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Helmet crackdown makes no sense

Date

On Your Bike

After wearing out his knees with basketball and running, Michael O'Reilly became yet another MAMIL (Middle-Aged Man In Lycra).

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On patrol ... officers speak to an unhelmeted cyclist near Pyrmont Bridge, Sydney.

On patrol ... officers speak to an unhelmeted cyclist near Pyrmont Bridge, Sydney. Photo: Lee Besford

 

The past couple of months have seen a number of crackdowns affecting cyclists in Melbourne and Sydney.

In Melbourne it was Operation Halo, a blitz on all unsafe road users with a reported 613 cyclists fined for a range of offences.

In Sydney two weeks ago, a day of police action targeting cyclists and pedestrians near Pyrmont Bridge saw some 30 cyclists get fined.

The Sydney operation appears ongoing. Police are stationed in Pyrmont most mornings; cyclists on the Bourke Street cycleways also note increased police presence.

That’s good, one thinks. It’s about time cyclists who break the road rules got pulled into line. Until you see what so many people are being fined for.

Helmets. Or rather, the failure to wear a helmet.

In Melbourne’s Operation Halo, 351 of the 613 cyclists got pinged for not donning a lid. On one day in Sydney, 15 of the 30 cyclists fell foul of the same law.

 

I’ve been staying away from helmets in this forum because it is a uniquely divisive subject in Australia. As such, everyone tends to have a firm view on the subject, but I implore you: at least read to the end of this blog before venting in the comments section.

It’s more than 20 years since mandatory helmet laws were passed in Australia. A generation of us have grown up thinking it is only safe to ride a bike if you wear a stack hat. New Zealand followed our example and there are similar laws in a few Canadian provinces. But nowhere else.

So it’s only when one is confronted with the astonishing sight of hair blowing in the wind in other countries that one realises – hey, people can ride bikes without helmets!

Surely the helmets mean that cycling here is safer? As if! The immediate effect of the helmet laws was that 30 per cent or so of people gave up riding their bikes. Motorists got less used to looking for – or tolerating – cyclists on the road.

Simultaneously, it fed into the stigma that cycling was dangerous. It must be if you have to wear a helmet. “A helmet saved my life,” is the favourite (albeit unscientific) claim of many cyclists who’ve had a spill. It makes us feel we’re in control of our fate. That a lump of foam can shield us against a one-tonne car.

But even if there were fewer cyclists, at least their rates of injury were lowered, yes? Well, researchers and scientists have been duking this out ever since. Curious – if mandatory helmet laws were such a lifesaving idea, you’d think the benefits would be easily quantifiable. It appears they’re not.

And I’ve never heard a European say: “You lucky country. I wish we had your helmet laws.” Mostly, they are bemused or aghast.

Despite an attempt to be progressive, Australia is going backwards, while other cities around the world have wildly popular bicycle share schemes. I spent a happy few days nipping around Paris on a Velib – best way to see the city, no helmet required.

Meanwhile, Melbourne and Brisbane’s schemes are failing, despite expensive attempts to make helmets available. The problem is so blindingly obvious that Sydney recently floated the idea of its own scheme – so long as helmet rules were waived.

So back to those laws. I’m not saying don’t wear a helmet. I probably always will, when riding as fast as I can on a racer.

But many people find helmets to be an unnecessary encumbrance for the type of cycling they do.

Should you have to put one on to cycle down a separated cycleway to the shops?

Should a seaside resident really have to don a lid to cycle five blocks to the beach?

Why is it that in Victoria the fine for not wearing a helmet is upwards of $145, but if a motorist opens a door on a cyclist, critically injuring them, they’re looking at $122?

Our cities and suburbs are rediscovering commuter and utility cycling. As the petrol price soars above $1.50, as obesity rates rise, everyone should be encouraged to get on a bike.

Not hampered by counterproductive laws.

Are helmets getting in the way of cycling in Australia? Do the laws need to be enforced?

twitter Follow Michael O'Reilly on Twitter

 

405 comments

  • Laws the law. Want to change it then get elected.

    probably best to speak to a couple of hospital emergency departments about what can happen if your head hits the ground without protection.

    Happy to have no helmets the day that registration is compulsory for all cyclists so they can assist state revenue like the rest of us.

    Commenter
    Equality
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    March 22, 2012, 11:44AM
    • I completely agree. As a driver, motorcyclist and cyclist i wouldn't dream of not putting on a helmet. It's safer, it's the law. It constantly astounds me that cyclists don't take the perspective that what they are doing will kill them one day. As a motorcyclist it is one of the very first things you learn - ride like you expect to come off and be killed. That's means wear protective clothing incl a helmet and treat every other road user like they are out to kill you. The sheer arrogance of many cyclists who think they have a right to do whatever they want, when they want continues to bewilder me. Last night - busy Melbourne suburban street, nighttime, poor street lighting, cyclist enters roundabout without helmet, no lights and dark clothing - of course he didn't expect to be hit. Poor driver ahead of me nearly collected him because he couldn't see him till the very last minute. Sadly this is the collective mindset of arrogant cyclists - who blame everyone else except themselves.

      Commenter
      DR
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      March 22, 2012, 12:20PM
    • Agree...cyclists being allowed to ride 2 abreast is also legal. Still doesn't make it right but it is the law.

      Commenter
      Hawker
      Date and time
      March 22, 2012, 12:24PM
    • It's one thing to not dream of riding without a helmet, it's another to make it a compulsory act. A cyclist not wearing a helmet represents a risk only to him/herself. If it is the state's job to enforce that we must remain safe at all times, then why not helmets in cars? When we go jogging? Around the house?

      I fully agree that helmets should be worn by anyone engaging in a dangerous activity (such as cycling in traffic or at a high speed), but that's only a 'should', it's not a 'must'.

      Commenter
      Mike
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 22, 2012, 12:31PM
    • @Hawker - The ride two abreast rule just makes the two bikes take up similar road space to a car. It also makes it much safer for the cyclists as they are much easier to see - people are looking for a car sized object.

      Commenter
      Cyclist
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 22, 2012, 12:33PM
    • Rego on Bikes.. you idiot,
      Do you Run ?? I'd like to charge you for using the footpath and crossing the road then, or if you don't exercise can I tax you for the higher chance that you will have adverse health implications from sitting around and getting fat?

      Commenter
      JK
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      March 22, 2012, 12:43PM
    • @ Cyclist: Completely untrue. A car driver (and motorcyclist) will always, without fail, try to overtake a cyclist. They're slow and we're always in a hurry to get somewhere. All two-abreast does is pushes overtaking cars further into oncoming traffic and makes the road more dangerous for everyone, especially for us motorcyclists who already have problems with car drivers not seeing us (ie, not looking). Moving cars further over the centreline just makes an escape route for motorcyclists non-existant.

      Drive through Newtown one morning, you'll see all sorts of craziness. Especially my pet peeve, the idiot cyclists who overtake other cyclists without a head check. The number of times i've had a cyclist lurch out in front of me is insane.

      Commenter
      smiteau
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 22, 2012, 12:45PM
    • *sigh* - this tired old fallacy AGAIN. 95% of cyclists own one or more registered cars in addition to their bikes. It's just that we choose not to drive when we can at all avoid it. Very few cyclist rely solely on riding, despite what you may think. We still pay car rego, green slip, licence fees, fines if we get them etc. etc. That meas that not only are we paying our way - we are in fact making a proportional contribution far greater than that of drivers, for we are not the ones inflicting wear and tear on the road surface and whatnot. It's us whose getting ripped off - we don't pay less because we tear the road up less. We don't pay less because we are less likely to cause injury to other road users. We don't pay less because we are less likely to write off someone's Ferrari. We don't whinge about it, so pipe down and think about it for two seconds.

      Commenter
      Craig
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 22, 2012, 12:52PM
    • The law is not always correct. I don't see jay walkers getting fined(thankfully). The whole point of the article is that changing the law may encourage more cyclists. Go to Saudi and tell me the laws the law.

      Commenter
      nopotatos
      Date and time
      March 22, 2012, 12:54PM
    • @mike

      Sorry Mike but the cyclist is not the only person impacted. The people who come to assist, the emergency services who respond, the other party in the incident (if there is one), the family/friends of the person are all impacted.

      There are a lot of laws I disagree with (110kph on divided highways for one) but if its left for me to decide as a personal decision then the results of my decision will impact others.

      Laws are there, cyclist disobey them as do motorists and pedestrians at their own risk, and are fined for breaches. The only outcry here is that it has taken the police so long to enforce. Now lets get the police to focus on cyclists going through red lights.

      Commenter
      Equality
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 22, 2012, 12:57PM

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