US children cycling less: helmet laws

The Outdoor Industry Association in the US recently published its 2016 report with estimates of outdoor recreation participation in the US in 2015.

The release is reported at, which previously displayed OIA estimates to 2012 that showed the 6-17yo proportion cycling on roads and paved surfaces was 45.2% in 2006 (17,401,000 / 38,457,000) and 31.6% in 2012 (12,397,000 / 39,232,000).

Youth Participation in Outdoor Activities, Ages 6 to 17

2006 Pop % 2007 Pop % 2008 Pop % 2009 Pop % 2010 Pop %
Bicycling (Road/Paved Surface) 17,401,000 34.7% 14,336,000 28.5% 13,325,000 26.8% 13,652,000 27.3% 12,442,000 24.7%
2011 Pop % 2012 Pop % 2013 Pop % 2014 Pop % 2015 Pop %
Bicycling (Road/Paved Surface) 12,330,000 24.3% 12,397,000 24.5% 12,363,000 24.4% 11,610,000 22.7% 10,696,000 20.8%

Participation in Outdoor Activities, All Americans Ages 6+

2006 Pop % 2007 Pop % 2008 Pop % 2009 Pop % 2010 Pop %
Bicycling (Road/Paved Surface) 38,457,000 14.0% 38,940,000 14.1% 38,114,000 13.6% 40,140,000 14.3% 39,320,000 13.9%
2011 Pop % 2012 Pop % 2013 Pop % 2014 Pop % 2015 Pop %
Bicycling (Road/Paved Surface) 40,348,000 14.1% 39,232,000 13.7% 40,888,000 14.1% 39,725,000 13.6% 38,280,000 13.0%

These new figures show the 6-17yo proportion of all cyclists was 45.2% in 2006 (17,401,000 / 38,457,000) and 27.9% in 2015 (10,696,000 / 38,280,000), i.e. down from 31.6% in 2012.

In other words, the number of 6-17yo Americans cycling on roads and paved surfaces fell by 6,705,000 or 38.5% over the 10 years.

The 6+ participation was down by 177,000 from 2006 to 2015 which, because of population growth, represents a 1.0% drop in population percentage, i.e. adult road cycling in the US has increased by a bit over 6.5 million over the past decade and all the reduction has been among 6-17yo who are subject to mandatory helmet laws in half the American states (in all states if parental, school and local government coercion is taken into account). Overall, 6+ road cycling participation in 2015 was 2,068,000 fewer than in 2011.

It is bizarre that participation data such as this receives no publicity while Americans puzzle over why their kids are the fattest on earth.

ACT helmet law review

Update on progress towards ACT’s review of their helmet law. Click on the image below to read the letter from Shane Rattenbury MLA.


National Cycling Strategy Fails

This is a guest post by Chris Gillham, who maintains, a rich repository of facts and statistics on Australia’s helmet law disaster.

A report on cycling promotion by the Australian Bicycle Council and Austroads will test whether the Australian or New Zealand governments are paying any attention to the cycling participation and safety obstacles created by their all-age mandatory helmet laws.

The National Cycling Strategy Implementation Report 2015 ( evaluates the progress of the 2011-16 national strategy to double Australia’s cycling participation.

The report confirms the abject failure of the strategy and acknowledges that not only was there no increase in participation, there was a slight decrease from 2011 to 2015. Australia’s weekly cycling participation was down 0.8% from 18.2% in 2011 to 17.4% in 2015, representing about 187,000 fewer cyclists.

The population proportion cycling at least once a month dropped from 27.1% in 2011 to 24.3% in 2015, representing about 690,000 people, and cycling at least once a year dropped from 40.2% to 36.3%, or about 950,000 fewer cyclists.

Governance of the National Cycling Strategy ranges from ministerial oversight in all Australian and NZ jurisdictions to all relevant government departments and agencies in both countries.

If any of them reads the report, they’ll find it itemises the 2011-16 strategy successes of improved infrastructure and more cycleways, along with promotional events and participation/safety campaigns by the different states.

All amounting to fewer people cycling and more being injured.

The report doesn’t say it explicitly but repeatedly suggests that helmet laws are an obstacle to participation and safety.

For example, the following is about a third of the report’s summary on road safety:

While most of Australia has all-age mandatory bicycle helmet laws, the Northern Territory allows people over the age of 17 to ride without a helmet under certain circumstances such as on bicycle paths and footpaths (footpath cycling is legal in the Northern Territory).

Despite more relaxed laws regarding footpath cycling and helmet use, the report found that the Northern Territory had the lowest proportion of both cycling fatalities and hospitalisations as a proportion of all traffic fatalities/crashes by jurisdiction in the period 2005-2014.

The low proportion of fatalities and hospitalisations in the Northern Territory cannot be explained due to low cycling participation. In fact, in 2015 the Northern Territory had the highest level of weekly (24.1%), monthly (32.6%) and yearly (46.1%) cycling participation in Australia.

Are the ABC and Austroads giving a hint when they introduce their chapter on cycling promotion with the following?

An undue focus on safety and on the need for special safety precautions reduces the appeal of cycling and unfairly places the responsibility on the cyclist to protect themselves from external dangers.

The report concedes an insignificant decline in Australian weekly cycling participation from 2011 to 2015 (187,000 fewer cyclists). However, it’s important to note that while the 0.8% decline in weekly participation wasn’t considered significant, when trip per week estimates in the 2011 and 2015 survey reports are applied, the reduction in Australias daily cycling participation was very significant.

In fact, trip per week changes in all Australian states resulted cumulatively in a 41.3% decline in national daily bike trips from 2011 to 2015.

That’s about 1.3 million fewer bike trips per day, confirming that Australian daily bicycle trips are way down on estimates from surveys before the 1990-92 introduction of bicycle helmet laws. Australia’s population increased 39.4% from 1990 to 2015.

Australia had 7,520 hospitalised cyclist injuries in 1990 and 10,098 in 2013, a 34.3% increase.

The report notes: “The National Cycling Strategy finishes at the end of 2016 and there are no plans to develop a future strategy for cycling in Australia.”

Perhaps governments do not want to be reminded that their promises to get more people cycling are empty. They prefer to shut down the messenger rather than address the real problems. Meanwhile increased cycling participation is a cure for road safety, public health, traffic congestion and greenhouse gases but Australian Governments are giving up.

The National Cycling Strategy Implementation Report 2015 demonstrates that despite more cycling infrastructure and government participation/safety campaigns, there are fewer cyclists and more injuries.

The elephant in the room is mandatory helmet laws and it will be interesting to see if the Australian and New Zealand government representatives who’ve received the report will read it or get the hint that helmet laws are harming instead of improving cyclist participation and safety.

The National Cycling Strategy Implementation Report 2015 also adds weight to the need for Australia’s Senate to reconvene the Personal Choice and Community Impacts committee of inquiry into bicycle helmet laws ( &

Why cycling without a helmet is good for everyone

If you ride a bicycle and you choose to wear a helmet, there may be a benefit to you in you crash.
However if you choose not to wear a helmet, the overall health outcome for you is positive and you are saving the taxpayer money. That’s because the health benefits of riding a bicycle outweigh all the risks by a large factor. For example an article in the British Medical Journal compares the health benefit of riding public share bikes with the risks and finds a large net benefit.  The British Medical Association publication “Cycling: Towards Health and Safety”. Oxford University Press; 1992. found that “in spite of the hostile environment in which most cyclists currently ride, the benefits in terms of health promotion and longevity far outweigh the loss of life years in injury on the roads.” Bicycling: Health Risk or Benefit? reported “Benefit to risk ratios ranged between 9 to 1 and 96 to 1.” in a range of studies. Note that helmet wearing rates are far below Australia’s for these studies.

In “Physical Activity in Australia: A Snapshot, 2007-08“, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that the direct health care costs due to physical inactivity in Australia were almost $1.5 billion in 2006-07.

Cycling in the Netherlands, where helmet wearing is rare, saves the health budget 3% of GDP, see Dutch Cycling: Quantifying the Health and Related Economic Benefits.

So when you see someone riding a bicycle without a helmet, you can be glad they are saving you money.  By the way, the health benefits of riding are approximately 50% of the total benefits (the other benefits include congestion, pollution etc).

Next time somebody tells you that you should pay your own health costs if you ride without a helmet, ask whether people who don’t ride a bicycle should pay a lot more than that towards the higher health costs due to inactivity.

Hierarchy of Controls

The Hierarchy of Controls is a “system used in industry to minimize or eliminate exposure to hazards“.

Bicycle helmets come at the bottom, or least effective end of the pyramid, as they are “personal protective equipment”.

What would this diagram translate to if applied to safety for cyclists?


How can we eliminate cars? Actually it’s already been done, in certain places.  Think, pedestrian malls, off-road bike paths, parks and gardens. No deaths due to motor vehicles where they are eliminated.  Expanding such areas is therefore the most effective way of improving safety for cyclists (and pedestrians). More car-free areas in our cities, for example.  Banning cars from outside schools would help get more children walking and cycling to school.


More use of walking, cycling and public transport substitutes for car use. How is this achieved? By making these modes more attractive than driving a car.


For bicycles, this covers physical separation, e.g. by a kerb or a barrier. Also underpasses or bridges that avoid crossing roads at grade. In other words, what we call “infrastructure”.


For bicycles, this covers white lines painted on the road, speed limits, bicycle symbols painted on the road and all rules such as “a meter matters“.


Advertising campaigns and education efforts, such as those promoted by the Amy Gillett Foundation.

Personal Protective Equipment

The least effective measure. Helmets.

A Meter Matters

Update December 22nd 2015

The recent announcement of cyclist registration in NSW, plus increasing fines, including $319 for not wearing a helmet and other higher fines is anti-cyclist legislation by the notoriously anti-cyclist NSW state government. This is the price they have levied for introducing a one-meter rule, and the higher fines and cyclist registration is believed to be supported by Cycling [sport] NSW and the Amy Gillett Foundation.  These sport-cycling organisations have no idea how much they are setting back the all-too-gradual increase in everyday use of the bicycle for transport. Sports cyclists ride on the road with cars and feel that they benefit from a one-meter rule, fair enough – but not at the price of laws that make cycling less convenient and attractive to the majority.

Update June 3rd 2014

It appears that the Queensland Police do not like the one meter law and are not enforcing it, even refusing to take action when a breach was filmed. They have instead made a point of singling out cyclists for enforcement – and of course there are now higher fines to hit cyclists with.  So if you were in favour of a safe passing distance law, make sure the police are on board first.

Original article published 4/2/2014

The recent Queensland Parliamentary enquiry into cycling recommended a law for a minimum passing distance when a motor vehicle overtakes a bicycle.  The minister was quick to announce that this measure would be implemented, while at the same time saying he opposed the committee’s recommended reform to helmet law.

On the surface, a passing distance law looks like a good thing. Most of us would welcome a decent distance between ourselves and a car that overtakes us.  Others criticize the law as “unenforcable” or not evidence-based (i.e. it won’t reduce collisions). Freestyle Cyclists’ view is that the law is at best an interim measure for arterial roads, but more importantly we should be working to get safe, protected bike lanes, and action on local streets to remove rat-running through traffic and reduce speeds. The problem with interim measures is that they take the pressure off government to do the harder but more effective things that are needed.

A more fundamental problem with a passing distance law is that it relies on motorists to see cyclists and act appropriately. Any safety system that primarily relies on vigilance by motor vehicle operators has failure built in. Of course the need for care and attention by drivers can’t be dispensed with (self-driven cars aside), but the less the road system relies on drivers to pay attention, the better for safety. This is the principle behind the Dutch system of “sustainable safety” by the way.  Hi-viz clothing is a flawed strategy for the same reason.

Sport cyclists ride on the road, often in large bunches, at high speed.  They don’t see protected bike lanes as part of the solution, because such lanes aren’t suitable for their needs. Sports Cycling organisations who promote measures that suit sport cyclists, are not helping to promote cycling by everyday people for their daily transport needs.

Seat Belt laws – relevant?

Campaigners for helmet choice are often asked “do you support seat belt laws”, as though this is relevant.  More relevant would be a question about laws forcing motor vehicle occupants to wear helmets, but somehow that subject isn’t of interest to medicos, law makers and others who profess to want to make our roads safer.

Seat belt law isn’t in our province of interest or knowledge, but what we do know is that there is no down-side to public health, better cities, resource depletion nor air pollution from making seat belts compulsory. Actually there might be a down-side to public health, because it’s possible that wearing seat belts encourages more dangerous driving, which increases risks for pedestrians and cyclists.  In contrast, bicycle helmet laws do reduce public health, do make cities’ roads and public transport more congested, do cause more fossil fuels to be burned which pollute the air with carcinogens and carbon dioxide. That’s because helmet laws discourage cycling.

What Stops People from Cycling?

It’s generally agreed that “not feeling safe” is the biggest single reason that people give for not using the bicycle for transport.  The second biggest reason is “compulsory helmets”. These two are closely related – making helmets compulsory, even promoting them, reinforces the belief that cycling is dangerous.

The Victorian Transport Accident Commission (TAC) provided a response to a question on notice from the Senate Enquiry into Personal Choice and Community Impacts stating that 28% of respondents who had ridden a bicycle in the last 6 months cited “dislike wearing a helmet” as influencing their decision to ride a bicycle. Their evidence to the Enquiry, along with others, can be viewed in full at Note that the TAC evidence includes sections of three documents, the third of which includes this survey result (search on “helmet”).

Research into Melbourne Bike Share (chart above) found that 25% of people didn’t use it because they “didn’t want to wear a helmet” while 9% cited “Safety Concerns”.

In “The possible effect on frequency of cycling if mandatory bicycle helmet legislation was repealed in Sydney, Australia: a cross sectional survey” (University of Sydney), it was found that 22.6% of people would ride more if they could choose whether or not to wear a helmet.

December 2018 Journal of Transport & Health reported “22% of youth stated they would cycle more to school if helmet use was not mandatory” in
Would New Zealand adolescents cycle to school more if allowed to cycle without a helmet?

West Australian government survey in 1993 found “…of adults … (n = 254), 28 .0% of adults from the Perth sample, and 25.0% of adults from the country sample, reported they would cycle more if they were not legally required to wear a helmet (p 19)”.

When the South Australian Royal Auto Association surveyed their members, they found that 27% would “cycle more” if there were no helmet law.

In other countries, where laws require children/youths to wear helmets, their use of bicycles declined significantly (one example).

Northern Territory

The Northern Territory partially repealed their helmet law in 1994, giving people a choice not to wear a helmet on off-road paths and footpaths. Note that footpath riding is legal in NT.  From 2011 Census Journey to work NT
“Alice Springs had the highest cycling figure (5.4%) and Darwin the second highest (3.1%) of similar sized Australian regional cities.”
Darwin has the highest figure for any Australian capital city.

What happened when helmet laws were introduced?

The percentage of people using bikes to get to work is measured every five years in the Australian Census.  You probably remember filling in the big census form every five years yourself. Helmet laws reduced the number of people cycling dramatically, and numbers are still lower today than before helmet law came in.

Apart from dragging down progress towards better cycling conditions and getting more people using bikes, this also means that fewer people are getting the health benefits of riding a bicycle to work. Even if the claimed benefits of helmet law are as big as governments make out, the health effects of getting less exercise are a much bigger loss. Overall, helmet law reduces the people’s life-span, increases disease and costs the health budget money.  See Prof Piet de Jong’s paper (Professor of Actuarial Statistics, Macquarie University).

Below is a graph of census data on transport in New Zealand. Helmets were made compulsory in New Zealand in 1994.


taken from Sandar Tin Tin et al, International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity.  Also in New Zealand, In 1987/88, before the introduction of helmet laws, 4.4% of New Zealanders cycled to work, 11.6% cycled to primary school and 18.6% to secondary school.  By 2004/08, only 2.2% and cycled to work, 4.3% to primary school and 4.9% to secondary school. These data are from NZ Ministry of Transport: How New Zealanders Travel.  Spreadsheet available at:

Above is from

In Victoria, the study relied on by the Government to claim that cycling didn’t decrease after helmet law shows the opposite. The count in 1990 was pre-law. Both counts post-law shows a large drop except for one site at which a large organised group of over 400 cyclists inflated the final year’s average. The chart at right is from and shows the numbers at the distorted site in red.  The study was funded by Vicroads who didn’t fund a further year’s count, as they couldn’t be sure another big event would prop up their figures.

In Perth, two bridges carried most of the road traffic across the Swan River. Here are the before and after figures for numbers of cyclists:


Graphic from

Below is a graph of head injuries and non-head injuries to cyclists in Victoria, taken from Carr, D., M. Skalova, and M. Cameron, Evaluation of the bicycle helmet law in Victoria during its first four years, 1995, Rpt 76 Monash Univ Acc Res Centre Melbourne.  Helmet laws had no effect on the ratio of head to non-head injuries, but all injuries dropped, showing the effect of helmet law was to decrease cycling but not to decrease head injuries:



This one graph tells us a lot. Introduction of helmet laws discourages the safest cyclists,  and changes the mix of cycling activities in the population – because racing cyclists and mountain-biking cyclists wear helmets as a matter of course, the law doesn’t affect them. Everyday cycling, the safest type of cycling, is discouraged because most people won’t do this type of riding if they feel it is unsafe. So the mix of accidents also changes – the type of risky cycling that is more likely to result in head injuries becomes a larger share of cycling crashes. So even though a helmet may offer some level of protection in the event of a crash, a helmet law removes the safest cyclists and those least likely to have a head injury in the first place. By discouraging this type of cycling, the health benefits lost outweigh any gain from increasing helmet wearing rates.




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