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Repealing compulsory helmet laws could double number of cyclists in Sydney, says academic

An easy way for NSW state government to get more people cycling says study of Sydneysider's view...

New research published by an Australian academic and opponent of cycle helmet compulsion claims that that the number of people cycling in Sydney, the country’s largest city, could double if the mandatory helmet laws put in place 20 years ago were scrapped.

The claim has been made by Professor Chris Rissell of the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health, who has published the findings of his latest research in the Health Promotion Journal of Australia.

The research, published under the title The possible effect on frequency of cycling if mandatory bicycle helmet legislation was repealed in Sydney, Australia: a cross sectional survey, surveyed 600 adults in the city to establish their attitudes regarding wearing cycle helmets.

"People who ride occasionally and younger people were most likely to say they would ride more if they didn't have to wear a helmet, but significantly, one in five people who hadn't ridden a bicycle in the last year also said they would ride more," explained Professor Rissel.

He added that New South Wales State government efforts to get more people cycling could be easily achieved if it simply repealed helmet laws, rather than investing large sums of money in building infrastructure such as cycle lanes.

"Occasional riders and those people who don't see themselves as a 'cyclist' represents a large number of people,” he added. “Even if only half or a quarter of these people did actually start riding, it would more than double the number of people cycling now."

Nearly half of the respondents to the survey said that they would never ride without a helmet, with but Professor Rissel asserts that support for helmet compulsion was particularly low among those who already use bikes to get around.

"Overall, one third of respondents did not support mandatory helmet legislation,” he explained. “There was an inverse association between riding frequency and support of the helmet legislation, with those not riding in the past year most likely to support helmet legislation, and more frequent riders less likely to support it."

He added that by repealing compulsory helmet laws, it would be easier for people to decide on the spur of the moment to use a bike, for instance through city-wide bike hire schemes, a subject he also addressed recently.

"Public bicycle share schemes around the world where helmets are not required to been worn have shown how safe cycling really is," he maintained.

"There have now been over six million users of the 'Boris bikes' in London and distances cycled total over 10 million kilometres with few serious injuries. In the first three months the accident rate was estimated to be 0.002 percent."

He added that schemes elsewhere in the world resulted in similar patterns being observed – although in the Australian cities of Brisbane and Melbourne, schemes were experiencing utilisation rates of a tenth of the level seen elsewhere because it is compulsory to wear a helmet.

Professor Rissel has at times cut a controversial figure in the perennial debate over whether or not cycle helmets should be compulsory.

Last year, a paper published in the August 2010 issue of the Journal of the Australasian College of Road Safety which he co-authored with colleague Dr Alex Voukelatos came under criticism when fellow academics highlighted flaws in the data it was based upon – a criticism Professor Rissel accepted.

Subsequently, some of his critics led by Dr Jake Olivier and researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and the Sax Institute published their own research in the Accident Analysis and Prevention Journal which they said backed up their opinion that helmet laws did bring about in a reduction in head injuries suffered by cyclists.

Professor Rissel continues to maintain, however, that the benefits of getting more people cycling by giving them a choice over whether or not to wear a helmet outweighs any potential positive effect of making helmets compulsory.

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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