There’s little doubt Australia would have healthier communities if more of us chose to cycle for transport, exercise or even relaxation. But mandatory helmet laws, introduced in Australia in the 1990s, continue to deter many potential riders from getting on a bike and increasing their fitness.
To assess the impact of bicycle helmet legislation at a community level, my colleague, Li Ming Wen and I studied the cycling activities of 600 Sydney residents aged 16 and older. The results are published in the December issue of the Health Promotion Journal of Australia.
We found that one in five (23.6%) Sydney adults said they would cycle more if they didn’t have to wear a helmet, with occasional cyclists (those who cycled in the past week or month) most likely to cycle more. Even non-cyclists (19%) said they would get on a bike if they didn’t have to wear a helmet.
Because around 65% of the population hasn’t cycled in the past year, one in five non-cyclists riding more translates to a massive increase in the number of people cycling – around 400,000 adults in Sydney alone.
Compare this figure to the 10,000 people who ride to work on Ride to Work Day. Even if you multiply this group by ten to include the 10% of the population who occasionally ride, and then halve the number of people saying they’d ride but don’t (even best intentions aren’t always followed through), this would still double the number of people currently cycling in Sydney.
Overall, after twenty years of pro-helmet advertising, one third of the survey respondents did not support mandatory helmet legislation.
Interestingly, there was an inverse association between riding frequency and support of the helmet legislation: the non-riders were most likely to support helmet legislation and more frequent riders less likely to support it. So the non-riders were happy to impose the mandatory helmet legislation on “other people” – and of course it didn’t directly impact on them.
The finding that helmets are a barrier to more people cycling is consistent with other research. A recent survey of cycling in Australia found 16.5% of those who cycled for transport cited helmets as one of the barriers to them riding more. While the question was asked differently in that study (helmets were one option of a long list of possible barriers), one in six cyclists nationally thought helmets were a barrier.
Health and safety
The greatest improvements to Australian road safety came in the 1980s as a result of substantial road safety programs, including media campaigns, the introduction of random breath testing and reductions of speed limits. These strategies benefited all road users, with rates of all injuries declining for vehicle occupants, pedestrians and cyclists alike.
Bicycle helmet legislation came in on the coat tails of these improvements in 1991. It had little additional impact on safety but deterred many people from cycling and we saw a 30% to 40% drop in rates of cycling. The same thing happened in New Zealand in 1994 when their helmet legislation was introduced.
Mandatory helmet legislation has perpetuated the negative image of cycling as an inherently dangerous activity that requires protection, regardless of actual risks. Safety concerns are cited by most people as one of the main barriers that stop them from cycling.
But injury statistics from the public bicycle share schemes around the world (where helmets are not required) show the risk of injury is low. In the first three months of the London scheme, share bikes were used more than six million times and the injury rate was a low 0.0023%.
Locally, bicycle share schemes in Brisbane and Melbourne are operating at about 10% of comparable schemes in other countries, largely due to the requirement for users to wear helmets.
It’s about choice
Not all cycling is equally dangerous – mountain biking and racing are far riskier than recreational riding on a separated off-road bike path. Mandating helmets for all riders at all times, therefore, is a very blunt tool to attempt to increase bicycle safety.
Instead, cyclists should be given a choice about whether to wear a helmet or not, based on the riding that they do and the individual’s assessment of risk.
Interestingly, almost half of respondents in our survey (48%) said they would choose to continue wearing helmets if they were given the choice.
If we’re serious about improving Australians' health and getting more people active, it’s time to bring Australia and New Zealand in line with the rest of the world and acknowledge that the helmet experiment has failed.
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