Feb 26, 2012

Do mandatory helmets discourage cycling?

A before-and-after study done at the time the mandatory helmet law was introduced in Victoria indicates the often-cited reduction in cycling was largely confined to children

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

No. cyclists in Melbourne before and after introduction of mandatory helmet law between 90 & 91 (Finch et al)

The effect of the mandatory helmet law on cycling is one of those debates that goes on endlessly because of the absence of hard evidence one way or the other. We simply don’t know how many kilometres of cycling, if any, are foregone because of the helmet laws.

If only a State Government would grant a trial helmet exemption so a proper ‘before and after’ study could be undertaken. But it’s hard to see that happening – there’s no “politics” in it.

However there was an opportunity to undertake a ‘natural experiment’ at the time the mandatory helmet laws were introduced in Australia in the early 1990s. Fortunately, according to an influential paper by D. Robinson, Head injuries and bicycle helmet laws, at least two such studies were undertaken.

These have been cited frequently by opponents of the law to show conclusively that it had a significant negative effect on cycling rates. One was done in NSW by the State’s Roads and Traffic Authority and one by Monash University Accident Research Centre in Victoria.

These studies are frequently cited and re-cited in debates and, as so often happens, succeeding generations of discussants quote others who’ve quoted others who’ve….There’s always the risk of the Chinese Whispers effect – the message gets distorted with each retelling.

My starting view is the deterrent effect of the law (less cycling) probably out-weighs the protective effects it confers (fewer head injuries). Given all the debate about helmets engendered by the disappointing performance of the Brisbane and Melbourne bikeshare schemes, I thought it would be useful to test my view by going direct to the source material: not someone else’s summary of them, but the actual documents themselves.

The first study I sought out is titled An observational survey of law compliance and helmet wearing by bicyclists in NSW – 1993, by N. Smith and F. Milthorpe, published by the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority in 1993.

Astonishingly, I couldn’t find an electronic version of the study anywhere. It’s referenced hundreds of times, but the study itself eluded me. Then I reluctantly looked for a hard copy, searching the catalogues of two major universities, as well as the NSW transport agencies. I know it exists because it’s been cited so many times, but where? So I’ve had to let that pass for the moment – if someone has an electronic copy, could they please make it available?

No such problems with locating the Victorian study, fortunately. It’s got a direct, no-nonsense title: Bicycle use and helmet wearing rates in Melbourne, 1987 to 1992: The influence of the helmet wearing law. It’s by C. Finch, L. Heiman and D. Neiger, and was published in February 1993 by Monash University Accident Research Centre.

Helmets became mandatory in Victoria on 1 July 1990 (the first state in the world). Finch et al counted both the change in the number of cyclists pre and post the law as well as the change in the time spent cycling. They counted cyclists at the same 65 observation sites in Melbourne on four occasions – 1987 and 1990 (the 1990 count was taken five weeks before the new law came into effect), and 1991 and 1992 (after the law).

On each occasion, counting was undertaken over a two-week non-holiday period, seven days a week, between 8am and 6pm. The 1987/88 survey was done in summer, but the others were all done in May/June, a considerably cooler and wetter time of the year in Melbourne.

The exhibit shows that the number of adult cyclists (18 years and over) counted at the observation sites fell in the first year after the law was introduced but returned to almost the pre-law level by the second year. The number of young children (5-11 years) who cycled was declining prior to the new law, but flattened slightly in the first year after and by the second year had returned to the old level.

The big loss was in the high school-age youth segment (12-17 years). Their numbers were flat in the years leading up to the law, but declined sharply in the first year and remained at that lower level in the second year.

So the helmet law didn’t have much effect on the numbers of either adults or primary school-age children who cycled. That’s not a message that’s come through particularly clearly from the frequent references I’ve seen to the Finch et al paper!

Although there were not quite as many of them in absolute terms as adults, the youth segment was a significant group. The age range spans just six years (12-17) but accounted for circa 40% of all cyclists in Melbourne immediately prior to the new law.

However the decline in youth riders has to be evaluated against the main purpose of the law. The improvement in helmet use was spectacular. The adult helmet wearing rate rose from 36% in 1990 to 84% in 1992. The rate for children increased from 65% to 77% over the same period.

And for youth, who clearly didn’t like helmets, the rate rose almost threefold, from a desultory 21% just prior to the new law to 59% of those who were still riding by the second year after the intervention. Of course this won’t cut any ice with those who reckon helmets are pointless (or in some cases positively bad for you!), but it will mean a lot for the much larger group who think helmets have a protective benefit.

I think there are in any event good reasons to question the long-run effect of the new law on youth cycling rates. This cohort was the only one who went from voluntary helmets to compulsory helmets (literally overnight). Subsequent cohorts may not have had as strong an aversion to wearing a helmet since it was always ‘just the way things are’ during their primary school life. Anyone born after 1985 wasn’t even in primary school when helmets were made mandatory (and anyone born after 1978 wasn’t in high school).

It’s also relevant that high school age youth are notoriously fashion and status conscious. This is a fickle business – what was unfashionable in the early 90s might not be unfashionable today, or even five or ten years later. Back in 1990 the Rosebank Stackhat was ugly by any measure. Since then, helmets have become designer items and an Australian won le Tour last year (wearing a helmet). It no longer follows automatically that helmets are as uncool among a majority of today’s 12-17 year olds as they were twenty years ago.

Further, while I haven’t seen any numbers (so I’m not going to die in a ditch over it), I also wonder if cycling has the same allure for youth today that it did in 1983 when Nicole Kidman starred in BMX Bandits. Competing leisure pursuits like game consoles, as well as the increasing propensity of parents to drive their children to school and other destinations, may have reduced their per capita use of bicycles significantly independent of anything to do with helmets. In other words, any aversion to helmets might be very much a second order effect.

But it’s the spectacular growth in adult cycling over the last twenty years that really makes me wonder if the helmet law is a serious constraint on cycling. Bicycle sales have gone gang busters. Rissell and Wen report 18% of Sydneysiders aged 16 and older who were randomly sampled in October 2010 say they had ridden at least once in the last month (and 11% in the last week).

Even if helmets were a serious disincentive twenty years ago (and Finch et al’s work suggests that was only true on average for 12-17 year olds in Melbourne), the alternative interpretation is Australians have adapted to them; we’ve regularised them; we’ve accepted them; we’re simply not bothered any more. Virtually everyone’s forgotten we once had a choice.

Still, that’s only the paper by Finch, Heiman and Neiger. Perhaps the elusive Smith and Milthorpe paper tells a different story, so I’ll reserve judgement until I see a copy of their paper. If someone has an (electronic) copy, could they please provide a link so all can access it?

NOTE: there’s a possibility someone will be tempted to argue that Finch et al mention a cycle rally in 1992 that supposedly “inflated” the numbers at one observation point in 1992, thereby giving a higher adult cycling count than the “true” one.

I don’t think inconvenient results can be ‘cherrypicked’ away. The authors address this question:

From a statistical point of view….an occurrence such as this is a true observation, well within the bounds of “normal” behaviour for that time period, and cannot be excluded from the analysis.

The fact is we don’t know all the myriad other factors that might also have influenced the overall counts – up or down – in all four years or at any of the 65 observation points. It can be argued Finch et al’s sample size was too small to accommodate occurrences like the rally, but in that case the entire study would have to be rejected. I don’t see how that would help the case of those who argue against mandatory helmets.


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26 thoughts on “Do mandatory helmets discourage cycling?

  1. Johnnyringo

    This stupid law simply proves that we are the most over-regulated and compliant people in the world. One day helmets will be mandatory for pedestrians. It’s only a matter of time.

  2. Worker City

    Nice video… I did more or less the same thing last year after catching up to a driver who had almost driven into me on Murray St Perth. He got out of the car, found me, and showed me his police badge. AFP probably – they have an office nearby. Turns out I had knocked the left mirror off their camry but it still was hanging by its electrical wire. He said if his colleagues at the garage could put it back on easily then he wouldn’t have to do the “damaging police property” thing, which fortunately happened out to be the case. His partner said “guess it isn’t your day mate,” which was sort of true, but at least I was wearing my helmet that day!

  3. Harvey

    Thanks for clarifying your position Alan.

    We agree on your main point: the helmet debate detracts from real safety measures. A close look at the real-world effectiveness of soft-shell helmets reveals that they make so little difference that they shouldn’t be overemphasized, as they can give a false sense of safety. Proven cycling safety measures focus on motorists behaviour, notably making motorists accountable for collisions with cyclists, reducing speeds in urban areas, and separating bicycle traffic from motorised traffic.

    We seem to be both aware of that. I’m not sure that adopting the attitude that “Well, the helmet law is there, might as well keep it” is helpful in terms of safety. Why? Because this focus on helmets detracts resources away from more effective safety measures. Many of the government officials I talk to believe that helmets are the key to cycling safety. They are not very interested in introducing vulnerable road users legislation to protect cyclists, it seems too hard. They claim they have “done their job” by imposing a helmet on cyclists. An attitude like that explains why so little effort has been made to improve cycling safety in Australia. The police still spend much resources harassing helmetless cyclists in Melbourne. Such valuable resources would be better spent on targeting aggressive motorists behaviour.

    I’m concerned about attempts to reverse the onus of proof. The helmet law was introduced without a proper evaluation, without considering its negative side-effects. There is no requirement to provide absolute proof that the helmet law has done more harm than good. It is up to the proponents of the law to demonstrate that the law provides a net benefit to society. This law was introduced by claiming that it would reduce the cost of treating cycling injuries. Not only it has failed to do that, but the costs from the loss of health benefits from reducing cycling are significant. Even the government-funded “studies” cannot massage the data to claim that the helmet law has provided a net benefit to society. There is a strong case to amend the law to exempt adults. This would provide a welcome boost to the struggling bike share scheme.

    The attitude that “cycling is so dangerous in Australia that we need a helmet law” is rather perverse. Imposing a helmet law has had some negative side-effects in terms of safety. From the well established “safety in numbers’ phenomena, reducing cycling by 30% increases the risk of injury 24%. This deterioration in safety was observed after the helmet law was introduced, with a significant increase in the risk of death & serious injury. Almost no other country has followed our “lead”. We combine one of the lowest cycling participation with one of the worst cycling safety record. Not many countries want to go down that path.

    The helmet law is part of the problem of cycling safety, not part of the solution. That seems too hard to admit for people who believe in helmets. The attitude of treating the helmet law as a sacred cow makes many people blind of its negative side-effects. That cannot be good for rational policy making.

    I agree with you that the helmet law is a distraction. But trying to hang on to it, despite clear evidence of its failure, causes more damage than admitting we made a mistake and moving on. Only then will the focus can be fully shifted where it should be: on improving motorists behaviour. The debate will not go away, not matter how much obfuscation is thrown at it.

  4. hk

    The activity of cycling may be categorized as predominantly for the purpose of transport or recreation. Field observations of the morning peak cycling flow from the north to the City by dress type indicate cycling falls into the transport category. My observation is that over twenty years ago there were one or two cyclists waiting at the intersections to cross the East-West roads, now there often twenty. So let us be realistic when we discuss growth in cycling activity. There are inner regions of Melbourne where cycling for transport has increased by a factor of more 100% over the last decade. Dare I say the number of cars per hour through the same intersections may have even decreased?
    The planning and design focus needs to be on making the road environment safer for the cyclist. We need to keep the fundamentals in infrastructure safety between motorized vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists upfront, helmet wearing rates are a bit of a side show.

  5. Alan Davies


    My view on the net effect of the helmet law isn’t hard-line – I don’t have the certainty of people like yourself. I’ve taken the view that on balance the costs of the law probably out-weigh the benefits, but not by enough to justify the prominence the opponents give it. Therefore I’ve argued the issue is a sideshow and distracts energy from what IMHO are more important issues, particularly improving drivers’ attitudes toward cyclists (and before you say ‘helmets’, drivers’ attitudes aren’t solely a function of the helmet law!).

  6. Harvey

    This link might be useful for those who are interested in the real safety benefits of the helmet law:

  7. Harvey


    This opinion on the survey mentioned earlier is a bit odd.

    It’s easy to dismiss results from any survey, as there can be discrepancies between intentions and follow through. The survey authors have taken that into account by assuming that half the people would follow through, and providing a generous estimate of the current level of commuter cycling (10 times the measured number).

    These are conservatives assumptions. Nothing is certain in social sciences. However to dismiss this survey on the basis of the uncertainty of people following through does not seem right. How can anybody claim that their own belief is more trustworthy than a survey? A survey may not be perfect, but it is a better indication than a guess. A survey gives us a hint. To dismiss it by claiming it does not bring any new knowledge and that we should rely on our own beliefs instead does not seem particularly open-minded.

    The impression I got from reading these blog posts is of a person who believes that the helmet law does not discourage cycling, and is trying to reinforce that belief by throwing doubt at evidence that contradicts that belief. Fair enough, but why claim this then?
    “My view is the deterrent effect of the law (less cycling) probably out-weighs the protective effects it confers (fewer head injuries).”

    If somebody believed that the helmet law did more harm than good, they wouldn’t be trying to throw doubt on evidence that shows a decline in cycling, instead they would have a close look at whether the helmet law has actually reduced injuries. It looks like little thought has been given to it, merely assuming that the helmet law can only reduce injuries, or relying on biased government-funded studies.

    I’m a bit confused about what you really believe, and what you are trying to achieve through these blog posts. I find it odd that, after a thorough look at the Finch study, the issue of excluding abnormal data is dismissed using a dubious claim from the study authors, rather than take a more skeptical approach. It seems like skepticism is only going in one direction.

    May I invite your skepticism towards the belief that the helmet law can only reduce injuries. That might provide a more complete picture.

  8. Harvey

    Here is a quick summary on the impact of helmet laws on cycling levels around the world:
    Helmet laws have reduced cycling everywhere they have been introduced, except when the law was not enforced.

  9. Krammer56

    Interestingly, the trend in places that don’t have compulsory laws is a growing use of helmets. A Danish longitudinal study (sorry can’t find the link again, but found a reference to it at: )

    shows rates have doubled in only a few years to ~25%. Interestingly more women than men over 26 wear helmets (30%), so helmet hair is not a big deal for those gals.

    Obviously, helmet use by age varies, with the lowest usage by older teens:
    Age group 2008 2010
    <11 years 66% 77%
    11-15 years 16% 32%
    16-25 years 6% 12%
    26-60 years 16% 28%
    over 60 years 14% 24%

    Interestingly, the same study looked at mopeds (called Knallert, <30 km/h low powered, able to be used by 16-18 year olds without a car license) and found helmet usage rates in the high 90%’s. Helmets are compulsory for mopeds and it is a privilege of sorts, rather than right, to ride them

    I'm a helmet wearer and have been since before they were compulsory (I'm allergic to pain!) but I must admit I am interested in the same issue I have professionally with promoting safety for cars by separating them from other users and roadside hazards by wide spaces and barriers. This makes walking and cycling more difficult, separates communities and ultimately may cost more lives in terms of an unhealthy society than it saves in car crashes. How do we go about quantifying the various elements and balancing our response in policy terms!

  10. Harvey

    I might add that the including a clearly abnormal data result in the Finch study (72 in 1991, 451 cyclists in 1992) has distorted results significantly. Without this abnormal data, the 30% drop in adult cycling in 1991 does not magically recover in 1992, as the study seems to indicate.

    The claim that adult cycling did not drop after the helmet law is wrong. It did drop by 30% in 1991. Without the abnormal data, there is no significant recovery in 1992, as observed with children cycling.

  11. Harvey

    I wouldn’t worry too much about studies like the CARRS-Q report. A freedom of information request revealed that QUT was paid $35,000 and only given 13 days to produced this “research”.

    The study is full of errors and inconsistencies, as pointed out in the link above. It is based on other discredited studies funded by the government. It makes physically impossible claims, like the claim that helmets reduce 69% of head injuries (how can they when they don’t cover the face where 70% of head injuries are?), or that helmets reduce 74% of severe brain injuries (how can they when they cannot protect against the main cause of severe brain injury, rotational acceleration, while they can aggravate it?) .

    Policy-driven “studies” like the CARRS-Q report are commissioned to defend government policy. They tend to make bold statements in their summary defending government policy, even though they are not supported by the data, knowing that few people bother to read the fine print.

    The QLD government has used this misleading “study” to dismiss calls to review the helmet law:

    That is what these “studies” are for: to obfuscate the failure of the helmet law.

    The topic of this article, the Finch study, by including a clearly abnormal data result in its results, is showing a similar tendency to publish results that suits the agenda of the government who funds the study, rather than stick to a strict scientific dsicipline. This can be very misleading, as many people tend to have a bit too much faith in government-funded studies.

    Such deceptive studies add little to scientific knowledge, while exaggerating the benefits of helmets. This tends to mislead policy makers towards false “solutions” to cycling safety, while neglecting more effective measures like rider training and improving the behavior of motorists towards cyclists.

    Some people are correct in claiming that the helmet debate is a distraction. It is a distraction to real safety measures. Far too much government resources are devoted to defend and enforce this failed policy. This takes resources away from more effective measures to improve safety. This might explain why Australia has one of the worst cycling safety record among developed countries.

    If we are serious about improving cycling safety, we need to be more open and honest about what works and what doesn’t, and adopt proven solutions, rather than waste more time and energy obfuscating a disappointing result.

  12. RidesToWork

    The paper “Head injuries and bicycle helmet laws” reported the results of two large observational surveys, plus automatic bike counts in Western Australia, and 3 surveys asking people how helmet laws had affected their cycling. Taken together, they suggest a consistent effect of helmet laws in discouraging cycling.

    People might be confused by your statement: “And for youth, who clearly didn’t like helmets, the rate rose almost threefold, from a desultory 21% just prior to the new law to 59% of those who were still riding by the second year after the intervention.”

    The different between youth counted wearing helmets pre-law (272) and post-law (302) is just 30 cyclists. Was that really worth a reduction of 623 teenage cyclists counted in the post-law survey?

    Percentages are confusing. A 50% increase in cycling sounds much more impressive than a 33% drop because of helmet laws, but all the 50% increase does, is take you back to pre-law levels.

    Per capita, we have much lower cycling levels today than just before the law. What you called a boom in cycling seem somewhat illusory, or at least only a partial reversal of the pre-law decline. The National Cycling survey in 2011 showed a 24% reduction in per capita cycle trips for people aged 9 years or over, compared to 1986.

    But cycling was beginning to take off in 1986. The number of regular cyclists in WA increased from 300,000 in 1986 to 400,000 in 1989, leading to big reductions in the deaths and serious injuries relative to the amount of cycling. The reduction today in cycle trips per person compared to just before the law is therefore probably much higher than 24%.

    The elephant in the room is perceived (and real) unsafety. The evidence suggests that helmet laws made this worse. In addition, because you have to wear a helmet, people think that cycling must be a lot more dangerous that walking.

    Dr Ian Walker’s research showed a substantial increase in tight passing events when he wore a helmet. Tight passing events are the sort of thing that makes cycling seem unsafe and scares some people away from cycling – especially the experience of being hit twice when he was wearing a helmet!

    It’s interesting that MUARC chose to include the rally site in their comparisons to estimate the effect of the law – 451 cyclists in 1992, 72 in 1991. The whole point about paired comparisons is to keep everything else the same – same sites, same observation periods, same time of year, so that you are measuring the effect of the intervention, not random noise.

    Yet, including the rally data, 1567 adults were counted in 1990, 1106 in 1991 and 1484 in 1992. Narelle Haworth’s interpretation of these figures (CARRS-Q report in 2011, Monograph 5 “Bicycle Helmet Research”, page x) is: “In Melbourne adult cyclist numbers doubled after the helmet legislation was introduced”.

    It’s no wonder people get confused about cycle use when a reduction of 82 adults counted (despite including the effect of a bicycle rally) is described in a government-commissioned report as a doubling of adult cyclist numbers.

  13. IkaInk

    Did you say that cycling to work is only a very small fraction of all bicycle use? That’s really odd. In Europe, utility cycling is the dominant type of cycling.

    Cycling to work is a form of utility cycling, but its not the only form. The census didn’t ask me for example how I got to uni, nor does it ask children how they got to school, nor the journey to the shops after work, the trip to the cinemas on the weekend, etc, etc.

    I agree that utility cycling does seem to be the type of cycling that suffers most in Australia. There are plenty of weekend lycra cyclists, kids that take bmx’s to the skateparks, etc, but regular commuting cycling does seem to have low numbers compared to most other countries I’ve visited (in Europe and Asia at least). However putting words in Alan’s mouth isn’t going to win you any arguments.

    An interesting piece Alan. I’m glad you continue to follow the issue, you seem to dig up a bit more data each time. I’m still convinced that relaxing helmet laws will be a necessary step to seriously increasing cycling numbers in Australia, but its only one of many steps that needs to happen.

  14. Simon Roberts

    I am all for measures that suppress the number of cyclists as I am sick of the cycle jam on Royal Parade each day. Even cold weather doesn’t deter these people anymore. Most wear helmets.

    Hipsters don’t wear helmets. They have single speeds and tattoos. Not wearing helmets=less hipsters, single speeds and tattoos in the longrun.

  15. Harvey

    Regarding the factor distorting adult cycling numbers in the Finch study: “that a bicycle rally passed through a site in 1992, (451 cyclists in 1992, 72 in 1991). Excluding the site with the bicycle rally, there were 27% fewer cyclists in 1992 than in 1990.”
    This is from table 1 here.

    Surely there is something odd going on there. How can cycling levels be 6 times higher within one year?

    The claim from the study authors that cycling levels rising 6 times in one year is within the bound of “normal behavior” is not credible.

    Looking for data outside normal bounds and attempting to explain it is part of the due diligence in those surveys. It seems that the survey authors did not do their due dilligence.

    To claim that removing clearly distorted data is “cherrypicking inconvenient results” seems odd to me. Including distorted data is the cherrypicking behavior here.

  16. Alan Davies


    “How else do you explain such low levels of utility cycling in Australia?”

    Well, compared to Europe, some other plausible reasons might include:

    Cheaper petrol
    Lower density housing
    Higher investment in roads
    Higher traffic speeds (car culture)
    Less infrastructure for cycling
    Less legal support for cycling
    and so on, and so on

  17. Harvey

    Did you say that cycling to work is only a very small fraction of all bicycle use? That’s really odd. In Europe, utility cycling is the dominant type of cycling.

    Australia cycling levels are far lower than in Europe. Could it be because utility cycling has been suppressed by a helmet law that makes cycling inconvenient and seemingly dangerous?

    How else do you explain such low levels of utility cycling in Australia?

  18. Harvey

    “My view is the deterrent effect of the law (less cycling) probably out-weighs the protective effects it confers (fewer head injuries)”

    Doesn’t this assume that the helmet law can only reduce injuries?

    Nothing is perfect or provides absolute certainty. But claiming that the survey doesn’t add anything to our knowledge of whether Sydneysiders would ride more if helmets weren’t compulsory isn’t entirely accurate either.

    It would be good to have some hard data on cycling numbers in NT after they relaxed the helmet law. That would provide a better indication than a survey.

  19. Alan Davies


    I avoided the issue of whether helmets do or don’t prevent injury, but noted that some people think they don’t. I haven’t taken a position on the issue – how did you read that into it?

    Census data only show the journey to work. That’s only 20%-30% of all trips by all modes, and only a very small fraction of all bicycle use.

    In fact I have looked before at that survey which “asked the people themselves” whether they’d ride more without mandatory helmets and found it seriously wanting – I wrote about it here.

    I say in the post above – and have said before in these pages – that on balance the mandatory helmet law probably does more harm than good. That’s my starting position. So I don’t start with a pro-law bias.

    The purpose of this post is to look at some of the foundation research supporting the anti mandatory helmet POV. I conclude that the Finch et al study doesn’t provide convincing evidence that the law had a significant deterrent effect, even though it’s sometimes been portrayed that way. That’s definitely going to influence my POV, but as I say, I want to look at the mysterious Smith and Milthorpe study first.

    Hopefully someone’s done or doing a reliable “before and after” study in the NT? AIUI, the NT now also permits cycling on footpaths by adults, so that might be a key factor in increased cycling i.e. it’s perceived to be safer.

  20. Harvey

    I might add that most of the data on cycling numbers indicates a decline of about 40% for children cycling and 30% for adult cycling after the helmet law. This reversed an uptrend in cycling in the 1980’s, where cycling increased by 250% in Sydney for example.

    Some data on cycling numbers in Western Australia can be found here.

  21. Harvey


    You are assuming that bicycle helmets can only reduce head injuries. While they can in some circumstances, they are also knwon to increase the risk of accidents. How do we know whether the higher rate of accidents can be compensated by a helmet? It’s not as simple as it seems. For example, there is evidence that the risk of death & serious injury increased by 50% for children in NSW after the helmet law.

    You may wish to look at more than one data set. Data on the impact of the helmet law on cycling rates when the law was introduced can be found here:

    What spectacular growth in adult cycling are you referring to? From cencus data, rates of cycling to work are still lower than in 1991. Cycling may have grown, but less than population growth. This is hardly “spectacular growth”.

    If you want to know whether helmets discourage cycling, why not ask the people themselves? A survey reports that, conservatively, cycling rates could double if the helmet law was repealed.

    If you really believe that Australians have accepted bicycle helmets, you may wish to visit Sydney. Or maybe the Northern Territory, where cycling has really boomed since they relaxed then stopped enforcing the helmet law. NT has the highest level of cycling to work and women cycling by far.

  22. RidesToWork

    Percentages cycling to work in the 1950s were undoubtedly far higher than today, if only because car ownership was much lower.

    I think the census data on cycling to work from 1976 to 2006 provides a better indication of trends. The effect of helmet laws is indicated by comparing data for states that had enforced helmet laws in 1991 (NSW+Vic+SA+Tas) with those that did not (Qld, WA, ACT)

    I don’t understand your comment about the protective effective of mandatory helmets. All the evidence suggests that injury rates increased because of risk compensation and reduced safety in numbers.

    In the last couple of years, I’ve been finding that a hot, sweaty helmet irritates my scalp, so if there are no police around, I’ve been known to take it off. As well as making cycling much cooler and more enjoyable, it makes it much safer. Passing vehicles give me at least twice as much room.

    I can assure you, Ian Walker’s research applies equally to Australian as UK drivers – perhaps more so. Based on my personal experience, I’d suggest that it was no coincidence that Dr Walker was hit twice by vehicles, both times when wearing a helmet.

    I just wish that the onus could be on the people who lobby for such laws to ensure they are properly evaluated and retained only if a clear benefit, in terms of the combined effect on health, road safety and the environment, can be demonstrated.

  23. Alan Davies


    That’s an interesting take. But maybe a permanent one year’s loss of growth in cycling numbers is worth it if you think the protective benefits of mandatory helmets are a good thing. But would it have been lost forever? Who knows, but I doubt it.

    OTOH, i think you’d be pretty brave to accept a forward trend based on just two data points!

    I wasn’t there, but it was reported to me Paul Mees said at a seminar last week in Melbourne that the number of people cycling to work in the early 1950s far exceeded the number cycling now – I’ll try and confirm that, although this paper seems consistent with that claim. (He also says elsewhere the proportion of Melburnians cycling to work has remained pretty constant at 1% since 1976).

  24. Last name First name

    Parker Alan,
    This discussion Video and the other videos show that all road users need to upgrade their road behaviour. Their is far less of this kind of behaviour, in the bicycle friendly countries of Europe with superior bicycle Infrastructure, whose total road death rate is much lower than Australia which has petrol headed planners at all 3 levels of government. This is why Keith Dunstan in the Age described the lethal attitudes 35 years of the predessors of what is now VicRoads and the MMBW and until very recently that has not changed. I was at these meetings with Keith and can testify to ignorance road engineers in those day as Bicycle Victoria research officer.

    Evidence that riding bicycles is safe comes from the bicycle friendly EU countries which have the following 2010 road death rates per 100,000 population: – Sweden 3.0, Netherlands 3.9, Japan 4.3, and Germany 4.7, Denmark 4.5, Switzerland 4.5 France 6.1. The Australian rate was 6.23 and US death rate 10.5 much higher. In the Netherlands cyclists’ deaths have been reduced from 185 in 2009 to 162 in 2010. Since 1970 the reduction in road fatalities has benefited all age groups but the most impressive reduction has concerned young bicyclists ( age 0 to 14) for which fatalities decreased by 95%, from 459 in 1970 to 23 in 2008 (IRTAD 2011). 70% of Dutch urban roads have a 30 km/hr speed limit and the police are tough on unsafe drivers. 

    According to the former Manager of the Dutch Bicycle Masterplan, (Welleman 1999) the most bicycle friendly measure is reducing car parking on a systematic basis in the inner city. If you cannot park a car you cannot cannot use. The total CO2 emissions in the Netherlands is 30% of Australian CO2 emissions with similar urban populations.

    The simple fact is cyclists do not kill motorists. Motorists kill walkers and cyclists.
    Yes I wear a helmet and and they do not in the Netherlands

  25. RidesToWork

    Why not re-draw the graph at the top of the page, projecting the pre-law trends forward, so the effect of the law can be seen as the difference between numbers counted and projected trends in the absence of a helmet law? I’d like to see the difference.

    Some insight can be gained by looking at the trends in head and non-head injuries before and after the helmet law – There’s a clear effect of the helmet law, but is it what was intended?

    Adult cycling may be booming in Melbourne, but I don’t see the same trend elsewhere. In Qld, before there were any legal penalties for not wearing a helmet, 2.56% of people cycled to work (1991 census). In 2006, it was 1.41% – still higher than Melbourne’s 1.34% (2006 census), but a big drop since 1991.

    Surveys in Western Australia showed a 33% decline in cycling to work from 1986 to 2006 (from about 1.5 to 1.0 trips per weekday per 100 people), consistent with the census data. Shopping trips fell by 55%, from about 5.2 to 2.3 per weekday per 100 people; trips for education by 79%, from about 8.2 to 1.7 per weekday per 100 people. (See Ian Ker, 2011. Empty Cells, Damned Half-Truths and Pseudo-Statistics:The Lot(tery) of the Bicycle Planner).

    It would be more appropriate to use the Boris bikes as an example of spectacular growth in cycling – 6 million trips in the first year. Compare that with current usage of about 500 trips per day in Melbourne on public bikes, or 18,909 daily trips to work in the whole of Melbourne (2006 census).

    Despite the boom you see in Melbourne, in other places it would be equally valid to suggest that the big drop in teenage cycling has led to fewer people cycling as adults.

  26. St Etienne

    When it comes to cycling statistics my interest is purely in utility (or transport) cycling. When I read statements suggesting that there has been a “spectacular growth in adult cycling over the past 20 years” I always ask the following question: What percentage is represented by utility cyclists? And then we have the question of what actually defines a utility cyclist. In a recent survey it was good enough to list “ride at least once a week for transport” to labelled a utility cyclist, which led to serious overestimations of this classification in subsequent media reports.

    I guess what I’m trying to say here is that it’s a hard to determine the effects of helmet mandation if we consider cyclists to be a homogeneous group. It’s my strong belief that the law has had the worst effect on what I would like to call low-risk, short trip utility riders. It’s these kind of riders that are the lifeblood of great cycling cities around the world and what is visibly absent from Australian streets outside of peak hours. You could also say that the failure of bike share schemes in this country is a further symptom of this decline.

    Purely conjecture of course, but I’ve been a utility cyclist for over 20 years and I’m still trying to understand why there hasn’t been a similar rise in this kind of cycling compared to other forms.

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