Cycling with helmet

Well the nannies of Australia certainly have us well-trained.

On holiday to the UK a few weeks ago, my family (husband, the 12 and 14 year-old and I) hired bikes to take off for a spin to enjoy the glorious sights of autumn in Hyde Park. The scene was idyllic. Complete with cheeky grey squirrels fossicking for acorns.( I thought my daughter would expire from Extreme Cuteness Exposure.)

Despite the cavalcade of cyclists whizzing by without helmets, I wasn’t going to risk a fine. I had to ask the three English Bobbies strolling by: “Excuse me, do we have to wear a helmet here?”

“No. You’re good to go,” they smiled and waved us on with a grin.

I wondered why they were sharing a chuckle? Is it because they’re always asked that question by Nervous Nellie Aussie tourists?

David CameronWe happily tore off and before too long were confident enough to join others on the shared road for short trips to the museum or the art gallery and back. All without helmets… just like the Prime Minister, David Cameron (left).

Australia was the first nation to introduce compulsory bike helmets in the early 90s. It’s an article of faith here that helmets must be worn at all times. No exceptions.

However, while no-one would question the sanity of wearing helmets along any high-speed motorway, making helmets mandatory on dedicated bike paths or for short inner-city trips is just plain nutty.

Consider this remarkable statistic from the UK Barclays Bike hire scheme – in operation for two years and boasting 14 million journeys.

In August this year before the Olympics, the popular “Boris Bikes” as they’re known, with depots all over inner-city London, were officially audited.

The result? There was just one serious injury for every million journeys.

Yep, you read that right.

You have a one-in-a-million chance of being knocked over riding one of Boris’ grey clunkers. (And notoriously heavy they are to manoeuvre, which partly explains the lack of injury. You’d be flat out beating a squirrel from a standing start.)

Boris Johnson
London Mayor Boris Johnson off for a helmet-free spin. Image via AP.

Here in Australia we are flat-earthers when it comes to urban cycling. Ironic since most of our capital cities are ironing-board flat and superbly suited to cycling.

We’re failing miserably at getting riders to use bike share options. One of the main reasons? Compulsory helmets.

We have bike hire schemes in Melbourne and Brisbane. Both of them are under-utilised. They’ve tried leaving free helmets on bikes or selling them cheap, but most are pilfered for private use. Others don’t want to share sweaty headgear for sanitary reasons. Of course non-English speaking tourists aren’t going to bother.

“Excuse me, where can I hire a bike helmet please?” is not in any phrase book I’ve ever used.

Sydney (where cyclists are widely regarded as vermin on wheels) is considering a bike-sharing scheme on its network of bike paths, but only if it wins an exemption from compulsory helmet laws. Law makers are adopting a ‘wait and see’ attitude. But exactly what they are waiting for remains a mystery when the data from overseas seems conclusive: Compulsory helmets mean fewer cyclists. Fewer cyclists means fewer bike paths. Fewer bikes means more traffic.

Of course the idea of making helmets optional on inner-city roads is enough to make most Aussie safety experts have a coronary. 

But the free-wheeling peletons in Paris, Barcelona, China, Ireland, Denmark, Montreal and the Netherlands – where cycling is so popular that locals complain they’re running out of places to park at train stations – can’t be wrong. All of them are able to ride without helmets. Some on paths. Some on the shared road.

Mexico City just repealed its compulsory helmet laws to get its bike-sharing scheme going.

In fact, even in New York City, where sharing the roads is hairy – and there were 21 cyclist fatalities in 2011 – they’re rolling out a 10,000 bicycle share scheme next year. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has rejected calls  for mandatory helmets.

This October is Safe Cycle Month and perusing the Victoria Police website I read: During the month long campaign, a variety of vehicle, foot and bike patrols will be used to enforce road rules and speak to cyclists about safety issues.”

Rules and enforcement, that’s the angle. As it always is in Australia which ex-pat friends ruefully say is the most over-regulated nation in the world.

Melbourne bikes
Would more relaxed helmet laws encourage use of our bike share schemes? Image: Jase Wong via The Conversation.

And before you regale me with hair-raising tales of reckless cyclists, and how your life was saved by a helmet, I’d like acknowledge that of course safety is important. But something reseachers also cite is that the mania for helmets makes cycling seem more dangerous than it really is. Some studies show it has about the same risks as being a pedestrian.

We should be promoting the joys and benefits of gettin’ on yer bike: Good for the environment, tremendous for physical health and brilliant for easing inner-city traffic congestion.

Mexico bikes
Free wheeling in Mexico City. Car-free Sunday mornings attract 80,000 cyclists.

Finally, perhaps we should listen to Piet de Jong, a professor in the department of applied finance and actuarial studies at Macquarie University in Sydney who says that in some instances cycle helments can have a “large, unintended negative impact.”

“Pushing helmets really kills cycling and bike-sharing in particular because it promotes a sense of danger that just isn’t justified — in fact, cycling has many health benefits,” he says. Through mathematical modelling, he concluded that the benefits may outweigh the risks by 20 to 1.

He adds: “Statistically, if we wear helmets for cycling, maybe we should wear helmets when we climb ladders or get into a bath, because there are lots more injuries during those activities.”

So we continued to cycle without helmets in London, feeling the lovely drizzle in our hair, but we did seriously think about using one for rush hour at Piccadilly Station.

* Oh, and a reader sent this article, well worth a read: Australia’s Helmet Law Disaster from the Institute of Public Affairs.


What do you think? Are Australia’s helmet laws draconian? Know The Hoopla’s stand on this issue here.

What would encourage you to get around by bike more frequently?


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