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.


  • I’m so glad to see the argument framed using terms like “all cause mortality”. And Barcelona has more dangerous road conditions to those in Australia.   

    • paulmartin says:

      Steven, Absolutely. This is the problem with supporters of the helmet law. The cost-benefit scenario they usually proffer – something not even a 10 year old would accept – is that it is as simple as comparing the cost of a helmet vs the cost of a head injury. Clearly this is nonsensical, but that doesn’t matter to them. The supporters of this law deliberately try to muddy the debate with such inane responses (much like climate change deniers do).

  • […] Many Bostonians have enthusiastically embraced the Hubway bikeshare system. Others are hesitant or resistant to join for various reasons. State law doesn’t require adults to wear helmets on bicycles, but the Hubway does.Groups like Helmet Freedom are trying to relax helmet laws everywhere. They don’t oppose the use of helmets; they disagree with mandating helmet use through laws.One writer argues that in order for bikeshare to truly succeed, helmet laws must be relaxed specifically for bikeshare and certain types of bicycles. Helmet Freedom argues that biking without a helmet is safer than riding in a car. […]

  • […] Yet cycling is a very safe activity.  Everything choice has an element of risk but when compared with other everyday activities, cycling is as safe as walking or running and safer than driving (except in Melbourne).  Even after factoring in traffic and air pollution risks, the net benefits of cycling are large (9:1) or very large (77:1). […]

  • garmin 910xt says:

    I am a cyclist and I just love it.I have found biking very useful regarding you health and fitness.I believe that cycling is a smart way to be smart.I always wear helmet while biking.It saves you from head injury in case of an accident.My friend once had a bike accident and she was not wearing helmet.She received bad injuries on head in that accident so always use helmet when biking.Thanks for sharing.

  • […] is a website called Helmet Freedom: Risk in Perspective, and its motto is “Cycling without helmet laws is safe. Fear is unhealthy.” I like that […]

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