Bike helmets

Radio National’s Background Briefing had a feature story on the bike helmet debate yesterday morning. You can download it and listen to it here.

It talks about Melbourne’s bike share scheme; the experience in Europe (where cyclist numbers are higher, but injuries are lower) vs Australia (which it sounds like is the only country with compulsory bike helmet laws, since 1990, and is now cited in Europe has how not to do things); what really makes cyclists safe (investment in separate bike paths and lanes); the changing attitudes to road investment in European cities (concentrating on cars in the 50s, but switching back to cyclists and pedestrians in the 70s and ever since); and the ego and antagonism from both cyclists and motorists.

My conclusion:

On an individual level, your risk of injury is undoubtedly lessened by wearing a helmet. (One of the medical experts said you’re four times less likely to incur head injuries.)

But on a communal level, it’s quite possible that society might well be better off by not having compulsory helmet laws — because they discourage people, and in cycling, safety comes in numbers — and instead concentrating on more bike lanes and bike paths, as they have in the most successful cycling cities in Europe.

(Certainly for me the concern about sharing space with cars and trucks is my biggest worry about cycling.)

In turn, cities with less people cycling means less overall health benefit from active transport, so a less healthy society overall.

One contributor to the programme suggested that a study needs to be conducted, which could involve one state repealing (at least temporarily) its helmet laws, to see what happens.

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18 Replies to “Bike helmets”

  1. The ethicists would not allow a study in which a jurisdiction ceased requiring helmets. They don’t allow something to be tried which (they think) will increase risk, just for the purpose of checking whether things get better or worse. Their position requires an assumption that they already know what the risks are, and therefore introduces something of a catch-22 to research. It is one reason that various traffic safety measures have not been tried properly – as soon as they’re put in, they’re assumed to be safe. Nobody is allowed to build a new road without them or remove them from an existing road to do a properly controlled study on their effectiveness.

    For example, if I wanted to test whether narrower road shoulders might be just as effective at crash avoidance as wide road shoulders, I wouldn’t be allowed to dig up sections of shoulder to prove it, because that would be removing a safety feature.

    Fortunately, according to a letter in today’s paper, the Northern Territory (where people are not so fearful or bound to ethics committees, perhaps) has made it legal to ride on bike paths and footpaths without a helmet. If you ride on the road you still need a helmet. That’s an interesting approach and might generate the evidence needed to make proper decisions in this debate.

  2. I used to think the helmet laws were a great idea, now I’m really not so sure. I lived in London for a few years and wore a helmet when cycling there, but it wasn’t a requirement; that was pretty handy on occasion.

    I think making the roads safer for cyclists is a better approach than trying to make the cyclists slightly better off in a crash. The cycling facilities in Melbourne, while good by Australian standards, aren’t great by international ones. There’s definitely a lot more that can and should be done.

    What NT has done according to the commenter above sounds like a reasonable approach to me; it needs to be coupled with improved facilities though.

  3. In my opinion the helmet laws could go. Most serious (i.e. regular) cyclists would probably keep wearing helmets because they wanted to, not because they were forced to. The bike share scheme is a joke and will be until the laws go (or are waived for bike sharers) – I live 50 metres from a bike pod and will never use it because of the helmet requirement. The only people I have ever seen using the bike shares didn’t have helmets on – presumably tourists who don’t know the rules.

  4. As a cyclist, I have an interest in this topic. I too rode daily in central London with a helmet, but often used their physically protected separate cycle lanes (inattentive pedestrians then became the biggest menace, and they really were).

    I would have a hard time deliberately letting my child ride without a helmet (having fallen off a few times myself and been saved from serious injury by the helmet). The laws help in terms of making it a cut and dry argument for parents to present to children. (Not saying that’s a valid argument, just saying it.)

    However, cycling is such a better mode of transport for a society.

    Perhaps there should at least be an age divide in the law. (Although parents should model smart behaviour to kids anyway.)

    One other issue is whether society wants to have to pay the astronomical costs of supporting more severely brain damaged people for a long period. (This may come no where close to outweighing the other economic benefits of more cycling. I don’t know). Of course imposing insurance has the same negative outcomes as enforced helmet wearing, and is probably nigh on unenforcable.

    As a final observation, despite the law almost no one in our neighbourhood wears a helmet. So perhaps as a barrier it is more costly than it is effective at preventing death and injury.

  5. Australia needs to grow up in it’s approach to such laws. I think an age-divide would be suitable for the law, and then leave it up to adults to make their own calculated risks. A flat city like Melbourne should have a thriving cycling network.

  6. I like the NT approach. Allow without on protected bikepaths (and continue to introduce these) and local roads or footpaths (to avoid the ‘last mile’ problem) but require helmets if yo’ure going to be on the road interacting with larger vehicles. You can still have accidents off-road but they are in general likely to be less severe and involve much less metal at speed.
    Incidentally a lot of the bikeshare stuff should be pretty viable on that model straight away, if the copenhagen-style lanes were considered ‘protected’ (that’s a separate debate) and with the many bikepaths in inner melbourne.

  7. Regarding wearing of helmets, it appears to only be a “problem” when hiring a bike from a road-side kiosk.
    It seems the vast majority of cycling originates from one’s home (either directly or driving somewhere first with your bike in tow and cycling from there). It is therefore simple to have your helmet with you (it’s at home or in the car).
    When you leave your bike somewhere you can lock your helmet to the bike (even I can manage that!).
    Therefore aren’t we suggesting dumping a good law on the basis of a problem with a small minority??
    PS All cyclists, myself included, should ALWAYS obey ALL road laws, helmet wearing included ( motorists are watching and taking note!!) so that the wider road community will have no excuse not to respect us.

  8. It really is only an issue with hire bikes. I think either the law should exempt those who hire a bike (and let’s face it, if they’re tourists, they’ve probably come from somewhere that doesn’t require helmets anyway), but require a helmet if you’re not on a rented bike.

    The injury issue relating to helmets has litlte to do with traffic, although a busy road does present more opportunities for a crash. The main problem is the fact that people can and do fall off bikes, and when they do they will often hit their head on something. You can do this just walking around, but a bike introduces a machine to the equation and makes things more complicated, so you’re more likely to fall awkwardly and be unable to protect your own head. If you hit your head you are quite likely to be in big trouble.

    But enforcing helmet use when it’s truly impractical will mean that a bike hire scheme can never work here. I doubt that shared helmets would work either. Few people would trust the cleanliness of other people’s heads and there would be a vandalism problem too.

    The government simply needs to decide whether it wants a blanket helmet rule or a bike hire scheme. It can’t have both.

  9. From the UK point of view, this is really interesting to read.

    The view of the general public here varies from outright hostility to cyclists (from motorists and pedestrians who only notice the many cyclists who ignore zebra crossings and red traffic lights) to well-meaning paternalism.

    The latter sees both helmets and cycle paths as Good Things. In fact, I;ve seen as much evidence that helmets make things worse as I have that they make things better. Badly fitted helmets are a particular problem.

    Cycle “facilities” are often very poor and frequently (and I mean FREQUENTLY put cyclists in more rather than less danger. Specifically, they confine cyclists to the extreme left hand side of the road, making them less visible and they create far more conflicts with other traffic flows, both regarding motor vehicles and pedestrians.

    My view is that cycle lanes and paths do have a function but usually only at extremely busy grade separated junctions or to allow cyclists to avoid complex and lengthy one way system detours.

    The problem is that few people seem to regard cyclists as what they are: traffic. Motorists think that “in this day and age” “they shouldn’t be on the road” as “it’s too dangerous”. Planners think that cycle paths “make cyclists safer” and cyclists themselves weave between being “traffic” and “pedestrians” when it suits them.

    I can’t offer a solution but I do think there’s a lot of merit in treating bicycles as “traffic” just like anything else.

    (Incidentally, I would draw a distinction here between cycling as a means of transport and leisure cycling, often involving young children, families and people going especially slowly. In such cases, scenic cycle paths like the Camel Trail which we recently sampled in Cornwall have much to commend them. Even there, though, the conflict between faster cyclists, slower ones and *very* inexperienced ones sometimes led to some hairy moments!

    (I’ve typed so much here, I think I;ve inadvertently created a Blog Entry of my own. Think I’ll do that now…….)

  10. Requiring helmets on the road but not on cycle paths is illogical. You could be going just as fast on either and hit the ground with your head where a helmet might help. Meanwhile the risk on the road is mostly about getting run over and squashed by a vehicle, especially long trucks, where a helmet doesn’t help a lot.

  11. Indeed, David. People *think* that paths are safer (for any given value of “safer”) but they often aren’t for reasons already outlined (eg increased conflicts with other traffic, pedestrians and so on).

  12. I ride to work every day, both on cycle paths, roads with cycle lanes, and roads without.
    The worst places are those that are shared with pedestrians (in my case, through docklands).

    In other locations I choose to ride on-road rather than the “shared” path” alongside it – the path is too scary due to either the number of inexperienced/stupid cyclists, or the number of blind driveway & other vehicle crossings.

    (though making a footpath 6 inches wider and calling ti a shared pathway is really a waste of money IMHO…

  13. @philip There is nothing ethically problematic with a state wide trial of no helmet laws if the expectation is that there will be no negative health impact.

    As an example, both Sweden & the USA recently trialled the effectiveness of CPR only vs CPR + EAR by randomly assigning what advice people were given when they called 112/911/000. Interestingly, the compression only advice had the same survival rates as compression + breathing advice.

  14. Speaking to numerous people about Australia’s helmet laws over the last 2 months, I have found the responses very interesting.

    For some people (mainly Australians), any talk of repealing helmet laws is interpreted as prohibiting helmets. Regardless of counter examples, their faith in the efficacy of helmet laws seems to be a core belief that when challenged, is met with near religious zeal.

    For others (mainly non-Australians), the very notion of mandatory helmet laws for such a safe activity like cycling seems ludicrous.

    It seems pretty clear to me (but obviously not to many others) that helmet laws = less cyclists = more motorists = more serious crashes between bikes and cars.

    While wearing a helmet can help IF you are in an accident, helmet laws make it more likely that you will BE in an accident.

    The only coherent argument for helmet laws that the cost of forcing people to wear them (individual rights, increased pollution, more obesity, enforcement etc) is less than the benefits of forcing people to wear them (less head injuries). But this just isn’t the case as the net benefit of no helmet laws is approx $1 per km cycled – http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1368064.

    Compare this for the net benefits of mandatory helmet laws for motorists. The net benefit of this law would be approx $500 per car per year – http://www.monash.edu.au/muarc/reports/atsb160.html

    If you support helmet laws because of heath cost issues, then you should support them for motorists, not cyclists.

  15. @David Walters, I am told the most common accident is slamming into a car door that’s been opened. No risk of squash there, and I dare say the next risk is bumping into a motor vehicle (eg because it turned left on you) rather than being run over holus bolus. All of these present the risk of hitting the ground at speed.

    Not that it’s frequent, but a mechanical problem on my bike brought me down at high speed, years ago.

  16. Interesting the debate about helmet laws, and was rather surprised to learn that it may be a counter-productive exercise in safety (those flogging economic numbers go back to sleep).

    But I guess I have to accept that, and accept the next logical step that helmet wearing should be a free choice/personal decision. But at times, I do think that we’ve had other choices taken away from us for the flimsiest of reasons, such as right turn red arrows at puny intersections, prohibitions on running ethernet cables, jaywalking laws, laws against cycling on freeways (which I reckon would be safer than many other roads), laws against adjusting your own hot-water temperature (which used to be the case in NZ), proposed internet censorship laws, and the list goes on and on.

    Hey Gillard and Brumby, we can look after ourselves.

    We’ve even got stupid bureaucrats deciding which way we can’t turn at this roundabout (you can’t go SW unless you approach from SE). This roundabout sees about 100 vehicles an hour – surely drivers can function at a normal roundabout with four streets?

    The point of law making is to protect you against me filching all the money from your account, or killing you because of my inept driving or dodgy high-voltage wiring. ie its about protecting people from each other.

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