Oct 12, 2012

What’s the case for keeping the helmet law?

Bicycle Network Victoria's Gary Brennan succinctly summarises where the organisation stands on the mandatory helmet law debate

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

60 people in bus vs bicycles vs cars. Cycling Promotion Fund's recreation in Canberra of that famous photo taken in Munster, Germany

There’s a lot of argument in these pages, especially in the comments, supporting the case against the mandatory helmet law for cyclists. There’s not a lot from the other side though, probably because it’s the status quo.

That indifference applies more widely too. Cycling organisations, for example, advise their members of their obligations under the law but don’t tend to elaborate publicly on why they think the law is appropriate.

Nevertheless some of them have a strong view. Thanks to the always interesting Sydney Cyclist, we now have an insight into the thinking of one cycling organisation, Bicycle Network Victoria (BNV – formerly known as Bicycle Victoria).

A member of Sydney Cyclist’s Helmetless Riders group recently wrote to BNV urging the organisation to re-look at its policy on helmets. She posted the reply publicly on Sydney Cyclist and I think it warrants a wider audience.

Hi Kathy

As an organisation that follows evidence-based policy principles you must understand that the actions of a handful of people with a strongly held belief, and the ability to attract media attention, is not a reason for a change in policy direction.

The so called ‘negative effects’ of mandatory helmet legislation have been pronounced over and over again by you and your supporters. The religious certainty of your beliefs are clearly impervious to facts. Repeating the claims will not make them true.

We can see from the evidence here in Victoria that mandatory helmet laws are not suppressing the strong uptake of cycling. Helmet wearing is the highest in the world and opposition to helmets in our riding community is so small that it is not even a statistical blip. It is now completely normalised. You can’t roll back time and culture. You have about as much chance of re-introducing a helmet free bike culture as re-normalising whale-bone corsets.

Some bike organisations around the world are against helmets. They tell me it is politically unacceptable to be in favour of helmets in their cultures. However the wearing of helmets is increasing steadily in all nations, even those with strong political opposition.

Here in Victoria we thank our lucky stars we never got sucked into the anti-helmet mythology. We have instead over many years devoted our energies and resources into getting more people riding and to improving the riding environment. The result is terrific growth in cycling participation.

Opposing helmets is a strategy for failure, and that’s not where we are going.

Bicycle Network

That’s from BNV’s Garry Brennan (who’s been mentioned here before) and he’s evidently not the sort to mince words. Although the recipient, Kathy, doesn’t like it – she says it makes BNV’s “extreme position on this issue…abundantly clear” – she gives Mr Brennan points for clarity. “This clear policy is unlike the fence sitting BNSW one”, she writes.

P.S. The original Munster image, Space required to transport 60 people.

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19 thoughts on “What’s the case for keeping the helmet law?

  1. Jos Roder

    I think this whole argument can be answered as follows. Tie someone’s arms and legs up with a tape while they are standing and tell them you are going to push them over and they are going to hit their head as a result. Ask them if they would like to wear an optional bike helmet before they are pushed over. If it came down to it, every single person would opt for the helmet. Question answered. Debate solved.

  2. Burke John

    If you say “you can’t roll back time and culture” that is the point at which I say “The religious certainty of your beliefs are clearly impervious to facts”
    If you didn’t rely on “religious certainty” you would provide “evidence”
    Who funds “Bicycle Network” anyway? Money can often provide religious certainty.

  3. Ride2Wk

    1/ BV seem to be selectively ignoring the massive 30% drop in cycling in 1991. Who’s got the religious conviction BV – or should we call you “pot”. (As in the pot calling the kettle black.)
    2/ In many areas of Australia, police do not bother enforcing MHL much except when they want to pull over teenagers they suspect of causing other more serious issues. The Sunshine Coast had a poor example of the police letting down the bike tyres of a teenager on the same road & area that Daniel Morcombe was picked up and killed. In the USA they found that poor black kids were far more likely to be booked by police than rich white kids. The MHL is a good excuse that allows unsuitable targetting of certain types of people by some members of the police. (Not all police of course & I respect the difficult job they have. Without the many good police, we’ld have anachy.)
    3/ In some areas like Melbourne, Sydney & Brisbane it seems police departments like to spend a lot of police time enforcing helmet laws but is that a good use of police resources when police always claim they are too busy on other far more serious crimes that actually have victims? Perhaps they should spend more time an actual criminal activity investigation or enforcing the road rules on the people that actually kill other innocent people – like car drivers who break far more rules & cause far more crash harm than bike rides ever could.
    4/ In areas where police do not enforce MHL much like the Gold Coast I usually see only about 50% of people wearing bike helmets. Byron Bay has probably only about 30% wearing helmets. These are across a whole range of ages from kids to oldies, both male & female and people who appear to be riding for many different reasons. But they are mostly on slower bikes with a more upright position. It’s only the lycra racers that typically all have helmets. It would appear the general casual bike riding public who probably wouldn’t have anything to do with BV, BNSW or BQ etc have rejected the MHL.

  4. Dudley Horscroft

    On reading Mr Brennan’s response to Kathy, I thought “What a load of bluster.” (You could substitute another term for ‘bluster’ but bluster it is.)

    I can’t help feeling that he is like the Global Warming Alarmists and Sceptics, and a para of his could just as easily read:

    “The so called ‘negative effects’ of Global Warming have been pronounced over and over again by you and your supporters. The religious certainty of your beliefs are clearly impervious to facts. Repeating the claims will not make them true.” [Read it which way you like!]

    Of course, if the cops haul over every cyclist they see not wearing a helmet few cyclists will be without one. Just as (almost) every driver wears a seat belt.

    The main – perhaps the only – justification for MHL is the effect on others. Requiring seat belts is not for the protection of drivers, it is for the reduction in costs for hospital treatment for drivers and passengers injured in accidents. Likewise prohibition of smoking in confined spaces – the damage it inflicts on others. But is there sufficient evidence that mandating wearing helmets reduces hospital costs? (Other than discouraging cycling?) If so, one would think that the same policy should be applied to car drivers and passengers, and pedestrians.

    I would like Mr Brennan’s views on MHL for car drivers and passengers. Would BN be willing to mount a campaign for MHL for them?

    Really, if the pro-helmet use culture is so prevalent in Victoria, abolishing the MHL would not affect use. Would it?

  5. Alan Davies

    St Etienne #7:

    Not generous necessarily. I’m conscious of how easy it is to make a simple slip of pen or brain when you turn out a lot of words in a short time-frame (and without the advantage of a second opinion).

  6. RidesToWork

    A nice summary of the view of cyclists in other countries.

    Cycle Helmets

    The Transport and Health Study Group* completed an extensive review of cycling for its book Health on the Move 2. We concluded against the promotion of cycle helmets and strongly against their compulsion. The main reasons are:

    • the risks of cycling are in the same range as for walking or driving. Young males face higher risks as drivers. A mile of cycling is typically safer than a mile of walking;

    • the health benefits of cycling are large; daily cycling benefits health as much as giving up cigarette smoking;

    • the risks of cycling fall as it gets more popular;

    • helmet laws have not noticeably reduced serious head injuries, except by reducing cycling.

    An excessive focus on helmets adds “fear” to the obstacles hindering a cycling revival. Enforced helmet compulsion reduces participation, ironically worsening safety due to lost “safety in numbers”.

    *For more information see:

    Malcolm Wardlaw,
    Executive Member,
    Transport & Health Study Group.

  7. RidesToWork

    Rissel & Wen found that 22.6% of respondents to a telephone survey said they would cycle more if they didn’t have to wear a helmet. This is much greater than current cycling – if only half the people who said they would cycle more actually did so, cycling rates could double.

    Rissel & Wen were interested in potential future cyclists. Current cyclists are obviously not put off by helmet laws, especially those keen enough to pay for a BNV membership. So Gary’s views are not particularly surprising, if his main source of information is the keen cyclists who are obviously not discouraged by helmets.

    When I look at head and non-head injuries when Victoria introduced its helmet law, I see a big drop in both, suggesting that the main effect was to discourage cycling

    There may be some benefit of helmets, but it’s much smaller than the main and obvious effect of discouraging cycling which also has other unfortunate consequences such as reduced safety in numbers and lost health and environmental benefits.

    Even though cycling has increased in the past 10 years, despite the law, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence that it’s returned to pre-law per capita cycling rates. Rissel and Wen’s paper, and the much greater increase in cycling rates in other countries suggest that, if we had not introduced helmet laws, we would have more cyclists (enjoying better health than the average non-cyclist) and fewer injuries per cyclist.

  8. IkaInk

    @boscombe – You’re right, which is precisely my point. I was replying to Garry’s comment: “You have about as much chance of re-introducing a helmet free bike culture as re-normalising whale-bone corsets.” Which of course is utterly false.

  9. lomlate

    boscombe, if we banned cars that would reduce car accidents. If we banned bicycles that would reduce bicycle accidents. It’s all about a balance between the positive effects a law will have and the negative. in this case, the negatives outweigh the positives.

  10. boscombe

    IkaInk, if the seatbelt laws were rolled back no doubt more people would not use a seatbelt; if cigarettes were allowed to be advertised, more people would start smoking ….

    The helmet laws are just another public health and safety measure, based on the evidence that in accidents they prevent more serious injuries. But I think exemptions for hired bikes would be reasonable.

  11. Last name First name

    Parker Alan• OAM
    HI Alan, I agree with Cyclesnail. I am missing your usual incisive analysis. You continue to ignore the need to make very exemptions to many regulations when needed. I have been wearing a helmet before the regulation came in 1990. And will continue to do so because it makes sense, but when traveling by other means without a helmet and hire bikes are available to me as a tourist, I can do what I can do in London and a hundred towns and cities in Europe and the USA.

    The problem in Melbourne and Brisbane is that the consultants who advised government ignored the need for exemptions to the helmet issue. They failed to suggest the only sensible exemption is to allow the hire bike that are easily identified by police and therefore not an enforcement problem for them. The police commissioner has the power the power to grant exemtions and does so with many other many illegal things that are too dam dificult to enforce, waste too much police time on doing the paper work or when in the touring publics interest. 5 million hire bikes have been rented out in London which proves beyond doubt the demand for hire bike bikes is enormous especially for tourists. Planning consultants for the last 30 years have ignored a balanced approach to enforcement and helmet exemptions are not only issue.

    Consider the “DOORING of cyclists which requires clearer driver vision through right hand side drivers window. It was dangerous to increase natural light reduction from only 30% to 70%. Indeed several RACV staff wanted 30% until a former Vic Roads heavyweight silenced any discussion about it.

  12. IkaInk

    If the culture is so totally engrained in Australian culture, then surely any rollback of MHL wouldn’t result in people ditching the lids. I’d like to see how that experiment unfolded!

    I’m still baffled by this supposed massive growth in cycling that everyone, especially BNV is harping on about. Where is the evidence this is actually happening? I’ve looked at the journey to work data from the census and it certainly shows no real growth. I’ve looked at Gillham, Rissell paper and it shows a decline compared to the population. I also know that paper has been discussed here, and had some shortcomings (although a quick re-look at one of your posts shows you’ve admitted their techniques weren’t as faulty as you originally claimed). However, I’ve never once read anything that has actually convinced me cycling is on the up in Australia. Sure cycling rates are growing in some inner suburbs and the inner city, but they are not growing on any city wide or national scale.

    The religious certainty of your beliefs are clearly impervious to facts. Repeating the claims will not make them true.


  13. St Etienne

    Geez Alan, you’re being extremely generous to Mr Brennan in suggesting he meant to say anti-helmet law mythology, as opposed to anti-helmet mythology. BV is as fervently pro-helmets as they are pro-MHL, and I’ll claim my steak knives. I’ve seen similar responses from Mr Brennan which clearly reflect his and BV’s position on this issue, so let’s not confuse matters here by saying his wording was unfortunate.

  14. lomlate

    The colourful language was entertaining but I think disrespectful. If you’re running an advocacy group then I think you should at the very least say you’re willing to br convinced by new or differing evidence.

    Just saying “there’s lots of evidence” and not listing it is a bit annoying too. The only evidence listed is the fact that cycling has gone up over the last decade. Obviously anybody who has done year 10 statistics will know that this doesn’t prove mandatory helmet laws are a good idea, in fact it’s most likely not related to MHL at all.

    Saying ” You have about as much chance of re-introducing a helmet free bike culture as re-normalising whale-bone corsets” is just plain rude. A peak organisation like BNV should respect that others might disagree without being condescending and rude. That ridicule points to a closed mind, the exact thing that BNV is accusing MHL opponents of.

  15. SBH

    “The religious certainty of your beliefs are clearly impervious to facts. Repeating the claims will not make them true.”

    Couldn’t have said it better myself

  16. pjrob1957

    Interesting Garry’s remark about the “religeous certainty” of beliefs of the anti-helmet-law people. That has raised my hackles.
    The whole pro-helmet arguement is full of sensibilities that belong in a religeous context.
    For instance, if I believe a particular garment is good for my health or safety or religeous purity for me to wear, why does it follow that I have to insist that everyone else agrees and wears it also?
    In religeous environments, quite typically, repressive or oppressive exortations lead to their victims becoming repressive and oppressive themselves. Is this what has happened to us as a society?
    We seem to have forgotten that some things were always assumed to be ones own business and I believe we should return to them being just that.
    The change to that principle was certainly not “evidence based”.
    Matters pertaining to ones own health or safety are ones own business. I seem to live in a society that has taken away the right of adults to assume this. To my way of thinking that is a fundamental right in a free society that we should have been protecting the whole time.
    I believe the resentment and anger on both sides reflect an underlying unease about this basic aspect of life being challenged.
    Those who pontificate that we have to have the helmet are amongst the gutless ones of our society who have been giving in to repressive rulings and now seek to repress others who would prefer the right to work it out themselves.

  17. Richard Bean

    Evidence-based, eh? He ignores the work of Rissel, Robinson, and de Jong here. I do wonder how the pro-MHL literature is viewed overseas. Why on earth aren’t the other 99% of countries copying our wonderful laws?

    I keep trying to think of parallels to understand the foreigners’ viewpoint.

    My initial reaction is to think of a story like “The Truth Wears Off” in the New Yorker: acupuncture is universally found effective in Asian studies and not as much in Western studies. “As Palmer notes, this wide discrepancy suggests that scientists find ways to confirm their preferred hypothesis, disregarding what they don’t want to see. Our beliefs are a form of blindness.”

    But I think a much better example is mandatory hijab in Iran – the religious parallels are better too. It is easy to find “scientific” mullahs there who’ll promote it based on extensive evidence-based research. One of the theoreticians of the Islamic Republic, Motahari, said mandatory hijab leads to a more efficient society as “men’s energy is not wasted in sexual fantasies”. Do you think that research convinces anyone outside of Iran? Both laws are well-meaning and promoted by sincere people – in Iran it is to protect women from harassment and objectification, in Australia it’s to protect cyclists from cars (and themselves, although Dutch cyclists apparently don’t need that kind). Both laws are focussing on the wrong thing – the real problem in Iran is (some of) the men (some of whom promote the laws) and the real problem in Australia is the cars. Mikael Colville Andersen said in his Tedx talk that “the automobile industry is one of the main promoters of bicycle helmets”.

    “Some bike organisations” – ignoring the views of the European Cyclists’ Federation at … and is helmet use increasing in the Netherlands? Which cyclists’ organisations outside Australia are promoting MHLs?

    It’s not really a handful of people … Brisbane CBD BUG found about 70% in their poll at

    I didn’t really like the tone of his writing … so insular, ignoring the international experience totally; from a big, bureaucratic, comfortable organisation, so lacking in self-doubt.

  18. Alan Davies

    Cyclesnail #1:

    In this case I thought the information was pretty powerful in its own right, from either point of view. All I’ll say at this point is procedural: I think Mr Brennan’s wording in some places is unfortunate – I think he should’ve said “anti-(mandatory) helmet mythology” and “opposing (mandatory) helmets”. I expect that’s what he meant, but doubtless some will see it as a Freudian slip.

  19. Cyclesnail

    Hi, Alan, I am missing your usual incisive analysis …. it is not like you to simply reproduce material

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