Cyclists campaigning for an end to Australia’s compulsory helmet laws took to their bikes in Melbourne on Saturday in hats and caps, helmets, or no headgear whatsoever.
The 100 or so protestors, who rode the three kilometres from Green Park in Carlton to the Abbotsford Convent, have urged governments to allow cyclists more discretion in deciding when to wear helmets.
Australia is one of just three countries worldwide that enforces helmet laws.
“One hundred and ninety-six other countries have looked at what Australia has done and said, ‘no way’,” said protest leader Alan Todd, president of the lobby group Freestyle Cyclists.
“To date, only New Zealand and the United Arab Emirates have followed Australia’s lead.”
“I’m with the rest of the world,” he added. “Australia has not got this one right. Wear a helmet if you want to; it should be a matter of personal choice.”
The organisation’s website and Facebook page, which boasts more than 7000 followers, claims: “The health benefits of riding a bike are many times greater than the risk, with or without a helmet.”
“Forcing people to wear helmets reinforces the perception that cycling is dangerous,” it continues, adding that improving infrastructure by building a network of protected bike lanes would make cycling more attractive.
The mandatory helmet law was introduced in July, 1990. It applies to cyclists riding on roads, bike paths and shared paths, in recreational parks and car parks. Police have the right to stop bike and scooter riders and issue a fine or a warning for not wearing a securely-fitted, approved helmet.
The current penalty for not wearing a helmet is a $185 fine.
After the law was introduced, helmet wearing increased from 31 per cent of cyclists to 75 per cent between 1990 and 1991. Over the following two years, the number of head injuries from all accidents recorded across Victoria fell by 26 per cent.
However, Troy Parsons, a Freestyle Cyclists member and leader of the weekend’s ‘helmet optional’ ride, argues that the reduction in head injuries correlates with a reduction in cycling more generally.
“Most people would say, pro rata, that actually the injuries increased for cyclists,” he said.
The number of cycle rides originating in the City of Yarra increased by 130 per cent between 2001 and 2011. The 2011 Census recorded 3651 people cycling to and from Yarra for work – more than for any other municipality in Melbourne.
“In a city that’s bursting at the seams with polluting vehicles, a huge population and a transport network that’s breaking down, the idea of putting a barrier [compulsory helmets] in the way of a humble bicycle, is ridiculous,” said Mr Todd. “I can think of nowhere else in the world that would encourage healthy, active transport by fining the people who do it.”
“[We’re] really about removing any barriers,” added Mr Parsons. “Busy roads are a barrier. High levels of traffic are a barrier. Having to wear something on your head in hot weather is a barrier for some people.”
However, according to the The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), “peer-reviewed studies conducted in Australia and overseas have repeatedly found bicycle helmet use to be associated with a significant decrease in brain injury and brain injury severity.”
The AHPPC cites one review from 2015 that found bicycle helmet use was associated with a 35 per cent reduction in the odds of sustaining a head injury, a 64 per cent odds reduction in serious head injury and 66 per cent odds reduction of fatal head injury.
Another cyclist on the weekend ride, who gave his name simply as “Rick”, suggested a horses for courses approach.
“If you’re riding on a road in between traffic, a helmet’s fine,” he said. “I live about 100 metres from a park and I have two [young] boys who love bikes, and I find it absolutely insane that when they’re riding on a sidewalk they need to wear a helmet on a 30-plus degree day, just to go to a park.”
Under Victoria’s road safety laws, Vicroads can issue a certificate of exemption from wearing a bicycle helmet to people with neck injuries or those with a history of skin cancer who require a hat, according to Mr Parsons.
Rick agreed that a helmet could save a cyclist’s life, just as it could save a pedestrian and even car passengers.
“You’re eight times more likely to get hit as a pedestrian, and 30 times more likely to get your head hit in a car,” he added.
Another participant in yesterday’s protest, said: “When I commute to work in and out of traffic, I wear a helmet. I don’t think it’ll actually save me if a car goes over me . . . I think I might have a better chance, but that’s my choice.”
He added: “We have normalised car crashes so much. People die every day in cars . . . But the car industry will never lobby to make drivers wear helmets.”
Mr Parsons said he rarely rides on roads.
“I have kids now and I take them to day care, so I’m always seeking out the quietest routes. The irony is I would probably wear a helmet more if the laws weren’t in place, because now I protest them.”
According to Mr Todd: “Riding a bike is a safe activity when carried out at sensible speeds in decent conditions. A crash helmet for all occasions is overkill. The practice of fining people for this healthy and benign activity makes no sense.”