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August 4, 2021

Bike safety

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Dr Richard Harvey might like to do a little research on the usefulness or not of bicycle helmets. There’s plenty of data since most of the rest of the world doesn’t have compulsory helmet laws and for very good reason. They make little or no difference to bicycle safety.

What is affected is bicycle usage. When these overly protective laws were enacted bicycle usage halved overnight. There’s long been a suspicion amongst cyclists that there’s a concerted anti-cyclist effort by those with a vested interest in us paying through the nose to move from point A to point B. 

We’ve already had more than enough deaths of cyclists in this area, all wearing helmets. Just because it’s a law doesn’t make it a good law.

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  1. I will repeat the comments I made in Dr Harvey’s letter: The most recent Australian epidemiological study just published by the director of the UNSW Transport and Road Safety Research Centre Oliver et al shows a drop in deaths of some 40% since MHL. It concluded In the absence of robust evidence showing a decline in cycling exposure following helmet legislation or other confounding factors, the reduction in Australian bicycle-related fatality appears to be primarily due to increased helmet use and not other factors . Meta studies in Canada by paediatricians were similarly clear on helmet’s benefits, found no clear link between cycling rates between provinces that had MHL and those that did not ad recommended MHL for adults and kids. Another cross-provincial study concluded: Canadian youth and adults are significantly more likely to wear helmets as the comprehensiveness of helmet legislation increases. Helmet legislation is not associated with changes in ridership. The Road Safety Research Foundation in Netherlands has recommended helmets be compulsory for children and the elderly; it found the evidence of reduced cycling rates inconclusive.

    That some cyclists were sadly killed wearing helmets is sad but plainly not statistically significant.
    Byron Bay is part of NSW and this law has good compliance and support in other places including – even in nearby Ballina. If you wish to change this NSW law you need to provide a conclusive case that thee would be a marked increase in cycling rates; that evidence has never been shown. People have no social licence to decide whether a law is worth obeying and it is particularly inappropriate fro overseas visitors to undermine adherence to the laws of any country they visit.

    MHL has nothing to do with lobby groups promoting motoring – was introduced to save lives which it has been shown to do. Is it something in the humid heat and fertile soil Robin that makes these conspiracy theories thrive in the Byron Shire!

    • As you pointed out head trauma reduced by 40% after the introduction of MHL. Since bicycle usage reduced by 50% therefore your 40% reduction of head trauma is less than significantly relevant along with the figures you quote from Canada being less than factual.

      Here’s a quote from studies done in British Columbia.
      Effect on casualties
      The percentage of child cyclists admitted to hospital with head injury pre and post law was as follows (Macpherson et al, 2002):

      1994-95 1995-96 1996-97 1997-98
      39.8% 32.4% 35.1% 30.0%
      The largest improvement in head injury rates was pre-law. The law resulted in no improvement in % head injuries from a year before legislation (95/96) to a year after (97/98) compared with Canadian provinces that did not introduce a helmet law. It seems likely, therefore, that on-going trends rather than the helmet law was responsible for the changes over time. (Robinson, 2003b)

      For cyclists of all ages, total cyclist injuries from police attended collisions ( i.e. involving a motor vehicle) declined by 35% from 1995 to 1997 (31% by 1999) (ICBC). Head injuries in these collisions as a percentage of total injuries varied thus:

      1995 1997 1998 1999
      12.8% 13.9% 12.4% 14.0%
      The proportion of head injuries did not change with the helmet law.

      In 2010, the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles admitted that fatalities had not fallen since introduction of the helmet law, but still claimed that helmets saved lives. (Private comm)

      Effect on cycle use
      Controlled surveys of cycle use before and after the law were not carried out. However a survey to measure helmet use in 1999 suggested that the cyclist profile had changed, with around 30% fewer cyclists aged 16 to 30 years, a similar reduction in road cycles and a smaller reduction in the proportion of females cycling. (Foss and Beirness, 2000)

      The fall of 35% in all cyclist injuries from 1995 to 1997 (see above) was most likely a combination of general road safety benefits and falling cycle use. Pedestrian injuries fell by 7% over the same period (ICBC). It is therefore possible that cycle use fell by around 28% due to the helmet law.

      Johns, 2012 found that the benefits of the helmet law would outweigh the costs only if the reduction in cycling brought about by the law was no more than 0.4% (moderate estimate of benefit) to 1.75% (most optimistic estimate of benefit). In practice the deterrent to cycling has been much greater than this and costs have much exceeded the benefits.
      Just because it’s a law doesn’t make it a good law.

      • It’s an attractive idea that removing MHL is a cheap and easy way to increase cycling numbers but there is no overwhelming body of evidence to support that. There are studies available around the internet that consider MHL’s net impact on health but their conclusions vary, and they examine the impact of introducing legislation and not the corollary that removing MHL would be of net benefit. UK Ministry of Transport when it examined the studies available concluded “There is some evidence that legislation may have resulted in decreased levels of bicycling (for example in Victoria, Australia) but there are confounding factors and no clear long-term trends”. The recent study by Oliver found an absence of robust evidence showing a decline in cycling exposure following helmet legislation or other confounding factors, concluding “…the reduction it found in Australian bicycle-related fatality (by 40%) appears to be primarily due to increased helmet use and not other factors”.
        Unfortunately some MHL critics are suggesting wearing helmets is not a good idea but it’s good to see you set a good example and use your helmet. Let’s work with Janelle, Tamara and councils to implement the sort of interventions we all agree make cycling safer: better bike paths and lower car speeds where we share the road

        • Nobody is suggesting that removing MHL is a cheap and easy way to increase cycling numbers, that’s something you’ve made up. There is no overwhelming body of evidence to support MHL and plenty of evidence to suggest deleterious effects to cycle usage. The evidence clearly shows education to be far more effective than throwing laws around, which may provide lots of righteousness but, at best, are just a revenue raiser. Although not around here where the preponderance of OS visitors have the police finding discretion the more economical path.
          You say that some cyclists being sadly killed wearing helmets is sad but plainly not statistically significant. However, that was clearly in response to Dr Harvey’s scare tactics of saying we can expect more cyclist deaths through lack of helmets. You seem to have conveniently forgotten that, along with the clear evidence from Canada that cyclist deaths through lack of helmets is plainly not statistically significant.

          • It is not up to me or Dr Harvey to prove anything. We have a law in place that most recent research shows has saved lives and that that reduction is not related to a fall in cycling exposure. Olivier’s 2014 review of the data and methods used to support these arguments and shows they are statistically flawed. When the majority of evidence against helmets or mandatory helmet legislation (MHL) is carefully scrutinised it appears overstated, misleading or invalid, and that much of the statistical analysis has been conducted by people with known affiliations with anti-helmet or anti-MHL organisations. Other Canadian research to that which you and other anti-MHL supporters quote came to different conclusions. The Dennis et al study “The effects of provincial bicycle helmet legislation on helmet use and bicycle ridership” in Canada found Canadian youth and adults are significantly more likely to wear helmets as the comprehensiveness of helmet legislation increases and helmet legislation is not associated with changes in ridership

            It is up to you to show removing MHL will markedly increase cycling sufficient to more than balance the liekly increase in rates of injury. Since there is no agreement among researcher on the impact of MHL on cycling exposure, and since countries with comparable cycling environments to ours like the US and US have low rates of cycling even without MHL, how can you be so confident removing MHL will increase cycling?

            I agree education is important particularly for motorists, but I would like to see one on MHL similar to the seat belt campaigns that focus on low compliance in rural areas and some policing targeted at adults cycling in the vicinity of kids . But most importantly lets get behind Tamara and Janelle push the new government to meet its commitments on cycling infrastructure and use it to address some of the priorities in councils’ PAMPS and Cycling Plans.

    • Nobody is suggesting wearing helmets is not a good idea, I always wear one. It’s the law which isn’t a good idea. Studies in Canada show that wearing helmets was a growing trend anyway, irrespective of laws which, largely, serve to make self-righteous politicians feel useful. In provinces with no MHL bicycle usage did not diminish yet percentage of helmet use is much the same.
      Just because it’s a law doesn’t make it a good law.

  2. The “most recent ..study” is a load of tosh! The reduction of bicycle fatalities was due to the reduction in bicycle usage. Refer to statistics by Dorothy Robinson. Meta studies in Canada actually showed helmets make no difference at all. “That cyclists were killed wearing helmets is not statistically significant”??!! Seriously? You’ve just stated “MHL saves lives”. So which is it, MHL save lives or it’s not significant? Most head injuries happen to car occupants. More pedestrians than cyclists get head injuries. Common factor? Car crashes. If MHL is so good,why not MHL for all people for all transport options?

  3. I do not know what are your qualification are to be dismissing a study by a widely cited statistician and his team in the International Journal of Epidemiology. My comment was that a small number of cyclists were killed locally as being sad – indeed they are personal tragedies – but are not statistically significant in determining the efficacy of helmets. That is what studies like Olivier’s and those he analysed in in his meta stay show , notwithstanding that Robinson and Canadian study – not a meta study – came to different conclusions(for readers unfamiliar meta studies are summary studies of other studies). . Most studies find they are effective.

    The significance of Olivier’s work and the Canadian studies I referred to is that they do not show any clear evidence of significant reduced cycling exposure over time because of MHL. Your difficulty is that in the absence of any consensus of an impact on cycling you have to show to governemnt the corollary of what you claim is true – that removing MHL will lead to a significant increase of cycling. With low rates of cycling, particularly among teens in all the Anglo-countries, which all favour cars over bikes and which have relatively poor cycle infrastructure, it is very difficult to conclude removing MHL will make any significant difference to cycling rates.

    What we do know is poor policing and poor examples by adults lead to low compliance among other riders and particularly children and young people. This was not an election issue and neither Labor nor the successful LNP did not propose examining let alone removing MHL. It is supported by the majority of people in NSW and as such there remains a mandate for MHL, and there is no social licence for people to not adhere to it, or to undermine it and put kids at risk by doing so. ,

    The reference to helmets pedestrian and cars is a red herring. to distract from the issue. I would note though that in crashes with other cars, occupants wearing belts in the latest generation of cars are at low risk of head or other injuries.

  4. To Peter Hatfield, have been reading your contributions with interest, but you do not pass the pub test – which is of course that after 30 years the rest of the world have not followed And some the did follow Australia have turned back.
    If your reasons and thinking on mandatory bike helmets are correct then why after almost 30 years have the rest the world not followed Australia?
    And (as I expect you know) the rest of the world are just as interested in bicycle safety as Australia is because the rest of the world have to pay for acquired brain injury and general hospital costs just the same as we do, but the rest of the world have decided that on a population wide basis for a wide variety of reasons it is best public policy not to follow Australia and they have proven that their decision has been correct because they have more cyclists and lower overall injury rates.
    Year in year out the number of people cycling in Australia as a percentage of population continues to drop with the marked fall (as shown by ABS statistics) commencing in the early/mid 90s whereas in the rest of the world the numbers are increasing, and the only difference is the piece of plastic you stick on your head by order of government
    A recent Swedish newspaper article bemoaned the fact that since mandatory child helmet laws in that country the number of children riding pushbikes to school had dropped from an average in the high 80%’s to below 50% and was still falling and that there was serious concern about a growing obesity problem and traffic congestion and the inability of public transport to properly service the children who had previously ridden to school.

    • The reason the rest of the world does not follow suit is the risk o political unpopularity with cyclists and the sort of drop that occurred in Australia immediately after MHL was introduced. It is a political rather than an epidemiological issue, and in the case of the UK and Netherlands made against the advice of road safety experts . Our situation is different. We successfully introduced MHL and analyses by epidemiologists rather than cycling groups show no robust evidence of a serious impact on cycling numbers over time, and no evidence that the corollary – removing MHL – will increase cycling. I note there have been drops in cycling and walking to schools in many places without MHL including the UK. Numbers of people cycling to work in places with good infrastructure in Australia are comparable to similar places without MHL with high rates of car use. .

      The lower rates of injury in Northern Europe and higher rates of cycling are the result of good infrastructure and strong control of motor-vehicle use and speed, which should be the focus of cycle groups and is certainly my focus, not looking for some magic bullet solution to low cycling rates. The Swedish problem is that of having MHL for kids and not adults. It is very difficult to expect kids and particularly teenagers to do what adults do not have to do and do not do. You make helmets a symbol of being childish, whereas in Australia we normalized their use for all. MHL enjoys good support particularly from parents. They are still the norm in mainstream Australia – in conservative Ballina which has good off-road infrastructure most cyclists use helmets as do most kids and our cycling participation rates area are higher than most places in the US and UK.

      When we have achieved a cycling environment like Netherlands or Denmark we might care to revisit this issue. In the meantime we should not put ourselves in the situation the Swedes have and be sending a message to kids and impressionable young adults that cycling with a helmet is uncool and childish.

      • Correction; helmets enjoy good support, particularly from parents. Helmet wearing, particularly in European countries and Canadian provinces without MHLs, is on a par with here. How many studies showing that do you need to see before you get the point that education beats laws?

        • In a recent article “Don’t change a thing: bicycle helmet law good road safety policy “ published by Professor Narelle Haworth, director of Queensland Universtity of Technology’s Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety – Queensland (CARRS-Q) quotes form Oliver’s 2016 study which found helmets cut the chances of a head injury by 50 per cent, a serious head injury by 69 per cent and a fatal head injury by 65 per cent. They also reduced the odds of injuries to the face by 33 per cent. She noted: “His study was a meta-analysis of 40 studies worldwide, covering 64,000 injured cyclists, which is pretty comprehensive.”
          She also noted that “…helmet laws result in high wearing rates. CARRS-Q studies have observed many thousands of bicycle riders across Brisbane and other areas of Queensland and overall wearing rates are greater than 95%. Taking away the requirement to wear a helmet off-road will see fewer riders wearing helmets when they go on the road”. Canadian data comparing provinces similarly found higher use of helmets and no drop in cycling rates in provinces with MHL. We know in places like Byron Bay and other places where there is a culture of youth fashion consciousness and risk taking behaviour compliance rates are much lower, but outside the Byron bubble even in nearby Ballina helmet use is much higher.

          Helmet rates vary internationally. They are higher in the US but not as high as here. They are very low in Netherlands but higher in some other Northern European countries. For example about half of all Norwegians who ride bicycles use helmets, according to figures from the Norwegian Council for Road Safety.

          By the way in the same Norwegian article noted a Norwegian Centre for Transport Research meta-analysis covering 55 studies found that “Some studies have indicated that the number of cyclists would dip but that this decrease is usually relatively short-lasting. The biggest drop would actually be amongst the cyclists who use their bikes the least, so this negative impact on cycling and health and safety would be limited.” The Netherlands Road Safety institute made similar comments when it unsuccessfully recommended helmets for kids and the elderly.

          So while MHL increases use the wide range of rates of use internationally and variations here is probably worth examining in greater detail to develop promotion approaches to increase use especially among the young. People like you would be well placed to contribute your local knowledge to any such effort here.


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