Continuing rant on compulsion!

Cycling is a unique transport medium in that it is not only provides an efficient, cheap, clean and quiet mode of transport, but also contributes to the physical and mental health of the user, and by extension benefits the community overall. These public health benefits were totally ignored when helmet laws were introduced, as were citizens’ rights and responsibilities. 

With the stroke of a legislative pen, the government turned cycle safety from an expenditure item into a revenue source whilst still claiming it was making a contribution to cycling safety.

A range of studies have shown that the greatest single safety feature for bicycles is to have more of them on the streets.  Large numbers of cyclists mean motorists not only expect to see them on the roads, but also have a better understanding of the associated road rules.  Recent analysis of accident data has shown that a motor vehicle was found to be at fault in 66% of bicycle-vehicle crashes, with 85% of involved drivers subsequently prosecuted by the Police.

Instead of improving cyclist safety, the only real effects of compulsory bicycle helmet laws have been

  1. A dramatic fall in cyclists numbers, particularly the utility cyclists, teenagers and women.
  2. Huge growth in the bicycle helmet manufacturers. 
  3. Yet more legislative bureaucracy.


But in terms of the helmets effect on hospitalisations, which apparently was the prime aim, there has been no documented effect.

At the time of introduction, some experts acknowledged that compulsory helmets would reduce the number of cyclists, but argued that overall health would be maintained as people switched to other forms of exercise.  There has been no indication that this ‘switch’ has happened.

Australia compulsory bike helmet laws are now used in Europe as an example of how to discourage cycling.  Concerned that ‘the main effect of helmet laws has not been to improve cyclists’ safety but to discourage cycling, undermining health and other benefits’, the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF) are promoting their campaign against mandatory bicycle helmets with super-sized buttons labelled ‘Ask me why I cycle without a helmet’. 

Unfortunately some of the state bicycle organisations seem unwilling to question compulsory bike helmet laws with Bicycle Victoria, for example quoted as saying ‘Bicycle Victoria has long monitored attitudes to helmet wearing and has concluded that it has become normalized in Victoria, where the rates of helmet wearing are extremely high. Helmets are accepted as a part of everyday riding and the proportion of riders who object to helmets is now tiny.

With fines at $150.00, of course Victorian helmet wearing rates are high – this is not acceptance, it’s coercion!  And if, as they suggest, helmets are accepted as a part of everyday riding and the proportion of riders who object to helmets is now tiny, why was it necessary for the State Government to increase fines to such an excessive level, or even have fines at all?

As far as helmet wearing goes, cyclists who are happy to wear helmets tend to ensure that they fit properly and are properly maintained. They don’t need legislative enforcement.

Cyclists who are simply avoiding a fine, will wear any old helmet with inconsequential fit, frequently not fastened and sometimes worn back to front with a hat worn underneath.  The helmet gives the rider some protection from sun and rain, but none in the event of a fall.  A public health education programme similar to the ‘Slip, Slop, Slap’ would be far more effective for these cyclists than trying to enforcing helmet laws.

Finally there are those cyclists who choose not to wear a helmet as they find it inconvenient and interfering with their pleasure of riding. They will continue to risk a fine or like my Dad, just stop cycling altogether.

A desire to reduce cyclist hospitalisation is an argument frequently raised in justification of compulsory helmet laws. In 2009 there were 1147 admissions to WA hospitals where the external cause was a bicycle accident, whereas there were 11286 admissions for patients diagnosed with a skin cancer.  If 1147 bicycle admissions justify compulsory bike helmet legislation, surely it is reasonable to expect that 11286 admissions for skin cancer would justify making compulsory the wearing of (approved) hats during daylight hours, subject to a $50.00 fine for non-compliance.

In recent years there has been a slow recovery in the cyclist numbers, but little growth in the area of utility cyclists, teenagers and women.  The increase has been driven by the rising cost and inconvenience of motoring.  These riders generally buy good quality cycles, cycle with urgency and frequently with a lack of courtesy that was common amongst cyclists in the pre helmet days.  We are now seeing an increase in bicycle-pedestrian collisions where the cyclist was considered at fault in 66% of cases and the pedestrian more severely injured than the cyclist.

Compulsory bike helmet legislation was a political decision taken to create a good image, without any proper research or consideration of the consequences.  There has been minimal electoral backlash, but this is because, regrettably, such laws only affected a small section of the voting population.  Imagine the public response if helmet wearing had been made compulsory for vehicle drivers.

Wearing a helmet is a good idea, but forcing people to wear them erodes any safety benefits. Compulsory laws may have helped the cycling community to accept helmets, but the greatest safety (and health) feature is to have lots of cyclists on the road.  The compulsory helmet law remains a major discouragement to many potential riders.

The fact that compulsory bike helmet laws only exist in countries where cycling is a minor occupation, and not in countries that have large numbers of cyclists, says it all.

Compulsory helmet laws have not improved the safety of cyclists.  They are simply a continuation of the trend by Australian governments, to get involved in the minutiae of citizens lives, progressively eroding any sense of individual responsibility.

It is time to repeal the legislation and return the decision to wear a helmet back to the person most affected, the cyclist.

About Peter Bartlett