Follow @theurbancountry on Twitter Find us on Facebook Subscribe to theurbancountry.com via e-mail Subscribe to theurbancountry.com via RSS
Follow @theurbancountry on Twitter Find us on Facebook Subscribe to theurbancountry.com via e-mail Subscribe to theurbancountry.com via RSS

Australia Got it Wrong – Time to Roll Back the Clock? 21

SydneyOperaHouse

Photo courtesy of Matthew Knott

Australia enacted its mandatory bicycle helmet law for all riders in 1991. Cycling participation dropped 30-40% after the law was enacted while other nations have enjoyed an increase in cycling during the same period.

Head injuries and concussions by cyclists were declining prior to to the helmet law and continued to decline after the helmet law – with no obvious improvement after the law was enacted.

Here in Canada – the provinces of British Columbia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia have mandatory bicycle helmet laws for all cyclists. Alberta and Ontario have mandatory helmets for cyclists under 18.

Although there is no conclusive evidence that helmet laws have reduced head injuries, we do know conclusively that it results in lower participation. We also know that a reduction in participation increases the risk for cyclists, so helmet laws may have the opposite effect that they had intended when they were introduced.

Over the weekend I became acquainted with internationally acclaimed Australian documentary filmmaker Michael Rubbo. Rubbo acquired a love for the bicycle late in life and has been creating some wonderful videos and posting to his blog that highlight the state of cycling in Australia as of late.

Rubbo recently attended a conference that discussed the possibility of bringing Montreal’s BIXI bicycle-sharing system to Melbourne, Australia. The filmmaker rightfully pointed out that success of a bicycling program in a country with mandatory helmet laws will be extraordinarily difficult.

As I watched Rubin’s video on bicycle sharing yesterday, I was surprised to see a photo flash on the screen of myself on a BIXI bicycle with Montreal’s beautiful Jacques Cartier bridge in the background. This revelation triggered an email that led to a pleasant conversation between Rubbo and I.

Rubbo is a fascinating man and at 70 years old he doesn’t look a day over 50. It’s a pleasure to talk about bicycle sharing with the man who is said to have inspired Michael Moore to film his first movie “Roger and Me” with his 1974 documentary “Waiting for Fidel”.

In Rubbo’s video on bicycle sharing, he proposes the idea of rescinding the mandatory helmet law in Australia but he is told “it’s not touchable politically”. Is 18 years too much of an investment for a country to admit that it was blatantly wrong in enacting the mandatory helmet law?

Changing the helmet legislation would surely have a positive impact on the environment, people’s health, gridlock, and yes – cycling safety. The more cyclists we get on the streets, the safer it will be for everyone – and the infrastructure will follow as a result. This is the type of safety that a helmet can’t provide.

A change to the helmet law wouldn’t have a significant impact on most existing cyclists – even Rubbo admits that he would continue to wear his helmet even if the law were removed – but he wants to have the right to choose whether to wear it or not.

Bravo to Rubbo for promoting cycling in Australia. If his country doesn’t do the right thing and roll back its existing law, it just might be the last country in the Western world to adopt the new era of cycling culture – and that would indeed be a shame.

In the video below entitled “Biking Up the Wrong tree”, Rubbo and his friend Bruce cycled around Sydney for 6 hours on a beautiful day and sadly – they only saw 6 other cyclists. In a beautiful city like Sydney, this is a tragedy.

James D. Schwartz is the editor of The Urban Country and appears on most Sundays and Thursdays, and sometimes in between. View all of James’ articles here.

  • Anonymous

    I ride to work almost every day, and would NEVER do so without a helmet; it’s unnecessary stupidity to do away with easy safety precautions.

    Once you’ve had your head hit the pavement and suffered no ill effects thanks to a helmet, you tend to see them as useful as opposed to annoying.

    Wayne@OZ

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04454437680686627778 James D. Schwartz

    If you’re the type of person who frequently falls on your head, then maybe you should keep wearing that helmet.

    For those of us who don’t fall on our heads, we should have a choice.

    Perhaps the compulsory helmet law could only apply to those who are prone to fall on their heads.

    Great idea Wayne!

  • Anonymous

    Improved infrastructure would do far more to improve cycling rates than allowing people to remove a sensible safety precaution.

    I’d never ride my bike without a helmet, but I don’t want to suffer a head-strike after a 30+kmh fall.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04454437680686627778 James D. Schwartz

    Proper infrastructure will never come in a country where less than 1% of the population commutes by bicycle.

    Getting more people on their bikes is the best way to improve cycling safety and develop infrastructure faster.

  • Anonymous

    I always wear a helmet when I ride, but I am opposed to “nanny state” laws like this. Let people choose for themselves whether or not they want to wear a helmet.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04170152877824201743 boyan

    I agree re: ‘nanny state’. People should wear helmets if they want to and not if they don’t want to. The problem is that the government forcing people to wear helmets decreases the chances that people would take up cycling. It’s that ‘untapped market’ that is being driven away by the laws. Once people starts cycling, sure, they should wear helmets if they feel safe.

  • Jamie W

    It’s odd to find out about the many people who wouldn’t ride without their helmet, yet are not aware that helmet are only designed to protect you in low-speed crashes.

    I don’t have a problem with that. People can do what they like.

    I do have a problem with people who think they have a right to force others to wear a ‘helmet’ providing limited protection. That’s a sick mentality.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04454437680686627778 James D. Schwartz

    Great point Jamie – I am completely pro-choice and I have nothing against anyone who chooses to wear a helmet themselves.

    I find a lot of people liken bicycle helmets to seatbelt laws or motorcycle helmet laws. The truth is that a motorcycle helmet can save your life on high impact falls – but bicycle helmets aren’t motorcycle helmets.

    It’s a real shame that so many people are convinced their bicycle helmets will save their lives if they fall on their head at 35km/h.

  • Anonymous

    Looks at BC, a province with mandatory helmet laws. Do they have people biking? Damn rights they do – and they wear helmets too. You can’t go anywhere in Victoria or Vancouver without seeing a cyclist.

    Build the infrastructure, and people will use it. For the record, I lived in SE Australia, and there were lots of bikies, but not too many bike commuters.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04454437680686627778 James D. Schwartz

    Agreed, nobody is saying that helmet laws result in zero cyclists. But I can assure you there would be a lot more cyclists in downtown Vancouver if they didn’t have a helmet law (I was in Vancouver just last weekend)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10529004554427280103 Mark

    Seems reasonable to presume that helmets would deter people. But is there proof?

    I feel like there are much bigger fish, like said infrastructure and social acceptance.

    Also, could helmets not promote a biking culture? Would so many people use ‘green’ bags if it weren’t a tool for social expression that can literally be ‘worn on your sleeve’, just as a helmet could be. Something so small could very well be a ‘tipping point’ (ala Gladwell).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10529004554427280103 Mark

    to rephrase..

    what do you mean by ‘we know conclusively that it results in lower participation’

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04454437680686627778 James D. Schwartz

    Mark, here are some stats about the drop in cycling use after helmet legislation is introduced:

    http://www.cyclehelmets.org/1020.html

    Infrastructure can have a huge positive impact on the number of cyclists, but it’s also expensive and requires substantial political will. If 40% of the cyclists stop cycling, then it makes for a good excuse for not making infrastructure (unfortunately)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10529004554427280103 Mark

    See ‘Effect on cycle use’ in 2nd article that you referenced:

    “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.”

    My second concern… who are these cyclehelmets.org anyway and what’s there agenda.

    My third concern… those references say a lot about 1991, Australia and children. I think when you’re talking about a cultural shift, context is everything. For example, a lot has changed since 1991… also, kids may not think helmets are cool, but adults might (or might not care). Some adults may be more inclined to cycle if there were less kids on the road, thus making cycling more socially view as an ‘adult’ thing.

    Looks like a very complicated matter.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10529004554427280103 Mark

    BTW, I think this a great example of challenging the status quo, and it definitely makes people think about their assumptions.

    But, based on references cited, I don’t think this can be a 180 shift.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10510514405099510918 Michael

    I am currently wearing a helmet with a brim I’ve added. Ir was 40 deg. today, and riding with my brim as a sunshade, I was quite comfortable.

    I’ve not given much thought to helmets till recently. Now, my main concern is that they might stop the entry of Bike Share to Australia.

    Bike Share is something which can almost over night, to judge what’s happened with the Bixi in Montreal, shift our bike culture towards utility bike use in our cities.

    It’s vital we get bike share and if helmets stand in the way, they should go at least partially de criminalized, as I propose in the film on my blog:

    Bike Share and helmets don’t mix? Mike

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00392867419470949320 Herve

    Yes it is time to roll back the clock.

    The helmet law was imposed using claims that it would improve safety. It didn’t. It is still far more dangerous to ride in Australia than it is to ride in Holland for example. Holland has bicycle paths and many more cyclists. That’s what makes the difference in terms of safety.

    It’s quite incredible to see how many Australians think that bicycle safety is about helmets. Most of them don’t even know that a helmet won’t help them in a collision with a car.

    All that law really did was discourage people from riding. Many people simply gave up cycling. 40% of children did.

    So what’s the result? Australia is the world champion in obesity, the fattest nation on earth.

    The bill for obesity? 58 BILLIONS per year.

    The benefits of the law? none.

    How smart is that?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11187400454555241935 Sue ‘sans’ helmet

    great blog!

    - i have never worn a helmet and never will – i am currently appealing my criminal conviction of ‘riding a bicycle without a helmet’ and will be heard in the district court of new south wales next february 2010 – i cycle here in my home town (scone, nsw) and all through sydney but tend to cycle mainly in the cbd and inner west rather than around the harbour and wharves so see countless cyclists everywhere(‘sporty’ and ‘floaty’ types- the latter like me) – but best of all the zeitgeist is definitely changing here and i am noticing that as more and more take to the roads less and less are taking to the helmets – i am lobbying all our politicians across the nation, and have started a blog to spare my family and friends of this matter – http://www.freedomcyclist.blogspot.com/

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04454437680686627778 James D. Schwartz

    Herve and Sue,

    Thanks for stopping by and providing insight from “within” the great Australia.

    Sue, I will be watching your hearing closely and I hope it turns out in your favour.

  • Isobel Cairns

    “If his country doesn’t do the right thing and roll back its existing law, it just might be the last country in the Western world to adopt the new era of cycling culture…”

    Well, not quite the last. Here in New Zealand we likely won’t repeal helmet laws until Australia has done it first.

  • Isobel Cairns

    “If his country doesn’t do the right thing and roll back its existing law, it just might be the last country in the Western world to adopt the new era of cycling culture…”

    Well, not quite the last. Here in New Zealand we likely won’t repeal helmet laws until Australia has done it first.