Australia's mandatory helmet laws do more harm than they do good, the country's Senate has heard during an inquiry.
Submissions to the inquiry, led by libertarian senator David Leyonhjelm, have contained criticisms levelled at the law as being another part of Australia's "nanny state", and "laughable", putting people off cycling.
There was a sharp, almost overnight, decline in cycling in 1990-91 when the helmet law was introduced and its opponents say the health effects of fewer people cycling outweigh the protection element of mandatory helmets, while government should instead focus on making roads safe.
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Chris Gillham is a research journalist who investigated the helmet law when it was introduced in 1991, and who maintains the website www.cycle-helmets.com.
In his submission he says: "Data published over the past 25 years has consistently shown a substantial and permanent decline in the proportion of Australians cycling, with consequent damage to public health.
"The data show tens and probably hundreds of thousands of Australians are discouraged from regular or occasional recreational exercise and instead mostly use their cars for transport, increasing traffic congestion and the likelihood of road trauma."
He cites data from Austroads which show that since 2011, weekly cycling participation levels have continued to decline, falling by 0.8 of a percentage point (187,248 fewer cyclists), monthly cycling by 2.8 percentage points (692,475 fewer cyclists) and yearly cycling by 3.9 percentage points (950,257 fewer cyclists) since 2011.
He said mandatory helmet laws "breach a fundamental liberty to ride a bike without prosecution because an individual’s bare head poses no plausible threat to the safety and wellbeing of others."
VicRoads, the Victoria state government's transport body, says bike helmets reduced head injuries by 16 per cent in Melbourne and 23per cent in the state as a whole, and "helmet wearing significantly reduced the risk of moderate, serious and severe head injury by up to 74 per cent".
However, Gilham points to hospital records suggesting helmet laws resulted in a 10-20% decline in the proportion of cyclist head injury but an approximate 30% increase in the total number of cyclist admissions.
Sydney doctor, Lisa Parker, said: "It does seem odd that we, as a community, should have a law about something that reduces population health."
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Barrister Edward Stratton-Smith says infrastructure, not helmets, should be the focus to improve safety.
He said: "Despite being forced on pain of a fine to wear a helmet while riding a bicycle (any type of bicycle anywhere), Australia does not appear to be safer than any other country for riding a bike. Indeed, it is demonstrably more dangerous than places like the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Denmark."
"Why do we single out something as mundane as riding a bike to be the subject of a law making the activity criminal in the absence of a polystyrene helmet?"
"People on bicycles do not belong on fast-moving multi-lane roads. It is unfathomable that we still expose people to that danger. That we then place the onus on them by mandating what is really a quite ineffective piece of protective equipment is frankly laughable.
Dentist, Dr. A. Schwander, said: "The impression of living in a so called ‘nanny state’ is very common today in Australia. The bicycle helmet laws are a brilliant example for overregulation in the name of safety at the cost of personal freedom."
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