Travelling to and from Melbourne’s velodrome for the Track World Champs a few weeks back, my eye was caught by banks of bright blue hire bikes dotted around the streets.

The Aussie city uses the same Bixi bikes as the London scheme, but from what I saw, they don’t get the same level of use.

Although there was often a couple of free docking points at each station, most of the time they were full. The hire price was minimal, and, as far as I could tell, payment was a lot simpler than the London scheme, so I considered getting one to ride to the velodrome on.

Then I remembered: in Australia it is against the law to ride a bike without a helmet.

Consider the absurdity of that for a minute. Had I jumped on a bike and pedalled off down the road I would have become a criminal. And that has to be the biggest deterrent to using Melbourne’s hire bikes. No one walks around carrying a bike helmet in case they want to make an impromptu bike journey.

At each station there was a poster telling you how far it was to a shop where you could get a $5 helmet. Firstly, I doubt a $5 (£3) helmet is going to protect me on Melbourne’s busy roads, and secondly, I’m not going to spend 20 minutes and $5 so I can then make a free, five-minute bike journey.

It’s absurd in the extreme.

Simon Richardson is deputy editor of Cycling Weekly

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  • alan salter

    i’ve been knocked off my bike by a car twice, once wearing a helmet and once not. on both occasions my head hit the ground but the time wearing the helmet was a whole lot less painful. so i wear a helmet, but it’s up to you what you do. personally i learn by my mistakes. the idea that wearing a helmet puts you at greater risk of injury cuts no ice with me, its the same argument that used to be used about seatbelts by those who didn’t want to wear them.

  • Andrew

    What makes the compulsory helmet law even more ludicrous is that they must be Australian Standards approved as well.
    This means that any helmet purchased outside Australia does not comply with the regulations and you can be fined

  • Carmel Head

    Tom Adams,
    you are right, helmet promotion seems to have the same discouraging effect as a law. Promotion tends to rely on telling people that cycling without a helmet is dangerous. Naturally they tend to think that it would take more than a foam hat to make a dangerous pursuit safe.
    Patrick Weston.
    There are indeed problems with reporting of slight accidents, and to a lesser extent serious accidents. Deaths get the full treatment, death is unmissable.
    The figures which show no benefit from helmet laws are collected by the government which passed the law, so no bias against helmets is likely.
    The studies which show lack of benefit have been attacked by helmeteers, but they have never alleged any systematic bias in the data which hides any benefit.
    There is shaky science in the pro helmet studies. On the data and method used in one notorious study it can be shown that helmets protect against leg injury! There is a serious fault in that study.
    cyclehelmets.org lists all studies on the subject, pro or anti, and gives a critique on each, so you are free to make up your own mind. The people behind the website have made up their own minds on the subject: it would be odd to be so interested in the subject and not come to a conclusion.
    Compare the way this site deals with the evidence with pro helmet site bhit.org which relies on scares and only mentions evidence they think supports their view. I think that a comparison is telling.

  • Patrick Weston

    I’ve been a keen cyclist for 44 years and I will declare that I am well in favour of helmets being worn. Don’t believe that it should be made mandatory.

    The argument that the difference in injuries suffered by those wearing helmets and those not wearing helmets would show in the figures is fine BUT nobody really bothers to measure these properly. I’ve been in several incidents where I’ve been hospitalised and never yet has my accident gone onto any stats — I know ‘cos I asked and I’;ve also asked if hospitals collate figures of cyclists’ head injuries and the clear answer has been “no.”. Until statistics are collated properly I don’t think that either side can use them to support their case.

    I used to be dead set against helmets until we were forced to wear them to races and I then used them when training. There have been many occasions when a tumble off the bike has left a dent in the hat which would have been quite “painful” (that would never get onto any stats); there has been one occasion when I managed to fracture my skull after an altercation with a Toyota Land Cruiser even though I was wearing a helmet. and I know that the helmet saved me from far more serious damage. I know that this is anecdotal but think that 44 years of cycling gives me a bit of valid experience. I would never get o a bike, no matter how short a ride, without a helmet.

    To counter my own argument, I do also know of one rider who says that, after he’d been taken out by a lorry (lost his leg) that, if he’d been wearing a helmet, his head would have been ripped off by the lorry..

    Think that this should be down to personal choice, with balanced arguments available to facilitate that choice.

  • Tom Adams

    Successful governmental advertising on drink-driving mean that most people wouldn’t touch alcohol and drive now, even though it is legally permitted (to an extent..)

    I wonder whether a similar media campaign extolling the safety benefits of helmets might increase uptake without any need for unhelpful legal changes.

    Or would this have the same effect of scaring people off their bikes?

  • Geoff Gartrell

    I spent 2 weeks in South Australia and noticed that the helmets the “ordinary” people on bike were using any kind of helmet from skate board, canoeing, also saw one like a pith-helmet. Usually it seemed that the size/fit
    didn’t matter: I saw a tiny child’s helmet perched on the head of an adult. The club type cyclist wore well fitting helmets. I wear a helmet from the mtb-ing habit. Choice is the thing; if you crash and break your skull it’s your choice

  • Tim James

    In response to the editorial, Aussie Helmet Law Is Absurd, we would like to give the opposite side of the story. We travelled to Melbourne for the Track World Champs and made full use of the hire bike scheme. With just two minutes research before we went we confirmed that despite the scheme owners applying for an exemption, the Victoria State Police had insisted that users of the scheme were still required to wear a helmet at all times. It’s the law of the land, so that was no surprise. We took our helmets with us and within minutes of arriving in Melbourne we were trying the scheme out. Over the five days of the championships we did 120km on the hire bikes, shopping, sightseeing, to and from the velodrome, and of course attacking some strava segments! We didn’t have a single issue with the bikes, or payment, or availability. On the occasion that we found a rack full, we were able to use the very useful smart phone app to find where there was a space to park them 200m away. The overall cost for two bikes and about 30 journeys? Two weekly subscriptions of 8 dollars (or about 5 pounds per person). I understand the argument that one time, casual users will be put off by the need for a helmet and that is unfortunate, but once you see the scheme in operation and how well-organised it is, it doesn’t take much planning to make use of it and we would urge everyone to do so!

  • NeilA

    You could save time if you rode the Bixi-style bike to the shop where you could buy a helmet. Oh, wait…

  • ynys enlli

    You could have left out the word “Australian” in the thread title.
    The experiment of making helmets compulsory has been tried several times. In no case has there been any decrease in the rate of injured and killed cyclists. Helmet enthusiasts have claimed that helmets would save 85% of head injuries. This should be clearly demonstrable in the accident figures.
    The countries with helmet laws and/or high helmet wearing rates have high cyclist death rates and low rates of cycling. The countries where few helmets are worn have low death rates and high cycling rates.

  • Ian Redfern

    For himself, Bruce is right – if he keeps falling off his bike, he should wear his bloody helmet and leave that decision to others. Simon is absolutely correct – just have a look at the Youtube video “A message to Melbourne from Dublin Bikes”. Also, have a look at the Youtube video “The fall of bike share” – it’s a classic, and everything said in it is absolutely correct.

    So many people just don’t know what really happened behind the scenes; I’ve been studying helmet design, testing, the law and the impact of the law for the last 20 years. They don’t know about the pressure put on the Federal government to introduce the law by the Royal Australsian College of Surgeons who now refuse to take any responsibility for two of their members’ actions. They don’t know about the failure of the Victorian government in ignoring sections of the Subordinate Legislation Act (1987).

    They don’t know about the 1987 FORS/ATSB CR55 report which took nearly two years to complete and was then ignored by State and Federal governments (“Motorcycle and bicycle protective helmets; requirements resulting from a post crash study and experiemental research” Corner et al – it’s on the internet). They don’t know about the crude helmet test dummy that’s shares more in similarity with a metal stamping machine than a human neck/headform, and that artificially compresses hard foam liners.

    They don’t know about the State MP who asked the then Minister for Transport to do something about the lack of full face helmets for cyclists in 1996, who then told him the matter was “of paramount importance”, and that nothing ever happened (I’ve been trying to get the govt. to introduce these helmets for the last 20 years).

    They don’t know about the 30+ page damning submission I made to the Vic. State Attorney-General early this year about the negligence of past Ministers in failing to implement the required changes to helmet design and testing, and to withdraw both the law and mandatory voting, who just “brushed the matter aside” as it’s a political issue – NOT A ROAD SAFETY ISSUE.

    Have a look at those two videos and see an MP (an Irish one too!) with a sense of rationale – then go to helmetfreedom.org, and cyclehelmets.org, and read the real truth on bicycle helmets.

    Now think about what you’ve seen.

  • Nigel

    @Bruce is right and wrong…

    A fundamental problem with bicycle helmet laws is that the benefits of bicycling outweigh the costs. This is true both for the individual and through them society (e.g. reduced health care costs, congestion, and environmental impacts) and even business (e.g. through reduce employee sick leave). Experts don’t disagree on this, they debate the size of the benefit not its existence.

    What this means is that to fine somebody for not wearing a helmet is to fine them from improving their health and saving society & business money. That is patently absurd and one reason why helmet laws can be revoked – and helmet laws have been revoked.

    Of course as the laws are patently absurd the politicians who passed them defend them to the hilt; in politics you don’t admit massive screwups if you can avoid it, the the bigger the cost the more you claim they’re a saving. This is why helmet laws don’t get abolished.

    Note that none of this has anything to do with whether wearing a helmet on a bicycle increases or decreases the cost-benefit, that issue is moot in this context.

  • Doug Rand

    Strange isn’t it? If you started wearing a helmet as a passenger in a car, you’d be considered a candidate for psychological treatment, yet the vast majority of traffic-related head injuries occur inside a car.

  • FK

    Yes, helmet laws are absurd. They’re instituted in response to scare campaigns, usually powered by anecdotes. “I fell and would have died if not for my helmet” (or Bruce’s more modest “I’m thankful for the benefit of a helmet in past crashes.”) But it’s silly to think every dented helmet is evidence of a serious head injury prevented. There are far more tales of wonderful protection than there ever were serious head injuries. And the claims that “If he had only worn a helmet…” are just as silly. These things are tested and certified only for minor bumps (low speed impact to a model of a decapitated head, no body attached).

    We’ve now got whole generations in some places who think cycling can’t be done without the funny foam hat. They must imagine that in the old days, cyclists’ corpses had to be plowed off the roads daily!

    Cycling is not unusually dangerous. It’s safer per km than traveling as a pedestrian. And helmets haven’t made it measurably safer. It’s time to stop promoting them, let alone mandating them!

  • Colin Clarke

    This year the New Zealand Medical Journal published my report ‘Evaluation of New Zealand’s bicycle helmet law’ It concluded, ‘This evaluation finds the helmet law has failed in aspects of promoting cycling, safety, health, accident compensation, environmental issues and civil liberties.’ So what might seem to be a good idea had a very negative outcome.

    See

    http://www.cycle-helmets.com/nz-clarke-2012.pdf

    Cycle helmets tend to have a higher accident rate and a higher impact rate than a bare head and this counters the expected benefits.

    See http://www.cycle-helmets.com/head-helmet.doc

    Helmets are often made of a fairly weak /light material and soon break and therefore many cyclists assume they provide a benefit. Helmet laws discourage cycling – a big health negative, result in many fines and remove freedom of conscious to decide as an individual.

    The report “Evaluating bicycle helmet use and legislation in Canada” may be of interest. It reported, “Comparing provinces with helmet legislation to provinces without for the period 1994 to 1998 shows a relative net benefit for those without legislation. It appears helmet legislation has not provided the benefits expected, infringes civil liberties and has caused more harm than good.”

    See http://www.cycle-helmets.com/canada-helmet-assessment.doc

    It is not detailed in the above report but Manitoba had one of the lowest rates of head injury for young cyclists, compared to other provinces.

    Additional information is at;

    http://www.cyclehelmets.org/papers/p787.pdf

    BICYCLE HELMETS: A SCIENTIFIC EVALUATION

    http://www.cyclehelmets.org/1023.html Canada

    How to improve road safety and for cycling, is the wider issue.

  • Pete Clinch

    “I cannot see how any government could withdraw existing helmet laws” says Bruce, but they already have. Mexico City and Tel Aviv’s bike here schemes came about after repeal of their existing laws.

  • RadWagon

    Not only is it absurd on the level you describe but it’s shown to be absurd from a road safety perspective. I’ve written, linking to loads of proper studies on two occasions.

    http://radwagon.blogspot.com/2011/07/cycle-helmets.html
    http://radwagon.blogspot.com/2012/03/compulsory-helmet-laws-and-current.html

    Hence the whole focus on cycle helmets is costing lifes around the world.

    I do hope Australia (doesn’t it work by state, though?) works this out. Although I do note that those in charge in Queensland has point blank refused, even going to the extreme of commissioning their own research. It’s not peer reviewed and seems to not follow correct scientific analysis rules.

  • Bruce

    I’m a cyclist thankful for the benefit of a helmet in past falls/crashes (thankfully none involving cars). I cannot see how any government could withdraw existing helmet laws. Once in, I expect the laws would stay.

    I agree that bike hire schemes rely on spontaneity and that is why the Australian schemes must surely fail. It was great to move from Brisbane to London and be comfortable to use the scheme here. That said, other than short boris rides in the West End I’d prefer to wear a helmet. Your point is choice which won’t be offered in Australia.

    Stay safe,