Government turns a blind eye to mandatory bicycle helmet law results

Australian governments, both state and federal, have ignored the results of the all-age mandatory bicycle helmet legislation for the past 23 years.

When contacted by constituents concerned about the liberty, health or safety sacrifices caused by the helmet law, the three standard Western Australia government responses are:

Cyclist proportion of road trauma victims

Mandatory helmets discourage only 4% of people from cycling

The CR195 meta-analysis of helmet studies

Questions and/or evidence forwarded by constituents are usually ignored as these three points are considered adequate justification for the law to remain enacted without review.

In the Australian state of Victoria, there is abundant evidence that post-law adult cyclist numbers in university research were manipulated to justify the helmet law.

For a true insight to government thinking on mandatory bicycle helmets, have a look at a leaked ministerial memo referring to "significant implications for people's health"

Cyclist proportion of road trauma victims

In response to a constituent's complaint about the dangers of compulsory bicycle helmets, then West Australian Police Minister Michelle Roberts stated....

"... it is a sad fact that over 25 percent of people admitted to hospital as a result of road trauma in the year 2000 were cyclists. This figure is comparable to the number of drivers hospitalised through road crashes (26 percent). Given the level of car use compared with bicycle use, I'm sure you would agree that the rate of hospitalisation for cyclists is alarmingly high."

It certainly is alarmingly high.

In 1991, the year Western Australia's helmet law was enacted, 17% of people admitted to hospital as a result of road trauma were cyclists.

In 1997, the figure was 20%. In 1999, it was 23.6%.

In 2000, 25.9% of people admitted to hospital as a result of road trauma were cyclists (a little higher than the Police Minister's estimate).

In other words, the proportion of cyclist hospital admissions in Western Australia has been rising steadily since the law was introduced.

In effect, the minister is pointing to the harm caused by the law as a reason the law is necessary.

Mandatory helmets discourage only 4% of people from cycling

The West Australian government and helmet law advocates have been citing "a survey" showing...

""... only a very small proportion of West Australians (about 4 per cent) claim that having to wear a helmet actually discourages them from riding a bicycle"1.

What survey? A government-commissioned survey included in the West Australian Transport Department document titled Monitor of Attitudes Towards and Participation in Cycling - Wave 5 (March 2001).

The survey findings are scanned and viewable below.

More than 40% of the 250 survey respondents said the reason they hadn't cycled in the previous six months was because they didn't have a bicycle, were too old or unhealthy to cycle, had never learnt to cycle or simply didn't enjoy cycling.

In other words, they never rode a bicycle in the first place.

The survey below suggests that one in 25 West Australians don't cycle because of mandatory helmet laws, including people who wouldn't cycle whether or not helmets were mandatory.

A similar survey of people who are capable of cycling or want to cycle would show between 10% and 20% are discouraged by compulsory helmets.

After all... according to the survey results quoted by the West Australian government, safety fears, clothing, distance and even the weather are less discouraging than helmets!

bicycle helmet laws

The West Australian Government's Department for Planning and Infrastructure has maintained its random telephone survey of 401 respondents to determine cycling behaviour and attitudes. In 2006, the Attitudes Affecting Cycling Behaviour survey found that "dislike wearing a helmet" will influence the decision of about 25% of respondents as to whether they'll cycle in the following six months.

View the survey from 2001 to 2008, as well as this survey published by the WA Department of Transport showing an increasing proportion of non-cyclists who cite helmet laws as a barrier to more people thinking seriously about taking up regular cycling.

What was the public's attitude toward mandatory helmets in 2010? The Cycling in 2010: qualitative research findings published by the WA Department of Transport surveyed 30 people who had cycled in the previous six months and found regular reference to the helmet law as a barrier to further cycling.

Eighteen years after enforcement of the law, it appeared many West Australians remained discouraged by mandatory helmets.

The CR195 meta-analysis of helmet studies

"You may be aware of a 2000 report from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau that summarised some 63 research papers on helmet issues. This report concluded that cyclists who do not wear helmets are twice as likely to suffer head, brain and facial injuries as cyclists who wear helmets. Non-helmeted cyclists are also three times more likely to be killed.2"

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) issued a report in June 2000 titled Bicycle Helmets and Injury Prevention: A formal review (CR 195 - PDF 120kb).

The ATSB report "meta-analysed" 16 research papers, not 63 as claimed. The report authors selected 16 international research papers from a choice of 63 dating back to 1987, and only 16 of these were considered suitable for the meta-analysis.

Four of the 16 selected research papers can be sourced to identical case control studies and to authors in Seattle who have led the international push to have helmet laws enacted worldwide over the past 15 years.

One of the 16 research papers was based on responses from readers of an American cycling magazine who were asked if they'd had a head injury in the previous five years.

Only four of the 16 research papers related to Australia, one of these before mandatory helmet laws were introduced. All other research papers analysed data in voluntary rather than mandatory helmet jurisdictions.

The ATSB meta-analysis confirmed that bicycle helmets increase the risk of neck injury and the most recent of the 16 research papers (1998) found that helmets increase the risk of head injury among children.

Regardless, the ATSB concluded that helmets are very beneficial for cyclists.

Click here (PDF 164kb) for an analysis of CR195 and Bicycle helmets: review of effectiveness by the Department for Transport in Britain.

The statements by the West Australian Minister for Police (dated January 2003) are synonymous with statements made by ALL Australian governments since 1990.

The most frequent government statements have referred to discredited 1986/87 hospital studies in Seattle which found helmet use can reduce the risk, not severity, of brain injury by 88%.

The results from all Australian states have shown repeatedly since 1990 that this is not the case.

Hospital admission data consistently suggests mandatory helmet wearing actually increases the risk of road trauma for cyclists in Western Australia.

Disproved 22 year old data from Seattle should not be considered more relevant than 18 years of evidence from Australia.

1Source: Former Western Australia Police Minister Michelle Roberts
2Source: Former Western Australia Police Minister Michelle Roberts

Manipulation of data

There is clear evidence that a research paper published in 1993 by the Monash University Accident Research Centre manipulated post-law adult cyclist numbers to justify the helmet law and make it appear successful.

Bicycle Use and Helmet Wearing Rates in Melbourne, 1987 to 1992: The Influence of the Helmet Wearing Law (PDF 536kb) states that: "Surveys in Melbourne also indicated a 36% reduction in bicycle use by children during the first year of the law and an estimated increase in adult use of 44%"

Senior statistician Professor Dorothy Robinson provides abundant evidence of the damage caused by helmet laws and demonstrates the MUARC adult cyclist number claim is a fallacy in Head Injuries and Helmet Laws in Australia and New Zealand (PDF 164kb).

What happened to the "significant implications for people's health"?

Below is a memo written in 2000 by Western Australia's then shadow Transport Minister Alannah MacTiernan to colleague Julian Grill, a former transport minister himself and a parliamentary backbencher at the time of writing. With the return of the Labor Party to government in 2001, Ms MacTiernan subsequently became the West Australian Planning and Infrastructure Minister, incorporating the transport portfolio, and her government lost power in 2008. What happened to the research and the threat to public health?

bicycle helmet memo

In September 2005, the Canadian cyclist rights group The Ontario Coalition for Better Cycling posted questions to Ms MacTiernan asking whether her government had uncovered more recent research which confirms the viewpoint expressed in her 2000 memo above to Julian Grill. Below is the reply from the minister's office:

bicycle helmet memo

Key points from the response above:

"However, the argument that an unknown proportion of the community is so opposed to helmet wearing that they would cease cycling, which would result in a less healthy community, assumes that those people would not be engaged in an alternative physical activity."

Like walking to their car door? This response ignores the fact that many people cycle as transport to a destination with the resultant physical exercise a fortunate side-effect. It's true that a few discouraged cyclists might instead go to the gym but they'd be a small minority and this has nothing to do with going to the shops to get some bread, figuratively speaking, or cycling to the gym instead of driving. More then 50% of car trips taken each year in Australia are estimated to be less then five kilometres in distance. The response only considers cyclists motivated by exercise and ignores those who cycle for transport or for fun.

"In response to your request for more recent research that would support the concern expressed in the letter, we do not have sufficient health data to demonstrate the difference between the 'health' of people who cycle and those who do not, or if any variance could be attributed to cycling rather than other factors such as diet and lifestyle."

Does this mean there is insufficient health data to demonstrate the difference between the 'health' of people who exercise and those who do not, or if any difference could be attributed to exercise rather than other factors such as diet and lifestyle? Enjoyable, popular exercise helps counter the fatty diets and sedentary lifestyle causing Australia's obesity crisis. The medical profession has consistently and universally advised that cycling is one of the best forms of recreational exercise. There is abundant evidence linking regular cycling with improved health, including the advice of the National Heart Foundation of Australia in March 2007. If Ms MacTiernan's office could find no relationship between bicycle use and health, why did she repeatedly allude to cycling health benefits in this 2004 speech? (Word 45k)

"In response to questions designed to elicit reasons for not cycling, the response rate for 'compulsory helmets' ranged from a peak of 10% in one year 2000 to 1% in 2005, with a typical response range around 4%."

See survey above. Why is it not important that in 2000, almost a decade after helmet law enactment, as many as 1 in 10 people were avoiding cycling exercise partly as a result of the helmet law? These results in Western Australia should be noted by legislators in other countries considering the introduction of similar helmet laws.

"As we do not have an equivalent measure prior to 1999, valid comparisons for cycling participation trends are difficult, particularly as lifestyle choices are becoming more sedentary, which has no relationship to compulsory helmet wearing for cyclists."

As many as 10% of respondents to a government survey (above) in 2000 say the helmet law is among the reasons they don't cycle (society's most common and popular form of recreational exercise), yet the minister's office states that the law has no relationship to sedentary lifestyles. This response ignores the fact that sitting in a car or bus is a lot more sedentary than riding a bicycle. Further, the cycling number surveys conducted by the minister's own department date back to the 1980s and provide an accurate pre-1999 measure of cycling participation trends in Perth and Western Australia.

Although this website is based on the medical rather than libertarian reasons not to have mandatory bicycle helmet laws, The West Australian newspaper has made clear its disdain for civil liberty. On May 4, 2007, The West Australian leader editorial questioned the need for a human rights bill in WA. On December 20, 2007, the West Australian government shelved its plans for a human rights bill, a move applauded by The West Australian newspaper. In early 2010, the Australian Government shelved a parliamentary committee of inquiry into the need for a Bill of Rights. The West Australian newspaper chose not to report that decision and has not mentioned the term "bill of rights" since then - emulating its policy of not reporting issues with which it disagrees to ensure those issues do not exist in the public realm. It is clear that Western Australia's monopoly daily press does not see any need for laws to enshrine the civil rights of West Australians, partly explaining its indifference to the harm caused by WA's mandatory bicycle helmet legislation.

cycling cartoon

Cartoon thanks to Yehuda Moon and the Kickstand Cyclery

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