January 2014 – Freestyle Cyclists

Seat Belt laws – relevant?

Campaigners for helmet choice are often asked “do you support seat belt laws”, as though this is relevant.  More relevant would be a question about laws forcing motor vehicle occupants to wear helmets, but somehow that subject isn’t of interest to medicos, law makers and others who profess to want to make our roads safer.

Seat belt law isn’t in our province of interest or knowledge, but what we do know is that there is no down-side to public health, better cities, resource depletion nor air pollution from making seat belts compulsory. Actually there might be a down-side to public health, because it’s possible that wearing seat belts encourages more dangerous driving, which increases risks for pedestrians and cyclists.  In contrast, bicycle helmet laws do reduce public health, do make cities’ roads and public transport more congested, do cause more fossil fuels to be burned which pollute the air with carcinogens and carbon dioxide. That’s because helmet laws discourage cycling.

What Stops People from Cycling?

It’s generally agreed that “not feeling safe” is the biggest single reason that people give for not using the bicycle for transport.  The second biggest reason is “compulsory helmets”. These two are closely related – making helmets compulsory, even promoting them, reinforces the belief that cycling is dangerous.

The Victorian Transport Accident Commission (TAC) provided a response to a question on notice from the Senate Enquiry into Personal Choice and Community Impacts stating that 28% of respondents who had ridden a bicycle in the last 6 months cited “dislike wearing a helmet” as influencing their decision to ride a bicycle. Their evidence to the Enquiry, along with others, can be viewed in full at http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Economics/Personal_choice/Additional_Documents. Note that the TAC evidence includes sections of three documents, the third of which includes this survey result (search on “helmet”).

Research into Melbourne Bike Share (chart above) found that 25% of people didn’t use it because they “didn’t want to wear a helmet” while 9% cited “Safety Concerns”.

In “The possible effect on frequency of cycling if mandatory bicycle helmet legislation was repealed in Sydney, Australia: a cross sectional survey” (University of Sydney), it was found that 22.6% of people would ride more if they could choose whether or not to wear a helmet.

The Cycling Promotion Fund (industry group) found that 67.1% cited “unsafe road conditions”, and 52.5% cited “speed/volume of traffic”, while “Don’t like wearing a helmet” affected 16.5%.

A West Australian government survey in 1993 found “…of adults … (n = 254), 28 .0% of adults from the Perth sample, and 25.0% of adults from the country sample, reported they would cycle more if they were not legally required to wear a helmet (p 19)”.

When the South Australian Royal Auto Association surveyed their members, they found that 27% would “cycle more” if there were no helmet law.

In other countries, where laws require children/youths to wear helmets, their use of bicycles declined significantly (one example).

Northern Territory

The Northern Territory partially repealed their helmet law in 1994, giving people a choice not to wear a helmet on off-road paths and footpaths. Note that footpath riding is legal in NT.  From 2011 Census Journey to work NT
“Alice Springs had the highest cycling figure (5.4%) and Darwin the second highest (3.1%) of similar sized Australian regional cities.”
Darwin has the highest figure for any Australian capital city.

What happened when helmet laws were introduced?

The percentage of people using bikes to get to work is measured every five years in the Australian Census.  You probably remember filling in the big census form every five years yourself. Helmet laws reduced the number of people cycling dramatically, and numbers are still lower today than before helmet law came in.

Apart from dragging down progress towards better cycling conditions and getting more people using bikes, this also means that fewer people are getting the health benefits of riding a bicycle to work. Even if the claimed benefits of helmet law are as big as governments make out, the health effects of getting less exercise are a much bigger loss. Overall, helmet law reduces the people’s life-span, increases disease and costs the health budget money.  See Prof Piet de Jong’s paper (Professor of Actuarial Statistics, Macquarie University).

Below is a graph of census data on transport in New Zealand. Helmets were made compulsory in New Zealand in 1994.


taken from Sandar Tin Tin et al, International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity.  Also in New Zealand, In 1987/88, before the introduction of helmet laws, 4.4% of New Zealanders cycled to work, 11.6% cycled to primary school and 18.6% to secondary school.  By 2004/08, only 2.2% and cycled to work, 4.3% to primary school and 4.9% to secondary school. These data are from NZ Ministry of Transport: How New Zealanders Travel.  Spreadsheet available at: www.transport.govt.nz/research/travelsurvey/latestresults.

In Victoria, the study relied on by the Government to claim that cycling didn’t decrease after helmet law shows the opposite. The count in 1990 was pre-law. Both counts post-law shows a large drop except for one site at which a large organised group of over 400 cyclists inflated the final year’s average. The chart at right is from http://crag.asn.au/2621 and shows the numbers at the distorted site in red.  The study was funded by Vicroads who didn’t fund a further year’s count, as they couldn’t be sure another big event would prop up their figures.

In Perth, two bridges carried most of the road traffic across the Swan River. Here are the before and after figures for numbers of cyclists:


Graphic from http://www.cycle-helmets.com/

Below is a graph of head injuries and non-head injuries to cyclists in Victoria, taken from Carr, D., M. Skalova, and M. Cameron, Evaluation of the bicycle helmet law in Victoria during its first four years, 1995, Rpt 76 Monash Univ Acc Res Centre Melbourne.  Helmet laws had no effect on the ratio of head to non-head injuries, but all injuries dropped, showing the effect of helmet law was to decrease cycling but not to decrease head injuries:



This one graph tells us a lot. Introduction of helmet laws discourages the safest cyclists,  and changes the mix of cycling activities in the population – because racing cyclists and mountain-biking cyclists wear helmets as a matter of course, the law doesn’t affect them. Everyday cycling, the safest type of cycling, is discouraged because most people won’t do this type of riding if they feel it is unsafe. So the mix of accidents also changes – the type of risky cycling that is more likely to result in head injuries becomes a larger share of cycling crashes. So even though a helmet may offer some level of protection in the event of a crash, a helmet law removes the safest cyclists and those least likely to have a head injury in the first place. By discouraging this type of cycling, the health benefits lost outweigh any gain from increasing helmet wearing rates.




Do helmet laws make much difference?

Australian pedestrian and cyclist deaths before and after helmet law.

Pedestrian deaths have been scaled to sit on top of the cyclist death line for comparison. There are more pedestrians killed than cyclists, so the cycling data looks more variable in comparison.

Can you see any effect of helmet law? If there is any effect it is very small.  Deaths for both cyclists and pedestrians were going down in the late ’80s but progress has stagnated since then.  What has caused the overall decline in deaths? Mostly it was due to massive ramping up of speed and red-light cameras, together with the introduction of demerit points. You can read the detailed history here. Real safety comes from preventing collisions and lowering speeds.

Update: a paper published in 2015 shows that the “odds ratio” test used to estimate the effectiveness of helmets is unreliable and typically overestimates the effectiveness of helmets.  In the three studies for which sufficient data was available, an accurate measure of the risk ratio is possible and in all three cases the published studies had overestimated the effectiveness of helmets. See Overestimation of the effectiveness of the bicycle helmet by the use of odds ratios and PDF.



Thanks to Rebel Metropolis.org for the bar chart.

Sport Cycling

If you read Australian media on “cycling” you could be confused as to what “cycling” is about. Quite often, media goes to sporting organisations for comment on issues that are not related in any way to sporting activities, for example, Courier Mail, The Age. Freestyle Cyclists campaigns for utility cycling – that is, using bicycles as transport. On this site, we simply refer to it as “cycling”.

Sport Cycling is a wonderful sport, and we wish all the very best to those who engage in it. Cycling for transport however, has different purposes and different needs.  Sport cycling is well organised and well represented by peak groups around Australia and New Zealand.  People who cycle for transport, on the other hand,  have almost no groups dedicated to representing their needs.

Some groups claim to speak for all types of cycling, whether sporting, recreational, touring or just “transport”. Freestyle Cyclists makes no such claim. We seek to encourage the use of bicycles for transport, and respectfully leave advocacy for the interests of sport cyclists to other organisations dedicated to that task.

Sport cyclists, around the world, include special clothing and helmets as part of their “uniform”. This is true in even in countries where helmets and lycra are rarely seen, such as The Netherlands. Everyday cycling for getting from A to B on the other hand, doesn’t need special clothing, helmets or high-level bicycles. When sport cycling organisations such as the Amy Gillett Foundation purport to speak for all cyclists, they speak as though everybody is a sport cyclist.

Study of bicycle helmets reveals how dangerous they are

In the Netherlands, helmets are only seen on sports cyclists, who make up a tiny minority of all trips by bicycle there – unlike in Australia and New Zealand where they are a high proportion of trips. Despite this, 13.3% of cyclists reporting to hospital in the Netherlands with head injuries are wearing helmets.  How could helmeted cyclists be so over-represented in head injury statistics?

In Australia, differences in head injury rates between cyclists wearing and not wearing helmets are studied to demonstrate that helmets prevent some head injuries. The identical methodology carried out on Dutch data would show that wearing a helmet is dangerous and causes head injuries. What this demonstrates is that “observational” studies can produce incorrect answers, because they can’t take into account related information. In the case of the Netherlands, the helmeted cyclists are typically moving faster than fietsers or every-day cyclists, and speed is a major risk factor for head injuries, which overwhelms any effect due to wearing a helmet.

These “Observational” studies are what are used in Australia and New Zealand to justify helmet laws, but they can’t be relied on. Studies like this are not considered anywhere near good enough to justify releasing a new drug or vaccine, nor are they good enough to justify mass population screening, such as for breast cancer or colon cancer. They aren’t good enough to justify helmet laws either, but governments rely on them.

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