Bicycle Helmets

Continuing rant on compulsion!

By

Folderman

Published: October 21, 2010

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.

10 Comments

  1. longinthetooth

Posted October 22, 2010 at 4:36 PM

I have had a few cycle accidents. In one, like a rag doll I was flung to the ground. My helmet was broken in 4 but stayed intact, as my head was repeatedly bounced on the tarmac. Consequently I didn’t need to go the GP or hospital, I am not a statistic. Without the compulsory law, I would not have had the helmet, most probably wouldn’t be writing this now.

As a coach, most novice riders fear motorists aggresive behaviour towards the vulnerable, not helmets.

Most helmet haters would find a ton of other reasons for not riding. Let them whinge.

I would like better designed helmets, with greater safety features, the current ones are far from perfect. I noticed that at the Commonwealth Games the track rider helmets were very different?

Reply

  1. somedude

Posted October 28, 2010 at 6:44 PM

I think if you commute on a bike most days on busy roads in built up areas that are not friendly to cyclists you would be a fool not to wear a helmet. Especially if you are seeing busted heads strewn across the roads every day!

But what if you occasionally ride your bike in a quiet suburb just to pop into the local shop and get some milk? There are similar risks involved as a pedestrian – yet you still stand a chance of being pulled over, fined and lectured for your brazen disregard of your own personal safety.

Helmets should be the riders choice. Police should issue warnings to cyclists if they are spotted riding without a helmet in known danger spots.

Run some scare adverts, educate… Stop the fines!

Reply

  1. CycleSnail

Posted October 29, 2010 at 10:22 AM

(This response has come from a cyclist (in the medical profession) via email):

It’s time to stop saying that helmets do not save lives – I suspect mine’s saved me from death or serious injury 3 times, and one saved my son from the same when he was about 5 years old. Nothing to do with roads or cars, just concrete and other bikes.

It’s also time to stop saying the laws stop people riding – the cycle tracks are full of commuters, and more, especially on the weekends and there are plenty of people out there riding without helmets (and they seem to be more likely than most to be also using a mobile phone at the time . . .) I agree that it is easy to find other reasons not to ride – traffic, lack of change facilities, our hot climate – and there will be some who choose to say it’s because they’d have to wear a helmet. However I think there’s a possibility this helmet issue is being misused, being an easy target, by some who are just against regulation from the outset; I wonder if some of the same people would call for a lifting of the ban on the use of mobile phones while driving, or oppose the perfectly reasonable push for a ban on their use while riding?

Reply

Posted November 1, 2010 at 12:24 PM

Helmets that inflate like an airbag

http://www.edn.com/blog/PowerSource/39949-Invisible_helmet_provides_instant_protection_thanks_to_accelerometers.php

Reply

      • longinthetooth

Posted November 5, 2010 at 7:56 AM

This is a very interesting video. It demonstrates at very low speeds what happens to your head in several different types of falls, forwards sideways and hit from behind.

These are very low speed falls, eg, 16kph, that is recreational back lane riding speed, and even then, the required reaction time is tiny. The last accident shows the face being smashed into the ground.

DK – Utility cycling is just as likely to involve head injury. Wtach the video. Absense of other enforced protection is no justification for Helmet freedom. Whingers whinge instead of doing the smart thing!

Reply

Posted November 7, 2010 at 8:39 PM

@longinthetooth do you wear a bike helmet when driving? If not, why not as doing so would reduce serious head injuries amongst motorists by 40% and save us hundreds of millions in heath costs (summary of the Monash study here http://www.monash.edu.au/muarc/reports/atsb160.html)

If you believe that helmets should be mandatory for cyclists but not motorists, then your stance is hypocritical. If you disagree, please indicate what the relevant difference is.

Few people would deny that IF you are in low speed accident, wearing a helmet can lower your chance of an accident. The point of issue is helmet laws. Helmet laws are neither necessary or sufficient for improving cycling safety – a claim backed up by the fact that the safest cycling countries are also the ones with the lowest helmet usage; and countries & regions with mandatory helmet laws have much higher cycling injury rates relative to motoring injuries.

Sorry if you think debating the misguided errors of others being forced upon us all as whinging. Reading the science would save us all a lot of time, effort and lives. Hope to see you doing the right thing though, wearing your helmet as you drive. Seems like you can never have too much safety eh?

Reply

  1. Dave Kinkead

Posted November 5, 2010 at 5:09 AM

@folderman this whole debate has been framed incorrectly as shown by the same old responses like ‘a helmet saved my life so don’t change the laws’. People just dont seem to be able to distinguish ‘no helmet laws’ from ‘no helmets’.

Your arguments are perfectly sound though. I you support helmet laws, please explain why you don’t support hat and sunscreen laws, car helmet laws and the prohibition of beer – all of which would prevent many more deaths than cycling helmets.

Again, arguments against the claim that helmet laws stifle cycling are shams. Sport cycling is definitely increase but I’m pretty sure that people would choose to wear a helmet in a peloton – I would. What these laws do is limit utility cycling – to the shops, school or cafe. This is the type of cycling that makes a real positive impact as it is replacing motor vehicle travel. This is where the social, financial & environmental benefits come from. If you think this type of cycling hasn’t been limited by helmets, have a look at a school or shop and see how many women and children rode there.

Instead of talking about ending helmet laws, we need to start talking about ‘helmet freedom’. Freedom to wear one, freedom to choose not to. It like estate taxes – that doesn’t sound too bad but death taxes, that sounds terrible.

Reply

  1. CycleSnail

Posted November 17, 2010 at 9:32 AM

I am posting this on behalf of another BTA member:

Bicycle helmet laws should be maintained and enforced
14 November 2010 – 12:00pm

Mandatory bicycle helmet laws should be maintained and enforced as part of overall road safety strategies, according to a study outlined in a letter to the editor in the Medical Journal of Australia.
Dr Michael Dinh, Emergency Physician and Co-Director of the Department of Trauma Services at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPAH), Sydney, and co-authors reviewed a study conducted by the RPAH that summarised long-term trends in cyclist head injuries and determined the odds of any skull fracture or intracranial bleed associated with not wearing a helmet.
The study reviewed patients from 1991 to 2009 over the age of 16 who were admitted to the hospital trauma unit suffering from head injuries related to a bicycle incident on public roads. The number of cyclists sustaining severe head injuries has remained consistently low over the long term, with an apparent decline in the rate of severe head injuries in admitted patients since 2005.
Dr Dinh said that among 287 patients for whom information about helmet use was available between 2008 and 2010, non-helmet wearers had five times higher odds of developing intracranial bleeding or sustaining a skull fracture due to falling from a bicycle compared with helmet wearers.
“It is the opinion of the trauma service at the RPAH . . . that mandatory bicycle helmet laws be maintained and enforced as part of overall road safety strategies.
The Medical Journal of Australia is a publication of the Australian Medical Association.

Reply

Posted November 17, 2010 at 11:15 AM

As mentioned above, there is little doubt that a helmet can reduce head injuries IN the event one is hit by a car. Helmets also reduce head injury rates for motorists, pedestrians, footballers, skiers and anyone else who may be exposed to rapid linear deceleration to the head.

The issue here is whether helmet laws improve population level injury rates. There is no evidence that they do and plenty of evidence they they don’t. The safest places to ride (and walk) & the places with the lowest rates of head injuries, are ones where no helmet laws exist.

If anyone is convinced by the arguments presented in studies like the one quoted above, then they must either:

1) also support mandatory helmet laws for anyone with a risk exposure to head injuries similar to cyclists (that means all motorists and pedestrians crossing roads), or
2) lack sufficient reasoning skills that one would expect of an adult human being.

If you think I am wrong, I would love to know why. Seriously, I cannot understand how someone could logically support helmet laws for cyclists but not motorists. All I can come up with is some kind of cognitive bias that effects their logical reasoning capacity.

Please help me understand why you want to force cyclists to wear plastic buckets on their heads but not motorists (everyone – not just you @cyclesnail)

;) Dave

Reply

  1. Perf Boy

Posted November 20, 2010 at 12:53 AM

Let go…
Build a bridge…
What ever it takes, move on…
18 years of advocacy high jack by a minority who will never be happy.. yeesh!


Helmet protection confirmed . . . again

25 November 2010. A bike rider who crashes without wearing a helmet is five times more likely to suffer serious head injury than a rider with a helmet, according to an analysis of crash victims by Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPAH), Sydney.

The researchers compared the injuries suffered by more than 300 injured riders at the hospital between 2008 to 2010.

“Non-helmet wearers had five times higher odds of intracranial bleeding or skull fracture compared with helmet wearers,” Dr Michael Dinh, the lead researcher, said.

The results are in line with similar international studies into whether helmets reduce head and brain injuries.

The findings are contained in a letter written by Dr Dinh and six colleagues at the RPAH’s emergency and trauma departments, to the Medical Journal of Australia.

“It is the opinion of the trauma service at RPAH, based on these findings, that mandatory bicycle helmet laws be maintained, and enforced as part of overall road safety strategies,” the authors say.

“The benefits of helmet use need to be placed in the context of lifetime costs of severe traumatic brain injury, estimated to be around $4.8 million per incident case.”

The researchers also looked at the cases of almost 1000 riders who were injured in accidents going back to 1991.

During that time the number of riders presenting at RPAH emergency tripled, in line with the rising popularity of bike riding in Sydney.

But as the number of injured rider went up, their rate of serious head injury decreased significantly, from 10.3 per cent in 2005 to 2.5 per cent in 2009.

“The number of cyclists sustaining severe head injuries has remained consistently low over the long-term, with an apparent decline in the rate of severe head injuries in admitted patients since 2005,” said Dr Dinh.

Comments:

1: you would not expect hospital physicians to say anything else – they only have to deal with what comes through the hospital door

2: no assessment of the discouragement to ride that helmets have and how that affects public health in particular and the environment in general (carbon pollution)

and another two

3: the study is of 300 injured riders at the hospital and therefore may only represent a small fraction of bicycle accidents for which the helmet was totally ineffective

4: quote “But as the number of injured rider went up, their rate of serious head injury decreased significantly, from 10.3 per cent in 2005 to 2.5 per cent in 2009.” – the inference being that bicycle helmets were responsible, but then it also may have something to do with slower riders, and more cyclists, the latter being a known safety factor

oh!

5: there are so many well intended people bent on removing any sense of personal responsibility

About the Author

Promoting everyday cycling