A New Direction? – Freestyle Cyclists

Cycling in Brisbane, Australia (image courtesy of BicycleDutch)

Last week the Queensland Inquiry into Cycling Issues finalised its report entitled “A New Direction for Cycling in Queensland” and tabled it in parliament.  The report was commissioned following the high profile death of a talented musician, Richard Pollett, two years ago in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

Richard was hit & killed on a multi-lane road by the driver of a cement truck who ‘believed’ he had plenty of room to pass safely within the same marked lane. Clearly he didn’t have enough room but a jury found the driver not guilty of dangerous driving.

The foci of the Committee included the notion of implementing ‘Bicycle Registration’ and a ‘Safe Passing Distance Law’ as well as other existing and alternative road rules. To its credit the Committee looked at the issue of cycling more broadly. It’s a sensible approach because making the world a better place for cycling requires making it a better place for people and for that you have to look at the broader issues.

Of the 68 recommendations in the report, the Committee made two recommendations relating  to bicycle helmets: that people over 16 years old can choose whether or not to wear a helmet if they are riding on footpaths, bike paths or roads speed limited to 60 km/h or below; or if they are hiring a bike like Brisbane’s public bicycle hire scheme, CityCycle.

We here at Helmet Freedom have often been accused of being a single focus group, ignoring other ‘more important’ issues that improve cyclist safety and that discussing bicycle helmet laws is a distraction. Superficially this appears to be the case and in some respects it is true: there ARE more important things for cyclist safety than bicycle helmets… which is precisely why we are fighting to not make it a legal requirement for all cyclists to wear them, at all times. It’s safety theatre which has a number of negative consequences: in particular it reduces cyclist numbers and it sends the message that cycling is so especially dangerous you need safety equipment.

We are actually all very active in the broader bicycle advocacy world. Our core membership includes a range of different ‘types’ of cyclist, including many athletes, but we all have one thing in common: we are strong advocates for transport/utility cycling. This is the very type of cycling which has been neglected in this country over the past 20 years & which was most negatively impacted by bicycle helmet laws. While we all oppose mandatory bicycle helmet laws we also have strong views on other cycling advocacy issues and, as individuals, have made submissions to the Inquiry covering many topics including infrastructure, sustainable safety, speed limits and the safe passing distance laws*.

It is no surprise that most current ‘avid cyclists’ in this country care little about the helmet law when it doesn’t influence the sort of cycling they do – they simply don’t cycle to get from A to B, they drive. We cycle for almost all of our transport trips. These days, almost all cyclists in Australia cycle for sport or recreation, with a small percentage cycling to work. This includes the large state advocacy organisations and some national ones, who almost exclusively represent sport & recreational cycling, despite pretending to be more inclusive.

Some of these large advocacy organisations do not even support the safe passing distance law as there is ‘no evidence’ that it will improve safety – the big offenders here are Bicycle Network (Victoria) and Bicycle Queensland. This is an astounding statement to make because they’re strongly in support of mandatory helmet laws for cyclists despite there being no evidence to support them and considerable evidence which shows that they’re bad for cycling.

The one large national organisation which does support the safe passing distance law, The Amy Gillett Foundation, also has come out in support of helmet laws for cyclists. The organisation gets its name from Amy Gillett, a talented track cyclist who was hit & killed while training in Germany by a young driver. Amy was wearing a helmet.

Despite arguing between themselves about the safe passing distance recommendations, both Bicycle Network (BNV) and the Amy Gillett Foundation (AGF) recognise that the best way to achieve greater safety for people on bikes is to have many more people on bikes. While Garry Brennan [BNV] and Marilyn Johnson [AGF] disagree on much of the strategy behind and the execution of A Metre Matters, they do agree on the cycling community’s biggest weapon when it comes to increasing safety on the roads: getting more cyclists on the road. Here’s Garry’s take:

“There’s plenty of evidence to show that where we get the numbers of bikes up so that drivers are regularly encountering bikes on the road, they expect therefore to see bikes on the road and then they do see bikes on the road. That is the simple most powerful factor we have at the moment, working in our favour.” – Source

Interestingly, the reflexive helmet law support is being driven by the likes of the AGF with MUARC (Monash University Accident Research Centre) and their associated academics Marilyn Johnson, Paul Biegler, and Jan Garrard of Deakin. Melbourne Bike Share is running at about 0.8 trips per bike per day this year and they are looking at expanding. But Brisbane’s is still struggling with about 0.35 trips per bike per day.

 

 

The AGF appears to also oppose recommendation 16 [an exemption for bike share] so it appears we have Melbourne academics making decisions about the viability of Brisbane’s CityCycle scheme. Far easier for them to do this when theirs is getting twice the usage of the Brisbane scheme, despite being paltry by world standards. Will the AGF come up with the false line that “there are factors other than helmet laws which lead to the low usage” for our bike share schemes? If so, this has no basis in fact. It’s obvious to international experts like Oliver O’Brien what the reasons for the low Australian usage are.

 

Depressingly, since the beginning of the Queensland Inquiry there have been a number of high profile deaths of cyclists. In every single case they were wearing helmets, as they are told to do by law. In every single case this supposed ‘important safety measure’ failed them. The was one significant common element in almost all of these deaths: trucks.

Wouldn’t it be better to focus on the cause of the danger?

Why are we so focussed on making crashing ‘safer’ instead of making crashes less likely to occur in the first place?

Why are we not looking at world’s best practice to build a safe environment for cycling & walking, using Sustainable Safety Principles? When it comes to collisions that cause the most danger, why are we not listening to the experts and removing/reducing the danger instead of blaming the victim (with calls for hi-viz, more helmet promotion and ‘cyclist education’)?

The Queensland Inquiry addresses some of these issues, particularly recommendations to help protect vulnerable road users and they’ve also overwhelmingly rejected bicycle registration – will that genie ever stay in its bottle? There are certainly some questionable recommendations such as ‘equalising of fines with motorists’ and ‘mandatory lights on bicycles 24/7’ but on the whole, it is positive for cycling in Queensland and in Australia.

What can you do?

Read the report here (the 68 recommendations are summarised from page ‘xv’)

Show your support for the recommendations of the committee by writing to the Queensland Transport Minister, Scott Emerson. Even if you’re not residing in Queensland, even if you’re from overseas, consider showing your support. Don’t simply support the helmet law changes, support those measure which you personally agree with. There is much to be done, but this is the closest  we have ever come in getting real change happening for every day cycling in Australia, and it may be the only opportunity we have to let the politicians know how important these changes are. 

 

EDIT
* While not our focus, the safe passing distance law is important. We believe that it will only be used in cases where there is a clear breach (dangerously close passes or where a cyclist is hit – see Craig Cowled’s case). It’s designed to give some teeth to authorities in cases like the Pollett case, such that a driver can no longer get away with saying they ‘thought they had enough room’. That’s the significance of it.

5 Comments

  • PaulM1 says:

    The safe distance law, supported by the AGF, is woefully poor. Of course it has a catchy name – “A Metre Matters” is presumably a rip-off of the USA’s “Three Feet Please” but following the metric system preferred in Oz, but motorists should leave at least twice that much gap to be safe. The UK’s Highway Code Rule 163 (https://www.gov.uk/using-the-road-159-to-203/overtaking-162-to-169) is handily illustrated by a photograph to show how much space should be left.
    Perhaps the AGF does good work but we have seen much the same scenario in the UK where focus on one individual, and the relatives’ understandable desire to fins something positive and good in their tragedy, goes off at a tangent into irrelevant and emotional responses to a complex problem. What relevance does a death in Germany have to Australian road safety? Why the pressure to retain helmet compulsion when a helmet clearly did not save Amy Gillett?

  • Gary says:

    Even if Bicycle Network (Victoria) and Bicycle Queensland don’t believe there is evidence that the safe passing distance law will improve safety – surely they can see that it can’t make things any worse! Why don’t they just shut up and get back to their usual business of promoting sunny Sunday joy rides, cause they sure as hell are not advocacy groups for everyday cycling.

  • Deaths from skin cancers have doubled over the period 2002 -2012 Children can not be forced to use a helmet because of the LAW look at s326 endanger child http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/qld/consol_act/cc189994/s326.html
    A helmet must adhere to the sun safety recomendations for outdoor head-wear or it may conflict with s326. Blind Freddy knows a hat without the recomended shade is not safe it exposes you to avoidable uv exposure. Children trying to modify their helmets create a blocked peripheral vision danger leading to more deaths on the roads

  • Australia is one of only two countries in the world with national all-age mandatory bicycle helmet laws (MHLs).

    Introduced
    by state and territory governments under threat of cuts to federal road
    funding in the early 1990s, the idea that it should be a criminal
    offense for an adult to ride a bicycle without a helmet has since then
    only been copied in New Zealand (1994) and a handful of regional or
    local jurisdictions (mainly in North America).

    Israel experimented
    with national legislation, but repealed the law in 2011 after a four
    year trial. It’s no mystery why the rest of the world has shunned making
    bike helmets compulsory. From almost every perspective, helmet laws
    have been a disaster.

    There are many objections to MHLs: they
    don’t improve injury rates, discourage regular recreational exercise in
    an era of high obesity, and are an unnecessary and unjust intrusion into
    individual freedom.

    The first criticism of bike helmet laws is simple-they don’t do what they’re intended to do.

    The
    most extensive study of the real-world effects of MHLs on injury rates
    was by Australian researcher, Dr Dorothy Robinson from the University of
    New England, who found ‘enforced helmet laws discourage cycling but
    produce no obvious response in percentage of head injuries’.

    Even
    after 20 years and plenty of research, there is still no compelling
    evidence that Australia’s compulsory helmet laws have reduced injury
    rates on a population-wide basis.

    While there is evidence that
    wearing a helmet will provide some protection from a knock to the head,
    the benefit is small. Severe head injuries amongst cyclists are not
    particularly common, and helmets do not prevent all or even a high
    proportion of those that might occur, but rather provide some marginal
    decrease in the likelihood of injury.

    The reasons that the
    protective benefits of helmet-wearing are not evident across the whole
    population are not completely known, but almost certainly have something
    to do with the significant unwanted side-effects of helmet laws.

    MHLs
    change people’s behaviour and perception of risk. Some cyclists take
    more risks while riding with a helmet than they would without, while
    studies have shown that some motorists drive closer to helmeted
    cyclists, than unhelmeted ones. This tendency for individuals to react
    to a perceived increase in safety by taking more risk is known as risk
    compensation.

    Importantly, helmet laws severely reduce the number
    of cyclists on the road, leading to increased risk among those who
    remain through reduced safety in numbers, a researched and acknowledged
    influence on cyclist accident and injury rates.

    Unsurprisingly, compulsory helmets have also discouraged cycling.

    When
    the laws were introduced in the early 1990s, cycling trips declined by
    30-40 per cent overall, and up to 80 per cent in some demographic
    groups, such as secondary school-aged females.

    Today mandatory
    helmets are still a major factor deterring people from riding. A recent
    survey from University of Sydney Professor Chris Rissel found 23 per
    cent of Sydney adults would ride more if helmets were optional-a
    significant proportion given that only about 15-20 per cent of people
    ride regularly at present-and that amending helmet laws to allow adult
    cyclists free choice would lead to an approximate doubling of cycling
    numbers in Sydney.

    MHLs are the main reason for the failure of
    Australia’s two public bike hire schemes. Brisbane and Melbourne are the
    only two cities in the world with helmet laws to have attempted public
    bike hire. While schemes in places like Paris, London, Montreal, Dublin
    and Washington DC have flourished, Brisbane and Melbourne have amongst
    the lowest usage rates in the world.

    To facilitate increased
    cycling participation, the City of Sydney has recommended that current
    bike helmet legislation should be reviewed.

    Cycling is generally a
    safe activity, the health benefits outweighing the risks from traffic
    accidents by a large margin. British research suggests life years gained
    through cycling outweigh years lost in cycling fatalities by a factor
    of 20:1. A recent study of users of Barcelona’s public bike hire scheme
    puts this ratio at 77:1.

    Given that MHLs reduce cycling numbers so
    dramatically and produce such a small (or probably non-existent) safety
    dividend, it’s probable that the laws create a net health and financial
    burden on the community and health system.

    By any measure, health
    problems associated with a lack of exercise are a far greater problem
    than cycling head injuries in Australia. According to the Heart
    Foundation, lack of physical activity causes 16,000 premature deaths
    each year, swamping the 40 or so cycling fatalities.

    It makes
    little sense for Australian governments to be conjuring questionable
    attempts to ‘encourage’ exercise while at the same time maintaining
    legislation which actively discourages and prevents people from
    partaking in a simple form of exercise like cycling.

    Each year
    police issue tens of thousands of fines to Australians for engaging in a
    peaceful activity which poses no danger to any other person or
    property. Some have even been imprisoned for refusing or being unable to
    pay bike helmet fines.

    Australian cyclists who want to ride
    sans-helmet are being prevented from doing so, not because it’s reckless
    or dangerous, but simply because this already safe and healthy activity
    might be made marginally safer with the addition of a helmet. This is
    surely a flimsy basis for incarceration.

    The best judge of when a
    helmet is necessary is the individual, who can take into account the
    particular circumstances of his or her ride. Downhill mountain bikers
    and high-speed road warriors would probably overwhelmingly still don
    lids if given the choice. Those out for a sedate ride on bike paths or
    on short local trips might be more inclined to want to feel the wind in
    their hair.

    MHLs are not only unnecessary and unjust, they are
    inconsistent. Pedestrians and car occupants are each responsible for
    more hospital patient days for head injuries than cyclists. Despite
    this, few argue that compulsory walking and driving helmets are
    essential for safety.

    After 20 years, the results are clear: the
    compulsory bike helmet experiment has failed. We need to amend the law
    to allow adults the freedom to choose if a helmet is necessary when they
    cycle.

    Some will still choose to wear helmets at all times, and
    this is a totally reasonable decision. However in many situations it is
    perfectly safe to go without and Australia should join the rest of the
    world in allowing this simple freedom.

    Download document http://www.ipa.org.au/library/publication/1335931523_document_helmets.pdf

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