Helmet-free cycling trial could be a game changer

Some 25 years after Australia became the first country in the world to start implementing mandatory cycling helmet laws, some surprising news.

One jurisdiction is looking at the possibility of easing the laws in a bid to increase cycling participation.

A new Road Safety Action Plan would consider the creation of helmet-optional areas in the ACT, Road Safety Minister Shane Rattenbury announced.

"The ANU campus in the city … is all a low-speed environment and we can imagine a scenario where people would move across campus or ride to a meeting across the city without having to wear a helmet," Rattenbury said.

Meanwhile, just over the border, NSW is 12 days away from a raft of new laws and fines, including a world-first measure where riders must carry ID, as well as a 350 per cent rise in the helmet fine, from $71 to $319.

Rattenbury said the NSW measures were counterproductive in increasing the number of bike riders – and he's not alone.

This week, Manly Warringah Cycling Club president Jim Buda spoke of a meeting he had with his local MP – NSW Premier Mike Baird – to express his concerns about the fines.

"The majority of cyclists [in Manly] ride along the beachfront without helmets and that's something which is replicated in a number of communities across NSW," he said.

"If these laws are to be enforced, and if the fines are to be levied to these cyclists, then I think there will be a great impact on the amenity of those suburbs."


The ACT's suggestion isn't a first. In 2013, Queensland's inquiry into cycling issues called for a trial allowing lid-free riding on footpaths, bike lanes and low-speed streets. The recommendation was knocked back by then transport minister Scott Emerson.

Lifting the lids

A similar measure has meanwhile been trundling along in one corner of Australia for decades. In the mid-90s, the Northern Territory lifted the law for riders on separated bike lanes or footpaths (and please note – footpath riding is now legal in five of Australia's eight major jurisdictions). Surveys show Darwin has one of the highest rates of commuter cycling in Australia.

I wear a helmet in Australia, and mostly choose to do so when riding at speed or on traffic-heavy routes overseas, but not always (donning a helmet in many European cities would feel like wearing boardies on a nude beach). I came to cycling as a sport and wearing a helmet makes sense to me when I'm head-down and charging. But in my transition from Mamil to Mamoil, I've changed my mind on enforcement.

Australia right, world wrong?

Many people don't realise that very few of the world's nations force adult riders to wear helmets at all times: Australia (excluding the NT), New Zealand and the UAE. A handful of Canadian provinces and some local authorities in the US do so as well.

If it was a good idea, surely everyone would be following along? In fact, cycling advocates in other countries often cite Australia as an example of why the laws should not be adopted.

What does the science say?

Oh boy … where to start. Opposing camps have been battling this out for decades, with a recent showdown at a Senate inquiry. For me, the key detail seems to be the difference between individual outcomes (what happens to you if you hit your head) versus population effects (do helmet laws lead to fewer people cycling, and what is the overall health impact on society as a result?).

There is also a tussle on just how effective helmets are in preventing severe injury.

The debate has already kicked off in the ACT, with University of NSW Professor Raphael Grzebieta telling Fairfax Media that research shows lifting the helmet rule would only have a "minor influence" on the uptake of bike riding. The real issue is infrastructure and speed limits, he says, while one of his studies shows that wearing a helmet reduces the risk of head injuries by up to 74 per cent.

University of Canberra Professor Gordon Waddington told the ABC: "What the ACT government is doing now, looking at taking on new evidence and [considering] the overall benefit to society of increasing activity, I think outweighs the relatively small risk [from not wearing a helmet]."

And University of Sydney Professor Chris Rissel told me the trial "could demonstrate under local conditions what the effect of such changes in legislation would actually be in terms of cycling participation and injury rates. Recent Canadian analysis found that helmet legislation for adults had no effect on head injury rates."

Trial could be a game-changer

A helmet-optional trial in the ACT could answer a lot of questions and a positive outcome could help change how governments view cycling safety. It could also be used to motivate initiatives like helmet exemptions for bike share schemes, which have boosted cycling participation in other cities but have struggled in Australia.

Rattenbury says the trial won't proceed until an expert has evaluated the risks and benefits. In such a contentious arena, it's going to be fascinating to see who gets the gig.

Do you believe helmets should be mandatory in Australia, or optional? Tell us why in the comments section. This will be tightly moderated so please ensure comments and replies remain on-topic.

Fairfax journalist Michael O'Reilly has written the On Your Bike blog since 2011. He has won a Cycling Promotion Fund media award and is a regular voice for cycling on radio and television.

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