Oct 4, 2016

Is the bicycle helmet law such a big deal?

The mandatory helmet law isn't a first-order issue for cycling; the evidence that repeal would boost cycling significantly isn't convincing. The main game is infrastructure

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Cycling is growing rapidly in Vancouver
Like Melbourne, cycling is on the up-and-up in the City of Vancouver with the help of better infrastructure – 7% of all trips were made by bicycle in 2015 (source: Streetfilms)

It’s more than two years since I discussed directly the controversial issue of Australia’s mandatory helmet law (Should repealing the helmet law be a priority?). It’s timely to look at it again because in that time it’s hardly ever been out of the news. More recently, the NSW government’s decision to reinforce the law with draconian penalties and the Senate inquiry earlier this year into Personal choice and community impacts (the so-called Leyonhjelm inquiry) have garnered it plenty of attention.

I’ve written 23 articles on various aspects of the law since my first effort on 17 May 2011. I’ve read most of the “foundation” research documents that are continually cited by those engaged in this debate (but, I suspect, are read by few). Here’s my take on the significant issues associated with the discussion:

  • Travel by bicycle is a lot more likely to lead to some form of personal injury than other modes (see Is cycling on roads getting safer?).
  • Bicycle helmets are effective in mitigating the risk of head injuries, especially serious ones (see Do bicycle helmets work?). However, the level of risk varies with who’s riding and the type of cycling.
  • The increase in riders that would result from repealing the law would be quite small (see Should repealing the helmet law be a priority?).
  • It follows that repealing the law would have only a small positive impact via the “safety in numbers effect” and via increased exercise.
  • The avoided injury benefits from the law exceed the health dis-benefits from deterred cycling, probably significantly.
  • The key disincentive to cycling in Australian cities is far and away safety, both real and subjective. The key solution is better infrastructure and tighter regulation of driving.

The first time I wrote on this topic I said “the social benefits of mandating helmets are probably out-weighed by the costs”. I no longer think that’s a valid argument; the evidence simply isn’t there that the law deters cycling on a significant scale. There are quite a few who are annoyed by the law to varying degrees, but very few who are actually deterred from riding by it (see Should repealing the helmet law be a priority?).

It’s true the law is one of the reasons bike share continues to fail in Melbourne and Brisbane (see Is it time to wave goodbye to Melbourne Bike Share?). Note though that even if usage of Melbourne Bike Share were to quadruple in response to an exemption from the law (unlikely, but bear with me), its share of all weekday cycling trips by Melbourne residents would still be less than one percent; bike share is small beer (see It’s still ailing, so what next for Melbourne Bike Share?).

The most plausible objection to the law is that it’s a constraint on personal autonomy. I suspect that’s the key objection for many and explains why the issue consumes so much oxygen and excites so much passion. And it’s true that while the net health benefits of the law are very likely positive, it doesn’t automatically follow that helmets must therefore be compulsory. Indeed, a related complaint is that helmets are mandatory for cycling but not similar activities.

There’re heaps of other behaviours where there’d be a net health benefit if they were more strictly regulated but we choose not to take action. In this case the benefit from avoided head injuries needs to be assessed against the reduction in personal choice. That benefit might well be negative in situations where the risk of head injury is relatively low e.g. bike share and slow riding on off-road paths.

But there’s a practical problem; repeal has got little political traction outside a group of committed cyclists and libertarians. So far as the wider public are concerned the law is plain common sense, like seat belts. One survey found 94% of adult Australians regard the law as a non-issue (see What are governments prepared to do to improve cycling?). Governments aren’t likely to see much political advantage in repealing the law, even on a limited basis e.g. for bikeshare.

While I sympathise with those who find the law intrusive and discriminatory, in the absence of convincing evidence that repeal would significantly boost cycling, my view is the debate is a distraction. In spite of the law, cycling for all purposes by residents now has a higher mode share within 10-15 km of Melbourne’s CBD than trams (see How important is cycling in Australian cities?).

The law’s been in place in Australia for 25 years. It’s now part of the general background to cycling; it’s not the potent symbol it is in other countries where it’s currently proposed (see Should the UK make bicycle helmets compulsory?). In terms of its impact on the level of cycling in Australia it’s a second order issue.

I prefer to see energy focused on the sorts of actions – like improving infrastructure – that really do have the potential to drive large growth in cycling. When better infrastructure and regulation of drivers means our cities start approaching the level of safety offered by some European cities, the justification for the law – and likely the wider public’s support for it – will be greatly diminished.


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18 thoughts on “Is the bicycle helmet law such a big deal?

  1. Alan Davies

    In reply to Tom Ormond

    Even your stance of infrastructure first suffers from the chicken and egg syndrome. Low numbers won’t justify the works; without a cycling friendly culture the numbers stay low.

    Your implicit assumption though is that the helmet law significantly suppresses cycling. But the crux of it is there’s no reliable evidence for that assumption. Put aside wishful thinking and the best you can say is we don’t know. That however is not an effective counter to the robust evidence that shows helmets protect against head injury.

    Unless it can be shown the law is a significant drag on cycling participation, you have to fall back on the libertarian/nanny state argument. I don’t think it’d get much traction politically.

    1. Tom Ormond

      I provided the only available evidence in other posts. The sorts of evidence you require of “repeal helmet law, cycling numbers boost significantly”, doesn’t exist anywhere because there’s never been such a case. Even if we polled people, like in that SMH article, the answers are, like you said, hypothetical and therefore insufficient. If your only grounds for advocating some sort of a repeal is hard, substantial evidence, you’re asking the impossible and therefore may as well remain closed on the idea altogether.

      The reason I entered this discussion was about assumptions of helmet law advocates like yourself. Particularly that legislation is the only reason people are wearing a helmets and that without such legislation there would be mass carnage on the roads and our hospital systems will fall apart from the massive costs that streams of injured cyclists will cause. It’s a false connection and, ironically, not based on any research. In fact, one study in Canada showed legislation (as distinct to helmets themselves) made no difference to hospital rates. You can never prove a negative other than see our numbers are poor and the cycling climate hysterical and dangerous. The third assumption is that Australia’s approach will work. We’ve had 25 years of a helmet regime and our only progress is doubling-down on lawbreakers by jacking up fines, demanding ID is carried, and even contemplating registration. Surely it’s time for at least a minor rethink.

      1. Alan Davies

        Tom, I say again, I am not a “helmet law advocate”. But neither am I a repeal advocate. As I said in the article, given the paucity of hard evidence that MHL currently deters cycling, the main argument for repeal is the libertarian one.

        The law was responsible for a big increase in helmet wearing back in 1991 when the law came in, but I think voluntary rates would be quite high today even in the absence of the law, although I expect there’d be some drop-off if it were repealed. That’s another possibly plausible argument for repeal i.e. the law’s unnecessary. The corollary though is that only a small number – those who really don’t like helmets – would be better off. I’m not sure that’s enough to make it a big deal.

        1. Tom Ormond

          From all the points you made in the article, I could swear you’d advocate for such a law. Plus the article two weeks ago about “calling BS”. Apologies for construing that the wrong way.

          It’s a big deal to those that want to go without. This is the issue we’ve forgotten here. There’s people involved. People doing a harmless, low risk activity that are in constant fear of persecution or simply give up. Even beyond that, look at the situation of cycling in Australia. It’s a disaster! The way the helmet law is applied, and even leveraged to get “perks” (like a useless 1metre passing law and compulsory ID), it dominates discussion and policy. Hell, we’re talking about now! Even after 25 years! I

  2. darryl steel

    While I fully agree with the point of this article I also read the truth in Hcdr and Tom’s points. The MHL repealists are fervent, and I appreciate this, I abhor having my right to take responsibility for my own safety away from me. The argument about how MHL has lead to cycling being considered unjustly overly risky and unpopular is apparently valid. But I worry that taking this argument into the public arena could eventually become counter productive.

    Serious head injuries from cycling accidents do and have happened, regardless of the circumstances of such incidents, the public are easily manipulated by graphic anecdotes. If the MHL debate is pushed to the public, the cotton wool brigade will throw up the horror stories, and that’s what will make an impression on the wider public especially as the media will go nuts for any emotionally fear mongering stories. Ultimately in attempting to raise the truth and reverse the damage MHL has caused to attitudes to cycling in the wider community you greatly risk doing the opposite.

    1. Tom Ormond

      That’s where the discrimination arrives. These anecdotes could be used to demand better cycling infrastructure and motorists should wear helmets. After all, nearly 100% of cyclists with serious and fatal head injuries were wearing helmets and the numbers of motorists with such injuries are astronomical. Instead, it’s pick on the humble cyclist. Plain and simple it’s mob rule subjugating a minority. The mob will never accept helmets for motorists because then suddenly they are all affected and will run the arguments about “choice” that many anti MHL people do and falsely argue that seatbelts are an equivalent safety standard.

  3. hcdr

    Cycling levels are so sensitive to external factors, its worth focusing on any and all methods, push and pull, of increasing that mode share. According to Copenhagenize, helmet promotion was responsible for a 2% dip in bike trips in CPH ( While we have reasonable number of trips to work by bike in inner Melbourne, I think that’s predominantly down to it being less hassle than alternative means. We still have close to zero trips by bike for shopping etc.

    The helmet law has created hysteria and fear around riding a bicycle in Australia. The level of hysteria varies from region to region, but try riding around sans-helmet (in the name of science) to see the response you elicit. You won’t find this hysteria elsewhere in the world. I don’t even think its particularly prevalent in BC, where as I understand it, the attitude is far more relaxed. You’ll notice several wind-through-the-hair types in the video (where everyone is really on their best behaviour). So few Australians ride a bicycle for utilitarian purposes, they don’t question the law. I’d probably think whatever laws around vaping are fine, because I don’t know a thing about it. It’s fine to impose laws on _others_… You are right that changes may not be immediate post-law (but hey, they might), there will be a long tail of hysteria and victim blaming.

    However, I notice the effects most in dealings with councils and road bodies. The attitude is still to treat bicycles like cars. I know you don’t agree with this paradigm, Alan, but it’s still the leading paradigm for those making (bad) decisions on our bicycle infrastructure. We still have crap bike lanes, they still vanish at intersections, we still merge in and across car lanes, all on the presumption that we are just little cars. And the laws mirror this – treating us like deadly motor vehicles, although we lack any of that killing potential. Get rid of this philosophy that we’re all armored, and I think you’d rapidly see a paradigm shift in infrastructure design. Engineers are designing for the fast and furious, not the 8-to-80. Those demanding bicycle infrastructure are the happily-behelmeted, not the timidly-sidewalkish. Safety is not taken seriously, because MHL has apparently solved the problem. This is my chief objection to the law.

    In terms of being a limiting factor, I think you need to consider car-less households. Since most Australians still have cars, that is always the lazy alternative. If you had to wear a pedestrian helmet, you’d probably opt to take the car more often. You’d certainly feel more inhibited. As more households become car free, it becomes a bigger nuisance to those households. Especially so when visitors arrive. When I have guests, we can’t travel by bicycle because of the law. I’m fairly keen on travelling via a bicycle, but I’m at the point of giving up in this country. If someone who is keen on cycling finds it burdensome, I can’t imagine the general populace would actually be that indifferent if it were actually a viable mode of transport.

    1. Alan Davies

      The excessive “dangerising” of cycling happened in Australia in the 1980s in the lead-up to the debate over MHL. It was mostly about children dying from head strikes. Even if the law hadn’t passed, the damage – i.e. the idea that all forms of cycling are more dangerous than they really are – was already done. I think over the last 25 years we’ve moved well beyond helmets. There’s now a consensus, including at government level, that infrastructure is the key issue. No one thinks helmets are a substitute for infrastructure.

      I wouldn’t give too much weight to that Copenhagenize quote. It’s hardly scientific; it’s the writers guess. There’s not much consideration of other possible explanations. Copenhagenize has previously copped a bit of stick for playing a bit loose with numbers from David Hembrow of Dutch site A view from the cycle path. In Australia, opposition to MHL is because it’s mandatory and denies choice; Copenhagenize OTOH seems to oppose the idea of even telling people that helmets have a protective effect. I think that raises some ethical questions e.g. see Do bicycle helmets work?

      1. Tom Ormond

        Oh no, you listen to any bicycle “advocate” or police or nearly anyone, the scare campaign still exists. I don’t even remember the situation in the 1980s of any scare campaign. Even the story you link about protective benefits of helmets, all that does is scare the hell out of people. It doesn’t include risk of being in crash, or being in a hospital. Nor does it include total numbers of cyclists. There could be ten times more “non helmet” riders than “helmet” ones so that would skew “helmet” riders as far more likely in hospital in the first place. It doesn’t define “serious head injury” either. It could be lacerated scalp, who knows. This constant fear mongering and “dangerising” cycling is all about justifying the law. You know what? I’m sure I read a blog here where one of the reasons that keeps people off bikes is “too dangerous”. So much for helmets keeping them safe!

  4. darryl steel

    The Brisbane bike share is an expensive show piece that isn’t really what the city needs. It’s a solution for inner city suburban transportation within an area that is serviced by bus, train and boat. We could encourage a lot more people to leave their cars at home and ride their bikes if they could easily put them on trains or buses. Seems so obvious as the perfect future city design model, light rail and bicycle, but right now in Australia’s New World City in the sunny “Smart State” you can only take a bike on a train for a few hours in the middle of week days, not at peak times or even weekends!

    1. Tom Ormond

      Exactly, these bikeshare schemes in Australia are really about presenting the city as bike friendly. They are a joke and a waste of money. Since Melbourne made trams free in the CBD, the bikeshare is redundant. Still, they believe the solution is to add more bikes and stations. It isn’t happening. Australia is not a bicycle culture. Compulsory helmets as seen to that.

  5. Tom Ormond

    For a researcher, you seem to make many assumptions, particularly that the helmet law is the only thing that keeps people wearing their helmets. Just like repealing the law won’t suddenly see a sudden rush of new riders on the streets, nor will it suddenly see every current rider throw away their helmet. In fact, I bet, day 1 after a helmet law repeal you would not note any difference. Maybe this should be the subject of your next research? Do you think if seatbelt laws were repealed would everyone stop wearing seatbelts? Not that it’s a valid comparison, because cars are unique vehicles with their own unique safety needs, and a seatbelt is no where near as oppressive as strapping a hot, uncomfortable foam hat to your head.

    The biggest assumption is actually that the helmet law isn’t holding cycling back. First of all, it’s impossible to prove a negative. While we can count current riders and see a certain percentage are wearing helmets, we can never know how many people helmets are truly keeping off bikes. It’s not helmets themselves the issue, it’s the environment that compulsion and the associated hysterical fear campaign has created. Infrastructure is woeful and most Australians think cycling is suicidal. We’ve wiped and scared an entire generation off their bicycles that it will take a generation to reverse the damage.

    I’m just curious how long Australia will keep their assumption that they will ever have a mature bicycle culture while operating a strict helmet regime with police savaging anyone with massive fines for the simple pleasure of cruise lidless through a park on a nice spring day. Are our egos really that big?

    1. Alan Davies

      The biggest assumption is actually that the helmet law isn’t holding cycling back. First of all, it’s impossible to prove a negative.

      Tom, the law has been in place for 25 years. It’s the status quo. If you want to change it then it’s up to you to produce the evidence that convinces others the law deters cycling on a significant scale and therefore there’s a need for change. I’m not wedded to either side; I’m simply saying that in the absence of such evidence the whole debate is a distraction and, I suspect, a dead-end.

      1. Tom Ormond

        The evidence is all around the world. Vast increase in cycling and better cycling conditions in regions (which is almost everywhere outside Aus & NZ) without compulsory helmets. Even in the Northern Territory where helmets are optional off roads and not strictly policed anyway, far more ride and far less are injured or killed. There was also research published in SMH a few years ago that said 25% of people would ride, or ride more, if helmets weren’t compulsory. Since many helmet zealots love anecdotes as “science”, here’s another. I would ride more without a law. The law doesn’t force me to wear a helmet. I’ve always worn one by choice when I feel it’s necessary. The law forces me to ride less. Again, I’m not making the assumptions. It’s you and the belief that only a helmet law will mean helmets are worn. You imply this by saying why should we satisfy a few rogues at the expense of everyone else that the helmet law (not the helmet itself) is protecting. The truth is we won’t know how many more will ride unless there is a trial. Any trial might be too short anyway because, like I said, the damage has been generational so it will take ages to reverse.

        1. Alan Davies

          Tom, the SMH article is no doubt this study that relied on asking respondents about a hypothetical situation. See:

          Since there’s no political will for a trial, there won’t be one unless there’s at least some prima facie evidence that helmets seriously suppress cycling. But it won’t be enough to invent the evidence.

          1. Tom Ormond

            It’s the chicken and the egg syndrome then? There’s been no countries with helmet laws that were then repealed. Israel and Mexico might have had them for a short time and then repealed them to get bikeshare working. Even if there was such a country, us arrogant Australians would uniformly say it doesn’t apply to our country. We’re a stubborn lot by nature with an intrinsic mob rule, and any example elsewhere would only intensify our resolve to prove we are right and everyone else is wrong. Just as we already do with successful cycling countries in Europe. Sorry, they are wrong, wrong, wrong!

            Probably the only real evidence that could be relevant is that after 25 years of helmet laws the most common cycling offense still is no helmet. I think I recall in NSW (you might have more accurate stats) they had 4700 fines last year. That only represents riders caught. You could easily multiply that by 10 the actual rides without a helmet. *personal anecdote alert* My ratio of fines per ride is 1 in 100. Mind you, I take great care to avoid police, so I could be an exception. Let’s assume it’s 10 times more, that still means there’s a huge constituency of riders that like going helmet free. Compare that to motorbikes, where I’ve never even seen a stat for fines for no helmet. The measure of a good law is adherence. Clearly we have many people that want to ride and a law intent on stopping them. To me, that’s crazy.

            I agree, political will is the problem. Any relaxation of helmet laws will be seen as “I support riding helmet free”. No politician will accept that, especially once the first dead helmetless cyclist gets splashed all over the papers. It needs to be a cultural change, led by riders and particularly bicycle advocacy groups. We saw recently the disaster in NSW with AGF, and Victoria was already as bad thanks to BN. Even your stance of infrastructure first suffers from the chicken and egg syndrome. Low numbers won’t justify the works; without a cycling friendly culture the numbers stay low. I certainly won’t use them when I could be ambushed by the police along the route.

  6. drsmithy

    My own personal anecdote:

    * I ride to work frequently (Oxley – Albion, approx 30km round trip).
    * When on holidays in places that have them, my wife and I frequently make use of the various public cycle hire schemes (BIXI, Velo V, Velib, etc) to get around
    * We have never used one in Australia because having to deal with a helmet (either buying one on the spot or carrying one around) is a pain. Indeed, I have frequently seen a bike station in Brisbane and thought it’d be nice to be able to jump on a bike and ride, rather than walk, but… no helmet.

    1. Alan Davies

      Plenty of helmets hanging off share bikes in Melbourne and Brisbane nowadays. I expect some people are reluctant to use them though because of fear of catching something.

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