Poll: Mandatory helmet laws

Our recent polls have been a bit one-sidedly negative or positive, but this month we’re going to risk something a bit more controversial. And, what could be more controversial than… yep, you guessed it: helmets.

Well, not helmets per se, but mandatory helmet laws. Most (but not all) people agree that in the case of a crash a helmet will reduce the risk of head injury, but the issue gets a lot muddier when trying to look at the bigger picture of whether mandatory use increases or decreases cycling safety overall. Those who support compulsory use of helmets tend to focus on helmets’ effectiveness in a crash, while those opposed tend to focus on the laws’ deterrent effect on cycling, and the overwhelming health benefits of cycling regardless of helmet use. Making a rational judgement on the issue isn’t as simple as one might hope, because the research is divided by what is studied, and how.

Although the issue has been around for many decades (and shows no sign of resolving itself any time soon), recently there has been increasing attention given to it locally. Recent Australian research (and the ensuing back and forth), the difficulties faced by both CityCycle and Melbourne Bike Share, the occasional notable change of tune, and the increasing number of Australian groups campaigning against the laws have led to recent calls in Sydney and Melbourne to review and modify the laws.

In September last year CBD BUG held a members’ debate on the merits of the law but since then we’ve had a year of CityCycle in operation, the state government’s report into the law, and some more time to consider the issues. So, we want to know what you think:

Should helmets always be legally required when cycling?

  • No, it's more important to remove obstacles to cycling (71%, 144 Votes)
  • Only in some circumstances e.g. when cycling on roads, but not when on paths (14%, 28 Votes)
  • Yes, the safety benefits are too great to allow people to choose not to wear them (15%, 33 Votes)

Total Voters: 204

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As always feel free to make additional comments below, just keep them constructive and civilised!

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13 Responses to Poll: Mandatory helmet laws

  1. Murray says:

    As a general rule, I support the idea of not having to wear helmets, but I really do not believe that there is a significant number of people out there who would suddenly take up cycling if they didn’t have to wear a helmet. If they say so, I’d argue they’re likely to be making excuses.

    From everything I’ve read, most people don’t ride for other reasons, most prominently because they think it’s unsafe. If that’s the case, not wearing a helmet is only likely to make them feel less safe.

    So while I said I generally support the idea, I think if you want to get more people cycling, spend your time doing something more productive, by doing things to make them feel safer. Slow down and reduce the volume of cars and provide separated cycle paths and lanes instead.

  2. Simon says:

    The question that needs to be asked is not whether whether mandatory helmet use increases or decreases cycling safety overall (although the answer to that question would go some way to answering the real question), but whether or not mandatory helmet use significantly reduces any negative externalities that might exist. Put more simply – is there an overall cost to society which is caused by an individual’s choice not to wear a helmet and can that cost also be significantly reduced by enforcing helmet use.

    The overall reduction in external costs (that is, costs to the wider community, not the individual involved) must be significant enough to justify removing the liberty of people to choose. Given that it can’t even be conclusively demonstrated that there are significant overall benefits to mandatory helmet wearing, it seems like a fairly unjustified regulatory incursion on the liberty of individuals.

  3. aaron ball says:

    Hi Murray. It is hard to really gauge how many people are put off cycling by helmets. I think it needs to be looked at more generally. helmet laws have been in place for 20 years, so to be fair they need to be removed for a similar length of time to gauge just wht effect it has on cyclist numbers. I agree with you that for a lot of people, it isn’t any one thing that stops them cycling, but a combination of factors.

    One thing is for sure though, a lot of people stopped riding when helmet laws were introduced, and it is fact that the longer a rule or law stays in place the more society just accepts it.

    In short, there are a lot of people nowadays that don’t cycle (in fact, 20 years is enough for a whole generation). While that group may not point specifically to helmet laws, I think you’d find the number of cyclists would increase over the next 20 years if the laws were removed today.

  4. steve says:

    If you want to show support to repeal mandatory bicycle helmet laws on facebook you can “Like” this page :-) .

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Repeal-Mandatory-Bicycle-Helmet-Laws/299708740046667

  5. Mark says:

    Something like 99% of the world can choose to wear a helmet, but Australians and Kiwis can’t. It’s embarrassing to be an Australian with this law. I’m definitely for freedom of choice.

  6. Gordo says:

    I think another area of the debate that is overlooked is the use context. I suspect different types of cycles present differing levels of risk and therefore need for protective gear. For example, there is not much vocal debate over mandatory laws for motorcycle helmets as there is with cyclists. There seems to be widespread acceptance that the higher speed of motorcycles and associated impact speeds when things go wrong make wearing of helmets a prudent risk mitigator.

    With bicycles, both the type and use present differing risks. The road bike presents with a more aggressive posture and riders generally travel at higher speeds. With clip less pedals, reacting to an incident for all but the sharpest by using feet to stabilise can be delayed.

    The mountain bike has been designed to attract users to try them in unstable terrain. Where the terrain is stable, such as suburban streets, riders find their own poor terrain by bouncing gutters etc.

    The cruiser style bikes, such as CityCycle and ‘Dutch Style’ bikes have a more relaxed, upright seating position, generally with wider softer tyres and provide a stable ride at slower speed.

    I own both a road and mountain bike and I’m a CityCycle subscriber. With many thousands of kilometres under my wheels, and a fair share of road rash, I would never ride my road bike without a good quality helmet. With my mountain bike, in some circumstances, such as a brief ride to the shop, the helmet seems ‘overkill’ whilst during a down hill trail run, it seems like an excellent idea.

    When taking a leisurely cruise along Tenerife Waterfront or even rolling down Adelaide St at 15 – 20 KmH on a CityCycle, with a nice balanced upright seating position, soft wide tyres, and feet comfortably deployable for balance, a helmet seems almost ludicrous.

    The challenge for the lawmakers that insist on medalling in our pedalling would be to phrase their legislation to account for bicycle types and use. Unfortunately it won’t be left to common sense as the problem with common sense is it’s not very common.

  7. Luke Turner says:

    I agree that helmets should not be mandatory in all situations. Cycling without a helmet is not so dangerous that it should be illegal. Helmet laws are not a necessary requirement of a safe cycling culture, as clearly demonstrated by many European countries that have a better safety record than Australia, without compulsory helmet laws.

    Many people (including myself) would prefer to ride without a helmet in many situations – on short trips around the local area for instance. This is a perfectly legitimate preference and an option available to 99% of the world’s population as Mark mentioned above.

    Helmet laws are detrimental to cycling participation in 2 main ways.

    Firstly, they directly reduce cycling numbers by a large amount. Many people (again I include myself in this company) ride less than they would if helmets were optional, and some don’t ride at all because of the laws. There are only 2 bike hire schemes in the world (out of hundreds) that have usage so low that they are being labelled as failures: Brisbane and Melbourne – the only 2 cities to have attempted bike hire with a mandatory helmet law.

    Secondly, helmet laws have contributed to the marginalisation of cycling in Australia as a genuine transport option. They send the message that riding a bike is intrinsically dangerous, and that the entire burden of safety should be borne by cyclists. In reality riding a bike is not dangerous in itself – the source of real danger for cyclists is almost entirely from collisions with motor vehicles, for which a helmet will offer only marginal protection.

    It’s perfectly reasonable for any individual cyclist to want to wear a helmet and utilise whatever protection a helmet gives in a crash, but it’s not reasonable for our state government to legislate this as virtually the one and only effort to make the make the roads safer for people on bicycles.

  8. Kim says:

    I believe that the law should still stand for minors

  9. Gav says:

    Nice balanced article, and nice balanced comments. Let’s hope they stay that way.

    Personally, I encourage the use of helmets in circumstances, but discourage the mandated law. I choose not to wear my helmet much of the time (cycling around the back streets of the inner west), but then do wear one for trips involving a speedy commute (rather than a leisurely one) and if I need to go through the city on a busy day or the evening. Also for longer road rides.

    I saw somewhere else, the most important things for safety are – 1. Training (for all on the roads). 2. Visibility. 3. Road design. 4. Conditions. 5. Safety equipment. Which ones do we mandate for?

    My attitude to this was polarised (as a Brit now living over here) when I was on Manly Corso on the grassed area, cycling at a very slow walking pace alongside a walking friend with my helmet hanging off my handlebars (I’d just arrived to meet them and moving to find a parking spot). I got stopped by a copper and given a dressing down. I must’ve been travelling at 2-3kph *on the grass*. His words? “Would you let your kids ride with no helmet?” Er, I don’t have kids. “Well if you did, would you?” Ride on the [nice soft spongey] grass? Yeah sure I would! “Well, you’d not only be putting their lives in danger, you’d also be encouraging them to break the law!” Me: Yeah? Well screw you and your stupid laws and lack of sensible judgement, you jumped up excuse for a traffic warden! (My actual words for the last sentence may have sounded more like “OK mate, no worries, will do” to the casual bystander. But I said the other bit in my head.)

    It just underlines the absurdity of it, I can’t even ride in circles in my back yard without a helmet on according to the law. There are surely shades of what is reasonable, and if I’m going somewhere that doesn’t warrant a helmet, I won’t wear one. I actually feel more ‘naked’ without a pair of gloves on, as having had a few little accidents I know I’m more likely to graze my hands than my head.

  10. Ross says:

    If I had the choice I probably would not have been wearing a helmet when I had an accident a couple of weeks ago. The helmet saved me serious injury, possibly death.
    I need mandatory helmet laws and I think everyone else does too.

  11. Tim says:

    As an overseas visitor to Brisbane last week, I would have loved to hire a CityCycle bike to explore the great pathways along the river. The reason we didn’t was the hassle of hiring helmets for such low risk riding.

  12. Peter says:

    What Tim says is true of many O/S visitors to Melbourne bikeshare as well. Whenever I have been helping show visitors how it works, and it is remarkably easy to use by international standards, invariably they get to the bit about helmets and just give up on the idea. Every time.

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