike parking area. my coat was ruined, elbow bruised. no head injuries.

    the reason i felt so safe riding on narrow japanese streets and footpaths was that there, an apparently unwritten law deemed the smaller the vehicle, the more right of way it had. hence, pedestrians had right of way over bikes, bikes over cars, cars over trucks. this is how the system worked to my way of seeing. and, then, whose fault in an accident? well, both parties were responsible for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. this is flexible blame, not absolutist, and in a place like japan where there are many people having to travel about and work cheek-by-jowl, then it is ultimately sensible to think big-picture, and not inda-bloodly-vidually.

    anyway, it’s one thing i miss about japan – the facility of just going out, shopping, partying, whatever, by bicycle and helmetless (see, if i want to go to work or to a party, i cannot appear with helmet-hair).

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