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.