Nov 28, 2012

Should the helmet law be repealed to save bikeshare?

The environmental and health benefits of bikeshare schemes are way too small by themselves to justify repeal of the helmet law. Any debate on changing the law should be evidence-based and inclusive

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Some of Melbourne bikeshare's idle Bixis

Up until Melbourne Bikeshare launched in 2010, the idea that Australia’s mandatory helmet laws might have a net negative effect was a non-issue. Anyone who opposed the law was presumed to be a crank or a mad libertarian.

The abject failure of Melbourne Bikeshare and Brisbane CityCycle changed that. While the overwhelming majority of Australians simply aren’t interested, there’s now a small but vocal movement seeking to repeal the law.

In my view, there’s no doubt the helmet law is a serious hindrance to bikeshare. It’s not that most potential users aren’t prepared to wear a helmet, it’s rather that getting immediate access to a clean one is too hard.

But to repeal the helmet law in order to save ailing bikeshare schemes, as some argue should be done, would be to abandon any pretence of rational and inclusive debate.

Repeal is a much bigger and wider decision affecting the 90% or more of the population who aren’t likely to ever use a bikeshare scheme.

Perhaps there is a valid argument to repeal the law, but it would be out of all proportion to do it if the primary reason is to save bikeshare.

As I’ve argued before, it’s doubtful the potential benefits of bikeshare in the Australian context could justify such a far-reaching course of action.

Now I’ve come across some research that gives more substance to those doubts. It indicates that whatever other positives it might have, bikeshare doesn’t offer much in the way of environmental and health benefits, despite the many claims to the contrary.

The research is by Elliot Fishman, a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety in Qld. He’s also the co-author of a new paper evaluating Brisbane CityCycle.

Here’s an extract from a letter written by Mr Fishman and published last year in the British Medical Journal. He’s responding to an article that evaluated the Barcelona Bicing (bikeshare) scheme.

Data published by Anaya & Bea (and) collected by the City of Barcelona show users of the Bicing scheme to be substituting from other modes of transport in the following proportions: Public transit 55.1%, motor vehicle 9.6%, walking 26.1%, private bike 6.3% and new trip 2.8%.

Only the 9.6% of trips that would otherwise have been taken by car could be regarded as offering a significant environmental improvement.

The shift from car to bikeshare is modest in other cities too.

In a paper published by the US Transport Review Board, Evaluation framework for assessing public-bicycle share schemes, Mr Fishman and his co-authors provide data on the mode shift for bikeshare schemes in Dublin and Minnesota:

A recent study of the Dublin scheme found that 15% of users would not have made the trip had it not been for the (public bikeshare scheme). Of those changing modes, 66% had previously walked, 7% shifted from private car, 14% previously rode public transit and 11% migrated from private bicycles…..In Minnesota, 57.8% of users would have walked or taken public transit if the scheme had not been available. Almost 20% indicated they would have driven a car and 8.3% would have used their own bicycle.

He provides more evidence in an article published earlier this week in The Conversation, Fixing Australian bikeshare goes beyond helmet laws. In it, Mr Fishman says only 1% of users of the London and Washington bikeshare schemes “report leaving the car at home.”

It appears the vast majority of public bike users replace walking and/or public transport. While bike share programs in Europe, North America and China are heavily used, their success is limited by the degree to which they can attract people out of their cars.

These findings also bear on the exercise/health benefits which are often cited to justify support for bikeshare schemes. Mr Fishman argues that only new trips and those that substitute for car trips could be regarded as offering an exercise (health) benefit. In the case of Barcelona, for example, that’s 9.6% plus 2.8% i.e. 12.4%.

Moreover, he says any proper assessment of bikeshare schemes must take account of the lower exercise benefit associated with cycling compared to walking. In his British Medical Journal letter, Mr Fishman writes:

One should also factor the health benefit lost from the pedestrians opting for Bicing, given that the literature widely regard walking to have twice the physical activity benefit of cycling on a per kilometre basis.

I don’t think it would be correct to conclude Mr Fishman is opposed to bikeshare – he’s doing his doctorate on the topic. As I read it his concern, quite properly, is that the evidence base should be accurate.

Particular bikeshare schemes (there are 165 currently operational worldwide) might offer other benefits but caution should be exercised in assuming they necessarily provide substantial environmental and health benefits.

Those benefits are far too small to justify general repeal of the helmet law or even a specific exemption for bikeshare. Any public debate over the law needs to have a much wider ambit that takes account of the interests of the entire population.

So far as the outlook for bikeshare is concerned, compulsory helmets aren’t the only or arguably even the main obstacle to greater use in the Australian context. Fear of riding on roads with unfriendly drivers and poor system design are other serious constraints.

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83 thoughts on “Should the helmet law be repealed to save bikeshare?

  1. Keir Whitcher

    To be honest I don’t really care if people don’t wear a helmet but having a law changed on “Just because I don’t want to wear a helmet” is never going to succeed. Most of the lobby groups go with the argument of their rights being infringed / society will be healthier etc.

    The reality of the obesity argument is a long way from what these groups suggest. All their argument rests on surveys and studies suggesting / predicting that as soon as MHLs are repealed the masses will instantly begin cycling everywhere. The fact of the matter is, if you have a sedentary lifestyle with a bad diet you aren’t going to instantly have a massive lifestyle turnaround because you don’t have to wear a helmet. As soon as you ask for evidence of somewhere getting rid of helmets and the subsequent increase in taking up of cycling, weight loss, drop in heart disease etc it all goes strangely silent.

    Because there is no central group to provide a voice for their advocacy little groups claim anything they like and it all becomes fanciful, one even claimed only days after the event that Jill Meagher was raped and murdered because police were too busy victimizing and fining cyclists. Needless to say that comment got removed fairly quickly. Catherine Deveny even gets in on the argument of helmet laws although a quick look on her website has a picture of her with a child on the back of her bike with a helmet on. Must be something in that whole helmet thing eh Catherine? They do have support politically from the Liberal Democrat Party though so you can vote to have the law repealed. Oh hang on that party also advocates a relaxing of laws in regards to the ownership of semi automatic and automatic weapons. They’re all up for a return to whaling as well. Awesome!

    As far as statistics go each side rolls out various graphs, figures and pie charts that contradict each other completely and of course the old chestnut by anti MHL peeps is of course Amsterdam and Copenhagen. They’ve been trying to compare Australian cities to these two for ages. There is a good chance that most of these people haven’t even visited let alone cycled in either of these cities. For a start the topography is completely different and the infrastructure is much better.

    When it comes to the medical side of things if you go to a parliamentary committee with an obesity specialist and they roll out the head of neurosurgery at the Alfred you’re in trouble. The problem is, there are alternative methods of weight loss to cycling.

    So can we just sit down and say, look you dont really care if your next door neighbor is a fat bastard who doesn’t ride a bike, you just don’t want to mess your hair up on your way to a cafe. That’s ok, there’s nothing wrong with that if that’s your thing but let’s escape from the fantasy that society, or health and wellbeing is going to change overnight.

    Finally nothing makes me happier than seeing people cycling I can assure you. I am a keen cyclist who tries to be out there every day and I don’t care whether you’re on 20k of carbon or a fifty buck recycled mountain bike. Our need for massive investment in cycling infrastructure is obvious. If you want to get someone riding a bike to work regularly when they have been off the bike for twenty years getting rid of helmets won’t make any difference. Giving them the opportunity of doing it without some idiot mowing them down while sending a text message is probably going to be more persuasive.

  2. SBH

    not an attack. Just a statement of empirical fact based on the preceding posts.

    ‘Empirical’ – you’ll need to look that one up. Maybe ‘fact’ too come to think of it. ( now that was a gratuitous adhom)

  3. Dylan Nicholson

    Ah, the old “throw in an Ad Hominem to end a debate” trick. I concede…

  4. SBH

    of course you disagree – you lack the capacity for objective or critical thought

  5. Dylan Nicholson

    SBH, it didn’t take 20 years for those innovations to be considered elsewhere (maybe a few of them took quite a while to become widespread, because they occurred in an age before instant worldwide communications).
    And I disagree – the argument “virtually nobody else at all has bothered trying out this idea after 20 years therefore it’s probably not that good” is quite sound. But if it’s unconvincing to you, fine – there’s plenty of other good reasons to advocate for phasing out MHL.

  6. SBH

    on the above basis we should have not have instituted long service leave, universal suffrage, medicare, the victor mower, the hills hoist, the combine harvester, the eight hour day, penicillin, secret ballots, school of the air, the flying doctor service, earth hour, race cam, speedos, rust resistant wheat, the merino, the power shears (Aboriginal that one) or the black box flight recorder. Oh and of course SEAT F-ING BELTS – which in a world first, Victoria (to the amusement of some other countries) made compulsory in 1970 – the only place in the world at the time – Just like ummm, oh yeah BICYCLE HELMETS.

    If there is a dumber argument than ‘nobody else does it so we shouldn’t try’ I’d love to hear it. No wait maybe it’s that the people calling for the repeal of a law don’t bear the onus of proving the law is bad, the state has an obligation to prove an existing law is good? Even if it has already and consistently found that to be the case through a democratic process.

  7. Dylan Nicholson

    Oh and apparently it is being considered in Ontario now…sigh…

  8. Dylan Nicholson

    Yes, it’s just ~23 million divided by 7 billion – I knew there were a few other places that had it, but not entire countries, and presumably not enough to boost it to any more than maybe .5% (is it actually enforced everywhere in B.C.? At a population of 4.4 million that is actually a fairly significant case).

  9. IkaInk

    I’ve no idea how you came to your .3% figure but if it simply by comparing the population of Australia and New Zealand and comparing it with the global population I’d like to point out that various cities also have MHLs and at least a few states and provinces around the world.

    British Columbia in Canada is the interesting example, as Vancouver is about to follow Melbourne and Brisbane down the path of introducing a bike share scheme without rolling back the law. I would argue that if their plan fails, its a pretty big nail in the coffin on the debate as to whether MHL and bike share can co-exist. Of course other people will disagree and point to other reasons it has failed, but considering that Vancouver actually does pretty well with cyclists on the whole, I’d find the failure pretty damning without some very convincing alternative reasons.

  10. Dylan Nicholson

    I can’t let that stand SBH – it’s MHL supporters that have the burden of proof: that the benefits of mandatory helmets are worth the cost of such legislation. There is some evidence that helmets can prevent brain injuries, and that’s great, but it’s not close to being evidence that Australia benefits as whole from having MHL. Currently a mere .3% of the world’s population are subject to such a law, and the law’s been around a long time. The fact that nobody else has shown any interest in adopting the law over the past 20 years (other than the Kiwis, and yes, Mexico and Israel who subsequently and sensibly abandoned it) really is pretty telling, wouldn’t you say?

  11. SBH

    Dylan, I like you, I really do but do you actually read my posts before replying or just the bits you like?

    I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and take it that you were just being ironic.

    It is not ‘plainly obvious’ that speeding and drink driving are dangerous. Many people do it all their lives and get away with it. At any barbie you’ll find some self-denier who says they are better with a drink in them and speeding is actually safer. It is statistically stunningly obvious however that these behaviours, when measured are really dangerous. That’s the problem with personal experience and anecdote (may actual point @69)

    If the anti MHL brigade use more robust evidence and stopped frankly mendacious deconstruction of the data we’d all be better served.

    It’s like parents who try to scare their kids by saying drugs are bad drugs will kill never take drugs. When the kids find out their folks were being – ahem – selective about drugs and that they are actually a huge amount of fun the parents credibility is shot and the reasons they say those things are irrelevant.

    Fix reason in her seat comrade. Argue the facts not the beliefs. And be careful of the everybody else does it argument – it’s weaker than a baby.

    Now leave off we’re boring everyone

  12. Dylan Nicholson

    SBH, speed limits and blood alcohol limits have been adopted almost everywhere in the developed world, as it’s plainly obvious the benefits they give. There’s no comparison with MHL.
    Is there even a single other country seriously considering adopting MHL?

  13. suburbanite

    So to cut a long story short you haven’t done any research either.

  14. SBH

    probably ‘that’ and ‘hear’ but maybe I’m not that engaged

  15. SBH

    Not a point I remember making. If you’re referring to scientific evidence for and against then you’ve again missed the bit where I say I’m not wasting my time or yours by a fruitless discussion with zealots. Especially ones who say, prima facie, I haven’t done any research but feel completely empowered to engage in debate on a complex subject.

    On the issue of subjectivity and some way to Dylan’s point (and Alan’s), I used to live in Darwin, I also used to live in the seventies. The similarity with those disparate time and place was that you would often here people saying they could drive as fast as they liked after drinking as much as they liked and no one was any the worse of. The other similarity was that death rates for motor vehicle accidents were proportionally and causally almost identical. You can’t make an argument based on ‘what I saw'(although you can and many do, make a religion on that basis) It’s unscientific and in public policy terms, dangerous. Thanks for your time.

  16. suburbanite

    SBH – What is the international consensus on MHL? Can you answer that? This is after all your own point.

  17. SBH

    Suburbanite ‘I haven’t bothered to do any research’ nuff said
    for the rest who keep misinterpreting what I say to indicate support or otherwise – you should read more carefully

  18. fractious

    Sorry, forgot to say: of *course* the great bulk of respondents in any survey sample would agree that “the most important factor for Governments to consider was ‘protecting people’s health and safety’”. It’s a sine qua non – even if they had any inkling of what deprivation of civil liberty meant. Had the survey restricted its question to simply the MHL issue and its brief to cyclists (who, I assume, would be much better informed on and had a bigger stake in the matter), I daresay the figures would have been quite different. An that’s without considering similar surveys almost anywhere else in the world.

  19. fractious

    Alan Davies # 62

    “One thing you can be absolutely sure of is that readers who comment on MHL on this blog are not representative of the broader population. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong, but they’re certainly not representative”

    As far as I can see (and I admit I haven’t waded through the archives), you have people both for and against MHL on this blog. In what sense (other than a statistical one) then are the “readers who comment on MHL on this blog” not “representative of the broader population”? (I assume you mean the broader population of Australia – I daresay the broader population of Europe or the US might elicit different responses.)

    As to the survey whose results you link to, without knowing whether the proportion of survey candidates was representative of the proportion of cyclists in the general population it’s a number that may or may not indicate something. Secondly, if the proportion of the general population that rides is as low as the figures you quote in several articles here suggest, then even if the relative proportions were about right and 75% of those cyclists in the survey sample objected to MHL it wouldn’t have made a jot of difference to the overall result. IOW where does it say 90% of the survey sample even rode a bike, let alone knew or cared about MHL?

    If all the reasearch on helmets is so conclusive, why haven’t the various states of the EU – none of them exactly averse to imposing legislation, either individually or as a collective – mandated their use? Why, if the research is so persuasive, did both Israel and Mexico repeal MHL?

  20. Richard Bean

    A Brisbane CBD BUG poll found 71% of the respondents were against MHL and 14% supported the Northern Territory approach (only on roads).

    This recent survey (see Table 9 on p34) showed that of 300 respondents in three different cohorts (non-cyclists, regular cyclists, and BSS users), in every cohort, the biggest barrier to use (of 18 reasons) was “helmet laws prevent spontaneous use of public bikes”. It is intuitively obvious to any regular BSS user. Also compare table 9 and table 10 for the “Cycling in general is unsafe” figures.

  21. Dylan Nicholson

    Alan, that survey is for Australia only, so is hardly representative of the opinions of most of the billions of cyclists around the world, 90% of whom would almost certainly object strongly to being told that had to wear a helmet every time they went anywhere on a bicycle.
    And it’s not beside the point that most people’s opinions are poorly informed – that’s precisely the motivation for getting the message about the downsides of MHL out there.

  22. Alan Davies

    fractious #61:

    One thing you can be absolutely sure of is that readers who comment on MHL on this blog are not representative of the broader population. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong, but they’re certainly not representative. This survey doesn’t quite ask the right question but the response is so one-sided I think it clearly indicates the weight of opinion of the wider population. It might be misinformed and uninformed opinion, but that’s beside the point.

  23. fractious

    “Having just broken my helmet in slow speed fall, but been left with nothing more than a bruise to show for it, I can’t understand why anybody would ride without a helmet. If you fall from about 2m and hit your head on a hard surface the chances of doing damage are very high.”

    I’m glad the helmet helped prevent more serious injury. However, knocks to the noggin (much less brain damage) aren’t the only form of head injury. Aside from legislation, one of my main beefs with pushbike helmets is how bl00dy useless they are: obviously they help impacts to the skull but they are NBG at anything else. They won’t stop your jaw being smashed, losing sight in one or both eyes as you faceplant a tree, your nose being mashed or half your face being ground off as you skate down the road. If this really is about safety and reducing injury, why not mandate the wearing of elbow and knee pads, and make it illegal to ride in shorts and a t-shirt?

    Alan Davies #52
    “The only arguments for repealing MHL that make sense require demonstrating that MHL: (1) doesn’t prevent head injuries, and/or (2) deters cycling, and/or (3) makes cycling less safe (risk compensation etc), and/or (4) is an unreasonable imposition on personal libery”

    1) this is a leading question: they clearly do not prevent *all* **types** of head injury;

    2) in my case initially yes, these days I just ride without one if I think I can get away with it. Yes I know that’s anecdote and doubtless you will scoff and say “point to your evidence”, but from what I can see there are others here of the same view. And as some here mention, surely anything that is a major or significannt factor in discouraging people taking up riding should be reconsidered, if not removed.

    4) IMO yes the MHL is. I am not anti-helmet, I just want the choice, the same one that everybody who rides in Europe has.

  24. suburbanite

    This seems a bit of a stretch. What is the international consensus on MHL? I haven’t bothered to do any research since I’m not strongly of either position but I do believe MHL ‘s are not considered necessary in comparable countries unlike acceptance of global warming, seat belts, vaccinations etc.
    I’m pro helmets for onroad cycling, but I believe the law is there for expediency rather than safety – if safety was a real concern then other measure would be taken like lowering speed limits and making drivers learn the road rules.

  25. Dylan Nicholson

    Sorry SBH but that’s absolute rubbish. The scientific evidence for the benefits of fluoridation and the risks of global warming is immense. The scientific evidence for the benefits of *mandatory* helmets is at best patchy, when it would need to be overwhelming to overcome the costs of the policy. Repealing MHL should be easy to achieve – they already did so in Israel and Mexico, and costs basically nothing. It’s not sidelining any other objectives in the heads of any serious cycling advocate – I’ve never seen anyone suggest ‘forget about building more infrastructure, or improving driver education, it’s all MHL’s fault’.
    Claims like yours are half the main reason MHL arguments go on far too long!
    Just out of curiosity, have you spent much time in any Europe cities? A few weeks of observing literally 1000s of cyclists all riding around on a mix of bicycles for all sorts of reasons, virtually none of them wearing helmets, was the final clincher for me. I want to see Melbourne enjoy the same sort of levels of usage, and it’s just not going to happen while we have this weird idea that it’s perfectly reasonable for cops to chase down and fine someone 100s of dollars for using a safe, environmentally friendly, fitness-inducing, congestion-avoiding, extremely cheap form of transport without feeling we need to strap helmets to our heads first.

  26. SBH

    I doubt That Dylan, this issue is like fluridation or global warming or the link vaccinations (add seatbelts, motorcycle helmets and crumple zones) all of which are argued against with vigour to no good end.

    No amount of evidence will sway the anti-MHL faithful. That’s because they stopped thinking and started believing so now it’s an article of faith. Equally while this is the issue, other more beneficial easier to achieve objectives are sidelined. Watching pro-cycling camps havering on about helmets is like watching all the pro-republicans argue themselves out of modern politics.

  27. Dylan Nicholson

    SBH I used to think it was insignificant too, but arguments on blogs just like this one convinced me otherwise. So there’s still hope for you 🙂
    But yes, it is strange why this particular topic seems to generate so much conversation, compared to discussions on what I would suggest all anti-MHL types would agree are more important issues as far as encouraging bicycling goes.

  28. SBH

    Burke John, you’ve fallen into the old trap of thinking that that because I find the debate a waste of time I therfore hold a pro or anti position. Like I’ve said many times, if the energy that goes into this most rouge of herrings was spent on actually making things better, things would improve for cyclists and more people would ride bikes. But feel free to keep wasting your time and everyone else by arguing the pros and cons of this insignificant issue.

  29. Dylan Nicholson

    “It makes no sense to encourage people to engage in risky behaviour”

    Disagree, if the benefits outweigh the cons. Smoking is clearly an example where that is simply not true, but plenty of other risky activities can have significant pay-offs. Sometimes it’s hard not to think western society as a whole has become unnecessary risk-averse, to the point it’s having various unintended consequences.

  30. IkaInk

    It makes no sense to encourage people to engage in risky behaviour – we might as well encourage them to take up smoking or SMSing while riding their bikes!

    There is a difference between the legality of something and whether it is encouraged.
    No one encourages me to go skateboarding at 2am, but I sure enjoy doing it and the only person I risk hurting is myself, so I’m glad thats legal.

    Although I believe it makes perfect sense encourage virtually anyone to ride a bike. Helmets or no. People on the whole are far more likely to simply get a bit fitter and healthier then they are to sustain a head injury.

  31. Krammer56

    Having just broken my helmet in slow speed fall, but been left with nothing more than a bruise to show for it, I can’t understand why anybody would ride without a helmet. If you fall from about 2m and hit your head on a hard surface the chances of doing damage are very high.
    It makes no sense to encourage people to engage in risky behaviour – we might as well encourage them to take up smoking or SMSing while riding their bikes!

  32. Alan Davies

    Burke John #51:

    I don’t think the “road lobby” even noticed bicycles back in the late 80s! No, I think the main MHL pressure came from surgeons and teachers.

    Your last two sentences are contradictory. If you don’t know whether or not MHL deters cycling then you can’t argue that repeal will increase cycling numbers.

    The only arguments for repealing MHL that make sense require demonstrating that MHL: (1) doesn’t prevent head injuries, and/or (2) deters cycling, and/or (3) makes cycling less safe (risk compensation etc), and/or (4) is an unreasonable imposition on personal libery

  33. Burke John

    SBH since there would be barely a cyclist not in favour of better cycling infrastructure I don’t think there is too much energy wasted on anti MHL. That group would naturally support infrastructure improvement as well.
    I do recall that the Melbourne sought advice from a Dutch cycling planner to assist in the establishment of the bike-share scheme. When he found out that there were MHL he just said it was dead in the water before it starts..but what would he know?
    In a way the issue is polarizing because most bike riders in Australia wear a helmet and don’t really mind at all and don’t seem to understand how that many and possibly even the majority of riders and potential riders do, whether in a purposefull or unconscious manner.
    Further, though I have never found out exactly who lobbied for the introduction of these laws (I presume some sort of motoring lobby) it was not supported by the majority of cyclists. In a kind of Darwinian analogy, the anti-MHL group is on the off side of natural selection and have long since bought a car leaving bike riders who are pro-helmet.
    The very difficult question to quantify for me is this. Of the group of people who say they don’t mind wearing a helmet, what percentage unconsciously choose to drive a car or otherwise rather than ride a bike?
    We can’t say for sure its true that MHL contain cycling numbers but on the face of it we cannot say they don’t.
    What we do know is that critical mass is the factor to really get cycling going and if one is a supporter of cycling then all initiatives should be supported including rescinding of MHL and not just infrastructure and right of way issues.

  34. SBH

    and once again the distraction of MHL ucks up all the energy out of improving conditions for cyclists

  35. Dylan Nicholson

    Hmm, I would estimate close to 95% of the world’s adult population would be anti-MHL if they bothered to give it any thought. Don’t think it qualifies as ‘minority’…

  36. Burke John

    I don’t wear a helmet not because of inconvenience or because I’m a mad libertarian, although both apply. I don’t like wearing a helmet mainly because I just don’t like it and the pleasure of cycling is diminished by the donning of that ludicrous apparell.

    I also point out that a head injury is not necessarily a brain injury which I presume is the type of injury theoretically making an impost on society. There are several studies showing that the risk of brain injuries from bicycles are increased by helmet wearing mainly because of the tendency of an increase of “rotational” head injuries caused by helmets. I note that pro helmet studies generally speak of “head injuries” and anti of “brain injuries”. Unlike seat belts in cars, I don’t believe the matter is settled in the case of bicycle helmets.

    As for the selfish non-helmet wearing individual burdening society with medical bills, by using that rational should we not immediately ban the car? The the financial (and otherwise) burden placed on our society by rampant private car usage relagates costs of cycle injuries to a completely inconsequential level. The onus should be on the driver of the car to be more responsible. Its not impossible, they have done it in other countries.

    Although the anti-MHL group represents a small section of the community, I feel it is quite wrong to assume it is a position for “cranks”. The arguments against MHL are more than reasonable if in part non-intuitive and certainly it is true in minority opinion. Democracy is at times a tyranny. Anything that stems our reliance on cars must be worth a shot.

  37. Dylan Nicholson

    gdt, I’d agree both your points are bigger factors than MHL. But 1) is (initially) expensive and time-consuming to fix and 2) is a cultural problem that will also take a long time to fix, and is best done so by doing everything else possible to normalize cycling as a method of getting around, the way it’s seen in arguably most other parts of the world. Repealing MHL is a part of this, and can be done instantly and for zero cost, which is why it’s worth continuing to keep up the arguments in favour of doing so.

    Personally I’ll admit I can’t imagine wearing cycling gear and not wearing a helmet, but I’m not the average commuter who might be contemplating cycling for the first time.

  38. gdt

    The problem isn’t helmets. The surveys say the key problem is the potential cyclists’ feeling of safety whilst cycling in the city. That squarely comes down to two things: (1) cycling infrastructure and (2) car drivers’ attitudes.

    This is why the free bike hire in Adelaide works — tourists hiring those bikes have a safe route from the city to the beach. And it is in a good position (just around the corner from the youth hostels). And it is promoted well.

    As for the lycra comments, I think they show exactly what a large issue point (2) is. You don’t see boat skippers getting agro about surfers and swimmers in lycra. Here in Adelaide only the mentally challenged cycle home from work on a hot summer’s day in heavy work clothes. It’s so obviously dangerous I’ve seen the cops pull up such cyclists. And yet we still get jibes from ignorant motorists about lycra, and about one in a hundred of those shouting idiots will actually try to kill you.

  39. SBH

    Of course one small point that you non-government types have missed – Victoria is a signatory to a national road safety code and changes, like taking this state alone out of MHL, will not be straight forward. Points to anyone who spotted the understatement

  40. Alan Davies

    IkaInk #42:

    You need to make the argument apriori in order to justify the exemption in the first place.

  41. Richard Bean

    Yes, it is a good idea and according to Copenhagenize, repealing the MHL for the sake of the bike sharing scheme was in fact the impetus in Mexico and Israel.

    So it wasn’t considered “out of all proportion to do it if the primary reason is to save bikeshare” in Mexico and Israel.

    The problem with your article at the “as I’ve argued before” link is that it wasn’t particularly quantitative (as I’ve argued before).

    Fishman sent out a survey to all CityCycle subscribers recently – it will be interesting to see the next paper but the only way to gauge the real uptake potential is a partial repeal. I suspect the reluctance to recommend this course of action is the researchers’ association with the appropriately named CARRS-Q, an initiative of the Motor Accident Insurance Commission of Queensland. The research would be better done by an independent body; and yet, we can predict what researchers from other countries would recommend.

  42. IkaInk

    @Alan – I’m talking about the trial I’ve suggested. So it would be pretty easy to control the results. Compile ridership and injury statistics of the last 12 months worth of bike share use. Implement trial. Don’t do anything drastic like drop speed limits within the entire CBD over the next 12 months. Compile results again, omitting injury results from say Swantson Street and any other streets within the CBD that have undergone any significant changes over the past 24 months from both data sets. Compare results.

    If after making these adjustments there is a) a spike in ridership b) no corresponding spike in injuries (or a much smaller spike), then the evidence makes the safety in numbers principal case pretty strongly.

  43. Saugoof

    Alan Davies #37
    I don’t buy that “people cycle less because of our aging population” argument. Population in almost all western nations are aging at about the same rate as in Australia but without the same corresponding drop in cycling numbers.

  44. Alan Davies

    IkaInk #39:

    “Unless there are other factors such as increased cycling infrastructure”

    Well there usually are, even in Australian cities. But I’m clearly talking about the safety in numbers potential from bikeshare schemes in Australia. Since you say it’s easy to demonstrate, please feel free to make the evidence-supported case……

  45. IkaInk

    The most promising arguments (e.g. safety in numbers) are hard to demonstrate.

    No it is not. It is as difficult as showing two trends. An increase in cycling rates, a smaller increase or decrease in injury rates. Unless there are other factors such as increased cycling infrastructure, or lower speed limits for cars, etc then that evidence is pretty clear.

    Bikeshare has to live or die the world common to everybody – if there’s a case to repeal MHL, it should be repealed for all cyclists.

    Why? We have exceptions for other safety laws; seat-belts in buses or limousines for example. Why can’t we have an exception for bike share considering the very different nature of using bike share to a personal bike?

  46. Alan Davies

    Saugoof #37:

    Some interesting propositions there. However re those figures you cite allegedly showing a per capita drop in cycling, here’s an alternative perspective.

  47. Saugoof

    Alan Davies #28
    While this is far from scientific, a personal observation for me was certainly that within about a year of MHL the cycling numbers dropped substantially. They have recovered somewhat recently which I think the higher petrol price has had some input in. But the cyclists you see now tend to be mostly the fitness riders, not casual ones. You have to keep in mind what the goal of your trip is. If your goal is to go for a bike ride, to most people it doesn’t matter if you get sweaty, have to change clothes and take a shower afterwards, and indeed having to wear a helmet. But if your goal of your trip is just to, say, pick up milk from the shop then the bike becomes just a tool, like walking, taking the car or public transport. You take whatever tool makes this trip the easiest. Anything, however small it is, that complicates that then has an input in which tool you choose.

    Certainly for me MHL killed of bike riding for a good 15 years. I only started again when I was getting seriously fat and my 10 year older brother in law had a serious heart attack and I could see myself going down that same route. But initially when MHL was introduced I did buy a helmet and wore it at first, but very quickly my enthusiasm for riding a bike disappeared. I just couldn’t be bothered with it all and I ended up driving the car more and more until the bike started collecting dust in the shed.

    While this wasn’t the case for me, I suspect that for a lot of people the MHL has caused the perception of the dangers of riding a bike to increase disproportionally too.

    For a more scientific approach, there are some numbers here that show that while overall in Australia cycling numbers have gone up by 20.9% since 1985, the population growth over the same time has been 43.2%. Interestingly in Tasmania, ACT and NT the reverse is true though.

    Sure, I got those numbers from a web site that is very opposed to MHL and I only glanced at them so I don’t know how much cherry-picking of information was done there. But for the same reason I also dismiss a lot of the helmet crash studies because they only study a small aspect of the overall impact and rarely ever study whether wearing helmets leads to more risky driving behaviour, whether having an increased head circumference by wearing a helmet causes impacts to be heavier, etc.

    Personally I reckon the MHL is one of the most idiotic laws ever introduced and is more of an indication of the quick-fix addiction that many of our governments have. By introducing MHL, they can claim to have done something for road safety (whether this is real or imagined) without actually having to spend any money by improving infrastructure. But as much as I hate this, I doubt it will ever be revealed. As the level of discussion around the carbon tax has shown, a single person’s real or imagined immediate negative impact trumps a gradual positive impact for all. Any politician considering repealing MHL would be wary of “my husband got killed riding a bike without a helmet” type headlines. “Thousands saved from potential heart attacks” sadly does not create a headline.

    As someone else here already mentioned, you’re as much at risk of getting a head injury driving a car, stepping up a ladder, etc. but only bike riders are mandated to wear a helmet.

  48. Dylan Nicholson

    Hmm, maybe I’m reading that graph wrong, because it looks like the ‘all cyclists’ line at the top drops by 33% to me.
    Yes it rose again the following year but I would hardly say to the levels it was before hand, and there’s no way of knowing where it would have been if instead of laws discouraging cycling we had campaigns encouraging it. Anyway, ’nuff said. It’s a pointless debate, though I’ll admit every time I read about it I find myself deciding that scrapping MHL is actually more important than I previously thought. Bun until Bicycle Network and other similar large advocacy groups take the same position we’re not going to see it happen.

  49. suburbanite

    Alan #32:
    Bikeshare is different from general cycling, it’s contained geographically – and therefore a bigger effort should be made to make safe cycling infrastructure in those areas and speeds lowered, the bikes are slow and have blinking lights running all the time and they are designed for occasional trips. This is quite a different scenario to serious cyclists mixing it up with 60kmh traffic. Another question to ask is if there was no MHL in place would it be introduced? It was brought in at a time when adult cycling was on the wane and there was no cycling infrastructure.

  50. Alan Davies

    Dylan Nicholson #33:

    Dylan, that only relates to high school children, not adults or primary school children. You need to look at the rest of the graph and read the whole article. Better still, read the source document (in which case you’ll join the select few who actually have).

  51. Dylan Nicholson

    Well that first graph actually makes it look worse than I thought it was, because shows an upward trend before the law was introduced – I’m sure I’d seen other graphs that showed a gradual downward trend since the 50s.
    I’d still call it a dramatic plunge (according to newspaper, it’s dramatic plunge if house prices drop 5%. God knows what they’d call a 33% drop).

  52. Alan Davies

    IkaInk #29:

    Yes, really! A trial would be great to get data (although would either “side” really accept it if the results were inconvenient to their case?). The trouble is if helmets really give the level of protection from head injuries that the fathers and mothers of MHL think, then a trial would be risky. Could be worth the risk if the social benefits of bikeshare were obvious, but they’re weak. The most promising arguments (e.g. safety in numbers) are hard to demonstrate. Bikeshare has to live or die the world common to everybody – if there’s a case to repeal MHL, it should be repealed for all cyclists.

  53. Alan Davies

    Dylan Nicholson #30:

    When I went back and looked at the source documents that’re quoted over and over again, I found the evidence on the deterrent effect wasn’t that strong – see here and here.

  54. Dylan Nicholson

    Alan you’ve seen the graphs of bicycle usage before and after the helmet law was introduced. And yes I know it had been trending downwards beforehand, but it took a dramatic plunge as it was introduced. If instead of confirming people’s fears that bicycling was an activity that frequently entailed falling off, we’d had a strong public campaign to promote it as something that would improve your health, we mightn’t be in the situation we are today with single-digit percentage mode shares etc.

  55. IkaInk

    But to repeal the helmet law in order to save ailing bikeshare schemes, as some argue should be done, would be to abandon any pretence of rational and inclusive debate.

    Really? I would argue that at least a trail where MHL for bike share is repealed is the first step to getting substantive data on whether MHLs provide a net benefit to society.

    A trial only covering Bikeshare would allow for much more accurate data collection than a wider trial involving private bikes:
    1) We have good, accurate data on how many people use Bike Share now
    2) We would have good, accurate data on how many people would use it after commencement of the trial.
    3) We would even have start and end point information so we could estimate routes taken.

    If the trail showed that there was a decent sized increase in cycling numbers for Bike Share, without a disproportial increase in injury rates, then the case could be pretty easily made that similar effects would likely occur for a wider repeal of the law. This too could be tested by a trial, although accurate data would be harder to come across.

    The biggest problem with MHL debate at the moment is that we simply do not have accurate data on the effects of the law and cycling rates. Good quality studies on cycling rates were not really taken before the law came into effect and variance between study methods before and after adds a lot of noise to the data.

  56. Alan Davies

    Dylan Nicholson #27:

    All this MHL stuff is off-topic but, since you (and others) raise it, I’d like to know what evidence you rely to support your contention that “…helmets have turned people off bicycles…”?

  57. Dylan Nicholson

    archibald, but it doesn’t support the notion that mandatory helmets have made lives healthier/safer in general, as clearly in many cases helmets have turned people off bicycles and towards other forms of transport/entertainment that are clearly far more deleterious towards our well-being.

  58. archibald

    @ Fractious

    You’re anecdotal account indicates that your childhood experiences on bikes were similar to my own but that class of evidence doesn’t stack up against the science. The statistical evidence clearly supports the case that helmets reduce the incidence and severity of brain damage in cycling accidents.

  59. Alan Davies

    Michael Fink #24:

    Yes, “orders of magnitude” is excessive. But the more likely scenario in the CBD is a taxi vs tram/train. As well as walk to the stop you might also have to stand.

  60. Michael Fink

    Alan #21,

    In the context of Melbourne’s bike share scheme it seems ridiculous to suggest that catching public transport offers a meaningful difference in exercise to driving a car. (Let alone any talk of orders of magnitude).

    Out in the ‘burbs, sure. But in inner-city Melbourne (and our bike share bays are mostly in the CBD) the closest tramstop is often a shorter walk than to the multi-storey car park where the car is. And same applies at the other end of the journey.

  61. fractious

    I forgot to add: if you’re riding a bike (pushy or motorbike) at any speed above walking pace, a plastic pimply cap isn’t going to help all that much if you come off. It won’t help protect your skull if you’re doing more than 40km/h, and it won’t do a damned thing to stop you breaking your jaw or smashing your nose or dragging your face along the floor. That’s why I use a full face helmet. If the governments in this country really believe that enforcing the wearing of helmets really does prevent head injuries, then it should mandate full face helmets of similar construction and weight as motorcycle helmets. Anything else is just a sop.

  62. fractious

    “Should the helmet law be repealed to save bikeshare?”

    Obviously not.

    “Should the helmet law be repealed?”


    I rode bikes as a kid for years and years, did big days out with my mate riding 30 miles or more and often doing speeds over 40mph (65km/h). Had a few offs and bingles as we all do, got elbows and knees banged about but never ever had a head injury, nor did any of my mates who rode like children do. I still do not understand why this country sees fit to force everybody to wear polystyrene pimples on their heads every time they tootle off down the shops, when anyone with any experience of riding bike knows your limbs are the most vulnerable to injury, not your head. What good is a multi coloured plastic cap when you’ve bust your kneecap? I still do not understand why this ees fit to force everybody to wear polystyrene pimples on their heads every time they get on a bike when no other country I’ve ever ridden in does. What is the argument here – that the governments of France, Britain, Germany, Japan and so on lag behind Australia when it comes to preserving the safety of their citizens? Is it that they’re just callous?

    When I ride here I don’t wear one, simply because the inconvenience of carting one around and fiddling with the stupid straps far outweighs any potential safety benefit. Before you go off on one at me, I also ride motorbikes. A lot. So it would be wrong to assume I have some visceral objection to wearing decent protective gear, in fact I am even a bit of a s0d to riders who take pillions who have insufficient gear.

    I am in no doubt at all that one of the primary reasons there is such a low participation rate for pushbikes in this country is because of this stupid law. Get rid of the law and assume that people here are intelligent enough to make their own minds up about helmets, like France, Germany, Britain etc etc.

  63. Alan Davies

    Daniel #9; Tom the first and best #18; Michael Fink #19:

    Public transport, cycling and walking are routinely grouped together as “active transport”. Public health advocates argue for increased public transport use as a way of combating diabetes, obesity etc.

    Is bikeshare more exercise-intensive than public tranport? Depends in part on the amount of walking and standing involved in the public transport option. Remember that per km walking gives twice the exercise benefit of cycling.

    Also depends on length of cycle trip and intensity. Note though that bikeshare trips are relatively short. Also, it’s commonly regarded as a leisurely form of cycling – indeed that’s often cited as one reason why helmets are unnecessary.

    Whatever, the difference between bikeshare and driving, and bikeshare and catching the train, is likely to be an order of magnitude, both in terms of exercise benefit and environmental benefit.

  64. Rollo

    It’s interesting that the arguments for helmet use on bicycles are never applied to other forms of transport. I can drive a convertible at 110km/h with no helmet requirement. Damage to the head is a major cause of death and permanent brain damage in car crashes ( and the use of helmets in cars would bring an annual benefit of $123 million (same report) and yet there are never calls for mandatory helmets for motorists.

  65. Michael Fink

    “Mr Fishman argues that only new trips and those that substitute for car trips could be regarded as offering an exercise (health) benefit.”

    Do they have Flintstones-style public transport in Barcelona?

  66. Tom the first and best

    I would argue that Cycling does provide more exercise benefit than PT where the passengers are just sitting or standing.

  67. Dylan Nicholson

    Sure, Alan, if MHL was repealed, there’d be more bicycle-related head injuries, because there’d almost certainly be more people riding bikes more often. But I’d bet my life that within a few years, there’d be far less serious travel-related injuries than there are now.

  68. Alan Davies

    Dylan Nicholson #14:

    Come on Dylan, that’s trivialing the argument just a bit. The main argument for mandatory helmets is they reduce the cost to society (and individuals) from head injuries. The main argument against is that the law deters cycling and hence exercise, which thereby adds to long term social (health) costs.

  69. suburbanite

    Alan, just for the record, I support a trail exemption for the bikeshare scheme rather than a repel of the MHL. I’m still on the fence for that one.

  70. Dylan Nicholson

    Well Saugoof, I’ve never felt a cent I’ve spent on cycling gear has not been worth it (as opposed to the absurd amounts of money I used to spend owning/maintaining a car). The difference between riding my regular commuter in casual clothes and riding my racer (which is by no means anything hugely fancy) in clothes designed for exercising in is night and day. Anyway, getting seriously off topic.
    Helmet law should be repealed to stop Australia looking like the only country in the world (yes yes there’s NZ too) that considers cycling to be such an unusual and supposedly life-threatening method of getting around that you can be fined for doing so without a bit of styrofoam strapped to your head. But if the way to get there is via exemptions on a case by case basis, that’s fine by me.

  71. Saugoof

    Dylan Nicholson, Arnold Ziffel, I’m not put off by seeing cyclists in lycra. I just find it odd that everywhere else in the world most people are content to wear everyday clothes. Each to their own, but for me riding the bike is the important thing. All the costly extra fluff is just looks that don’t add anything. At least that’s one thing we can thank hipsters for, they have brought back the idea that it’s ok to ride a bike without wearing lycra and bike shoes, shaving their legs, etc. Back in the 80’s and 90’s it seemed like the first thing that anyone here would do when considering riding a bike was to get ALL the equipment first to make sure they looked the part.

    For me, I tend to ride relatively fast and do a fair bit of distance (minimum of 40km each day) so I do get sweaty. But I don’t see why I’d need to wear anything other than a comfortable t-shirt and shorts and maybe a hoodie if it’s cold.

  72. Alan Davies

    suburbanite #6:

    The reason I upped it to 3 trips per bike per day is because it’s half-arsed. Alright then, let’s assume it’s up there in the top tier of schemes world-wide, with 3,000 bikes doing 5 trips per day each. If half replace public transport trips and an average of 5 minutes is saved each time, that’s an aggregate saving across the whole system of 625 hours per day.

    As I noted above, there are 13,000,000 trips per weekday in Melbourne. Assuming a conservative average trip time of 15 minutes, that’s 3,250,000 hours. By any measure that saving of 625 hours is chicken feed. It barely warrants mentioning much less repeal of the helmet law.

    Of course, for those people who’re already convinced the helmet law has to go, that means nothing.

  73. Dylan Nicholson

    Saugoof, I do hope you’re rather in a minority by being put off being seeing cyclists in lycra and helmets – it makes as much as sense as a car driver being put off by seeing Sebastian Vettel wearing racing gear. One of the great things about bikes is that they can be used by anyone from 8 to 80yos to travel short distances at a leisurely pace, but for those of us who enjoy it and are prepared to take the risk, can actually be used as a seriously fast and long-distance mode of transport – if I need to be somewhere 30+km away in under an hour, and there’s any sort of traffic congestion involved and no direct train line, cycling’s probably the only thing that will get me there in time.

  74. SBH

    “Those benefits are far too small to justify….”

    If only government worked that way

  75. Daniel

    Surely if you’re arguing about the health benefits you have to consider a trip on bike instead of PT is a win.

    The other question is how much damage would be done if the riders did not have a helmet – this seems conspicuously absent given the first paragraph about the health benefits being too small.

  76. arnold ziffel

    ‘But seeing all these helmeted, lycra wearing riders on bikes that cost more than my car to me feels like dressing up in Formula 1 fireproof overalls when taking the car to the shops.’
    Seriously, how many cyclists are you describing?
    We have enough trouble with dolts forcing us off the raod without this kind of comment.
    The lycra gear isn’t expensive and it’s practical because sweating is inevitable.
    Everyone who rides would be aware that it’s not particularly attractive, but I don’t see that it should be ridiculed.
    And I don’t get why bike helmets are being attacked in this way.
    A few years ago there was even some dodgy research from a public heatlh academic, attempting to provde that helmets provide no protection – fortunately discredited.
    If I went somewhere expecting to hire a bike, I’d take a helmet.

  77. joshd

    Come and visit Manly. Hundreds of commuters ride short distances to get to the ferry on flat, safe bike paths. There is no safety hazard. They wear their work gear (suits, skirts, whatever) and the council is doing all it can to cope with the demand with bike racks at the wharf, all in the good name of public transport. The more the better. It is totally sensible. There are big differences between short bike commutes and uses on local bike paths, high-speed bikes with all the gear and lycra money can buy using main roads, and kids learning to ride. The regulations, or their discretionary enforcement, should reflect that. Saving the bikeshare schemes shouldn’t be the reason to change the regulations, but should be a welcome and fortunate benefit. Bikes are not for all, but work well for these trips.

  78. suburbanite

    This is swaying into a kind of bogus rationality. At a fledging state where there aren’t even enough docking stations to make a useful trip any argument based on percentages is a waste of time and an unfair comparison. You are comparing an alpha-stage, half-arsed scheme (which is probably giving it too much credit) with public transport and cars which lets agree have had slightly longer to establish themselves.
    The value in proposing the exemption is to (as Dylan wrote above) normalise bicycles as a mode of travel, and therefore spend money making cycling safe.

  79. Saugoof

    I don’t know where you get the idea for your first paragraph from. As far as I’m concerned there has always been a fair bit of opposition to the mandatory helmet laws, it’s just that the bike share schemes have given people another reason to push this.

    As far as I’m concerned, the helmet laws should absolutely be scrapped. Not because it causes the bike share scheme to fail but just because it is a hindrance to ordinary (speak non-sporting type, low risk) bike riders.

    As someone who hasn’t grown up in Australia, but has cycled and lived on four continents, I always felt that the helmet laws were just another indication that Australia just doesn’t “get” cycling. Just like the way people here feel the need to dress up in lycra and have all sorts of expensive bike gear before going for a ride. The rest of the world views the bike as a simple and cheap mode of transport. But seeing all these helmeted, lycra wearing riders on bikes that cost more than my car to me feels like dressing up in Formula 1 fireproof overalls when taking the car to the shops.

  80. Alan Davies

    suburbanite #2:

    Re your comments on travel time savings, I don’t think they’d be very large. Consider this ‘back of the envelope’ calculation.

    If the utilisation rate for Melbourne Bikeshare’s 600 Bixis went up from the current rate of around 0.6 uses per day to the 3 per day more typical of other systems, that would be 1800 trips per day across all bikes. If half those were substitutes for public transport and saved on average 5 minutes per trip, that’s an aggregate saving of 75 hours per day.

    Is that enough to justify repeal of the helmet law? For perspective, bear in mind there are 13,000,000 trips by all modes in Melbourne on an average weekday.

  81. Last name First name

    Parker Alan * OAM,
    If the bike hire scheme is ever to work , as Elliot Fishman points out, a few things must happen and can be done .However one important issue has been ignored.
    The police commissioner has the power to exercise a flexible approach and exempt his police from the need to enforce the helmet law for those riding hire public bikes which are easily recognizable.

    50 years ago the Commissioner exempted cyclists from the need to have a rear mudguard painted white complete with a reflector at night time and allowing cyclists just to have an aluminium mudguard instead. In the 1970s police turned a blind eye to enforcing bicycle lighting laws for the 20 years because the it took to much time. In the childrens court.

    I campaigned to reverse that obvious failure by writing articles on bicycle lighting and persuading the State bicycle committee to fund research into bicycle lighting and resulted the enforcement of lighting laws

    Another problem is that the accident data clearly showed that boys where a serious problem. Girls where not a problem because most where traffic shy and take few risks.

    Elliot, B (1985). An Exploratory Study of High School Students’ Reactions to Bicycle Helmets. Prepared for the Road Traffic Authority of Victoria. Melbourne April, 1986. Page 5 and 19.

  82. suburbanite

    I wear a helmet and ride everyday, so I’m not anti-helmets, but I still support an exemption on helmet wearing for the bikeshare schemes. Environmental benefits aren’t the only metric that should be used to make the argument. Unfortunately I don’t have time to list them all right now, but take one listed above. If someone shifts from walking to bike then they are getting where they are going faster this is the one and only benefit cars offer to anyone and unlike bikes – cars offer this benefit at massive cost to safety, space, noise, air pollution and parking – yet it’s still wheeled out whenever people deign to defend the status quo of car centric planning.

  83. Dylan Nicholson

    Who seriously expected bikeshare systems to offer alternatives to that many car trips though? The health/environmental benefits of bikes over public transport are worth it alone, I’d say, but the effect of more people on bicycles surely has the potential of spreading to the point that car drivers do actually start to think about bicycles as a normalised mode of travel.
    Anyway, I’ll stick with my position which is that arguing for an exception for MHL to BikeShare users is by far and way the best way to get to a point we can actually make a sensible decision about whether helmets should be compulsory for everyone else.

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