Dec 18, 2013

Did the helmet law reduce commuting by bicycle?

Critics of the mandatory bicycle helmet law introduced in Australia in the early 1990s claim it significantly reduced cycling to work at the time. But did it? And if it did, was it such a big deal?

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Index of change in number of commuters cycling to work nationally compared to all commuters

I’ve looked at the arguments for and against Australia’s various State laws mandating the use of helmets by cyclists a number of times before.

For example, I’ve analysed ‘before and after’ studies done in NSW and Victoria at the time the law was introduced in the early 1990s (e.g. here and here). I’ve also looked at injury studies (e.g. see here) and at a study of whether drivers treat helmeted cyclists differently (see here).

One piece of evidence I haven’t examined yet is Census data on cycling’s share of the journey to work. Opponents of the helmet law reckon that commuting by bicycle took a big hit when the law came into force.

I’ll look at that now but it’s important to understand at the outset that the journey to work only accounts for around one fifth of all trips. Nevertheless, it’s the trip purpose that’s proving most attractive for cycling in Australia at the present time.

The Census has limitations too. In particular, it provides a ‘snapshot’ of travel on just one day every five years; that creates a problem because cycling is sensitive to weather conditions. Even so, it’s the most reliable data we have.

The mandatory helmet law took effect prior to the 1991 Census in Victoria, NSW, SA and Qld and just after it in WA, NT and the ACT (1). While I say “law” for convenience, each jurisdiction passed its own law.

The first exhibit shows an index of the change in the number of cyclists travelling to work relative to all commuters in Australia over the period starting from 1981 and ending in 2011.

This is pretty strong prima facie evidence that the helmet law had an effect on commuting. The finding is reinforced when it’s broken down by State and compared against the date of introduction of the law in each one. There’s a consistent and highly suggestive pattern (2).

Still, there are a number of points to take into account when assessing whether or not the helmet law is currently a significant deterrent to cycling.

First, when examined at the capital city level, the negative effect of the law is still there but it’s not as consistent as it is at the state level. The second exhibit is based on an analysis by Mees, Sorupia and Stone and shows the change in mode share of cycling between 1986 and 2006.

Although the law was introduced prior to the 1991 Census in Sydney and Melbourne, the change in mode share over 1986-1991 in these cities was relatively small. Adelaide and Perth both suffered drops in the following Census but Brisbane and Canberra (ACT) experienced an increase.

Second, the two exhibits highlight a very important point – most commuting by bicycle in the 80s and 90s was in regional areas. For example, Sydney accounted for 77% of commuting by all modes in NSW in 1986, but only 49% of commuting by bicycle. The respective figures for Brisbane vs Qld were 52% and 26%.

High levels of cycling in the past in regional centres like Grafton and Bundaberg were driven by an entirely different demographic relative to today’s cyclists. Riders were largely blue collar workers; many were employed in regional manufacturing industries like food processing.

These industries are now much diminished, reflecting the general decline of manufacturing and the drift of population to the capitals and larger regional centres. This is a group that has largely vanished and in any event had different values to the professional urban demographic that shows the most interest in cycling today.

Cycling to work in the capitals at that time was also primarily a suburban blue collar activity. Cyclists who rode to work in the city centre were a rare sight up until the late 90s at least.

Third, the reduction in the number of cycling commuters following the helmet law was very small.

In 1986 only 18,851 NSW workers commuted by bicycle out of 1,735,415 who went to work on Census day. At the 1991 Census (seven months after the law took effect), the number of cyclists had fallen marginally to 16,970 and at the 1996 Census it was 17,305 (3).

Even if it’s assumed all the reduction can be sheeted home to the helmet law, it’s a state-wide reduction of 1,880 over 1986-1991, or 1,546 over the ten years from 1986 to 1996. In the context of the total number of commuters who cycled back in the day it’s very modest; in the context of all commuters it’s negligible (4) (5).

So all in all it’s reasonable to conclude the helmet law reduced cycling’s share of commuting to some extent, especially in regional areas. However the numbers were small.

More importantly, it’s not at all clear that well educated urban professionals – who’re the most plausible immediate source of growth in cycling today – view the lack of helmet choice with the same distaste as (some of) the predominantly male, regional blue collar workers evidently did in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In the longer term, for cycling to increase its commuting mode share to the levels seen in some European countries, it will be necessary to appeal to a broader cross-section of the population. That doesn’t mean though that hostility to compulsory helmets is widespread.

Much else has changed in the decades since the law took effect. For one thing, the functional design and fashionableness of helmets has improved enormously compared to the Rosebank Stackhat of yore. Cycling has increased its mainstream appeal as a recreational activity too, with high-profile figures like Cadel Evans always seen wearing lycra and a helmet.

The key point though is that the kind of people who cycle to work has changed.

Update – see follow-up article: The helmet law and commuting in Sydney and Melbourne.


  1. The 1991 Census was conducted in August. The helmet law took effect in Victoria in July 1990; NSW Jan 1991 (adults); Tasmania Jan 1991; Qld July 1991; SA July 1991; WA Jan 1992; NT Jan 1992; ACT July 1992.
  2. One issue I’m not sure about is the sustained upturn in total commuting from 1991 onwards. Assuming it’s not some artifact of the Census process, if it were due to growth in workers who weren’t disposed to cycling (e.g. migrants, women), it could help explain why cycling hasn’t increased its mode share since 1991.
  3. In Sydney, 9,265 commuters cycled in 1986 out of 1,339,533 workers who went to work on Census Day. The number of cyclists was 8,934 in 1991 and 8,193 in 1996.
  4. The total number of commuters in NSW increased by 36,299 over 1986-91, or by 2%. Had cycling experienced the same growth rate, there would’ve been an additional 394 cyclists added between 1986 and 1991 (whereas there was a drop of 328).
  5. The number of cyclists who commuted in Melbourne in 1986 was 13,062 and total commuters was 1,136,322. By 1996 (13 months after the law was introduced) the number of cyclists was 12,068, a drop of just 996. Note that numbers had already fallen by 766 between 1981 and 1986 i.e. many years before the law.
Change in mode share of cycling by city for the journey to work


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

35 thoughts on “Did the helmet law reduce commuting by bicycle?

  1. Tom Sulston

    @Alan: I agree with you that perception of safety is an important factor in encouraging people to cycle. After all – it is about as dangerous as walking.

    Do you think that government-mandated safety equipment makes people feel more or less safe?

  2. Alan Davies

    Dylan Nicholson #32:

    Plenty of large fluctuations over time in cycling levels in other countries. See Pucher and Buehler, Making cycling irresistable: lessons from the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany.

  3. Dylan Nicholson

    gdt, if that were true we’d expect to see the same drop elsewhere in the world. As I understand it, Australia’s stats for bicycle usage are unusual in the way they dropped so markedly once MHL was introduced.
    I’d also dispute that using a car instead of a bike saves you very much time at all actually – but it does make living in outer-suburbs with poor alternative transport options and long distances between facilities at least possible.

  4. gdt

    Folks, I worked in Transport Stats at the ABS for period you are discussing. Without running the numbers I’d guess the most likely hypothesis is that the reduction in cycling was due to the rise in two-car families.

    You need to model the income-relative cost of cars and the value of non-work time (which has risen considerably with the reduced proportion of homemakers, and thus cars are more attractive as they use families’ more limited time more efficiently).

    I’d also caution you that the effect of helments reducing cycling numbers (to whatever extent, and twenty years ago) is irrelevant to the question if removing helmet laws will increase cycling numbers. Opposite hypotheses don’t work the way you think they do.

    I would also be very cautious about lumping all cyclists together. I wouldn’t be shocked if the effect was positive for some populations and negative for others, even within apparently homogenous groups such as school-aged children.

  5. IkaInk

    @Linda – The problem with comparing the spending figures of City of Sydney and City of Darwin councils is the cities these councils serve. Sydney is a city of 4.5million, and the day time “population” of the local council is probably around a million* once you factor in the workforce, shoppers, visitors, etc, whilst the actual resident population is about 185,000. It is also a well resourced council that rakes in bucketloads of rates due to the high property values.

    On the other hand, City of Darwin covers about two-thirds of the population of the metropolitan area and the number of people within the council boundaries doesn’t fluctuate massively between night and day.

    Once you compare the dollars spent, vs. the number of people that actually use the council area you get very different results. Back of the envelope calculations give me a figure of about $16, much lower than than the official result. Of course, none of this should be surprising, as this exact scenario is explained in the report itself!

    1Brisbane is of a different character to the other capitals in that the ‘municipality’ covers the whole metropolitan area. So whereas Sydney and Melbourne, for example, have many more employees than residents and a correspondingly large commercial rating base, comparing per capita (i.e. resident) expenditure disadvantages Brisbane.

    *I’m estimating this based on what a City of Melbourne councillor told me about the “day-time population of Melbourne”.

  6. Bob the builder

    Re: NT riding.
    The helmet law is almost never enforced in the town I live in (which like all NT towns is very over-policed). In a decade it’s been an issue once – I was fined and filed an official complaint (after paying the $25 fine straight away) as a) the police were off-hand and rude and b) it’d never been an issue before. The senior officer who dealt with the complaint pretty much apologised and as good as said it wasn’t an issue and the junior officers who issued the fine shouldn’t have! Very few people, except those doing high-speed distance or rough terrain riding wear a helmet – and they, like any independent adult, do it for their own safety, not because the nanny state tells them to.
    It’s so nice to just jump on the bike and go to work, the shops or friends without a helmet – the only time I wear a helmet is when I visit a southern city (as now).

    If cycling really is so ‘dangerous’ and helmets capable of preventing injury, I’d like to see the same logic applied to other travel modes.

    How many pedestrians or joggers fall or are hit? Perhaps joggers should have to wear helmets!

    I’d also be fairly certain that head injuries in cars are greater than bikes – how about compulsory helmets for car drivers and passengers? The prima facie absurdity of that proposition is no greater than that of wearing helmets for bike riding.

    Regardless of whether we can ‘prove’ that helmet laws did or didn’t affect riding rates, they are bloody stupid – nowhere else needs them, so why do we have them?

  7. Alan Davies

    Warrior Factor #27:

    You’re probably thinking of the Chris Rissell and Li Ming Wen claim that 23% of Sydneysiders say they’d cycle more if they didn’t have to wear a helmet. They also found 40% of those who said they’d cycle more if helmets weren’t compulsory also say they support mandatory helmet legislation. Not a very convincing study (I discussed it here).

  8. Warrior Factor

    Alan #20, the many cyclists that support the law are all hostage to the “Stockholm Syndrome”. They are happy, excited, or even been scared witless, to wear a helmet, so the law doesn’t affect them either. In fact, because they are captive, they feel it’s their duty to enslave others – the natural human instinct of do-gooding and “social justice”. If I’m wearing one, so should you. Of course, most of these helmet zealots can’t see that a law is a giant leap from “encourage” or “advocate”, or realise or care the law’s consequences of huge fines and, in effect, a ban on anyone that would like to ride without a helmet.

    You want to talk about surveys, talk about one that involves cycling potential, not the existing environment of cycling suppression. I recall a Sydney Uni one that said 25% of people surveyed would ride if helmet’s weren’t compulsory. That’s 25% of general population, not cyclists. So it correlates to almost 6mil people would ride if a helmet were not required. Guess what? This nation enjoys stopping them.

  9. Dylan Nicholson

    Oh and to add something on-topic: personally I would still think it worth fighting for exemptions and eventually relaxations of MHL even if you couldn’t show it had triggered any significant reduction in cycling, exactly for the reasons “Warrior Factor” pointed out above – the idea that it’s reasonable to fine someone for undertaking a safe, healthy activity with virtually no external consequences is just anathema to the sort of society I’d like to live in. That MHL clearly does send a message that cycling is unsafe and deters many casual riders only adds insult to injury.

  10. Dylan Nicholson

    Seriously Linda…you think Darwin has good weather for cycling? Even Melbourne is a bit too warm a lot of the time, but at least it’s dry, whereas cycling in the high humidity of the tropics is just no fun at all, unless you do all your riding around sunrise. The only reason it’s manageable is because Darwin is small and flat so you can get everywhere you need to with minimal effort.

    At any rate, in northern European the number of cyclists out in the sort of weather that would shut down an entire city here is still far more than you ever see in Australian cities, so I don’t think you can really argue weather is as much of a factor as you might reasonably expect.

  11. Linda Ward

    Re Nik Dow #15

    Re “Today in Darwin bikes have the highest modal share of trips to work of any capital City” . . .

    When I moved to Darwin from Sydney about 20 years ago, the cycling infrastructure was HUGELY better than in Sydney. The terrain is also MUCH flatter, and the weather FAR more conducive to cycling (getting caught in a monsoonal downpour is quite a pleasant experience, MOST unlike getting caught in winter rain). In Sydney there was NO way I would have cycled to work, WAY too dangerous (and in many of the parts of Sydney I have visited in recent years, cycling would be even more scary than it was 20 years ago).

    Between the 2006 and 2011 censuses, cycling to work in Darwin DECREASED by almost 20% (4.0%->3.3%).

    In Sydney, cycling to work was 0.6% in the 1991/1996/2001 censuses, 0.7% in the 2006 census, and 0.9% 2011, or a 33% increase (albeit from a small base) between 2001 and 2011.

    According to this 2012 survey, the city council spend per resident on bike infrastructure was $62.34 for Sydney, and $4.04 for Darwin.

    With respect to NSW, Olivier et al. ( observed that
    “There is a notable additional safety benefit after 2006 that is associated with an increase in cycling infrastructure spending . . . Fig. 1 indicates the rate of divergence between head and arm injuries increases from 2006 onwards. It was during this period that significant financial investment by various local NSW governments were being made and continued in the second half of the decade. Montoya . . . further indicates that rates of cycling generally mirror the amount invested in infra-structure”.

    Another paper by Olivier et al. ( debunks a number of anti-helmet myths:
    “Many of these criticisms claim helmets are ineffective, helmet laws deter cycling, helmet wearing increases the risk of an accident, no evidence helmet laws reduce head injuries at a population level, and helmet laws result in a net health reduction. This paper will demonstrate the data and methods used to support these arguments are statistically flawed”.

    This extract from the paper demonstrates how (Robinson’s) Safety in Numbers is a myth.

    You claim that there is only a “small difference” between the (1994) NT reform and the proposed Qld trial, in that the Qld trial would allow helmetless road cycling (on roads with a speed limit of 60k or less).

    Bambach et al. ( analysed the 6,745 motor-vehicle involved cyclist head injury hospitalisations in NSW between 2001 and 2009 for which helmet use was known. Table 2 shows that 90% of the head-injury hospital admissions were after collisions with a vehicle doing 60k or less. This means that in 2001-2009, 670 cyclists per year were admitted to NSW hospitals for head injuries sustained after collisions with vehicles doing 60k or less.

    73% of the car-injured were adults, which equates to 490 head-injury hospital admissions per year in NSW. Bambach et al found that “Helmet use was associated with reduced risk of head injury in bicycle collisions with motor vehicles of up to 74%, and the more severe the injury considered, the greater the reduction”.

    Head injury-wise, the difference between helmeted and unhelmeted on-road cycling (on roads with up to a 60k limit) is light-years away from “small”.

  12. Linda Ward

    Whilst there is evidence of a TEMPORAL association between the helmet laws and levels of cycling to work, there does not appear be much evidence of a CAUSAL association between the helmet laws and levels of cycling to work. A closer look the state level data reveals that other non-car travel modes dropped by at least as much as cycling . . .

    The Vic, NSW and SA laws took effect (and were enforced) between the 1986 and 1991 censuses, in the 1991 census, compared to the 1986 census
    – in Victoria, travel to work by bicycle dropped by 22%, travel by bus dropped by 26%, by ferry/tram dropped by 28%
    – in NSW, travel to work by bicycle dropped by 12%, by bus dropped by 11%
    – in SA, travel to work by bicycle dropped by 14%, travel by ferry tram dropped by 28%, by train dropped by 30%

    In Queensland, where the law was apparently not enforced until after the 1991 census, in the 1996 census compared to the 1991 census, cycling to work dropped by 28%, train travel to work dropped by 69%.

    In WA, the helmet law coincided with the (train) “transport mega-project” ( In the 1996 census, compared to the 1991 census, travel to work by bicycle dropped by 35%, travel by bus dropped by 35%, and by train increased by 115%.

    (A dose effect with respect to the cyclist counts on the 2 bridges and their proximity to railway stations is clearly evident. The counts on the bridge that is close to stations on 2 of the rail lines dropped by 26% between 1991 and 1992, the counts on the bridge that is closer to 1 station, on the other line, dropped by 8.6%.)

    Household surveys (
    found that (in SA) 18 months after the helmet law compared to 18 months before the law, there was
    – no difference in the proportion of respondents who cycled at least once in the past week
    – no difference in the proportion of respondents who had cycled to work in the past week

    The household surveys also showed that
    – prior to the helmet law, cycling to school comprised (only) 20% of cycling in that age group
    – a drop in cycling to school after the helmet law was accompanied by an increase of equivalent size in cycling to/around other venues

    This is “pretty strong prima facie evidence” that ‘something’ had an effect on non-car commuting. The drops in bus, train and ferry/tram commuting suggests that it was the (evil) car that was (mostly) responsible for the (at least equivalent-sized) drops in commuter cycling.

    Re the various comments about the trial that was proposed in Qld, given that our Governor-General, the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, and the Australasian College of Road Safety consider that “Helmet laws aren’t broken – why fix them” (, it seems unlikely that any such trial/s are likely in the foreseeable future.

  13. Alan Davies

    Tom Sulston #21:

    I’d say that’s about meeting sponsors’ obligations. When he’s riding competitively – which is how he’s mostly seen by the public – he wears a helmet.

    Are the helmet laws hugely detrimental to cycling today? Perhaps, but so far as commuting is concerned, not so much. I’d say safety is a much, much bigger deterrent. Helmet wearing is low in Copenhagen and Amsterdam because cyclists feel safe. Dramatically improve the sense of subjective safety in Australia and the demand for helmets will drop too.

  14. Tom Sulston

    Cadel Evans, not wearing a helmet on a bike. And holding his son, also not wearing a helmet:

    I do agree with your sentiment that the demographic of cyclists has changed, though. The people who cycle in Australia are disproportionately wealthy young men with all the racing gear.

    Helmet laws are hugely detrimental to other sections of the community – witness the fact that more than half of Copenhagen’s cyclists are female, compared with about 1% of Melbourne’s.

  15. Alan Davies

    Nick Dow #18:

    Your data includes two pre-law census for only 2 states.

    No, that’s not right. That’s national data in my first exhibit and is based on at least two pre helmet law Censuses, 1981 and 1986, for each State (and three Censuses for WA, ACT and NT i.e. 1981, 1986, 1991) and my second exhibit has the same for each capital city.

    Warrior Factor #19:

    It’s a bit excessive to argue all the 94% who’re happy with the helmet law “hate” cyclists (don’t forget many active cyclists support the law, too). But yes, the vast majority of the 94% doubtless don’t cycle regularly on roads so they’re not interested in the debate about helmets; they’ll stick with the status quo.

  16. Warrior Factor

    The graph clearly shows a sharp drop in percentage, and it never recovered. The growth only matches population growth (all commuters).

    As Alan states, it’s only commuters. The phenomenal drop was with children and teenagers, estimated at up to 80%. It’s generally accepted that the overall drop both in Australia and NZ is 30-40%. While I loath anecdotes as evidence, I was one of them then, and still affected today.

    Of course 94% of people support such laws to punish helmet free cyclists. 94% of Australians hate cyclists, much less ride themselves. It’s easy to support a law that doesn’t affect you. Let’s see if you get a similar response to an idea of mandatory helmets for motorists. You’d save hundreds of lives a year, and reduce thousands of head injuries. No doubt the response will be about freedom. Isn’t it interesting that such a fundamental principle of freedom only matters when the majority is affected. I’d really like to know the motivation of this article. Is it merely to provide some data, or is it the ulterior motive of condoning the punishment and persecution of cyclists choosing not to wear a helmet?

    Remember, when you condone helmet laws, you condone the consequences. Picture yourself as the police, you spot a cyclist riding casually along a beach bike path minding his own business, doing something good for his health and the environment, and you think “hey, that guy is a menace to society like a speeding motorist, let’s slap him with the $180 fine that applies to both, and if he doesn’t pay, we’ll throw him in jail”. If the cyclist doesn’t want to risk such fines, then your answer is “you’re banned from riding a bicycle”. Oh, that’s a wonderful society we’re living in.

    Rather than quibble over the numbers that dropped from the helmet law, look at the principles and consequences of the action. Look that the simple action of riding a bike is banned for some people, or they spend their watching for for police. Look at the wretchedly low numbers of cyclists in Australia compared to Europe. Look at the destitute levels of infrastructure that 20 years of helmet laws has allowed lazy governments to avoid fixing and consequently the high levels of deaths and injury compared to mature cycling places. Look at the perceptions of fear, oppression and danger that a rampant promotion and enforcement of bicycle helmets has had on an activity that was safe and fun when we were kids. Address those critical issues then maybe we can bother such trivialities of interpreting the dip in that red line.

  17. Nik Dow

    So, because you don’t believe the 1976 data, and it doesn’t suit your preconceptions, you don’t use it.

    9 years? That’s one census for Vic/SA/NSW/Tas. As you yourself remark, individual census numbers can be influenced by conditions on the day. For example the overnight minimum on census day 1986 in Melbourne was 0.8C. Very frosty. Nevertheless numbers increased between 1981 and 1986, but less than the previous 5-year period. Maybe it was the vigorous helmet promotion putting people off riding, as has been happening in Denmark of late.

    Your data includes two pre-law census for only 2 states. Here are the numbers for WA/QLD with the overestimated 1976 data included

    1976 | 1981 | 1986 | 1991 | 1996
    1.36% | 1.94% | 2.15% | 2.28 | 1.66

    and downward ever since.

    That’s why one shouldn’t throw out a data point just because it doesn’t suit your purposes.

    You also expect us to believe that blue collar workers are concentrated outside the capital cities. Silly me thinking that industrial areas were mainly in the capital cities. No evidence presented by you for this furphy as well. Anyone can see you are clutching at straws with that one.

    As I said above, we won’t know what relaxing helmet laws will do, and it probably won’t result in a mirror-like reversal of the decline brought about by their introduction. It will take a generation to undo the damage, and a reform will only be partial, like in the Northern Territory.

    Only one way to find out, run a trial.

  18. Kevin Herbert

    In Inner Sydney, 50% of cyclists don’t wear helmets…so much for the law.

  19. Alan Davies

    Nik Dow #15:

    Both graphs start in 1981 which is 9-11 years (and two Censuses) before the law was introduced. I think that’s quite an adequate lead-in time.

    As you well know, the 1976 data was not collected on the same basis as the later years. The 1976 figure gives us some doubtful, even implausible, results e.g. cycling increased 1976-81 by 35% in Vic, 43% in Tas, 49% in Qld, 62% in WA, 68% in NSW, NT 127%, and ACT 156% (but only 11% in SA).

    That compares with the recent boom period 2006-2011 when cycling increased -9% in Tas, -6% in SA, 5% in Qld, 10% in NT, 21% in NSW, 22% in Vic, 24% in ACT, and 29% in WA.

    Can you point to some independent evidence to corroborate the proposition that something truly spectacular happened with cycling over 1976-81 e.g. bicycle sales data?

  20. Nik Dow

    Alan has carefully constructed the opening graph to downplay the magnitude of the effect of introducing helmet law in Australia. He claims there are “problems” with the 1976 data. ABS would love to hear from him about this I’m sure. The 1976 data included multi-modal and single mode trips in one reported figure, i.e. all trips that included bicycle as any part of the trip. I’ve done a re-analysis of the raw data, and instead of correcting for this one-off change in the way the data is collected, I’ve used the multi-mode figures for cycling for 1976. This overstates cycling in 1976 compared to all later years. Despite this the changes brought by helmet laws are very obvious, for example,
    Increase in cycling from 1976 -> 1986 (Vic/SA/NSW/TAS – law enforced before 1991 census) 38% c.f. 4% increase in all trips.
    Decrease in cycling 1986->1991 (Vic/SA/NSW/TAS) 18% c.f. 0.4% decrease in all trips (1991 was a recession year if I recall correctly).
    For WA/QLD where helmet law was enforced after the 1991 census:
    Increase in cycling 1971->1991 113% c.f. 28% increase in all trips.
    Decrease 1991-1996 in cycling 11% c.f. 22% increase in all trips.

    From these figures the effect of helmet law is clear, and it’s big. I agree with Alan that the more recent uptick is inner-urban, and agree with RideToWork that numbers in regional towns haven’t recovered (census data confirms both of these hypotheses). I also agree with the other comments that point out, the only way we will know for sure, is to run a trial. If the earlier census data had been matched by properly run research at the time helmet law was introduced, it would have been impossible to justify retaining it, and it’s impossible to justify retaining it now until proper research is done, i.e. a trial.

    NT did such a trial by reforming their laws in 1994 pretty much along the lines of the proposed trial in QLD (small difference is that footpath cycling is legal in NT, so they didn’t include any on-road riding in the reform).
    In NT, cycling increased 288% from 1976-1991 (pre-law) c.f. 53% increase in all trips. The law was introduced in 1992, reformed in 1994, so no census measured the full effect of the law, but cycling still dropped from 1991-1996 by 9% c.f. 26% increase in all trips, the effect of the partial law and 2 years of complete prohibition. Today in Darwin bikes have the highest modal share of trips to work of any capital City.

  21. Aaron Ball

    Other research from Monash Uni also indicated, for Melbourne at least, a decrease of over 40% in cycling participation as a result of helmet laws. This was, again, not the most reliable data, being the result of small participant head counts before and after, but it is supportive of the other available data.

  22. Aaron Ball

    As has been stated previously, enforcement of helmet laws only commenced in some of these jurisdictions after the 1991 census.
    Trips to work census data is the best data available. State governments notoriously have poor data for active transport utilisation. This is why a number of the recommendations from Qld’s recent Parliamentary Committee inquiry into cycling relate to the State transport department developing better data. As a result, advocates without access to funding have to also rely on census data.
    When factoring in population growth for each of these jurisdictions, it is clear that cycling decreased significantly, beginning with the time helmet laws were introduced. While your musings on people’s opinions to stack-hats, based on colour of collar and regional vs. urban locale are interesting, they are not evidence.
    Recent research into bike share scheme usage (coming from a completely different perspective from trips to work) by Elliot Fishman also shows the staggeringly huge, current disincentive of helmet laws (36% respondents finding it hard to find a helmet, 25% not wanting to wear a helmet, plus 9% citing perceptive safety concerns which may also be indirectly caused by hlmet laws):

  23. St Etienne

    I know you’ve already alerted us to this fact Alan, but I think it’s worth repeating that work commuting only makes up a small percentage of total trips by any means. As such I think it’s a poor indicator of how people actually get around in a city, but perhaps you can correct on me that.

    Furthermore, when I stand out the front of my house in the morning, on a busy inner-city commuter route, the kind of people I see tearing into the city on bikes are hardly the kind you’d assume would be turned off by having to wear a helmet. Commuter cycling is still very much dominated by males decked out in gear and hunched over on sports bikes, who are using their commute as a work out. It’s a world away from the kind of “lo-fidelity” riding that I do and the mainstream civilian cycling that I try to envisage for this city. There are plenty of people who feel very marginalised by the dominance of sports riders and cycling enthusiasts in bike advocacy; it’s rather like having F1 drivers dictating safety policy to mum and dad drivers.

  24. Saugoof

    I stopped riding bikes for a good 15 years after the helmet laws were introduced. This wasn’t a conscious decision. It just happened gradually over about a year where I found myself riding the bike less and less. It’s such a small thing but I just couldn’t be bothered having to drag that helmet along. So those quick trips to the milk bar, seeing friends, etc. just ended up being easier in the car. Besides, I find helmets really uncomfortable. I really hate having those straps around my chin.

    What most proponents of helmet laws (especially Bicycle Victoria) don’t take into account is that there are two types of bike trips. One is where the bike ride itself is the goal. For that sort of bike ride, people have no problems wearing helmets, it’s just part of getting prepared, like wearing bike clothes. The other type of bike trip is the casual one where a bike is merely a tool to get you from A to B. For that one, the choice of transport comes down to whatever is quickest, easiest and most convenient. Any little thing that complicates one mode, like having to wear a helmet, might tip the scale in favour of another mode of transport. I don’t have numbers to back this up, but I would have guessed that this type of bike trip is also the much safer mode. So with helmet laws we’re essentially discouraging the safest type of rider.

    I was in France recently, where practically no one wears bike helmets, and had a bike there as well. Not having to bother with a helmet instantly made the bike such a useful tool again, it was beautiful! As much as I hate wearing bike helmets, I wouldn’t have thought that this would make such an impact.

    I did start riding the bike again after a long time off, mainly because I wanted to rid myself of my car dependency, but I often take off the helmet when I’m on a segregated bike path or a deserted country road. That can mean that I end up in absurd situations like getting fined $170 and a penalty point for trundling along the St. Kilda foreshore at walking pace.

  25. RidesToWork

    Most people approve of helmet laws because they think they work! If I were one of the 94% who thought that helmet laws did more good than harm, I, too, would probably support them.

    The research into helmet laws was very poorly done, especially the inadequate amounts of reliable data on cycle use. But the limited information available suggests that injury rates per cycle km increased after helmet laws were introduced – there was certainly no dramatic decrease as most people believe.

    That’s why it would be so useful to have a proper trial, and this time collect the all-important information on cycle use to determine the change in injury rates per cycle km, both for existing cyclists and novices who wouldn’t be cycling if helmets were compulsory.

    Helmets are a bigger burden for people of average fitness, because they make your head hot and uncomfortable and make cycling less pleasant. They are also inconvenient. Just because fit males don’t mind helmets, doesn’t mean that other people think the same. There’s also the fear factor – cycling must be dangerous, why otherwise would you be forced to wear a helmet?

    I personally don’t see any real difference in danger between cycling in European cities with lots of cycling facilities and some parts of Australia. The big difference is in the perception of danger – and the obvious culprit for that is the helmet law.

  26. Alan Davies

    RidesToWork #8:

    Not sure I understand what you’re getting at. But to be clear: I accept that the drop in commuter cycling back in the day, such as it was, was mostly due to the helmet law. But I also think that cyclists were a different demographic back then; one which, I’d hypothesise, was more sensitive about wearing a helmet than is the case for either current riders or the next cohort. Heck, even cricketers who first started to wear helmets in the 80s were thought “unmanly” by many.

  27. RidesToWork

    The big effect of the helmet law on cycling to work was in non-capital cities – see the first graph at

    Percentages cycling to work were 2 to 3 times greater in regional areas than in capital cities. The 1986 census recorded 40,798 people cycling to work in non-capital cities, very similar to the 43,218 cycling to work in capital cities.

    It seems illogical to think helmet laws would be much of deterrent in areas where cycling is considered unsafe. Anyone brave enough to cycle is likely to want to wear a helmet!

    It’s the regional areas with higher participation rates and where cycling was considered safe that were most affected by helmet laws, as can be seen at

    If this had been a blue-collar phenomenon, the same trend should have been evident for states with and without enforced laws in 1991. The big divergence between regional areas with and without enforced laws in 1991 strongly suggests that helmet laws were, in fact, to blame. Peter McCallum says that “at one stage about 30% of all traffic breaches were for bicycle offences, which I’d assume were mostly helmets.” I imagine this would have been a big disincentive for cyclists.

    Given the above, maybe at least part of the proposed trial to determine the effect of relaxing helmet laws should take place in regional areas, as well as Brisbane. As hk notes, relaxing helmet laws won’t work in areas where people consider it’s unsafe to cycle.

    But spending lots of money building cycling facilities to make capital cities as safe as regional areas won’t work either – all you’ll get are the abysmally low cycling rates now seen in regional areas. But if relaxing helmet laws and programs to encourage active transport can increase cycling in regional areas back to pre-law levels, there’s a hope that, with relaxation of helmet laws and appropriate encouragement and infrastructure programs would allow a lot more people in capital cities to enjoy similar benefits.

  28. Alan Davies

    arnold ziffel #6:

    As I wrote recently, when Essential Economics asked a national sample of respondents last year if they “approve or disapprove of governments making laws to regulate wearing bike helmets”, 94% said they approve. Only 1% said they strongly disapprove.

    People who commute by bicycle today (and in the 80s) are “early adopters”. They aren’t representative of the next cohort of cyclists waiting in the wings. They are likely to be less risk averse on average and, I’d guess, generally more bolshie. Policy-makers should be wary about extrapolating uncritically from their views.

    The point about fashion and helmets is that the latter aren’t considered as dorky or as “unmanly” today as they were in the 80s by the (predominantly male) bicycle commuters and teenage schoolboys of the time.

  29. arnold ziffel

    I believe that hk is right, and that the amount of noise about compulsory helmets is disproportionate to the number of people who are actually worried about that issue.
    This week the SMH is reporting a large increase in cyclists commuting in Sydney, and by any observation it’s obviously growing.
    They’re all wearing helmets.
    As to whether helmets and lycra are being made more fashionable, I suspect that’s dubious.
    The endless public sneering at MAMILs and other people wearing practical cycling clothes doesn’t help much either.

  30. hk

    Since 1991 I have had no hesitation in speaking with people about active transport choice. My diaries contain a written record of hundreds of what might be termed intercept surveys.
    By a long shot people do not ride bikes in Melbourne because they perceive the spaces to ride in are unsafe. After a mishap many have stop riding.
    The mandatory helmet wearing law is hardly ever mentioned as a reason for not riding on a regular basis, such as commuting. However the random choice to not use a MBS bike has been prevented in the past because helmets were inconvenient to obtain. I have interviewed more 100 potential bike users at the MBS docking stations since May 2010. The most dominant other response for not taking a bike has been that the road leading away from the docking station looks unsafe compared to what the potential user has been accustomed to. (In my interviews all comparisons were made with European cities, well known for their bike friendly environments).

  31. MarkD

    Thanks Alan–good article. I’ve always suspected that the claim about helmet law and cycling rates was a bit exaggerated; there were so few of us riding regularly in Melbourne, Brisbane or Perth in the mid to late 80s–most days I would not encounter another cyclist on the road.
    Even so, popping up to the local shop to get some fruit and veg is hardly extreme sport and I do resent having to wear a helmet on those occasions.
    If all the designated safe bicycle routes–think Canning, Napier Streets–were speed limited to 30 kmph (as they should be), they and off-road paths could be helmet optional.

  32. Peter McCallum

    Two things to note.

    In Qld there was no penalty for not wearing a helmet until several years after the law came into effect, so it was largely ignored.

    In the regional city in Queensland that I live in (and possibly in other regional centres) police are zealous in enforcing the helmet law. At one stage about 30% of all traffic breaches were for bicycle offences, which I’d assume were mostly helmets. I’m sometimes surprised by the number of cyclists who seem to ride without helmets in large cities. Here we rarely see anyone unhelmetted. Hence the relatively large decline in bicycle use here from what I observed in the 1980s/90s. This may be worth investigating.

  33. RidesToWork

    The difference between regional areas and capital cities in pre-law cycling rates was probably due to the much pleasanter cycling conditions – wide streets and relatively low traffic levels – in small cities.

    Kathy Francis said: “I grew up without helmets in a country town where it was very safe to ride.”

    My pre-helmet-law cycling in Australia was very similar – it was not far off a cycling paradise. Drivers gave ample room when passing, I don’t remember once being concerned about motorists not giving way when they were supposed to at intersections, and there was a pleasant, convenient, off-road route to the main source of employment.

    But then the law forced me to wear a helmet, and the attitude of drivers changed. They pulled out in front of me, they overtook me and immediately turned left forcing me to do the same. In once case the left turn was over a culvert with no room for a car and a bike, so I had to go into the ditch.

    I was scared and seriously considered giving up cycling – what with helmets making cycling less pleasant and more inconvenient, and the new and unacceptable dangers that I was now facing. I cycled less because of the law, and learned to cycle more defensively.

    Since then, considerable sums have been spent on road improvements such as roundabouts that substantially reduce injuries to vehicle occupants but also make life much more dangerous for inexperienced cyclists. If I assumed drivers would do the right thing and give way to circulating cyclists, I would be hit by vehicles entering roundabouts on average about once a month.

    My impression is that the helmet law had a profound effect on cycling for transport. Sports cycling and off-road mountain biking (where helmets are a necessary part of the uniform) are flourishing, despite the much higher injury rate per hour of activity than transport cycling. The change in attitudes is perhaps exemplified by a mountain biking try-out I attended last year. I cycled there in about 20 minutes. There’s even an off-road cycle path for half the distance – an expensive white elephant because the few cyclists you seen in the area prefer to use the road, which is safe and better engineered. The vast majority of attendees, including, I think, all the regulars, came in cars with their bikes on roof racks and dinkers.

    This is reflected in the bikes you see in the shops – most lack the mudguards and luggage racks that are necessary if you want to take stuff to work, or can’t avoid the rain on the way home.

    The Qld parliamentary committee recently recommended a trial of relaxing the helmet law for adults off road and on roads with speed limits of 60 km/hr or less. If Australia wants to encourage people to cycle for transport, maybe this is one way of exploring the potential benefits. Under the right conditions, the fortunes of the ailing Brisbane bike scheme might be turned around. Public bike schemes in London, Paris and Dublin have all helped revive a culture of cycling for transport, and generally improve safety. Perhaps the same could happen here.

  34. James Steward

    So it’s undeniable that the volume of commuter cyclists took a hit from the helmet laws. Bicycle Network refuse to accept this fact.

    The bicycle foam hat wearing requirements has been found to be a major inhibitor to Brisbane’s bike share scheme success.

    In a warmer environment a helmet is less practicable.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details