2012 September

Study confirms helmet laws killing Australian bike share

A recent study into the reasons for the disappointing usage of Australia’s two bike share schemes has confirmed what many people already know: public bike share will not work with mandatory helmet laws.

Usage rates of Brisbane’s CityCycle and the Melbourne Bike Share are terrible. This new research confirms what we have previously reported; that Brisbane and Melbourne are receiving only 5-10% of the usage we should expect of successful bike share schemes.

The authors note:

“Both schemes have approximately 0.3–0.4 trips per day per bike according to information supplied by the operators to the authors…..most other schemes internationally report usage rates of around 3–6 trips per bike per day.”

Every bike share scheme in the world except for Brisbane and Melbourne allows people to ride without helmets (which is perfectly safe). It is this compulsory helmet requirement that most people say is the main factor preventing them from using the Melbourne Bike Share, as shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1. Source: E. Fishman et al. (2012), Barriers and facilitators to public bicycle scheme use: A qualitative approach, Transportation Research Part F

Over 60% of respondents cite helmet restrictions as being the main reason stopping them from using bike share.

When you exclude those who claim bad weather as their main obstacle (which is surely beyond the power of any government or transport authority to influence), helmet laws become even more obviously predominant.

The study found similar reasons for the poor patronage of Brisbane CityCycle. Analysis of CityCycle was done through “focus group discussions” rather than a survey, so the results are descriptive rather than statistical. But a familiar story emerges.

The authors write:

“Participants who had not used CityCycle frequently described mandatory helmet laws as a reason for not using the scheme. Focus group participants felt the requirement to use a helmet reduced the spontaneity often associated with public bike share scheme use.”

Despite having some compelling evidence in front of them, the authors recommendations are weak and disappointing. They suggest Australian bike share needs:

  • a more accessible, spontaneous sign-up process
  • 24/7 opening hours
  • greater incentives to sign up new members and casual users

While there is no doubt that these things are useful suggestions, they do not even come close to explaining why Brisbane and Melbourne are operating at one-tenth the usage they should be.

Melbourne Bike Share already has an instantaneous sign-up process (credit card swipe) and it doesn’t have significantly higher usage than CityCycle which has a longer, more complicated sign-up.

24-hour operation would be beneficial but it’s inconceivable that it would lead to anything more than a marginal increase in usage, certainly not the 10-fold increase that the schemes need.

Why do the authors not make any suggestions about what is clearly the main reason for the failure of Australian bike share: mandatory helmet laws? Why is there no consideration of an exemption from helmet laws for bike share users, as has been suggested by Fairfax journalist Michael O’Reilly and others in the media and community?

This seemingly strange omission becomes understandable when we note that the three authors of this study are from the Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety – Queensland (CARRS-Q), based at the Queensland University of Technology. CARRS-Q was the group that last year produced a publication in support of mandatory bicycle helmet legislation which was commissioned and paid for by (and included editorial input from) the Queensland government.

We have written extensively on the deficiencies and biases of this publication, including some general criticisms here and here and a seven-part in-depth critique beginning here.

Given the preconceived views of it’s authors it is unsurprising that this latest research fails to suggest that it might be time to rethink our stance on compulsory helmets. This is disappointing because their own evidence clearly shows that helmet laws are the primary reason for the failure of bike share in Australia.

Added 5/4/2016: North American bike share, safer than general cycling.

OECD Cycling Safety Report

The International Transport Forum (an intergovernmental OECD organisation of which Australia is a member) has recently released a publication on cycling safety, entitled Cycling Safety: Key Messages.

Amongst other things, the report considers the effectiveness of promoting or mandating helmet use for increasing safety.  It finds:

Helmet usage reduces the severity of head injuries in cycle crashes but may lead to compensating behaviour that otherwise erodes safety gains.

Studies addressing the safety impact of helmets can generally be split into two groups: those that focus on the way in which bicycle helmets change the injury risk for individual cyclists in case of a crash and those that focus on the generalised safety effect of introducing measures (typically campaigns and/or legislation) to increase helmet usage among cyclists.

The first group generally finds that wearing a bicycle helmet reduces the risk of sustaining a head injury in a crash (head injuries are among the most severe outcomes of cycle crashes) though recent re-analysis of previous studies suggests that this effect is less than previously thought (Elvik, 2011).

To be clear — these studies indicate the possible reduced risk of head injury for a single cyclist in case of an accident. The effects must not be mistaken for the safety effects of mandatory helmet legislation or other measures to enhance helmet usage.

The safety effect of mandatory helmet legislation as such has been evaluated in far lesser studies than the individual risk in case of an accident. The safety effect of mandatory helmet legislation is a result of a series of factors:

  • reduced injury risk (due to increased helmet usage)
  • increased crash risk (due to an often claimed change in behaviour amongst cyclists who take up wearing helmet)
  • less cycling (leading to a reduced number of accidents and injuries, but also to a higher accident risk for those who still cycle)

Whether bicyclists change their behaviour when they start to use a bicycle helmet seems very uncertain (and difficult to prove) but it is evident that mandatory helmet use might reduce the total number of bicyclists. It is also possible that cyclists who continue to bike might represent a behaviour which is different from the behaviour of those who stop biking. In the end this could very well lead to an overall change in behaviour.

Although the report makes 11 recommendations of ways for governments to improve safety for cyclists, there is no recommendation to make helmets compulsory.

The publication also presents a number of other interesting findings and recommendations:

  • On balance, the positive health impacts of cycling far outweigh negative health impacts
  • Cyclists should not be the only target of cycling safety policies – motorists are at least as important to target
  • Cycling is safer on roads with bicycle specific infrastructure such as segregated lanes than on roads without

These are the sort of points that Australian governments should be basing our cycling policies around. Any measures, such as compulsory helmet laws, which reduce cycling numbers are likely to produce a net detrimental effect on the overall health of the community.

Efforts to reduce serious injury for cyclists must focus on the main source of the danger itself – namely collisions with motor vehicles. Mandatory helmet legislation does nothing to prevent these collisions occurring in the first place and the reduction in population-wide injury risk is non-existent or at best very small.

This is why the OECD forum has found there is no case to recommend compulsory helmets and as such it would be prudent for the few jurisdictions like Australia that do have these laws to repeal them.

Freestyle Cyclists Launch 6 October 2012

Freestyle Cyclists are launching their campaign for reform of Australia and New Zealand’s bicycle helmet legislation next month with a keynote address from Chris Rissel, Professor of Public Health, University of Sydney.

Other speakers include lawyer and cycling activist Sue Abbott, independent Queensland filmmaker Geoff McLeod, and City of Yarra Councillor Jackie Fristacky.

The event will be held on Saturday 6th of October at 1pm at CERES Community Environment Park, Cnr Roberts & Stewarts Streets, East Brunswick (Melbourne).

Following presentations, there will be a demonstration of civil disobedience involving cycling along the nearby Merri Creek bike track while not wearing helmets.

So why not join them at the launch or sign their online petition for helmet law reform?

About Freedom Cyclists:

Freestyle Cyclists seeks the reform of bike helmet law in Australia and New Zealand to get more people riding bikes.

Repealing helmet laws will give people a choice, and remove the barrier for those occasions when a person decides to ride without a helmet.

Discouraging cycling is bad for public health because the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks by a large factor – including when not wearing a helmet.

In 1990, Victoria became the first place in the world to require people to wear a helmet when riding a bike. The rest of Australia (with the exception of the Northern Territory, which allows choice on footpaths and bike tracks) followed soon after. Regrettably, the other states did not wait for an evaluation of the effects of the legislation in Victoria before passing their own laws.

World wide, only New Zealand has followed suit with a nationally enforced all ages ban on cycling without a helmet. A handful of Canadian provinces and some local US jurisdictions have legislation enforced to varying degrees, while a handful of countries require children to wear helmets. All in all,after over twenty years the idea hasn’t spread.

The idea hasn’t spread, because mandatory bike helmet laws simply do not work. The hoped for reduction in head injuries did not happen. The risk of head injury per km cycled showed no measurable change, while the risk of other injuries actually went up. The numbers of Australians cycling dropped dramatically, particularly amongst women and teenagers. Even today, despite years of “cycling promotion” by governments and public health agencies, participation in cycling of all kinds is less per head of population than it was in 1986. One in five Australians report that they are put off riding a bike by the helmet requirement.

Cycling has become almost exclusively a sporting activity in Australia. Visitors from Europe remark on how fast and recklessly Australians ride. The normal use of a bicycle to get to work, visit friends or do the shopping has all but disappeared. Even the small growth in inner city cycling in Melbourne and Sydney in recent years looks trivial when compared to the successful cycling cities of Europe and Asia. Policing of cycle safety is almost exclusively restricted to dishing out fines for helmet non-compliance. Cities as diverse as London, Paris, Dublin and Barcelona have achieved impressive results with their new public bike sharing. Australia has the dishonourable distinction of playing host to the world’s least successful schemes in Melbourne and Brisbane.

Australia is the helmet experiment that failed. The rest of the world has learned from our mistake and powers ahead with the integration of the bicycle into their urban transport systems. We have stubbornly refused to learn. There is something wrong with a country that can win the Tour de France and gold medals in Olympic cycling, but bans it citizens from going about their daily business by bicycle unless they wear an ineffective polystyrene hat.

Its high time to ditch this petty, irksome and pointless barrier to the use of bicycles by ordinary Australians.

Take action today and start enjoying the ride! Read more