Evidence in support of repealing bicycle helmet legislation
The view that the state should not intervene in a matter of personal
choice was reflected in the evidence of a substantial number of individual
submitters who argued that MHL had reduced their enjoyment of cycling or had
stopped their cycling altogether for reasons of discomfort or inconvenience.
However, the arguments supporting repeal of MHL varied considerably and
ranged from personal preference to consideration of the net societal benefits. These
submitters suggested that the compulsory requirement discourages people from
riding (thereby forgoing health benefits and contributing to obesity);
contributes to the image of cycling as a dangerous activity;
and redirects focus away from unsafe infrastructure and poor driver attitudes.
Some questioned the evidence that helmet legislation has achieved any
meaningful reduction in the rate of brain or head injuries while others
contended that there was a potential increase in the risk of brain trauma
associated with helmets.
These views are further explored in this chapter.
Efficacy of bicycle helmets
The Bicycle Transport Alliance argued that the introduction of the MHL
was a 'political decision taken to create a good image, without any proper
research or consideration of the consequences'.
Further, the view was put to the committee that 25 years on, there is 'still a
lack of international consensus on the effectiveness of a helmet in the
event of an accident, with the protective effects frequently overstated'.
Freestyle Cyclists Inc. continued:
The positive effects of mandatory helmet legislation were
assumed to be a reduction in the extent and severity of head injuries to
cyclists, including mortality. Whilst there is some evidence that there is a
benefit to wearing a helmet in the event of an accident (emphasis
crucial), the effect on a whole population of mandating helmet wearing would
appear to have been that it makes cycling, per unit distance travelled,
slightly less safe overall, with no significant improvement in head injury
rates or severity.
Others questioned the efficacy of helmets in protecting cyclists.
The key arguments in regard to efficacy included the view that:
there was no substantive decline in head injury rates following
the introduction of MHL;
helmets only provide protection to the brain when the cyclist is
travelling at slow speed; and that
helmets may actually increase the risk of brain injury.
In relation to the first point, CycleSafe stated that if helmets had
been successful, there would have been a large reduction in head injuries.
Similarly, Dr Dorothy Robinson explained that:
[d]espite the large increases in the percentages of cyclists
wearing helmets as a result of the mandatory helmet laws, the proportions of
cyclists with head injuries admitted or treated at hospital declined by an
average of only 13 [per cent].
The point was made that if helmet legislation had been effective in
preventing head injuries, there would be a fall in head injury incidents but no
Yet, the committee was informed that a 1996 study in NSW and Victoria found
that the decline in cycling was at least as substantial as the decline in head
Further, CycleSafe noted that the data on hospital admissions in Victoria
revealed a clear fall in non-head injuries as well as in head injuries.
Freestyle Cyclists Inc. suggested that the effectiveness of a helmet in
the event of an accident has been overstated.
It was put to the committee that a soft-shell bicycle helmet only provides
brain protection at impact speeds of up to approximately 18 kilometres (km) per
At the same time, it was argued that helmets only protect against 10 to 15 per
cent of head injuries. According to Professor Chris Rissel, MHL have had little
impact on head and brain injuries, because the actual risk of such injuries is
very low per time or km exposure.
It was suggested that the average person would not be likely to
experience a serious head injury in a lifetime of cycling.
Mr Colin Clarke put to the committee that a person cycling two hours per week
for 50 years would cycle for a total of 5200 hours and, over that time,
only have a one per cent risk of hospital admission for serious head injury.
The view was also put that helmets may actually increase the risk of
brain injury. Mr Bill Curnow, President of the Cyclists' Rights Action Group argued:
Protecting the brain from injury that results in death or
chronic disablement provides the main motivation for wearing helmets. Their
design has been driven by the development of synthetic polystyrene foams which
can reduce the linear acceleration resulting from direct impact to the head,
but scientific research shows that angular acceleration from oblique impulse is
a more important cause of brain injury. Helmets are not tested for capacity to reduce
it and, as Australian research first showed, they may increase it.
Mr Curnow further suggested that the most serious brain injury is caused
by rapid rotation of the head and not from a direct blow. As helmets have holes
for ventilation, he argued that if any of those holes hit a rough surface, such
as bitumen, they would grip and twist, with the twisting action causing serious
Perceptions of risk
Some evidence to the committee suggested that MHL had in fact increased
the total number of cyclist hospital admissions, rather than decrease them.
Mr Chris Gillham stated that a primary cause of this was 'risk
compensation', where cyclists ride faster or more dangerously because they
believe their helmet will prevent serious injury.
He drew on a recent UK study which found that people take more risks when they
ride a bike with, rather than without, a helmet and that:
Cyclists as a proportion of all road crash injuries in
Australia have increased by about 80 to 90 per cent over the past 20 years, and
that surely indicates that something is wrong.
Further, CycleSafe argued that helmet wearing can increase accidents by
changing the attitudes of drivers, with drivers giving less room when
overtaking helmeted cyclists.
Similarly, Mr Clarke argued that:
The actual risk of serious head injury when cycling is low
and the risk of accident increases with helmet use. Also, the risk of impact to
the helmet compared with a non-helmeted head increases. The personal perception
of improved safety is likely to increase with more accidents and the impacts
but in most cases, actual safety is decreasing with more accidents and impacts.
MHL and cycling participation rates
Mr Clarke drew on road traffic accident data to demonstrate that there
had been a decline in cycling participation rates (including amongst children
riding to school and adults cycling to work) since the introduction of helmet
legislation in Australia.
Similarly, Professor Rissel argued that, based on census data, cycling to work
levels had not recovered to the 1986 level, with cycling to work representing
only 1.2 per cent of journeys in 2006. He made the point that there were fewer
cycling trips in Australia in 2011 than in 1985, despite population increases.
Submitters cited evidence suggesting that helmet laws were associated
sustained reduction in cycling as a means of transport from 1986
to 2011, accounting for one per cent of all trips to work;
decline by 36 per cent in the number of people cycling in Melbourne
following the introduction of Victoria's helmet laws;
decline from an upward trend in bicycle trips to work in regional
Queensland, peaking at 3.2 per cent in 1991 (prior to the MHL) and which now
stands at 1.1 per cent.
drop of 90.6 per cent of female secondary students cycling in
Sydney, down from 214 in 1991 to 20 in 1993;
reduction of cycling levels in regional areas of Victoria by 44.5
per cent in 1991-92 compared to 1988-89.
Many submitters held the view that the requirement to wear a helmet was
consistently identified as a primary barrier to improving cycling rates in
They suggested that the removal of the mandatory requirement would lead to an
increase in cycling participation and improve long-term public health as well
as positively impact traffic congestion, road safety and pollution levels.
Submitters argued that the drop in cycling participation brought about
by MHL negatively impacted the safety of cyclists because of the 'safety in
numbers' effect. That is, the more people that walk or cycle, the safer it
becomes to walk or cycle. By diluting the effect of safety in
numbers, MHL have the perverse effect of increasing serious injury rates among
those who continue to cycle.
Mr Clarke explained that when motorists expect to encounter cyclists,
the risk of injury per cyclist declines.
Mr Aaron Ball stated that preventing crashes through a 'safety in numbers'
approach is a more effective road strategy than ensuring people are wearing
helmets if they do crash.
In addition, the point was made that mandating bicycle helmets has encouraged
the perception that cycling is inherently dangerous. As a result, submitters
argued that many Australians are discouraged from regular or occasional
Attention was drawn to cycling rates in the NT where mandatory
legislation was amended in 1994 to make it legal for a person over 17 years of
age to ride on separated footpaths and cycle paths without a helmet.
According to the Australian Cyclists Party, the NT has the highest
ridership of any state or territory as measured by the Australian Bureau of
Further, Professor Rissel submitted that cycling injury rates in the NT are
commensurate with the national average.
It was suggested, therefore, that the NT exemption demonstrated the point that
a relaxation of helmet laws improves cycling participation rates without any corresponding
increase in injury rates.
International perspective and the
bike share experience
It was pointed out that while MHL continue to be upheld in Australia,
the rest of the world has not been persuaded to follow Australia's example.
Further, it was argued that MHL were responsible for the low participation rates
in Australia's two public bike share schemes, which have the lowest usage rates
in the world.
There are more than 400 cities operating bike share programs worldwide including
London, Paris, Dublin, New York and Barcelona.
It was suggested that such schemes serve as a significant part of an integrated
transport system and their safety record was excellent.
Bike share schemes were introduced in Melbourne (Melbourne Bike Share)
and Brisbane (CityCycle) in 2010 with approximately 600 and 1800 bicycles
respectively. Reports suggest that Sydney is contemplating the introduction of
its own bike share scheme.
Both operational schemes have experienced low ridership in comparison to
schemes operated around the world.
As of May 2011, users made about 13,000 trips each month under the Melbourne
scheme, which was short of the target of 25,000 trips per month.
the Dublin bike hire scheme—approximately the same size as
Melbourne's scheme—has had ten times the daily use with no serious injuries.
a recently introduced New York bike share system attracted more
trips in the first month of operation than the combined total in Melbourne and
Brisbane throughout their existence.
one million bikes were hired in the first two weeks of the London
scheme and one million in the first four months in Montreal compared to 20,600
bikes in the first four months of the Melbourne scheme.
Freestyle Cyclists Inc. argued that the low uptake of the bike share
schemes in Australia was 'almost wholly attributable to mandatory helmet
In fact, Professor Rissel informed the committee that 61 per cent of
respondents in a 2014 survey identified helmet issues as the main barrier to
bike share participation in Australia.
Health and social costs of MHL
We can think of no comparable example from the fields of
health or safety, where healthy behaviour (riding a bicycle) is banned in the
absence of a safety intervention of so little demonstrated worth. We can think
of no worse example of the stubborn intransigence of government in refusing to
acknowledge the widespread collateral harm caused by a well intentioned though
Professor Rissel and a number of other submitters argued that the health
and social benefits of cycling far outweigh the health risks from traffic
They suggested that, for this reason, MHL serve as a net public health loss.
In this regard, Mr Gillham stated that:
Data published over the past 25 years has consistently shown
a substantial and permanent decline in the proportion of Australians cycling,
with consequent damage to public health.
The data show tens and probably hundreds of thousands of
Australians are discouraged from regular or occasional recreational exercise
and instead mostly use their cars for transport, increasing traffic congestion
and the likelihood of road trauma.
According to CycleSafe, most evaluations suggest that the cost of
discouraging a healthy and environmentally friendly form of transport is much
greater than any reductions in injuries from increased helmet wearing.
Mr Clarke went further, citing a UK study which calculated that the life
years gained from cycling outweighed the life years lost in accidents by 20
Therefore, helmet laws have not delivered a net societal health benefit, with a
calculated cost benefit ratio of 109 to 1.
A similar point was made by Professor Piet de Jong, Professor of
Actuarial Studies at Macquarie University who compared the possible beneficial
effect of a helmet in an accident involving the head with that of the impact of
helmet laws in reducing cycling rates. He continued:
If you set off those two effects, then the net health impacts
of a mandatory helmet law appears to be, under almost every scenario, negative.
That is not to say that individuals should not wear helmets nor that parents
should not require their kids to wear helmets. It just says that there is a
large unintended consequence of mandatory helmet laws that tends to swamp the
possibly good effects of people wearing helmets.
Many individual submitters stated that they would cycle more often, and
particularly for short journeys, if there were not required to wear a helmet.
Dr Dorothy Robinson, a Researcher with CycleSafe, described these cyclists
as the 'safest cyclists' as they are often the most risk adverse. Yet, she
noted that it was amongst these safer cyclists, many of whom are in regional
areas, that the most substantial decline in cycling rates have occurred.
Further, the point was made that cycling plays a key role in preventing
illnesses. According to Mr Clarke, about 80,000 deaths a year are related to obesity
and cardiovascular disease compared to 50 deaths a year from cycling. He
suggested that cycling gives a level of fitness equivalent of being ten years
younger and a life expectancy two years above the average.
Another related concern was that MHL send the wrong signal, as they penalise
cyclists for engaging in an activity that provides positive health benefits.
Evidence to the committee suggested that the introduction of MHL led to
a 90 per cent increase in traffic infringement notices issued to cyclists
and that, currently, failure to wear a helmet accounts for over two-thirds of
infringement notices issued to cyclists.
In Victoria, as an example, 200,000 fines have been issued for not
At the same time, the respective penalty rose from $15 in 1990 (when MHL were
introduced in Victoria) to $176 in 2014 and to $185 in 2015.
As well as increased penalties for not wearing bicycle helmets,
submitters argued that the courts have become overloaded with the prosecution
of those who have not paid their fines.
Further, Ms Katy Francis described to the committee how she had been arrested
and held for 24 hours for unpaid bicycle helmet fines:
Ms Francis: I was taken to the local lockup and
strip-searched, is that what you are referring to?
Ms Francis: I did not put that in my submission.
CHAIR: Somebody advised me about it. What was the outcome of
that? Did you lodge a complaint? Were you convicted?
Ms Francis: I believed it was what they did to everyone who
was arrested, that it was part of the punishment for being a criminal.
CHAIR: Were you a criminal?
Ms Francis: I had not paid my fines.
CHAIR: Does not paying fines make you a criminal?
Senator CANAVAN: But you were not convicted of anything. You
had been arrested.
Ms Francis: No, I had not been to court. I was arrested for
not paying my fines.
CHAIR: Were they on-the-spot fines?
Ms Francis: Yes.
CHAIR: So you had never been to a court?
Ms Francis: No.
CHAIR: For not paying on the spot fines?
Ms Francis: Yes.
CHAIR: You were arrested?
Ms Francis: I was arrested without warning as well.
CHAIR: You were arrested without warning, and you were
strip-searched in a police station. Were you held for long?
Ms Francis: I was transferred from Kyneton to Keilor,
because the Kyneton jail was not adequate. I was pregnant at the time, and it
was not safe enough, so I was transferred to Keilor. I spent 24 hours in
Keilor, and I was then released on a community service order. I should add that
I was supposed to serve the community service order from the start, but there
was confusion over what they were going to do with me, and that never happened.
That is why I accidentally ended up in jail.
Concern was expressed by submitters that issuing 'excessive' fines to
persuade or coerce people to wear helmets, discouraged cycling and served no
The point was argued that an activity that benefits the individual and society
had been criminalised by MHL.
Furthermore, Freestyle Cyclists Inc. suggested that:
It has been estimated that per unit distance travelled,
failure to wear a bicycle helmet is the most heavily enforced of any traffic
regulation in Australia. With this focus on one minor behavioural issue, police
are failing to focus on the matters that really put cyclists' lives at risk –
driver behaviour. It also represents a ludicrous over policing of a choice
which is left to individual adult discretion everywhere in the world except
Australia, New Zealand and the United Arab Emirates.
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