The Cycling Helmet Debate: Do the Benefits Outweigh the Costs?

Katherine McCallum
May 6, 2024
min read
Man riding a bicyle and wearing a cycling helmet in Australia

The Cycling Helmet Debate: Do the Benefits Outweigh the Costs?

Cycling can be an incredibly freeing experience, but some might argue that cycling helmets put a dampener on things. Carry on reading to learn all you need to know about the cycling helmet debate, and whether they are an unavoidable necessity for keeping us safe on Queensland’s roads.

What are the current laws?

The current law across Australia makes it compulsory for anyone riding a bicycle to correctly wear a helmet that meets Australian Standards. Failure to do so in Queensland will result in a $154 penalty

However, there are some exceptions to mandatory helmet use in extraordinary circumstances. If you have a medical condition or physical attribute that does not allow you to wear a helmet, then you are exempt but must carry a valid doctor’s certificate with you when you ride. Additionally, if you are part of a religious group and wearing a headdress that would not allow the helmet to be fitted correctly, a concession is also granted. 

What are the benefits of cycling helmets? 

Across multiple studies into the benefits of cycling helmets and injury prevention, the results showed a resounding reduction in injuries sustained. Wearing a cycling helmet reduced the risk of head and brain injuries by 63-88%, and they were found to be equally as effective in collisions with motor vehicles and all other causes. Helmets were also able to reduce injuries to the upper and mid facial areas by 65% but had no effect when it came to lower facial injuries. 

The challenges of compulsory cycle helmet use

As much as the evidence touts that helmets save lives, their mandated use still provides significant barriers to cycling.


Take the failed CityCycle initiative in Brisbane for example. Introduced in 2010, the scheme involved the introduction of 2000 bikes across the Brisbane area available for hire. However, over the 10 years of its operation, only 4 million trips were recorded. 

Part of this could be down to the requirement for those using the bikes to wear helmets. In the hot, humid, and hilly conditions of a city like Brisbane, pedal power and a stifling and sweaty helmet aren’t the best of bedfellows. Even if you did wish to cycle, carrying around a helmet with you, or having to use a shared communal helmet are both not enticing propositions. 

The scheme was finally axed in 2020 and is estimated to have cost the taxpayer $13 million. 

A compulsory cycle turn-off?

Studies into the mandatory cycle helmet laws introduced in Australia have noticed some interesting trends in how it has affected the cycling population. 

In Perth, Western Australia’s cycling laws reduced the amount of people cycling by between 30-40%, with the number being higher in areas where the helmet laws were more strictly enforced. 

In areas of the country where there were less stringent checks on helmet-wearing, cycling rates did improve and recover back to previous levels, the complete opposite of heavy policing.

Safety first or opening the way to new risks?

Interestingly, even when the number of people cycling was reduced due to compulsory helmet-wearing, the number of hospitalisations due to bike-related incidents stayed at the same level, with a slight increase in whole-body injuries.

This could be due to the illusion of invincibility that some people may find from wearing a cycle helmet, leading them to make riskier decisions on our roads. Additionally, ill-fitting helmets or those that impair the field of vision could lead to poor hazard perception and a risk of falls.

Cycling safety: A more holistic approach?

Although the benefits of wearing cycling helmets to prevent significant head trauma are plain to see, there are many other ways that potential risks can present themselves to cyclists that helmets cannot protect them from. For example, a helmet can’t prevent bodily injuries from a collision or fall, so we also need to look at additional ways in which we can keep cyclists safe.

Safety in numbers

One of the most effective ways of preventing injury and improving cyclist safety is in a “safety in numbers” approach. In areas where there is a higher percentage of pedestrians and cyclists, collisions with motorists and other road users are greatly reduced. This could also explain the reasons why hospitalisations for cycling injuries have not fallen since the cycling helmet laws, as the reduction of people cycling as a result has removed this protective effect leaving lone cyclists more at risk. 

Bike-friendly infrastructure

Focusing on bike-friendly infrastructure not only fosters a healthy relationship with cycling but also promotes safety for all road users. The introduction of dedicated cycle lanes, traffic calming measures, and car-free zones reduces the risk of accidents and the positive impact of a greater cycling population outweighs the infrastructure costs almost fivefold. 

In areas where dedicated cycling lanes are not possible, the introduction of “sharrows”, arrow markings that indicate that a particular lane is shared usage between cars and cycles helps increase cyclists’ visibility and gives them more confidence to be able to use these lanes effectively and safely. 

Global case studies

Changes in cycling behaviour following cycling helmet laws in other countries have also been documented. There are currently only 4 countries in the world where cycle helmets are mandatory for all ages: Australia, Cyprus, New Zealand, and Argentina. However, other countries that have had cycling helmet laws have repealed or amended them in recent years. In 2007, Israel changed its laws to only affect people under 18. Mexico City in 2010 and Bosnia and Herzegovina announced full repeals on cycling helmet laws, primarily to encourage more people to take up cycling. 

So, while cycle helmets are a worthwhile investment to protect lives and to stay on the right side of Australian law, they are not the be-all and end-all when it comes to cycling safety. 

If you wish to further understand your rights as a cyclist on Queensland’s roads, our friendly team at Smith’s Lawyers is more than happy to lend a hand. Don’t get yourself in a spin and instead speak to us today. 

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