Losing our heads about compulsory helmets

Changing Australia’s mandatory bicycle helmet laws was always going to be a bumpy ride

Craig Richards

Social policy, Health, Arts, culture & society | Australia

14 November 2018

While hatred, fear, and ridicule are a predictable part of Australia’s bicycle helmet debate, lawmakers shouldn’t let them be a stick in the spokes of evidence-based policy, Craig Richards writes.

Australian lawmakers have led the world in mandatory helmets. In 1961, our elected representatives made motorcycle helmets compulsory; 29 years later bicycle helmets got the same treatment.

The most frequent instances of head injuries are in three areas: falls, transportation and assault. Today, although another 29 years have passed, there have been no moves toward mandatory helmets when climbing ladders, driving a car or walking home from the pub at night.

Further, when it comes to mandatory bicycle helmets the rest of the world hasn’t followed Australia. Only New Zealand has joined us with blanket, fully enforced mandatory helmet laws for bicycle riders.

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Some countries have partial bike helmet laws. Spain’s is probably the most curious – helmets are only compulsory when riding a bike out of the city, but not if it’s hot or you’re going uphill. Other countries like Malta and Bosnia and Herzegovina have backpedalled and removed or relaxed their laws.

With the move to expand mandatory helmet laws seemingly running out of legs, 14 months ago Bicycle Network embarked on a review of our policy supporting Australia’s mandatory bicycle helmet laws.

We knew we were stepping into harm’s way. It’s an issue most avoid because many people are so adamant they’re right that they treat any contrary opinion as an act of high treason.

After carefully reviewing the extraordinary amount of conflicting evidence we arrived at a position we released on 31 October: the rest of Australia should trial the Northern Territory solution where adults riding a bicycle off road can decide if they wear a helmet.

This wasn’t an easy place to land. We had to change our own long-held policy and over 2500 academic studies didn’t provide a clear answer. This is why we’ve recommended as a first step a trial to let adults decide for themselves in low-risk situations. The lowest risk is where there are no vehicles because drivers are responsible for 80 per cent of bike crashes.

But with 41.7 per cent of bike riders in favour of the current full mandatory helmet law and a disturbing section of the non-bike riding public using any excuse they can to show their contempt for anyone on two wheels, we braced ourselves for some strong efforts to get us to back down.

The worst reaction was cold-hearted hatred. Typical comments included:

I hope you win the helmet issue, it may help get rid of a few more of you idiots. Bob

Wear a bloody helmet or get euthanised when you have a brain injury. Stuart

A disability advocate I spoke to about this awful attitude told me that when someone says, “They made a choice so it’s their own fault,” he responds, “They chose to dive into a pool, they didn’t choose to become a quadriplegic.”

The next reaction, largely from experts, was creating fear by trying to make people believe a head trauma is an almost inevitable consequence of pedalling:

The propensity to fall off a bike is actually quite high on bike paths. John, Surgeon

While bike crashes undoubtedly occur, the potential severity of the outcome causes people to grossly overstate the likelihood. We see the same logic used with events like shark attacks, where the chances of them happening are actually incredibly small.

The other scare tactic was much more personal. For example, when we didn’t change our position at his insistence, a radio commentator threatened:

When a 19-year-old is killed you’ll have to accept responsibility…and will have trouble sleeping.

Ridicule through analogy was a slightly more subtle tactic. This one was just baffling:

Why don’t you try and change the gun laws while you’re at it. Jarrod

While this analogy came frequently:

Fine, I just won’t wear a seat belt then. Numerous

It’s important to get your head around why a seat belt and helmet aren’t the same thing. Basically, a seat belt stops you flying out of the car and hitting your head. If you wore a helmet instead of a seat belt, you’d still fly out of the car. You’d then need to hope the helmet does its magic. This is why the best risk minimisation strategies are those that prevent you hitting your head, rather than those that try to soften the blow when you do.

The end conclusion is that like life, policy-making isn’t meant to be easy. We did our work thoroughly and logically. We recognised that reasonable minds can differ and we respected all views. But when you’re dealing with an emotional issue it’s going to be unpleasant. You’ll have to develop a thick skin – preferably one also made of a non-stick substance.

Perhaps the last word on the topic of why bikes shouldn’t be one of only two activities where the government says helmets are compulsory all the time should go to James May, the former presenter of the car enthusiast show Top Gear:

There are people who talk about wanting to make safety clothing mandatory, road tax for bicycles, registering them and insuring them. I think all that stuff is utter nonsense. The whole point of the bike is that you get on it and you can ride it when you’re a kid or when you’re absolutely flat broke and it’s so agile.

To me that’s something worth standing strong for, even in the face of hatred, fear and ridicule. It remains to be seen whether any of our elected lawmakers will stand with us.

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