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Strewth! Aussie academic calls for repeal of country's compulsory bike helmet laws

Benefits of making cyclists wear helmets divides opinion among bike advocacy groups

Two researchers at Sydney University claim that Australia’s compulsory bicycle helmet law, introduced nearly two decades ago, do not work and have called on a trial to be conducted to help try and predict what would happen if the law were repealed.

In 1991, Australia became the first country to require cyclists, adult and child alike, to wear helmets while cycling, and while there has been a fall in the number of head injuries recorded among cyclists since then, Associate Professor Dr Chris Rissel and a colleague at the university’s school of public health maintain the decline is due to other factors.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, which reported the findings of the academics’ study, which is published in the August 2010 issue of The Journal of the Australasian College of Road Safety, Dr Rissel believes that factors such as greater road safety due to initiatives such as random breath testing had made a contribution to the lower casualty count. 

''I believe we'd be better off without it [compulsory helmet laws],'' Dr Rissel insisted. ''I'd recommend a trial repeal in one city for two years to allow researchers to make observations and see if there's an increase in head injuries, and on the basis of that you could come to some informed policy decision,” he added.

Dr Rissel also emphasised the point often put forward by opponents of helmet compulsion that while helmets may protect the head, they act as a deterrent to cycling in the first place.

He argues that doing away with compulsory helmet laws would get more people cycling, which in turn would improve public health generally. Moreover, he maintains that the more cyclists there were on the roads, the safer it would be for bike riders, a point underlined by the UK national cyclists’ organisation CTC through its Safety In Numbers campaign last year.

As part of the research, Dr Rissel compared the ratio of head injuries to arm injuries found in cyclists admitted to hospital between 1988 and 2008, expecting that unless increased use of helmets had led to a reduction in the rate of head injuries, the ratio would remain unchanged; however, he found that most of the decline in the rate of head injuries had occurred prior to helmets being made compulsory.

Dr Rissel added that after helmets were made compulsory, he and his colleague discovered ''a continued but declining reduction in the ratio of head injuries to arm injuries [and] … it is likely that factors other than the mandatory helmet legislation reduced head injuries''.

He acknowledged, however, that helmets were desirable for some cyclists, especially children and those who undertake longer bike rides.

Yesterday, Dr Rissel defended the findings of his study on ABC radio show, The World Today, in the face of criticism from the chief executive of the cycling lobby group, Bike NSW, Omar Khalifa.

Dr Rissel told reporter Lindy Kerin: “There was a substantial drop in head injuries compared to wrist injuries in the 1980s, which then tails off and flattens out from the 1990s and the introduction of helmet legislation came in 1991 and all the big drop in head injuries happened before the introduction of the legislation and the legislation doesn't seem to have been associated with a big reduction that you'd expect.

“I think we should trial repealing the legislation to see what happens if we don't have to wear helmets all the time, and I don't think you'll get the massive increases in adverse events that people fear,” Dr Rissel added.

He also pointed towards the decline in the number of people cycling following the introduction of the ban as a further reason why it should be overturned, saying: “We saw a drop in ridership when the legislation was introduced of about 30 per cent and this actually makes it less safe for the rest of the cyclists, because there's this safety in numbers phenomenon.”

Dr Rissel’s views were backed by Stephen Hodge of the Cycling Promotion Fund, which promotes safe cycling in Australia, who explained: “The wearing of helmets is the single biggest impediment to casual use of cycles, you know, for people to just rock up to a bicycle hire station, pick up a bike, or even at home, pick up their bike to ride down to the shops to get the litre of milk they need for their morning breakfast or whatever.”

He added that there was “some fairly good anecdotal evidence that the mere fact of having to wear a helmet often is an impediment for people.”

However, Mr Khalifa rejected calls to overturn the compulsory legislation, saying that “Some people may be resistant to cycling because of helmets, I think it's also saved so many people from more serious injury that we believe that it's even, the statistics may not be showing up all of that.

“So it's not compelling enough for us to think that this is a major reason to begin a change in that piece of legislation,” he added.

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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Ciaran Patrick | 13 years ago

The problem here is the right to choose and the right to make informed choices for ourselves. I am sick and tired of these so called medical lobby groups setting up research protocols where the parametres of the research is to reach a specified conclusion. That's not research.

There is nothing concrete in any of this - its two emotional charged sides banging heads - excuse the pun.

All I know is that if helmets are made compulsory I will either not ride or I will most like ride still without a helmet. What I do know is that I will pull all cycling related activities from my companies portfolio including indoor spin classes.

kitkat | 13 years ago

a graph of cycle use against time from 1990 to 1992 would be interesting.

People should have the choice to wear a helmet, not be beaten with a stick for not having one on.

DNAse | 13 years ago

Yawn Skippy. No one is arguing that helmets shouldn't be worn in risking cycling such as racing or off-road. People are arguing that you shouldn't be under compulsion to wear a helmet for non-risky cycling such as popping down to shops. Some correct risk assessment and evidence based policy is all we ask.

aussiejohn | 13 years ago

I was 16 when the law was passed in Australia and the effect was the immediate decline in the amount of cyclist and a massive uptake in public transport. At 17 we all had cars and no one used bikes.
More people choose to not ride bikes because of the helmets.
This inturn creates more health issues than helmets can prevent at any time.
Head injury is the biggest killer in car crashes as well, if consistency was evident in any Australian law than motorist should be made to ware helmets as well!
More cyclists on the roads would reduce the amount of motorist on the road, as well as decrease the obesity plague that is gripping Australia

Sakurashinmachi replied to aussiejohn | 13 years ago
aussiejohn wrote:

I was 16 when the law was passed in Australia and the effect was the immediate decline in the amount of cyclist and a massive uptake in public transport. At 17 we all had cars and no one used bikes.
More people choose to not ride bikes because of the helmets.

None of that is true: the Melbourne study found a TEMPORARY drop in the number of teenagers riding - somehow in the blogosphere that has become a 30% drop in ALL cyclists. If helmets were such an issue why is Melbourne now so full of cyclists?

Re "At 17 we all had cars and no one used bikes." Sorry, it's ridiculous to argue that people in Melbourne bought cars because of compulsory helmet laws.

Sakurashinmachi replied to Sakurashinmachi | 13 years ago

And Rissel's study has now been shown to be utterly flawed on a number of grounds.

"On the receipt of Tim Churches’ letter, a copy was sent to the
authors Dr Alexander Voukelatos and A/Prof. Chris Rissel on
7 October 2010 seeking their response. A reply letter was
subsequently received from the authors on 20 October 2010.
Both Tim Churches’ letter and Dr Voukelatos and A/Prof.
Rissel’s reply letter were sent to four independent reviewers
along with the original paper. Three of the reviewers are
Australian and one is German. The reviewers’ qualifications
range across the professions of psychology, engineering,
medicine and science, while their extensive expertise ranges
across the areas of epidemiology, bio-statistics, cycling safety,
transport engineering, hospital and crash databases, and crash
The outcome of the review to date is that all reviewers
unanimously indicated that Tim Churches’ letter should be
published in the journal and all supported that his criticisms, his
graph and comments appear valid.
Concerning Dr Voukelatos and A/Prof. Rissel’s response, all
reviewers agreed it was deficient and required further
elaboration and re-review to address adequately Tim Churches’
concerns. The reviewers were particularly critical in regard to
the scientific evidence Dr Voukelatos and A/Prof. Rissel
presented in their reply as support of their main conclusion that
‘mandatory bicycle helmet legislation appears not to be the main
factor for the observed reduction in head injuries among pedal cyclists
at a population level over time’. The editors have decided to
further communicate with the authors and seek another written
reply that addresses all reviewers’ concerns. This reply will be
further assessed by the reviewers."

DaSy | 13 years ago

The fact remains that the safest place to ride a bike for rate of injuries also happens to be the place with the highest percentage of cyclists and lowest rate of helmet wearing, namely the Netherlands and Denmark.

Helmets are not the answer in preventing cyclists injuries, but rather car driver awareness, cyclist training and increased numbers of cyclists on our roads.

Putting the onus on cyclists to protect themselves from outside hazards, rather than trying to reduce those outside hazards strikes me as locking the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Recumbenteer replied to DaSy | 13 years ago
DaSy wrote:

The fact remains that the safest place to ride a bike for rate of injuries also happens to be the place with the highest percentage of cyclists and lowest rate of helmet wearing, namely the Netherlands and Denmark.

Helmets are not the answer in preventing cyclists injuries, but rather car driver awareness, cyclist training and increased numbers of cyclists on our roads.

Exactly! Cycling as an activity is NOT DANGEROUS! But cycling on roads DESIGNED for cars with motorists who are stupid; speeding; incompetent; impatient; aggressive; distracted or with a psychopathic hatred of cyclists is DANGEROUS!

Anybody who believes that cyclists are made safer by forcing cyclists to wear a bit of plastic on their heads is deluded. Especially since those bits of plastic aren't designed to protect the cyclist from an impact with a road vehicle.

For those who want to learn about the Dutch way of cycling see David Hembrow's blog.

skippy | 13 years ago

Would the "Author" of the report be happy if a relative/family member was hospitalised with brain damage due to not wearing their helmet in the trial city ?

Until recently i was wearing the latest "gift" each season and too often was the victim of circumstances resulting in broken helmets. Doors thrown open, vehicles entering the road who thought there was time to access the road before i arrived alongside(never mind the lung full of shit spewed out of their exhaust)or impacted their panelwork and of course the result of hitting wet railway track, road marking paint, etc.

At the Giro riding with Moser from Piacenza to Cremona i hit the railway lines on a bright sunny day and Francesco was not amused to have to come back and scrape me off the road. I have even had to help Bernard Hinault back onto his bike after a slight tumble whilst surrounded by a half hundred of his peers at the TDF "Stars ride"!

Brad Mc Gee crashed at the TDF and Leontin Van Moorsell in the 2004 Athens Olympic Road Race, both have no idea how it happened and both cracked the helmet, better that than the skull !

Helmets stop you riding your bike ! Rubbish ! 1960's owning a car was unusual, 1980's company cars were becoming more prelevant and most youngsters ( mid 20's) considered a car a dating necessity so showing off the car meant the bike stayed in the garage. Little wonder cycle use dropped off, ladies in recent years are reported to be buying drop top sportscars with their disposable income.

Triathalons and Iron Man competitions have become the rage in recent years so more and more Young people are taking up cycling as an activity and not worrying about what the helmet does to their hairstyle. But the telling argument is that Helmets are now becoming compulsory on the Ski slopes particularly for children(legislated in many countries) so the repeal of the law is "Wishful Thinking" but then the authors were only looking to make a name for themselves.

Kim | 13 years ago

This is no surprise to some of us, we have long known that lid laws don't work. The surprising thing is that is taken to long the Aussies to work it out...

As for Mr Khalifa, he is in cloud cuckoo land, "we have no evidence, but we still believe they work"! What?

KirinChris replied to Kim | 13 years ago

In the newspaper article the Bike NSW man was rejecting the study on the grounds that people who would have been saved from injury by a helmet might not have gone to hospital.

I'm trying to envisage an accident that somehow involved only the head but not arms or wrists, and yet did not require hospital examination.

I find it hard to believe there would be a statistically significant number.

Tony Farrelly | 13 years ago

Lumme! Wonder if we'll be hearing from Mr Blundershot?

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