Are Wheels in Motion to Make Helmet Wearing Optional?

November 8, 2017


Cycling Safety


Kristen Brown

Years of strict helmet legislation have taught Australians to believe that in the case of a bike accident, a helmet is our best bet in protecting our brain from the bitumen. But with the Government now pushing to increase the amount of people getting on their bike, proposed trials in the Australian Capital Territory could completely change the status quo.

Part of the ACT’s 2016- 2020 Road Safety Action Plan aims to investigate the risks and benefits of allowing people to ride bicycles without a helmet in low speed areas such as parks, shared zones and town centres. The plan comes after studies found more people would ride if they didn’t have to wear a helmet. In particular, a survey of Sydney adults found that 23 percent of people would ride if a helmet was optional.

The cost of optional helmet wearing

A road accident not only has an emotional cost on an individual but there is also the financial impact of rehabilitating someone who has suffered a serious head injury, which in hindsight is far greater than the cost of a helmet. But according to Sundance Bilson-Thompson of Freestyle Cyclists, the benefits of putting laws in place that encourage people to ride are greater than the risk of injury. 

"Encouraging people to cycle more often will reduce traffic congestion, air pollution and improve overall public health," says Sundance, "cycling is an easy way to increase levels of incidental exercise and numerous studies have shown that the benefits of cycling (in terms of years of life gained, savings to public healthcare, and improvements to work productivity) vastly outweigh the costs due to injury".

With 63.4% of Australians aged 18 years and over being classified as overweight or obese in 2014-2015, getting people out of their cars and onto the road could see an improvement in the overall health of Australians. "One more bike equals one less car, and gridlock in our major cities is already costing the nation billions in lost productivity annually," says Dave Sharp from Safe Cycling Australia, "getting to work on a couple of Weetbix and an endorphin rush beats the hell out of $20 of petrol, an hour or more of agro and a parking ticket."

So no helmet means no protection?

Research shows that wearing a helmet is the most significant factor in reducing the risk of head injury but surprisingly, some of the factors that play into an accident occurring can be limited when a cyclist doesn't don a helmet.

"Helmets are known to dehumanise cyclists so that others see them as objects rather than flesh and bone," says Dave Sharp, "and dicier behaviour has been shown to change around helmetless riders." Other factors that come into play are the space that cyclists are given when they are 'lid-less'. "(a UK study) showed with very precise measurements of 2,500 passing cars that the test cyclists were given 8.5cm (3.3 inches) more clearance by cars if they were not wearing helmets," Sharp said.

The real risk of the ride

The reason people aren't swapping their drive to ride is about more than just helmet hair says Sharp. "People associate helmets with risk, which acts as a deterrent to many who'd otherwise enjoy the benefits and enjoyment cycling can offer them. Take away the association with risk and cycling will again become just another activity, and numbers will increase," he said.  Similarly, Bilson-Thompson from Freestyle Cyclists agrees. "Cycling is not a dangerous activity, but like being a pedestrian it is a vulnerable activity. (Protective equipment) can create the impression that the cyclist is less vulnerable, possibly leading to riskier behaviour around cyclists on the part of drivers, and on the part of cyclists themselves".

The road ahead

Bycicle painted on the street

Non-compulsory helmet wearing is not a new concept, in fact, New Zealand and Australia are the only countries in the world where helmets are mandatory. "A trial repeal in the ACT or elsewhere would be an important first step towards demonstrating what the rest of the world already knows," says Bilson-Thompson, “for both the individual and society, repealing bicycle helmet laws would represent a recognition of the low level of risk associated with cycling, and the importance and fairness of creating safer transport environments through better road engineering and traffic laws to protect vulnerable commuters.

The more people choose to cycle instead of drive, the fewer cars there will be on the roads, and this should in turn reduce the number of serious transport accidents.” 

"More is needed for the protection of cyclists including greater enforcement of the Split Rule, increased investment in infrastructure - particularly for cyclists, and educational awareness programs, most of which are currently run by organisations rather than state governments," says Safe Cycling Australia founder Sharp, "most of our supporters have repeatedly told us that they would wear helmets when they ride longer distances, but they would also appreciate not having to wear a lid for a short tide to the shops. Some would still wear a helmet at all times.

Helmets are still a must-have for a large minority of our supporters, and that can be their choice."

Kristen Brown

Kristen is a Social Media and Content Marketing Specialist. She has experience writing on road and work safety and legal rights topics. Currently she leads the content for Smith's Lawyers as editor and content creator for the blog.