Byron Bay – the ‘non-formist’ Australian town where 4 in 5 cyclists ignore compulsory helmet laws

Campaigners say town’s culture sees more women take to bikes; police insist they do enforce laws

by Simon_MacMichael   August 28, 2014  

Byron Bay Lighthouse (licensed under CC BY 2.0 on Flickr by thinboyfatter)

A tourist resort in New South Wales, Australia where up to four in five cyclists ride without a helmet has been held up by campaigners against Australia’s compulsory cycle helmet laws as an example of how ending compulsion could encourage more people to ride bikes. Local police insist however that they are not turning a blind eye to those choosing to break the law by riding bare-headed.

Located some 480 miles north of Sydney, Byron Bay has in recent decades become known as a town with a strong counter-culture, in part due to the arrival of surfers there in the 1960s and the holding of the Aquarius festival in the early 1970s. It is now a popular tourist destination among backpackers from Australia and beyond.

The organisation Freestyle Cyclists, whose members include Sydney-based academic Dr Chris Rissel who has repeatedly called for a repeal of compulsory helmet laws, says that “forcing people to wear helmets reinforces the perception that cycling is dangerous” and that scrapping the legislation would see more people take to two wheels.

The group also says that current laws in particular deter everyday cyclists, saying “these are the people who are most likely to give up cycling if forced to wear a helmet by law - so we discourage the safest cyclists off the roads."

In a blog post published on its website, two members of the group who had heard about the prevalence of riding without a helmet in Byron Bay tell how they decided to go and find out more, taking a five-day utility cycling break there.

Here’s what they said: “The front cover of the tourist ‘Byron guide’, available everywhere, features two images on its front cover. One is a male and the other a female bike rider without helmets riding through empty streets. This tells us two things. That the image of helmetless cycling is good for tourism as is a car-free streetscape.

“Byron Bay delivered on the first of these with helmet free cycling being completely normalised. The traffic however, was very Australian, with most holiday makers and locals choosing the car as their preferred mode of transport. I wouldn’t be prepared to guess at modal share but it was not as high as I’d hoped.”

The visitors made the following observations:

Over 80% of bike riders went without helmets
More than 50% of bike riders were women
Infrastructure was no better than the Australian average – poor
Drivers seemed to be far more courteous and careful than normal. I saw no road rage or conflict. Only once did someone yell ‘where’s your helmet’
Female cyclists rode in the traffic, without helmets and apparently without anxiety.

“It is often said that women will not cycle without good infrastructure. While my observations require further empirical research, it seems that the presence of so many unhelmeted and female cyclists had begun a cultural shift in driver behaviour that made it safe enough for many women to ride,” the blog concluded.

But Senior Sergeant Chad George from the Tweed/Byron Highway Police Unit said that Freestyle Cyclists’ highlighting what it claims are the benefits of riding without a helmet was “irresponsible.”

He told the Northern Star that police did enforce helmet laws in Byron Bay and issued on-the-spot fines to people caught riding without one.

"It's irresponsible to promote something that could harm people," he insisted. "It's not hard to wear a helmet and it is clear that it is safer to do so."

He accepted that a “non-formist” culture among residents and visitors was a factor in so many choosing to ride without a helmet, but added that “police certainly don't turn a blind eye to it."

17 user comments

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Stupid law is stupid, news at 11 Smile

posted by nuclear coffee [157 posts]
28th August 2014 - 14:59

47 Likes

Breaking news shocker! Cycling without foam on head discovered to be a safe activity for all.

Dutch and Danish governments are said to be consulting with their Australian counterparts to learn more about this 'safe cycling' revelation.

posted by Joeinpoole [259 posts]
28th August 2014 - 15:14

63 Likes

Byron bay always was a bit of a hippy free wheeling haven - good for them, stupid law in the first place.

posted by arfa [491 posts]
28th August 2014 - 15:26

39 Likes

The report probably forgot to mention that, for a good portion of the year, said female cyclists ride wearing bikinis and no shoes. If you discount sandals or other unenclosed footwear, cyclists in Byron Bay don't wear shoes or much clothing at all.
They probably don't have lights, reflectors or functioning brakes on these 'beach bikes' that are bought and sold (and stolen) between itinerants and tourists. These people use bikes because bikes are cheap, an easy way to carry a surfboard and beach gear, and you don't burn your bare feet on the hot roads. There are a number of cycle paths to and from beach locations, which is where most of these helmetless cyclists will be found.
Cars travel slowly in Byron Bay because they are all looking for a parking spot within 50 metres of the beach. And, there are only two ways in and out of the town so traffic quickly turns into a crawl.
There is a strong cycling club culture in Byron Bay and those bike riders certainly wear helmets on club rides. They also wear proper clothing and travel on roads where the speed limit is higher. A number of cyclists have been killed on main roads and highways in the area in recent years due to inattention or tiredness of drivers.
I place zero credibility on the 'observations' of Freestyle Cyclists. There are more important cycling issues to promote in Australia than the helmet/no helmet 'debate'.

posted by centurion48 [13 posts]
29th August 2014 - 2:35

30 Likes

"It's irresponsible to promote something that could harm people"

So car adverts are banned in Australia? Sounds good.

posted by FluffyKittenofT... [677 posts]
29th August 2014 - 10:17

39 Likes

As a Londoner who has lived in and around Byron for the last 14 years, I can confirm that helmets are a rarity for those who ride around town (lycra roadies like myself excluded). Lots of people do ride in town during the warmer months, which is most of the year, but as soon as you leave the town limits, only the keen perservere. The infrastructure is appauling and some drivers are less considerate than their European brothers. Once you get beyond that though, the roads are quiet, rolling and idylic.
What really irks me about the majority of cyclists in Byron is that they salmon, at night, with no lights, wearing black, with headphones on.

jackseph

posted by jackseph [4 posts]
29th August 2014 - 10:25

19 Likes

I guess its hard for UK readers to understand just how remarkable "utility" cycling in Byron Bay is, as it is only so in the Australian context. The experience of getting around on a bike in Australia over the past 24 years has been truly dismal for anyone not sharing the mandated helmet paradigm. Non conformity is heavily policed, and fines account for over 70% of all infringements issued to cyclists. It used to be over 90%, but after 24 years a certain level of coerced conformity generally pertains.

In this context, Byron Bay was a truly refreshing experience. While I understand where sergeant Chad George is coming from (he is after all a policemen with an expectation from the public that he will uphold the law), the reality of 80% non-conformity to helmet laws tells me that we are in a different space here.

I think the comments of Centurion 48 just serve to highlight (perhaps unintentionally) just how crazy and skewed attitudes to people on bikes are in this country. Is it really a problem if people just get around in whatever clothes on a bike, carrying surfboards and not wearing "proper cycling clothes"? I would have thought that was the very essence of a healthy cycling culture. The "club culture" Centurion talks about is all well and good, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with how most people in the rest of the world use bikes. I noticed too that there was a definite morning and evening mini rush hour for bikes - so these weren't just holidaymakers going to the beach, but regularly employed residents as well.

I'm not sure either what the relevance of the statement about cyclists killed on main roads has. We were talking about cycling in the town of Byron Bay. Personally I would not ride on the highways coming into and leaving the town - they are high speed, and clearly risky places for vulnerable road users. It is also on these roads that the majority of "club culture" cyclists ride, and of course they all wear helmets - but that's another story.

So thanks to Byron Bay for showing what most of Australia is missing out on. And for UK readers, please never ever allow the folly of mandatory helmets to happen to you. Australia has tried that, and failed to achieve anything worthwhile in doing so.

posted by Alan Todd [1 posts]
29th August 2014 - 10:47

7 Likes

After you've stocked up on products in Nimbin, its not a surprise you don't wear a helmet. I spent 8 weeks in the area forgetting my name.

For a place where wearing something on your feet is a rarity I can completely understand why helmets don't get a look in. Ambling around on a bike in a nice part of the world without a helmet, can't get better than that.

'It's the closest you can get to flying'
Robin Williams response when asked why he enjoyed riding so much

posted by Simmo72 [310 posts]
29th August 2014 - 13:18

22 Likes

posted by kie7077 [470 posts]
29th August 2014 - 15:57

29 Likes

[quote=centurion48

Cars travel slowly in Byron Bay because they are all looking for a parking spot within 50 metres of the beach. And, there are only two ways in and out of the town so traffic quickly turns into a crawl.....
A number of cyclists have been killed on main roads and highways in the area in recent years due to inattention or tiredness of drivers.....
I place zero credibility on the 'observations' of Freestyle Cyclists./quote]
[[[[[[ CENTURION48---you say "Cars travel slowly in B.B.",and "traffic quickly turns into a crawl". In that case helmets are pretty much superfluous, surely. Also, "A number of cyclists have been killed on main roads and highways..." Well, I'm sure a number of pedestrians (and car-occupants) have been killed too, so why weren't THEY wearing helmets? And finally, you say these killings are "due to inattention or tiredness of drivers" You don't mention alcohol at all.....I guess that slipped your mind, huh? Strikes me these inattentive and tired drivers---and the drunks---need to get a grip. And how many of these killed cyclists actually died from HEAD injuries? Do you have the figures?

PhilRuss

posted by PhilRuss [282 posts]
29th August 2014 - 17:00

27 Likes

The fact that laid-back Byron Bay can get away with cycling without helmets does not mean it can be extrapolated to other towns and cities and that was what Freestyle Cyclists were trying to do. The situation in Byron Bay is a combination of surf, sun and counter-culture in a holiday town where the pace of life is slow. In Byron Bay, bikes are seen as normal transport and are accepted as part of the landscape by motorists. That is a good thing but it is not the situation in more than a handful of communities in Australia.

For what it is worth, I used to enjoy cycling without a helmet when I was young but I just don’t know many places where it is safe now. If you could control dogs and anticipate pedestrian movements then shared user paths with a speed limit of 10 km/hr, and cycling paths, might be a case for helmetless riding but such paths exist in isolation and sooner or later bikes will end up sharing a road with motor vehicles. Freestyle Cylists might like to think that cycling as a dangerous activity is simply a perception but, unfortunately, it is a fact as hopital A&E statistics will attest to.

My opinion, obviously not shared by the anti-helmet supporters, is that as soon as a bike gets onto a road then a helmet should be worn. Lawmakers make laws that apply to the majority and their opinion, based on advice from qualified medical professionals, is that helmets decrease the risk of head injuries for cyclists.

posted by centurion48 [13 posts]
30th August 2014 - 1:03

13 Likes

centurion48 wrote:
The fact that laid-back Byron Bay can get away with cycling without helmets does not mean it can be extrapolated to other towns and cities and that was what Freestyle Cyclists were trying to do. The situation in Byron Bay is a combination of surf, sun and counter-culture in a holiday town where the pace of life is slow. In Byron Bay, bikes are seen as normal transport and are accepted as part of the landscape by motorists. That is a good thing but it is not the situation in more than a handful of communities in Australia.

For what it is worth, I used to enjoy cycling without a helmet when I was young but I just don’t know many places where it is safe now. If you could control dogs and anticipate pedestrian movements then shared user paths with a speed limit of 10 km/hr, and cycling paths, might be a case for helmetless riding but such paths exist in isolation and sooner or later bikes will end up sharing a road with motor vehicles. Freestyle Cylists might like to think that cycling as a dangerous activity is simply a perception but, unfortunately, it is a fact as hopital A&E statistics will attest to.

My opinion, obviously not shared by the anti-helmet supporters, is that as soon as a bike gets onto a road then a helmet should be worn. Lawmakers make laws that apply to the majority and their opinion, based on advice from qualified medical professionals, is that helmets decrease the risk of head injuries for cyclists.

I've been cycling for nearly 50 years and have never even considered wearing one of those foam hats. I have absolutely no idea what they are for.

As a confirmed 'foam hat wearer' have you ever considered using your brake levers as a 'safety device' instead? That's what I do. I guess that's why I don't have to wear a foam hat when I cycle.

posted by Joeinpoole [259 posts]
30th August 2014 - 1:37

23 Likes

Its Stralia. What do you expect. We just not that bothered. Bloody winging Poms

CJStevens

posted by CJSTEVENS1955 [64 posts]
30th August 2014 - 4:39

11 Likes

Australia is the case study that proves helmet laws are a bad idea. The emphasis on law enforcement shifts to fining cyclists as opposed to protection and attitudes of petrol heads just get shittier.

posted by arfa [491 posts]
30th August 2014 - 9:57

16 Likes

centurion48 wrote:
The fact that laid-back Byron Bay can get away with cycling without helmets does not mean it can be extrapolated to other towns and cities and that was what Freestyle Cyclists were trying to do. The situation in Byron Bay is a combination of surf, sun and counter-culture in a holiday town where the pace of life is slow. In Byron Bay, bikes are seen as normal transport and are accepted as part of the landscape by motorists. That is a good thing but it is not the situation in more than a handful of communities in Australia.

For what it is worth, I used to enjoy cycling without a helmet when I was young but I just don’t know many places where it is safe now. If you could control dogs and anticipate pedestrian movements then shared user paths with a speed limit of 10 km/hr, and cycling paths, might be a case for helmetless riding but such paths exist in isolation and sooner or later bikes will end up sharing a road with motor vehicles. Freestyle Cylists might like to think that cycling as a dangerous activity is simply a perception but, unfortunately, it is a fact as hopital A&E statistics will attest to.

My opinion, obviously not shared by the anti-helmet supporters, is that as soon as a bike gets onto a road then a helmet should be worn. Lawmakers make laws that apply to the majority and their opinion, based on advice from qualified medical professionals, is that helmets decrease the risk of head injuries for cyclists.

Almost everything in your comment is nonsense.

Anyway, the helmet law is just another reason, up there with the spiders, to be glad I'm not Australian.

Yes, I'm arguing about helmets (though I deleted the actual argument part of my reply because I'm bored with it) - but every other argument on the internet currently appears to be about Rotherham, so, frankly, a helmet argument is light relief in comparison.

posted by FluffyKittenofT... [677 posts]
30th August 2014 - 20:06

9 Likes

centurion48 wrote:
The report probably forgot to mention that, for a good portion of the year, said female cyclists ride wearing bikinis and no shoes. If you discount sandals or other unenclosed footwear, cyclists in Byron Bay don't wear shoes or much clothing at all...

There is a strong cycling club culture in Byron Bay and those bike riders certainly wear helmets on club rides. They also wear proper clothing and travel on roads where the speed limit is higher...

Can you enlighten me as to what proper clothing is? The roads that I train on and race on are the same roads that I commute to work/shops/pub/restaurant on. Do I cease to be a 'cyclist' because I cease to wear Lycra when I travel to work or socialise? A cyclist is somebody who uses a bicycle to get around. We need to renormalise cycling and persuade people that you don't need to be kitted out to get from A to B.

giff77's picture

posted by giff77 [1052 posts]
30th August 2014 - 22:42

10 Likes

CJSTEVENS1955 wrote:
Its Stralia. What do you expect. We just not that bothered. Bloody winging Poms

[[[[[[ It's not "Stralia"----it's "Straya"....and we know why you don't like to say its name audibly...

PhilRuss

posted by PhilRuss [282 posts]
1st September 2014 - 23:55

1 Like