Helmet laws have been in place in Australia for the last two decades. Avid cycling advocates and active transport promoters continuously argue that having to wear a helmet is not helping getting more people on bicycles.
The point: making people purchase a helmet and wearing it discourages them from regarding a bike as an easy means of getting around. It adds more hassle than it should. Also, it makes cycling look more dangerous than it really is.
Australia is one of the few countries with compulsory helmet laws. Has the introduction of these laws lead to the demise of cycling participation?
Participation rates in cycling had been declining long before cycling helmet laws were introduced in Australia. In fact, the decline grew as rapid as car ownership increased. Cars have always been marketed and perceived as desirable goods that showed-off people’s status in society. Walking, cycling or, God forbid, using public transport became synonymous with low income. Nobody wanted to be associated with that.
More cars required better car infrastructure. Not only did car suitable infrastructure increase it became the primary traffic to focus of planning and building. Think of streets, car parks, shopping centre, schools, workplaces, even your own house – what do you access first, the garage/car park or the front door? Our key infrastructure pieces in life are designed and built for easy access and use: BY CAR.
Getting around any other way became less important, if not forgotten. When infrastructure and people’s behaviour wasn’t conducive to riding a bicycle anymore it made sense to try and protect those (crazy, few) people who were still riding through the easiest possible way: make them wear a helmet.
There is very little doubt about the actual effectiveness of helmets. A helmet will protect a cyclist’s head perfectly – given it is worn correctly and doesn’t dangle from the handlebar. It won’t protect the wearer from any other injuries that can occur, but it will do a fine job IF it the cyclist is involved in the worst possible scenario, a full impact car collision…eeeek!
Surely no one, neither a driver, cyclist nor pedestrian wants to imagine such a situation, let alone be involved in it. But let’s think it through theoretically. How likely is it that a vulnerable road user is involved in a car collision? Depending on location, style and speed of riders it’s a moderate to low likelihood. How severe could the outcome be in a collision between a car and cyclist? Super severe!
We do these risk assessments in all areas of work life. We go through the potential dangers, their likelihood and potential impact. A scenario with a severe outcome requires minimisation of its likelihood and severity wherever we can. We do the same for bicycles. A helmet can save lives in a worst case scenario, but a whole range of much more likely outcomes won’t be addressed with a helmet.
As a person on a bicycle we can influence are where we ride (shared paths, low traffic and high traffic environments) and how we ride (predictability, attention, speed and skills). People contemplating hopping on their bicycles often lack the knowledge of good cycling routes and solid cycling skills – that can make riding a bike a dangerous activity.
Safety remains one of the key issues amongst those contemplating to ride and those who already do. Surveys show the same results again and again. People want to feel safer, they want better infrastructure, ideally separated from cars – and these are all valid asks.
The demand is certainly increasing (Perth’s cycling population has grown by 12% only in the last year), which is terrific. Now is the best time to join the calls for more and better infrastructure and rethink our transport culture (this includes defensive riding, which we will talk about later). There is great value in safety in numbers – the more people ride the more people pay attention to vulnerable road users and EXPECT them out and about.
The more people are out and demand improved infrastructure, the better paths will get and focus will diversify on more than just one mode of transport. If history is anything to go by helmet laws will then be again a consequence of people’s choice of transport rather than the cause for more people joining in (or not).
Helmets – what are your thoughts. Love them or loath them?