2011 January

The beauty of choice


For 6.5 billion people, this is an image of grace, beauty and style.  For us, it’s a picture of a crime.

For 6.5 billion people, this is a choice they get to make every day.  For us, its a $100 fine.

You don’t need laws to get mothers to look after their children, just like you don’t need laws to get people to act in their own self interest.  If people feel the need to wear a helmet, they will. If not, they won’t.

The only thing helmet laws do is discourage cycling and prevent scenes like this one from happening in Australia and New Zealand.  Support helmet freedom by writing to your state Transport Minister right now.

(photo via Mikael Colville-Andersen)

Taliban Road Safety

Kim Harding on the ubiquitous blog asks an interesting question: are road safety campaigns directed at the victim really that different from the Taliban forcing women to wear a burqa as protection against rape?

While educating all road users is important, I’m always dumbfounded as to why bike safety education is primarily directed at cyclists and not motorists.  After all, 80% of all cycling fatalities involve being hit by a motor vehicle.

If you were to walk down the street with a shotgun and it were to accidentally discharge, then you as the person holding the shotgun would automatically be held liable, not anyone you hit.

Cars kill over 1600 people every year in Australia so why don’t we apply that standard to motoring?  Why do we still direct safety measure at the victim instead of reducing the threat?

Helmet law efficacy – Two responses

Two responses to D. Robinson’s 2005 study into helmet law efficacy perfectly summarise the helmet debate in Anglo-American countries.  (I say Anglo-American because there is almost universal rejection of helmet laws in non-English speaking countries.)

The first, Arguments Against Helmet Legislation are Flawed, is typical of helmet & helmet law supporters.  Numerous studies have shown that if involved in a crash, helmet wearing reduces the likelihood of serious head injury.  Other studies have shown a correlation between helmet wearing through enforcement and a reduction in cycling injuries.  Because helmets can be effective, they conclude that their use must be enforced and this enforcement has no negative effects.

The second, Determining True Effectiveness of Safety Measures, effectively captures our position that helmets are great but helmet laws are a disaster.  Regardless how effective a particular safety measure might be in theory, failure to demonstrate any real benefits in whole populations over time must necessarily call into question its true effectiveness—particularly when compulsion is involved.

If helmet laws worked (a very different claim from whether or not helmets work), then we should have seen a reduction in cyclist head injuries compared with non-cyclist head injuries.  Yet this is not the case.

If helmet laws worked, then we should have seen a reduction in the ratio of head to non-head injuries amongst cyclists (ie fewer head injuries for those that are in crashes).  Again, this is not the case.

And if helmet laws were a difference maker to cyclist safety, then cycling with a helmet in Australia wouldn’t be over 10 times more dangerous than cycling without a helmet in Europe.  But it is.

Review of helmet law efficacy

No clear evidence from countries that have enforced the wearing of helmets

This study examines the efficacy of helmet legislation in jurisdictions where helmet usage increased by at least 40%.  To avoid confusing reductions in injuries (from safer roads or less cycling) with benefits of helmets, the author focused on percentages of cyclists with head injuries (the dataset included over 10,000 head injury cases).

The key findings of the study are:

  • Case-control studies suggest cyclists who choose to wear helmets generally have fewer head injuries than non-wearers.
  • Before and after data show enforced helmet laws discourage cycling but produce no obvious response in percentage of head injuries.
  • This contradiction may be due to risk compensation, incorrect helmet wearing, reduced safety in numbers, or incorrect adjustment for confounders in case-control studies.
  • Governments should focus on factors such as speeding, drink-driving, failure to obey road rules, poor road design, and cycling without lights at night.

In short, the study supports the position that helmets are great but helmet laws are not.  Helmet laws discourage cycling and have no positive impact on cyclist safety.  Studies that have claimed that helmet laws are a positive difference maker have failed to account for confounding variables such as other road safety measures.

D. Robinson (2005) ‘No clear evidence from countries that have enforced the wearing of helmets’, British Medical Journal, 332(7543): 722–725.

The Mary Poppins Effect

Does riding a situp style bike in normal clothes without a helmet make you safer than riding in lycra and helmet?

That’s a question being increasingly asked by a number of researchers who are examining driver behaviour in response to the presence of cyclists.  While the Safety In Numbers Effect explains adaptation in driver behaviour to the number of cyclists on the roads, behaviour response to the style of cyclist present has been labelled the Mary Poppins Effect.

Is a cyclist who looks ‘normal’ to a motorist treated differently to one who doesn’t?  Is lycra and styrofoam a red rag to motorists?  Research by traffic and transport psychologist Ian Walker would suggest that this might just be so.

Perhaps specialist clothing and equipment like lycra and helmets, de-normalise cycling and make cyclists ‘the other’ in the eyes of motorists.  After all, it’s much harder to deal with the consequences of your actions if the victim looks like you, your friends or even your mother.  As Lovely Bike Blog notes, only a monster would do anything mean to Mary Poppins.

A Canadian perspective

A Canadian lawyer shares his experience with helmet laws.

“overzealous and often selective law enforcement, which perpetuates discrimination and increases the perception that the law is arbitrary and favors those in a superior socio-economic position. Also, the failure to wear helmets often leads to unnecessary and unfair prejudice.”

Oh, and there is no evidence to show that helmet laws make cycling in general safer.

Victorian Police do their bit to encourage cycling

In a bid to increase safety, Victorian Police are cracking down on the victims of road trauma to prevent them becoming, um, victims.

Operation Spoke, Vic Police’s 12 day blitz targeting cyclists, kicks off today.  Sergeant Greg Dean of Yarra Highway Patrol said that “reducing serious injury collisions is a high priority for police”, that’s why police are urging cyclists “to take care on our roads”, not get hit by motor vehicles, and encouraging them with fines of up to $299 for cycling infringements.

Motorists killed 332 people in Victoria during 2010, including 8 cyclists.  Cyclists killed none.

Sadly, no mention was made of any effort to crackdown on motorists endangering others.

Cycling makes girls smarter

Active Commuting to School and Cognitive Performance in Adolescents

Its official – cycling really does make you smarter, at least for girls anyway!  A study in Spain has found a correlation between walking or cycling to school and improved test scores amongst teenage girls, regardless of how much other exercise was undertaken.

The relationship between exercise and mental performance also seems to be linear.  The authors found that those who had an active commute of over 15mins performed better than those who had an active commute of under 15mins, who in turned performed better than those who had no active commute.

There was no conclusion as to whether or not it was the active commute or exercise in general that led to improved performance but everyone reading this blog knows just how good you feel after a morning ride.  Despite doctors recommending at least an hour of vigorous exercise daily for teens, less than half of US and Australian children manage to achieve this activity level.  One of main the reasons that 25% of Aussie kids are obese or overweight.  More kids riding to school would do a lot to reduce this.

David Martínez-Gómez, Jonatan R. Ruiz, Sonia Gómez-Martínez, Palma Chillón, J. Pablo Rey-López, Ligia E. Díaz, Ruth Castillo, Oscar L. Veiga, ‘Active Commuting to School and Cognitive Performance in Adolescents: The AVENA Study‘, Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med, Dec 2010; doi:10.1001/archpediatrics.2010.244

Deaths of cyclists due to road crashes

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) conducted an analysis of national road traffic accident data and provided an overview of the circumstances of road crashes in which cyclists died in the period 1991 to 2005.  It examined the incidence of helmet wearing among cyclist deaths, the major factors in fatal crashes involving cyclists and the main crash types.  Age and gender distributions, day of week, time of day and speed limit at the crash site were also examined.

As a descriptive analysis, the study is uncontroversial and no predictive conclusions were drawn.  Some of the more interesting points the study highlights are:

  • The most significant reduction in cycling fatalities (from 98 to 41) occurred before the introduction of mandatory helmet laws.  Since the introduction of helmet laws, fatalities have varied between 57 and 26 deaths per year with a slight downward trend (p2).
  • Speed limits matter far more than helmet wearing.   Only 1% of cyclists are killed in 40 kph zones and below.  50% are killed in 50-60 kph zones, 10% in 60-90 kph zones and 30% in 100+ kph zones (p5).
  • The majority of cyclists who were killed wore helmets. Helmet wearing data was unknown for 20% of fatalities but worn in 60% of cases where it was known (p7).
  • Weather, drugs and alcohol rarely play a part in cycling fatalities.  The weather was considered fine in 86% of collisions and over 90% of cyclists and motorists had no alcohol or drug content (p9).
  • Using NCIS data (that’s the National Coroners Information System, not American navy police), helmet wearing was found to lower head injuries as a cause of death from 50% to 33%.  A helmet would ‘save your life’ in about 16% of the cases studied but have made no difference for half the cyclists killed (p10).

If all this makes you think cycling is dangerous, think again.  Far more motorists (997) and pedestrians (196) are killed than cyclists (27).

Deaths of cyclists due to road crashes (2006), ATSB Road Safety Report, Australian Transport Safety Bureau, Canberra.

Helmet Exemption for Bike Share


%long_title% %first_name% %last_name%


Dear %short_title% %last_name%,

RE: Mandatory Bicycle Helmet Exemption for Bike Share Users

I am writing to you to request that riders of bike share bicycles be exempted from %state%’s all-age mandatory bicycle helmet requirement.

No public bike share scheme has been successfully implemented in a jurisdiction with an all-age mandatory bicycle helmet law.
The figures speak for themselves. Melbourne Bike Share has seen average usage rates of 300 trips per day. This appears impressive until it is compared to Dublin’s DublinBikes bike hire scheme (similar in almost all respects) – it has an average daily usage rate of  3,100 trips per day – with fewer bikes and no mandatory helmet requirement. In the 400 days it has been in operation they have seen 1.3 million trips taken and not one serious accident.

Brisbane’s larger CityCycle scheme has seen annual subscription numbers plateau at just over 2000 and a mere 225 trips per day are being taken as at November, 2010. While there are many small variables, only the mandatory helmet requirement in Australia can explain such enormous differences in usage rates.

A recent article in The Age highlighted this issue and a survey of 13,887 respondents voted 79% in favour of repealing the mandatory bicycle helmet law for bike share schemes.

An exemption under the law (Section 256 of the Traffic Act) currently exists for passengers of three- or four-wheeled bicycles but only if they are paying passengers. The rider, curiously, still must wear a bicycle helmet, which is at odds with the response from Government in that such bicycles are ‘more stable’ and hence the exemption for the passengers.

Public Bicycle Hire Schemes must not be allowed to fail. Their failure would be a blow to cycling promotion in this country and a tremendous waste of taxpayer money.

Given the existing commercial exemption for pedicab passengers, can you please explain to me why this exemption cannot also be extended to paying bike share users?




Australian Bike Hire Schemes Fail Because of Helmet Laws – http://www.cycle-helmets.com/bike-hire-schemes.html

Helmet Law Makes Nonsense of Bike Hire Scheme – http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/helmet-law-makes-nonsense-of-bike-hire-scheme-20100722-10my2.html

CityCycle: The First Months, November 2010 Issue, The Brisbane Institute – http://www.brisinst.org.au/here-and-now/november-2010-issue/2

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