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Should Freo go helmet-free?

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Fremantle City Council is proposing cyclists over 18 years of age have the option of riding without a helmet within the municipality for a trial period of between two and five years. The proposed trial would apply to segregated cycle paths and streets with a speed limit of 50 km/h. (H/T Michael McPhail).

The rationale for the trial is familiar. Council says the social cost of “lost” exercise deterred by the helmet law exceeds the social benefit from the head injuries that helmets avoid.

Presumably Council has done its due diligence, but the trial probably requires State Government permission – or perhaps even legislation – so I think it’s got very little chance of getting up. The politics just don’t work.

It would be a pity though, because from what I can see (e.g. here, here and here), much of the Australian evidence relied upon in this debate is either too old or too weak. The discussion would really benefit from some contemporary and objective data.

I’m not persuaded there’re large numbers of people who’re consciously and actively put off cycling by the helmet law. On the other hand though, I think there could be a large latent market for a sort of Parisian “cycle chic” culture.

With careful marketing, many residents and tourists might enjoy cycling for a latte in Fremantle on traditional sit-up bicycles with the wind in their hair. Fremantle could be in the box seat to identify itself with this market if it gets the proposed trial.

There could nevertheless be a downside to making helmets optional. If the trial makes them uncool amongst children (because Council proposes under 19s would still be compelled by law to wear one) and leads some to ignore the law, more parents might discourage their children from cycling.

It also needs to be borne in mind that Fremantle, wonderful as it is, is not a Copenhagen or an Amsterdam. It doesn’t have the level of cycling infrastructure these cities have. It doesn’t have the same cycling tradition and few motorists in Australia are themselves on-road cyclists. In short, cycling on Fremantle’s roads is not as safe as on Amsterdam’s.

It’s possible (maybe even probable) there’d be some serious accidents involving head injuries over the course of a 2 to 5 year trial. These would be bound to raise the question of whether or not a helmet might’ve been beneficial. Such controversy could undermine Council’s objective even if there’s a big increase in cycling.

Of course it’s essential that any trial is properly evaluated. It should be subject to a very careful longitudinal study that commences well before the temporary exemption from the law is introduced.

It’s also vital the evaluation is seen as objective by all sides. It should be done by independent researchers, not organisations associated with either side of the debate (although in practice it seems virtually all of the current work is being done on the pro-repeal side). It doubtless goes with the territory, but advocacy poisons objectivity.

The evaluation should take care to avoid the common assumption that those who are deterred from riding by helmets are sitting on their bums getting fat and diabetic. I don’t buy that – I think it’s reasonable to assume people who would cycle but for the law would likely be performing some other form of exercise.

A very interesting and pertinent question is just what level of change would be required to convincingly persuade either side that they’re right. Would a 10% p.a. increase be enough (or not enough)? Would 25%? Or based on claims about the reduction in the level of cycling following the introduction of the law in the early 90s, would around 40% be required before anyone sat up and took notice?

From the Government’s point of view the easy decision would be to do nothing, so I expect there’d have to be a pretty marked uptake in cycling before the Government would agree to repeal the law. Unfortunately though, I don’t expect the trial to happen. Looks like a political stunt by Council. They’re an innovative lot in the West though, so never say never….

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  • 1
    Karl
    Posted May 17, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    As a Perth resident, utility/practical cyclist and a big fan of our quirky port city of Freo I also have the same reservations about this proposal – it really does seem to be a publicity stunt just to bring attention to the MHL issue in Australia. I was talking to my girlfriend the other day about this and mentioned the risk that if someone were injured during this trial the pro-MHL brigade would use them as a martyr of sorts.

    We really need to focus o making our streets safe and well designed for all users, especially cyclists, before worrying about helmets. I am pro-choice, not anti-helmets, but there are bigger fish to fry in Australian towns and cities when it comes to encouraging cycling.

  • 2
    IkaInk
    Posted May 17, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    I agree Alan. If only there was somewhere, anywhere in Australia where it was legal to ride without a helmet…

    If you are under 17 years of age, Northern Territory laws require that you wear an approved helmet when cycling. If 17 years or over, you must wear a helmet when riding on the road and when using on-road cycleways. It is legal to ride on public roads, in public places and on footpaths unless they are marked by signs prohibiting bicycles.

    Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find much in the way of studies based on the NT experience, but there must be some data on cycling and accident rates across the Territory.

  • 3
    Karl
    Posted May 17, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    @IkaInk, I do know that the majority of people in the NT take up this opportunity and also that they have quite high levels of cycling compared to other Australian cities. It would be nice to have some solid research and case studies performed, I haven’t come across any.

  • 4
    Jonathan Nolan
    Posted May 17, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    I think the whole question about cycling rates and safety etc should be completely dwarfed by the obvious libertarian argument. The only head you’re likely to hurt without a helmet is your own. People who chose not to wear helmets do so without being affected by drugs and alcohol and in the case of adult helmet laws, are capable of making their own decisions.

    The government should but out.

  • 5
    Alan Davies
    Posted May 17, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    It’s a real pity there don’t seem to be any authoritative studies on the NT experience, where riding is also permitted on footpaths. Wouldn’t help with the on-road experience though, which I think is the key issue – that’s why a Fremantle trial would be fantastic.

    Some near-permanent long-term residents of that car-free, cycling nirvana, Rottnest Island, tell me their best guess is 80% of cyclists, including both visitors and workers, wear a helmet. I last holidayed there in 2008 and that figure concurs pretty much with what I saw.

  • 6
    Rupert Moloch
    Posted May 17, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    Fail – unless you have the resources to meet the financial burden & social costs of an Acquired Brain Injury…

    This is simple frivolity & vexation. I regularly see cyclists without helmets (often at night, wearing black, without bicycle lights). Round here, the plods are hardly diligent about enforcing these laws.

    I wish they were more so! A cyclist who isn’t concerned about their own safety isn’t too likely to care very much about other road users.

  • 7
    IkaInk
    Posted May 17, 2012 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    @Alan – Surely that’s because the law still states that cyclists must wear helmets at Rottnest? I was certainly handed one when hiring a bike without any question, and being so used to the condition donned it without the thought crossing my mind.

    Also, I imagine that despite the law stating riders must wear helmets on the road, surely as a simple result of being allowed to ride elsewhere without them there would be a higher proportion of riders without helmets. A difficult thing to measure, but regardless, I’d like to investigate the injury data and see what’s around. Perhaps I should look into tracking down the data myself when I’ve got more spare time.

    IkaInk: I don’t doubt for a moment the Rottnest Island Authority encourages compliance with the law, but it’s pretty hard to enforce there! Basically, if you don’t want to wear a helmet on Rottnest there’s nothing to stop you. If 80% of riders nevertheless choose to wear a helmet in a car-free environment, that suggests to me the level of helmet-wearing would be considerably higher on ordinary roads where cars are a constant hazard. AD

  • 8
    JMNO
    Posted May 18, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    I don’t particularly like wearing a bike helmet but wouldn’t go without one after I went over my handlebars and landed on my face. I mashed the front of my helmet and my face looked like hamburger for a few weeks or so, but the helmet protected my head and I was fortunate not to have any serious injuries. I was cycling in an on-road bike lane on a quiet Sunday and a plane-tree twig got wedged in my front wheel and stopped my bike stone-dead. I was over the handlebars before I knew I had a problem.

    This could happen to anyone any time. It’s not worth the risk not to protect your head from accident

  • 9
    Karl
    Posted May 18, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    It’s strange that in cycle friendly countries there isn’t a staggering amount of people dying on quiet Sunday rides then from an errant branch? Surely I am missing something here..? Why are they so impervious from injury?

  • 10
    observa
    Posted May 18, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Make the wearing of a helmet conditional on the type of bike and use. For upright commuter bikes within the CBD no helmet required. Any form of fast bike or MTB you need one. And if you can be bothered to don lycra, then you should also be wearing a helmet.

    In this way the people out for a lesiurely cruise don’t have to wear them, but the high-speed enthusiasts do.

    And if anyone is concerned about it, there’s no law AGAINST wearing one at any time.

  • 11
    Jonathan Nolan
    Posted May 18, 2012 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

    Observa – I don’t have a spare $50 to pay for the standard but it’s been mentioned on Bicycle Victoria’s forums before that they are tested for low speed collisions. It seems logical to me that if bicycle helmets offer limited protection, the people that are most likely to benefit aren’t those racing at high speeds but those going slower on upright bicycles.

  • 12
    observa
    Posted May 19, 2012 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    JN, I don’t follow that at all. Surely if you’re on a fast bike moving at speed then you’re more likely to come off than if you were on a slower, upright bike moving slowly? And if you did come off wouldn’t it be better to do so at say 20km/h than 50?

  • 13
    Hosking Kaye
    Posted May 19, 2012 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

    As a regular, long distance and comuter cyclist around Perth and Fremantle for over twenty years I am amazed at the stupidity of the Fremantle Town Council – to even suggest such a move shows a total lack of knowledge and understanding of the dangers of cycling, be that as an experienced or amature cyclist. Either way, to even consider not wearing a helmet is a totally ridiculous suggestion and only seems to be a publicity stunt by those who initiated the idea. Is there an election coming up?

    Having been seriously injured by a large bus as it passed me at a very slow pace I know that without the protection of a helmet, I would not be alive, nor either in a very good state when being run into on a bike path by another cyclist. I have also witnessed many bike related injuries – many ocurring when bikes were at very slow speeds that other innocent cyclists received both on bike paths and on the road. A friend of mine was knocked unconscious by a roaming dog who without notice bolted away from it’s owner, right into the path of my friend who was knocked out and without the protection of a helmet would have suffered grave head injuries. If the Fremenatle Council is intent on going through with such a proposal, I assume that they will cover the liability costs that will most likely occur.

  • 14
    Cyclesnail
    Posted May 21, 2012 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    If Fremantle at the same time reduces car speeds on roads where people riding bicycles and cars mix on road, then the trial would be much more like the environment in European cities with high cycling participation.

    Evidence based arguments are a lot better than arguments based on anecdotal tales.

    … and yes, I think a considerable segment of the population would continue to wear helmets.

  • 15
    Burke John
    Posted May 21, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    I’d be extremely surprised if General Motors and lobbying partners allow a gap in the defenses of its most solid fortress, an attack on the keep itself to succeed! Stupidity must prevail in Australia or all is lost.
    Unless I’m wrong and cycling without a helmet would make me safer, though not at all according to most studies.
    I feel and look stupid wearing one so Alan I am sure you are correct about a “cycle chic” effect if helmets were laughed off the road at last. Europeans do invariably laugh at us here when they find out about MHL and that does bring some perspective to the issue.
    I hope Freemantle gets away with it anyhow!

  • 16
    Cajela
    Posted May 22, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    Observa, as a motorcyclist I laugh at the little flimsy things that cyclists imagine will protect them. With high speed collisions, you’re screwed, helmet or no. But it does make sense to me that these helmets might do some good at low speed, if the thing collided with is also low speed. (Of course, that’s only if the increased rate of car traffic running closer and faster to the helmeted than the unhelmeted is ignored.)

    Hosking, go tell that “to even consider not wearing a helmet is a totally ridiculous suggestion” guff to the Europeans. I bicycle-commuted in the Netherlands for several years with no helmet – and also with no accidents even witnessed. And for a decade in Canberra, first without helmet and later with, and no bicycle accidents even witnessed. I even rode around inner city Sydney quite a bit with no bicycle accidents even witnessed. It does make me wonder a bit about what you’re doing to see all those accidents.

  • 17
    Dudley Horscroft
    Posted May 25, 2012 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Surely the issue is not whether there will be an increase in cycling or not, but whether there will be an increase in fatal or serious accidents or not. Now there should be statistics available already on the latter – define “serious cycling accident” as one requiring admission (not just reporting to emergency) to hospital. And there should already be info as to whether a helmet has prevented or caused injury?

    Over the trial period there should be corresponding info. A few weeks should be enough to determine the current level of cycling and observance of MHL. After 6, 12, 18, and 24 months, one should have enough info re serious injuries due to nonhelmet wearing and due to wearing giving a definite answer.

    It might be a political stunt, but that an ALP council (or one in an area generally considered to be ALP-leaning) is thinking in a Liberal manner is heartening.

  • 18
    boscombe
    Posted May 25, 2012 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

    I cycle everyday through an unlovely part of Freo (along Tydeman Road to Port Beach) and if they want to encourage cycling they should try maintaining their rotten cycle paths.

    I research the literature on various topics as part of my job and I did bicycle helmets in 2007. I just looked at it again and I haven’t added anything to it since, so I think Alan is right, some current research would be good. That said, I didn’t have a definite opinion before I researched the topic, but at the end I was sure that helmets reduce the incidence and severity of head injuries, so I think the law is OK

  • 19
    Burke John
    Posted May 28, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Boscome the Northern Ireland government just “did” bicycle helmets last year I think. A politician wanted to make them mandatory but it didn’t get off the ground. In part the opposition used data from Australia to make their point that mandatory bike helmets are dangerous. Maybe they didn’t have access to the same data as you.
    Anyhow you can read about it here http://crag.asn.au/?p=679
    Btw I think that the Crag site is the most informative on the topic I’ve seen

  • 20
    Nik Dow
    Posted June 25, 2012 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    I’m a bit late to this party, but just have to point out some things that The Urbanist should know.

    “A very interesting and pertinent question is just what level of change would be required to convincingly persuade either side that they’re right. ”

    See the model of Piet de Jong based on standard health metrics recently published, with an easy to understand commentary at http://www.cyclehelmets.org/1249.html which uses figures from “pro helmet” papers on the benefits of helmets, concluding that only 2 percent drop in cycling rates is enough to produce a negative benefit from helmet laws.

    Regarding your often stated assumption that “I’m not persuaded there’re large numbers of people who’re consciously and actively put off cycling by the helmet law,” refer to two studies based on questionnaire data that arrive at the proportion of the Australian population who say they would cycle (at all) or cycle more if helmets were optional.

    1. http://www.sydneycyclist.com/group/helmetlessriders/forum/topics/new-study-one-if-five-people-say-they-would-ride-more-without?xg_source=activity this article has a link to the complete paper.

    2. http://www.cyclingpromotion.com.au/images/stories/MediaReleaseDocs/CyclingPromotionFund_Riding_a_Bike_for_Transport_Survey_Report_2011.pdf

    The table on page 5 states 16.5% of respondents cited “don’t like wearing a helmet” as a reason they don’t ride.

    According to the British Medical Journal paper http://www.bmj.com/content/343/bmj.d4521.full that studied data from the Barcelona Bike share, where nobody wears helmets, the health benefits outweigh the risks by 77:1 and most of the risk was from air pollution not crashes. The bike shares seem to have a better safety record than general cycling, possibly because the bikes are slow, upright bikes, possibly because of the type of trips or the inner-city locations they inhabit.
    If you plug these figures in to the Piet de Jong model you would get a vanishingly small break-even point for helmet laws. The safety record of other bike shares around the world is similarly very good.

    People who want to register their desire for helmet freedom can do so at http://www.freestylecyclists.org the new website of the National campaigns of Australia and New Zealand.

  • 21
    Alan Davies
    Posted June 25, 2012 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    Nik Dow @ #20:

    Nik, always open to new info on this issue. However I’ve discussed the Rissell paper before and found it wanting. The BMJ article makes a case for the benefits of cycling over car use but doesn’t isolate the benefits of helmets (why do you cite it?). The Cycling Promotion Fund survey looks more interesting – I’ll have a look.

  • 22
    Nik Dow
    Posted August 19, 2012 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Alan, sorry for slow reply.

    I cite the BMJ article as one of several papers that look at the ratio of benefits to risks from riding. In this case helmets are rarely worn, so the risks include all of the risks that may be ameliorated by helmets. There is an earlier paper in BMJ based on UK data which shows a lower benefit/risk ratio of about 20:1, and there is a Dutch government study as well.

    The point is that because the health benefits outweigh the risks by a large multiple, it only takes a very small decrease in cycling to make helmet laws a net negative for health. The de Jong paper calculates the break-even point at about 1 or 2% drop in cycling rates.

    Your supposition that people put off from cycling would find some other way to get exercise is irrelevant. Almost nobody gets enough exercise and the more you get, the greater the health benefits. Adding cycling exercise to almost anybody’s overall levels of physical activity has the benefits estimated in the models.

    The Rissell and CPF studies are very similar in that they asked respondents what puts them off cycling. It’s interesting that the CPF study doesn’t comment anywhere on helmet law and the response figure is hidden in a graphic that Google can’t find to index. Incovenient truth?

  • 23
    Nick Middleton
    Posted October 30, 2012 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    This thread is probably long dead but I would encourage you to have a look at some of the attitudes expressed towards cyclist in the comments that follow this article:
    http://www.perthnow.com.au/news/western-australia/cyclist-dragged-100m-down-road-by-4×4-in-secret-harbour/story-e6frg14l-1225969748480

    These attitudes are the main reason I wear a helmet when riding around Perth.

    The have a look at the Royal Alfred study as to why wearing a helmet may not be a bad idea:
    https://www.mja.com.au/journal/2010/193/10/trends-head-injuries-and-helmet-use-cyclists-inner-city-major-trauma-centre-1991

    To those who comment that helmets aren’t worn in Europe so we shouldn’t have to; Please stop comparing Copenhagen to Perth, Fremantle, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane … You know Australian cities don’t have the same population densities so unfortunately there is going to be a greater reliance on car travel by our residents compared to residents in European cities.

  • 24
    Iskandar
    Posted November 6, 2012 at 2:42 am | Permalink

    The Melbourne cycle rental scheme was a complete flop. People could rent a bike, but not a helmet, because of health regulations.

    I am one of those who will not wear a helmet. The figures show that helmets came in the number of accidents went down, but the RATE went up because of the decline in trip.

    The UK decided helmets were not worth it. Why is Oz so stubborn on this?

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