Lifting the Lid on Mandatory Helmet Laws

australia perth cyclyst with helmetWorld Streets maintains a watching brief and reports from time to time on mandatory helmet laws in different parts of the world. (For more on this: http://goo.gl/H8mEHm .) Ian Ker reports here from Perth with a case study of mandatory bicycle helmet laws in West Australia , as presented to the 29 May 2014 VeloCity Global Conference in Adelaide.

Lifting The Lid On WA’s Mandatory Helmet Laws

By Ian Ker, Principal, CATALYST (Consulting in Applied Transport, Access and Land use sYSTems) based on a multi-authored paper (Neo-Political Action and a New Public Policy Paradigm)

The 1980s were a time of optimism in the Perth cycling world. The spirit of the 1977 Geelong Bikeplan had been resurrected in the Perth Bikeplan of 1985 and cycling activity had increased from one trip in 30 to one trip in 20 over the decade to 1986.

What happened subsequently was a veritable master class in unanticipated effects of poorly-thought-out public policy.

At the beginning of the 1990s, the federal Minister for Transport decided that all cyclists should be forced to wear helmets. He did so on the basis of no research or analysis, other than the almost tautological observation that helmets can protect against head injuries.

This policy was forced on the states and territories by a threat to withhold road safety funding.

The immediate result was a dramatic fall in the amount of cycling. Cycling to work, where many were already voluntarily wearing helmets, fell by 35% between 1991 and 1996. Cycling for all purposes fell by two-thirds, from 5.2% of trips to 1.7%, between 1986 and 2006.

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More than two decades after helmets were made compulsory for cyclists in Western Australia, cycling other than for work or recreation has almost disappeared from the Perth scene.

Cycling to work is edging slowly back to its pre-helmet law level, thanks in no small part to improvements in cycle infrastructure in inner areas. The recently-released WA Bicycle Network Plan makes great play of the rate of increase in cycling to work in Perth, but fails to mention that it is still below the level of 1991, before the mandatory helmet laws.

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Cycling to shops or school or just to hang out with friends is no longer a part of daily life for most people.

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Why has this happened?

One reason is that Perth is a hot place. It is no coincidence that the three capital cities in which the fall in cycling to work was greatest and most sustained were the three hottest capital cities – Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide. We exclude Darwin from this analysis simply because the laws are less stringent there – itself largely because it is such a hot and humid place.

A second reason is that helmets are an encumbrance at times when you are not riding your bike. If you have a locker at your workplace, this might not matter, but most places we go don’t have such facilities – and we have to carry our helmet around with us.

Most important, though, is that telling cyclists they have to protect themselves for their own safety reinforces the perception of cycling as an unsafe activity while doing nothing to make it less unsafe. Over one-quarter (27%) of Perth people state that dislike of wearing a helmet negatively affected their cycling activity, but the perception, fostered by compulsory helmet laws, of cycling being a dangerous activity contributed to:

  • Level of confidence riding a bike (negatively affects cycling activity for 35%);
  • Feeling safe riding around your area (negatively affects cycling activity for 40%); and
  • Feeling safe cycling on the road (negatively affects cycling activity for 40%).

Mandatory helmet laws have been a ‘blame the victim’ distraction from other proven means of improving cyclist safety, including provision of high-quality infrastructure.

The WA Government’s own figures in the draft WA Bicycle Network Plan (but missing from the final plan) show that funding for the Perth Bicycle Network has declined from 100% of the required level in 1997/98 to around 25% in 2012/13. The current budget allocation of $40 million over 4 years is required every year to complete the planned bicycle networks for Perth and the rest of WA in the next 10 years.

So What?

The level of cycling in Perth is one-third what it was before the mandatory helmet laws. This has been a contributory factor in the decline in physical activity levels and the corresponding increase in obesity and diseases related to being overweight and sedentary.

There is certainly no evidence, as some have suggested, that those who used to cycle will have substituted some other form of physical activity for cycling. Cycling can more easily be made a part of everyday activity than many other forms of physical exercise, other than walking.

Mandatory helmet laws actually make cycling less safe for those who continue to cycle, in three ways:

  • Cyclists who wear helmets tend to ride faster, in comparable situations, than those who don’t;
  • Motor vehicle drivers pass closer to cyclists wearing helmets than those who are not; and
  • Fewer cyclists translates into increased risk through reduction in the ‘safety in numbers’ effect.

But health and safety is only one aspect of the damage done to the WA and Australian community by helmet laws.

The health and safety benefits of cycling are only a small part of the overall community benefits and even if all cycling activity foregone were to be replaced by equivalent other physical activity, the non-health benefits of cycling would be sufficient to make the case that less cycling is not in the best interests of the community.

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Policy Protection

There appears to be a climate of what can only be called policy protection, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Despite having all this information available to them (this paper is based entirely on published, mainly Department of Transport, information), public servants and politicians refuse to consider even relaxation of the helmets laws.

When this author contacted the WA Department of Transport to enquire how best to get this evidence considered in the policy process, the answer, from two people separately, was effectively ‘not through us’ and ‘there’s no chance of doing so’.

When faced with the recommendations of a Parliamentary Inquiry, earlier this year, for a trial relaxation of helmet laws, the Queensland Minister for Transport, the same day, refused to consider the committee’s recommendation – on the basis that he was “a big believer in the benefits of helmets”.

From a political perspective, of course, it is so easy to personalise and emotionalise the potential consequences of not wearing a helmet.

It is more difficult to personalise the health consequences of too little physical activity, as these tend to be longer term.

It is even more difficult to personalise the individual and collective economic effects, despite the fact that these are nearly four times the health benefits.

Key Issues

A number of key issues remain to be answered by those seeking objective review of Australia’s mandatory helmet laws for cyclists, including:

  • To what extent are the adverse effects on cycle usage reversible, given that we now have a generation of non-cyclists for whom compulsory helmets have established a fear of cycling as a dangerous activity?
  • Is it possible to avoid the knee-jerk political response (as by the Queensland Minister of Transport in response to the Parliamentary Inquiry recommendations) that ‘helmets work’ – failing to see the distinction between individual safety, on the one hand, and community/economic health, on the other?

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About the author:

Ian Ker is a transport economist/planner with 45 years experience. He led the teams that developed the 1985 Perth Bikeplan and the 1996 Bike Ahead Strategy and Perth Bicycle Network Plan. He was one of the originators of the TravelSmart approach to getting people to use cars less. More recently, he has specialised in program and project evaluation and business case development, with an emphasis on cycling, active transport, physical activity and travel behaviour change. The older and more experienced (not to mention less reliant on governments for an income) he gets, the more he is able to say so when the emperor has no clothes.

ian ker

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About the editor:

eb-bio note 1jun14

 

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