2011 August

Melbourne Bike Share Bikes – Helmet Free At Last!

Just as long as you’re willing to travel to a local Toronto docking station. I wonder how many trips these Melbourne Bike Share bikes are racking up? In Toronto it is a legal requirement for those under 18 years of age to wear a bicycle helmet. Adults are treated as adults and are allowed helmet choice.

Photo credit: Toronto Star

Sadly the local Melbourne Bike Share bikes are still weighed down by the requirement to wear a bicycle helmet no matter where you choose to ride it. If you think that bike share bikes could do with a helmet exemption, use one of our letter templates to quickly email your politician of choice – it only takes a few minutes.

So much needs to be done to improve cycling for transport in Australia – removing barriers such as the helmet law is just one of them.

Vancouver Challenge

In Vancouver, British Columbia, a man is fighting their 15 year old mandatory bicycle helmet law. British Columbia is one of only a few provinces in Canada with such law. His position is quite clear:

“Helmet legislation is the problem, not the helmets themselves. People don’t wear them in Holland and it’s the safest place in the world to ride a bike,” he argued.

We couldn’t agree more.

It is frustrating to see so many people unable to disconnect the bicycle helmet legislation from the actual use and promotion of the bicycle helmet – they are independent but supporters of the law (and many supporting researchers) deliberately mix the two to increase confusion.

This makes supporters of choice the subject of abuse for no good reason, as van der Eerden “has been called a moron and idiot after challenging B.C.’s mandatory helmet law in court.” Why so hostile?

The article is balanced but disappointingly they drag out the nonsensical and irrelevent ‘85% reduction in head injuries’ from the now well known – and well discredited – Thompson, Rivara & Thompson study and their subsequent meta-analysis (of mostly their own data!).

The reality is that the science of bicycle helmet efficacy and helmet laws particularly is far from convincing. The disagreement isn’t coming from a minority of published researchers either… another method helmet law supporters use to make opponants appear to be a fringe minority. Have a look at the helmet law map and decide who really is the fringe minority:


So, back to the story. The president of the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition, Tess Kitchen (who always wears a bicycle helmet), agrees with his position on the helmet law.

Kitchen said the coalition supports the use of helmets, but believes adults should have the right not to wear them.

Unfortunately in Australia (unlike everywhere else in the world), our cycling advocacy organisations either say nothing on the subject, patronisingly dismiss valid arguments or are full support of the law. They are probably not as independent from Government as they’d like us to believe. That’s a shame and will result in slow progress for cycling in this country – not just on issues such as this. It has wider implications.

Dutch Courage?

David Hembrow, a respected and intelligent bicycle blogger, has posted a story which includes the following film. Please read David’s post and click on the links within to learn more.

The film was recorded by Paul van Bellen after a recent study tour of the Netherlands which saw 30 Australian’s experience cycling there for two weeks. A member of  the Helmet Freedom team was on this tour.

There are some interesting observations from this small random sample of Dutch Cyclists:

  • Roughly half were women (cf 25% in Australia)
  • All women referred to ‘bicycling’ rather than ‘cycling’, an interesting linguistic distinction
  • They bicycle essentially every day
  • They do so because it is convenient, cheap & quick; it gives them freedom & joy; and least importantly for their health/environment

The Dutch aren’t compelled to wear bicycle helmets by law and almost no ‘bicyclist’ wears a helmet. When ‘cycling’ for sport they often do wear helmets as it is a very different activity to them, with different bikes; they even have a different word to describe such cyclists, in Dutch it is literally ‘wheelrunner’.

When asked why they don’t need to wear a helmet when ‘bicycling’ they state the following reasons:

  • Negative image, ruins hair
  • Too hot/uncomfortable
  • Extra hassle/awkward
  • Most commonly: they don’t fall and when they do, they don’t hit their heads. Bicycling is safe.

These are all valid reasons, despite them being promptly dismissed by many promoters of cycling in Australia as ‘superficial’ and unimportant.

What is interesting is that the (presumably) retired couple thought that countries surrounding The Netherlands had a mandatory helmet requirement, which we know is not true (see our world map). They probably believe this to be the case due to the high helmet usage rates they see there compared to The Netherlands.

Bicycle helmet use (without laws) and even fluorescent & retroflective clothing use are likely to be symptoms of an unhealthy bicycling environment and a way for riders to make themselves feel safer, despite not necessarily being any safer. We know that the helmet laws haven’t actually made us any safer as a group in Australia.

We at Helmet Freedom think that there is much needed to be done to make cycling safer in Australia, but maintaining helmet legislation is not one of them. In fact, it is sending the wrong message entirely. Cyclists who are currently cycling regularly in Australia do so in spite of the conditions – for them, wearing helmets and high-visibility clothing is something they would probably do anyway. As such they can’t understand the problem with the law and why choice is important. If the law were repealed tomorrow most of them would continue to wear a helmet most of the time, but they would at least have the choice not to occasionally.

The problem is that the law is keeping a very important group of people away from their bicyclesthe numbers may or may not be huge, but who they are is extremely important. They are precisely the sort of people who are likely to lobby for the things we at Helmet Freedom think are really important:

  • separated infrastructure where traffic is dense, fast or dangerous
  • lower speed limits (30km/h) in CBDs, residential areas and other areas where physical separation is unnecessary/impossible.
  • laws to protect pedestrians & cyclists from the cause of the road trauma
  • priority at intersections (or at least equality)
  • parking facilities that are not just located near the waste bins

Repealing mandatory bicycle helmet laws is a great way to boost demand & support for these initiatives and doing so has one big advantage over all the others….

…it’s FREE!

Make that point to the politicians, write to newspapers, talk to friends, spread the word. Go on, you know you want to… 😉

Bike Share & Helmet Laws: Will It Blend?

Vélib is a portmanteau of Vélo & Liberté - Bicycle & Freedom, including Helmet Freedom... (Image credit: Let's Go Ride A Bike).

An article in today’s Courier Mail references the Barcelona study which we covered recently and compares it to Brisbane’s CityCycle scheme. Disappointingly they failed to cover the enormous overall health benefit of a public bicycle hire scheme – the main point of the study – in a country without helmet laws for its users!

The Courier Mail’s figures on subscription numbers are also misleading (annual subscription numbers can’t ‘plummet’ after only 3 months of operation). That aside, it is interesting to see that the helmet legislation is finally now being acknowledged as an impediment to potential users of the scheme, as Bicycle Queensland’s Andrew Demack states:

“Another barrier is helmets. In Australia, we have helmet laws and there is no getting around that. But we think not supplying helmets free is a barrier to casual use”

It is a pity that he claims that there is ‘no getting around’ the helmet legislation. This is simply not true and is quite a defeatist position for a bicycle advocacy group, particularly in light of the overwhelming evidence that helmet laws for cyclists do not actually improve cyclist safety. They need not be concerned about opposition as we are one of the few countries in the world that hold this position on bicycle helmet laws – we are the minority view. It is important that they get out of the mindset that opposing helmet laws is the same as opposing helmet use – it is not. Don’t forget our tagline.

Of course other factors are being blamed for the poor take-up (no on-the-spot signup, no credit card facilities) all of which have not been an issue for Melbourne, yet they’re seeing similar poor usage figures. We certainly welcome these changes to make it more accessible to casual users. The question is: how are they going to make it work with the helmet law?

What makes large, public bike hire schemes incompatible with compulsory helmet laws for bicyclists?

In Australia, in order to comply with the legislation and the standard (AS/NZS2063:2008) to which it refers, there are a number of technical challenges which make compliance with the law near impossible:

  • the helmet must be the correct size (there is no one-size-fits-all helmet unfortunately)
  • the helmet must be undamaged (even a minor impact leaving no evidence of such renders it illegal)
  • the helmet must not be exposed to UV light for extended periods (it must be stored in shade)
  • the helmets must not have any modifications to their design (ie. they can’t be legally ‘tethered’ to a bicycle)

While receiving much criticism, the solution offered by the team at Melbourne Bike Share at least complied with the legislation and the standard. They soon realised that they could not legally ‘recycle’ the helmets into subsequent use as they could not guarantee they were not damaged. Returned helmets are now discarded and not reused.

Risk in Perspective

Cycling without helmet laws is safe. Fear is unhealthy.

A study published two days ago in the British Medical Journal sheds some light on the benefits versus risks of cycling in the urban environment compared to car use. The study was conducted in Barcelona, Spain and data was collected from 181,982 Bicing subscribers. Bicing is Barcelona’s public bike hire scheme which has a similar model to Brisbane’s CityCycle and Melbourne Bike Share.

They concluded that the health benefits outweighed the risks by a factor of 77 to 1. Seventy-seven to one.* It is important to note that the ‘risks’ of cycling included deaths from air pollution and trauma, with the risk of death from air pollution being 4 times higher than the risk of death from trauma. Barcelona was never known as a cycle friendly city… until their bike sharing scheme took off. Since then bicycle use has skyrocketed and, from this new user base, they have seen the environment become safer for cyclists, not just with infrastructure, but because of the safety in numbers effect. Here is an image to illustrate what 77 to 1 looks like:

How much safer does cycling have to be before we ditch helmet laws in Australia?

It is important to note that Barcelona does not have a mandatory helmet requirement for Bicing riders. Spanish law only requires helmets be used when cycling between cities, but not if it is a hot day or you are cycling uphill.

So we need to put risk in perspective. From this study the benefits of cycling (without compulsory helmet laws) outweigh the risks by a factor of 77 to 1 – not to mention the reduction of almost 9,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions. It would make far more sense to ban cars from cities!

Here is an excellent film by Mike Rubbo, filmed earlier this year, showing just how much Bicing has changed Barcelona. Of course, this will never occur in Australia’s cities as long as we continue to ignore the evidence and insist that all cyclists at all times must wear a bicycle helmet. Our bike share bikes are being used 26 times less frequently per bike than Barcelona’s Bicing bikes.

Given this evidence it makes no sense to continue to argue that forcing users of Australia’s public bike hire schemes to wear helmets is good public policy. For nervous politicians a trial helmet exemption for Australia’s bike hire schemes would be a good start.

Write to your local & state politicians, include a copy of this post and the study PDF as attachments and make them listen. We must not allow our public bike hire schemes to fail as it will be a setback to all cyclists, no matter how you choose to ride.

(this research paper was also covered on the Guardian’s Bike Blog)

* Previous reports such as Hillman, M, “Cycling and the Promotion of Health”, Policy Studies 14: 49­58, 1993 have shown the benefit:risk to be approximately 20:1. This recent study is an interesting insight into the benefits of bike share schemes.

CityCycle Denial

Today’s Courier Mail has another negative article on Brisbane’s CityCycle bike hire scheme. The recurring criticism is a valid one – hardly anyone is using the bikes.

Politicians, transport bureaucrats and state-based bicycle advocacy groups in Australia have proffered every imaginable excuse for the failure of bike hire in Brisbane and Melbourne. For some, it’s the weather – Brisbane is too hot, Melbourne is too rainy. Others claim the casual usage fees are too high (a casual daily subscription is $11 for CityCycle). Or that there are too many hills and not enough bike lanes.

While each of these factors undoubtedly has some marginal effect on usage, none come close to explaining the the drastic under-performance of bike hire in Australia. For example Melbourne does not have higher patronage than Brisbane despite being mainly flat with casual daily subscription rate of just $2. Cool, fine days (which are plentiful in Brisbane at this time of year) do not see the people out in their thousands to use the bikes.

Sadly, Australian politicians and bureaucrats refuse to acknowledge what everyone else knows: public bike hire schemes will not work with mandatory helmet laws, as the table below so clearly illustrates.

Public bike hire schemes worldwide

City Total Bikes Compulsory
Daily Trips
Per Bike
Dublin 450 No 9
Barcelona 6,000 No 8
Mexico City 1,200 No 8
Paris 20,600 No 6
Hangzhou 61,000 No 5
Montreal 5,000 No 3.6
London 6,000 No 3.3
Toronto 1,000 No 2.2
Washington DC 1,100 No 1.9
Brisbane 1,000 Yes 0.3
Melbourne 600 Yes 0.3

2.4 million Australians put off their bikes by helmet laws


(See also our later post on what stops people from cycling with more survey results).

Earlier this year, the Cycling Promotion Fund, in conjunction with the National Heart Foundation conducted a survey of 1000 Australian adults in relation to whether or not they ride a bike for transport.

We’ve mentioned the CPF survey previously. It has a great deal of useful information, regarding people who use a bike as a form of transport. But what is probably more interesting is the information on those who currently don’t ride a bike for transport. Do they want to and if so why aren’t they riding?

Of the 1000 people surveyed only 158 had used a bike for transport in the last month. However a further 515 reported that although they don’t ride regularly or at all, they would like to.

So what are the things that are preventing over 50% of the population from hopping on a bike, and what can our governments do to help the situation? Here’s what the they said was stopping them:

  • Unsafe road conditions: 46.4%
  • Speed/volume of traffic: 41.8%
  • Don’t feel safe riding: 41.4%
  • Lack of bicycle lanes/trails: 34.6%
  • Destinations too far away: 29.9%
  • No place to park/store bike: 23.5%
  • Do not own a bike: 22.5%
  • Weather conditions: 22.1%
  • Not fit enough: 21.8%
  • Too hilly: 19.6%
  • Don’t feel confident riding: 18.6%
  • Not enough time: 16.7%
  • Don’t like wearing a helmet: 15.7%
  • No place to change/shower: 14.6%
  • Health problems: 14.4%

Clearly some of the reasons offered are beyond the control of anyone – no government can change the weather, reduce the steepness of the hills, make our destinations closer or give us more time in the day. But some things can be improved.

The first four reasons are variations of exactly the same theme: safety and perceived safety on the roads. There is no doubt that this is the most important barrier to getting more people on bikes. People generally don’t like cycling with fast moving motor traffic – they want to be safe and they want to feel safe. But if we eliminate those other responses which are beyond the control of government, we see that there are only really three things that can realistically be improved upon:

  • Road and traffic conditions / safety: 50%+
  • No place to park/store bike: 23.5%
  • Don’t like wearing a helmet: 15.7%

We can see that mandatory helmet laws, while not the most common deterrent, are clearly a significant factor in discouraging people from cycling. While the provision of more Dutch-style bike lanes would be without question the best way to get more people on bicycles, the unfortunate reality is that this sort of infrastructure will take decades and huge amounts of money to introduce to our cities and towns. In contrast, repeal of helmet laws is costless and immediate. However, it’s not an either/or proposition. Helmet choice and better infrastructure support each other – more people riding means more support for quality bike infrastructure, and ultimately a safer road environment for everyone.

It’s not just those who aren’t cycling that our helmet laws are discouraging. Even amongst those people who do cycle for transport, 16.5% reported that they would ride more often if they were not required to wear a helmet at all times.

So around 16% of people who are interested in cycling are riding less, or not at all, due to our mandatory helmet laws.

Even adjusting for the fact that some people do not have any desire to cycle at all (around a third of all respondents), it’s clear that helmet laws are preventing a huge number of people from riding a bike.

In fact, if the CPF survey is an accurate representation of the population, it shows that compulsory helmet laws are keeping 2.4 million Australians off their bikes.

Getting 2.4 million people to start riding or ride more often would be hugely beneficial to cycling in Australia, especially considering only 3.6 million are riding currently according to this survey.

Given that it is widely acknowledged that the health benefits of riding a bike vastly outweigh the risks of having a traffic accident – even while riding without a helmet – it does not make sense to be preventing so many people from cycling, simply on the basis that this already safe activity might be made even safer with the addition of a helmet.

The evidence is clear – mandatory helmet laws deter people from cycling. Even after 20 years, our laws are still reducing cycling levels by 30-40%.

* See the comment from Dave below.  Given a sample of 1000, population of 20 million and 95% CI, the margin of error in the survey is +/- 3.1%.  So the fully qualified claim is that 15.7% (+/- 3.1%) of Australians are put off cycling by helmet laws. That equates to between 1.8 and 3 million Australians.

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